The following article first appeared in Ethical Living magazine. When I wrote the following Ethical Living magazine was a physical magazine. As with other Ethical magazines they have chosen to make the bold move to online only. When I wrote this article it was after an email exchange with Kim Marks the editor. She told me that she wanted to get into vegetable gardening but lacked the experience. So, I wrote the following and subsequent articles in this series with her in mind. It was a good way to focus the mind on who the reader was going to be. I might, if I feel brave enough post some articles where I didn’t do that.
Fruit and Vegetable Gardening – Getting started
A common misconception about growing your own produce is that it is somehow difficult. The truth is that nothing can be easier. Humans have been growing produce for thousands of years without the aid of complicated equipment or books (or this magazine).
This depends on the size of your plot. If you are growing in a window box then, other than a watering can, you won’t need much else, as you can weed with your fingers and the soil won’t really need digging. Moving up to a small bed in the garden I would suggest a spade, a fork, the before mentioned watering can and a hand fork for light weeding are all that’s needed.
If you are considering a larger plot or an allotment then you will need many more tools. A rake, fork, spade, hoe, hand fork, trowel, large watering can or hose, water butt and compost bin are all advisable – although you could get by just using a spade and fork. Before you start to panic at the thought of all of this cost may I suggest that the compost bin can be made (see next issue) or you can just pile up your compost into a heap. Other tools can be borrowed from friends or from sites set up for tool sharing schemes such as www.justfortheloveofit.org (The freeconomy website) or can be gotten for free on freecycle.org
Some of my tools came from a handy garden centre in Bath that sells second-hand tools rather cheaply, so keep your eyes open for places near you. Remember too that cheap new tools are a false economy as they will break within the first season.
How much space do I need
I have seen wheat, mustard and even tomatoes growing in the cracks of a pavement. Helpfully illustrating that plants will try and grow wherever they can. I am not suggesting you turn your street into a vegetable patch (although wouldn’t it be great if we all could), I am saying that if you think you have hardly any space, think again.
Even if you live in a small flat you can still grow fruit and vegetable in pots. I have grown tomatoes in a bucket in my living room. A good friend of mine has also grown all the herbs she needed on her one windowsill in her bedsit. Another friend grew blueberries on the flat part of the roof of his London flat. The roof was no bigger than the average dining room table!
Basically, a plant needs room for its roots to take up as much moisture and as many nutrients as it needs. Generally speaking, the bigger the plant the more root space it will need. So, fairly obviously, the more you want to grow the more space you will need.
How much to take on
One of the best bits of advice I can give to anyone when getting started is not to take on too much in one go. If you think you can turn a full allotment plot or (average 250 sq meters) or a huge back garden by yourself. keep a family and a full time job you might need to think again. I would have thought most people could manage it for the first season but as with university drop out rates, it seems to be the second year that most people give up. Although if you take on half a plot at first or better still try taking on the plot with a friend or partner then you stand a better chance of cultivating the plot.
What to grow
A very obvious bit of advice is only to grow things that you like and will eat. I was once talking to someone who was really excited as he had, “tons of radishes”. I asked him what he intended to do with them and he was not sure as he does not like radishes.
I too have come foul of seed excitement and once planted a whole packet of beet spinach. Beet spinach is very easy to grow and most seeds will germinate this left me with 4 rows of the stuff. I ate some every day, filled my freezer up with the stuff and gave as much away as I could. I still had more than I could ever hope to do anything with. What made matters worse is that beet spinach just keeps coming. Indeed it also goes by the name of perpetual spinach as you can pick the leaves and they keep growing back. In the end I dug up every single plant and did not plant it again for another few years, whereupon I only planted 2 plants and that was plenty.
It is also worth thinking about why you are growing. If it is an attempt to save money then try growing things that cost a lot of money.
What’s easy to grow
There are some plants out there that are really easy to grow which is why many people seem to have them on their plot. Things like beetroot (and the before mentioned beet spinach), lettuces, runner beans, rocket all can be pretty much planted from seed and as long as you water them and the slugs don’t get them they will just grow. I would also highly recommend tomatillos; not only because I love Mexican food, but also because they are very, very easy to grow and give a good yield. I grew some in pots a few years ago and was eating them almost every day! It is noteworthy to suggest that you will need more than one plant in order for them to fruit.
Fruit is another good option especially for the beginner as not much work has to be put in. Raspberries, strawberries and even an apple tree can be planted meaning you will enjoy year after year of delicious fruit.
I would also like to recommend potatoes as they can be a very easy to grow. Indeed, it is often recommended that potatoes should be the first thing that people plant on their plots. This mainly because the soil gets moved when growing spuds as they need earthing up (a process that involves covering the growth to ensure larger crops). Moving the soil in this manner can help keep weeds down, leaving a workable soil the next year. Good advice, that is unless you live in the Southwest of England as I do; we have real trouble with blight. Blight is a disease that can destroy potatoes and tomatoes rotting them and making them inedible. Our wet summers really don’t help as rain can transfer the disease.
Above all else, you need the enthusiasm to grow your own produce. Be warned that it can be addictive, one you have roasted your first home grown beetroot, baked your first potato or eaten a pea straight from a pod, you won’t want to look back