This month has a slick new nickname: Veganuary. After a New Year of indulgence, it is a nickname with traction. It will pull me into a brief vegetarian interlude. I will not give up eggs and I am certainly not giving up chocolate. Like many of you, I am scaling back on post-Christmas meat, at least until the inflated price of pheasants drops below £10 a brace: can the garden help?
In 2022 vegetable gardens were roasted to death. July was very hot and watering was forbidden in August: spinach and peas were ruined and celeriac never put on weight. I was left with ceaseless cucumbers and ever-cropping courgettes. The cucumbers were too big and mushy and I ran out of ideas for using courgettes.
Ideas for them are less of a problem now that I have been given Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe book, Plenty More. It sets a challenging standard. How ever will I find, let alone grow, the exotica he prescribes? What is za’atar when it is at home? Is freekeh something we can raise from seed?
He shows a colour picture of courgette Baba Ganoush which strikes me as an epitaph for last year’s harvest. The courgettes have been roasted until they wrinkle and have been mixed with what looks like mid-December’s snowfall. The snowy coating is goat’s yoghurt. The result, Ottolenghi says, “looks rather like a volcanic eruption, in the best possible sense”: is there one?
Under the volcano, I will vary this year’s courgettes by choosing new varieties. Part of the fun of growing vegetables is sowing their seeds, usually with rapid results: here are four good sources, each with a fascinating list, courgettes and cucumbers to the fore.
Thompson and Morgan (thompson-morgan.com) have an ever-improving website whose varieties are ever-improving too. It combines new arrivals from breeders and growers with brief practical advice about how and when to germinate them. This year, we can even try Purple Magnolia, a new pea from Oregon with dark purple pods. The peas inside them are green, but the colour contrast looks chic in a dish.
DT Brown is another experienced source of the new and the familiar (dtbrownseeds.co.uk) but, like many UK nurserymen, they no longer supply to Europe and Northern Ireland, as the post-Brexit rules are a deterrent. Their new variety of celeriac, Neon, sounds promising, as it crops early and its flesh stays white when cooked: celeriac seed can be sown in early April for outdoor planting in late May. It then needs plenty of regular water if it is to build up an edible root like a croquet ball. Cut back its leafy top growth in order to promote a big root below ground.
In east Somerset, Pennard Plants (motto: “Growing the Dream”) are top suppliers of seed potatoes, but also offer seeds of much else, reasonably priced. Their list is a potato fancier’s happy hunting ground. In Harrow, Franchi has a distinctive spin too. It is a fine source of old varieties of vegetable and many Italian specialities (seedsofitaly.com). The vegetable markets in many Italian towns are enviably good compared with Britain’s. I cannot resist varieties with Italian names, even if they struggle in my care.
This year, Franchi are offering an alluring Italian courgette: Bianca di Trieste. It has very pale flesh, nearly white, and will make a welcome change from the usual green. Bianca, here I come. Yellow-skinned courgettes are also good because they are less watery and mushy when cooked. Thompson & Morgan are introducing yellow Lingodor, which bears masses of yellow fruits and has a long season.
As a contrast, I cannot resist their dark green courgette called Twitter, especially after the news around its namesake. This Twitter thrives on manure and is good when paired with pot marigolds: they keep off predators. Twitter courgettes are easy to stuff.
To cover all bases, I will also grow Sure Thing, a courgette that self-pollinates and crops well in unsunny summers. Seeds of all these varieties should be ordered now and sown under glass in April, preferably in a warm greenhouse, certainly not directly outdoors. Any old pot will suffice as a seed bed, even an empty pot of goat’s yoghurt, especially if a plastic bag is fixed over it to heighten the temperature inside.
Courgette seeds are big and flat but they should be planted vertically into the soil, like vinyl records arranged in a rack. They will sprout within 12 days if not too cold. They can then be transplanted, one into a 3in pot, and in late May, put into open ground.
Courgette plants straggle to a width of about 3ft, making them bad choices for a window box. Potatoes might seem no better, but the trick here is to grow them in bags. Pennard Plants sell two-handled potato bags for £4.50 each, reusable alternatives to compost bags punched with a hole to allow drainage.
Put about 6in of rich compost into the bag and then set in two or three seed potatoes, depending on the bag’s diameter. Add about 3 more inches of soil on top and then add more as the green shoots start to show, bringing the soil up to the level of the bag’s top. The result can be lifted on to a sunny balcony and in 10 to 12 weeks the potatoes can be excavated.
The BBC’s Gardeners’ World has posted a video for fans of Monty Don in which, on his birthday, he advances to excavate potatoes from two bags, one started under glass, one grown outdoors. The crop is bigger in the first one, a happy return for Monty who cuts off the top growth and then empties each bag successfully. Gardening is never easier.
I have picked on seed potatoes because they need to be ordered now. All of them have to be started off indoors, beginning with the early varieties in early February. Their tubers should be set on edge in an empty eggbox, one in each egg-space, and then stood in a cool airy place indoors. This easy care is called “chitting”.
After four to six weeks the tubers will show little shoots, as they sometimes do when overlooked in a larder. When these shoots are about an inch long the tubers are ready to be planted in a bag, shoots uppermost, covered with that layer of rich compost.
Early potatoes are excellent for bag planting, none better than Charlotte, a supermarket favourite. Freshly picked Charlottes are worth all the cost and effort, but Pennard sells many other winners, never seen in supermarkets, including a Scottish variety, Salad Blue, which has dark violet-blue flesh. They also offer the medal-winning early, Red Duke of York. I cannot resist this one either, after recent items in the royal news. A red-flushed Duke of York has floury flesh and is quite unsuited to a pizza.
Potatoes kick-start the veggie season. Carrots, beans, onions and spinach then join in, needing to be sown or planted in March to April. Space out your sowing and chitting across several weeks in order to extend the eventual cropping. Leap into Veganuary and then stagger the rest of the season.
- Bellevue’s Waterwise Garden is a living showcase of planting ideas to cope with climate change
- A primer on changing the color of hydrangeas – Daily Press
- How Denver gardeners can support food security by donating produce
- Finding gardening inspiration: Theatre West Garden Walk shows off unique gardens, native plants | Education
- Weekend shopping for home and garden