Grow, forage, cook: planning a kitchen garden

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 kitchen garden
Cuppa tea and a leek. That’s about all you need for some garden planning…

Planning a veg or kitchen garden:

Raised beds

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 (Edit: Read the second part here about Positioning your plot, Making a planting plan and buying seeds: part two). To be continued…

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16 thoughts on “Grow, forage, cook: planning a kitchen garden

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I had a bit of a light bulb moment about what I should be growing too. Now I try and focus on the things that the children like eating. It’s always good for them to try a few new things, but as you say, there’s no point in growing thousands of courgettes if they don’t like them. I’ve been focusing more on the little delicious things that they do enjoy, like sugar snap peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes. That way they’re interested in the garden too.

    1. Thanks CJ! Yes, definitely a good idea to focus on what the children like — except that my toddler will only, *only* eat carrots at the moment, ha ha ha. I have, though, purchased some seeds for some gorgeous little round ones so I hope to pique his interest with those and then perhaps move him on to something a little more adventurous!

  2. I love this. Though my son took over most of my garden with his hot peppers, I did have a small corner. Some things did well and some, not so much. I, too, plan on being better prepared and have been hounding hubby to help me build raised beds. Maybe I’ll be luckier next year…

  3. Sound advice. I’d also add (along with your bleedingly obvious but often needs pointing out advice) that even veg that you can easily buy is also worth growing. Tiny carrots freshly pulled from the garden taste ten times better than anything bought.

  4. More of this please, I am totally inspired (and learn a lot ) from your posts on gardening, I have visions of a kitchen garden next year on my little postage stamp of a back yard (I have become American).

  5. OH my I can’t wait to read all about your kitchen garden. I have always wanted one, even if it’s just a small one to work with. Maybe a plan for next year. xD

  6. Handy tips Sabrina, this was a good post to read as I’m in the process of planning out what to plant next year. The best things we’ve grown this year have been runner beans are garlic. We love runners in our house and didn’t tire of them! I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with your space 🙂

  7. I had grand potager garden plans a fe years back that never materialised and I’ve been kicking myself every since…
    I must admit that I’ve been amazed mat just how much you can pack into raised beds. Veggie gardens are deffo a learning curve, you need a year or two over over-excitable planting befor you finally learnt the lesson that you don’t need *that* many courgettes and that the simple ethos of ‘grow what you like to eat’ rules!
    Sorry for the late commenting but we got back form holiday Friday and Kitty came down with a temperature and cold (the irony) and I have been on cuddle duty ever since xx

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