Who needs flowers when you could have great swirling leaves of cabbage instead? Anna Pavord digs for victory in the vegetable garden.
It being the time of year when hope springs eternal, I have been swamped by intricate details of the new diets that friends have embarked on. Fat- free, sugar-free, dairy-product-free, additive free, genetically modified- free, red-meat-free: I've nodded my way through accounts of most possible permutations, sustaining myself the while with my current passion - dark- chocolate-covered ginger biscuits. The one great plus of all this denial is that although friends will still drop in for coffee (de-caff, no milk, no sugar) there are many more biscuits for ME.
There's never been more fuss about the food we put into our mouths, whether the fidgeting is self-induced, or imposed by an extraordinarily jittery government, yet more cases of food poisoning are reported than ever before. And running parallel with these misgivings about food is a positively epicurean embracing of it. Food is theatre. Food is television. Chefs are film stars, restaurants are performances. Food gobbles up more print each weekend than is ever devoted to art or music.
One thing about the foodfest puzzles me. Given that we all worry (rightly) about what may or may not have been sprayed on the fruit and vegetables we buy, given that we all know that no amount of slaving over a hot stove is going to turn cotton-wool tomatoes into a gourmet's dream, why don't more of us grow at least some of our own food?
The advantages - taste, peace of mind - are obvious. There are also more subtle benefits: self-sufficiency and the knowledge that at least a few bits of what you eat have not been driven hundreds of gas-guzzling miles before they hit your plate. I'm more interested in the perceived disadvantages, though. I am not trying to sell gardening here. I'm taking for granted the fact that anyone reading this is likely to be interested in growing something. But why do so many people grow flowers, while so few grow fruit and vegetables?
Lack of space. That's a good way to shut me up when I'm in crusading mode. But is it true? Anyone who gardens at all must have at least a windowsill or a window box or a balcony, even if they don't have a patch of proper ground-level earth. Basil grows better on a windowsill than anywhere else you can put it. Frilly lettuces thrive in window boxes. Tomatoes flourish on balconies, provided they get some sun. Cordon apple trees will live for years in pots, provided they are fed and watered. If so many millions can commit to their cats, why does commitment to an apple tree seem such a terrifying proposition?
And then there are allotments. They were set up precisely to cater for those who had no gardens of their own and their demise is one of the saddest indications of our present priorities. Sites that were once on the fringes of towns and cities are now prime development targets. Plot holders at the Hazel Grove allotments in Stockport have long been fighting a rearguard action against Tesco, which wants to turf them off their patches to build a superstore. There's an irony.
Lack of time. I'm not sure about that response either. If you like to potter round among plants anyway, pottering around a courgette plant is not going to absorb any more of your valuable free moments than sustaining a sunflower. If time were really a factor in the way we garden, none of us would have lawns. They are more time-consuming and less rewarding than anything else in the garden.
Lack of experience. But that's no bar to gaining experience. Gardening, like playing football, is one of those things that you have to do to get the knack of it. Things happen that you don't understand, so then you turn to friends or books to find out where you are going wrong. The New Kitchen Garden (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 16.99) was written (by me, so this is a shameful piece of self-publicity) entirely with new gardeners in mind. If you can grow roses, you should be able to get your head round radicchio.
Lack of interest. This is the insoluble one. But it's a free world (just) and gardening is an important expression of that freedom. I'd certainly fight to the death any law that said people had to grow vegetables and fruit. I'm just surprised that more don't want to. I am happier tinkering with our fruit and veg than with anything else in our garden (except tulips, of course). I like the order. I like the profusion. I like the underlying sense of usefulness. And the beauty.
So if this is to be the year when you start to grow some of your own food, what should you choose to grow? The things you best like to eat, is the obvious answer, but you have to balance that against other considerations. Some crops tie up space for longer than others. Some are easier to succeed with than others.
Amongst herbs, basil is a front-runner. If you need it, you need it in handfuls. It is easy from seed and grows happily on sunny windowsills, each plant in a 3-in pot of compost. Outside, both rosemary and sage grow well in pots. Being Mediterraneans, they are used to drying winds and lack of rain. They'll take the exposure of a third-floor balcony. Parsley is not so easy. The seed is slow to germinate and the plants, with their long, carroty tap roots, hate to be transplanted. It is best sown in the open ground, perhaps as an edging to a bed of annuals.
Amongst fruit and vegetables, tomatoes come top of the list. They are as easy in pots and Growbags as they are in the open ground or a greenhouse. In Growbags, low-growing bush tomatoes are easier to manage than tall cordon types. Courgettes grow well in Growbags, too, the yellow-fruited kinds slightly more decorative than the green kinds. Try `Gold Rush' (Marshalls, pounds 1.23) or the round-fruited `Tondo di Nizza' (Suffolk Herbs, 80p). Garlic is simple to grow, though it's better planted in autumn than in spring. Shallots would be an alternative. Climbing beans of all kinds are easy and excellent, if you can contrive a support for them. They are outrageously expensive in supermarkets, so with the money you have saved on your home- grown ones, you can splurge on some extra-good Australian wine to go with them.
Get vegetable seeds and plants from The Organic Gardening Catalogue, River Dene Estate, Molesey Road, Hersham, Surrey KT12 4RG (01932 253666) - collections of cooking herbs or saladings, pounds 10.99 for a dozen mixed plants; DT Brown and Co, Station Road, Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire FY6 7HX (01253 882371) - organically produced seed of 26 varieties of herbs and vegetables, including climbing and dwarf beans, endive and tomato; SE Marshall & Co, Wisbech, Cambridgeshire PE13 2RF (01945 466711) - a wide range of vegetable and herb starter plants, dill, chives, marjoram, leeks, lettuce, tomatoes; Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG (01376 572456) - an astonishing range of vegetables, especially Italian varieties and seeds for sprouting.
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