Growing mini vegetables is a relatively recent development. Until the 1960s the focus of growing food was entirely on growing bigger and bigger crops in proportion to the plant. By the 1970s though, a premium value was starting to be attached to the quality of very small and highly intensely flavoured vegetables but it had, until the last decade, been a specialist activity.
Once the craze for restricted size food gardening took off, mini vegetables came into their own with the ‘quality’ supermarkets leading the way.
The most famous mini vegetable is the cherry tomato, which was introduced around 1994 and became an instant hit with both eaters and growers. Not many people realise that the Cos variety Little Gem lettuce is also a mini vegetable, specially bred to remain small and dense when fully grown.
What is a Mini Vegetable?
There are three ways to produce a ‘mini’ vegetable.
- Some, such as cherry tomatoes or finger courgettes have been specially hybridised to be naturally small. The extreme end of this plant breeding spectrum is the currant tomato. Many such plants are grown from F1 seed, which means that if you save the seed from the adult plant to grow again next year, it will not be true to type and may revert to an earlier generation of vegetable which was much bigger.
- Others are harvested when particularly young, such as baby carrots or finger leeks which can be picked when they are semi‐mature or left to grow to full maturity and a larger size.
- Finally there are leaf vegetables which are grown at a close density (nearer to each other than usual) and harvested very young for use in salads and stir fries.
Why Grow Mini Vegetables?
These are plants that are particularly suited to a small garden, or container growing. If you only have a few square feet in which to grow food, a good selection of mini vegetables can give you a wide range of produce, and if you have more space, successive sowings of small numbers of mini veg can give you a long supply of perfect crops. The way to extend your season is to sow the earliest batches under glass in a greenhouse or on a windowsill and plant them out immediately after the last frost, and to sow the last batch in the same way, keeping them under cover, under fleece or a cloche or in a greenhouse, well into the late autumn.
Finally, mini vegetables are often simpler to harvest and prepare than larger vegetables as they have fewer tough or stringy areas to remove and grow quickly, so there’s less chance of damage from insects or diseases.
How to Grow Mini Vegetables
Because they grow rapidly and remain small, you need to enrich and improve the soil in which mini vegetables grow. Nearly all require a rich, well‐drained soil, although carrots and parsnips will fang (fork) if you give them too many nutrients. Add one third sand to the soil for these root vegetables to make it less rich and easier for the roots to push down cleanly so they grow straight.
The seed bed should be raked until it is a fine tilth which means an even flat surface without stones or lumps. For mini vegetables sown outdoors you need a minimum soil temperature of 8°C or 46 F. You can raise the ground temperature by covering with black plastic or horticultural fleece for a couple of weeks before sowing, and then placing a cloche or fleece over the seeds so that the temperature is maintained.
Use a watering can with a fine rose so you don’t wash your seeds away. To grow full sized seed into mini vegetable plants, halve the recommended spacing between the plants when you sow/plant out and your crop will only grow until it touches its neighbour, at which point you should harvest it.