Grow, forage, cook: planning a kitchen garden (part two)

More musings on things to plan now for the kitchen garden of your dreams next year. If you missed the first part, check it out here: Planning a kitchen garden, part one.

Planning a kitchen garden | Wolves in London
Veg and scaffolding planks: two fine ingredients for a kitchen garden…

Positioning your plot

If you’re in the enviable position of having a selection as to where you grow your veg, fruit and herbs, I’m pretty jealous!

In my garden, there is one suitable space only, a bed at the back, on the south side, which used to be full of rhododendrons, but is now empty. My kitchen garden will go there. End of story.

But if you’ve got a choice, either because you’re re-planning your whole garden, or you’ve got a selection of different places you could give over to food, then there are a few things to think about first.

Veg and fruit (generally) requires a lot of sunlight to ripen fully. So pick a sunny spot. This is especially true for fruits like grapes, which need sunlight to produce the sugars that make them taste so nice in the first place. You also want to avoid winds, which could damage the young plants, put off pollinating insects or blow the fruits right off the plants. Frost pockets (areas that are colder than the rest of your garden, for example because they’re in a small dip where cold air settles) should also be avoided. But that’s pretty obvious.

Speaking of pollinating insects, these are pretty essential for anything that produces fruits (this includes beans, peas and so on), which makes sunny sheltered spots the best.

Finally, think about the amenities you’ll need. One of the reasons my watering schedule was so crappy this past year was that the builders pulled out our water pipes that fed the tap at the bottom of the garden. (I only realised this once they’d left and it was a bit late to sort out…) This means I need to fill up the watering can from the tap at the other end of the garden and schlep it down to all the veg. Okay, this is literally a journey of 20ft or so, but it makes a surprisingly huge difference. This year, a water butt is going in to collect rainwater off the greenhouse roof and provide me with a much easier tap to use.

Of course, you don’t have to actually put aside a dedicated bed if you don’t have the space or inclination. Lots of plants can just be grown in regular flower beds, along with your other blooms, and many can look pretty attractive too. Purple kale or rainbow chard makes a good border plant; asparagus tips can pop up in a border before the rest of the plants really get started and a close proximity of flowers and veg helps all those lovely bees come and pollinate for you.

Making a planting plan

Oooh, this is the bit I just love! The expectation, the hopes, the dreams. Yes, I think I’ll put some lovely borlotti beans in there, oooh, let’s have some low growing strawberries there etc etc, as you drool from the mouth in anticipation of the next year’s bounty and imagine how you’ll need to phone your veg box delivery company and cancel the box because you just have so much food to eat…

I tend to draw up a rough plan on the back of envelope before I order my seeds, working out what will go there and how much I can realistically fit in. This (theoretically) prevents you massively over-ordering on the seeds, though I still manage it every year.

Put the tallest plants in the middle of the beds (or the side furthest from the sun) so they don’t overshadow the others. Check the distances needed between the plants (all seed packet info should have this) so you can figure out how many plants per row and how many rows you can fit in.

Think about planting certain things in succession – lettuce can be replanted throughout the year so you always have fresh crops, radishes can be planted in between slower growing crops like cabbage. Maximise your space, but don’t over-ram it. On the whole, plants spaced closer together will grow smaller but potentially more uniformly. This can actually be desirable, if you’re after tiny little baby carrots, for example, but try and make it intentional, rather than a by product of over-planting. (Ha! She says optimistically. I am a terrible one for overplanting because I just want one more little delicious plant in there please…)

Buying seeds

Sure, you could pop down to your local DIY shop and pick up any number of veg seeds these days, but the real specialities tend to be online or in garden centres. I tend to buy a lot from the James Wong selection at Suttons seeds, because I just can’t resist the allure of weird things like cucamelons; a fair bit from Sarah Raven because I just can’t resist the allure of such delightfully styled aspirational gardening and then some heritage seeds from Crocus, which is the online gardening shop I tend to buy most of my plants from. (It’s definitely not the cheapest, but I have never had a duff plant from them and they have some amazing free planting plans for inspiration too…)

There are lots more specialist providers of weird and wonderful things as well, or of course you can use seed you’ve saved yourself (I wrote more about that a few weeks ago: saving seeds) or have blagged from friends.

So, I think that pretty much concludes most of my pearls of wisdom on Autumn planning for a kitchen garden: choose a plot, prep your soil, pore over the seed catalogues, order some things and then feet up until the start of next year when you can begin to stick them in the ground / pots.

I’ve really been enjoying writing some of these gardening posts for the Grow, forage, cook series with Laura. I do hope you’ve been enjoying reading them too! I’d love it if you felt like leaving me a comment and letting me know what you think. It’s a bit of a departure from my usual craft / general life waffle…

Next week, Laura will be rounding up our favourite pics / recipes / blog posts that have been tagged #growforagecook on Twitter or instagram, so do keep on sharing your bakes, makes, preserves, or anything else you’re up to. As the colder weather settles in, my thoughts are turning towards pickling and preserving. But more on that, perhaps, another time…

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…