Although this architectural, thistle-like perennial can be grown from seed it is usually grown from offsets or rooted suckers. It is grown for its closed flower-buds whose scaly leaves and hearts are boiled or steamed and eaten with your fingers, dripping with melted butter or vinaigrette - globe artichokes turn a starter into a sensuous event. Flower buds become inedible if allowed to open.
This tall (up to 3m) perennial is a relative of the sunflower. It is so vigorous and easy to grow that, while it can be useful to add height, divide areas or provide shade, it can quickly become a weed if not controlled. The best strategy is to make sure that you harvest all the tubers each year. Alternatively, surround roots with some sort of barrier.
While buying from seed catalogues is the best approach for variety and guaranteed productivity, it is perfectly acceptable to buy tubers from your local greengrocer and plant those.
The delicious tubers can be treated in much the same way as a potato - my favourite is sauteed with garlic, a bay leaf and a splash of white wine vinegar. If you haven't tried them before, start cautiously as some people suffer from uncomfortable flatulence!
Probably the best vegetable in the world and what other vegetable can you eat with your fingers when dining with the Queen?
They're undoubtedly a significant investment in terms of the cost of the crowns, the preparation of the bed and the wait for your first crop but it's well worth it and you should then be set up for twenty years.
Can be grown from seed or crowns but crowns are more popular as they reduce the wait for the first harvest. It may be tempting to plant two- or even three-year-old crowns but these can be less reliable.
This easy to grow crop can provide delicious beans wrapped in their cosy, fleece-lined pods from late May until early October. Broad beans are of three types - dwarf, long-pod or Windsor which are best-suited to exposed sites, early sowing and flavour respectively.
Pick them young, both for a sweeter taste and to encourage further pods. If all you have are older beans, try blanching for a minute or two in boiling water and then squeezing the sweet halves of the bean out of their bitter coat.
One of the staples of the British veg. plot, runner beans are easy to grow and generally produce great yields. They are tall, beautiful plants, with their red and/or white flowers and are a great architectural addition to any plot. They need strong support though - usually wigwams or double rows of canes, or structures with string or netting for the plants to twine around.
One of the keys to success with runner beans is a moist, but well-drained, fertile soil. One way of ensuring this is to dig a 60cm wide by 25cm deep tranch, line with newspaper and fill with compost or manure. Top of with soil and keep well mulched.
Don't plant too many - 15 or 20 plants is plenty for an average family - unless you have plenty of hungry friends or want to freeze them. They do freeze relatively well but I'm not a fan.
Beetroot is easy to grow, delicious and comes in a wonderful variety of colours and shapes: white, golden or striped; and cylindrical or long and tapered as well as the traditional red globes.
After an early sowing of a bolt-resistant variety, sow every four weeks for a continuous supply finishing in late May or June with a sowing for storage. Take care with that delicious juice - it dyes everything.
For many allotment owners, having hands and arms shredded by brambles is their first experience of working an allotment. So you might think that blackberries are the last thing you want to be reintroducing to a plot. However, for a tricky, shadier part of an allotment, they are ideal. Modern varieties are also available with heavier yields of larger, sweeter fruit and thornless varieties make them much easier to manage. However, they do need managing - they will still grow to 3m if left unchecked and stems which touch the soil will quickly root.
You can grow them as bushes, maintaining an open centre, over arches (thornless varieties only!), or, more commonly, trained against wires against walls or stretched between two stout 1.8m posts (2.4m with 60cm in the soil). They are self-fertile so one plant is generally all that is needed.
Note: Pot-grown plants can be planted all year round.
Arguably more troublesome to grow than the other soft fruit - early flowering varieties are susceptible to late frosts and they are affected by a wide range of pests. However, they are more tolerant of wet soils and are ideal in more acid areas. And, nothing quite compares with the tart sweetness of blackcurrant jam.
They are less amenable to training that their cousins, the goosebery and red/white currants so are normally grown as a bush, which can reach 1.5m high by 1.5 wide. The key to success with blackcurrants is planting them properly - 5cm below the depth at which they were previously planted. This, along with regular pruning of older stems right back to the ground, will ensure a constant supply of the one to three-year-old growth that will produce fruit.
