When it comes to choosing which veg to grow, every gardener has his or her own preferences. There is no such thing as a “standard”. Take me, for instance: I like to try some new seeds or plants every year, just for a change. I enjoy the challenge of raising something different. But there are a few things that I grow practically EVERY year. There are some vegetables that have consistently done well for me, in my garden. Of course they might not perform so well in a different place… But if a novice gardener were to ask me for advice on what to grow, these are the ones I would recommend.
1. Runner Beans
This is a plant that is hard to get wrong. Even if you neglect it very badly, it will still give you a crop of some sort (even if it’s not a great crop). Since you grow it up tall poles or canes it has a small “footprint” – in other words, it uses vertical space, not surface area. If you have limited space (and choose the right variety, such as “Hestia”), it can even be grown in a large pot. I think they key to success with Runner Beans is giving them plenty of moisture. And of course an occasional good soaking that reaches down to their roots is much better than a more frequent sprinkle. Planting the beans in well-prepared soil that contains plenty of moisture-retentive organic matter will also help. Frequent picking of the pods when ready is vital too. If you leave them to mature, the plant will stop producing new pods.
I strongly recommend the variety “Scarlet Empire”, an improved descendant of the old “Scarlet Emperor”. It is a very strong and prolific plant that produces long straight, succulent and tasty beans over a long cropping period (Late July to mid October). Other favourites are “Red Rum” and “Aintree”.
2. Climbing French Bean “Cobra”
I don’t recommend all French Beans, just this one. Over the years I have tried many varieties of climbing bean, and many of them have performed poorly, but once I discovered “Cobra” I have never looked back! This is an exceptional bean. It produces huge long pods (about 8 inches long) that never seem to go tough or stringy, and it usually keeps on going until the first frosts of the Autumn. French Beans are not very cold-tolerant, so they need to be sown quite late in the year, and prefer a very sunny site. French Beans are not as vigorous or as tall-growing as Runners, so I usually train them up 6-foot canes, whereas I give my Runners 8-foot ones.
Beetroot is a favourite of mine, though I am very conservative when it comes to eating it: 9 times out of 10 we eat it plain boiled, served cold as a salad ingredient, simply because we love the strong earthy flavour of it, which can be appreciated best this way. There are lots of different varieties you can grow, for instance the yellow types (such as “Burpee’s Golden”), or the white one with pink rings in it (such as “Chioggia”), but I prefer the “old-fashioned” red ones. Actually there are loads of new, improved varieties being developed all the time, but I think it is hard to beat “Boltardy”. As its name suggests, it is bolt-resistant – in other words it does not run to seed prematurely as many other varieties are prone to do. Bolting is usually associated with inappropriate weather conditions – too hot, too cold, too dry, etc – and also with sowing too early, before the soil has properly warmed up.
We don’t eat huge quantities of Beetroot so I usually sow all mine at once, and pick it at various stages of development starting with the “baby beet” size. Conventionally though, Beetroot is sown in small batches every few weeks. I have found that “Boltardy” remains in good condition very well, and seldom goes woody even when it is very mature. As an added bonus beetroot leaves are also nice to eat, as long as you pick them when they are very small.
4. Salad potatoes
If I had an allotment or a big garden I’m sure I would grow Maincrop potatoes, but I haven’t, so I grow small quantities of “new” potatoes in pots and various other containers. The yield is never huge, but this is outweighed by the fact that home-grown potatoes are just so NICE! It is really satisfying to eat potatoes straight from the soil, harvested minutes before they are cooked. And it’s always exciting to see how many tubers there will be when you up-end a pot. (My granddaughters love helping with this). There are dozens of different varieties to choose from, but I usually go for the ones marketed as “Salad potatoes”, which generally have a firmer texture, and I go for First Early or Second Early ones, which have a shorter growing time and mature earlier than Maincrop types. I often buy a mixed pack with a few tubers of several varieties, just to hedge my bets in case one variety doesn’t do so well. One of my favourites is “Charlotte”, which is very reliable and has pleasant taste and texture. I also used to like “Mimi”, which produced very small pink-skinned tubers, but I haven’t been able to buy any for a couple of years.
Lettuce, in many variants, is a more-or-less constant feature of my plot. We use a lot of it, though usually only in small quantities each time. I like to use lettuce on the “cut-and-come-again” principle, which means you pick individual leaves rather than cutting the whole plant. It is really convenient to be able to pick just a few leaves whenever you want some, rather than having to plan ahead and buy a whole one, much of which may be wasted. Good varieties for this are the Green Salad Bowl and Red Salad Bowl. Somehow lettuce seems more appealing if you have more than one colour! Lettuce is quite quick growing when the weather is right, so it is definitely one which responds well to successional sowing in small batches. You don’t want a glut of lettuce because there is no viable way of preserving it for later use.
Another good way to grow lettuce is as “Baby Leaves”, which are sown thickly and harvested before they get big – usually by cutting the leaves off with scissors. If you cut wisely, you can often get two or three crops from the same plants. I like to make my own Baby Leaf Salad mixes, using up the leftover odds and ends from several packets.
My garden would just not be complete without tomatoes. They can be fiddly to grow if you want to do it “properly”, but even with little attention except watering you can get a pretty decent crop. Watering is definitely key, and it’s not worth growing tomatoes if you won’t be able to guarantee giving them enough water. I usually grow several different varieties of tomato, simply because I can’t decide which ones I like best, but actually this is probably the best strategy to use in any case, since if one variety doesn’t do so well another often will. To be honest, there is a lot of luck involved too. If you are lucky enough to escape the crippling disease Blight you will probably get a good crop (like I did this year, my best year ever for tomatoes), but if Blight does strike, there is not much you can do. Fortunately, one of my favourite tomato varieties is “Ferline”, which has a lot more blight-resistance than most, but it is still definitely not immune. It produces very large bright red fruits with excellent flavour and texture. I grow “Ferline” as a cordon, in other words I train it upright against a cane and pinch out the side-shoots. On the other hand, I am also very fond of “Maskotka”, which is a low-growing straggly bush variety which has red fruits about the size of a small apricot. This is a firm favourite with the grand-children, who love being able to pick and eat the fruits straight from the plant.
I haven’t included Purple Sprouting Broccoli in my list, even though it is definitely one of my favourites, because it takes up a lot of space and needs a long growing period, so it’s probably not a good one for a novice. In all honesty, my list of favourite or recommended vegetables could go on a lot longer, but I think I ought to end by saying this: grow the vegetables that you and/or your family like to eat. There is no point in spending time, effort and money on something that no-one likes, even if it looks impressive!