There’s nothing like empty supermarket shelves for making you feel like growing your own vegetables, so if you’ve suddenly decided it’s a good idea here’s a shortlist of some of the most useful and easiest vegetables to grow, along with a few quick tips on how to do it.
The chances are that many of the initial fresh food shortages will resolve themselves soon, but where fresh veg is concerned it’s possible that prices will rise and some things might not be available during the current crisis so it’s worth trying to grow a few things. You’re not going to become self-sufficient over night, but let’s face it, if you’re stuck at home for the foreseeable you might as well give it a go. So, here is a stripped-back roundup of suggestions for a basic veg patch that will help to supplement your supermarket food with fresh and healthy home-grown crops.
For sowing and initial growing information, the best advice is normally on the seed packet so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on that here. I’m also not going to suggest specific varieties to grow because garden centres are closed and online stores currently inundated with orders so you might just have to go with whatever you can get. If you’re really struggling, see if you can scrounge some seeds from gardening neighbours – don’t be afraid to ask, everyone wants to help each other at the moment.
Equipment – you don’t need much but you will need some. I keep plastic punnets from the supermarket from any fruit and veg I buy and they make perfect little seed trays. Yoghurt pots, pots with dips like hummus and margarine tubs are also ideal to sow seeds into. Make sure you put holes in the bottom for drainage if they haven’t got any! If you haven’t got a greenhouse you can put the seed trays on a light windowsill, but don’t let the compost dry out or small seedlings boil in the sun.
You will also need compost which you might be able to buy at the supermarket or from online sellers. Most vegetables will grow best in the ground in well-prepared soil in an open sunny position, but all the things I’m suggesting here can also be grown in large pots or grow bags if you lack space in the garden.
Feeding your vegetables is going to be essential, especially if you’re growing in containers or grow bags. Chempak Yearlong or other controlled release fertiliser pellets are a really good idea for containers as you just add them to the compost and you don’t need to remember to feed the plants again. If you can’t get them, liquid tomato fertiliser is good for any plant that forms fruit (tomatoes, courgettes, beans etc), and growmore granules work well for leafy vegetables or roots.
See the end of this post for companies who are still able to supply vegetable seeds, plants, fertiliser and possibly compost at the time of writing (29th March).
Left to right: Grow tomatoes on in small pots until ready to plant in final positions. Cordon trained tomatoes need to be tied in and have side shoots removed. Some bush tomatoes can be grown in hanging baskets.
Most people like to grow tomatoes and I’ve put them first because if you grow these from seed you really need to start right away. If you haven’t any seed or can’t start now, you might be able to buy plants from online stores or possibly from supermarkets, so it’s worth checking. Cherry tomatoes will ripen and be ready to eat first, usually from July, plus they don’t normally need any pinching out or tying-in so make sure you sow one variety of these. Larger-fruited varieties (plum, salad or beefsteak tomatoes) don’t ripen until August and often need pinching and tying to a cane to support them so are a bit more work but they’re better for cooking with, so it is worth growing one of these as well.
How to Grow – Start seeds somewhere warm (above 20oC) following packet instructions. When seedlings have been up for about a 10-14 days, transplant them to individual small pots (around 9cm) and grow on somewhere cooler (but not cold and completely free from any risk of frost). When roots fill that pot, pot up into a bigger pot – a 10-15L pot should do. Some varieties can be grown in a large hanging basket or you can put three plants into a grow bag. You can also plant tomatoes in the ground. When you grow in a pot or grow bag, add controlled release fertiliser to the compost if possible, following packet instructions. Don’t put any tomato plants outside until the weather has warmed up and there is no more risk of frosty nights (usually sometime in May).
Things to know – Tomatoes need regular feeding and watering. If you don’t have controlled release fertiliser pellets then you need to use liquid tomato feed regularly. Follow packet instructions. Tomatoes can be cordon varieties (a lot of the larger-fruited plants) or bush varieties (most cherry tomatoes). Bush varieties can be allowed to grow naturally, cordon varieties need to be trained. Tie the main stem to a cane and look for side shoots – little shoots that grow between the stem and leaf. Pinch these off. Preventing cordon varieties from becoming bushy will encourage the fruit to ripen faster.
Left to right – A head-forming lettuce in the ground, a leaf lettuce in the ground and some leaf lettuces in a bowl.
Aim for cut and come again, or leaf lettuces as they’ll give you more of a crop over a longer time than a lettuce that forms a head such as Little Gem or Iceberg. However, if you only have seeds of a head-forming lettuce, they’re still good and you can pick off the outer leaves and leave the middle unpicked to keep them growing for longer. They’re quite hardy, too, so can go outside in April.
