Hannah Fraser from Bloom Garden shares her tips for growing your own veg
Growing your own veg can be hugely rewarding and potentially save you a little bit of cash.
For me however the best thing about growing your own is the taste, there really is nothing like it. And also, the fact that it’s there in your garden when you want to pick it. No food miles, no packaging, no waste, just tasty, healthy goodies ready for eating.
I can’t promise that growing veg will be a walk in the park but if you follow some of my tips you should have success and you will build up experience over time as to which crops do well in your garden.
As with so many things in life, preparation is key. By providing the right conditions your plants will have the best chance of thriving, so it’s worth putting in the effort at the start of the season to create the optimum growing conditions for the best crops.
So what are the optimum growing conditions? Most crops need a sunny sheltered site with humus rich well-drained soil. Soil can be improved but aspect can’t, so get this part correct now.
Prepare the soil by weeding thoroughly and removing large stones. Perennial weeds should be forked out, removing all of the root. Annual weeds can be hoed or hand weeded. Weeds will continue to grow throughout the season as there will be weed seed in the soil, but thorough at this stage will make life easier further down the line. The reason we remove weeds is simply to reduce competition. Plants need space, light, water and nutrients. Weeds are competing with your plants for all of these things, which is why they must go!
Add garden compost or well-rotted farmyard manure to the soil and dig in well. This adds humus to the soil which increases fertility, improves drainage and helps the soil warm up faster, aiding germination. It’s a really important step. Be generous. You can never have too much humus.
You can also lay plastic or fleece over freshly dug seed beds to warm the soil before sowing seeds.
What to Grow
If you haven’t already, now is the time to decide what you are going to grow and plan where you will grow it. At the beginning of the season the world is your oyster, but if this is your first foray into veg growing I recommend keeping it simple. Next year when you have a little experience under your belt you can get more adventurous!
Some crops are undoubtedly more challenging and troublesome than others. Brassicas I’m looking at you!!
I suggest you start with potatoes, salad, radishes, chard/spinach, beans, peas, courgettes/squash and some herbs. These are all relatively straight forward and problem free. All seeds and plug plants will have planting details on the label so I am not going into detail here. I am not recommending any specific cultivars, and that is simply because different situations call for different cultivars. I recommend you spend some time either on-line or in the garden centre choosing cultivars that you think suit your purposes. If in doubt choose seeds and plants with the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM). This is a seal of approval from the RHS that the plant performs reliably in the garden. What better recommendation is there?
Potatoes are grown from seed potatoes, which look just like an ordinary potato but don’t use ones from the larder as they are not virus resistant and may have been treated to prevent them from growing.
Seed potatoes are prepared specifically for purpose and will give a much better result.
Depending on the available space you have you can grow what we call first earlies, second earlies and maincrop which will provide you with potatoes for harvesting and storing well in to the winter.
Planting depths and row distances will be detailed on the label.
There is a huge range of lettuce and other salad leaves available nowadays, both in garden centres and by mail order. I always recommend sowing seed little and often to make sure that there is something for the salad bowl all summer long. There are also many leaves, such as rocket which are better suited to growing when the days start geting shorter later in the summer. With a bit of protection it’s possible to grow salad leaves all year round. So much nicer than the over-priced supermarket bags that are past it within a couple of days. Many leaves are also ‘cut and come again’, which means just that, you can cut them and they will re-grow for another harvest. You can also buy lettuces as plug plants at the garden centre, but there will be a much more limited choice.
Radishes add crunch, colour and pepperiness to a salad, and they’re really quick and easy to grow. They can be grown in between other slower growing crops to maximise yields from your patch and also to crowd out weeds. Again the trick is to sow little and often for ongoing harvests.
These crops are so quick, easy and prolific to grow. Chard looks really beautiful too (Check out Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights’.) They are really nutritious and as long as you keep harvesting they will crop for months at a time. Best sown from seed.
I know not every-one is a fan of broad beans. It’s taken me some years but now I love them, particularly raw in salads, so I would encourage you to give them a go. They are very easy to grow from seed, either in the autumn for an early crop, but can also be sown now. Beans are great for planting with children as the seeds are large and easy to handle. Tall cultivars will need staking but there are dwarf cultivars available.
Again there are dwarf and climbing varieties of French beans, so choose carefully. French beans are tender so should not be planted until all risk of frost has past. You could start them in pots on a sunny windowsill beforehand to get a head start.
Runner beans again are tender so need planting later in the season. Most cultivars are climbers which will need support either by growing up a wigwam or in rows supported by canes and string. If you’re short of space a runner bean clad wigwam within a mixed border in the garden looks great, so don’t feel you’re restricted to what you can fit into your ‘veg patch’. Equally, why not grow your veg in a large pot on the patio?
All beans are hungry and thirsty so the more organic matter you can add to the soil the better. Seeds and plants will need watering in well and if we have a dry spring further watering will be needed. When your beans start to flower they will also need more watering to ensure that the pods form. If you’re growing in pots rather than the ground, more attention to watering will be needed.
Peas have similar cultivation requirements to beans and are often more popular with children. There are leafless cultivars available now which have tendrils rather than leaves, making them self-supporting and less at risk from bird damage. If you sow peas early protect them from hungry mice. If you sow them late, they might be vulnerable to pea moth larvae.
Often maligned, but for me courgettes are one of the most useful and versatile vegetables. Don’t get carried away though, a couple of plants will provide enough courgettes for the average family, and you may still find you’re giving them away come August! They are tender, so either wait until mid-end May and sow them direct, or sow in pots on a sunny window sill in April and plant out the following month. Courgette plants need space. I recommend allowing a squared metre per plant.
Onions and shallots are really simple to grow. They can be grown from seed but I recommend growing from ‘sets’ for a more reliable result. They take up little space but due to the nature of their growth (ie. tall and narrow) they will be surrounded by bare soil, so will need regular weeding.
Herbs are really easy to grow and can transform a few simple ingredients into something amazing to eat or drink (anyone for Pimms?). Some are annuals which means they only last for one season, such as basil, coriander, chervil and dill. Chive, mint, parsley, tarragon and thyme are perennial herbs which will come back the following year. Shrubby perennials such as bay, sage and rosemary usually cope well with our winters, particularly if grown in a sheltered spot, but any frost damage can simply be pruned out. All of these herbs can be bought ready to plant from the garden centre. You will also find many of them much cheaper in the supermarket. They will all thrive in a sunny, sheltered spot in the garden, preferably near the back door so that they are easy to pick.
Watering in dry conditions and staying on top of weeds will make a big difference to your crops. Slugs and snails are likely to be the main ‘problems’ and there are many ways to tackle this from beer traps to egg shells, copper tape to slug pellets, but I think that’s a blog in itself. Control them and I’m sure you’ll have great success.
Good luck and most importantly, enjoy!