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Gardening: grow your own

Whatever the size of your garden you can brighten up your dinner plate with your own produce - even if it's only parsley from a window box.

A raised bed of herbs and vegetables can be tucked into a small area of the garden. Photograph: Shutterstock
A raised bed of herbs and vegetables can be tucked into a small area of the garden. Photograph: Shutterstock

When deciding what to grow, work out the space and time you have. Concentrate on your favourite veg and on plants that are either expensive to buy or simply unobtainable. Go, too, for plants that are much tastier when at their freshest.

If you're restricted to containers on a patio, herbs are the best bet. A south-facing spot is ideal for the likes of thyme, rosemary and winter savoury, herbs that cope with poorer soil. These Mediterranean species need damp, but not wet, conditions. Their main requirement is very free-draining soil, so provide a good mix of three parts general-purpose compost and one part grit. Ignore the endless advice from experts and don't put broken crocks at the bottom of a pot. This impedes drainage, moisture building up in the layer of compost above the crocks and only slowly oozing out.

When choosing herbs, select those which are difficult or impossible to buy in the shops. Although rosemary is usually available, thymes are less so and winter savoury is virtually unobtainable. And if you want sorrel or garlic chives, you'll have to grow your own. The more unusual varieties of mint - ginger mint, peppermint and lemon mint - are a "grow your own" must.

As for vegetables, a fair few do well in pots, among them sugar peas, french beans, salad greens and chard. And don't forget strawberries. These plants take up little space and you harvest very little of them at a time, but with a larger veg plot make sure there's enough for a decent dish. Two pods of peas or three runner beans only make you want more, but one courgette plant or a couple of bush tomatoes are just fine.

Price and availability are also worth considering. A few years ago, I was pleased to open a new allotment, but was disappointed when some new plot holders told me they were itching to grow their own carrots and onions. What a waste of space. Freshly dug carrots are much better than shop-bought ones but, when stored, are little better than cheap ones from supermarkets. And I defy anyone to tell the difference between a homegrown onion and a shop-bought one. If there's space for these crops then fine, but they shouldn't be a priority.

Broccoli is a different matter. One or two plants produce a fine wee forest of succulent spears and with careful planning you can plant different varieties for successive harvests throughout the year.

Like all the large-leafed brassicas and salad crops, broccoli must be eaten fresh. You miss out on at least half the flavour by sticking the veg at the back of the fridge for several days. Ninety per cent of these crops are water and, after cutting, they transpire and wilt almost before your eyes. Sugars turn to starch and the spears become slightly rank-tasting.

Some shop-bought brassicas, such as cauliflowers, have very little flavour, and others - sprouts and cabbages - often taste bitter. Growing your own, then. is the only solution. If you're lucky enough to have space, nothing beats having a regular supply of fresh veg throughout the year. When I ate my last sprout of the winter the other day, I knew I'd have to wait seven or eight months for the next one, but seasonal crops taste all the better for that.

Be adventurous when choosing this year's crops. Plant sea kale for a tasty spring treat or sugar snap peas for a fatter, more succulent sugar pea, or follow James Wong's lead and have a bash at cucamelon, inca berries or Sichuan pepper, the most exotic pepper you can grow in Scotland.

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