Incredible edibles: Beans and sweetcorn are set to burst from the soil
For vegetable growers, these are exciting times, says Anna Pavord.
We might have thought it a lousy spring. Many plants evidently disagree. We have more wild orchids in the orchard than ever before. What is it that they are liking? I wish I knew. It seems to me that no human life is long enough to properly understand the interconnectedness of growing things. Yet cheery young presenters bob up nightly on television 'explaining' plants and animals as confidently as though they were their brothers and sisters.
But from a gardener's point of view, the ground took a long while to warm up this year, which meant that early sowings of vegetables often failed. For some time now, I've sowed as many vegetables as I can from seed in the greenhouse, establishing them later in the ground as rooted plants. It's a more certain method than sowing direct, although it's a little more work. But even in the greenhouse, the first sowing of sweetcorn failed (the compost too wet, I suspect) and it was only last week that I finally got plants ('Lark', Thompson & Morgan, £2.49 for 30 seeds) into the ground. Although it's too late now to sow seed, you should still be able to find sweetcorn plants for sale in a garden centre.
'Lark', like 'Lapwing', is a Tendersweet variety, with kernels that are sweeter and less chewy than older varieties. As well as improving flavour, breeders have managed to get sweetcorn to mature earlier than the varieties I first grew. The growing season here in Britain is shorter than it is in South America, sweetcorn's home. But it is a crop well worth having because, as with asparagus, flavour starts to deteriorate almost as soon as a corn cob is picked. Sugar turns to starch, so the faster you can get the sweetcorn into the pan, the better it will taste.
In a small plot, it's an advantage too, in that it's a crop that grows up, rather than out. The spacing needs to be generous but once in, sweetcorn won't try and smother its neighbours, as courgettes sometimes do. Plants are pollinated by the wind, not insects, so you need to set them in a block, with about 30cm between plants. Then, whichever way the wind is blowing, pollen will find its way to the target. You'll know the cobs are ready to pick when the tassels begin to turn brown. If you are still unsure, carefully peel back some of the leaves and stick your thumb nail into a kernel. If the liquid that comes out is milky, the cob is ripe. If it is still watery, leave it a while longer.
There's still time to sow French beans, especially one of my favourites, 'Delinel' (Thompson & Morgan, £2.99 for 125 beans). This has long, pencil-thin pods, stringless and with a terrific flavour. French beans hate cold, wet ground so this season there has been an advantage in holding off until the soil began to warm at the beginning of the month. At this stage, I'd sow direct as well as in pots in a cold frame or green house. If there are any failures with the seed sown straight into the ground, you'll have back-ups available. But the direct-sown seed will grow more smoothly and therefore more quickly than the beans transplanted in pots. Most bush varieties should be ready to pick within 45-60 days of sowing.
Height depends on how good your soil is and how much you bother to water. After the plants have gone in the ground. I don't do much extra watering, but I mulch a good deal after rain, if it comes, or afterf a good soaking from the watering can, if it doesn't. Mulching retains moisture in the soil and also suppresses growth of annual weeds such as groundsel and bittercress.
Typically, plants will be about 30cm/24in tall and, like sweet peas, the more you pick, the more you will get. If you are short of space, there's an advantage in growing a climbing French bean such as the beautiful purple-podded 'Blauhilde' (Thompson & Morgan, £2.69 for 75 beans) or the fabulous red-and-white splashed 'Borlotto Lingua di Fuoco' (Thompson & Morgan, £2.89 for 75 beans).
The borlotti beans can be used young and fresh or grown on to become flageolets for shelling or, even later in the season, fully-fledged haricots which you can store to use in winter. But whereas 'Delinel' will sit for a long while on the bush and stay tender and stringless, the borlotti beans want to push on to the next stage. The pods toughen up more quickly. In the wild, though, French beans (as we call them, though they are actually South American) are climbers rather than bush plants. The beans that John Gerard wrote about in his famous Herbal of 1597 were climbers; the smaller, bushy plants didn't appear until the 18th century.
Writing about French beans, the splendid William Robinson of Gravetye Manor in Sussex said he "heartily wished that English housekeepers and gardeners would look into the qualities of many of the fine varieties described in this book [The Vegetable Garden, 1905]". He noted how little flageolet beans were used in England and, more than a hundred years on, this still seems to be the case. So make this the year you try growing them (the borlotti bean gives good flageolets) if you haven't done so already.
We have, though, taken to pea shoots with a vengeance and there's still plenty of time to sow them. You can use any peas, except the leafless kinds (even the dried marrow-fat peas you buy in bags from the supermarket will produce shoots) and any container: trays from supermarket veg, plastic plant pots, though the deeper the compost, the more water it will retain and the more luxuriantly the pea shoots will grow.
For a non-stop supply, sow every 10 days. Just push the seeds into the compost, scuff up the surface, then press down the compost with your hand before watering the container well. Put fine mesh wire over the top if you know there are mice watching. Seeds should germinate within two weeks and when the plants are about 10-15cm tall, you can start scissoring off the tops. As happens when you nip out the tops of your sweet pea plants, new shoots will sprout out further down the stem. In fact, it was the sweet peas that reminded me to grow pea shoots this year, because absent-mindedly I ate the tops I was nipping off the plants in April. They were delicious.
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