This is supermarket broccoli - I'm always surprised how well these 'fairy trees' go down with children. The lovely green flower heads are eaten before the flowers open. It's a late summer crop so ideal to come back to after your summer holiday.
Growing is as easier than many other brassicas and one plants can keep on cropping from side shoots once the central head has been removed.
Tall, with white, green or purple florets, sprouting broccoli is the easiest of the group to grow and much hardier than calabrese. It occupies the ground for a long time but provides very welcome, tender spears for up to six weeks in Spring (which can be a very busy, but fairly sparse time, on the allotment) on a cut and come-again basis. If you choose the right varieties, it will see you through from mid-January until May.
They're not everyone's favourite vegetable but are truly delicious if not over-cooked and what would Christmas be without 'fairy cabbages'?
They're big plants which take up a lot of room for a long time. The need for firm soil cannot be overemphasised if you want to avoid loose or 'blousy' sprouts.
It is perfectly possible to have delicious, healthy home-grown cabbage on the table all year round by choosing from among the bewildering variety of shapes and colours now available.
Ensure roots never dry out during the summer and do not over-feed cabbages which you want to survive frosts as lush, sappy growth is less hardy.
However, competition for your crop from caterpillars, birds, aphids and more is fierce, especially with the later varieties.
Carrots are easy to grow and will keep children happy from April to December if successional sowings are made. While you need friable, well dug soil with few stones to grow long-rooted carrots, short, stubby-rooted carrots will do fine on heavy and even stony soil and may even provide a bit of supper-time comedy. Do not add manure or compost to the soil before sowing.
Cauliflowers can be tricky to grow. They need the same firm soils that the rest of the brassicas crave, manured for the previous crop - preferably a legume. However, they also need a constant supply of water. Any check to growth results in small buttons rather than true heads. That said, sow a the right varieties successionally and you can be eating their gorgeous creamy curds for at least nine months of the year.
Celery comes in trench and self-blanching types. The trench varieties are tastier and winter-hardy but need a lot of TLC. The self-blanching varieties are easier (although still not easy) but are frost-tender and lack the crispness and taste of trenching varieties. You'll need to grow both types to have celery on the table from August to February.
Chicory is grown to provide autumn/winter salads; either succulent 'chicons' which are forced in the dark or for heads of autumn/winter lettuce (including 'radiccio'). Although it can be bitter, home-grown chicory is much less so than that bought in supermarkets. The growing process is lengthy and quite involved but relatively easy, given a deeply-cultivated, lightish soil which has preferably been manured for the previous crop (fresh manure may lead to divided roots).
Courgettes, which are just baby marrows, and their close relatives the summer squashes (think butternut, gem and patty pan) all grow quickly on very vigorous plants. Given plenty of water and a rich soil, you can be picking these throughout the summer and autumn. Their flavour is best when picked young.
If you combine greenhouse with outdoor or 'ridge' (although they no longer need to be grown on one) cucumbers, they can be adding crunch to your salads and sandwiches from the end of May until early October. Gherkins are small and warty and bred to be picked small but are otherwise the same as outdoor varities. They all need a fertile, moist but well-drained soil, a sunny position and, for the outdoor varieties, protection from winds.
Although redcurrants are widely available in the shops as a tart garnish on restaurant puddings, white currents, which are slightly sweeter are not as common. Like their cousins, the gooseberry, with which they share cultivation requirements and many of the same diseases, they are remarkably easy to grow. They are happy with some shade, will grow on almost any soil and cope well in colder areas - just avoid waterlogging and frost pockets which could damage those early flowers. As they are self-fertile, there are no pollination worries even if you only have space for one.
They are generally grown as bushes - growth can be up to 2m x 90cm - but can also be grown as cordons - 1 to 3 upright stems like the tines of a fork. While bushes generally give a greater yield per plant, cordons take up less room and make picking fruit, and the inevitabe pests, easier. With bushes, the aim is to produce a goblet shape to allow plenty of air to circulate, reducing the chances of mildew.
Note that pot-grown plants can be planted all year round.
