Growing your own fruit, herbs and vegetables is becoming increasingly popular for many reasons; it makes financial sense (once you’re up and running) it guarantees you know where your food is coming from, you know how it’s been grown, there are no food miles, it keeps you fit and it’s a great hobby!
Whether you’re growing in window boxes, a small back garden, or your own allotment space, here are a few tips and hints that we’ve learned along the way to get you up and running!
Decide in Advance What You Want to Grow. It sounds obvious, but don’t take up precious space growing things you’re not likely to eat, or grow things in quantities that you’ll just not need. I’ve done this myself many times; I’ve grown broad beans for several years but declared now I never will again, as I just can’t be bothered with the preparation once they’re picked and I end up giving them away… and last year I sowed a pack of celeriac seeds, which all sprouted, so I filled a raised bed with them. I ended up throwing half of them on to the compost bin – who wants to eat 20+ celeriac in less than a few months?! It’s always tempting to sow a whole packet of seeds but don’t waste them, save them for next year! Write lists of what you eat regularly, and plot where you’ll sow or plant them and which vegetables will grow well alongside each other.
Practice Successional Sowing. Some vegetables are fast growing and have a long growing season, meaning you can benefit from several croppings throughout the year. Make the most of this by sowing ‘little and often’ meaning you can harvest your produce at intervals, and you’re not stuck with eating carrots every day for 3 weeks then nothing for the rest of the year. Don’t wait until you’re harvesting your first crop of any veg before sowing the next batch, depending on the growing time of the crop, get your next row sown after a few weeks. Vegetables that work well for successional sowing are carrots, lettuce, radish, kohl rabi, spinach, beans, peas, rocket, pak choi, beetroot, chard and fennel.
If you’re Planting in Raised Beds, Fill Them! When I first started planting in raised beds, I’d religiously follow the planting instructions on packets and in books about spacing between plants and rows, often leaving huge gaps of bare soil which seemed like such a waste. However it was pointed out to me by a very respected gardening expert that those instructions are for allotment gardening and should be disregarded for raised beds, where you can sow and plant much closer together. This makes better use of the space and also keeps weeds down. Obviously make sure you’re not planting too close, stopping the plants from having enough space to grow. Getting the spacing right in raised beds may be a case of trial and error; just bear in mind how large the plants will eventually grow. Another tip for making the best use of space in raised beds is to bear in mind the heights that plants will grow to. This year I’ve planted cabbages and kale together; as the kale grows taller and we eat the lower leaves, the cabbages will fill out the space closer to the ground.
If you’re Planting in Containers, Consider the Watering. Despite having several raised beds, last year I also planted some veg in containers, to make the most of other spaces around the garden. I was growing a lot of courgettes as I use them for a few different preserving recipes, as well as eating them regularly and feeding overgrown ones to the chickens, so I planted some up in barrels and some in a raised bed. Although I gave them all the same amount of care, the ones in the raised beds flourished far better than the potted ones, to the extent that I actually ended up moving the potted plants into another raised bed when my pea crop had finished, where they started to grow much more healthily. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with planting vegetable plants into pots, we’ve lived in a couple of properties where that was our only option and we got on fine, but you do need to give them more attention in terms of food and water.
Space Saving – Grow Up, Not Out! If you’re short on space and need to plant in small beds or even just pots, there are plenty of ways to maximise on planting. For a year we lived in a rental property with no opportunity to cultivate the land around the house, so we grew tomatoes, chillies, potatoes and courgettes in containers instead! We grew a cherry tomato in a hanging basket and reaped a fantastic crop all through the summer! (If you do this, watch out for birds helping themselves to your ripe fruit though!) If space is of a premium, get creative! Squash can grow upwards so grow up a trellis rather than along the ground. I’ve always wanted to try out the ‘3 sisters’ method of growing sweetcorn, pumpkins and beans together, the idea being that the beans grow up the sweetcorn stems and the pumpkins provide the ground cover around the base of the other crops. Research the ‘square foot gardening’ concept which is a fantastic space saving idea. Check out more ideas here.
