Expert advice from 'Gardening Which?' by Rosemary Ward
It's great for children to grow things they can actually eat, and even the most determined vegetable refuseniks may be tempted to taste a tomato or bean they've picked themselves. Grown at home or at school, vegetables can be picked at their freshest and most flavoursome. Once you've got the hang of the basics, you can have fun growing more unusual varieties which are becoming easier to get hold of. For instance, you can experiment by growing produce in unusual colours - yellow, white or black-skinned tomatoes, purple or spotty French beans, even blue potatoes (an ancient Scottish variety). Or go for veg with a local connection such as the Musselburgh leek or the Feltham First pea. Advice from local allotment-holders is worth cultivating.
How to do it
Vegetables need reasonably fertile soil that is easy to dig and breaks down to a crumbly texture. Most veg does better in full sun, but leaf beet, lettuce and radish will be OK in semi-shade. You'll also need water and basic tools (spade, fork, rake, hand trowel). If you don't have a suitable plot, almost all veg can be grown in containers: 25-30cm across and 20-25cm deep is a minimum for most crops. Small plants such as salads can cope with less, but smaller pots may dry out quickly. Here are five crops suitable for beginners - and which don't need harvesting in the holidays.
One stage on from mustard and cress, they're the nearest thing to an instant crop. Buy aduki and mung beans, fenugreek or alfalfa seeds - they are cheaper in food shops than from seedsmen. Wash one or two tablespoons in cold water, soak overnight in warm water, then drain. Put in a clean glass jar, covering the top with a piece of net or old tights, secured with an elastic band. Lay the jar on its side in a bowl, propping up the bottom to allow excess water to drain off. Put in a warm, dark place. Rinse the seeds twice a day by half filling the jar with water then pouring it away. Harvest the seeds after 3 to 5 days. Move fenugreek and alfalfa into the light a day or two before harvesting. Delicious in salads, sandwiches and stir fries.
The fastest veg from seed to full-grown salad ingredient. Mix a few handfuls of compost into the soil to hold moisture. Sow seeds from March to June, 2-3cm apart, and 1cm deep. You can sow winter radishes from July, 5cm apart. Water well in dry weather. Harvest after 3-6 weeks and sow some more.
Leaf beet (Swiss chard)
This has glossy green leaves and white, red, yellow or pink stems, according to variety. Try Rainbow for a mixture. You cook the leaves like spinach and the stems like celery - good for stir-fries or baked in cheese sauce. Sow seeds in a row about 10cm apart in April. Thin seedlings to 30cm. Harvest by pulling off leaves once they are large enough for cooking - anything over 20cm or so. Will crop into winter.
You can sow seeds in the ground from April, but it's more reliable to start them in pots - sprinkle a pinch in an 8-10cm pot of multipurpose compost. Mixed varieties are fun, or try Little Gem for crunchy hearts or Salad Bowl for frilly leaves. When the seedlings come up, move them into individual small pots or a modular tray. Plant seedlings out 25cm apart, once they have four to six leaves. Protect from slugs and keep the ground moist.
Choose healthy-looking potatoes from the supermarket, or buy seed potatoes from the garden centre in early spring. A maincrop variety such as Desiree will be ready to dig in September. Put them on a sunny windowsill to chit (shoot), then plant individually, 15cm deep and 45-60cm apart in April, or May in colder areas, using a bulb planter or trowel. As they grow, cover the soil with grass clippings to keep light off tubers and help protect the potatoes against blight. Or grow spuds in large tubs - the bigger the better. Put about 15cm of multipurpose compost, or soil and compost mixed, in the bottom, add the spud and just cover it. As the spud grows, keep adding compost until the tub is full. Tip out when the foliage dies down.