AT this time of year, no-nonsense TV gardener Christine Walkden’s dining room table looks like a potting shed paradise, disappearing under a sea of seed trays, plant pots and other bits and pieces to encourage young plants into growth. Some of the space will be taken up with the summer veg she’ll be growing this year including tomatoes, runner beans and sweetcorn, her three favourites.
“Runner beans are easy if you don’t start them off too early,” says Walkden, author of No-nonsense Vegetable Gardening. “People tend to sow them too early and then they get hit by the frost and the cold weather. I always sow mine, at the earliest, in April under protection. Outside, they can still go in in May or June and you’ll have a crop by August.”
Runner beans need a sunny, well-drained spot which shouldn’t be overly manured or you’ll encourage a lot of leaf rather than fruits, she notes. “Either put them up tripods or beanpoles or train them along chicken wire. In a small garden you can grow them in containers. If you put a few plants in a 12-inch container you’ll get a decent crop. Use John Innes No 2 or a good quality multi-purpose compost.”
Walkden, whose favourite varieties include ‘Red Rum’, doesn’t feed her runner beans in the ground at all but she does add a lot of organic matter each year. However, growing them in pots you need to feed them weekly with a tomato fertiliser. It’s rich in potash which promotes flowers or fruit.
She grows sweet peas with them, to encourage pollinating insects to the plants, prompting a better crop. “Don’t overwater them while they are growing, but water them once they start flowering and continue while you’re harvesting,” she advises. “People who overwater them early on will get lots of foliage but few flowers.”
Sweetcorn is another of her favourite summer veg. “I love the flavour of sweetcorn, roasted or steamed or barbecued
straight off the plant. There’s nothing like it. If you’ve had shop-bought sweetcorn and then grow your own, you won’t know it’s the same veg.”
Walkden insists you don’t need a lot of room to grow sweetcorn, even though the plants can reach 7ft in height, depending on the variety. “You can grow them in a laundry basket. The key thing is that you don’t plant them in a straight row because they are wind-pollinated and the wind will blow the pollen away from the plants. Plant them in a square or a group, the pollen will stay within the group so you have better pollination.”
Sweetcorn shouldn’t be sown before early April under protection, or late May outside. Don’t let them become too wet if they’ve been sown under protection. “I always put my pumpkins and squashes underneath them to save space and
both do well together. Again, I use John Innes No 2. Keep the plants weeded, water them regularly once the cobs have started to form and they will be ripe when the tassels at the top of the cob start to go brown. Sow in late April or May and you should be able to harvest in late July or August.
The seed packets may tell you that one plant will produce three to four cobs, but Walkden, who’s been growing sweetcorn for 40 years, says a more realistic estimate is one to two cobs per plant.
Tomatoes provide a real taste of summer and Walkden only grows one variety, ‘Sungold’, a cordon type producing orange-coloured cherry tomatoes. “I’ve tried lots of other varieties such as ‘Tumbler’ and ‘Brandywine’ but they don’t taste of anything.”
She doesn’t have a greenhouse but sows her tomatoes from seed in plastic pots on the dining room table, transplants them into individual pots in multi-purpose compost when they’re an inch high and then around a month later she puts them into a cold frame to harden them off, planting them out in late May or early June.
Like all cordon tomatoes, ‘Sungold’ need to be side-shooted (removing the sideshoots) as the plants grow up to 5ft, and watered regularly, but not too much, she notes. “They don’t want to dry out but a lot of people overwater them and they become very pappy, with no flavour. If they’re in a pot or growbag, stick your finger in to make sure they’re moist.”
If they’re planted in the ground, Walkden doesn’t feed them, but in a container she’ll give them a weekly boost with tomato fertiliser. But she digs in plenty of compost to her garden beds each year, which helps eliminate the need for feeding. By the end of May or beginning of June, Walkden should be able to see her dining room table again - as her plants begin to flourish outside.
Good enough to eat ... Perfect peas
Maincrop varieties of peas can be sown now for an August crop. They need non-acid soil with a good crumbly structure in an open site which hasn’t grown peas for at least two seasons and make sure the seeds are spaced 7.5cm (3in) apart in deeply dug, well-manured ground.
Spread lime on the surface if the soil is acid, firming the soil after sowing and netting the soil to protect from the birds. Use canes and twiggy sticks with netting to support the plants when the first tendrils appear, weed regularly and mulch when the plants are around 15cm (6in) high.
Peas like cool conditions, so keep them moist throughout the growing season and give midsummer crops light shade. The pods can be harvested when they are still young, before they become large and fibrous. Once they have been harvested, cut the plants at ground level and leave the roots to decompose.