Minimum effort, maximum yield


Jo Arnell shares her advice on choosing the best low maintenance vegetables...

It's hard to imagine, but there really are some vegetables that will just grow, without fuss or tantrums, regardless. But low maintenance doesn't mean no maintenance - your plot will still need preparing and then weeding and feeding, but the following happy-go-lucky crops need the minimum of attention, so if the weather of the last couple of years hasn't put you off for good and you're ready to dip your toe back into the veg patch, or into it for the first time, look how easy it could be...

Fast and fuss free

Broad beans... are the easiest, most rewarding of all, the seeds are comfortingly large, so are easy to space - just plonk them directly in the ground in a nice straight row, water them in and come back in 16 weeks to harvest your crop. On second thoughts, check on them occasionally as they can be prone to blackfly. There are different varieties to choose, depending on the time of year you want to plant them - some can be planted in the autumn and overwintered, ready for an early start in the spring, the taller varieties may need staking to stop them blowing over in the wind, but there are short varieties ('Sutton' is a good one) that can even be grown in pots. I grow a heritage variety called 'Crimson' because the flowers are so pretty and it comes true from seed, so once sown you never need to buy another packet of seed.

French and runner beans are easy too, but they're tender, so can't be sown directly outside until all danger of frost is past. Sow them in pots under cover to plant out for an early crop, or sow directly at the end of May. Climbing beans will need a support to grow up, but there are also dwarf varieties available. If the weather gets very hot and dry your beans will need watering, especially once they start setting their pods - and remember to keep picking them regularly or they will stop producing.

Salad leaves... are wonderfully quick and so simple - just scatter a packet (or be sensible and sow a row every couple of weeks for a continuous supply) and within 3 weeks (3 weeks! It can take that long to queue up at the checkout) you'll have piles of delicious salad, to rival anything you can get in a fancy bag from Waitrose - at a fraction of the cost. You can make up your own mix of seeds, or buy ready-made packets of salad mixes. In early spring, or at the end of the summer you can also sow stir-fry mixes (see easy exotics below) using combinations of oriental leaves.

Courgettes and summer squash... once these tender plants get going there's virtually no stopping them, so unless you want courgettes for every meal until the autumn, don't grow too many plants (you may even be swamped with just one). If you want to impress the neighbours or make it look like you've made an effort, grow a fancy courgette like Romanesco or a bright Yellow variety, or even boldly go where not many have gone before and grow some 'flying saucers' (aka Patty Pan squash).

Beetroot... love it or hate it, beetroot is a reliable easy crop to grow, as long as you grow the variety 'Bolthardy', as some have a tendency to bolt and flower at the wrong time. Beetroot is a very versatile vegetable and mixes well with other ingredients than vinegar.

Perennial performers

I guess this would be the equivalent of the low maintenance shrub border - these are crops that will come up year after year without you having to lift a finger, except to weed and feed. The thing that seems to put people off is that when you first plant some permanent crops, such as Asparagus and Rhubarb (technically a vegetable), you have to wait for a couple of years before you can start harvesting. The reason for this is that the plants have to build up strong roots and a good healthy framework in order to withstand a good picking. I was in the 'life's too short to wait for asparagus' camp until fairly recently and will say that if you're about to move house, then it might not be a worthwhile investment, but if you're at home for the foreseeable, two years will pass in a flash (plant one year old crowns), and before you know it you'll be picking your own succulent spears and stalks.

Artichokes are such handsome, structural plants that they're worthy of the flower border, never mind the veg patch. They cost a lot to buy in the shops, so it's well worth giving them a go. 'Green Globe' is one of the best for eating, and 'Violetta de Chioggia' has lovely purple globes.

Easy exotics

If you like your salads spicy or are keen on stir-fries, there are lots of new Asian vegetables on the market. They're as easy as salad leaves to grow - as long as you grow them in the early spring or in the autumn. Don't grow these in hot weather, as they'll bolt and run to seed too quickly.

Kholrabi... this funny little brassica is like a cross between a turnip and broccoli, but much easier than either to grow. Sow it between rows of slower growing crops as a 'catch' crop that can be harvested before the main crop needs the space.

Pak Choi... expensive in the shops, but simple to grow - at the right time of year. as they don't like hot, dry weather. It can be prone to flea beetle and caterpillar attack, so I tend to grow it in the autumn, when the pests are less active.

Mizuna and Oriental Mustards... these grow in a similar way to rocket and will 'rocket' to seed if grown in hot, dry weather. They taste even more peppery once this has happened, so are best grown early, or in late summer/early autumn.

Slow but sure

Leeks... these need to be sown early in the season because they take so long to bulk up, but once they're planted out (grow them in a pot first, because the seedlings are like tiny blades of grass) you can forget about them until the winter. If you want them to have long white shanks, either dig them up and replant them into a deeper hole, or earth up around the base of the plants.

Maincrop Potatoes... As long as you choose a blight free variety, potatoes are also a doddle to grow. My favourite is 'Pink Fir apple' a knobbly shaped waxy variety that tastes like a salad potato and keeps really well. Plant in widely spaced rows and 'earth up' (cover the emerging plant with soil) once the shoots are a few inches tall. Keep doing this until there are pronounced ridges and furrows in the bed. It seems like an odd thing to do, but earthing up will encourage more tubers to form and prevent them from going green.

Purple sprouting Broccoli... brassicas can be difficult to grow, but this broccoli doesn't seem to be as fussy as some and providing it is protected from caterpillars in the summer and pigeons in the winter, it will crop heavily in early spring, just when there's nothing else on offer on the plot. It does take nearly 10 months to come to anything though and those pesky pests could get the better of you during that time, so net them for best results.

Swiss Chard... grow the variety called 'Bright Lights' just for its amazing coloured stems in shades of lurid pink, orange and yellow. The leaves taste like spinach and the stalks, well the stalks apparently taste nice in a cheese sauce.

Kale... will put up with a surprising range of conditions and will happily sit through the coldest of winters. It's terrifyingly good for you too.

Preparation is the key to success, so not many short cuts there, but once the plot is looking good (remove all weeds, incorporate lots of organic matter), you'll be almost there. Plant your crops in rows so that you can easily hoe down between them. Give them enough space to grow without crowding, keep an eye out for weeds and pests, and another eye on the weather forecast in case you need to water the needy ones. Then relax. Here's to a productive year in the low(ish) maintenance veg patch.

Jo offers a full border planning, planting and maintenance service - go to jo@hornbrookmanor.co.uk or visit www.hornbrookmanor.co.uk or phone Jo Arnell on 01233 861186.