Like chicory, endives benefit from blanching to reduce bitterness. If you're prepared to do this, you can have endive on your plate from August to April by sowing (at 3-4 week intervals) the summer 'frisee' or frilly varities in summer and the broad-leaved varieties in autumn and winter. Endives need a rich soil, preferably manured for a previous crop. The summer varieties need full sun but the autumn/winter varieties benefit from light shade to prevent bolting.
Grown for its fleshy aniseed flavoured stem base, Florence fennel prefers a warmer climate. However, give it sufficient warmth and make sure it never runs out of water and it's a fairly easy crop to grow.
If you have had problems with bolting, try sowing direct as this removes the shock of transplanting from the equation.
Most common are the round-podded varieties sold as dwarf or string beans in supermarkets. However, varieties provide dwarf or climbing growth habit, green yellow, pink and speckled pods and pods which are eaten whole or whose beans are eaten semi-ripe (cannellini, flageolet) or dried (kidney, haricot). They are all pretty easy to grow - the climbing varieties make the best use of limited space and coloured pods make picking easier - but they won't tolerate frost. They'll put up with most soils except those which are very heavy or wet. Incorporate well-rotted farmyard manure. Protecting with cloches at either end of the season will allow cropping from late May until October.
Indispensible in the kitchen, garlic is an almost fool-proof crop. There are three main groups - hard-neck, soft-neck and elephant (although the latter is actually a leek grown as garlic). Elephant garlic has the largest cloves but the mildest flavour. Hard-necked garlic has the strongest flavour and is easier to peel but for for storage and hardiness, soft-necked garlic is the best choice.
I am always surprised that gooseberries are not more widely grown. Perhaps it's the thorns or maybe it's a memory of eating a cooker or an unripe desert variety. However, not only are they one of the earliest and most delicious soft fruit, they are also very tolerant plants - tolerant of just about any soil, partial shade, cooler climates and will carry on bearing fruit (albeit many fewer) if left unpruned. They can be productive for up to twenty years, reaching about 90cm high by 1.5m wide. As they are self-fertile, there are no pollination worries even if you only have space for one.
They are generally grown as bushes but can also be grown as cordons. While bushes generally give a greater yield per plant, cordons take up less room and make picking fruit, and the inevitabe pests, easier. With bushes, the aim is to produce a goblet shape to allow plenty of air to circulate, reducing the chances of mildew. Cordons are 1 to 3 upright stems like the tines of a fork.
Note that pot-grown plants can be planted all year round.
The easiest of the Brassicas to grow, Kale will put up with almost any conditions apart from waterlogged or very loose soil and a long, hard frost. Older leaves can be bitter but the taste and texture of young leaves steamed or stir-fried is excellent and you can harvest from November to May. The spear and leaf varieties provide an extra bonus over the curly and flat-leaved varieties in that they produce broccoli-like sprouts in Spring.
This strangely alien vegetable is rarely seen in supermarkets but common in vegetable boxes and on allotmentors' tables. This is probably because it is so quick and easy to grow. However, while it is delicious mashed with butter, not everyone is convinced by its mixture of cabbage and turnip flavours.
This group of relatives of beetroot are grown for their leaves rather than their roots. They are a good alternative to spinach on the lighter, more exposed sites which would cause spinach to bolt or become bitter. Perpetual spinach (aka. spinach beet) is cooked just like spinach and young leaves are great in salads. The more ornamental swiss chard (aka. ruby chard or seakale beet), the central vein is cooked like celery or asparagus with the rest of the leaf used like spinach. With regular sowing and protection through the worst of the winter, this can be an all year round crop.
Unless you are a competition grower, leeks are the onion's easier going relative. They will grow on any reasonable soil, are fairly pest and disease-resistant and, because they are untroubled by frost, can be harvested from late summer until the following spring. They do still involve some work though, transplanting from seed to growing bed and regular earthing up if you want long, white stems.
What's a salad without lettuce? Lettuces are generally classified as butterhead, cos, crisphead and loose-leaved varieties. Butterheads form loose heads with soft leaves. They are generally easier to grow than the others, being tolerant of poorer conditions. The crisphead varieties include the various types of 'Iceberg', store well in the fridge and are more resistant to bolting in dry weather. The cos types, with a more upright habit, are often the tastiest. Finally, the loose-leaf varieties don't produce heads at all - rather leaves are picked a few at a time, leaving the plant to produce more. It's said about every crop, but the key to growing lettuces is to sow little and often to avoid a glut.
