26 June 2015

What vegetables should I grow in my garden?

When starting to plant a new vegetable plot a question asked by many gardeners is what should I grow? This is particularly so for the novice gardener, faced with the huge range of seeds and plants available. Over the last eight or so years, I have had three vegetable plots of varying sizes, plus lived in a flat with a balcony, which I crammed with as many plants as possible. Over this time I have tried growing a fair few varieties of veg, with differing results, and have built up a list of favourites.

If you read an old gardening book, it is easy to get the impression in the days of yore vegetable gardeners all grew pretty similar stuff. One has an image of men (and veg growing was generally a male occupation) in flat caps on allotments all growing rows of potatoes, carrots, leeks and cabbages. I suspect that there was perhaps less uniformity than we think, particularly if you look at the vast array of crops grown in Georgian and Victorian kitchen gardens. But one thing was true, particularly amongst allotmenteers, and that was that people grew veg because it was cheaper than buying it. Often a principal aim was to grow high yielding varieties, so as to put as much food on the table as possible. These days, as a proportion of income, food is cheaper than it has ever been. If you tot up how much you have spent on seeds, compost, tools, bamboo canes and all the other garden essentials, I suspect it is hard to see much of a saving between home grown and shop bought (especially if you start to factor in your labour). Most people these days grow for pleasure rather than economic necessity, and have different reasons for choosing what they grow. Here are mine.

Does it taste better? One of the best reasons to grow your own is because it will taste better. This may be because it is a crop, like many salad leaves, which starts to deteriorate once picked. Or it could be because you can grow varieties that aren’t grown commercially (either because they don’t all ripen at the same time, or because their yield is low). Tomatoes are a good example of this. Most seed catalogues contain a much larger range of tomatoes than one could ever buy in the shops in the UK, and most of them will taste much better than the shop-bought varieties.

Is it something that is hard to buy in the shops? This could be the unusual variety of tomato, or it could be a vegetable like salsify, that is hard to buy altogether. I grow globe artichokes at home, mainly because I like to use artichokes when they are young and small, and it is hard to buy them like that in the UK. 

Is it an expensive vegetable that is actually easy to grow? Despite what I said in my introduction, there are some vegetables that are relatively easy to grow but which (often because they are labour-intensive to harvest) are expensive to buy. Soft-fruit, some salads and asparagus are all good examples.

Will it give a good yield for the space it takes up? Some plants will occupy relatively little space, but crop consistently over a good period of time. Both French and runner beans can be grown up a wall, taking up hardly any space, and should provide a decent crop from July to September. Other crops give a good yield simply because virtually the whole plant can be eaten. If you grow beetroots, you can harvest some of the young leaves for salads. When the plants get older, you can eat both the roots and cook the leaves much as you would their close relative chard.

Things that provide a harvest when very little else will. The bulk of vegetables crop in late summer and early autumn. There is something special about crops that can be harvested outside these peak times. I often look to brassicas, such as kale, cabbages and Brussels sprouts, or root vegetables like swedes or parsnips, for something I can harvest in the depths of winter.

Catch crops. It is always worth having a few quick growing crops that you can sow in between slower-growing crops or in those spaces that become free as other crops are harvested. Radishes and quick-growing salad mixes are my go-to options.

Experimental stuff. One of the fun things about growing your own is trying new varieties and species. They don’t all succeed, my row of golden purslane this year was a complete failure, but sometimes you discover something new and worth growing. My success this year was fenugreek, the leaves of which provides a slightly spicy addition to the salad bowl.

Things I just like to grow. Some things just seem more fun to grow than others. And if you like growing something, well why not grow it. I particularly enjoy growing garlic, which is traditionally planted just before the shortest day, and harvested just after the longest day. It marks the passing of the seasons in a pleasing way. Once harvested I enjoy the ritual of plaiting it French-style, and hanging them in the kitchen waiting to be used.

Crop rotation. At its most simple, this is the principle that you shouldn’t grow the same crop, or crops from the same family, on the same ground for two seasons in succession. I don’t let this dictate my choice of crops, but it is important to ensure you grow a range of crops.

