How do I decide what vegetables to grow?
Start by asking questions which will help you to draw up a short-list of what is most worth growing for you. For example, is your main objective to save money? If so, avoid cheap vegetables such as main-crop potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbage, and concentrate on highly productive vegetables such as purple sprouting broccoli and Swiss chard. Then ask yourself what is available locally. If the choice is limited, grow unusual vegetables such as sugar peas, calabrese (green broccoli), green peppers, and celeriac. Do you particularly want fresh, well-flavoured produce? If so grow salad crops, spinach, early carrots, new potatoes, sweet corn, unusual varieties of tomato—all of which lose quality when shop-bought.
You must also take your location and soil into account. It is very difficult to grow sweetcorn and outdoor varieties of tomatoes, peppers, and aubergines in the north and in other cold areas. Very heavy soils are best suited to hungry crops, such as brassicas, while lighter soils are preferable for carrots and other root crops.
Other points for consideration are whether you will store your produce in a freezer, and—of course—the particular preferences in vegetables of the various members of your family.
What vegetables can I grow in my flower beds without them looking out of place?
Provided the soil is fertile enough (vegetables generally need richer soil than flowers), there is plenty of choice. Use herbs such as chives, parsley, thyme, marjoram, and winter savory for edgings, especially variegated and coloured forms such as silver thyme and gold marjoram. The frilly salad-bowl lettuces and red lettuces, beetroot, and the red-leaved and red-stemmed ruby chard are all decorative. Carrot seed can be mixed with annual flower seed and broadcast together to make a pretty patch. For dramatic effects grow single plants of the handsome grey-leaved cardoon or the closely related globe artichoke; for pretty blue flowers, try borage; for feathery softness, grow fennel and asparagus. Runner beans, which were originally introduced for their ornamental qualities, can be trained up a tripod of canes at the back of a border.
What can I grow in a very dry corner of my vegetable garden?
Not many vegetables really like dry conditions, so work in plenty of compost in order to make the soil gradually become richer and more moisture-retentive. New Zealand spinach and pickling onions will grow in dry places; but, provided the site is sunny, it is probably best suited to herbs such as marjoram, thyme, sage, and winter savory.
What can be grown to fill the ‘hungry gap’ between February and May?
The ‘hungry gap’ is actually something of a misnomer: there are plenty of vegetables which can be harvested at that time—for example, Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac, parsnips, Hamburg parsley, purple sprouting broccoli, late brussels sprouts, savoy cabbages, curly kale, overwintered spinach, chard, leeks, and giant winter radishes. In the south-west of England winter cauliflowers are ready between December and February; elsewhere late-winter and early-spring types can be grown that mature in March, April and May.
There is also a wide choice of salads, which will be of better quality if protected in some way: winter and spring lettuce, Italian and sugar-loaf chicories, endives, corn salad, land cress, Mediterranean rocket, sorrel, winter purslane (Claytonia), mustard, rape, and cress.
Can you suggest some intercropping schemes so that I can get more from my small garden?
Try fast-growing crops such as radish, cress, spring onions, or small lettuces (such as Tom Thumb’ or ‘Little Gem’) in the same row as slow-growing roots such as parsnips, Hamburg parsley, salsify, or scorzonera. ‘Station-sow’ the roots about 125 mm (5 in) apart, at the same time sowing (or planting, if appropriate) the faster crops between the ‘stations’. The radishes, lettuces, and so on will be used long before their space is required by the growing parsnips. When widely spaced brassicas such as brussels sprouts or purple sprouting broccoli are planted out, you can sow radishes, cress, or spring onions or plant lettuces, corn salad, or land cress between them. Almost anything, including dwarf beans and trailing marrows, can be grown beneath the tall plants of sweet corn.