It's that rare thing - a properly snowy day in England. They are exciting days to be relished, as years can go by without them. The wildlife is making the most of it as well - two healthy young foxes were. doing what can only be described as frolicking in the next garden, and it was all very Christmas card-like. Leaping, pouncing, rolling in the snow, looking absolutely gorgeous. The birds are less keen. The hens are quail are hunkered down under shelter. 23 starlings mobbed the bird feeders, so I suspect I'll need to venture out and top that up shortly.
I'm warm and snug inside with a stack of seed and plant catalogues and a wish list. It's time to plan this year's vegetable garden.
We've had a lot of reference books over the years but the one I most turn to is the River Cottage Handbook: Veg Patch by Mark Diacono. It's full of practical advice, suggestions about various varieties, soil conditions, sowing and planting charts and all the usual stuff you'd expect. However, what stands it apart is the section on What To Plant.
Diacono suggests first making a list of all the veg you like. Don't worry about whether it will grow or not at this stage, you can whittle the list down later. If a vegetable doesn't appear on your list, don't grow it. Sounds obvious but believe me, it isn't. I grew perpetual spinach for several years before accepting that yes, true spinach bolts and runs to seed but who cares? It's far, far nicer to eat than a chard pretending to be spinach. See also beetroot (for my Mum) and radish (for my Dad).
He also suggests you look at several different reasons to plant something. Is it far better when freshly picked? Asparagus, peas, sweetcorn and sprouts picked minutes ago are all a world away from the supermarket equivalent because the sugars degrade to starch by the hour. Freshly picked tomatoes smell absolutely wonderful. The best strawberries you'll ever taste are picked straight from the plant, still warm from the sun.
Is it expensive to buy but easy to grow? Again, asparagus is the clear example; once the bed is well established it effortlessly produces stalks for years. Herbs grow very well from seed in generous armfuls. The more unusual varieties like Pink Fir Apple spuds are pricey in the shops and a doddle to grow in a sack on the patio.
The reverse is also important from my point of view - is it cheap to buy and either complicated to grow or needs too much space? Don't bother. (Celery, I'm looking at you.) Greedy things, squashes - the plants grow quickly and well but they take many months and a huge patch of the raised bed to produce something I can pick up for a quid at the supermarket with no loss of flavour. Onions are insanely cheap, whereas shallots are far more expensive to buy and grow beautifully in our climate so I choose them instead.
NB - this space issue is for those of us with limited raised bed space or a small veg patch. You allotmenteers can fill your boots, you lucky devils.
How about thinking about food miles - there are loads of commonly imported vegetables that grow perfectly happily in our gardens. Any we grow ourselves is a step to reducing our carbon footprint. With successional planting in troughs I can keep us in mixed salad leaves from late May to September at the very least.
Is it attractive? Runner beans were initially grown for their flowers, not the pods, and come in many shades from white or yellow through orange to the most vivid red. Globe artichokes are stunning plants with huge silver leaves and giant purple thistle flowers (if you leave some buds to develop.) They are always covered in bees and hoverflies. Jerusalem artichokes are really a strain of sunflowers that grow 3m stalks with bright yellow flowers. Borage is not only great for bees and for producing cucumber flavoured flowers for your Pimms, those flowers are prolific and the most heavenly blue. So if you want to enjoy the look of your veg patch as well as its produce, that's worth thinking of.
Diacono also strongly recommends growing something you've never tried before. That's brought me a lot of fun over the years from cute but silly cucamelons, tomatillos for Mexican food, my first taste of quince this year and the ridiculous looking kohlrabi, which makes great coleslaw. He also suggests something you think you dislike. I know that sounds contradictory to Grow What You Enjoy, but it's choosing something deliberately to see if your prejudice holds. That's how I learnt that I love sprouts (see Better When Fresh above).
I would add another consideration - Don't Grow What Is Doomed To Fail. Why do it to yourself? Optimist that I am, I have attempted to grow aubergines on at least 12 occasions. I'm here to tell you that if you live in Yorkshire without a heated greenhouse, my lovely, you are NOT likely to be successful. With red and green peppers you'll get some, with chilli peppers (in a poly tunnel or cold frame) you'll have masses; aubergines? not so much. Ditto rosemary in heavy clay soil, or blueberries planted in lime-rich soil. I also tried chilli peppers from seed unsuccessfully for years until I got a heated propagator. I make that mistake a lot, and it's expensive. Enthusiasm over practicality. I'd save yourself the bother; just look at me as someone who makes mistakes so you don't have to.
With all that in mind, I'ver gone through and created the list for Veg Patch 2021. I hope by placing my orders on the early side I won't get blindsided like last year when a third of the things I wanted were out of stock as new lockdown gardeners emptied the shelves.
This year's wish list include some things I fancy a go at, some things I know we love, some stalwarts we can't do without. I haven’t included shallots, coriander and salad because those are my essentials I won’t forget.
Equally important is my No list. That starts with those I often out of habit but don't justify the space: broccoli and cauliflowers, squashes, more than 2 courgette plants. The other group includes those that are great in theory but fail in practice: last year no one harvested the runner beans or peas beyond a handful picked in passing and eaten raw. Not this year, I'll wait until we actually miss them before adding them back in the rotation. (Side eye to Mark, who asked me to plant the runner beans when I don't like them!)
I also know from experience that some plants are more economical for me to buy as seedlings rather than growning from seed myself. I'm an erratic gardener really, and tend to stop paying attention between the exciting bit (Oooh! a seedling!) and the fun bits (big enough to plant out, then later harvesting). Therefore I tend to have more luck with a sturdy couple of cucumber plants than a packet of 10 seeds. It's not all my fault, the slugs are also a major factor, but it's pretty frustrating so now I acknowledge that and work around it.
By the way, my all time best Buy It, Don't Sow It is sweetpea seedlings from Sarah Raven. They are EXPENSIVE, there's no way around. However, they are extremely study and prolific plants. I get 2-3 bouquets of sweetpeas for at least 12 weeks straight - more if I were a less erratic waterer. It's an annual gift I give myself and it is stupendous value compared to any cut flowers I might buy. The whole house is filled with the scent, it's divine. My friends and neighbours benefit too. She has many gorgeous collections but my favourite are the very simple ones with few flowerheads that produce the most wonderful scent.
My final decision on the wish list is to not buy what I will inevitably get given. Last year I was offered courgette and tomato seedlings from 9 different people. Both those good natured plants propagate like billy-o, bless their lovely selves. Any gardener who grows them inevitably ends up with a glut of seedlings and not enough space. I'm going to bank on being offered some*, and will have some less common seedlings to offer in return.
Next jobs - planning what will go where, which involves looking at last year's planting diagram to make sure I'm rotating my crops and remembering companion planting. Then placing the orders. I love this - all the potential, and dreams of warm summer days in my garden, piucking veg for dinner.
*If this all backfires, don't worry about us going without. I reorganised the freezer and food cupboards this week. Turn out I have 31 tins of tomatoes in there!