8 crops to grow in the veg plot

Here is my list of my top eight crops to grow.

Herbs. If you grow nothing else edible, grow a range of herbs. Even if you only have a small balcony or even a sunny windowsill, you can grow a few pots of herbs. Herbs can pep up your cooking immensely, and usually are needed in only small amounts. Although many greengrocers sell herbs, they are often expensive, and never the right amount for your recipe. Many herbs are perennials, meaning they live for several years, so are very low maintenance, requiring little more than watering and the occasional pruning. Most will give a good yield over a long time. A good range of herbs to start with would be: bay, rosemary, sage, chives, thyme and mint.

Salad leaves. Salad leaves fulfil many of the criteria above. You can grow a much wider range of salads at home than you can buy in the shops. You can also pick them just before you use them, in just the amount you need, ensuring that they are super-fresh, and that you have no wastage. Even a small pot of salad leaves will perk up a shop-bought lettuce. Salad leaves can be quite expensive in the shops, but the seeds are usually fairly cheap. They are quick growing, and can be grown as a catch crop between other slower-growing crops. If you don’t have much space, it is best to opt for a packet of mixed salad seeds, which usually contain a good range of varieties. If you have a bit more space, it is also well worth growing your own lettuces. Picked straight from the plot and into the salad bowl, lettuce has a crispness and vitality that is hard to find in a shop-bought example. 

Purple sprouting broccoli. Forget the boring broccoli that you buy in the shops, purple-sprouting broccoli is a much tastier crop. A number of cultivars are available, which can be harvested at different times of the year. I go for early and very early, which crop in late winter and early spring, giving a much needed harvest at an otherwise quiet time of the year. The plants grow fairly tall, and four or five will give a good yield over several months.

Tomatoes. Tomatoes do require a fair bit of work, but for me are one of the most enjoyable crops to grow. I love the smell of tomato plants, and the taste of a freshly picked tomato is, for me, one that typifies late summer. In south-east England, I usually get a pretty good crop of tomatoes from my outdoor-grown plants, harvesting usually from late July/early August until mid to late September. Seed catalogues contain an amazing array of varieties, from tiny cherry tomatoes to huge beefsteak marmandes. One of the fun things about growing tomatoes is trying new varieties. Growing tomatoes is not without its perils - in a wet summer, and every few years we seem to get one in the UK, they are susceptible to late-season blight. This disease can ruin virtually a whole crop before your eyes.

Courgettes. Courgette plants are hugely prolific. Two plants will happily keep a family of four in courgettes all summer. If you get your timings right, you will be picking your first courgettes at the very end of June, and should be able to carry on picking until the first frosts. In the shops, courgettes are usually sold at a fairly uniform size, but at home you can pick them at whatever size suits you: tiny ones to be eaten raw in salads or dipped in flour and deep-fried, to the occasional giant marrow, stuffed with ragu and baked. They are a hugely versatile vegetable, and I am always coming up with new ways to cook them. The other great thing about having your own courgette plants is that you can pick the male flowers, which are hard to find in the shops and expensive when you do. These can be used raw in salads, pasta sauces or stuffed and deep fried.

Asparagus. Asparagus is a crop that has an ill-deserved reputation as being hard to grow. I think this is because all the work comes up front – digging an asparagus bed, then letting the crowns develop for a couple of seasons before harvesting. Once established, an asparagus bed is fairly low maintenance, and should crop for ten to fifteen years. Asparagus is usually expensive to buy, so is one of those crops where you do save money. It is also a crop that starts to deteriorate as soon as it is picked, so you will usually get better quality from growing your own. 

Radishes. Small red orbs of fiery joy. The humble radish has to be the best catch-crop there is. Depending on the time of year, radishes will usually be ready to harvest within four to six weeks of sowing. They can be popped into any small space, and grow reliably. Both the roots and the leaves can be eaten.

Autumn raspberries. A few raspberry canes planted in a corner of the garden will provide a good yield of raspberries. The autumn varieties are particularly low maintenance, and will provide a taste of summer as the autumn nights draw in. Raspberries are usually relatively expensive to buy, and deteriorate quickly once picked - you will certainly notice the difference if you grow your own.

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