I picked the last tomatoes from the greenhouse on Boxing Day. Even at that late stage, the plant would have gone on producing more – trusses of immature fruit were hanging as abundantly in December as they had been in August. But I needed space to bring in the tender rhododendrons from outside. So the pot with the last remaining tomatoes had to go. It was 'Suncherry Premium' (Thompson & Morgan, £3.69 for six seeds) which once again proved itself the sweetest, easiest, most prolific tomato that's ever come my way.
In a heated greenhouse, you can start tomatoes from seed sometime in February, but ours is only just frost-free. So I sow seed in a 13cm (5in) pot around mid-March and it has never yet failed to germinate. At just over 60p per seed, 'Suncherry' is expensive. You don't want to lose any. When the stems seem sturdy enough, I prick out the plants into individual 8cm (3in) pots and then finally shift them into their permanent homes – plastic pots at least 28cm (11in) across.
I use our own compost to fill the big pots. The tomato plants get fed regularly with Tomorite, so the compost's most important job is to anchor the roots rather than feed them. Tomatoes growing in pots are easier to stake than plants in Gro Bags and, being a straight-up-and-down cordon, 'Suncherry' needs a stake. I use bamboo canes 5ft long and fix the top of each cane to a wire strung along the rafters of the greenhouse roof. This makes a strong support which you need because the trusses of fruit on this tomato are so prolific. Long before the end of the season, the plants will have got to the top of their canes. You tie in the stem as it grows up and get rid of the side shoots as they grow out. And no, I am not going to say "Simples". I loathe those TV-ad meerkats.
Before we had the greenhouse, I raised tomato plants on the kitchen windowsill. The seeds germinate with no trouble, but the young plants tend to get lanky, with weak stems. The problem is lack of all-round light. You can encourage seedlings to develop stronger stems by brushing them over with the edge of a piece of card. But a greenhouse gives much better results, especially if you have a shelf high up near the roof, where the seedlings can grow on.
It's still rather early to sow vegetables outdoors, but with the protection of a greenhouse or a polytunnel (even a cold frame) you can start off broad beans to plant out when the soil is warmer. The simplest method is to use a wooden crate – the kind greengrocers have in quantity. Line it with newspaper and fill it with compost (our old neighbour always used the earth from molehills).
With your finger, poke a grid of holes in the compost, roughly 5cm (2in) apart each way and pop a bean into each hole. Scatter some more compost on top and then firm the whole thing down. Water the crate and, if necessary, cover it with fine wire mesh to keep away mice. Don't waste heat on broad bean seeds. They don't need it.
Sowing in crates is a much more secure way of getting an early crop of broad beans than the old way of sowing seed direct in the ground in autumn. Too much can happen to seeds in the long months between October and March. Some will usually rot. Some will certainly get eaten.
The crate method provides sturdy plants ready to be set out in late March or April. Traditionally, broad beans are grown in double rows so the stems, to some extent, support each other. The rows need be only 23cm (9in) apart, with the plants set at 23cm (9in) intervals along the rows.
Gardeners have rightly remained faithful to reliable old varieties such as 'Masterpiece Green Longpod' (Marshalls £1.95), 'Aquadulce Claudia' (Thompson & Morgan £2.89) and 'The Sutton' (Marshalls £2.25). All have glaucous foliage and black-and-white lipped flowers with a surprisingly sweet smell. New for 2012 is 'De Monica' (Thompson & Morgan £2.49) which has been bred to give early harvests. Marshalls has reintroduced 'Red Epicure' (£2.45) which has rather lovely red flowers and beans of a reddish bronze. Disappointingly, most red-coloured vegetables turn green when you cook them, but Marshalls says if you steam the beans of 'Red Epicure' rather than boil them, they'll keep their unusual colour.
Broad beans sown now should be ready to harvest in about three months time (early June). When the first pods are starting to set, pinch out the growing tips of your plants. By this time, they'll probably be at least 120cm (4ft) tall, unless you are growing 'The Sutton' which rarely gets above 60cm (2ft) – a useful trait on a windy site. Pinching out the top of a broad bean plant directs energy away from the stem and into the pods. It also discourages aphids, which like the juicy tips more than any other part of the plants. Unless they are seething with blackfly, don't chuck the tops away. They are delicious stirred into a risotto or thrown around briefly in a pan with butter.
The great advantage of growing your own broad beans is that you can pick them at the right time, before the little jackets round the beans have become tough and leathery. The scar on the edge of the bean (marking the spot where it was attached to the pod) should still be green or whiteish. If it's black, you've left the harvesting too late.
Health fanatics will already know that broad beans are rich in vitamins A, C and E. They also provide protein and plenty of fibre. Before potatoes ever came sailing with Raleigh from the New World to the Old, broad beans provided the staple carbohydrate for those living in the cooler parts of Europe. Primitive broad beans have been unearthed in Iron Age settlements at Glastonbury in Somerset and blackened seeds of broad bean were also discovered in Schliemann's excavations at Troy. In the Middle Ages they were such an important source of food that anyone caught stealing them from the fields where they grew was immediately sentenced to death.
But once supplanted, the broad bean quickly fell out of favour. Dr Venner, Doctor of Physick in Bath in 1637, warned that they would "fill the brain with grosse melancholic fumes", although he did add that the dire effects could be eased by dressing the beans with butter and parsley. With butter and coriander they'll taste even better.
Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, 0844 573 1818, thompson-morgan.com; Marshalls, Alconbury Weston, Huntingdon, Cambs PE28 4HY, 0844 557 6700, marshalls-seeds.co.ukReuse content