When I took my first horticulture course last year, one of the modules I was looking forward to the least was called “Growing fruit and veg”…
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m not interested in doing just that. It’s that I was already doing just that. Really, I thought, what more could I need to know?
Of course, the answer turned out to be, a helluva lot.
I’d always thought of myself as a “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” kind of a gardener. Fertilise the plants? Pfft, what pansies. Plants don’t get fertilised in nature! Water them in a dry spell? C’mon, what nonsense, just use your roots and wait for the next rain!
These ideas can cut it, of course, in a dry garden or low-maintenance garden, planted especially for such principles. But not, it turns out, in a veg patch.
A veg patch, or kitchen garden, even on the smallest scale, is essentially intensive planting. You want every single one of those tomato plants to produce tomatoes, you want each runner bean to grow to the top of the pole and put out a great array of beans. So, you need to give your plants a little help…
(Incidentally, “help” – in the form of watering, fertilising, weeding and pest control – was exactly what I didn’t have any time for this year and is the reason I had such a very disappointing harvest…)
So, for next year, I’m planning myself a mini kitchen garden of my dreams, and I’m planning to do everything by the book (eg, actually try to remember to water my plants this time and save them from the rascal slugs…)
I’ve designated an old flower bed to become a metre squared veg bed and I’m busy drawing diagrams and working out how it will all fit together. As Autumn is the perfect time for advance preparation, I thought I might share some tips and things I’ve learnt in case they’re handy for you too!
Planning a veg or kitchen garden:
Raised beds are a great way of growing veg. You can plant closer together as you don’t need to leave space between the plants for weeding or walking. They drain easily, avoiding veg getting water-logged. Heck, if you’ve got rubbish soil in your garden you can even import something completely different to put in raised beds.
The ideal size for a bed is 1m x 4m (or smaller) – that way you can reach into the middle for picking crops or weeding, without trampling on the soil.
Just bear in mind that raised beds will need more watering than a normal ground-level bed, as they do drain more easily. Other than that, there’s not really a good reason not to use them!
You can buy (rather expensive) kits that slot together, or just make some yourself from any timber you can find. Scaffolding planks are ideal as they’re almost the perfect height and you can pick them up pretty cheap…
Preparing the soil
It’s worth planning ahead (eg now!) for what you hope to grow next year. Even though you’re unlikely to plant much until February or so, certain crops need the soil prepared in certain ways. Carrots, for example don’t grow well in freshly manured soil (they’ll split if they hit fresh organic matter) so you’d want to dig that in now, to give it a chance to break down.
Check what conditions your chosen crops like now and you’ve got a good start on getting the plot ready for them: digging out stones, adding manure, perhaps grit if you’ve got heavy soils etc. You could then plant some green manure for the winter, which you’d just dig in to the ground before you sow your seeds next spring.
Choosing what to grow
So, how do you choose what you want to grow? This is especially important if, like me, you’ve only got a small growing area. The best piece of advice I was given was to only grow things you like to eat. It sounds so bleeding obvious, but it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me… I think there is often a temptation in gardening to feel as if you should be growing the things other people are growing. Oh yes, any gardener worth their salt grows courgettes, so you slave away on a courgette plant, completely forgetting that you’re not massively keen on the taste of them.
This year, I’m going to focus on growing things that are either expensive to buy in shops, or difficult to buy in shops. So asparagus, artichokes, raspberries, blueberries along with some interesting varieties of potatoes and tomatoes.
It’s also wise, at this planning point, to take a look at your soil. Some plants grow less well in certain soils. Cabbages and all brassicas, for example, are prone to a disease called club root in acidic soils. Though you can lime the soil to remove the acidity, this is quite frankly (in my opinion) a massive waste of time and energy. Instead, why not grow things that thrive in an acidic soil, like blueberries. (Okay, if you’ve got your heart set on making your own sauerkraut, blueberries ain’t gonna cut it, so this would probably be a time when a raised veg bed and imported top soil is the way to go…)
Right, good lord, I’ve written a complete tome already, so I’ll break this up into two parts. Check back on Wednesday for more (Positioning your plot, Making a planting plan and buying seeds). To be continued…