It is hard to be completely self-sufficient when you’re growing your own, unless you have acres to devote and the manpower (and willpower) to look after and harvest a mountain of crops. But it is very rewarding to come in from the garden with mud on your boots with a small basket of (equally muddy) produce in your grimy hands. Vegetables can be grown anywhere, providing you can feed and water them adequately and as long as they get enough sun. If you’re lucky enough to have a patch of garden that sits in a sunny sheltered position, you’ll be off to a flying start. Think about making your vegetable garden accessible, too, if possible. Vegetable gardens are often tucked away out of sight, but they are easily made beautiful – think potager or kitchen garden (ie near the kitchen). I’m hopelessly forgetful and impulsive, so I need everything close at hand – it’s irritating having to traipse to the bottom of the garden in the rain or dark (in your slippers) to pick a few bits and bobs.
For many years I grew my vegetables straight into the soil, using boundaries of herbs, flowers and salad leaves to divide the crops into their allotted spaces. It worked well and looked pretty, but by the summer was hard to maintain and it was hard to see the veg for the edging. Now that I have to set a good example with clearly defined spaces for each set of crops, I have raised beds. It took me a little while to get used to them and (to my husband’s despair) I kept planting in the paths and un-straightening the edges, but now I find them very useful and have even sub-divided them into ‘meal sized’ sections which stops me growing too much – or too little – of one thing. There are other advantages to raised beds:
- Raised beds warm more quickly in spring, allowing you to work the soil and start planting earlier
- They are designed to be accessed from the paths around them, so the soil won’t get compacted. Make them no wider than 1.5m, though, so that you can reach into the middle
- If your soil is unsuitable you can import new soil into them
- After the initial construction process, raised beds are lower maintenance, but think about the paths around them – grass paths will need mowing and edging
And so to soil. Digging, once thought of as a vital part of vegetable growing, has gone out of fashion, you may be glad to hear. If you were hoping to cancel your gym membership, don’t let me stop you – but mysterious and marvellous things happen underground and digging interferes with it. The structure of the soil is destroyed and this upsets the activities of the soil ecosystem (also, sadly, half a worm is only half a worm, not two new ones). By not digging or treading on the soil, you can happily spread a load of organic matter over your beds in the autumn and leave the weather and the bugs to incorporate it – and thereby create the ideal environment by the following spring. My soil is light and sandy so I spread mine in late winter (and sometimes upset the worms by digging it in around now – sorry worms), but if you have heavy clay soil that holds onto nutrients, it’s best done in the autumn. Incorporating organic matter (homemade compost, well rotted farm or horse manure, spent mushroom compost) is the key to improving the structure of the soil. It will ‘open up’ clay soils that are prone to compaction and do the opposite in free-draining sandy ones. It pays to be friendly with horse owners, farmers and any other purveyors of muck.
Vegetables are greedy plants. Many of them are annuals, which means that they have to complete their whole lifecycle in one year, often in just one short growing season, so they have a lot to do in a short space of time. It only takes 3 weeks to grow a salad – and peas and beans grow, flower and make their fat seed pods within 3 to 4 months. So they will need feeding. The three main plant nutrients are: Nitrogen (chemical symbol N) – for good leaf growth, Phosphorous (P) – for promoting strong root growth and Potassium (K) – for flowers and to aid the ripening of fruit. These elements are available to the plants – dissolved in the soil – and are taken up by the plants’ roots. Some clever plants in the legume family (peas and beans) bring their own packed lunch with them in the form of nodes on their roots that contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When you harvest them, leave the roots in the ground to help feed the next crop. Organic fertilisers are often made from animal waste products – this includes blood, fish meal and pelleted chicken manure. Bonemeal is a source of long-lasting phosphorous and wood ash contains a lot of potassium. A natural liquid fertiliser can be made too, like a sort of stinky tea, from comfrey and nettles. Just add the leaves to a bucket of water and leave to rot down for a few days. This solution can be diluted further before use. I made some last year, but when I came to use it the bucket was empty. Someone had kindly thrown away my carefully made organic plant food, claiming that it was a disgusting bucket of muck. One man’s muck is another one’s organic tonic (but that wasn’t what I was heard to mutter at the time).
Crop rotation is a knicker-twisting subject and one that I happily side-stepped when I had my non-tidy, flower-ridden paradise of a veg patch. The technical term for growing everything together in glorious profusion is Polyculture. Old fashioned cottage gardens operated on similar principles and, as with many traditional age-old practices, there is sound science behind it. The basis of polyculture is that crops are grown in conjunction with beneficial partners – either other edibles or flowers that have protective, even symbiotic effects on one another – a plant version of the neighbourhood watch scheme, if you like. Crop rotation is only really needed when row upon row of the same lonely crop is grown. In that situation, nutrients are depleted from the soil in an unbalanced way and pests can feast on their favourite supper without having to travel far for it. By changing the crop each year, this process is switched from one crop to the next, avoiding the buildup of pests and nutrient depletion. Exactly which crop should follow on from the last causes endless confusion, but to be honest most of our plots are small and it’s hard to stick to a rigid rotation plan, so just remember to grow a different thing in the space next time and help out the process with some colourful companion planting.
Like most jobs, it’s all in the preparation, so once your soil is sorted the job of growing the crops is fairly straightforward (I said ‘fairly’, not ‘very’). April is a wonderful month for getting going – the soil is warm, there should be a few spring showers, a little sunshine, lots of hope and the promise of a bountiful summer. What are we waiting for?
- words: Jo Arnell
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