A dilettante gardener may grow a passable show of flowers. Vegetables, however, require a deeper level of commitment. It is the most time-consuming form of gardening, but if you have any trace of peasant left in you, the most satisfying. The race to acquire allotments suggests that there are plenty of us who still feel the atavistic urge to feed ourselves with the fruits of our own labour. Unfortunately, the land that should be there often isn't. In Scotland, there are just 6,300 allotment plots, but the waiting list has now grown to 3,000. What is the Scottish government going to do about it?
The prime requirement of a vegetable, particularly if you are chief cook as well as gardener, is that it should be good to eat. There are few commercially grown vegetables that taste as good as the home-grown varieties. Onions and shallots are perhaps the exceptions.
Some vegetables, though, are difficult to grow well. I have never grown decent Florence fennel. Nor red cabbage. Nor white (the kind you use for coleslaw). Florence fennel, even when it is well- watered, is inclined to bolt instead of swelling into succulent bulbs. Late sowing is essential. On their website, Suffolk Herbs say that the variety 'Perfection' (£1.50) "can be grown with success, while other varieties may go to seed before forming a bulb". That's a breakthrough! And a big promise.
In commercial terms, carrots, celery, peas and potatoes have perhaps lost most taste, so all these are worth growing if you have room. Blight has been a problem with potatoes this last wet summer; in these conditions, early varieties will usually give you a yield where a main crop won't. And the earliest are the ones we look forward to most. Skins that slide off with scarcely the scrape of a knife. Butter melting in a pool over the top. Fresh parsley scissored around. I can't wait.
The seed firm Edwin Tucker & Sons Ltd includes an astonishing number of seed potatoes in its catalogue – 140 different kinds. They've also started doing more small packs so you can buy 1.5 kg of a variety instead of the more usual 3kg. Helpfully for a cook, they are listed by use: new potatoes, salad potatoes, baked potatoes, roast, mashed and fried. Of course, most potatoes will do more than one thing, but it is useful to be reminded of their diversity. And of the hopelessness of supposing that a potato made for mashing, such as 'Highland Burgundy' (£3.85 for 1.5kg) is going to stay whole and waxy in the pan when you cook it.
Another series of lists tells you which potatoes are resistant to the various pests and diseases that plague them. Blight is one of the worst and eight of the varieties in the Tucker catalogue appear to have some resistance to both foliage and tuber blight: Cosmos (£4.35 for 3kg), Kondor (£3.95 for 3kg), Lady Balfour (£3.45 for 1.5kg), and Sante (£3.95 for 3kg) are all good baking potatoes, Markies (£3.65 for 1.5kg) make excellent chips, Orla (£3.45 for 1.5kg) is best used as a new potato, and Pixie (£3.65 for 1.5kg) will provide some of the best potatoes for salads. Slugs are another common problem, but less so with Markies and Sante than with others. The baking potatoes Marfona and Maris Piper seem to be their favourites.
Seed potatoes are on sale from early January and because of the disastrous weather this last summer, some of the unusual varieties are going to be in short supply. Buy (or order) as soon as you can. When you've got your potatoes, set them out to chit – in egg boxes if you have only a few, in wooden apple boxes lined with newspaper if you've a lot. At this stage, the potatoes need to be somewhere light, cool, but free of frost, to encourage the first shoots to sprout from the eyes.
Planting depends very much on the weather. Early potatoes mature in about 14-16 weeks, so from a March planting you might be eating your first new potatoes by the end of June. But if you plant too early you run the risk of the top growth getting frosted in a sudden cold spell. Commercial growers use covers of spun polypropylene over their crops as a protection. In Lincolnshire and Bedfordshire the flat fields look like lakes, covered entirely with a shimmering web. Gardeners can do the same, but you need to be sure that the covers are well anchored.
If you've got a greenhouse, you can plant in February using old compost sacks or a dustbin as containers. Both will need to be punched with drainage holes. Use your own compost. Or if you've got it, the crumbly soil of molehills, once highly prized by gardeners, especially for sowing seeds. In this instance, first earlies are the obvious choice: Dunluce (£3.45 for 1.5kg), Rocket (£3.95 for 3kg), Swift (£3.95 for 3kg) or International Kidney (£4.25 for 3kg), an excellent salad potato.
Outside, early potatoes should be set 10-15cm deep in rows about 60cm apart. Make a hole with a spade or trowel and set the potatoes firmly in the ground about 30cm apart. Main crops need more space, with rows 75cm apart and 45cm between each potato in the row. They take 18-20 weeks to mature and give heavier crops, but because of their longer growing season are much more likely to suffer from blight in a cool, damp summer.
When you are tired of potatoes on their own (which will take a long time with home-grown ones) you could try the hot-pot that is one of my favourite winter dishes. You need about 750g of thinly sliced potatoes, 500g of finely sliced onions and 250g of chopped bacon. Butter a deep dish and fill it with layers of these three ingredients, finishing with potato. Pour over a cheese sauce made with 60g butter, 60g flour, 600ml milk and 125g cheddar cheese, with salt and pepper to taste. Cover the dish and bake for about an hour (190C/gas mark 5), finishing without the cover to brown the potato top.
Suffolk Herbs, 01376 572456, suffolkherbs.com; Edwin Tucker & Sons Ltd, 01364 652233, edwintucker.comReuse content