Unless you are lucky enough to have been gifted a garden with ready-made vegetable plots or have somehow managed to grease the palm of your local site secretary and scramble your way to the top of the Allotment waiting list, you will have to start from scratch, probably turning a patch of lawn or a rough patch of ground into a viable vegetable patch. So here are a few tips to get you going.
For the purposes of this article We’ll assume you are just going to create one large plot, rather like many allotments, if you want to create more, great but be careful, it can be addictive.
Location, Location Location
Vegetables, in general, are a bit like party-going holidaymakers flocking to Ibiza. They are looking for lots of sun and a decent drink. Crops need as much sun as they can get. We are not always lucky with this in the UK but the more they get the healthier, stronger and tastier they will be.
Subsequently, there is no point setting out your vegetable patch in the shade of the old oak tree or right in the shadow of the house or your garden shed unless you have no choice. So find a good spot in your garden that gets the most sun and will also get a good soak when it rains.
People often make the mistake of setting plots near a shed to provide shelter but the benefits of the sun outweigh the windbreak effect. It is better to keep the wind off your plants using hedges, fences or other windbreaks than plunge the patch into shadow. Some crops such as strawberries, tomatoes and other salad providers do need a bit of shade but netting, fencing and so on can provide this.
So. You know where it is going to be. You know how big it's going to be. Now you have to turn the patch of grass you have chosen into a cultivatable plot.
It is essential to remove any perennial weeds first (including brambles, dandelions, nettles, couch grass, bindweed) as they are very tough and difficult to get rid of and you don't want them setting up home in your newly cultivated bed. I would dig them out. Some people are happy to use chemicals, I am not, but ultimately it is your decision. Another way is to cover the ground with black plastic sheeting/carpet or the like until the weeds die and then remove them and turn over the ground.
If you don't have a major weed problem in your lawn, you could just cut and lift the turf, stack it for compost (it will create good compost after breaking down) and then turn over the soil, underneath.
The soil turning can be done either by hand or mechanically. If you want to know more about mechanical tillers or cultivators, there is more information on these pages.
You can’t do much about the soil that lives in your garden unless you are interested and rich enough to get into importing award-winning soil from Tuscany. However knowing your soil type is pretty important and once you worked that out, there are some things you can do.
Here are a couple of examples.
- If your soil is very thin, sandy soils are difficult to grow in. You will know this kind of soil as it will feel gritty, will often have multitudes of stones and dries out very quickly, even after rain. It can be helped along with lots of organic material like leaves, grass cuttings and so on.
- If you have the opposite problem, i.e. heavy, clay type soils, you will need to try to aerate it and loosen it with very well broken down organic mulch.
Whatever else you do with your soil, do feed it with natural organic compost and fertilisers These contain potassium, phosphorous and nitrogen, all of which are vital for the cultivation of healthy plants.
Keep a proper compost heap to provide free broken down material and never waste a cabbage leaf, a mouldy tomato or a banana skin again. This compost will be a great ally in keeping your soil productive.
Water Water Everywhere
If it doesn’t rain, don’t forget to water the soil. A decent natural water collection system will help so water you don’t need when it rains is collected for when you do need it. Then when the hosepipe bans come in, you won’t be affected quite so much.
Raising the Bed
If your soil is of the heavy clay variety, raised beds could well be your salvation. This type of soil is harder to warm up so raising it takes it away from the ground. They are also easier on the back and help fight off slugs and other pests, make for better aeration and drainage. Worth a thought.
You will need to cultivate your soil, that is turn the soil in your bed/s over in preparation for planting. This will also loosen and cut up weeds, which you can then dispose of. Traditionally this is done with a fork and/or spade but more and more gardeners are turning to mechanical tillers and cultivators. It is your choice, but before you decide do be aware that petrol tillers give off fumes and are noisy electric tillers can have long unwieldy cables and battery tillers may or may not have the power you are looking for. If you want to see some tillers and cultivators and think about your choices, there is a wide range on these pages and if you want to know more about these machines, take a look here in their MowHow section.
You will need to do a very good and through weeding session or two before you start. The clearer you keep your bed now the better it will be and every weed you remove means more nutrients, water and space for your precious veggies.
Cover your plot in early Spring to discourage weeds.
Divide and Conquer
All beds, even a smallish bed, should be divided for access and for ease of identification and for plot rotation purposes (moving crops around each year to keep the soil clean and keep pests and disease down to a minimum.
These divisions should be divided by paths. If you can use stone or paving stones, great, if not stamp and compact the soil between the growing areas. This is so snails, slugs and other pests will have a hard time, can be picked off by birds as they try to cross between one sub-bed and another and also so it is easier for you to reach plants and crops as you go.
The paths should be a decent width, otherwise, crops will start encroach on them and start to tangle and you won't be able to tell your courgette plant from your strawberries.
What to Grow?
Ultimately that is up to you. It all comes down to taste but, if you are dedicated to providing a quantity of delicious homegrown food there are a few interesting points to consider.
- Think about what is easy to grow in your soil and conditions. Are you really going to grow a huge crop of sweetcorn in that dry sandy soil? Probably not.
- Look at what is abundant, tasty and cheap in the shops. main-crop potatoes take up a lot of space and are regularly well priced so is it worth it? or does the idea of your own new potatoes cooked an hour after being dug up appeal too much?
- Think about how long something takes to grow and how much harvest it actually provides. Is it worth growing savoy cabbage when your local greengrocer provides them at a decent price every week?
- Plants known as 'cut-and-come-again' are very rewarding as you can get a meal from say, a lettuce or pak choi, and another few days later.
- There is no such thing as 'a tomato' what there are is thousands of varieties of tomato. There is not room here but look into varieties, how long they take to grow, what characteristics they have. This could increase your crop and decrease your work.
Finally, stick with it. There is a point in putting together a plot when it all seems like too much but, if you persevere, the rewards can be... well... delicious.