We recently took a few days off, and as there are about 150 animals still on the farm, we always make sure the place is looked-after by farm-sitters. Sometimes it’s local friends who keep an eye in things, but other times it’s people from farther afield who fancy a break, but have experience of livestock. This time it was Mike and Lou, two archaeologists who have helped several times at lambing and have just set up house in Cambridge. Unlike many starter-type homes, theirs is older and has a garden, which Mike had just cleared of brambles. So we gave them two bags of well-rotted manure and some onion sets, to get them started on their new veg garden. While we were bustling around sorting these things out, Mike mentioned that it would be good if there was a website he could turn to for advice on growing things – especially vegetables. I told him about the usual sources, such as the Royal Horticultural Society, and I’m sure he would have done a Google search which would, I’m sure, have revealed millions of results, some of which might prove useful.
But after we’d set off on our short break, I got to thinking, and yes, Mike was dead right. It must be difficult, especially if both space and time were a bit scarce. So why didn’t I offer some short, pithy tips aimed at people who would like to grow their own food, but who, like Mike and Lou, were leading busy lives and didn’t want to spend yet more time staring at their computers or smart phones. They wanted to be out there, doing it. So my aim here is to provide a simple, take-it-or-leave-it, schedule of what I’m doing now in the vegetable garden. Incidentally, if you want to see views of our garden at other times of the year, glance at The Making of the British Landscape, colour plate 18 and plate 15.1 (p. 660).
So here’s the first of a series of blog posts, categorised under Grow Your Own, for easy retrieval later. More advanced gardeners and those of you who don’t care about such things can ignore these posts, and I won’t take (much) offence. Although why anyone could turn their back on something of such fundamental importance as food, leaves me baffled. Anyhow, I won’t attempt to make this a tedious textbook-type thing; inevitably it will reflect my own soils (fairly heavy clay-silts) and of course it’ll mirror the season’s weather. I’ll also try to be honest about results.
Before we begin there are one or two fundamental points that need to be addressed. First and perhaps foremost, you’ll need to get rid of, or massively reduce, any perennial weeds, such as creeping thistle, ground elder, couch grass, bindweed or clover. There are various ways of doing this. Personally I don’t mind using glyphosate weed-killer (Round Up is the commonest brand) a few times, as it leaves very little residue in the soil – and it isn’t a hugely complex molecule. But stay clear of the hormone weed-killers that are recommended for lawns – they tend to be persistent. If you don’t like weed-killers, you can smother them by using sheets of black plastic – but allow plenty of time.
So now you’ve decided on the size of your plot. The first thing you must do then is decide what proportion you’d like to reserved for permanent crops (such as rhubarb, asparagus, globe artichokes, raspberries, strawberries, black/red currants etc.). I’d make this area a bit larger than you might expect – as something is bound to occur – like, in our case, sea kale, which we discovered ten years ago. We force and eat it in February. Delicious! You should also allow space for a couple of compost bins and a small bonfire/rubbish heap. Certain things, like potato top-growth (or haulm) are best burnt rather than composted, until you’re very expert at it.
Next, divide your plot into three equal-sized parts, or segments. And mark their boundaries clearly. These three (or four, if your garden is as large as a standard allotment) plots are the basis of crop rotation which is essential if you are to avoid two dreaded diseases: potato cyst eelworm and club root. Club root affects brassicas (members of the cabbage family: broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower etc. ); but both diseases are very hard to get rid of, once they appear. So never, ever, plant either brassicas or potatoes in the same ground, on successive years.
In outline, Plot 1 should contain your potatoes and tomatoes (if you grow them). This is the plot that is dug over and/or heavily manured. Plot 2 (which was Plot one the previous season) is the bed for onions and garlic; also catch-crops of peas and beans. Plot 3 is reserved for brassicas and summer vegetables, such as courgettes etc. Brassicas, especially sprouts like well compacted soils, so Plot 3 is the best for them. Some crops, such as peas, beans, onions and lettuces are less fussy than others and can more or less be grown where there’s space. It’s also worth remembering that the roots of peas and sweet peas ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil. In effect, this means they can add a healthy dose of fertiliser, while also producing food. So they’re doubly valuable. It’s also worth remembering that artificial fertilizers, (pellets or liquids, usually with names like Growmore) do indeed produce greener, larger vegetables. But they’re also the reason why supermarket produce tastes of nothing. We avoid them like the plague. Instead, learn how to compost your (and your neighbours’) garden and kitchen waste and use that instead. It’ll also make you new friends – and it’s cheaper and better.
