Chard times: If want to grow delicious veg this year give yourself a head start and buy young plants instead

No gardener needs telling that spring has been slow this year. The jobs we hoped to do in March haven't been done. Easter, too, was chilly (at least it was with us), so there was no chance of catching up then either. It's no good sowing vegetable seed in soil that is both cold and wet. It rots. And time is running out.

The simplest way to make up time in the vegetable garden is to buy young plants of the crops you want to grow and stick those in the ground instead. It's certainly a more expensive option, but you'll still save on the price you'd pay for the same things bought at a supermarket.

Most of the big seed companies – Suttons, Mr Fothergills, etc – now sell plants as well as seeds. Delfland specialises in young vegetable plants, organically grown in Cambridgeshire. If you are in a hurry for salads, they can deliver green and red Batavia lettuce, cos lettuce 'Quintus' and 'Little Gem', the butterhead lettuce 'Pronto' and wild rocket. All can be sent out in early May, five plants of each variety in a pack and each pack costing £1.70.

If you get in an order before the end of this month, they'll also deliver plants of globe artichoke (three plants for £1.70), cardoon (five plants for £1.70), asparagus (three plants for £1.70), celeriac (five plants for £1.70), celery (five plants for £1.70), chard (five plants for £1.70) and beetroot in early May. They do two kinds of beetroot: the well known 'Boltardy' for roots (20 plants for £1.70) and the handsome dark-leaved 'Bulls Blood' for baby-leaf salads (20 plants for £1.70). The chard is 'Bright Lights', a searingly vivid mixture of plants with stems that can be bright red, pink, orange, yellow, cream or white.

Both the beetroot and the chard will grow pretty well in containers, provided they are properly watered and fed. Plants use up the nutrients in bought compost in about six weeks. After that, they depend on you, the gardener, for regular meals. Leafy crops, such as chard, need fertilisers high in nitrogen (check the N number on the back of the pack). Root vegetables need fertilisers high in phosphates (P) and potassium (K).

The bigger the container, the more likely the vegetables are to thrive. A big container provides a more stable growing environment. It does not heat up and cool down as rapidly as a small one. Nor does it dry out as fast. Vegetables, especially leafy ones, are greedy things, but both the 'Bulls Blood' beetroot and the rainbow chard are as decorative as any purely ornamental plant. You could scatter some seed of English marigold among them to enhance the display. The petals of English marigolds (Calendula officinalis) can be used instead of saffron to colour rice, or sprinkled as a garnish on a leafy salad.

Chard, especially the red-stemmed kind, is a drama queen, but if you don't upset it, it will develop into a superb plant: rich glowing red stems topped by luxuriantly crinkled foliage.

By nature, it is biennial, running up to seed in its second season. At this stage the plants are still decorative, but much too coarse to eat. They are used superbly in the vast potager at Villandry in France, where the rich ruby stems are set off against deep red roses and the purplish blue spikes of Salvia superba.

The most ticklish stage is the early one. If plants are checked in the first two or three months of life, they will forget all about being biennials and run straight up to seed instead. If you are growing in the open ground, remember they like fertile soil, rich in nitrogen. Add plenty of farmyard manure or compost. If it can be arranged, chard makes a good follow-on crop after peas or beans. You can sow seed right up until July, setting it no deeper than 1.5cm (3/4in) in rows 38-45cm (15-18in) apart. Alternatively, sow "at stations" setting three or four seeds at 60cm (2ft) intervals along the row.

These plants should crop right through the winter until late spring next year when they will start to run up to seed. Chard will run to seed in the same year if it is sown too early. Almost certainly, seed-sown plants will need thinning; thin the seedlings to at least 30cm (12in) apart in the rows. If you have sown "at stations", thin the weaker seedlings to leave one plant at each point. Keep young plants growing as smoothly as possible by providing plenty of water and liquid feeds. Mulch to conserve moisture. When you want to harvest chard, pull the stems rather than cutting them. Do not take too many leaves from any one plant at a time, especially in winter, or the plant may not be able to recover.

Enthusiasts say that the steamed stalks are as good as asparagus; I think the taste is much more watery, less concentrated. But certainly, for the best results, you need to cook the stems and the leaves separately. Strip the greenery from the stems, slice up both and give the stems a three-minute head start in boiling water before you add the greens. You can also serve the two separately. My favourite recipe is chard soup with coconut milk. For this you need:

250g chard (green part only)
125g other winter greens (kale, sprout tops, pak choi, mustard)
2 onions, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
2tbsp olive oil
1.5ltrs good stock
400ml tin coconut milk
Salt and black pepper to taste

Shred the chard and winter greens. Fry the onion and garlic gently in the oil until the onion is transparent. Add the greens, stock and coconut milk. Bring gently to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes before liquidising. Taste and season the soup. That's all.

Delfland Nurseries Ltd, Benwick Rd, Doddington, March, Cambs PE15 0BR, 01354 740553, organicplants.co.uk. In late May, Delfland can send out young plants of runner bean, French bean and the climbing Borlotti bean 'Lingua di Fuoco', courgette, sweetcorn, 'Jack o'Lantern' pumpkin and 'Uchiki Kuri' and 'Harrier' squash

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game