How to grow – Start seeds now. Follow pack instructions. When seedlings are large enough, transplant around 5 of them into a 30-40cm wide pot and let them grow to full size there. Alternatively, transplant individual plants to small pots or modules. If you do that, let them grow on until the roots fill the pot or module and then replant into large pots, troughs, a grow bag or the ground later.
Things to know – lettuces tend to bolt (flower) if they get too hot or too dry. They are best grown somewhere slightly shady, especially during the hottest part of the day, and you should water them regularly. Don’t let the soil or compost dry out.
Chard – very easy to grow and reasonably fast growing, as well as colourful. Chard is hardy and once mature you can be picking leaves well into winter. The leaves can be killed off by hard frosts but the plants recover and grow new ones whenever the weather turns mild. Chard tastes similar to spinach but doesn’t boil down as much and has a slightly grittier texture.
How to grow – start seeds now. Follow pack instructions. Grow on as with lettuces but give them more room as they grow into larger plants (about 30cm wide). You can grow these in individual pots, grow bags or the ground. They will grow well in large pots but if you have space in the ground that might be better. Pick individual leaves, with stalks, as and when you need them, leaving the plant to keep growing.
Things to know – there are very few problems with chard but as with all leafy veg, water them regularly if you’re growing them in a pot and occasionally if the weather is very hot and dry if growing them in the ground.
You find these peppery leaves with their scalloped edges in a lot of bagged salads. It’s a very easy leaf to grow and comes up quickly, so you can be eating it around a month to six weeks after sowing.
How to grow – Follow the seed packet instructions for sowing. You can sow these directly in the ground outside or into containers inside, where they’ll germinate faster. If you start them inside, when the seedlings have been up for a couple of weeks, either transplant them into a large pot (you can squeeze around 10 plants into a 30cm wide container) or transplant individual seedlings into modules to grow on a bit bigger and then plant them out individually in the ground.
Things to know – Flea beetles can be a problem, eating small holes in the leaves. If growing rocket outside it’s a good idea to place a fine insect proof mesh or some fleece over them to stop this happening. If you haven’t got any, the leaves will still be edible but they’ll look a bit less appetising.
Delicious and nutritious, as well as expensive to buy in bagged salads, these are a doddle to grow, and have all the lovely flavour of peas. They come up quickly, should be at cutting stage in a month or so and can be cut several times if you leave them to re-grow in between. I’ve always sown peas sold as vegetable seeds but I was told recently that you can also use dried peas from the supermarket.
How to grow – start seeds now, inside if you can as they’ll germinate faster, although they are hardy and can be sown outside as well, directly in the ground if you’ve got space. Sow the seeds close together (around 2-3 cm apart) as they’re going to be picked while still small. Sow more seeds at intervals of around a month to keep yourself in shoots.
Things to know – Mice love peas and given half a chance will eat them before they germinate, so if you have a problem with mice in your garden it would be best to start these of inside. If growing in a greenhouse then cover the seeds after you’ve sown them with something the mice can’t squeeze in through.
Carrots and Beetroot
The easiest, fastest and arguably the most useful roots you can grow. You could be eating baby carrots and beetroot in around two to three months and mature roots in around four months. You can also eat the leaves of beetroot as they’re very similar to chard.
How to grow – follow the seed packet instructions. Sowing in the ground will be the easiest way but you do need somewhere open and sunny, they won’t grow well in among your flowering plants. Sow thickly for ‘baby’ sized root veg, more sparsely for larger roots. If you haven’t got space in the ground you can grow them in pots or a grow bag. Sow seeds at intervals of three or four weeks to keep the crops coming through the summer. If they come up well in the ground you can start pulling out baby sized roots and leave other plants to grow bigger for mature roots later.
Things to know – Beetroot are generally trouble-free but carrots can suffer from carrot root fly which tunnels into the root. Cover your crops if possible with an insect proof net or fleece, or put up a 60cm tall barrier of polythene around the plants to stop the low-flying insect finding your plants.
Courgettes are tender vegetable plants that can’t be put outside until the weather has warmed up and there’s not more risk of frosty nights. They’re worth growing because they are happy in containers and if well looked after they’ll reward you with a continual crop of courgettes for several months. It’s a nutritious and versatile vegetable that can be used in pasta sauces, omelettes/frittata, ratatouille and many other dishes.