Finally, tools: don’t waste money on expensive ones at this stage. First, find out if you like gardening – and you can only achieve that by getting out there and doing it. As time passes you’ll discover what types of trowels, spades and forks suit you and your soil best. My advice is not to rush, but when the time does come, then only get the best – like Felco secateurs (nothing, but nothing compares with them). With proper maintenance, a pair of Felcos will last you a lifetime.
Let me start with a confession: despite regular spraying against blight, my outdoor tomatoes were a complete wash-out. From twelve plants I got as many tomatoes. But that was the first time my tomatoes had ever failed, but it was also the wettest summer for 100 years, which is some consolation, I suppose. Anyhow, the point I want to make is that October and November are good months to clear away debris and if it’s diseased, like my old blighted tomato plants, then remove them, roots and all, and burn them. Don’t , whatever you do, put them in the compost.
Now what about jobs outside? It’s still time to plant-out over-wintering garlic, shallots and onions (the onion variety I prefer is Radar) in your Plot 2. You buy these in the form of ‘sets’, which are essentially tiny bulbs. Plant them in rows about 4 (for garlic and shallots) to six (onions) inches apart, in individual holes about an inch deep, so that the pointy end just sticks out of the ground. Be ruthless, and chuck away any that are soft or rotten. Then remember to check the rows every other day or so, and replace any that have been pulled out by blackbirds, or squirrels. This won’t happen so often after a week or two, once the roots have got a grip. A useful tip: first measure the length of the rows in your garden and work out how many sets you’ll need; then count them (approximately) in their net bags in the garden shop. Allow about 5% for rotten ones.
Don’t plant too many over-wintering onions. They’re ready in May and fill the gap until you main crop becomes available, in August, but they keep very poorly after that. I’ve just thrown a load out. Having said that, they’re deliciously sweet and break down rapidly when cooked, so make superb gravies, soups and sauces. If you plan to plant 2 or 3 rows of main crop onions, I’d plant about half a row of over-wintering.
This is also a good time to approach other gardeners for runner bean seed. They won’t be ready quite yet, but it’s always good for your potential donors to know in advance. As a general rule, I don’t advise saving your own vegetable seed, as disease can soon become a problem (especially with potatoes); but runner beans and related, species (such as French beans) can be saved safely. Broad beans also save quite well. The key thing is not to put any saved seeds in a bag until they are thoroughly dry, which is often not until December. Then store them indoors, just to be safe (mice love them!).
In a couple of weeks I’ll start digging-over this year’s Plot 1. I dig in a lot of manure and compost to provide next season’s potatoes with nourishment, but also to help break up and lighten our heavy soil. It also encourages earthworms. Ideally, I like to get the digging finished well before Christmas. That way the fiercest frosts of January and February will be able to break-up the soil. But remember, just dig Plot 1, although you’d be well advised to dig your entire veg garden over if it has never been done before – or was covered in brambles. You can probably get away with minimal digging on light, sandy soils, but I find that heavier clays do benefit from a good airing. And when you’re digging, remember to remove the roots of weeds such as creeping thistle and bindweed. Then burn them or throw them out with the rubbish.
I know some people find it hard work, but for me digging is a job that’s worth doing properly. It’s wonderful exercise: stretching your back, arms and thighs. I also find it extends my mind in a strangely, here-and-now, almost Zen-like, way. You become aware of the texture, the feel of the air and of passing time. When going well, it can acquire a gentle, soothing, cathartic rhythm all of its own. The two weeks of digging prepare me for the excesses of Christmas. It’s as good as a session in the gym, but it costs nothing and it gives rise to fabulous food. So, is it to be gym and supermarkets; or dig and harvest?
It’s a no-brainer.