Grow Your Own Veg

Deciding which vegetables to grow is exciting, but rather daunting - if you're new to growing vegetables it pays not to be over ambitious at first. I always get carried away at the start of the season, but by June you may come across me in a bedraggled heap in my vegetable patch 'not waving, but drowning', so do think carefully about how much time you'll have to spend attending to your crops. At the same time, think about which vegetables you really like eating. Begin by listing your must-haves; crops that taste better when home grown, those that are expensive, or are at their best eaten straight from the garden, or just your own particular favourites. Think also about growing some foolproof crops that will succeed regardless – then at least you'll have a few things to be proud of at the end of the season if things don't go according to plan…

My 'desert island' vegetable selection: If you have the room, set aside some space for permanent crops, such as asparagus and artichokes (artichokes are handsome enough for the flower border if you're short on space). I put off growing asparagus for years, thinking it was too much of a time investment waiting three years before harvesting a crop. I finally took the plunge two years ago, planting one-year-old crowns and this year I'll be able to pick some asparagus. Perhaps it's something to do with getting older, but it hasn't felt like that long to wait. Asparagus is not difficult to grow and doesn't need too much attention, but it will need a separate, permanent bed.

Quick and easy crops - for (nearly) instant gratification: Broad beans start the growing year, coming up stocky, steady and oblivious to winter weather (but protect them with a cloche, though, in winters like the one we've just had). You can sow them in autumn, early in the spring and – if your family haven't objected so far – in succession through the growing season. Pick broad beans when they are no bigger than your thumbnail and the pods are quilt-soft on the inside, and even the fussy will enjoy them. Peas, sugar snaps and mangetout are also very satisfying to grow (watch out for mice eating the seeds). Beetroot, radish, spinach and salad leaves are great for an early harvest, especially 'cut and come again' leaves. Reliable tender crops – start them off under cover or direct sow after the danger of frost has passed: Courgettes are a prolific and rewarding crop to grow. You only need one or two plants to supply you with a summer long harvest. Small fresh courgettes are fantastic, but don't turn your back on them, or before you know it you'll be coming across monster marrows lurking under the leaves. Climbing French, dwarf and runner beans are easy and reliable, but may need watering if conditions are dry.

Brassicas that aren't too much work: Many brassicas are spoilt and sulky, needing exactly the right conditions before they'll do what they're supposed to, but there are some easy ones and they are very nutritious, so definitely worth a go. Try kale 'Nero di Toscana,' I love plant names: this one sounds like an Italian opera (and it's just as good for you) pak choi, kohlrabi and calabrese (called broccoli in the shops) – watch out for caterpillars hiding down within the broccoli florets though (even lightly steamed they don't go down that well). For some reason brassicas, even the easy ones, are extraordinarily popular with nearly every pest on the planet. You may find yourself erecting ever more complicated and secure barriers against them, even buying a gun - suicide? No – pigeons. It can be that bad.

Winter crops – may need protection during extra cold snaps: We love leeks at our house – they're so useful in so many recipes and will sit there, uncomplaining all through the winter, as will purple sprouting broccoli (if you can get it through the summer plagues of pests), Swiss chard, spinach and some of the oriental greens.

So much better than shop bought: Some potatoes, especially new, or waxy varieties are very easy and rewarding. Try 'Pink Fir Apple' (it's not pink, like a fir, or even an apple – but rather knobbly and quirky in shape). It's grown as a main crop, but tastes like a new potato. Eat your homegrown peas straight from the pod, as they will lose their taste within a few hours. The same goes for sweetcorn – once it's picked, the sugars in the kernels start turning to starch. Get the water boiling in the pan before you pick them.

We all seem to grow tomatoes in this country, yet they can be tricky, needing a lengthy ripening period and plenty of pampering along the way. If you are bad at watering, like me, you may find the cherry varieties easier than the bigger ones. Tomatoes taste so different from those in the shops that they're definitely worth growing at home.

Sowing seed: You've prepared your plot, the soil's been raked to a fine tilth (a Zen like experience involving endless, but soothing raking, turning the earth into something resembling crumble topping). You're ready to sow. Whether you sow directly outside in the soil, or under cover and then transplant, will depend on how warm and welcoming the conditions are out there. By this time of the year most crops can happily be sown outside, either in a nursery bed (for those that need transplanting later like leeks and some brassicas), or straight into their final positions. Size matters. Large seeds need to be planted deeper than smaller ones and take up more room. I tend to sow flat (cucumber, squash and courgette) seeds by just poking the edge down into the compost. Sow smaller seeds in shallow drills. You will need to thin your seedlings to the correct distances once they have grown a couple of 'true' leaves – ie the second set of leaves that emerge.

'F1 hybrid' written on the seed packet denotes seed that has been specially bred to create 'champion' plants that have the best characteristics of both parents plus something called 'hybrid vigour' which will make it fast growing and high yielding. It is the racehorse of the seed world, but like racehorses, comes at a price – not quite the price of a racehorse, but much more expensive than ordinary seed. There is another disadvantage, in that it will not come true in the next generation, but will tend to revert to another previous, less desirable strain and be more unpredictable in its productivity. Some people react strongly against F1 hybrids and claim it gives the seed companies a monopoly over seed production, but the producers do spend a lot of money and time (years) on the breeding programmes and would say that the high prices merely reflect that. The alternative is to grow open pollinated crops – Heritage, or Heirloom vegetables. These are varieties that have stood the test of time and have grown more or less true from seed for generations. They are not as predictable and uniform as the hybrids and may provide less in terms of yield, but what they lack in vigour they make up for in character and flavour. You may also get the immense satisfaction of collecting your own seed for next year at the end of the season – and be truly self sufficient.

It's a little too late to sow tomatoes now, but on the whole May is a great month to get cracking in the vegetable garden. The soil is warm, rain is still plentiful and the sun's climbing higher in the sky. Let's get out there.

  • words Jo Arnell