How to grow – These large seeds need to be started off now in individual pots somewhere warm. Sow them quite deeply, following packet instructions. I normally sow them on side-ways rather than flat – not sure if it really helps but that’s often advised. Let them grow on in the pot until the roots fill the pot, then plant them into the ground, giving them plenty of space, or large pots with a width of at least 30cm.
Things to know – Courgettes often suffer from mildew but it’s more likely to be a problem if you let the compost or soil get too dry. In a pot they’ll need to be well fed and they’ll need to be watered regularly. In the ground, water them thoroughly every few days when the weather is hot and dry.
Brassicas (cabbage family)
These are more long-haul vegetables for the most part, but some types are worth growing because they can be picked as baby-sized crops or, if you grow them to mature size, they will provide you with leaves over a long period.
Left: Kale and collard greens. Right: Kale
Kale can be grown as a cut-and-come-again baby leaf or allowed to grow into larger plants which you can be picking from summer through to winter. If you find that bitter cabbage flavour a bit too strong then baby leaves might be better as the flavour is milder. There are different types. Cavolo Nero is a black kale that’s very popular in restaurants, or you can get curly leaved varieties in red or green.
How to grow – if growing as baby leaf you can sow the seeds directly in the ground quite thickly – follow the packet instructions. You can also sow them inside in the same way you sow lettuce etc, then move the seedlings in groups into a larger pot to grow as baby leaf or into individual pots or modules to grow larger plants. When the roots fill the individual pots, these should then be transplanted individually into the ground outside, into a grow bag (three to a bag) or one to a large, 30cm pot.
Things to know – like all plants in the cabbage family, kale can suffer from several pests – cabbage white caterpillars, whitefly and pigeons. Covering the plants with netting really helps prevent all of those pests if you can do that.
Collard greens aren’t very widely grown here but are very popular in the USA. Like kale they grow into large plants with leaves that can be picked repeatedly over a long period, although they’re a lot larger than kale leaves. I think of these as a halfway house between kale and cabbages because they are picked like kale but have a milder flavour and softer texture like some cabbages.
How to grow – the instructions are basically the same as for kale, but you should grow these as individual, full size plants so you can be picking leaves long term.
Things to know – the potential problems and solutions are much the same as for kale.
You might not fancy growing cabbage and I dithered about putting them in because they take a while to develop, but all these green leafy veg are full of good vitamins and if you can get hold of pointed green cabbage or red cabbage seeds, the flavour is much sweeter than you might expect. Cabbages are hardy enough to be sown in March and can form large heads by early to mid-summer if you grow spring varieties and start now. Savoy cabbage, which has dark green crinkled leaves, is a bit slower to mature but also full of flavour. The secret to cooking them is to stir fry or steam cabbages rather than boil them.
How to grow – the technique is very much the same as for kale, but with these you will definitely want mature plants. They need quite a bit of space in the ground for each plant so check the seed pack instructions about spacing, and if you plant in a pot it should be at least 30cm wide and deep.
Things to know – again, problems and solutions are very similar to kale, but cabbages need a bit more watering during dry spells, or very regular watering if growing in a pot, and more feeding. Use growmore if growing in the ground or
Dwarf french beans and Runner beans
Runner beans need sturdy supports as they can grow up to 2m tall and pods should be picked when not much bigger than the ones shown here.
Dwarf french beans are best if you’re short of space, but runner beans are also quite easy and generally crop heavily. Neither are hardy enough to sow in March, but you can sow them inside from April to plant out from after the last frost date for your area in May, or directly in the ground and in pots outside once the risk of frost has passed. They grow quickly and can be cropping in June or July if started off indoors at the start of April.
How to grow – Dwarf French beans crop on small plants (30 x 45cm) which you can sow directly into the ground, or in pots or grow bags. Runner beans need support to climb up as they can grow to around 2m tall, so you’d need a pot of around 45cm diameter to get in the support (a stick or bamboo wigwam is fine) and three plants. If you grow them in the ground you can either start the seeds off inside first, or if that’s not possible, sow them directly into the ground in May. Put the supports in place first.
Things to know – slugs are very fond of bean plants, so you might want to use some ferric phosphate slug pellets around the seeds before they come up if sowing in the ground, or around the plants when you plant them if you’ve started them off inside. Once they get bigger slugs aren’t usually such a problem. You need to pick them regularly as they can become tough when they get bigger and they will stop flowering if the seeds inside the pods are allowed to develop.
Some companies that are still selling vegetable plants and seeds at the time of writing: Mr Forthergills, D T Brown, Suttons seeds, Marshalls Seeds, Thompson & Morgan. It’s worth checking smaller companies’ websites but many have been overwhelmed and have had to stop dealing with orders.
Categories: Grow veg