The site for ashould receive sun for part of the day and not be heavily shaded by trees.
The idea of sitting down to a family meal consisting of vegetables freshly picked from your own garden is immensely satisfying. In order to do so, it is not necessary to devote the entire plot to vegetable production, nor do you need to become a total ‘self sufficiency’ devotee, complete with chickens at the end of the garden and a goat tethered to the fence! For the family with an average size garden it is better to aim to supplement your diet, rather than to totally replace produce bought from the greengrocer.
The prices of vegetables in the shops have varied enormously over the last two or three years, and if you decide to grow your own with the sole aim of saving a lot of money on the housekeeping, then you may be disappointed, although you will almost certainly make some savings on shop prices. This is particularly true if you plan to grow vegetables that are only occasionally available in the shops, and always at fairly high prices, such as broccoli, sweet corn, fresh, peas or even asparagus.
Probably greater than the financial reward will be the pleasure of eating food that is freshly picked or pulled, as a result of your own efforts — and, as we have said, the sense of satisfaction it brings. You can gain a real feeling of achievement at having fulfilled the traditional instinct of ‘working the land’. Home-grown vegetables also taste better, and you can grow varieties that are selected for their flavour, and are not often grown commercially.
When you set out to grow vegetables, it may be difficult to know what to try and what to leave well alone. Firstly, it makes little sense to grow food that nobody likes, so that it would just go to waste, On the other hand, it is just possible that the children will be tempted to try cabbage and other dislikes when they have contributed towards their production; they may even grow to like them.
Take a fairly relaxed view about selecting your crops. In the first season grow everything that captures your imagination, within reason. At the end of the season you will discover which grow best in your garden and which you prefer to grow, and you can therefore plan more knowledgeably for the following year. In making your assessment, however, do consider the effects of the weather. In a summer with little sun yourmay have been a failure, few of them ripening by the end of September. But think carefully before allowing this to deter you from ever again — the next summer may be a scorcher!
The site you choose for your vegetable plot should be open, and receive sun for at least part of the day. It should also ideally be fairly level and away from the base of large trees. We prefer not to see the plot situated too close to the house — decorative features provide a more pleasing view. If you feel that a vegetable plot may really spoil the appearance of the garden, then it can be screened byon a timber support or a wall of open brickwork or decorative screen blocks, ensuring that the screen does not cast heavy shade.
The size of the plot will vary according to the needs of your family. Assuming that you are aiming to supplement and enrich the diet of your family of four, rather than establish total self sufficiency, then you can start with a plot measuring as little as 10 by 10ft. Much depends on the amount of time and effort you are prepared to devote to your crops. It can be very depressing and disheartening to find that you have embarked upon a course that proves too demanding. Better to keep your efforts to manageable proportions, particularly when you are beginning.
The best time to start planning your vegetable plot is in the autumn. Although you will not start sowing and growing until the following spring, this will enable you to get theinto a good condition and provide a better start for your crops.
During late autumn or early winter the soil should be cleared of weeds and large stones and well dug, with manure, compost or peat added during the digging process. If the soil in your garden is clay and very heavy, sprinkle garden lime over the surface when you have finished digging, at a rate of 6 to 8oz per sq. yd, depending on just how sticky the surface feels.
When you dig, leave the soil in large, unbroken clods for the winter frosts to break down and form a crumbly consistency. The lime will help to break down heavy soil, and will be washed in by rain. When you are ready to start sowing seeds in your plot in March or April, it is beneficial to sprinkle a general purpose fertiliser over the soil and work it in with a fork. Do this a week or two before sowing.
There are three basic ways in which your vegetables can be started. Some can be grown from seed sown directly outdoors; others must be sown in a protected environment, either in a greenhouse or indoors. However, where these less hardy crops are concerned, it is often much simpler for the beginner to buy young plants from a garden centre or shop. This is also true of crops such as cabbages, that have to be sown in a nursery bed and transplanted to their final positions. The plants will be available at a time of year when they can safely be planted directly outdoors, and you will have the added benefit of being able to seek advice on your crops from a knowledgeable plant salesman.
Sowing seeds outdoors
Seed sowing should start in early spring and continue according to the requirements of each particular vegetable. Fast growing salad crops can be grown from successional sowings over three or four months, to ensure a continuous supply of fresh vegetables.
Sow your seed when there is no frost, and choose a fine, dry day. The soil should not be wet and muddy, but if it is very dry you should give it a watering the day before sowing.
