Grow-your-own Londoners want quick returns, not vegetables that take up valuable soil space for months on end. Speed up the traditional cultivation time from seed to plate and the result is more tender, tastier edibles that mature quickly, allowing you to sow a wide range of produce in quick succession from baby beets and salad leaves to early potatoes and peppery petals.
You’ll miss out on volume — but who wants to wait for a mountain of carrots? “What you will get in return,” promise Mark Diacono and Lia Leendertz, authors of The Speedy Vegetable Garden, “is layers of flavour: a sprinkle of hot micro-green radish here, a sweet, nutty, barely cooked new potato there, a garnish of cucumbery borage flowers. These are the crops that will mark out your cooking as distinctly and unquestionably homegrown.”
Soak it and see
Truly impatient gardeners — and those with just a windowsill — will love the turnaround time of healthy soaked seeds and sprouts: a matter of days, even hours. Pumpkin seeds are more buttery, less brittle if you soak them after an hour or two. Instead of boiling chickpeas until they’re soft, sprout them, using a sprouting bag or tray, so hummus tastes fresher.
Micro greens, favoured by Raymond Blanc, take longer — up to 10 days to reach baby leaf stage, but Diacono calls them flavour bombshells because they add a burst of intense flavour to whatever they are sprinkled on.
Just sow the seed — coriander, radish, fennel, Oriental leaves — in seed trays or short lengths of guttering, then harvest them when the leaves are still tiny by pulling them, roots and all. This way you get all of the taste and none of the trauma: rotting basil, flea beetles drilling into rocket and, for coriander, the inevitable bolting — when a plant puts all its energy into making seeds.
Instead of sowing hearted lettuces that take weeks to mature, sow cut-and-come-again leaves through the season to enjoy the zingiest pick’n’mix salads within a few weeks. Include spicy giant red mustard, baby spinach, sorrel and oak-leaf lettuce. Instead of waiting for kale and chard to reach their huge and handsome size, snip the leaves while they’re young and they’ll be tender enough to use raw in salads.
Grow the varieties of vegetable suited to speedy gardening: small, sweet cherry tomatoes are more suited to our climate than big beefsteaks, which need a long, hot summer to ripen fully. They’re also more likely to ripen before blight has a chance to ruin the fruit.
For fast results and optimum flavour, grow early new potatoes in containers; what you lose in bulk, you gain in taste. Early potatoes are ready in 13 weeks while main crops take up to 20 weeks, and the faster you grow them, the less likely they are to suffer from pests and diseases, especially if they’re in pots rather than the ground.
Beat the bugs
Better, tastier veg is often just a matter of harvesting earlier, so you catch the fresh sweetness and avoid the watery, woody elements that creep in over time, say Diacono and Leendertz.
Sow carrots a little closer and pull them earlier, so they’re finger-length; they’ll taste sweeter than those left to grow larger. Radishes will be crisper and crunchier, with no sign of woodiness if they’re picked small, within a month of sowing. You can then use the young leaves, as Diacono does, in salads and stir-fries.
Courgettes are at their most tender and mild when picked young, just four or five inches long. Harvesting them regularly encourages new fruit to follow and gives you more flowers for stuffing and deep-frying in batter.
At golf-ball size, beetroots are sweeter-tasting and won’t need hours of cooking. The tiniest can be eaten in salads, leaves and all. Diacono also uses the leaves to make a fine pasta sauce. Speedy gardening wastes nothing.