To celebrate the The Great Dixter Cookbook: Recipes from an English Garden, Aaron Bertelsen, vegetable gardener and cook at Great Dixter in East Sussex, shares three of his favourite vegetables and excellent tips on how to grow them.
I'm often asked what is my favourite vegetable. These days I answer confidently: beetroot. I was a rather late convert, but now that I have seen the light, I love beetroot more and more.
Each year I grow it I find something new to do with it - not just the roots, but the leaves and seed tops too. With its sweet, earthy flavour, it makes a great alternative to potatoes, with less bulk, and the added bonus of that amazing colour livening up the plate.
As if I needed another reason to love it, beetroot is very easy to grow. Provided you get the spacing right and keep them well watered, you should have no trouble getting a good crop. Sow once in early spring and again in late spring for a supply of beetroot throughout the season. You can either wait until the soil temperature reaches at least 7.5°C/45.5ºF) or, if you are as impatient for beetroot as I am, you can sow under fleece. Just 3-4 days of insulation should be enough to get it going. Beetroot should be sown direct and then thinned to the correct spacing - about 8-10 cm/3-4 inches between the plants.
I like to start harvesting them once they get to the size of a golf ball. They are fresher and taste sweeter, by this stage I really can't wait any longer to get a beetroot on to my plate. Picking them small is also another good way of thinning the crop.
Beet leaves are wonderful too and will give a real lift to a simple salad. You can leave beetroot in the ground over the winter and it will continue to produce new leaves.
2. Globe Artichokes
This noble-looking architectural plant brings drama and style to the garden, will grow well and look beautiful in pots too. I grow opium poppies with my artichokes, and the combination of the silky petals with the silvery, spiky foliage is stunning and adds interest to the vegetable plot in late spring.
Of course, I do not grow artichokes for their good looks alone. Cut small and young, as the scales begin to open and before the choke starts to develop, the buds make a perfect starter. The young stems can be eaten too, just as you would with cardoons.
I inherited the plants at Great Dixter, but if you are starting from scratch, the best thing to do is ask someone who grows them to let you have some slips in the spring. The plants should be dug up and split every two or three years anyway to keep them fresh and encourage them to carry on producing buds.
Splitting should be done as the soil starts to warm up, when the plants are developing new roots. Lift the whole thing, and look for the growth points around the edge. Using a sharp knife, cut off small sections with about three leaves and a healthy section of white root.
Plant the slips in late spring, 90 cm/3ft apart, with 90 cm/3ft between each row. The new slips will fruit the same year, but not until later in the season.
As artichoke plants look so robust, it is tempting to neglect them, but they will need watering well throughout the summer to keep the buds moist and good to eat and the foliage looking perky. In the autumn, I mulch them with a layer of compost a few centimetres deep to protect the roots from the worst of the winter weather.
Pumpkins are fast becoming one of my favourite vegetables to grow. With their dramatic foliage and great yellow trumpet blossoms, they are so exciting to look at, and you never know quite how the pumpkins themselves will turn out, nor how big they will grow, which adds a frisson to the whole venture. They are also quite forgiving, provided you start with good soil.
We are very lucky at Great Dixter to be able to grow our pumpkins on large compost heaps. They do look wonderful as they start to spill down the sides and on to the grass, and even up and over the hedge and into the garden itself.
We seem to get the best results from sowing the seed in 12.5-cm/5-inch pots in early spring and keeping them under glass, so the plants are good and strong by the time they are planted out. Again, you must wait until the nights have warmed up.
The young plants will need plenty of space - allow 90 cm/3 ft between them - and plenty of water to get them settled in. The other essential is organic slug pellets: the compost heaps are like a luxury hotel for slugs and if you are not on your guard, they will thank you politely for serving them such a gourmet dinner and tuck in.
If you are not lucky enough to have compost heaps to grow your pumpkins, you will need a good rich soil. Start planning the previous winter, and dig plenty of really well rotted horse muck or mushroom compost into the area where you plan to put your pumpkins.
Wherever your pumpkins are growing, leave them outside as long as possible to toughen up - although you will need to keep an eye out for rats as winter approaches, and you must bring them in before the first frost. When you harvest them, leave the stalks on for as long as you can as this is where the rot will begin. I must admit I find it quite difficult to eat my pumpkins as they are so beautiful. This is also the reason why I store them on the windowsill, but any cool, dry place will do.
Copy taken from by Aaron Bertelsen (Phaidon, £24.95)