Some crops are a tease. You sow tomatoes in spring picturing yourself sitting out on a sun-warmed terrace eating thick beefsteak slices drenched in olive oil. The terrace warms: you sit out, tomato-less. It cools: you bring the patio furniture in. Finally, some time around late September, you get your first ripe tomato.
They need a long old growing season, and although you can do nothing about when it ends – the onset of the cold weather will decide that for you – you can choose when it begins. Start them in late winter or early spring, give them the time they need to grow, and you will up your chances of tomato bounty this summer. And they are not the only vegetable you can get ahead with: new potatoes, courgettes and carrots can all be sown early for early crops, if you have a few tricks up your sleeve.
Tomatoes are tender and killed by the slightest frost, so you need to house them frost free until the coldest days have passed. I sow seeds directly into 8cm pots, water, and place the pot in a small, heated propagator in the house. Without this, these tropical plants can take weeks to germinate, but they find this gentle heat irresistible.
After a short spell on the windowsill they go into my patio greenhouse just outside the back door, warmed by a propagator mat. The mat just keeps them frost free but not so warm that they grow leggy. I plant them out into an unheated greenhouse where they will need watering at least every other day at the height of summer and feeding once a week until the fruits ripen. My favourites are cherry tomatoes ‘Sungold’, ‘Gardeners Delight’ and ‘Roma’ as well as ‘Orange Santa’. Little fruits ripen quickest.
Courgettes don’t need such a long season, but you will get extra early fruits by starting them off early in the propagator, removing them as soon as they germinate and then cosseting them like tomatoes. They are greedy, thirsty plants and repay regular watering and feeding. The cool nights of spring can lead them to produce only male flowers which wont turn into fruits. To bring out those fruity females place a plastic cloche over the plants until the weather really warms. Pick fruits little for the sweetest and most tender courgettes, five inches long maximum.
You have to start potatoes in the depths of winter. I generally find potatoes too troublesome and space-hogging, but I make an exception for a few pots of earlies in the greenhouse. This may seem a lot of trouble for a few spuds, but grown early they are tender and sweet, much like Jersey Royals, and almost an entirely different vegetable to the bulky, dull things we are used to. Choose ‘International Kidney’, ‘Anya’, ‘Arran Pilot’, or ‘Belle de Fontenay’. Chit a few tubers first (place them somewhere frost free and bright to encourage them to sprout), put a few in a little compost in the base of a large pot and cover with about five inches of compost, then water. As they grow, top up the compost to cover the stems, watering and feeding generously. Keep them in the warmest place you can muster: in a greenhouse, sure, but on a propagating mat and covered with a little horticultural fleece if you can, for the quickest growth and most lovely potatoes.
Carrots are fully hardy so demand little cosseting but when they do get it they respond by developing into the sweetest roots imaginable. Fill a pot with compost – it needn’t be the deepest of pots, as you will be harvesting these babies small – and sprinkle seed across the top. Water in and place the pot in your warmest and most sheltered corner of your garden, covered in horticultural fleece, or in a cool greenhouse if you have space. Check pots regularly for dryness. If the compost is dry an inch or more below the surface then water deeply. Harvest when they are just a few inches long and eat instantly. ‘Primo’ and ‘Early Nantes 2′ are great choices for early sowing.
The Speedy Vegetable Garden by Lia Leendertz and Mark Diacono has bags more ideas like these