Casual Gardener: Proper Christmas dinner prep

Growing the veg for your Christmas dinner is as much about timing as skill...

Brussels sprouts love full sun and to follow legumes in a crop rotation. Picture by Thinkstock/PA.
Brussels sprouts love full sun and to follow legumes in a crop rotation. Picture by Thinkstock/PA. Brussels sprouts love full sun and to follow legumes in a crop rotation. Picture by Thinkstock/PA.

I HAVE a tradition of keeping the last of the year's tomatoes for the prawn cocktail with which we have begun every Christmas dinner for the past 20 years.

It's a small contribution but nonetheless it adds a personal touch to what is arguably the most important family meal of the year. In truth, this is the only thing I've ever grown and contributed to this landmark meal.

My spuds, always earlies, are finished by September, while on the occasions I've grown carrots and parsnips, they too were eaten long before Halloween.

This year, in hope rather than expectation, I will dig beneath the potato plants that thanks to the mild autumn have sprung from where I harvested a crop of Queens over the summer. I'll be genuinely surprised if there's anything worth eating but it's worth investigating.

Growing the vegetables to eat on Christmas day is as much about timing as skill. Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsnips and spuds aren't the most difficult plants to raise, the hard bit is ensuring these winter crops are in their prime at the end of December.

Sprouts are certainly an acquired taste and one most probably come to appreciate with age but this superfood is unfairly cast as a foul-tasting, flatulence-causing pariah.

They can be sown indoors in March and be ready for planting out in May, ideally in ground previously occupied by legumes that have locked in the soil some of necessary nitrogen needed for strong growth.

Plant in a sunny spot that's sheltered from strong winds, watering-in well. When they reach the desired size, harvest by snapping the sprouts from the stalk, beginning with the lower ones first.

The key to well-shaped, flavoursome carrots is rich, light earth that enables these root vegetables to extend downwards.

Sow your seeds thinly in a sunny spot from May onwards, protecting your crop from the low-flying carrot fly with a fleece barrier. It takes carrots between 12-16 weeks to grow to full maturity, though they are happy to sit in well-drained soil until ready to eat.

Parsnips follow a similar pattern as carrots, thriving when sown thinly in open beds of fertile earth in full sun. Keep the plants well watered to avoid splitting, loosening the earth with a fork before harvesting by pulling upwards.

Potatoes can be grown almost all year round, so the theory is to plant them a little later than usual to enjoy them over the festive period - a more structured version of what's going on in my potato patch.

It's recommended to save a few tubers from summer, leaving them in a light, cool place so they can begin to sprout, ready for delayed planting. Go for fast-maturing varieties, planting them in pots or bags full of compost so you're able to move them inside, perhaps to a shed or greenhouse, when the frosts arrive.

Place the sprouting tubers over compost, then blanket a little more compost over the top. Potatoes like fairly moist soil, so water well but allow to drain. The yield will be small so expect enough for Christmas dinner and little else.

If you want to be especially adventurous you can have a crack at growing your own cranberries, to ensure you have the perfect condiment for turkey and ham. The cranberry bush is a long-lasting, acid-loving plant that spreads freely, so it helps to decide at the outset whether you wish to grow it horizontally or vertically. Cranberries can be grown from cuttings and are best planted in winter. They need to be kept well watered but generally are undemanding.

Happy Christmas dinner.