Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Choosing seeds and the bewildering array of carrots.

One of winter's pleasures is choosing seeds for the coming year.

The first packets have arrived and need to be stored carefully away in a cool, dry place. I keep my seeds in an airtight plastic box with sachets of silica gel to mop up any moisture. These are stored in a cupboard in the potting shed, where no mice can attack them.

I tend to go back to the same seed merchants which I have found supply good quality seed at a reasonable price. There are many suppliers out there now and if you are not careful you can spend a lot of money, especially if you are seduced by the pictures and descriptions!

Before buying new seed I review my existing seed packets and consider how well the varieties performed. I keep seed from one year to another and, if stored well, this is no problem. Many seed packets contain far more seed than you require in any one year - few amateur growers need 100 plus cabbages! Sow the number you think you would like to eat and keep the rest for the coming years.

Like many people I am tempted to grow a wide variety of different cabbages, salad crops etc. Try to envisage your needs and draw up a list of varieties you want to grow, checking you have the space to do so. Then stick to it! Only buy the seed that you need to fulfil that list. By all means try a new variety, that's what keeps it fun, but consider replacing one variety with another, particularly if a crop didn't perform well for you.

When I first started growing carrots I was bewildered by the choice available; early, stump, main, round, different colours, etc. Many were not worth the effort, let alone the expense of the seed. Small carrots are fiddly to clean, and you need to harvest the whole row for a decent meal! It took a number of years, with many disappointments, before I settled on a couple of varieties which I have found to be reliable and tasty. Now I tend to stick to them and they rarely let me down. What are they?

Remember, I am growing in the far north and the soil doesn't really warm up sufficiently for sowing carrots until May, so early varieties are usually a non starter. For an earlier crop I sow 'Purple Haze' in the polytunnel, usually around the beginning of April. This is a sweet purple carrot with an orange core. We can usually start harvesting in June and by then they are a nice size perfect for salads. They will continue to bulk up, and even in December I can harvest them from the polytunnel. Outdoors I sow 'Autumn King' in May, usually later sowings don't do as well and there isn't much advantage in later sowings. By late summer they are a good sized carrot and they continue to hold well even as the temperatures drop and the ground freezes. They have a good flavour and I do not find that they are troubled by carrot fly to any great extent.

Would I be tempted to try any other variety of carrot? This is one of those vegetables where I would now probably only try another variety if it had been recommended by a local grower. Carrots may seem rather a common and easily bought vegetable to bother with, but the flavour of a home grown carrot surpasses any that you would buy. They are usually easy to grow and produce well from a small area. Also, when did you last see a purple carrot for sale?

A lack of fruit and vegetables

2012 will go down as the worst vegetable and fruit growing year for me, and I suspect many others. I won't put it down to cultivating so far north, even trees in Cornwall failed to produce fruit. I think we can all see the problems in our local shops and, being optimists, we look ahead to the coming growing season determined to succeed whatever the weather.

After any season it is worth reviewing what did well, failures and gluts. Keeping a notebook throughout the season really helps when the time to assess comes.

Failures this year were potatoes (disastrous crop), tomatoes (mostly failed to ripen), french beans (poor fruit set), cabbages (bolted), butternut squash (not much fruit) and soft fruit and tree fruit (no apples, no plums, unripe strawberries).

Gluts were had in broad beans, cauliflower and calabrese, and peas, both mangetout and podding peas.

Lack of warmth and sun and fluctuating seasons (a warm spring followed by a cool summer), account for most of these failures and it is unlikely that any grower could have avoided the problems that such weather brings.

I am a firm believer in 'not putting all your eggs in one basket' and diversity may be more important than ever when growing under challenging weather conditions. Having a wide variety of crops should ensure that there is something tasty to harvest throughout the year, even if some of the crops don't do well.

Presently I am harvesting leeks, carrots, parsnips (small this year but unblemished), kale, salad (though there will be a break in supply now that the hard frosts have started) and stored potatoes (Pink Fir Apple did quite well), onions and shallots.

What I am really looking forward to are the spring cabbages and purple sprouting broccoli in the polytunnel (to keep them safe from the deer and ensure a better crop whatever the winter brings). Having a crop to look forward to is one of the pleasures of vegetable growing and all growers should endeavour to have something to anticipate.