Why grow your own vegetables?
Perhaps you’re on a tight budget, and supermarket prices seem increasingly unaffordable. Or maybe you’re worried about chemical residues or contamination in your food, or concerned about the environmental impact of importing produce from far-away countries.
You may be bothered by the amount of wasteful packaging that comes with supermarket produce, or perhaps you’re thinking about the ethics of buying vegetables produced for export by countries who are struggling to feed themselves.
Or maybe you simply want to start your journey of self-reliance with the most basic of needs — food.
Whatever the reason, you’re keen to grow your own, but where do you start?
Pick your plot
You can grow food almost anywhere: a barrel or window box; a raised bed; an allotment or large garden. Of course, the bigger your plot, the more food you’ll be able to grow, but there are several techniques that can be used to maximise the amount of produce grown, no matter how small your space.
Choose a growing area that gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day. Some vegetables, such as greens, can be grown in more shady locations but you’ll be able to grow the widest range in a sunny spot.
Ideally, choose an area that is near to a water supply. If you have a hosepipe that will reach, this is not a concern… unless there is a hosepipe ban! Most allotments have their own water supply, though it may not be very near to your plot.
Inspect your soil
Most soils are composed of varying quantities of sand, silt, and clay particles. The best soil for growing vegetables is referred to as loam, and is made up of about 40 percent each sand and silt, plus 20 percent clay. It holds water and is still loose enough for roots to penetrate the soil easily.
There are also two other, less common, soil types: peat, which is composed mostly of organic matter; and chalk, which may be light or heavy but is largely made up of calcium carbonate.
If you’re growing in pots, you may decide to use a ready-made compost, or make your own mix.
If you’re growing in the ground, you likely won’t be starting with “ideal” soil. But don’t be discouraged, because with the addition of organic matter (humus) and other amendments, you can grow a great crop of vegetables regardless of your soil type.
Select your seeds
Beginner gardeners may want to choose easy-to-grow crops at first, such as beans, peas, courgette (zucchini), winter squash, beetroot, radish and lettuce.
When it comes to choosing vegetable seed, two types are available to the home gardener: open-pollinated and hybrid.
Open-pollinated seed is produced from natural, random, open pollination. If you save seed from open-pollinated plants (provided they haven’t naturally cross-pollinated), your resulting plants will have the same characteristics of the parent plant. Open-pollinated seed is considered “heirloom” if it was introduced before 1951 (the year when modern plant breeders introduced the first “inbred” hybrids).
Hybrid seed (“F1″) is the result of a cross between two different heavily-inbred parent plants, achieved through artificial (hand) pollination. Seed saved from hybrid plants will either be sterile; or will give a random mix of characteristics, usually producing a poor crop. If you want to grow hybrids year after year, you will have to keep buying the seed.
Open-pollinated seeds (whether heirloom or not) are the obvious choice for the self-sufficient gardener, as saving seed means you won’t need to keep buying it.
Decide a layout
Unless you are planting in containers, you will need to consider the layout of your plot. Vegetables can be planted using either traditional or intensive methods.
Traditionally, crops were planted in rows, and this is the most common type of layout on many allotments. The entire ground is dug over and amended before planting the seeds in rows about 18″ apart. The advantage is that it is easier to tend and harvest the plants. The disadvantages are: soil compaction; unnecessary use of amendments in soil between rows; and difficulty in planning crop rotations.
Hill planting is another traditional planting method usually used for vining crops such as melons, squash and cucumber. Areas of soil one foot in diameter are dug over and amended, and six seeds are sown. The weaker seedlings are removed, leaving between two and four plants to grow on. The hills are spaced six to 10 feet apart. This method takes up a lot of space and can be difficult to incorporate into a crop rotation plan.
Many people prefer to use an intensive planting layout. This is a system of raised beds along with vertical planting up trellises or canes. The raised beds can either have sides made of timber, brick or concrete block; or they can simply be mounded above the surrounding soil. The advantages of this layout include: minimal soil compaction, as beds are never walked on; efficient use of amendments, as they are only used on the areas which are actively growing vegetables; better yields with less labour; and ease of planning crop rotations. A disadvantage of this method is that if you make the beds too wide, it is difficult to tend and harvest the crops.
Gather your gear
The right tools will make growing vegetables much easier. If you’re planting in containers, you’ll need a trowel and/or hand fork, a watering can or hosepipe and gardening gloves. For planting in the ground, add a spade, fork, rake & hoe; a pair of secateurs; and some good boots. For the larger plot or allotment, add a wheelbarrow. Buying quality tools that will last is a good investment.
Prepare your plot
Soil can be prepared for planting using either the digging method (single digging or double digging); or the no dig method.
Double digging involves loosening the soil and amending it (with organic matter) two spits deep (the depth of a spade is called a “spit”). With single digging, soil is loosened and amended one spit deep.
Digging has the advantage of breaking up hard compacted soil, and allowing a good depth of root run. On the other hand, it is labour intensive (especially double digging) and may damage the soil’s natural balance.
The no dig method involves simply hoeing off annual weeds and removing perennial weeds before adding a thick layer of organic matter.
It has the advantages of not having to incorporate the organic matter, and encouraging worm populations. Its disadvantages are that compaction in the underlying soil is not broken up, which can lead to poor drainage; plus needing very large amounts of organic matter.
Ready, set, grow!
You’re now armed with the basic knowledge to grow your own vegetables. Start now and before long you could be eating your own freshly picked veg.