Preparing to grow

Lots of plant pots filled with vegetable plants fully grown.

More and more people are starting to appreciate the benefits of growing their own fresh fruit and veg and are seeking out their own patch to do just that. Learning to grow your own is not as daunting as it may first seem.

Home-grown produce is not just fresher than anything you’ll find in the shops, in growing it you’ll have got some free exercise and in harvesting it will have saved the road and air miles that our supermarket produce has to travel to get to our plates.

Of course the traditional place to grow fruit and veg is on an allotment and the long waiting lists in many areas of the UK show just how popular this hobby has become – not since the Dig For Victory campaign of the Second World War have so many people been buying seeds and plants and getting back in touch with the soil.

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Don’t I need a lot of space?

You certainly don’t need an allotment to produce your own crops –a back garden veg patch is a convenient solution for many; but even if you don’t have the space for a dedicated growing area, just a few tubs and containers will allow you to grow a surprising amount of produce.

If you have a tiny garden, then devote a sunny part of it to growing a few veg. It can be as small as a metre square or how about mixing in a few veg with your flowers? Try growing a few runner beans up a fence. At the front of a border sow a line of mixed salad leaves that you can harvest whenever you like to spice up your salads.

Train an apple, plum or pear up a sunny fence or wall. They won’t take up much room or plant a ‘Tumbler’-type tomato in one of your hanging baskets this year and add a couple of bedding plants to make it look attractive or even grow strawberries in a hanging basket or a large tub.

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New plot from a lawn

A lady crouched in her garden potting a flower.

If you have a piece of lawn that you want to turn into a veg patch then you have two choices.

A) Remove the turf: If you have a good deep soil then removing the turf is a good option as you will get very little regrowth of grass once it is removed.

For large areas equipment can be hired to strip off the turf. For small areas it is easy to do by hand by pushing a spade under the turf about 5cm (2in) below the surface. It can literally be lifted in long strips. If you don’t have anywhere to relay the turf then stack it up in a big pile grass side down. This will ensure the grass does not grow but in a few months you will have a beautiful stack of quality loam (good soil) that can be put back on your veg patch.

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The soil can be dug over at least a spade’s depth but preferably a bit deeper to really loosen up the compacted layers. If the soil is very heavy clay or sandy then it would be beneficial to incorporate plenty of farmyard manure or garden compost before sowing or planting.

B) Spray the grass with weedkiller: This is the easier option and particularly good if you have poor or thin soil. The first inch below the surface of grass is really good and ideally you want to keep it and stripping off the turf will remove some of it.

Many weedkillers can be used but if you spray with glyphosate, this will get right to the grass roots and kill any perennial weeds in the turf. It is best applied on a bright, but not hot, day and although it takes two or three weeks to show results, you don’t have to wait that long to dig it.

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In theory, as soon as the spray has dried on the leaves you can dig the turf in. However, just to make sure leave a day or two before digging. This can be a tricky job as the grass may be quite compacted and it is hard to break up the clods of grass and roots.

It is best to dig a 30cm (1ft) deep trench first, and then turn the turf back into this. The aim is to bury the grass clumps so that you have an easier soil surface to cultivate. Sowing can begin as long as there is no regrowth.Should the grass start to come through, it will require another spray before you attempt to crop the area.

Container growing

Several containers with fully grown tomatoe plants with another basket filled with harvested tomatoes next to them.

A lot of fruit and veg can be grown in containers. See the individual crops for information on how to grow in containers and what size is needed.

The key to growing fruit or vegetables in containers is to use a decent-sized pot (15cm/6in diameter minimum, but preferably larger) and keep the compost continually moist.

More information on the best composts to use is given on page 15. Plastic or terracotta pots can be used although plants grown in the latter require more watering as moisture evaporates readily through the clay.

Don’t have a garden?

Consider getting an allotment. You don’t always have to take on a full plot. Half and quarter sizes are often available which are good starter sizes. Further advice can be found in the panel below.

When to start sowing

Late March through April is the time when you can start sowing something in theground. However, in northern areas of the country it may be as late as May before the soil is ideal.

When is the best time to start?

Sowing vegetables: Any time between March and September. There is always something you can sow between these months.

Planting fruit: Container-grown trees can be planted any time as long as they are kept well watered but the best time is between September and April. In the warmer, drier months of summer there is a greater risk. Trees bought by mail order from specialist suppliers are usually supplied as bare-rooted (freshly dug from the nursery) specimens. They are sent out from late autumn to early spring. Raspberries and other cane fruit are best planted in the dormant season from autumn to early spring. Strawberries can be planted from March up until late spring and then again in the autumn.

Taking on an allotment

A wide shot of an allotment covered with sprouting plants.

If you haven’t got space in your garden for a vegetable patch, an allotment offers a good alternative. But before taking one on, ask yourself if you have the time to spare. Tending to a full-sized plot takes a minimum of two days a week – many plotholders spend significantly longer. However, if you feel the time is right, or if the whole family is prepared to help, then go for it. It is great fun!

Local authorities currently have a responsibility to provide land if there is sufficient demand. In fact all it takes to trigger the process (in theory at least) is for six adults who are on the electoral register to get together and write to the local authority. The exceptions to this are Scotland and Inner London. The advice in the latter is to look to a borough closest to your own for a vacant plot.

Allotments offer some great advantages:

  • They provide the space you need to grow significant amounts of fruit and veg.
  • They are often quite cheap to rent.
  • Most sites have their own social scene and old hands willing to impart advice.
  • Some of the larger sites have great facilities such as a shop, rest room and loos.

Where to start

First find your nearest site. You should find details of the person you need to contact on the gate, but if not have a chat with a plot holder. Failing this your local library might be able to help or get in touch with your local authority.

Not all allotments are owned by local authorities – local trusts, the church or a local landowner may have
responsibility.

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