Many of us start our vegetable garden pretty much blindfolded. It can seem extremely daunting at first, and often difficult to know where to start. What to do first will depend on your starting point. Are you taking on an allotment? Or are you lucky enough to have a garden you can start in? What is your budget? Do you mind spending a little cash or would you rather spend as little as possible? Are you willing to take your time to get it started or do you want to start growing this instant?
Taking on a new allotment plot
This really is luck of the draw. If you’re very lucky, you may be given a plot that has been well looked after right up until you take it on. However, more often than not, you’ll find yourself with a plot that has been neglected for months, possibly even years. Our half plot was given up at the end of the season by an elderly allotment holder downsizing, which made it very easy to get going quicky. In stark contrast, our full size plot was previously rented by someone who fell ill and as a result it was unattended to for 2-3 years before being given up.
Growing in your garden
Space can vary largely, and you may find you just have space for a few pots on the patio or you may have acres to play with. You may be taking a vegetable patch on that has been left behind by previous owners or you may be starting entirely from scratch. When planning your vegetable garden, try to use sunnier spots because the vast majority of plants prefer this. Bear in mind other factors such as using a spot that is less exposed to high winds. Also, large trees may take all the water out of the soil, and potentially cast shade on your garden in high summer.
Consider the time of year
The time of year you start will determine the approach you should take when you start. When starting in the autumn, you may just wish to clear the plot ready so you can hit the ground running in the spring. If you really want to sow something at this time of year then check if it’s not too late to sow garlic and broad beans. When starting in the spring, then you might find it better to clear a small patch at first. After this, slowly work through the rest of it as the season progresses. If you start in summer, it’s probably worth just working a smaller patch, buying a few plug plants from your local garden center and taking your time with the rest. Starting in the summer does still give you scope to grow quick growing plants from seed, or various winter vegetables – particularly leafy ones.
Assess any existing plants
If you are starting on a patch that was previously looked after by somebody else, the first thing I would do is establish what perennial plants are already there. There is a good chance there could be rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, and other fruit bushes and trees. How crucial it is to tend to these will depend on the time of year. The plot that we took on last spring came with strawberries, so I quickly set about uncovering them from weeds. Later that season, I was rewarded with ample delicious homegrown strawberries. Had I left this until later, the strawberries would have struggled for light, nutrients and water and would not have produced so prolifically. Do your research and check if any existing plants need your attention.
Know your weeds. I don’t mean you need to know every type of weed that is in your garden. Just get to know which ones are the vigorous perennials and which ones are less invasive and superficial. This is something I guarantee you will pick up on very quickly, particularly if you have an allotment.
Many weeds will come out very easily, but many of the deeper rooted ones will continue to come back if even the tiniest fragment of their root is left in the ground (I’m looking at you, bindweed!). Some of the most persistent weeds are bindweed, couch grass, marestail (also commonly known as horsetail), dandelions and nettle. Familiarise yourself with these. If there is a patch that is largely covered in nasty perennial weeds, then if you don’t mind doing so, it is worth covering it to exclude light for at least 6 months and as close to a year as you can. Some will come back, namely marestail and bindweed. However, they will be much weaker and if you keep removing them while new shoots are young, eventually you will starve the roots of energy and they will give up. Persistence is needed with these weeds.
Preparing your plot
There are three main options when it comes to the initial preparation. The first is to simply cover the ground with black polyethene and leave it for anywhere between 3-12 months. This will block light from existing plants so that they die back leaving bare ground that you can then add compost to start cultivating. The time the ground should remain covered will depend on the weeds present. While the easiest of the three methods, this method will take the longest. We have used this method on a section of our plot that was full of nasty perennial weeds.
The second method is much quicker and involves digging the plot over to remove weeds and grass. Once the plot is cleared, spread a layer of compost to fertilise it.
The third option (which would be the preferred method, in my opinion) is to use the no-dig method. The no-dig method involves covering the ground with cardboard topped with a 4 inch (10cm) layer of compost or well-rotted manure. If you inherit a well maintained plot then you can just spot-weed and start using the no dig method straight away. This will remove the need for the cardboard and large amount of compost. However, by omitting this first step you will not be able to benefit from having so few weeds when you start.
I am a huge advocate of the no-dig method of gardening. However, I understand for many – particularly if starting out with a large plot – this could be financially unattainable. If you really are desperate to get going quickly and are trying to keep to a budget, then by all means I’d say dig it over as in the second method. From here continue by following the no-dig method. This is what we did to keep costs down.
Research your seeds
Do your research on what can be sown when you are starting out. It may be worth sowing some seeds in containers before you even start work on your vegetable patch, providing you can have space to plant them out within a month of sowing. This is something I wished I had done when I got my first plot. I then found it frustrating when I had bare ground and nothing to plant. I’d also missed the boat to sow certain seeds.
Personally, I would suggest trying to spend as little money as possible if this is your first year growing because growing vegetables may not be for you (although I have every confidence you will love it). Keep an eye out on places such as gumtree, freecycle and Facebook market place for water butts, compost bins, greenhouses and sheds. You’ll be surprised how much comes up. Investing in some good quality equipment is well worth it once you are sure growing fruit and vegetables is for you.
Be realistic with your time
It is incredibly important to know how much time you might have to tend to your garden. If you are a particularly busy person with little spare time, you may opt to keep it on a smaller scale and you would be better off growing crops that are low maintenance and quick to harvest, such as potatoes, squashes and brassicas. You’ll be surprised how much time can be spent just harvesting all your hard work during the summer months – particularly berries, currants, beans and tomatoes.
In addition to growing and harvesting your produce, you may need to preserve some too. I think it is worthwhile keeping this in mind. While I love being able to do all of this myself, I really hadn’t factored in how much time harvesting and processing produce takes.
Compost and water
On a final note, it is worthwhile establishing a good compost and water collection system. Rainwater is better for watering your plants as it doesn’t contain the chlorine that is in tap water. Chlorine in the water can affect some of the microorganisms in the soil that keep it healthy. Using rainwater also reduces strain on our water systems and keeps your bills down. Of course, it is still better to water with tap water than not water at all. On another note, compost is like gold for gardeners, because it is full of slow release nutrients for your plants. Ensuring you have a good compost set up will help make it much easier for you to make your own. This will mean that you have the room to compost everything that can be composted so you have more ready for when it is needed.