Go over the soil surface with a fork, lightly breaking any lumps, then tread it to firm. If mud sticks to your boots, then the soil is almost certainly too wet to be raked ready for sowing, and you should wait for it to dry out a little more. However, if the surface starts to dry out and form a thin crust, then the time is right to rake the soil so that it is level and of a fine consistency. The seed bed should ideally run from north to south or from north-east to south-west in a windy garden, to protect the seedlings.
Mark rows in the plot by stretching a line of nylon or rot-proof string taut between a short stick at either end. Next make a drill to the depth required for the type of seed being sown, using a draw hoe or a piece of stick. The seeds should be sown thinly, and lightly covered; firm the ground with the head of the rake. In dry weather keep the seeds watered carefully, using a watering can with a fine rose to avoid washing the seeds out of their drill.
When the seeds have germinated, and the seedlings are large enough to handle, thin them by pulling out the weakest, leaving the plants to grow at the spaces recommended on the seed packet. Do this in gradual stages to avoid total loss from any pest or disease that may strike.
1. Prepare the soil surface by using a fork to break up any lumps.
2. Then tread to firm; the soil should start to dry out and form a thin crust. Do not sow if soil is wet and sticky.
3. Rake the soil so that it is level and of a fine, crumbly consistency.
4. Mark rows with rotproof string and take out a seed drill to the depth required, using a draw hoe or a short stick.
5. Sow seeds thinly in the drill and lightly cover with soil.
6. Firm the soil covering with the head of a rake. Mark the end of the row with the name of the vegetable variety that has been sown.
Some vegetables have particularly fine seed that can be difficult to handle. Many seed suppliers now make pelleted seed available; these have a coating that makes them easier to handle, and therefore easier to space out accurately and to thin.
However, it is essential to keep the soil moist until the seedlings have developed; if pelleted seeds are allowed to dry out they may simply fail to germinate at all.
To protect seedlings from birds, we find that crumpled kitchen foil suspended from the end of a cane with string is quite effective, and the foil moves in the breeze, glistening and rustling over the crops. The traditional method is a length of black cotton along the row, or alternatively proprietary ‘bird scarers’ are available.
Sowing seeds indoors
Vegetables that need protection from the elements until early summer can be sown in a green-house, or in the house.
Fill trays or boxes with moistened proprietary seed compost; level and firm. Sow seeds thinly and lightly cover with compost. Cover with a piece of glass or sheet of polythene and grow in a warm place until the seeds have germinated. Turn the glass or polythene daily to avoid a build-up of condensation.
After germination, remove the cover and grow the seedlings on in a light position. When they have two or three open leaves, transplant the seedlings into individual peat pots filled with potting compost, such as John Innes. The pots should be kept moist, and not allowed to dry out.
As the weather becomes warmer, the young plants should be hardened off; take them outdoors in the day-time and bring them in at night for a week or two. They can be planted out in the garden when the nights are a little warmer and all danger of frost is past. The peat pots can be simply plunged into the soil in the garden, where they will rot away. This disturbs the plants’ roots as little as possible.
The time for sowing and planting out vegetables may vary according to the part of the country in which you live. The soil in the south generally starts to warm up earlier in the year than in northern regions, and you should rely on your own common-sense as well as being guided by the advice given on seed packets.
A late, cold spring can have an effect on the whole country; do not be tempted to sow your seed while the weather remains very wet and the soil cold and sticky. Better to wait until the correct conditions prevail, and enjoy your crops a little later in the year.
As a general rule, it is preferable to pick or lift crops when they are first mature, in order to enjoy vegetables in the peak of condition, with a good texture and flavour. ‘Little and often’ is a valuable maxim; harvest a little from each sowing or plant at a time, and do so often.
Pests and diseases
A comprehensive survey of all the possible pests and diseases that could affect your crops would probably be so depressing that you would be deterred from growing vegetables at all! Nevertheless, it is wise to be aware of the problems that can occur, so that you can identify and speedily deal with them, or better still avoid them occurring where possible.
Possible problems of crops may be indicated on seed packets, and one or two garden chemical manufacturers produce information in the form of a chart or booklet.
Many people like to feel that one of the great benefits of ‘growing your own’ is the production of crops that are uncontaminated by chemicals or artificial substances. However, there is a middle ground between this philosophy and the methods of large scale commercial production. If your crops are threatened it makes sense to use a safe, proprietary chemical to save them from destruction.
New products that are safer and more effective are always appearing on the market, although these are often based on one basic, active ingredient. Always ask advice if you are in any doubt when buying sprays, puffers or liquids, to ensure that you use the right product for the purpose, particularly if your vegetables are nearly ready to eat.