There is something quite special about popping out into the garden and picking fresh, home-grown vegetables when the lady of the house calls for them.
It could be, as a friend suggested, the primeval hunter-gatherer instinct kicking in, but I prefer to see it as pride in a job well done despite the hurdles nature has placed in our path.
Christmas dinner would not be the same without Brussels sprouts, and they, of all the winter greens we grow, can be the trickiest to get spot-on for the big occasion. Sow or plant them too late in the season and they don’t quite manage to reach the maturity you desire. It begins with sowing in early April, many months before the event, when the last thing on your mind is Yuletide and cold winter days just left behind.
The seed can be sown into a short drill on a nursery bed out in the open garden with a cloche or poly-tunnel over, but I prefer to start them in a module tray with a single seed per cell. In mild warmth they’ll germinate within two weeks.
They will then need thinning out a further two weeks after germination, offering them space to develop. By the end of May they should have reached 15cm high and can be planted out at 45cm apart. Seeds sown into cell trays should by this time have been transferred to pots and will also be ready for the garden.
Make sure the land chosen has a good organic content to encourage growth and tread it over to make firm before planting. Plants introduced to loose soil will produce open sprouts. With this in mind, use the heel and toe to bed each plant in and check the firmness by tugging at a leaf. If a piece tears away in your hand, that is good, and the plant will soon produce replacements.
Next in line is the inevitable pest invasion that comes with summer. Butterflies and moths craftily lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves, and after turning into larvae munch away out of sight. If you follow an organic growth code as we do, the obvious defence is mechanical control. Fine-mesh netting with no obvious inroads after fitting should be enough, but in reality I end up rubbing out egg clusters and hand-picking caterpillars.
There is a sigh of relief as the days become shorter and cooler, bringing cabbage white butterfly activity to an end. This is when the first frost appears and early sprout varieties are on the menu – that’s also when the wood pigeons start to take an interest. It takes more than netting, CDs dangling from a pole or the sight, movement and sound of tinfoil to deter them.
This diary of a sprout grower is not meant to dissuade, merely point out the problems associated with achieving the long stem bristling with tight, round buttons that is found on market stalls at present.
The picking season stretches from September to March, depending on the variety chosen, and as we want them in the November to February period, Bedford Fillbasket is spot on. The large, firm sprouts are borne on tall plants which need cane supports on exposed sites.
A packet of 200 seeds costs £1.89 (Suttons), but you can make life easier by waiting until trays of sturdy young plants are available at the garden centre in May!
Parsnips to go in the roasting tray alongside potatoes – yes please!
This vegetable is not too difficult to grow. Some written instructions will advise that you sow them into an outdoor drill in February, but the soil is far too cold at that time of year, no wonder local gardeners complain about having to sow a second batch. Delay until early April, sow them thinly, and there are few pests to worry about. True, the carrot fly sometimes goes for parsnip as well, but not often in my garden.
When autumn arrives and the top growth collapses to soil level, simply remove it and leave the roots until you need them for the kitchen.
If frost is forecast for Christmas Eve, dig what you need before it arrives.
It would not be the first time a pick has been used to extract them from frozen land.
Gladiator was the first F1 hybrid parsnip to be introduced about three decades ago and it remains popular. It has clear white roots and some resistance to canker disease. At £2.55 for 350 seeds (Suttons), it is good value.