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Varieties’ showing

by
27 February 2015

By Jamie Cable

THE kitchen table is covered in packets of vegetable seed - mostly bought, a few home-collected, and a couple of mysterious gifts from other gardeners. I am planning what to grow in my small vegetable plot this year. As with most shopping, I have learnt that the annual seed order needs to start with an audit.

Commercial seed-packets come with a sow-by date. Just as with some foods where we know we can (up to a point) ignore the best-by date, sow-by dates can be taken with a pinch of salt if the seed has been stored cool and dry. There is an equivalent of the "sniff" test worth mentioning here. Sprinkle a few of the suspect seeds on to some damp tissue paper on a saucer. Cover with an upturned glass jar, place on a windowsill, and within a week you should see signs of sprouting. If the percentage showing life is very low, I bin the remainder of the packet.

I consider what I have been able to grow easily in the past and what we actually enjoy using in the kitchen, and a seed shopping list ensues. So far, so good. Then comes a temptation in the form of an innocent-looking seed catalogue on the doormat. I peruse the sumptuously illustrated offerings. Varieties of yesteryear vie with new improved cultivars - bumper harvests, show-bench bullies, and the inevitable "novelty" crop.

Luckily, this year I have had extra protection against such marketing in the form of a preview copy of a book by the Kew-trained botanist James Wong, Grow for Flavour. In engaging, no-nonsense style he translates catalogue speak: forget "mammoth", "exhibition", and "ornamental". "If the best thing about a variety is its taste, I can assure you this will be proudly emblazoned in the top line." In terms of flavour, "Heirloom" are rarely the best to choose. After hundreds of taste trials, Wong recommends the varieties to grow. The book is also about cultivation techniques. He has delved through a vast number of scientific papers, and uses this to back up saying what many of us gardeners have sneakily suspected for a long time.

I have no greenhouse, and am often away in the week, so that containers and grow bags would dry out. I have, therefore, by necessity, grown tomatoes in the ground outdoors. Wong chooses this method. It is light-levels that are important when it come to sweetness in tomatoes, and a greenhouse can reduce these by a surprising amount.

He does not like grow bags, which tie gardeners to high-cost tomato fertiliser. The complex minerals and micronutrients found in the average garden soil, but not in your usual liquid feed, give a "far richer, more well-rounded flavour". No surprise there, perhaps - but Wong goes on to recommend a very occasional watering with a weak saline solution, and a fortnightly application of molasses.

There is page after page of novel ideas, delivered with verve and wit. I think Wong will be the voice behind a new generation of gardeners.

RHS Grow for Flavour by James Wong (Mitchell Beazley, £20 (CT Bookshop £18 - Use code CT757 ) is out on 5 March.

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