Monday 23 October 2017

Diarmuid Gavin: How to grow your own vegetables this spring

Gardener Diarmuid Gavin. Photo: Fran Veale
Gardener Diarmuid Gavin. Photo: Fran Veale

Satisfy your green fingers — and your appetite — by growing your own vegetables this spring. Whether in a veg patch, allotment or even just a windowbox, Diarmuid Gavin has the perfect crop for every garden

Welcome to Week 2 of my Garden Action Plan. The soil is warming up, which means it’s time to start growing vegetables. Today I’m bringing you hints, tips and plant choices that will help novice veg gardeners produce a bumper crop.

Start by making some smart choices, such as planting low-maintenance crops. Onions and shallots together with salad crops, broad beans, carrots, spinach and chard are all easy. First early potatoes avoid the risk of blight and are great at cleaning up soil.

To ensure success year after year, plant perennials such as rhubarb, globe artichoke and gooseberry, as these only require one planting and keep coming back.

And, if you want to skip the seed-sowing stage, simply buy young plants and grow them on. Ready? It’s time to take action!

LETTUCE

This germinates easily from seed. To keep yourself in fresh salad throughout the summer, you’ll need to sow successively every fortnight. Bear this in mind when you are marking out your lettuce plot, leaving room for the next lot. You want to avoid a glut or leaving lettuce too long in the ground so that it bolts. Bolting means it shoots up its flower stalk and the leaves then become bitter.

Slugs and snails are a problem, so you will need to use all the tricks for keeping them at bay. You can also buy small plants from the garden centre for growing on, which will be less susceptible than your tender seedlings. I like ‘Lollo Rossa’, with its curly red leaves — it looks and tastes good and is slow to bolt. ‘Little Gem’ is a good cos variety, perfect for Caesar salads. If you’re tight on space, ‘Tom Thumb’ is a small butterhead lettuce and can  be grown in containers or windowboxes. I’ve had a small but steady supply of green leaves from the lamb’s lettuce I planted in the winter. It’s extremely hardy and has quite a distinctive flavour.

ASPARAGUS

This is becoming an increasingly popular crop. It’s not an instant crop so requires patience: plant crowns now but let them mature for a couple of years before harvesting spears. After that, they can keep going for up to 20 years. They like rich soil, so dig a trench and place well-rotted manure at the base. Create ridges, and plant crowns on top with their roots draped over. Cover with soil so that the buds are just showing. Male varieties produce the best crops — try ‘Connover’s Colossal’, ‘Gijnlim’ and ‘Stewart’s Purple’.

BEANS

Broad beans can go straight in the ground now and are a good crop for beginners. Sow at monthly intervals to avoid a glut. Add compost and a general fertiliser to the soil and choose a sunny spot. Try ‘Aquadulce Claudia’ for early cropping. ‘The Sutton’ is the most popular dwarf variety if space is limited. They need support, so make climbing frames with bamboo canes.

TOMATOES

If you have never grown tomatoes before, don’t think you have to have an expensive greenhouse. There are plenty of outdoor varieties which will do well in a warm, sunny position. Plant in a veg patch, grow bags or containers. If space is at a premium, try trailing varieties, such as ‘Tumbling Tom’ and ‘Cherry Cascade’, which will thrive in hanging baskets. Recycled yoghurt pots are the ideal size to sow a few seeds in — once germinated, thin out and just leave the strongest seedling in this pot. ‘Sungold’ is a delicious cordon which can be cultivated both indoors and outdoors.

SPRING ONIONS

‘White Lisbon’ is a wonderful problem-free variety of spring onion, which makes it a perfect crop for

the beginner vegetable gardener. For a little bit of variety, try ‘Redmate’ — the eye-catching crimson colour will look pretty in any salad and, if you forget to harvest them, they will keep growing into red onions!

CARROTS

Carrots don’t like heavy soil or fresh manure, so keep it light and stone-free. Carrot fly can be a nuisance but

‘Flyaway’ and ‘Resistafly’ both have good resistance. Be careful when thinning your seedlings, as that’s when

the dreaded carrot fly smells dinner and descends. Remove thinnings (or wash and put in salads). Try ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Purple Haze’ for a variety of colours from purple to yellow.

POTATOES

Potatoes are a great way of improving heavy ground, as they break up the soil and suppress weeds. It’s time to get your chitted (sprouted) first early potatoes in the ground now. Second earlies are planted early to mid-April and maincrops from mid-April onwards. If you’re short on space or a novice gardener, I’d recommend the early varieties that are ready to harvest before blight descends. That said, the ‘Sarpo Mira’ and ‘Axona’ maincrop

varieties have been bred to be resistant to virus and blight, are slug-resistant and also give great yields. Growbags are a practical way to cultivate potatoes if you are a balcony/patio gardener.

RADISHES

Radishes are one of the quickest-yielding crops — you can be sprinkling these on your salad in about four weeks’ time. Sow some seeds now but keep some back to sow every four weeks. Radishes should be harvested when ready. If you leave them in the ground, they become woody and not so tasty. The top variety here is an old one, ‘French Breakfast 3’, which has red roots and a white tip and will crop reliably.

BEETROOT

Beetroot has seen a huge resurgence in popularity now that it’s been revealed as one of the ‘superfoods’. Sow some ‘Boltardy’ seeds this month. As the name suggests, it has good bolting resistance and I’ve found germination very reliable. When you are sowing the seed, you will notice it is quite big and therefore easy to handle. This is in fact a husk containing a couple of seeds, so the plants will need thinning out as necessary — but small beet leaves are also a good addition to the salad bowl.

CRESS

Even if you’ve no outside space at all you can grow cress (Lepidium sativum) — you only need to sprinkle these

seeds on a few layers of damp kitchen towel or blotting paper on a plate

or container. Cover in a plastic bag to retain moisture and place in a dark space. As soon as they sprout, pop them on a sunny windowsill, keep the growing medium — kitchen paper! —damp and you will have an edible crop within two weeks.

FRUIT

Fruit bushes such as raspberries, gooseberries and blueberries and small fruit trees can be very productive and easy to maintain. Pick the sunniest, most sheltered spot, where the soil is fertile, and plant what you will enjoy harvesting and eating.

Features to consider…

RAISED BEDS

If your soil is really poor, build raised beds with sleepers and fill with quality topsoil and well-rotted manure or garden compost. Raised beds are much easier to weed and maintain because they require less bending — you can perch on the side and use a trowel to plant and weed.

A DIY WATERING SYSTEM

Sink plastic bottles with their ends cut off near the root of the plant for easy watering. Simply fill the bottle, and the water will travel straight to the roots.

MULCH

Use mulches to keep down weeds — even a layer of cardboard helps suppress weed growth. Weeds harbour disease and take up valuable nutrients and water. Mulches also help to keep the soil moist, reducing the need to water.

The 10 vegetables every beginner can grow

1. Early potatoes

2. Radishes

3. Spring onion ‘Lisbon’

4. Beetroot ‘Boltardy’

5. Onion sets

6. ‘Cut and come again’ lettuce

7. Carrot ‘Flyaway’

8. Broad beans

9. Cherry tomatoes

10. Purple sprouting broccoli

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