I’ve never been a keen vegetable grower, even though I try every year. As an ornamental gardener I am always inspired when I see beautiful vegetable gardens, however mine never quite lives up to expectations!
I start every season with good intentions, but then other things get in the way: grass to cut, weeds to keep on top of, Chelsea Flower Show, other people’s gardens to do, and a host of other distractions. Over the years I have learnt that the secret is not to plan to grow more than I can cope with, and to get going early.
Although January is not always the most inviting month to get out in the garden, there is still plenty to do.
It is still too early to start sowing and planting most things outdoors, but there is preparation work to be done. Those with a greenhouse or conservatory may be able to get sowing some early crops. If you are thinking of starting seeds on a windowsill, plenty of light and minimal heating is the key. Only start slow crops such as chillies and aubergines, those that you can plant out early such as broad beans, and maybe some herbs that you can keep on the windowsill until late spring .
If you are growing in the open ground dig over your plot now, as long as the ground is not too wet to work on. If you have already done it, be smug! If not, then the sooner you dig it the better; frost action will help to break up the soil, improving the structure and making it easier to work. Most weeds can be skimmed off the surface using a space. Then turn over the soil leaving it rough, rather than breaking it up and levelling it.
Nearly all vegetables grow better on an alkaline soil, rather than an acidic one, therefore liming is an important part of successful vegetable gardening. Apply lime now at a rate of around 6-12oz per square yard; this equates to about a couple of trowel-fulls. If you are acid soil you need to do this every year. On other soils every two to three years. I garden on neutral to acid sand and did not bother with liming when I first moved here. Until I did apply lime my vegetable growing results were miserable!
Clay soils benefit from the application of lime because the lime helps the fine clay particles to stick together to make larger particles, resulting in soil of more open texture. If you apply lime now it is advisable to wait a few weeks before adding well-rotted manure, however garden compost can be applied at any time. If you sprinkle it over the soil surface the worms should do most of the work for you.
If you have one of those nice raised veggie beds, or you garden in a warmer area and your soil is dry enough to work on you can plant out shallots and garlic and start onion sets in the open ground. If growing carrots, these can be sown earlier too. A tip a friend gave me, which works really well is to grow your carrots and shallots or garlic together. Sow the carrot seed a pinch at a time, between the individual shallots or garlic cloves. This means you can harvest bunches of baby carrots, rather than pulling them individually, and the onion relatives keep away carrot fly and other soil pests.
Now is the time to buy your seed potatoes, onion sets, shallots and other vegetable seeds. Early seed potatoes sell out quickly, so for the best selection get them early. Although it is too early to plant them out, you can set them out to chit in a light, frost free place. Stand the tubers in egg boxes or in a seed tray lined with newspaper; use crumpled up sheets of newspaper to keep the tubers upright. Which is the right way up? If you examine a potato tuber you will see that one end has tiny indentations and shoots. This is called the “rose end” of the potato and it is the top of the tuber. Some may advise you to keep your potatoes in the dark; if you do long, pale weak shoots will develop.
You can plant potatoes in the open ground from the middle of March onwards, however you can get started earlier in a potato bag. This is a handy way of growing a few early new potatoes that will come out of the bag around 12-14 weeks after planting; they will be clean and need only a rinse under the tap before you put them in the pot. I will only grow my potatoes this way this year. Results in the open ground were poor last year and these are so much easier to harvest.
Chit the potatoes for at least three weeks as above; then fill the bag one quarter full with multi-purpose or vegetable compost. Place tubers on top and cover them with more compost. Stand the bag in a light, frost-free space. A greenhouse or conservatory is ideal, but a cold room is also possible. When the potato shoots come through the surface cover them with more compost and keep doing this until the bag is full. Then let them grow keeping the compost just moist. You may need to support the plants with canes and string when have grown to over 30cm (12”) in height. You can stand the bags outside from early May if the potatoes are not ready by then.
However you grow your potatoes do not get carried away and buy too many. One pack takes up quite a bit of ground in the garden. Smaller packs are available for those growing in bags or raised beds. The same is true when you are selecting the rest of your vegetable seeds. Do not try and grow everything, and just remember that you get a lot of seeds in most packets. Take lettuces for example. If you cover a penny piece with lettuce seeds so that they are only one deep you will have about 100 seeds. As germination is so good that is potentially a lot of lettuce that will all be ready at the same time. Think: when was the last time you needed one hundred lettuces?
Those that are starting seeds indoors will be wise to invest in some cell tray inserts. These produce an individual cell grown plant that will not suffer any set back when it is eventually planted out into its final growing location. You can use these to sow seed directly, or you can prick out the seedlings of subjects such as lettuce into them for growing on. Personally I sow any seed that is large enough to handle directly into a cell which is large enough to accommodate the plant until it is ready to plant out.
Now, as I said I am no vegetable growing expert, but some of my fellow tutors at MyGardenSchool are. If you want to learn more and get better results check out
Kitchen, Vegetable and Allotment Gardening by Hodgerow
Both brilliant courses and you will certainly be pleased with the results! Happy Gardening……………….
Photography by Elspeth Briscoe, Geoff Hodge, Alex Mitchell & Andy McIndoe