Life

The Casual Gardener: Redefining fast food

Gardening is generally a waiting game but occasionally we want fast results

As its name suggests rocket takes off quickly. Picture by iStock/PA

IT'S BEEN noted many times in this column how gardening involves delayed gratification.

Seemingly the gardener is willing to wait for the pleasure rather than seek immediate reward. They sow a seed, plant a perennial, tree or young shrub knowing that it may be many months, or even years, before they can fully savour the spoils of their work.

This is possibly a crude characterisation as it ignores the pleasure we derive, sometimes perversely, from those labour-intensive tasks we undertake as gardeners. Sowing, digging, transplanting, weeding, cutting, pruning, thinning, feeding, mulching etc are not what's conventionally regarded as fun yet as part of the whole these jobs have a purpose and it makes sense to do them, while extracting maximum satisfaction, if not necessarily enjoyment.

In the ornamental garden, pleasure typically comes from seeing plants in full bloom, while in the vegetable garden the gratification is in the eating.

But sometimes we want fast results. Whether it's a young child's interest that needs to be maintained or just a gardener with an impatient disposition, occasionally we want a plant that doesn't hang around and comes to maturity within in a season. Wild flowers like poppy, cornflower and corncockle are especially good for a quick return when it comes to a floral display but the fastest results are undoubtedly in the edible garden, where certain salad crops can be ready to eat within a matter of weeks.

Just a fortnight ago I sowed some white kale seeds in the greenhouse and by the Thursday they'd germinated and the young seedlings were already pushing up through the peat-free compost. Kale is one of those brassica crops that will endure well into winter, untroubled by plummeting temperatures, but its young leaves can also be harvested for salads over the summer months. At the rate my kale is growing, I could be munching on its soft leaves in early June.

Late May is the perfect time for sowing salad leaves and redefining the meaning of 'fast food'.

Raddishes are another crop that prefers a sprint to a marathon. They are suited best to succession sowings because they're most flavoursome when about an inch across, which is a window in the plant's life-cycle that's open for a fortnight at most. The brightly red rooted 'Jolly' is out of the traps quickly, growing to the desired size in less than a month. The purple-rooted 'Amethyst' is another boy racer, growing from seed to perfect salad size over a similar period.

Rocket, as the name suggests, takes off quickly, with its peppery leaves ready to bring life to a salad bowl a few weeks after sowing. The vigorous and fast-growing 'Runway' has deeply serrated, tangy-flavoured leaves similar to its wild cousin, which can be eaten as soon as big enough to harvest.

Lettuce varieties 'Little Gem' and 'Lolla Rosa' are common and the seeds easily sourced. Ready to eat in five weeks in optimum conditions, these two tried and tested varieties will easily crop for as long again.

Salad onions, or scallions, will take almost two months or more to reach the desired pencil-width size, as long as the soil is fertile and the waterings regular.

With quick-growing crops the potential for bolting, which is flowering and going to seed, is constant and best avoided through regular watering.

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