Gardening: You can grow your own way

Anna Pavord sows her summer vegetables
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My seed potatoes have arrived. I announced the fact brightly to daughter No 2. "And?" she replied after a pause just long enough to wither entirely any hope on my part that the parcel might be a subject fit for family conversation. But in the solitude of the hell-hole that is my potting corner, I continue to be quietly excited.

I love mail order, because I usually forget what I've sent for. In the parcel were `Red Duke of York' bred around 1940, `Dunbar Rover' (sounds like a football team), which is a few years older, and `Edzell Blue', grown in Edzell, Angus before the First World War broke out. What supermarket can produce such delights as these?

The seed potatoes are grown by an firm called Heritage Seeds in Scotland and are sold through Mr Fothergill's Young Plants by Post catalogue. Why bother to grow potatoes, some gardeners ask? They are so cheap to buy. That's true, but unless you grow your own, you will never have the chance to sink your fork into a fluffy pile of `Edzell Blue' mash, whipped up with good farm butter, a twist of pepper and a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg. Even Gary Rhodes's new London restaurant, City Rhodes, would be pushed to match that.

Nobody knows the parentage of `Edzell Blue'. That is often the case with very old varieties of plants that have been selected and reselected by cottage gardeners and allotment holders, impressed, not by the words of a stranger telling them what they ought to grow, but by the evidence of their own eyes and taste buds.

As well as tasting better than you had ever imagined a potato could taste, many of the old varieties have blessedly strong constitutions. In the slap-happy, spray-happy post-war years, this was not valued as much as it perhaps is now, when the effects of eating poisons for lunch are beginning to be more clearly understood. `Edzell Blue' is immune to wart disease; `Dunbar Rover' is resistant to blight.

Even their best friends would not call potatoes a decorative addition to the kitchen garden, but what they lack in looks they make up for in the comfort the provide. A thick potato and leek soup makes even the deepest winter doldrum more bearable. But for winter supplies, you need to grow main crop potatoes. I mostly stick to first earlies (`Red Duke of York') and second earlies (`Dunbar Rover' and `Edzell Blue').

Early potatoes mature in about 14-16 weeks, so from a March planting, you may be eating the first new potatoes by the end of June. Before you plant, you have to "chit" them by laying them out in trays to sprout. Planting time depends on the weather. If you plant too early, sudden frost may cut down the green foliage. Commercial growers use spun polypropylene covers over their crops to protect them against this. In Lincolnshire and Bedfordshire, the flat fields look like lakes, covered entirely with a shimmering web. The system works for gardeners, too.

You can grow early potatoes in containers with reasonable success, but the bigger the container, the greater the certainty. Crops from early potatoes are, anyway, lighter than the load you might expect from a main crop potato, so it is best to use the fast-maturing, lighter-cropping earlies if you want to grow in a pot (or a dustbin - they work very well).

Some gardeners push on early potatoes in a slightly heated greenhouse so that they can serve them with the Christmas turkey. To do this, though, you'd need to have potatoes planted by the end of August. If you plant a single early potato in a 12in pot in a greenhouse this month, you can expect a meal's worth by mid May. Extra early types such as `Dunluce' and `Rocket' are best for this.

Chilli peppers work well in pots, too, though they do best given the protection of a greenhouse, cold frame or cloche. They bear many more fruit than ordinary green pepper plants and look enchanting hung all over with a ripe, shiny crop. The shininess is what makes them seem slightly unreal. Marshalls offer the `Hot Mexican' pepper (77p) which makes a compact, sturdy plant. `Cayenne' (Mr Fothergill, 99p) can be sown in February and March to provide crops from July onwards.

Dobies offers the medium hot chilli `Apache' in its greenhouse collection: one plant each of chilli, red pepper and cucumber, and two varieties of tomato, one red, one yellow. The collection costs pounds 6.95 for five plants and Dobies will deliver in mid-May.

Chillies look very good standing in clay pots, one plant to a pot, in a sea of English marigolds, but you have to bring them on under cover first, before exposing them to the limelight. Tomato feed is a good booster for plants growing in pots.

Aubergine fruit have the same waxy, highly polished finish, but their foliage is flourier than the chillies'. They, too, need warm, slightly damp growing conditions. In the trials at the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley, aubergines were grown in an unheated poly-tunnel. `Bonica' (Dobies, pounds 1.32) got an Award of Merit. So did the white-skinned variety `Ova' (Chiltern Seeds, pounds 1.69). Looking at these kinds, you can see why aubergines are called egg plants. Connoisseurs of the vegetable think that the white-skinned aubergines are superior in taste and texture to the dark-skinned ones.

The seed of the aubergine is slow to germinate, so there is an advantage in sowing relatively early, this month or next. Put a single seed in a 3in pot filled with compost, cover with cling film and keep the pots at a temperature of 60-65F. When the seedlings poke through, take off the plastic covering and grow the plants on in the warm. Eventually they need to be potted on into a pot at least 9in across. Pinch out the growing tips of the plants when they are about 15in tall.

Whitefly can be a nuisance around aubergines. The best defence is a small, battery-operated car vacuum cleaner. Gently shake the plants to set the whitefly on the wing, then switch on the vacuum cleaner and suck them out of the sky. It's not quite as exciting as watching those "Look out! Jerry up your tail" black-and-white war films that fill the afternoon hours of television in winter, but the principle is the same.

Rocket did well in the garden last year and I managed to keep a reasonable supply going, enough even to satisfy daughter No 1 who is a dab hand at designer salads. For the best results you need to sow thinly from March onwards, about every two weeks. Rocket will grow quite easily in a large tub or a Grow-bag on a balcony. I haven't tried it indoors. There is not a great selection to choose from. Last year I grew seed from Marshall's (62p). They list it under herbs, rather than salad leaves.

This is a crop that you can save huge amounts of money on. Salad leaves are phenomenally expensive to buy ready prepared. Rocket is simplicity itself to grow and there is very little waste. You just wash it, then fold it dry in a tea towel and eat it.

Order the plants mentioned from: Mr Fothergill's Young Plants by Post, Kentford, Newmarket, Suffolk CB8 7QB (01638 552512); Marshalls, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE13 2BR (01945 466711); Samuel Dobie & Son, Broomhill Way, Torquay, Devon TQ2 7QW (01803 616888); Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB (01229 581137).

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