Baby vegetables take up less room in the garden and mature sooner

Part of the fun of market or veggie gardening is the preparation and planning. This is the time of year when decisions are made on what seeds to order, how to improve the soil and when to plant.

As the seed catalogues arrive, we browse through them again and again, making ticks next to tempting varieties, marking pages of new and trendy plants - all while trying not to break our budgets along the way. We all have our favourites, but I always encourage gardeners to try a couple of new things each season. Growing new and different plants keeps the garden fresh and exciting, and offers a useful learning experience.

Perhaps the newest culinary trend in home and restaurant kitchens is baby veggies. These are not simply vegetables that are picked before they are mature, but rather, they are tasty, tender crops especially developed to grow small. These miniature treats are both healthy and easy to grow, but perhaps their biggest advantage in the garden is that they take up less room and mature sooner. Their benefit in the kitchen is that baby veggies are served whole, making preparation a snap. Their small size is also perfect for those who like to can or pickle their harvest. Keep in mind that they don't keep quite as long as regular-size vegetables, so serve or preserve them as soon as possible after picking.

Like their larger counterparts, baby veggies are a hungry crop and require nutrient-enriched soil, plenty of sunlight and loads of organic fertilizer. They can be planted quite a bit more closely together than other veggies, and are ready earlier, so keep an eye out for the optimum time to pick them; letting them go may result in over-maturity and a tough, oversized vegetable.

Here are 15 seed suggestions to start you on your way to a garden-fresh assortment of precious baby gems.

  • 'Nickel' French fillet bush bean: 53 days This gourmet bean requires warm soil to sprout. Wonderfully uniform, dark-green, slender and string-less pods are 8 cm long. Strong, erect branches hold 'Nickel' off the ground. Good resistance to foliar diseases and root rot.
  • 'Kestrel' beet: 53 days This is a very smooth, round beet with a small crown and a delicate root tip. Because it develops this fine shape early, it makes an excellent baby beet. Sweet, dark-red globe, very resistant to bolting and cercospora leaf spot. Makes lovely bunches of baby beets to take to market.
  • 'Thumbelina' carrot: 60 days These unique 2 to 3 cm round carrot balls have good orange colour and flavour. Suitable for close plantings, container growing and heavy clay soils. Great for extra-early home use and a rewarding, fast crop for young gardeners. Gather on the small size for sweetness.
  • 'King Richard' leek: 75 days Extra-long, slim stem, 30 cm, stays sweet, tender and white all season long. Can be sown densely to grow mini leeks for use as a garnish or in soups or salads. A heavy mulch with straw helps blanch the stalks for an even milder taste. Not winter-hardy, but will handle a light frost. 'King Richard' is a beautiful, elegant leek for late summer and fall meals.
  • 'Baby Green' lettuce: 60 days 'Little Gem' miniature romaines are considered by many to be the finest-tasting lettuce of all. They grow to only 15 cm tall. The compact plants can be spaced 16 x 16 cm for maximum yields, holding well in the garden for a few weeks once they mature. The blanched, thick heart is an amazing gourmet pleasure.
  • 'Easter Egg' radish: 28-32 days This blend has all the radish colours - they grow at about the same rate and are all white inside, but the skin colours are white, red or purple. They are round, crisp and flavourful.
  • 'Kyoto' mizuna greens: 45 days Mild and sweet enough for salads. Thin, light-green, feathery leaves are deeply cut but not curled. Grows vigorously; thin to at least 20 cm. Cut the whole plant about 2.5 cm above the ground and it will regrow, or pick individual leaves. Can be cut and picked many times. Plant in late summer and cover with a cloche - it grows even under low light conditions. Will bolt in April if overwintered.
  • 'Dainty' sweet pepper: 80 days Strong ornamental plants hold up cheerful little pointed peppers that change colour as they mature from green to yellow, then purple and finally red. The peppers are held above the leaves and just call out to be munched, and because they are not hot, there will be no tummy upsets! A pretty 45-cm ornamental plant for containers and the flower garden, sprightly in the salad bowl.
  • 'Jack Be Little' pumpkin: 105 days Loads of tiny, flattened orange pumpkins make great decorations. Plant so that it trellises over a railing or fence allowing kids to watch the progress of their favourite 8- to 10-cm mini pumpkin. The strong handles stay on to highlight their appeal.
  • 'Lemon' cucumber: 70 days Small, round and pretty yellow cucumbers. Prolific and reliable. Very sweet and never bitter.
  • 'Sugar Baby' watermelon: 68 days Round to oval, 3 kg icebox-type melons with bright-red and very juicy sweet flesh. This is an early-season variety.
  • 'Bennings Green Tint' squash: 63 days Productive and pretty, these pale-green, scalloped patty pan squash have excellent, tender flavour when picked at 5 to 8 cm in diameter. The pale flesh is meaty and mild tasting, great with dips. The plant is a tidy bush.
  • 'Short Tom' eggplant: 75 days Numerous short, black, slender eggplants are only 10 cm long and 2.5 cm wide. Beautiful purple flowers and very productive plant.
  • 'Savoy Express' baby cabbage: 55 days This is simply the best baby Savoy around, designed to be harvested no larger than 15 cm, at around 500 g. One head of 'Savoy Express' is perfect for one meal. The unusual yellow-green exterior and creamy buttery-yellow interior add to the attraction.
  • 'Golden Midget' sweet corn: 60 days Quickest to mature. Very small ears (10 cm) of extremely sweet corn. Plant closely together for smallest corn.