I have just seen a vegetable plot after my own heart. It had not been double-dug and dressed with droppings of chickens reared within sight of open country. It was not ridged and furrowed with immaculate replicas of old-style glass cloches waiting for the early beans. It was a cluster of pots, out of reach of voracious rabbits and too heavy even for an unwanted hare to overturn.
Why bother with soil at ground level when most of it is a struggle for gardeners and is on the nocturnal roadway of moles, badgers and tiresome stoats? Abandon Mother Nature, and grow your vegetables where you can control them and pick them without breaking your back.
It is odd how we still observe artificial boundaries. Pots are for useless petunias and vegetables are for intensive work in bits of open ground. I was even deceived by pots of carrots in the corner of a polythene tunnel, planned by a great commercial grower of bedding plants. I thought that he had discovered a new type of foliage plant with finely cut leaves. Beside them were pots of glistening, electric green that nearly deceived me too. They were his wife’s stock of fresh spinach for her excellent spinach soufflé. There was no need to wash all the produce after harvesting it. There was not even the need to pick it in torrential rain.
Last weekend I thought wryly of these horticultural rule-breakers. They were picking early spinach in the shelter of their tunnel, while snow was making the task of picking my outdoor purple-sprouting almost too testing to contemplate. As for vibrant spinach, it will be three months until I see it and then only if there is not the usual summer drought.
I do not live on vegetable-friendly soil, and in the past month I have been joined on it by two uninvited little barking deer. When we first met, they regarded me with the kind of look – half-apologetic, half-insolent – that used to be monopolised by my university pupils in weeks when they arrived without any work. Though the students never scuttled off into the bushes and returned at nightfall to eat all my young day-lilies down to ground level. Going vertical makes sense. It almost guarantees success.
I started vegetable gardening in pots last year and it certainly worked. All I wanted was a carrot whose chemical intake I had controlled myself. I sowed a first crop near the end of that dreadfully dry spring and even then had excessive germination.
Overcrowding is the classic mistake in a contained space. I sowed the early Carrot Adelaide, if anything too late, but I certainly did not wait for her to develop the “filled-out” cylindrical roots that have won her a place in the RHS’s recommended vegetables of garden merit.
Instead, I remembered my visit to the vegetable garden of that unsurpassed French chef, Raymond Blanc. His gardeners are never allowed to wait until award-winning varieties have reached award-winning proportions. In a top French kitchen, size matters in reverse. I pulled Adelaide one evening when she had hardly developed and had her on the dinner table within two hours. The overcrowding actually helped, as I only wanted short, young roots. I bought one large pot from the local garage for £5, which had sufficient room for enough juvenile carrots for a week. I then sowed again from the same packet, which still had hundreds of seeds in it. I stayed loyal to Adelaide as I had worked out that she is very quick to get going. Two more sowings gave me two more weeks of superb pubescent carrots, which came willingly out of their John Innes compost without any need to hack around them with a spade.
The summer had become cold and wet but vegetables in shelter simply do not mind. If it is really cold when you sow them, stretch a bit of fibre-fleece over the pot and tie it round the neck with string.
I am now going in for pots of proper spinach as we cannot find the real thing under “spinach” in supermarkets. They are selling tasteless spinach-beet from France, which is a browse fit only for a pet rabbit. I am not going near the RHS-decorated Spinach Tetona, which looks as if it is a concealed beet too. It has tell-tale rounded leaves and it crops for a long season.
The spinach called Scenic is a more promising option, not least because it is resistant to mildew. Avoid any variety called Perpetual (they are all tasteless beet). Instead, I grew Bloomsdale in pots last year with great success, even from spring sowings made during this same April weekend. True spinach is twice as good if grown in rich, well-watered soil. In a modern summer it has hated life in my poor, dry ground, miles from a banned tap. In pots of good compost, up by the house, it can have regular bowls of household water and be kept happy. There is a feeble campaign to breed the “bitterness” out of modern spinach and even market it as “sweet”. What ever would old Popeye think of us? We are accustoming babies to meals without any challenging contrast. The classic salad of bits of well-fried bacon and a vinaigrette dressing needs a spinach with a sharp bite to it.
Bitterness has brought me round to radicchio too. I think that three good plants of it would be immensely happy in one of my sanctuary pots, way above mud splashes and anything that creeps. I have fallen for a pasta recipe in the River Cafe Cookbook Easy, which needs a few shredded leaves of radicchio to give it an edge. Basically, it is an excellent mix of thin strips of Parma ham and thin strips of radicchio, briefly fried in butter and spiced up with rosemary leaves stripped off their stems. It is so good that I have never seen it on offer in restaurants in Italy. The one bother is that you have to buy a whole radicchio without much reason to eat the rest of it. I picture myself pulling off a few leaves as I pass my radicchios in their pot and keep them going for much of the summer. Thompson and Morgan sells a good early form from Treviso for sowing now and, although it is from Italy, it does not bolt.
Last year I mistimed the centrepiece of my potted allotment and sowed the dwarf French beans just as the weather turned cold and wet. They germinated badly, annoyed me and received third-class treatment, only producing a single lunch for two before giving up the struggle. I now mean to be more disciplined because the rewards are so great. Overcrowding is not a problem here. You must keep picking when the beans are still very young and twice as delicious. It is also such a joy to be able to pick without going down on one’s knees. Nomad is the RHS award-holder here and a very long cropper, which never becomes too chunky. I had a good 2005 from Delinel, a French favourite which is properly thin.
Lastly, tomatoes. Here, breeding, eating and marketing are all going the potted-allotment’s way. The new wave are the mass-producing, small-fruiting varieties which have been bred with the hanging basket in mind. Well-watered, they are a splendid sight in full crop and colour at head height, but they are even easier as potted plants in containers. Young plants have been offered by mail from Suttons seeds and I recommend the amazing Hundreds and Thousands variety. It produces hundreds of small, salad-friendly tomatoes from a single well-fed and watered plant. Plants of this one or the sweet Suncherry varieties are star buys from main garden centres in the next few weeks.
Think out of the bed, think in the pot and tear up the rule book. If you want to eat well, the small and quick-growing items are far more reliable away from battles and beasts at ground level.
More articles at www.ft.com/lanefox