Orlando, my eight-year-old son, was reading my copy of Kitchen Garden magazine - chiefly because his big sister had got to the Beano first, but he is a lad who likes his vegetables - when he looked up with a quizzical expression. "Dad," he said, "How come the carrots you get in the shops are all nice and straight, but the ones we grow are all twisty?"
Kids - they really know how to hurt you, don't they? Carrots have been the bane of my life ever since we first got our allotment nearly four years ago. The first year we had the plot we hardly managed to grow any. The second and third years we actually produced a crop, but they were so mis-shapen and generally un-carrotlike that I wished Esther Rantzen was still doing That's Life so I could send them in to the comedy vegetable slot. I'm convinced that one of them looked Osama bin Laden, if you looked at it in a sideways squinty sort of way.
Anyway, it is all to do with the soil, which where we are in west London is heavy clay, with lots of lumps and stones thrown in - about the worst carrot-growing conditions imaginable. This year, however, I am determined to produce a good crop of straight, uniform carrots, the sort of chaps that win prizes at county shows. I prepared a luxury carrot bed by digging out the soil, sieving it, mixing it with compost and builders' sand and then returning it to the bed, so that I ended up with the carrot equivalent of the Georges V in Paris. If I don't grow a bumper crop of monster carrots it won't be for lack of trying.
Some vegetables, though, always look good - assuming they actually reach the finishing line. Tomatoes, for instance: they can be relied on to look pretty much like they do on the seed packet - all round and red and glossy. The trouble is getting them there, though. Until the bank holiday weekend we had a splendid collection of tomatoes under way, which were all going great guns in the mini-greenhouse outside the back door. In fact the tomato jungle was beginning to take over everything - the greenhouse overspill was lodged on the kitchen table - and as they were starting to grow too big for their pots we decided, perhaps rashly, to plant some out on the allotment rather earlier than some would consider wise.
We went away for the weekend, thinking everything was hunky dory: by the time we got back the tomatoes we had left in the mini-greenhouse had all shrivelled up, the victims of too much sun and not enough rain. It was a disaster. I tried very hard to be brave in front of Orlando, but I think he could feel my pain. Let's hope the carrots turn out OK.