Experienced grower Naomi van der Velden shares her tips for new growers. She's a plant ecologist and lecturer at University of Cumbria and has been growing food at her allotment in Penrith for several years. She's recently moved house and has started work on creating a veg patch in her front garden in Penrith.
Planning your plot
No matter how big or small your space is, start by drawing out on paper how you'd like your plot.
I've gone for a circular design divided into five segments, with space for paths in between the beds so that I can reach into the middle of them without walking in them.
What to grow
The next step is to figure out what you want to grow. My advice is choose fruit and veg that you like to eat. Then you can narrow your list down based on what'll grow in our climate, the amount of space you have and, to some extent, how shady or exposed your plot is and what kind of soil you have. But remember that plants want to grow – it's often best just to try different ones in your container or garden and see what works.
Here's what I'm planning to grow in my veg beds, to give you a few ideas. All of these will grow outdoors in Eden. As a guide, my front garden is quite windy and the soil is sandy and fairly neutral in acidity.
- Bed 1: Potatoes
- Bed 2: Onions, leeks and garlic
- Bed 3: Peas, beans and lettuce
- Bed 4: Spring cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli
- Bed 5: Squashes
Getting the soil ready
If you're starting from lawn, once you've got your beds marked out (I marked mine out with string tied to sticks), you can start removing the grass layer. I'd suggest doing this a bit at a time, as it's quite hard work and a bit tedious! Use a spade to cut the four sides of a section about the size of a shoebox. Then, stick your fork into it and lift it out. Now you want to get as much soil away from the grass roots as possible. One way to do this is to lay the fork down on the ground with the prongs over the space where you've just taken the chunk of turf out. Then hit the turf against it to shake out the soil. You'll be left with just grass and roots, which you can compost or use to fill in grass if you need it elsewhere.
Once you've got the turf removed from the whole bed, then you need to dig the soil over, to break it up. I usually fork down to the mineral layer – that's the clay or sand layer below the soil – to spread some nutrients from it into the top soil. Then mix in some well-rotted compost from your compost bin or manure. Make sure it is well rotted, though – otherwise it will take nutrients out of your soil while it's rotting down. Pull out any weeds that start to appear by hand, and let the soil rest for a few weeks before planting anything.
Your soil type
To get a feel for the texture of your soil, lift a handful of it and squeeze it in the palm of your hand. If it doesn't bind together, it's most likely quite sandy. If you can bend it round like a sausage, you've got clay soil. Manure and garden compost will help correct these, and you can help bind sandy soils by adding coconut coir, for example.
It's also a good idea to test the acidity of your soil. You can get test kits in garden centres which cost just a few pounds and are very quick and easy to use. Some of them even tell you on the packet which types of plants and veg will work best in your soil. There's always the option to correct your soil's acidity levels but it can be difficult to get this right.
Some plants, like potatoes and onions, go straight into the ground, but others should be started off indoors.
I recommend adding a month to the earliest planting times on seed packets for our climate in Cumbria, so if it says plant between March and May, don't plant them until April.
Here's a way of growing runner beans that I've found works well:
- Put six toilet roll tubes upright in a plastic tray or tub.
- Put some soil in them and put a bean seed in each one.
- Cover the beans with a layer of soil that's about the height of the bean and then water them.
- You'll need to water them frequently, so that they don't dry out.
The benefit of using the cardboard tubes is that you can peel the sides away when it's time to plant them outdoors, without damaging the seedlings or their roots.
And for peas:
- Start them off in a length of guttering.
- When the seedlings are ready to plant, dig out a small trench in your veg bed.
- Simply slide the length of seedlings along into it.
A few tips about avoiding common pests that attack veg...
- Carrots – one of the main problems for this veg is the carrot fly. Its larvae will eat away at the roots of your carrots. I tend to grow carrots in tubs kept a foot or so off the ground, as these flies stay fairly close to the ground.
- Slugs – I've found that one way to reduce the amount of your veg that gets attacked by slugs is to have lots of other plants around the bed, so that your veg isn't the only option for them. You can also choose a few plants that they like, so they'll hopefully leave your veg alone.
I tend to have several batches of seedlings, so that if I plant out one batch and they are attacked by any pest, then I can try again with the second batch.
A final word...
Plants want to grow. My advice is to plant some different things and give them a try!