row Your Own has been shouted from the rooftops in recent years, with everybody from Jamie Oliver to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall getting involved. Henrik Cullen from the Bellmont Allotment Association in Sutton explained the reasons to join in.
“One’s own vegetables are healthier, cheaper, tastier and way more rewarding,” he said. “Another advantage is the reduced food miles.”
Asked if only those with an allotment or large gardens should attempt to grow their own vegetables, he said, “The simple answer is no. Some vegetables can even be grown in pots or on balconies.”
Spring is a great time to begin and Henrik suggested starting with lettuce as they are so quick and easy to grow. He also told me to try sweetcorn as it is a good beginner’s crop and a great saving when compared to supermarket prices.
I also spoke with Richard Stone from the Green Wrythe Lane Allotments Association in Carshalton who said, “Beginners should start with runner beans and beetroot as they are idiot proof. You just add water. Salad leaves, spinach and pak choi give fast results, which is a tangible reward for all the weed clearing!”
Of course, parents of young babies may be thinking of weening onto solids when they read this. If this is the case, sow parsnip, potatoes and carrots now, ready to make into delicious purees when autumn comes.
Draw a straight line in the soil just half an inch deep and sow three seeds six inches apart during March and April. Be patient as parsnip seeds can take a long time to become parsnip seedlings! Thin down to one seedling each when appropriate.
Apart from the need to keep down weeds, parsnips can almost be left to themselves over spring and summer. Water during dry spells. When foliage dies away in the autumn they are ready for lifting. Leaving in the ground during winter frosts is said by many to make them sweeter and tastier.
Seed potatoes benefit from chitting now. That is, being placed rose end up in egg boxes containing an inch of dry peat. The rose end is the tip with the most eyes and from these eyes a number of sprouts will grow. After six weeks they should be ready to plant.
Draw a straight trench approximately five inches deep in the vegetable plot. Plant the seed potatoes between 12 and 15 inches apart and cover with soil. When the haulm (the greenery protruding from the soil) is nine inches high, draw more soil over up to a depth of six inches. Potatoes do well in the British Isles because of our high rainfall. It is therefore vital to water well in spells of dry weather.
New potatoes should be ready to harvest from late June in South-East England. Maincrop potatoes will be ready once the haulm have turned brown and the stems have withered. This will normally be in September or October. They can then be stored for winter use in a cold, dark place.
Sow carrot seeds thinly onto well-raked smooth soil from April to June, choosing short-rooted varieties like Early Nantes 2 or Kundulus if your soil is heavy or filled with stones. Be careful not to damage any foliage when thinning out or carrot fly will be attracted by the smell of bruised greenery.
Delicious baby carrots can be picked from early summer. Maincrop carrots required for storage should be harvested during October. Store in a wooden box filled with sand and ensure the carrots are not touching. They should keep until the following March.
Taste the Difference
Of course, there are many different fruits and vegetables that can be grown. Plums plucked straight from the tree have a sweetness and taste far surpassing the bland fruit available in supermarkets. Strawberries, likewise. Richard Stone told me, “It’s a matter of taste, warm from the vine or cold from the fridge. Until you have eaten a raspberry straight from the bush in warm summer sunshine, you haven’t tasted a raspberry. And that’s before you get to the cucumbers, potatoes, sweetcorn and peas straight out of the pod.”
He suggested beginners should only grow what they like to eat. He said, “I know that sounds daft, but many a newcomer grows cabbage because it’s the norm to, but if you don’t actually like cabbage you’ll be wasting your time. Grow something you will truly get excited about eating.”
Henrik’s advice for newcomers is to always read the advice on the seed packets before buying and never purchase vegetables that need particular requirements your plot cannot satisfy. He said, “Make sure your garden has the right soil for growing particular crops. Get advice and inspiration from magazines and online.”
“Of course, there are numerous books available too. One of the very best is ‘The Vegetable & Herb Expert’ by Dr Hessayon. This is the beginner’s bible and is part of a series that has sold over 50 million books! TV gardener Carol Klein’s ‘Grow Your Own Veg’ is also very good although I believe she makes growing vegetables sound a lot easier than it actually is. There are many pests and bugs out there to make a mockery of your hard work! Finally, those wanting to try something different might want to buy ‘Moon Gardening’ by R J Harris. Following old Cornish patterns, this book tells how to plant and harvest by the cycles of the moon.
Anyone feeling confident enough to tackle an allotment should consider how much work is required to keep it clear of weeds and filled with delicious home grown food. There are many benefits, however, to young families in owning one. Carmel Ferguson from the Allotments Regeneration Initiative told me, “Children can benefit from spending time with their family on a plot, developing an awareness of where food comes from at a time when healthy eating and exercise are becoming increasingly important. Learning and fun can both take place on a plot, and the produce you grow can contribute towards a balanced healthy diet.”