I know quite a few allotment owners who don't bother with onions as they are so cheap in the shops. However, onions are such a vital part of so many dishes that it seems a pity not to be able to eat your own, especially since they store so well. Spring onions are a vital addition to salads for much of the year and sweet, caramelised shallots are a must in French-inspired cookery.
There are three main types of onion: bulb, spring and shallot, all of which can be found in white or red varieties, with the red varieties tending to have a milder flavour. Bulb onions are the mainstay, with Japanese varieties providing the most reliable late summer sowings for a mid-summer crop. Spring onions are simply immature onions, although some varieties have been bred not to form bulbs at all. Shallots are generally grown from sets, which multiply to form a clump of bulbs which are prized for their milder flavour.
I have always felt a bit funny about sets - turning a small onion into a big one doesn't seem enough of an achievement. However, sets have better disease resistance, are not troubled by onion fly and cope better with poor conditions. That said, while sets can make an ideal starting point for the novice grower, results from seed, especially if started off indoors at the beginning of the year, are generally very good.
A freshly picked young pea is one of the sweetest tastes on the allotment. Combine this with the fun of shelling them and you have one of the most child-friendly crops. Peas are classified by their seed and growing season. Round-seeded varieties are hardier and therefore for the earliest sowings (first earlies) but are not as sweet as the wrinkled-seeded (second earlies and maincrop) varieties. In addition, there are the mangetout varieties which are eaten whole and the petits pois varieties which are dwarf plants with smaller, sweeter peas.
Like their close relatives, the chilli peppers, sweet peppers are not an easy crop for the novice. However, for adding crisp sweetness to salads, and colour to stir-fries, as well as because they are attractive crop, they are well worth persevering with.
While they can grow well outside the greenhouse, they need fertile soil, plenty of sun and shelter from wind.
Potatoes can be one of the most daunting crops for the novice - chitting, the huge range of varieties and earthing up can put people off. However, they grow on just about any soil and are the ideal way to break ground on a new allotment.
Potatoes are classified by texture/cooking suitability (floury or waxy) and growing season (first earlies, second earlies, maincrop and late maincrop). As well as these choices, they offer a variety of resistances to common pests - which you choose will depend upon conditions/common problems on your site.
If you only have space for a few plants choose a first early because new potatoes taste so much better when dug and boiled immediately
Radishes add a delicious crunch to salads, are a great snack on their own dipped in salt and, for the more adventurous, the hotter winter varieties make a great addition to stews and can even be pickled.
The summer varieties come in a bewildering range of colours (red is the most common but white, purple, yellow and even black varieties are available) and can be mild to really quite hot, the winter varieties tend to be white and are generally hotter
Because they are so quick to grow - 4 weeks from sowing to harvest - they are an ideal child's plot crop. Get them to draw picture or their initial in a seed bed then sow the seeds along the lines.
Easy to grow, can cope with some shade, summer varieties do well even in colder regions, can provide fruit from July until the first frosts and canes can be productive for 8 to 15 years - why wouldn't you give over at least part of your plot to raspberries. And they offset the sweetness of meringues far better than strawberries to my mind.
The real keys to success with raspberries are to make sure:
- their roots are never waterlogged - like Mary Berry, they don't like a soggy bottom. If your soil does get wet over the winter, grow them on raised beds.
- they are not too exposed, while at the same time ensuring that air can circulate freely around them to avoid fungal problems.
Autmn fruiting varieties make up for their lower tolerance of cold by the fact that, in all but the most exposed loactions, they don't require support. That said, they won't object and it certainly makes them look tidier and makes the fruit easier to pick. Summer varieties, however, will do much better with some form of support. Traditionally, this is two six foot posts at either end of each row, with three lengths of wire stretched tight between them.
Pruning can cause some confusion but is less complex than it sounds:
- Newly planted, regardless of variety: cut down the 'old' cane to 30cm at planting time and then to just above ground level when the new shoots appear.
