Posted by: ceara08 | March 28, 2009

Foolproof Guide to Growing Your Own Veg

Below is an article by one of my hero gardeners, who’s been a huge inspiration to me the past year, Monty Don from the UK. He used to host Gardener’s World television show in the UK before he had a stroke. He seems to have recovered well, however, and will be submitting some articles over the next few weeks.

Part one of our foolproof guide to growing your own veg

By Monty Don
Published at the Daily Mail

The clocks go forward this weekend and my world leaps into spring.

There is no better moment in my calendar, and the fact that this happens every year does not diminish the sense of surprise, a sudden gift of light and time.

But what is different this year, more so than any other in my lifetime, is the sense that the world has changed since last March. We are, to a great extent, in uncharted territory.

Financial systems have collapsed, governments are floundering, climate change is increasingly revealing the extent of its impact on human life and I believe that there is every reason to be seriously concerned about our food supply.

Yet I am full of hope. When things fall apart you are presented with the opportunity to put them together again better.

We can learn from our mistakes, and one of these follies is that we have largely abandoned our personal connection to the land and our food.

Most people under 40 have no real idea of how, where or why their food is produced. It is dispensed to them in some form of packaging, has steadily got cheaper and cheaper, and there is no sense of personal responsibility for any part of it, other than consumption.

We can – and must – change this, and the place to start is in the garden, now, as spring opens out into the light.

This is no hardship. The ability to grow your own vegetables, fruit and herbs is not only practically important for your health and well-being, it is also immensely satisfying.

No amount of wealth will ever purchase vegetables that give you the pleasure of ones that you have grown yourself.

No amount of scurrying to the gym will be as good for you as regular exercise outside in your garden or allotment. No amount of vitamin supplements or health-foods will be as good for you as fruit and veg eaten in season fresh from the garden.

If you have a normal back garden or an allotment, then there is a huge range you can grow. But no garden is too small. A window box or pot is ideal for herbs that will transform many dishes, and a patch of ground 1 metre square will produce a regular supply of salad leaves throughout the year.

Over the coming five weeks I shall be covering a brief guide to growing a wide range of vegetables, fruit and herbs. It is intended as an introduction to inspire those of you who have not tried it to start, and a reference for even the most experienced grower.

But the best way to learn is by giving it a go. I have been doing it for 40 years and am still learning. The enjoyment is the same wherever you do it, with failure providing experience for next year, success ensuring a rich seam of pleasure.

THE SOIL

All vegetables grow best in good soil with plenty of sunlight. Most will cope with some degree of shade but choose the sunniest spot that you have, remembering that evening sun is better than morning sun.

If you are growing them in the soil rather than containers, it’s worth adding plenty of compost or well-rotted animal manure. But plants adapt to a wide range of conditions so don’t worry if you can’t get hold of this. Make your own compost and remember that most riding stables are only too happy to give away manure!

Learn to know your soil. Pick it up. Smell it. Trust your judgement. Good soil feels and smells good. If it is thin and stony it will be short of nutrients and needs lots of extra organic material. If it is wet and cold to touch, then it is not ready for working, let alone sowing. If it is sticky and heavy it needs opening out with – you guessed it – organic matter. Once you have nurtured your soil so that, in your judgement, it is good, it will only need a thin layer of compost every year to maintain it.

If you are growing in containers, use peat-free general-purpose potting compost – and do not attempt to re-use compost once a crop has finished as all the nutrients will have been used up. Also, ensure that each container, whatever it may be (and literally anything that holds soil can be used), has holes for drainage and a layer of stones or crocks at the bottom to prevent roots from becoming waterlogged.

ROTATION

Rotating the crops around your plot (that is, not planting the same crop in the same place each year) will help to avoid the build-up of pests and diseases, increase fertility and enable you to keep your soil in excellent condition.

Vegetables are usually divided into three main groups which share the same cultivation needs. Within the demands of space and the desire to keep the garden looking attractive at all times, it is worth trying not to mix the elements from each group and to sequence them in the following order:

GROUP 1: LEGUMES

Legumes include all peas and beans. They have the ability to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air and leave a residue of it in the soil. This means that plants that succeed them can tap into extra nitrogen, which will encourage green, leafy growth. Although not legumes, tomatoes, salads, sweetcorn, pumpkins, celery and cucumbers are usually included in this part of the rotation.

GROUP 2: BRASSICAS

Brassicas include all cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kales – all of which benefit from being grown in soil that has just been cleared from legumes. I add a thin layer of compost before planting, which I work lightly into the topsoil, to encourage extra growth.

Swedes, turnips, radishes, kohl rabi, land cress and mizuna are also brassicas and should share the same rotation. Brassicas are subject to clubroot, a serious fungal disease which thrives with a low pH, so lime is often added before planting if your soil is inclined to be at all acidic.

GROUP 3: ROOTS

Nitrogen will encourage leafy growth at the expense of good roots, so root crops usually follow on from brassicas, which will have taken up all the nitrogen left by legumes, and no extra compost is added to the soil.

This group includes carrots, parsnips, beetroot, onions, leeks, garlic, salsify, scorzonera, but not turnips and swedes which are in group 2.

Although they are roots, potatoes like a very rich soil and I grow them ahead of legumes.

Tomatoes should be grown well away from potatoes as they are from the same family and can catch blight from them.

THE CHOICE OF VEGETABLES

The first rule is to grow what you like to eat. Perhaps this is obvious, but far too many (male) gardeners take pride in growing food which they then disdain to eat.

The second rule is to grow what wants to grow well in your particular garden. Obviously there is a certain amount of trial, error and cossetting involved in this, but there are limitations of conditions and space and time imposed on all of us. Accept them and enjoy what you can do. Plan your choice as part of the process of making food rather than just gardening.

SOWING SEEDS

Seeds will germinate when the conditions are right – which is not always when you want them to. Very few seeds will germinate in cold soil and, even if they do start to grow, all seedlings grow slowly in cold weather, making them much more vulnerable to predation, particularly by slugs and snails.

Vegetables are best if grown steadily, neither forced into unnatural growth nor restricted by cold or dark. Remember that shelter from cold winds is essential.

As a rule, if weeds are not actively growing then it is too cold for your vegetable seeds. You can use this as a guide. Prepare the soil for sowing and leave it. When weeds start to grow, hoe them off and immediately sow your seeds. The soil will be warm and your seedlings will then avoid unnecessary competition in their first vital weeks of growth.

Sow the seed in rows so you can see them as soon as they emerge and avoid confusing them with weeds. I use a scaffolding plank sawn to length as a spacer between the rows and to enable me to stand and kneel in the borders without treading on the soil.

WHICH CROPS TO SOW FIRST

The weather in April can turn cold and some crops grow better than others if sown early. These are the ones that I sow outside first.

LETTUCE

The secret of homegrown lettuce is succession – sowing a few seeds every couple of weeks so that as one small harvest is used, another is ready to take its place. Most lettuce take about a month to six weeks to grow large enough to eat and will last for another month or so if kept watered and cool.

Lettuces prefer cool, wet soil so sow 6-12in apart in an area that is shaded in the afternoon. Keep weeded and thin to a final spacing of at least 4in. If you have a greenhouse sow into plugs and plant out the seedlings when they are growing strongly.

SUGGESTED VARIETIES:

Cos: Little Gem, Lobjoit’s, Rouge D’Hiver. Butterhead: Tom Thumb, All the Year Round, Valdor. Looseleaf: red and green oak leaf.

OTHER SALAD LEAVES:

Rocket, mizuna, mibuna and spinach are my favourite leaves to grow for eating raw along with lettuce.

Rocket and mizuna have peppery leaves that become hotter in summer. All prefer cooler conditions and can be sown throughout the season to give a year-round harvest.

All are ‘cut-and-come-again’ crops that regrow when cut. Grow as lettuce, but mizuna and mibuna must have plenty of space to develop strong plants. If any leaves become too big and coarse to eat raw they can all be cooked, just as you would spinach.

POTATOES

Potatoes prefer a rich soil with added organic matter. There are two methods of planting. Either make deep V-shaped drills or trenches and space the seed potatoes (available at garden centres) at 18-24in intervals. Leave 3ft between each row. Put back the sides of the drill to make a ridge along the length of the row.

Or plant each seed potato using a bulb planter. Harvest is normally 90-100 days for 1st earlies, 110 for 2nd earlies and 120+ for main crop.

Harvest early potatoes when ready, main crop in late autumn.

ONIONS & SHALLOTS

The easiest way to grow onions and shallots is from sets – small bulbs that you plant.

Make sure the soil is friable enough to sink your fingers into and press in the sets at 6in spacing in rows a foot or so apart, so they are firm but submerged with the tops showing.

Water and check that the birds do not tug them out before the roots grow enough to anchor them into the ground. Keep weed free and watered until the leaves start to bend over and the bulbs are fully formed.

Bend over the leaves before harvest and let them dry out for a week or two before carefully lifting.

PARSNIPS

Parsnips should be grown in the same soil as carrots but, since they are slower to germinate, I always sprinkle radish seed along the same row as well. These grow fast, mark the rows to make weeding easier, and are harvested before they get in the way of the growing parsnips.

The seeds are large and easy to handle but the final spacing should be no closer than 4-6in. They will not be ready to harvest until autumn and taste better after a frost, and they will last in the ground all winter.

CARROTS

Carrots grow best in stone-free, light soil, and fresh compost or manure will encourage the roots to fork. The seed is very fine and must be sown into warm soil.

Place two planks parallel to each other the width of a plank apart and broadcast the seed between them creating wide rows of broadcast seed. Do not thin but pull as needed.

Weeding is essential until established. Carrot fly can be a problem. By not thinning, and harvesting in the evening, the scent (which attracts the fly) is kept minimal. [Blogger note: He’s talking about the Carrot Fly here. I have yet to see this in Canada or the USA when I lived there. Must be a UK thing.]

Here is a video of Monty talking about compost. I just love his voice!

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