The past few years have seen a vast increase in the amount of people who are growing their own vegetables. Even if you have resisted up until now you might be tempted this year, or like me you might be giving it another go after a fairly disastrous attempt last season. So this is one for the beginners – and perhaps a reminder for those of us that lost faith last season! I often feel that sometimes we just forget the basics, so herewith a few suggestions on how to get better results from your vegetable patch.
If you have the choice, it's best to grow vegetables in a sunny, sheltered spot. Most vegetable plants are annuals; they are working on a short timescale and need to grow rapidly. To enable them to perform they need all the help they can get and plenty of food to fuel the growing process; that's only possible in full sun.
Many plants, such as tomatoes and cucumbers need shelter from the wind. They won't grow well if rocked at their roots; also their leaves will blacken with wind burn.
Keep on top of the weeds
If any perennial weeds are already cleared and only annual weeds are your problem, it's a good idea to cover the patch with polythene for a couple of weeks in early spring. This helps to warm the soil, so you can plant or sow a couple of weeks earlier than if you left the patch open to the elements. Use sheets of clear plastic. It warms and dries the soil, and encourages the germination of any dormant weed seed. When you uncover the patch to plant, these unwanted seedlings are easily cleared by hand or hoe.
Raised beds or not?
For a perfect vegetable patch the soil should be freely drained, with plenty of organic material mixed in, and a topsoil depth of about 30cm (1ft).
If your topsoil is thin, this may mean building raised beds, a decision best made before you start your soil improvement programme. I have also found slugs and snails are less of a problem in raised areas than they are on flat ground, and the beds can look ornamental. You can raise the bed with railway sleepers to make a horizontal frame, or use woven panels of chunky hazel or willow, or ready-made raised bed frames which can be stacked on top of each other to increase the height. I have the world’s finest snails so this is what I should do more of!
On clay, without a decent depth of topsoil, dig in lots of grit and organic matter. The grit I use is 9mm pea gravel. For organic matter, I use mushroom compost. Cover the whole soil surface with a 6cm (2½in) layer of grit and a similar depth of organic matter before you dig it in. Consider hiring a rotavator for a morning; this will convert a poor topsoil into a reasonably good one.
If you garden on light and sandy or chalky soil, dig in lots of organic matter to help the plants grow well, but leave out any extra grit. On chalk, try to avoid disturbing the subsoil – or endless flints will rise to the surface and you'll have to spend hours getting rid of them.
If you have plenty of space, you can edge your paths with flowers, selecting plants that have a beneficial effect on your productive garden. In particular marigolds attract beneficial insects, lacewings and lady birds. If you attract a credible population they will lay their eggs within your patch, these eggs hatch into larvae which love to eat aphids and should keep your patch free of green and whitefly.
If you have large areas which need protection, don’t forget about tunnels. Poly Tunnels and net tunnels both help to keep the bugs out. The poly tunnel will help to warm the soil, enabling earlier planting. It also acts as a complete barrier to retain warmth and humidity and protects against the harshest weather. The net tunnels provide shade against strong sunlight and conserves moisture.
What to grow
Don’t bother to grow the things that need lots of TLC, or that take up lots of room for months and then only give you a minimal harvest (eg Brussels sprouts and parsnips).
Consider when and how often vegetables can be harvested. Some vegetables can be harvested several times in a growing season where others can only be harvested once. This is important when deciding what vegetables you will be planting, and where you will be planting them in the garden to maximize your yield.
Many of the fast-maturing vegetables such as leaf lettuce, mustard greens or spinach may be planted among the seedlings of slow-growing vegetables such as peppers or tomatoes. The leafy plants will reach maturity long before their neighbors shade them. Radishes are often planted in the rows of slower growing carrots or parsley. They sprout quickly, marking the rows, and can be picked and eaten while the other vegetables are still small.
Check out our Grow Your Own Vegetables Online Gardening Course at MyGardenSchool