Fool-proof Veg

If you’ve been wanting to grow some vegetables, but are pressed for time, or perhaps you’re fed up, having spent a season trying to pander to a bed full of bolshy brassicas, you’ll be relieved to know that there are some crops that don’t need too much work.  There are a few general rules to be followed in order to get the very best from edible crops, but even if you break these, you’ll still be able to harvest something from the ‘easy’ veg range.  In fact, some of them will almost grow all by themselves, so all you’ll have to do is take the credit.

Plants need food, water and sunlight in order to grow and vegetables are a greedy bunch, needing more of all these things than the plants in your flower borders.   So that will mean growing them in a sunny spot, adding organic matter (manure/compost) and/or fertiliser and, sometimes, although I’m mean about this, watering them.  Some crops aren’t so keen on over-rich soil: carrots and parsnips, for instance, overreact completely and fork and fang alarmingly in fresh manure – great for comical veg competitions (some of my parsnips looked like the ‘Ood’ from Dr Who the other year) but not so easy to peel and eat.  Plants that need to swell fruit, like pumpkins, courgettes and also beans and peas, need more than their fair share of water at certain times in their growing cycle.  A few (aubergines and tomatoes) get sulky in our climate and pine for the long hot summers of their homelands in order to ripen fully.

The time of year that you grow things may have an effect too.  The bolters – those that run to seed - beetroot, spinach, rocket and most of the oriental greens, are perfectly well behaved in the early spring and autumn, but something comes over them in the warmer months, especially in hot, dry weather; they panic and flower, using up all their energy in the process.  They can taste very bitter once they do this (lettuce becomes especially nasty), but if you’ve grown an heirloom variety, you may at least be able to save the seed and sow some more at another time.

So here are my top ‘easy’ crops:

Leeks: If I really found myself in a situation where I could only grow one crop, then leeks would be my choice.  They take a while to get going, and they need transplanting into deeper holes if you want them to develop long white shanks, but they are more or less trouble free and you can leave them in the ground all through the winter and into the ‘hungry gap’ (which is around now, after the winter crops have been harvested and before the summer ones are ready – and people literally once went hungry).  I grow a heritage variety called ‘Blue Solaise’ because I love the name and its deep greeny-blue colour, but a leek by any other name would be just as good, if not quite as poetic.

Beans:  First come the broad beans and they are really easy to grow.  They have big, robust seeds that nursery school children can happily plant – sow them either in autumn and over-winter under a cloche or in a cold frame for an early crop the following year, or in spring for a summer harvest.  Pick them when they’re small and tender and the floury, grey bullets we all think of will fade into distant memory.  They are delicious in an early summer risotto.

French and runner beans are sown a little later, either directly into the ground (protect from slugs for the first few weeks), after all danger of frost is past, or earlier, into pots in a greenhouse or on a windowsill for planting out.  Give climbing varieties something to climb up – a wigwam support, or series of canes, and make sure they have enough water when the pods are swelling.  The thing to watch out for on all bean plants is blackfly.  Catch an infestation early - I rub them off with my fingers and then pinch out the tips of the plants once they’re tall, as aphids go for soft new growth.  After the first pods are ready, keep picking and they should crop for weeks.

Courgettes are another prolific cropper.  An average family, even one that really likes courgettes, may be put off them by the end of the season.  Don’t be tempted to grow more than 2 plants at the most. You have been warned.  They are tender, so protect from frost and water well once they are producing fruit.  In dry weather their huge leaves can get powdery mildew (an unsightly covering of blotchy white).  This shouldn’t affect the courgettes themselves.

Potatoes:  If you can, grow the one with the odd sounding name – ‘Pink Fir Apple’ – it’s not pink, or furry and it’s a potato.  They grow into mad shapes, but taste delicious - the kind of potato you can’t often buy in the shops.  Potatoes are a useful crop to grow in previously uncultivated soil, as they penetrate quite deeply and the tubers help to break up the ground for the next crop.  You may have heard of a process called ‘chitting’, whereby you leave the seed potatoes in egg boxes in a light place until they form little shoots.  This is not necessary, but may produce a slightly better yield in early varieties.  Potatoes take up quite a lot of space in the ground though, and if you don’t dig up every tiny tuber at harvesting time, they’ll grow up like weeds the following year.  Many people grow them in containers, but they will need watering if containerised, and you may find yourself needing several containers for a decent harvest.

Sweetcorn:  Once you’ve tasted freshly harvested, super-sweet corn (they say you should have the pan of boiling water waiting as you pick the cobs) it can be hard to go back to dry old supermarket offerings.  Plant out, or sow into rich soil after the frosts (end of May/beginning of June).  Sweetcorn plants are tall and take up quite a bit of room.  They need to be planted in blocks, not rows, as they’re wind pollinated.

Tomatoes: Not always that easy to grow, but again, once you’ve tasted the difference between home grown and shop bought, you understand why so many people do.  Cherry tomatoes are the easiest, and the variety ‘Gardener’s Delight’ is so reliable and prolific, that even I, a renowned tomato neglecter, can successfully produce a crop.

Salad leaves: Even if you don’t have a garden you can keep yourself in salad for the whole summer with just a couple of containers of a good mix of leaves.  Rocket (bolts like mad in hot weather, but the flowers are pretty and it seeds itself around for a never ending supply), loose leaved (as opposed to hearting) lettuce, mustards, chervil, spinach, radicchio, young kale and Swiss chard can all be cropped regularly as ‘cut and come again’ leaves.  Have fun growing them in different combinations, depending on your taste.

Kale and Swiss Chard: These may not be to everyone’s taste, but they look wonderful in the veg patch, can be grown all year round, are very nutritious and not attacked by too many pests (nothing seems to eat Swiss Chard, but watch out for whitefly on the kale).

Producing a meal made with something you’ve grown yourself will be a proud moment.  Everyone will be impressed.  Come up with dead easy recipes that look and taste amazing, but are really very simple and they’ll think you truly are a wonder-person.

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