Keen to ensure 2021 is filled with a bountiful supply of home-grown edibles, Jo Arnell gets cracking in the veg garden with super-speedy early crops
Phew! It’s April. The days are filling with light and new growth – and possibly hope for harvests of fresh, home grown produce. After the long, weird and wet winter I’m impatient to get growing and to get some speedy results. Working out which crops are going to give a reliable – and quick – harvest can be daunting. The good news is that there are lots of crops to choose from that will fit the bill, so with a bit of luck and a fair wind we should be able to pick something to eat in just a few short weeks.
There are several ways to go about it. The garden centres sell a good range of vegetable seedlings and small plugs which can be planted straight out into the garden (depending on how frost hardy they are). This will speed things along, but remember that you’ll be limited to the varieties they offer and they won’t always tell you the seed-to-harvest time – leeks and cabbages seem to take a lifetime to grow.
Sowing seed is cheap and you’ll have masses more choice when it comes to varieties. Most vegetable seeds are annuals (completing their lifecycle within a single year) sometimes a single season. Annuals are in a rush to get going, so are primed to germinate fast and grow quickly. You can start them under cover in a greenhouse or on a windowsill and then plant them out, or sow the hardier ones directly outside. You might have to keep an eye on the weather forecast, or better still, watch the ground to see when the time is right, because weeds will start popping up all over the place.
The advantage of sowing seed directly is that you won’t have the labour of pricking them out (transferring them to separate pots) and double handling them – and in theory it will be quicker. In practice it can often be a fraught affair, as your tiny seedlings will be at the mercy of the weather and all sorts of hungry creatures that are ravening for something tastier than the overwintered weeds they’ve had to munch on until now. Talking of weeds, the other thing that can happen, especially on freshly cultivated soil, is that the pesky weedlings will start germinating at the same time as the seedlings – quickly overtaking and swamping your tender babies like bullies in a playground. On balance (actually after searching all afternoon among the weeds for some leek seedlings) I’ve decided that it’s better in the long run to sow in modules and plant them out once they are big enough to more or less hold their own.
Whatever crops you are planning to plant, it’s worth spending some time preparing the ground well, removing pernicious weeds, adding in some nutritious organic matter and raking the soil to a fine, seed-friendly tilth.
Double the harvests
If you sow and grow some speedy crops in spring, you’ll still have time, once you’ve harvested them and cleared the space, to plant some winter stalwarts later in the summer. This will maximise the productivity of your veg growing spaces – a useful thing if you just have a raised bed or two, or want to squeeze as much as you can into a small patch. Here are some reliable crops that will speed along to bring quick, easy and early harvests…
Shoots and leaves
Salad leaves are wonderfully quick and so simple – just scatter a packet (or be sensible and sow a row every couple of weeks for a continuous supply) and within 3 weeks (3 weeks! It can take that long to queue up at the checkout) you’ll have piles of delicious salad, to rival anything you can buy – and at a fraction of the cost. You can make up your own mix of seeds, or buy ready made packets of mesclun salad.
Rocket – as its name suggests this crop will bring a peppery zip to any salad mix in a couple of weeks. Rocket will also self-seed around the patch, so you may find you don’t have to make repeat sowings…
Kale, Spinach and Swiss Chard– these can all be eaten as micro-salad leaves, so can be ready to eat in no time – depending on how tiny they are when you harvest them. Some can be eaten at the mustard and cress stage, left a little longer for a heartier salad, and then a few saved to grow on to maturity.
New potatoes – the first of the potatoes are the earlies; these have a waxy texture, hold their shape well when boiled and are the tastiest for salads. Varieties like International Kidney (also known as Jersey Royals), Rocket, and Arran Pilot are good varieties.
Short carrots – small and stubby, but full of flavour and quick to grow, they can be grown either in the ground or in containers. Try Chantenay, Early Nantes, or Romeo – a small round variety about the size of a radish.
Baby beetroot – you can be harvesting baby beets in 12-14 weeks of sowing, so this is another crop that can be sown a few times in the year. Beetroot doesn’t have to be red either – there are yellow varieties and a very pretty one called Chioggia with candy striped flesh that will look amazing sliced into a salad bowl.
Radishes – a speedy ‘catch’ crop that can be sown in between the rows of slower growing vegetables like leeks and parsnips, as the radishes will be long gone before the slow crop starts needing the room.
Khol rabi – grow, like radishes, between other crops, as these are amazingly quick too. You eat the swollen stem of this plant, which swells like a golf ball halfway down the stalk. Available in purple or green, but both are green when cooked.
Broad beans– are the easiest, most rewarding legume. The seeds are comfortingly large, so are easy to space – just plonk them directly in the ground in a nice straight row, water them in and come back in 16 weeks to harvest your crop. On second thoughts, check on them occasionally as they can be prone to Blackfly. Short varieties (‘Sutton’ is a good one) will be quickest and can even be grown in pots.
Peas – the quickest peas to grow are the sugar snaps and mange tout varieties, as you are harvesting the whole pod and not waiting for the peas inside to swell and ripen.
Dwarf beans – because these beans don’t have to spend time climbing up poles and sticks, they start flowering and setting pods earlier than climbing varieties – so you should be harvesting pods within 10-12 weeks. French beans are tender plants, so don’t plant them out until at least mid May.
‘Ne’er cast a Clout’, the saying goes, ‘’til May is out,’ which means don’t throw off your winter coat until the danger of frost is past (not, as I once thought: ‘don’t hit anyone until the summer’). Late frosts can occur until the end of May (in freak years they have been known even later), so tender vegetables and freshly planted seedlings will need protection until then.
For details of Jo’s gardening courses visit hornbrookmanor.co.uk
or contact Jo on 07923 969634.
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