If you are a seasoned allotment-holder, look away now. This selection will not feed a family of four. If you, like me, dabble in veg for aesthetic purposes, for the colours and shapes and tastes, and the delight of popping a pod of peas into a waiting colander, then this post is for you.
Since moving in with my partner, we have divvied up the garden into “flowers” (me) and “food” (him).
I don’t share nicely. I invade the allotment with my roses and clematis, to soften the edges a bit. I plant thugs of foxgloves, oriental poppies, knautia and red valerian around the compost heap. I throw spare bulbs where I know they will survive.
I also interfere a bit in the selection of fruit and veg. I have fiercely protected my rhubarb patch (there is no pudding to match the rhubarb crumble). I have insisted on a ‘Katy’ apple. But then I also allow the invasion of raspberry canes into my roses, because what could be more beautiful than jewels of berries amongst the fat blooms of ‘Reine de Violette’?
As we choose veg seed, I have managed to sneak a few of these beauties into the mix. These are my choices not for high-yield or reliability or disease-resistance, but for art.
I will give a nod to practicalities and arrange my selection in rotation order: 1. peas and beans, 2. brassicas, 3. roots, 4. salads and sundries. I know these might not be strictly the correctly named categories, but this works for me. When I had my much loved postage-stamp garden, my dad made me a raised bed, and I grew all of these veg in it, in overspilling profusion. I divided it up into quarters and crammed as much as I could into it. We ate the thinnings raw. The salads can of course be grown in containers: carrots and parsnips do excellently in old wellies, and salad leaves in…well, anything. Teapots, egg-boxes, old sinks, wooden crates. (I just made a typo with wellies. I am so glad I spotted that before publishing).
1. Peas and Beans
This is my favourite category, and it is hard not to get carried away. My absolute favourite veg is broad beans, and I love ‘Claudia Aquadulce’. I love broad beans podded young, and just blanched for a minute, then plunged into iced water. They get a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper, and then can be embellished with roast beetroot and feta and some torn salad leaves. Or crush them with garlic, oil, lemon, parmesan and mint, and spread them on sourdough. I could live on this.
Next favourite are peas. They rarely make it to the pot. I have memories of stripping my auntie and uncle’s peas as a child. The delight of running a fingernail up the pod and hearing the pops has not left me. Peas encourage children into the garden. When I give the signal that the peas are ready, our entire family descends onto the patch like a plague of locusts. ‘Hurst Green Shaft’ is a sturdy friend.
For aesthetics, we are growing the borlotti bean ‘Lingua de Fuoco’. The speckles are wonderful. There is also the sultry purple French bean ‘Blue Lake’, and the runner bean ‘Painted Lady’. You will get sick of these beans by the end of summer, but take them to work with you and toss them around. Also invest in a nifty little stringer. Children will love this device, but make sure that they understand it can string their fingers too.
Peas and beans need good soil, plenty of sun and water, and support. Once stripped bare, leave their roots in place to nourish the soil for the brassicas, which will take their place next year.
Whilst they don’t have the interactive appeal of the peas and beans, brassicas do add an intellectual air to the veg plot. Their Fibonaci spirals can be marvelled at. This selection of deep reds and plum tones adds a sober element. They will nourish body and mind.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli is a grown-up vegetable, and I would recommend ‘Summer Purple’. You can do all the things to purple-sprouting that you would do to asparagus. It is the sophisticat of the brassicas.
To stick with a purple theme, how about the cauliflower ‘Di Scilia Violette’? This is a cat-walk cauli. And even Brussels sprouts can be given a makeover. Check out ‘Red Ball’. Nutty and natty.
I love a sweetheart cabbage. I’m going to go for ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’.
And finally we must have swede, which is oddly, a brassica and not a root. For purely sentimental reasons, I pick ‘Ruby’ (the name of our dog), but it is tasty too.
Brassicas are greedy-guts, and need a rich soil. They also need space. And lots of water. And as if this weren’t enough, they will insist on a marquee of netting to keep out the cabbage-whites. The novelty of picking off caterpillars wears off, even for children. There are only so many caterpillars they can use for their ‘Caterpillar Olympics’.
Root vegetables are not ideally suited to our heavy clay, and we have to lighten it with sand and spent compost. It is also worth planting up high, as bizarrely, carrot root-fly can’t fly above a foot or so. I know. What sort of a scaredy-cat insect is that? You can also make a barrier of fine mesh, and this will fox them. Sow lightly too, to reduce the need to thin. The root-fly can sniff out thinned carrots from miles away.
My daughter has an obsession with growing carrots, and her choice is ‘Harlequin Mix’. This provides a confection of gold, tangerine, ruby and purple carrots. You can’t really pretty up a parsnip, so stick to ‘F1 Gladiator’.
Beetroot are the easiest veg to grow. I love the classic ‘Bolthardy’, but add a sweet-shop touch with ‘Chioggia’ and ‘Burpees Golden’.
Salads and Sundries
Now we have space, we have started growing sweetcorn ‘Sundance’ with our courgettes ‘Goldrush’ and pumpkins ‘Early Butternut’. These are all thuggish beasts, so will fight it out together.
I sow a succession of salad leaf mixes and basil in any container going. The tomatoes hog the greenhouse. There’s ‘Indigo Rose’, ‘Marmande’, ‘Tigerella’ and ‘Noire de Crimee’, all of which live up to their names. There are also novelty cucumbers: my choice would be ‘Crystal Lemon’ or ‘Cucamelon’, but this really is Stephen’s domain now, so I will stop interfering.
Tomatoes and cucumbers require suspension wires and trussing, an airy greenhouse, and side-shoot removal. Mine is not the blog post to consult here: move on to the allotment big-guns. But I can tell you that there is nothing like the smell of warm tomato foliage to evoke a summer’s day. Secret raids are best. You can sink your teeth into a warm tomato when no one is looking, and let the juice dribble down your chin.