- Summer fruiting: cut down all canes which have fruited to just above ground level as soon as fruiting is over. Tie the strongest looking 5-8 unfruited canes to the wires, 10cm or so apart, to bear next year's crop. Cut off any growth over the top wire.
- Autumn fruiting: In late winter/early spring, cut all canes down to just above ground level.
The real trick is remembering which is which!
Life without rhubarb and custard, with or without a pie crust or crumble is unthinkable.
By combining indoor and outdoor forcing with normal harvesting, you should be able to eat your own rhubarb from late January until August.
Rhubard can be grown successfully from seed but (3-4 year old) roots are the more common option as you then only have to wait one year before light cropping.
Keep up your own supply of roots (for forcing or replanting) by dividing three-year old plants in late autumn or early spring, making sure that each piece has an undamaged bud.
There are similarities between salsify and parsnip in look, taste and cultivation. However, salsify is arguably tastier - sometimes dubbed the 'vegetable oyster'. If you like your root vegetables, salsify is an easy to grow addition to your autumn/winter diet. It's a biennial and plants unharvested after the first winter will continue growing, producing lovely blue flowers.
Easily mistaken for its weedy relative, Dock, garden sorrel and milder french sorrel are used to add tartness to sauces, stews and salads. Younger leaves and those picked earlier in the season less strongly flavoured.
Very large quantities are potentially harmful due to oxalic acid,the same chemical that makes rhubarb leaves poisonous.
Spinach isn't going to turn you into Popeye but this is still a really delicious, quick-growing vegetable, invaluable in Sag Aloo or when picked young as a beefy addition to salads. It originates in China and likes cool damp conditions which leads to its most common problem - bolting - in hot, dry conditions, a particular problem on sandy soils. Seeds used to be round for summer and prickly for winter varieties but modern breeding has produced seeds that cover both periods.
The quintessential taste of summer and one of the best ways to entice your children onto your plot. By growing early, mid and late season varieties with 'everbearer' or 'full season' varities, you can be harvesting strawberries for over 6 months of the year, from late May to late October. However, there's no doubt that, for taste and adundance, the traditional June/July period is the highlight of the season.
Strawberries need fertile and moist, but well-drained, soil. They are often planted in ridges to ensure this drainage is maintained. Because they have a productive life of 3-4 years, it is essential to ensure the soil is weed-free to begin with. For this reason, it's best to deeply dig the soil at least a month before planting, removing all weeds. Then dig again at planting, removing any remaining weeds. Planting through plastic or a weed-suppressing menu will not only make maintenance easier, it will, warm the soil, giving earlier crops and will also keep the fruit off the soil...just make sure puddles don't form on plastic sheeting, encouraging mould.
To replace plants, select 3 or 4 runners per healthy plant in late spring/early summer and use an upside-down 'U' of wire to hold to plantlets onto the surface of a 9cm pot buried in the soil. Remove any stem beyond the plantlet. The plantlet will have rooted in a month or two - at this point, sever the connection with the parent plant and plant on.
Supermarkets used to only stock thick-skinned, tasteless and often unripe tomatoes, selected for transporatability and shelf-life. Things are improving but for truly delicious tomatoes with that real tomato smell, nothing beats growing your own. However, growing tomatoes isn't for everyone. They originate in South America and so expect warmth and moisture. This means either a warm, sheltered spot outside on moisture-retentive soil and a watchful eye on watering or a greenhouse with the added watering demands that creates. And then there's the terminology. There are two growth habits - vine which is also called cordon or indeterminate; and bush or determinate. Vine tomatoes are normally grown in the greenhouse (but can be grown outside) and require support for the main stem, and pinching out side-shoots and the growing tip. Bush varieties are best suited to outdoors, requiring none of the pinching out and ripening earlier - but fruit can be harder to locate amongst the thicker foliage.
If you're not sure whether you like turnips, try an early variety, which are picked when golf ball-sized to be eaten raw (e.g. grated in a salad) or snooker ball-sized for cooking (e.g roasting) - they have a subtly sweet flavour. If you already know you like them, the good news is that you can be eating some part of a turnip for most of the year. The larger and hardier maincrop varieties are suitable for use over the winter and the leaves ('turnip tops') are a delicious spring green.