From Rainbow Carrots to Burpees Golden: the best vegetables to grow in 2020

As a new year begins, allow me to offer veteran gardeners (and former MPs at a loose end) a few suggestions.

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I have always been equivocal about the expression “gardening leave”. I believe it originated for the vacuum that exists when senior army officers are between jobs; or waiting for the next appealing position to come along. But it is more than a trifle disparaging to folk who either earn their living in horticulture or indeed, as mere amateur participants, consider it a fine and worthy way to occupy their spare time.  Which all brings me neatly to 12 December just passed.

It has long been common knowledge that some politicians enjoy cultivating gardens or even allotments as a diversion from their paid public work. But of course there is now a significant new cohort of ex-politicians needing something worthwhile to fill their waking hours. So for those who now find themselves back among the many, rather than the few, allow me to offer my annual shortlist of those vegetable varieties that proved especially rewarding for me in 2019, and that they might like to try during their own gardening leave.

It is understandable to think of carrots as necessarily orange, but it is odd – because the wild carrot plant has white roots. Nonetheless, for a change, do try the attractive multicoloured mixtures generally given the name “Rainbow  Carrots” or similar. On the subject of unexpected colours, although I have grown it for years, I have now seriously fallen in love with golden beetroot. It has none of the strange gastric effects of red beetroot and is blessed with a gorgeously sweet flavour. Try “Burpees Golden”, or hedge your bets with one of the mixtures that includes red, white and bicoloured roots too. 

Swiss chard is such an easy and useful year-round vegetable (marvellous with fish) and the mixture called “Bright Lights” will give you excellent red-, white- and yellow-stemmed plants. And staying with leafy vegetables, never underestimate the culinary value of curly kale – of which there are now several dwarf growing varieties that take up little space. As they are “cut-and-come-again” crops, three or four plants will suffice.

If you have room for even a few short rows of potatoes, spend your space and time on the second early variety “Nicola”. It yields well and has beautifully cream-fleshed tubers that are equally delicious boiled or for salad use. And of course, as it is an early variety, slugs are unlikely to be a problem even on a heavy soil.

Like most gardeners I adore beans – and so do most cooks, judging by their year-round availability in supermarkets.  Some kinds, however, take up masses of ground area in return for relatively small crops. But that is not true of climbing French beans, which in my garden have banished dwarf beans to history. The Kenya type, pencil-podded variety “Cobra” is my choice for its prolific yields and delicate flavour.

My suggested varieties are suitable for even a small plot and will give fine crops within a season. If a little more space should be available to any erstwhile MP on gardening leave (and bearing in mind the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which offers them a spare five years), may I suggest something really worthwhile and long-term by encouraging them to set up an asparagus bed? The fairly new kind “Ginjlim” (obviously an EU variety!) is ideal – and by the next general election, it should be cropping so bounteously they might even be tempted to take up horticulture as a full-time occupation. 

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article appears in the 10 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran