Ursula Buchan

Seeds of change

Text settings

There was a time, half a century ago, when vegetable gardening was the preserve of old boys on allotments and jobbing gardeners in spacious suburban gardens. No longer. These days, the vegetable grower is as likely to be a 30-year-old female social worker with a small urban garden and a Point of View about pesticides on supermarket carrots, or a young family who have escaped the city for the country, or a recently retired couple on an executive housing estate who want to combine flowers and vegetables in an ornamental potager. Vegetable gardening is now as much a lifestyle choice and cultural statement as it is the cultivation of a variety of (mostly) nutritious comestibles.

Vegetable growing has changed along with the people who do it, thanks partly to the television and the media revolution (which has spawned cheap and plentiful specialist-interest magazine titles) and partly to scientific and technological advances which have introduced inexpensive and innovative materials to the amateur gardener. Plant breeding has ensured a tidal wave of new varieties which are more compact or disease-resistant, hardier or higher in vitamins and generally less bother.

A vegetable plot used to be a large, flat rectangle, where seeds were sown in long, straight rows, using a four-yearly rotation system to try to inhibit (usually unsuccessfully) the build-up of pests and diseases. The plot was dug thoroughly every autumn, and rotted farmyard manure was incorporated at a depth where few vegetable roots could reach it and, in the spring, it was usually limed with calcium carbonate, whatever the pH happened to be. Growmore, a granular fertiliser containing equal amounts of nitrates, phosphates and potash, which was introduced during the second world war, was scattered over the soil about ten days before sowing, to give the seedlings a boost. All seed was sown straight into the ground, often rotting off in cold wet springs before it could germinate.

These plots were cheap to cultivate (in the days when manure was plentiful, at least), reasonably productive, but hard, hard work, especially if the soil was heavy. The legion pests and diseases which affect vegetables had usually to be treated with chemicals: carrot root fly, for example, was seen off by a persistent soil pesticide called bromophos, while cabbage root fly fell to gamma-BHC, now both mercifully withdrawn from sale.

Since the 1980s, however, four-foot-wide ‘raised beds’ have been de rigueur on clay soils, making digging unnecessary after the initial preparation, and producing heavier crops per square foot. Horticultural ‘fleece’ lain over carrot rows prevents incursions from carrot root fly, while ‘collars’ round brassicas inhibit cabbage root fly. Copper barriers freak out slugs. Fleece and plastic cloches give protection against cold at both ends of the season, replacing the glass cloches which were so difficult to put together and so easily broken.

Science has also come to the aid of the vegetable gardener. It is now, for example, possible to buy mycrorrhizal fungi which, when put in planting holes, develop a symbiotic relationship with the roots, helping them to establish more quickly and become more tolerant of drought and heat (Rootgrow from PlantWorks). Of all vegetables, only the cabbage family does not benefit.

Few people now sow every kind of seed into the ground outside as a matter of course. Cheap plastic greenhouses and shelters, together with reliable proprietary seed composts, mean that most vegetables can be grown in small ‘module’ trays and need not be planted out until conditions suit or the seedlings are big enough to shrug off mouse and slug damage.

And it is all more colourful and fun. The introduction of coloured-leaf lettuces, which do not heart up into great big tight footballs, but can be cut over and over again, is a boon to the would-be potagiste, as are yellow courgettes, crimson-leaved beet and stripy tomatoes. Seedsmen have searched abroad, in particular in the Mediterranean and the Far East, for more interesting and exotic vegetables, and breeders have developed strains which will fare well in our north European climate. Tender vegetables, such as capsicums, chilli peppers and tomatoes of every shape and hue have increased enormously in popularity, partly perhaps because they can be grown in pots on terraces.

The small size of many gardens is something of a downer, but the effects of lack of space are felt much less than they might be because of the compactness of modern vegetable varieties, the high densities which can be achieved using raised beds, and the cheapness of staples in the shops, such as potatoes, parsnips and brassicas, which means that vegetables grown at home need only be those which truly add to the gaiety of life. All that looks like progress to me.