Get to Know What Certain Plants Need. Don’t just read the back of seed packets and expect to know everything that that particular plant is going to need. Tomatoes (cordon varieties) need pinching out, strawberries should be laid over a bed of straw once they start to fruit, asparagus needs loads of drainage and shouldn’t be harvested in the first year – the list goes on! Invest in a couple of good gardening books by respected authors and do your homework! Get swatting up in January when the nights are long and it’s too cold to be doing anything outside! I can recommend Alan Titchmarsh,Carol Klein & Monty Don‘s books, these are my 3 bibles!
Map Out Raised Beds Before Building. However you go about it, making raised beds isn’t cheap, especially if you’re going to use materials that will withstand the conditions and not rot within a couple of years. Don’t waste money by buying the materials and also the soil to fill the beds before you’re doubly sure of the space you have and that your plan will work on a practical level. Can you bend down between the beds? Can you reach into the middle? Can you get a wheelbarrow around the garden? We mapped ours out using pallets and canes with string tied around them before we invested in the wooden sleepers to build them.
Try Unusual Vegetables and Varieties. What’s the point in growing the same fruit and vegetables that you can buy cheaply in the supermarket? There are thousands of varieties of vegetables out there that will brighten up your garden and your mealtimes! Carrots come in a whole spectrum of colours; beans, sprouts, mangetout are all available in purple as well as the standard green; you can easily buy cauliflower varieties that are green, yellow, purple and orange; tomatoes vary in shape, size, colour, texture and pattern. Also, try some veg that’s not easily available in the supermarket, last year I grew kohl rabi – neither of us had tasted it before and now it’s one of our favourites! This year we’re growing ‘Glass Gem’ sweetcorn. Obviously if you’re sampling something for the first time just grow a small amount, or you’re back to Point 1!
Herbs – Grow loads! Most herbs, in my experience, are pretty easy to grow! (with the exception of coriander…) Herbs don’t need to take up much space, they can be added to almost any meal, they’re easy to preserve and they smell glorious! Be aware though (going back to Point 6) that not all herbs need the same growing environments, the idea of one herb bed for all varieties isn’t realistic, as I found last year when I had to dig up and replant a lot of mine. Monty Don’s Complete Gardener book has an excellent section about this.
Defend your Fruit! Don’t grow fruit unless you’re prepared to defend it against birds, insects, chickens (if you have them) and a host of other sweet-toothed predators! Birds particularly have a habit of swooping in at the very moment that your redcurrants are turning rosy red and your plums reach the perfect ripeness. Mice will favour your strawberries and can sneak through the smallest gaps to have a feast! It can be an ongoing battle but if it’s worth the effort of growing them, it’s definitely worth protecting them! My husband has actually spent all this weekend erecting nets around our fruit garden, which perhaps doesn’t make that area of the garden the prettiest, but it’s essential for our crops!
Prepare to Preserve. Despite following Points 1 & 2, everyone ends up with a glut of fruit or veg at some point during the growing season! You can’t control rate growth rate or timing of things like rhubarb, tomatoes, apples and chillies, and unless you’re planning on giving most of your harvest away, with the best will in the world you’ll probably not be able to eat it all fresh, so find ways of preserving your harvests! The River Cottage Handbook has loads of great recipes. When I have time I make jams, chutneys, stocks and soups as well as drying and freezing herbs, but we also have a freezer in the garage that is dedicated to housing gluts from the garden. I even peel and chop up pumpkins and pop them in portion sized bags so they’re easy to grab and use as we need them.
Enjoy It! I mentioned all the benefits of gardening at the start of this article, but the biggest one for us is the pleasure it brings. If you take on too much, or don’t have enough time in your week to tend to your crops, the fun will soon go! Plan your planting carefully to make sure it’s managable for you, and also have a back up friend/neighbour/family member who can check in on your plot and keep it watered when you’re away from home. You don’t want all your hard work to go to waste for the sake of a week’s holiday! Our hectic lifestyle sometimes means that we don’t have much time to spend in the garden at weekends, but we find there’s nothing more enjoyable than coming home from work on a summer’s evening and pottering around the raised beds, catching up on little jobs while unwinding from the day’s events!
I hope some of these tips might be useful to you; none of it is ‘professional advice’ we are amateur gardeners who just do it for the pleasure it brings us, and all these points are things that we’ve simply learnt by trial and error over our few years and growing fruit and vegetables. We’d also love to hear any tips that you have to share – we’re always keen to improve our gardening knowledge!
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