Raised beds are perfect for growing fruit and veg as you can fill them with great compost rather than having to improve your own garden soil.
For the past couple of weeks, social media has been fizzing with requests for vegetable seeds and seedlings. It seems everyone with a garden or windowsill is piling on to local Facebook sites and neighbourhood groups to swap tomato seeds for sweetcorn, courgettes for salad mixes, compost for cucumber. I’m guessing this enthusiasm is due to a combination of that fabulous Easter weather and, of course, the fact that we’re all cooped up at home, trying to make the most of a tricky situation.
It’s great that more of us are trying our hand at growing our own this spring, but success with vegetables is a tad more difficult than it looks. I know because I’ve failed so many times! I admit, I’m still not that good at it, but thought it would be timely to offer a few pointers to the basic needs of most fruit, vegetables and salads.
Because most vegetables are annuals – and even when they’re not, we tend to treat them as such – they can be needy. They’re putting all their energy into a one-off crop we expect to see within a matter of weeks. This requires good, nutrient-rich, free-draining, weed-free soil. Unless you garden on perfect loam, the easiest way to achieve this is by growing in raised beds filled with your choice of growing medium - perhaps a mixture of garden soil improved with well-rotted garden compost and manure. Or mushroom compost (veggies love mushroom compost). If you don’t have dedicated raised beds, or lack the space for them, pots and containers are a great place to start.
A huge number of vegetables (amongst them peas, carrots, beetroot, salad, radishes, strawberries and climbing beans) will do well sown in good soil in large pots, trugs, window boxes or even an old pair of wellies. You’ll need deep soil for beans, potatoes and courgettes, and you’ll get away with shallow ones for lettuce. If your chosen container doesn’t have any drainage holes, remember to punch or drill some in.
A good tip is to sow fast-cropping radishes between rows of beans or sweetcorn – they’ll grow and be ready to harvest by the time the beans get tall enough to rob them of light
Without plenty of sunshine, your veg will fail. I know this through bitter experience; my harvests have been poorer and poorer recently. Then I looked at a photo of my raised veg beds the year after I built them. It was taken from a bedroom window, and the difference in the amount of overhanging greenery was huge. So last autumn I cut everything back brutally. My two huge choisyas may never recover, but it’s a sacrifice that probably had to be made.
Nearly all fruit and veg need full sun, so grow in a south or west-facing spot. If you’re not ready to turn over your favourite flower border to beans, peas and courgettes, you could dig out a section of sunny lawn, if you have the space. If not, try growing in containers (see above) in a sunny part of the patio. The main exceptions to the rule of sun are chard, runner beans, broad beans, spinach, lettuce and salad leaves, plus a few herbs such as mint and parsley, which will do well in shadier spots – but not full shade.
This is something many of us have plenty of at the moment! And you’ll definitely need it to grow veg successfully. If you’re starting from seed (and now’s the time to sow most veg and salad leaves), you’ll need to nurture the seedlings, then transplant them to bigger pots before hardening them off (gradually accustoming them to outdoor temperatures) and, finally, planting them out in their final positions. This is true for tender crops such as tomatoes, sweetcorn, courgettes, peppers and outdoor cucumbers. Salad leaves, radishes, beetroot, peas and more can all be sown in situ in April.
You’ll need to check your veg every day, too, whether they’re seedlings or full-grown plants. Vigilance is amply repaid in the world of veg growing. An attack of blackfly can ruin a crop of climbing beans in a few days, whilst cats or squirrels can dig up seedlings overnight, leaving them to wither and die if not rescued quickly. If you inspect your veg every day, you’ll spot a sudden influx of caterpillars or a hint of powdery mildew and be able to sort it out straight away before it becomes terminal.
These French bean seedlings are ready for planting; the sweetcorn can wait a few more weeks until they’re sturdier
Fruit and veg plants need regular watering, especially when they’re young and the roots haven’t grown sufficiently long to reach deep into the soil for moisture. Little and often is the key. For example, if you neglect your tomatoes, then suddenly give them a good soaking, they will suffer from blossom end rot. Watering in the cool of early morning or evening is much better than doing it during the day as you’ll lose less to evaporation from the sun, as well as avoiding leaf scorch. A layer of mulch will help to reduce water evaporation, at the same time combatting weed growth. Always direct your watering can to the base of the plant. For particularly thirsty plants, courgettes, for example, it’s worth sinking a plastic bottle upside down into the soil (cut off the base first) and watering directly to the plant’s roots.
By June you should get a decent daily crop from beans, peas and, here, artichokes, although these are perennials and will take a year or two to produce
As I mentioned before, being the sprinters of the plant world, fruit and vegetables are hungry plants. You’ll need to feed them regularly. There are plenty of options, including liquid seaweed fertiliser, specialist plant feeds and homemade garden fertilisers such as comfrey or nettle tea, as well as Rootgrow. Whichever you choose, always follow the pack instructions for how much to use and when.
A pragmatic approach
If you’re growing your own for the first time, don’t expect to become self-sufficient overnight. Even experienced allotment holders rarely have the time, energy or space to grow enough to cross the veg aisle off their shopping list completely.
It may sound obvious but grow what you like to eat. Make a list of the fruit and veg you enjoy the most, then check whether you have the space, sunlight and resources to grow them. If in doubt, start off with easier varieties, such as lettuce, French and runner beans, radishes, carrots, beetroot, tomatoes and Swiss chard. And try not to be discouraged if things don’t go your way: losses are inevitable, often through no fault of your own. When you’re feeling more confident, move on to peppers, sweetcorn, brassicas and leeks.
But most of all, have fun, and enjoy your new hobby while you have the time. Happy growing!
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer