A beginner’s guide to starting a veg garden

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Dig in: Toby Buckland says the home-grown trend is here to stay

Dig in: Toby Buckland says the home-grown trend is here to stay
 Photo: ALAMY

There has never been a more interesting time for edible gardening. It is right
on so many levels. It saves money, saves the planet and satisfies our
epicurean appetites. Edible gardening is an opportunity to grow interesting
flavours fresher than money can buy. It is the key to children being more
adventurous with food. If they grow it, they will eat it – and that’s
exciting.

Unlike crazes of the past, such as decking and blue fences, a cohort of
trowel-carrying cooks has created the current enthusiasm for home-grown. I
think it’s a trend that’s here to stay. Jamie Oliver and Hugh
Fearnley-Whittingstall have not only raised sales of vegetable
seeds
above those of flowers; they have brought many beginners into
gardening.

Latin names are not required and the archaic notion that veg growing is a
“blue job” and cooking “pink” has been booted well and truly into the long
grass. In its place is an ever-expanding range of edibles bred for our plots
and our pots. If you’re just starting out, here’s what you need to know.

Choose your ground

Give vegetables the sunniest spot you have. Sunshine makes for stocky,
disease-resistant plants and sweeter flavoured onions,
carrots,
tomatoes
and chillies.
If you need shade, for salads
or strawberries,
it’s easy to create some with netting or a wattle fence.

Most ordinary garden soils are fine for veg growing, but avoid extremes. If
your soil is thin – less than a spit deep (the length of your spade’s
blade), or full of stones that cause your carrots to kink, build raised beds
or grow crops in large pots. Clay soil is nutrient-rich and good for summer
crops. But as this type of soil sits cold and wet in winter, you’ll need to
build raised beds to extend your season.

Slugs and snails

Keeping your plot neat and tidy by clearing weeds and leaves gets rid of the
places where molluscs hide. Don’t have long grass or dense flower borders
adjacent to your veg plot as slugs hidden within will mount night-time raids
on your crops.

Where possible put a path (ideally paved, but compacted soil is fine), in
between beds as a no-man’s – or rather no-slug’s – land where they will be
easily picked off by you or the birds. The lower surface area, compared to a
covering of bark or raked earth means that they are also more likely to
encounter a sprinkle of organic slug pellets.

War on weeds

A “clean” weed-free plot before you start is the key to success with
vegetables. Otherwise you risk an endless war of attrition to prevent your
plot from being swamped. The non-chemical approach is to pull out weeds and
their roots as you dig.

If there are perennial weeds with spreading wiry or deep roots, such as docks
and couch grass, then cover the soil with card or doubled-up sheets of
newspaper topped with a 2in (5cm) mulch of compost.

This is sufficient to stop even persistent weeds regrowing, but is soft enough
to cut through with a trowel when you are ready to plant pot-grown veg and
fruit.

Given the choice, most gardeners would be chemical-free, but if you are
time-poor it is better to start with a clean plot than fail and give up in
the first year. The best weedkillers contain systemic glyphosate that kills
right down to the roots, then breaks down in the soil and will not affect
subsequent crops.

Spray on a dry day and be prepared to reapply in spring.

Allotment or not?

An allotment buzzing with life and brimful of fresh produce is an achievable
dream if – and this is where it goes pear-shaped – you have time to tend it
and conquer the weeds. Before you commit make sure the plot is right:

• Choose a site near where you live. Every mile to drive will be a
disincentive to go.

• Some sites are more family-friendly than others. Look out for play equipment
on other plots if you have young gardeners in tow.

• Proximity to the water supply and the drop-off point for things such as
manure deliveries reduce time and effort lugging stuff about. If possible,
avoid shade-casting perimeter trees.

• Not all plots have water. To become self-sufficient you will need to buy a
shed, gutter and water butts.

• Don’t feel obliged to take the first plot offered to you if you don’t feel
it can work. You are better to wait and get one close by than struggle with
one that’s not right.

Advice you can ignore…

• Crop rotation: the sensible farming practice of not growing crops in the
same place doesn’t work on a small scale, as the crop turnover is too fast.
Instead, try not to grow things in the same spot two years running.

• You can ignore the feeling that you are a failure if you buy veg plants
rather than sowing your own. Super-reliable grafted melons and cucumbers are
worth the money.

The same goes for slow-starting seeds that require a heated propagator, such
as chillies and aubergines.

…and what you can’t

• Advice on seed packets. Never start earlier than recommended, as plants that
get off to a weak start in low light never recover. Far better to sow later,
in the middle or towards the end of the recommended sowing window, when
seedlings romp away.

• The make-your-own-compost rule. Use lawn clippings, green prunings and
kitchen peelings. When turned to compost they help feed your veggies and in
turn feed you.

What to do now

Practical projects

• Collect leaves and pile into chicken-wire pens or old compost
bags
to create a free and fabulous leafmould soil improver.
Leafmould is wonderfully moisture-retentive and perfect for covering and
keeping freshly sown seeds hydrated. It takes a year to break down in the
bags, though I use it earlier to line potato trenches where it helps keep
spuds clean and clear of the soil.

• Build raised beds using on-edge scaffold planks fixed at the corners and
screwed to short posts driven into the soil. They are ideal for making a
plot more controllable, involve less bending, are an obvious no-go area for
children and pets, improve drainage on heavy soils and divide your plot into
manageable chunks. They also lift crops up into the light in shaded gardens.


Crafting a raised bed (JASON INGRAM)

Make them wide enough so that you can reach comfortably into the middle
without treading on the soil and fill with a 40/60 mixture of soil-improver
such as compost or local-council green waste and good topsoil. Using only
compost is expensive and will not provide the anchorage or nutrient and
mineral content of soil.

Plant this weekend

Spring
cabbage
— one to get you started. Garden centres stock bare-root
bundles ready for planting 12in (30cm) apart straight into the garden. Bury
the roots and stems up to the bottom leaves. Pick from early in the new year
for spring greens, leaving the best to heart up into cabbages. Net them if
pigeons take an interest.

Asparagus
Pacific
Purple
is even more tender than green types. Asparagus takes
three years of patience while roots bulk up to cropping size and, although
usually planted in spring, you can knock a year off the wait by planting
crowns now. In the meantime, use the ferny leaves to flavour salads.

Broad
beans
— the ‘Sutton
is short (45cm) and ideal for large pots and raised beds. Sown now, spaced a
hand-width apart in blocks or staggered double rows, they will be ready to
pick from May. Put out traps where mice are a problem.

Blueberries
— the fruit-crop for pots. ‘Bluegold’ is short, so ideal for containers,
while ‘Herbert’ has the tastiest berries. Grow in ericaceous compost and
have at least two varieties to ensure pollination.

• Microgreens — now is a good time to sow seeds of the cabbage
clan (swede,
red
cabbage
, broccoli)
to eat cress-style in salads or sandwiches. Broad bean and pea shoots are
delicious wilted in butter. Grow all-year in seed trays on a windowsill
indoors.


Micro-greens are fun to grow at any time of year (JASON INGRAM)

Chilli
peppers
— much more productive than sweet bell or box pepper.
Super-hot Naga types need heat to sprout and a long growing season. Slim
cayenne types are best, being prolific and tasty, plus you can dry them on
the windowsill for warming winter curries.

Lettuce/salads
— now is your last chance to sow winter gems, lamb’s lettuce and salad mixes
that contain spicy rocket,
mizuna,
komatsuna and frilly mustard for cut-and-come-again
leaves
through winter. Pick a bright spot and cover with fleece
or a cloche to keep them baby-leaf soft.

Onions and shallots — put autumn sets of the long and sweet
shallot ‘Jemor’ in now, along with the golden onion
‘Radar’
or red
‘Electric’
. Key to success is well-composted ground and
good drainage. Plant 20cm apart in rows with their noses just above the soil
and cover with fleece of sticks to protect from birds until they start to
grow.

Plan ahead: Toby’s choice of the most rewarding crops

Keep handy this list of good doers that are either cut-and-come-again so give
a long picking period, or have flavour that money can’t buy.

Courgette
– ‘Lungo of Firenze’, with the go-faster stripes of an Italian sports car,
is my new favourite. It has big, blowsy edible flowers and you can leave it
to turn into a marrow. Don’t sow too early – wait until May.

Cucumber
– I grow ‘Gherkin National’ instead of outdoor cucumbers as they are
just the right size for slicing into a salad. They are produced early and
have a distinctive flavour.

Elephant
garlic
– a big country cousin of the leek, with a crunchy swollen
base and mild flavour. There are two other types of garlic: softnecks (such
as ‘Provence White’) which are easy to grow in spring, and hardnecks (like
‘Early Purple White’) which tend to need deadheading and have fewer but
larger, more pungent cloves. This type is good for planting now. Trowel out
shallow holes deep enough to bury the clove but leave its papery nose
sniffing the air above the soil. Then cover with sticks or net to keep off
the birds until leaves grow. Always plant extra for a supply of the mild and
delicately flavoured leaves through winter.

Jerusalem
artichoke
– a spreading veg that does well on weedy ground. It’s a
perennial, ie can be left in the soil year after year, but if dug and
replanted you get larger, easy-to-peel tubers. ‘Fuseau’ is the best variety.
Plant now through until spring.

Peas
— nothing beats the flavour of fresh, home-grown peas. In the mild South
and South West, sow ‘Meteor’ now in modules then plant out under cloches
(don’t forget the mouse traps) for a spring harvest. ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ is
best for flavour.

Potatoes
— earlies like Rocket’
and ‘Lady
Christl’
are the most reliable and perfect for pots. Start
them off in a bright frost-free shed in February; or plant in a large tub in
March. As they grow, bury the stems with fresh compost. Once in flower they
are ready to tip out and eat.

Pumpkins
— great first-year crops that smother weeds and need little looking
after. Grow the lantern-red ‘Uchiki Kuri’ for flavour and the
Cinderella-carriage ‘Rouge vif D’ Etampes’ for looks.

Quinoa — a 6ft-tall close relative of the weed fat hen that
produces buckets of home-grown high-protein grain. The plants are pest-proof
and the grain, after a soak, cooks like rice. Colourful ‘Rainbow’ is the one
to grow. Sow in spring for autumn harvest.

Rhubarb
– ‘Timperley
Early
’ is the one I grow — long picking period, great for forcing
for February eating. Order bare-root crowns now for December.

Spinach
– sow ‘Tetona’ now in pots or under cloches for crops of baby leaves
through winter and into spring. In cold gardens try the closely related
spinach beet and rainbow chard.

Strawberries
— plant now to give roots time to establish over winter. ‘Alice’,
‘Darlisette’ and ‘Elsanta’ are all winners.

Sweetcorn
— the tastiest are the Xtra-Tender varieties that are so sugary you can eat
them like apples and they keep in the fridge for weeks. Sow in spring and
plant out after the frosts.

Tomatillos — like a tangy tomato but easier as not affected by
blight. Grow in the same way, planting out after the frosts. The fruits are
fabulous in salsa.

Tomatoes
— ‘Apero’ and ‘Black Krim’ have the best flavour but always make space
for the less interesting but reliable and early ‘Tumbler’ and ‘Gardener’s
Delight’. They produce even if the summer is poor.

• Unusual crops — check out James Wong’s new seed range that
includes colourful and reliable callaloo, popcorn and chop suey greens,
along with ‘Electric Daisies’ – edible flowers that taste of “fizzy sherbet
and nine-volt batteries”!

• Vines — if you have a sunny spot, the seedless ‘Perlette’ and
‘Suffolk Pink’ are delicious. From Lancashire northwards they will need the
protection of greenhouse, but what better excuse to invest in one.

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tools and accessories
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