With the February days slowly starting to lengthen and the garden beginning to show signs of creeping out of its winter slumber, we decide what to grow in the vegetable patch during the year ahead. We start by trawling through the huge metal cake tin we use to store seed packets and envelopes of hand-collected seeds to check on our stocks and work out what needs replenishing. Old notebooks filled with scribbles of what we’ve grown in previous years are perused to aid the decision making process. We sit fireside and thumb through seed catalogues. A multitude of options are circled in biro with great enthusiasm, and then edited down to a more sensible selection over a second viewing. Finally, in an exercise book filled with chequered graph paper, we plot out our ideas in ink and pencil.
In our raised beds we operate a fairly traditional rotational planting system, moving the different vegetable families from one bed to the next year on year. This helps to keep the soil healthy and to keep pests at bay. We also have areas of perennials (e.g. asparagus, rhubarb and herbs), that stay put and aren’t included in the cycle of movement. This year we’re hoping to grow:
A salad bed of mixed lettuces including: Marvel of Four Seasons, which we have grown every year for its beautiful colour tones of red and green and reliable bounty of leaves; Reine de Glaces, a frilly-leafed iceberg lettuce that we haven’t tried before; and a couple of rows of Morton’s Secret Mix, a mysterious multicoloured and textured array of unnamed lettuce varieties that the Real Seed Company are working on for their lettuce breeding programmes. We also plan to grow a little supply of pea shoots from a couple of packets of Karina seeds left over from a couple of years ago. Next to the lettuces we’ll slot in a courgette plant: the F1 variety Tempra, which we have had much success with in the past (just two plants have left us overrun with the dark green-skinned vegetables in previous years). We might try squeezing in a golden or striped courgette variety too.
Over in the allium bed, a patch of Vallelado garlic bulbs were buried just before Christmas and are now sending up long shoots; and 130 tiny sets of white Centurion onions, which we grew for the first time last year, are on order to be planted as soon as they arrive. The golden-skinned onions are not only delicious, but they also store brilliantly (we still have plenty left from August to keep us going through to spring). Joining them will be a few leeks and spring onions. We’ll also do a little bit of inter-planting with some radishes (not part of the allium family, but fast-growing and a good temporary, space-filler). Last year we grew a ‘mystery mix’ of radishes (again from the wonderful Real Seed Company), which turned out to be the best radishes we had ever grown (every bunch we pulled up was a brightly coloured gaggle of pink, mustard yellow, purple, red, and off-white), so we’ll be sowing plenty more rows of those this year.
The roots bed will be made up of: two types of beetroot – the jazzy pink and white striped Barabietola De Chioggia and Sanguina, which is said to be a highly productive variety that produces deep, blood-red roots (in line with its name which translates as ‘Bloody’); a multicoloured array of rainbow maincrop carrots and Bright Lights chard, both of which we would never be without; and a row of Tender and True parsnips, a long-rooted variety that we have grown before with limited success, but we accidentally ordered three packets of it last year, so we need to use up the seed.
The brassica bed is really coming into it’s own at this time of year. The early purple sprouting broccoli is just ready to harvest (we’ll review how it does over the next few months and then decide whether or not to grow the same variety again this year). The kales have been providing leaves for the kitchen for months now. We’re growing two types: the trusty Nero di Toscana plus a delicious, lilac-stemmed, oak-leaf shaped variety called Red Winter, whose baby leaves are particularly good in winter salads. We love both kales and will grow each of them again this year. We have a couple of Roodnerf brussels sprouts plants too, but they were struck by an aphid attack in late summer and have cropped poorly as a result, nevertheless, we’ll give them another go in 2018 as we still have some seeds left. There are two short rows of a mild, cut and come again cultivated rocket as well, which has proved to be remarkably hardy, surviving all of the frosts we have had so far this season, so we’ll definitely sow some more of it this year.
Plus we’ll grow a variety of beautiful, edible flowers that will double-up as companion plants to the vegetables, helping to attract pollinators (in particular our own bees) and deter pests. Our favourites are borage plants, with their cucumber flavoured leaves and stunning blue flowers; and calendula, with their cheerful and prolific orange petals (that usually continue blossoming well into winter – ours are still flowering now). We usually dot these amongst all of the beds, wherever there’s space (usually in the corners). There’ll be some nasturtiums too, which we’ll leave to scramble up a few support canes, where they can abundantly produce their peppery leaves, orange and yellow flowers, and seed pods. We also grew some Viola Tricolour from seed last year, which we have planted out along the edge of the alliums in the hope they will start to flower soon.
On the patio, where they’ll be plenty of sunshine and added warmth from the stone wall and paving slabs, we’ll grow a couple of tomato plants (most likely Gardeners Delight and Golden Sunrise) plus two types of basil: the traditional Sweet Genovese, and a delicious Cinnamon basil, which works well in desserts. We might also grow a scrambling cucumber or two; we’ve found the Marketmore variety seems to grow quite well here.
We’ll most likely start up a brand new bed for the potatoes. This year we’re going to grow the maincrop variety Cara again – a great all-round potato that’s fairly resistant to blight and produces some of the most delicious spuds we have ever eaten. We might also try a salad potato as well – we’ve been meaning to try growing Pink Fir Apple for a while now, after hearing so many people raving about the knobbly tubers’ excellent flavour. Plus we’ll slot in a couple of canes of borlotti Lingua di Fuoco beans somewhere if there’s room.
Of course our plans never quite pan out in exactly the way we expect. We might end up changing the layout slightly, or growing something extra on a whim. Sometimes certain crops just refuse to grow, or we lose a harvest to some sort of disease (blight-ridden tomatoes are always a strong risk), but that’s all part of it. It keeps things interesting and it makes us value and appreciate the crops we do have ever more. We’ll keep you posted on how we get on throughout the year.