When financial chaos deepens, people traditionally start growing more of their own vegetables. “Kitchen gardening” was a patriotic fashion during the world wars and, in the gloom of 1974, it became a cult. I survived the early Thatcher years thanks to home-grown purple sprouting broccoli, until deregulation sent me lazily back to the supermarkets.
Perhaps we should print an index of vegetable seed sales on the financial pages. Even before HBOS got into trouble there were statistics to show that these seed-sales were on the rise. Urban allotments are said to be increasingly overbooked, one consequence of the crisis that may do us all some good.
Does self-supply really make economic sense? It certainly requires a warrior mentality. Club root tries to attack any carrots whose leaves have not already been attacked by carrot fly, mildew infects crops of spinach and a deadly Mosaic Virus plays merry hell with many types of French bean.
Far more is involved in a good crop than the ever-rising price of a packet of good seeds. Manure and fertiliser are essential, as is water whenever a hosepipe ban looms. I am suspicious of many “organic” growers who claim that the excellence of their cultivation keeps pests at bay. Do caterpillars really avoid ecologically grown cabbages and how does a rabbit on a night trip know that it must leave organic lettuces alone? Anyway, “organic” standards tend to allow the use of chemical pesticides within certain “approved” guidelines. To my taste, the biggest difference is not whether a pea has drawn its nitrogen from animal manure or from a packet of nitrogen in a chemically balanced formula. It is whether the vegetable has been picked fresh from the ground or whether it has been stored in a freezer or a gas-cooled chamber before being put on a supermarket’s “organic” shelf.
My best-grown vegetables go nowhere near ground level. Nature’s soil and setting are simply too hostile. Instead I grow them in big raised pots. Try growing carrots as pot-plants for pulling on demand. The feathery green leaves are rather attractive and the roots are so much better in specially mixed compost.
I am so grateful to the reader who first told me to wind strands of barbed wire round the necks of such pots to keep marauding animal paws at bay. I have no trouble nowadays with hares among my young Little Gem lettuces. Peter Rabbit must be licking his wounds whenever he tries to reach my best salad greens. Everything grows so much better in a controlled container and the sight of a vegetable terrace always amuses visitors. If you long for fresh vegetables in a city, grow them in pots on a roof garden.
In the financial storms of 1974, the apostle of urban vegetable growing was the London journalist Michael Leapman. I even remember envying his picture of himself and his best grown melon, far bigger than mine. He has now upped the pace in time for the next economic earthquake.
His recent book, The Biggest Beetroot In The World, is an intriguing study of vegetable-gardeners for whom size matters. Do not believe for one moment that the apostles of giant marrows all live in Britain and listen devotedly to The Archers series on their radios while they sponge the dust off their spineless courgettes. In the current Guinness World Records, 12 of the 39 records for giant vegetables are held by growers in the US. Leapman has even interviewed a seedbed of competitive growers who aim for enormity in a corner of the least likely state. They are breaking records in Alaska.
Just to the north-east of the city of Anchorage lies the fertile Mat-Su valley. I have spent months in Alaska pining for fresh green vegetables on the brown tundra of the frozen north; I can hardly credit that the southern part of this state has record-breaking vegetables. However settlers in the Mat-Su have discovered the merits of its fertile volcanic soil. There is no spring but the hours of summer daylight run almost round the clock and vegetable plants love the local combination of long daylight and good soil. The state’s cabbages have run up to an amazing weight of 105lbs and the biggest attested cantaloupe melon in the world is an Alaskan that weighed in at nearly 65lbs. I cannot bear to imagine the length of their parsnips.
Timing and cultivation leave little room for error. Those cabbages are all sown a month later than ours because the frost persists so long. Everything then has to be harvested by the end of August, when the giant vegetables are assessed at the great Alaskan State Fair. More than 300,000 visitors attend, nearly half the state’s adult population. Within days the temperatures are heralding the return of frost and snow and the giant marrows and melons have no further prospects outdoors.
I like these reports of record-breaking gardening in a US state where I once ate walrus-meat in burger-buns. How can I despair in British conditions, especially when the economy may well depend on my efforts? I am checking through seeds classified as worthy of the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society awards in recent trials. They are helpfully set out in the current catalogue of Thompson and Morgan of Ipswich, Suffolk, in the east of England, and they guide my informed choices.
I do not want 100lbs of cabbage but I do want the heavy-cropping Dwarf Bean Nomad, which the RHS commends for its resistance to disease. I want proper spinach, not tame supermarket spinach beet. I like the look of the new Soleil courgette, which will be my bet against a hot, dry summer. I like runner beans on tall canes, strapped to make a climbing frame. It is impossible to buy freshly picked runners in superstores but I will rely on the good White Apollo variety, which produces stringless beans and has the white flowers that are less attractive to birds before they set a crop.
These seeds need to be bought in now for sowing in the next month of non-arctic weather. They will not break records but they ought to enliven the downturn. If matters become really dark in summer, there is always the option of migrating to join the record-breakers out in Alaska. The land of midnight sun is the land for growers who really want to punch their weight.
‘The Biggest Beetroot In The World’ by Michael Leapman (Aurum, £14.99). To buy this book at the discounted price of £11.99 (plus post & packaging) through the FT Bookshop call 0870 429 5884 or go to www.ft.com/bookshop
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