How to grow vegetables: simple ways to get started
by Emma Cooper
© iStockphoto/Mike Rodriguez
Setting up a vegetable patch can be daunting; but it doesn’t have to be difficult to get off to a flying start. Think small to begin with, opt for simple plot preparation and invest in some time-saving tools. There are plenty of quick and easy crops to try and with warmer weather on the way; now is a great time to get growing!
On your marks: prepare your plot
Traditional soil preparation
Traditionally, vegetable beds were ‘double-dug’ in preparation for the new season, with gardeners digging right down to the subsoil and incorporating well-rotted manure before they refilled the trenches. This method has largely given way to ‘single digging’, which just turns over the top layer of soil, and incorporates organic matter at the same time if necessary. Digging aims to remove weeds and loosen up the soil; heavy soils are turned in the autumn or winter and then left bare so the cold weather can break down the clods. Either method of digging involves a lot of hard work in cold weather, and is a good recipe for a bad back. Luckily, even if you’re faced with a weed-infested plot, there are ways to get started while leaving the spade in the shed.
Easy soil preparation
‘No-dig’ gardening methods aim to disturb the soil as little as possible, and to deal with weeds without digging. Organic matter is left on the soil surface, to be incorporated gradually by earthworms and other soil organisms. It may take a season or two to get your patch as productive as a well-dug plot, but it’s far less work.
The main method of dealing with weeds without digging is to prevent them from receiving any light. This is done by covering them with ‘mulches’, which can be anything from weed control fabric or cardboard to bark chips and gravel. Without light, annual weeds (such as hairy bittercress, fat hen and chickweed) quickly die off, and seeds in the soil won’t grow. It takes longer to kill perennial weeds (such as brambles, dandelions and bindweed) and you may want to dig these out before you put the mulch down – but if they are properly covered and any shoots that appear are cut back, they should die after two or three years.
Crops can be planted through gaps in the mulch. If you want to sow seeds then you’ll need to pull the mulch back and sow on the soil. If the soil isn’t in good condition (if it’s still weedy, or very clumpy) then you can either add a layer of compost to the surface and sow into that, or sow in pots and transplant the seedlings once they are well-grown.
Raised beds and planters
A quick and easy way to get growing is to use raised beds and containers. Raised beds can be assembled directly on to the soil or on top of weed control fabric. They can also be placed on patios if you’re short on soil.
Fill the beds with homemade compost, or commercial compost and topsoil, and they’ll be ready for use straightaway. In future years they’ll just need topping up.
Try to avoid stepping on your beds once they’re made, as it can compact the soil and make it hard for plants to grow.
Square Foot Gardening
Square Foot (or Square Metre) Gardening takes a lot of the stress out of vegetable growing. Simply divide your patch up into small squares (you can mark them out with string, or canes) and plant something different in each one. The number of plants you can fit into one square depends on the crop – you can grow sixteen carrots in a square foot, but only one courgette.
Weeding, watering and planting are concentrated in a small area, so your plot will be much easier to manage. When a crop is harvested, the square is replanted with something new – which takes care of crop rotation for you. You’ll have a constant supply of fresh vegetables without the problem of gluts, and if for some reason one crop fails you’ll have plenty more to make up for it.
Square Foot Gardening isn’t just for vegetables – planting a couple of squares with flowers will attract beneficial insects and prettify your plot.
Get set: time-saving tools
If you’re not digging your plot, a spade isn’t necessary for a small garden. A fork can be handy for harvesting, and removing large plants, and a trowel and hand fork are essential. With a watering can, a knife or secateurs, and some string, you’ll be off to a good start and you can invest in more tools as and when you feel the need.
A compost heap or wormery is another essential, as not only will it produce free compost for your veg patch, it will also make it easy to dispose of plant and kitchen waste. Try and place it close to the veg patch.
Try too to keep a supply of mulch materials to hand – mulching the surface of the soil once your plants are in place (and seeds have come up) will cut down on the need for weeding and watering. Gravel and decorative stone mulches are great for containers and flowerbeds, but difficult to manage in veg plots where the planting changes every year; bark chips, grass cuttings or straw are better options.
Given the drought restrictions currently in place in some parts of the country, a water butt could really make your life easier. You may be limited by where your downpipes are, but try to place the water butt as close to the veg patch as possible to limit the amount of carrying you have to do.
If you’re growing in containers, bigger pots are better as they need watering less often. You can also invest in (or make) self-watering containers, which have a reservoir at the bottom to keep plants supplied with water for longer.
‘Leaky hose’ and drip irrigation systems make it particularly easy to keep up with the watering. They’re great for vegetable patches and you can also get systems for use with containers.
Grow!: quick and easy crops
The golden rule of vegetable gardens is to grow what you like to eat. When you’re starting out though, it helps to pick easy-to-grow crops along with some quick-maturing ones that’ll make your plot productive in just a few weeks. If you want to take the long view, try perennial vegetables which provide a harvest year after year.
Courgettes and other squashes are easy to grow as long as they get enough food and water. Sow seeds now for planting out mid-May, or buy plants at the garden centre.
Potatoes are also very easy. Keen growers have already got theirs going, but as spuds grow quickly, they can be planted into May. Look for ‘early’ varieties, which produce new potatoes very quickly; salad varieties are also a good choice.
Tomatoes and peppers are happy in containers in a sunny spot, and you can choose varieties that ripen outdoors if you don’t have a greenhouse. Look for bush (or determinate) tomatoes, as they need less attention. Small-fruited cherry and tumbling tomatoes are particularly quick, easy and tasty.
Spinach can be tricky for beginners, but leaf beet and chard are good substitutes that are far less fussy.
Growing salads saves you a fortune on bagged supermarket leaves. Sow a short row (or tray) of seeds every two weeks for a continuous supply, and make sure your slug defences are in place! Leafy vegetables need a regular supply of water to grow quickly.
Long carrots can be tricky to grow, but ‘baby’ carrots (and the round varieties) are simple and very quick. Sow them where you want them to grow, and gradually thin them out to the spacing recommended on the packet. They’ll be ready to harvest in about eight weeks.
Beetroot is even easier and you can use the young leaves in salads. Beetroot ‘seeds’ are actually clusters, and produce several seedlings. You can snip off the excess to grow single roots, or leave the seedlings to grow into little groups of baby beets. Again, you’ll be able to start harvesting after about eight weeks.
Radishes are probably the quickest crop of all – sow the seeds every couple of weeks and watch them spring up. Keep them well-watered to avoid woodiness, and harvest them while they’re young.
Consider using a portion of your plot for perennial crops, such as rhubarb, asparagus, globe artichokes and some herbs. They live for a long time so you’ll only need to plant them once to get harvests for many years. They’ll also need less watering once they’re established, as they have more extensive root systems.
Simple sowing and growing
It’s now possible to buy almost any type of crop as small starter plug plants – saving you the time and space needed to care for seedlings. (You can even buy old-fashioned potato varieties as ‘micro plants’.) Your local garden centre will stock some, but a larger range is available from the big seed companies via mail order. You can even use a service that delivers crops at the right time for planting – check out Organic Plants (http://organicplants.co.uk) and Rocket Gardens (http://rocketgardens.co.uk).
If you want to start from seed, some types are available on tapes which make sowing a doddle. There are also ranges which have been specially designed to make dealing with seeds simpler: try ones aimed at children or the Unwins Gro-sure range which combines several features (some small seeds are made into clay pellets, others are coloured so you can see them) to ensure ease of use.