Mr VegHead says...

Vegetable musings from Sea Spring Seeds

Choosing vegetables for your garden

So, you’re planning your first vegetable garden but don’t know what to put in it? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone: most gardeners have been there and done that when they were just starting out.

A look at the facts will explain the work you face when choosing what to grow. There are, for example, possibly a hundred types of vegetables that can be grown in Britain, with an A to Z running from amaranthus to wax gourd. In turn, these hundred types are spread across tens of thousands of varieties available to growers and gardeners – for tomatoes alone, there are about 3,000 varieties registered in the EU.

With so much available, choosing the vegetables for your garden can be a daunting task. But to move things along, here are some guidelines to help you decide what to grow:

What you like to eat. A no-brainer, really – why grow what you don’t like?  And don’t forget to consult the kids. Growing what they like to eat is the best way of engaging them in gardening – and cooking, for that matter.

•Good yields. Anything you grow in the garden doesn’t have to be the best yielder, but at least it should be a good yielder. Otherwise, what is the point of all the work if you have little to show for it? To keep up with the best varieties, put some time into reading current gardening  magazines.  I recommend subscribing to Which? Gardening and joining the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) – you get an automatic subscription to The Garden when you do. Both organisations conduct vegetable trials, which they report in their respective magazines. Likwise, the RHS often put their trial results on-line under the name ‘Award of Garden Merit’.

New experiences.  Vegetable gardening should be about pushing the envelope and growing something new and unusual. For example, try Mexican tomatillos, vegetable-type chillies and Oriental greens like mizuna and pak choi. Then learn to cook them. Your outlook will be transformed.

Expensive to buy. Unless you are completely self-sufficient in your own-grown produce, you will be buying at least some vegetables from the shops. To save a bit of money, grow high value vegetables and buy the cheap ones. For example, root crops and crops harvested during the winter (cabbages and leeks immediately come to mind) are relatively inexpensive to buy. In contrast, summer crops such as cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes cost more.

Quick maturing. I definitely avoid anything that takes as long to develop as a human embryo. This pretty much eliminates purple sprouting broccoli ­– they oftentimes take nine months from sowing to harvesting. For quick returns, I sow leafy crops such as lettuces and Oriental greens and harvest them young – they need weeks rather than months (see Easy Peasy Gardening).

•Tastes better from the garden than from the shop.  One of the arguments for growing your own is that own-grown vegetables taste better than shop-bought ones. All things being equal, this is probably true for summer vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet corn. However, taste differences between shop-bought and own-grown is probably less with fresh winter vegetables like savoy cabbages and leeks, and is negligible when it comes to produce that is stored for the winter, such as onions and potatoes.

Matches the garden environment. All vegetables won’t grow in all gardens, so choose the types that suit yours. To illustrate this point, consider a few examples:

Long-rooted carrots and parsnips may not be the best choice in gardens with heavy clay soils unless a lot of organic matter is added.

Peppers and aubergines need plenty of heat, so grow them only if you have a tunnel, greenhouse or sheltered spot outdoors.

If your garden is shady, grow leafy crops like lettuces and chard rather than sun-lovers such as beetroot, tomatoes and carrots.

Fits the space. If you have a small plot or want to grow in containers, choose small-structured vegetables that are easy to handle and take up less space. Keep away from long-vined squashes and pumpkins that stretch along the ground , and avoid tall growing vegetables such as sweet corn, climbing French beans and runner beans.