Sally Coulthard talks us through how to grow vegetables at home on a veg patch or on an allotment. We explore how to make a raised vegetable bed, what vegetables to grow and which time of year, and how to make nourishing compost to help them thrive.
The thing that surprises me the most about vegetable gardening is that no two years are alike. Just a few days’ difference in weather – such as a late frost – can radically alter the timing and success of what grows, but that’s all part of its lucky dip appeal. What never fails, however, is the pleasure I get from harvesting, cooking and eating home-grown produce. To munch on a piquant salad leaf or juicy tomato that was, minutes before, basking in the sunshine is without compare, both in terms of taste and sustainable living. Once you get stuck into vegetable gardening, your challenge will be not how to make stuff grow but what to do with gluts. You’ll soon become adept at ‘50 things to do with rhubarb’ and sneakily leaving courgettes on neighbours’ doorsteps.
6 of the best easy-to-grow vegetables
Beetroot – Sow direct in spring and you’ll be enjoying tiny, delicious salad leaves by June and earthy, sweet beetroots not long after.
Lettuce – Look for ‘cut-and-come-again’ seed mixes. Rather than growing individual lettuce heads, these varieties are grown as a dense bed that you graze, taking leaves that’ll regrow in a matter of weeks.
Rocket – A salad leaf that really lives up to its name; sow the seeds anytime from spring onwards and it will be ready to harvest in six weeks. If you’re impatient, you can eat the baby leaves after two or three.
Carrots – Spring-sown Chantenay and Nantes will be ready for early summer but mix it up with multi-coloured, round and late-autumn bloomers such as Autumn King, or try Amsterdam Forcing under cover for a year-round crop.
Radishes – There’s a surprising variety of radishes on offer – from the tiny, punchy Rosa to the sweet Pink Beauty. They’re fast-growing and are ready to harvest in about four weeks from sowing. Keep sowing every few weeks and you can still be nibbling them in November.
Perpetual spinach – A spinach-flavoured leaf that’s actually a chard in disguise. It’s a vigorous grower – the more you pick it, the more it will keep coming. Use in salads and cooked.
What time of year should you plant different vegetables?
Follow this handy vegetable calendar to make sure you don't miss an opportunity.
What's the best bed for planting and growing vegetables?
Raised beds take a lot of hassle out of growing vegetables. Being higher off the ground, they’re a doddle to weed, and garden pests such as pigeons and rabbits tend to leave them alone.
New sleepers come in three sizes – 1.2m, 1.8m and 2.4m (try sure-green.com). For strength and cost-efficiency, design a bed that uses these measurements or involves minimal cuts. Give yourself at least a metre width between beds if you need to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow around or get a mower between them.
When they’re built, fill them with a good topsoil and compost mix to give yourself the ultimate head start. Every year, a thick layer of mulch will replenish the nutrients with very little digging.
How to get companion planting right
The savvy smallholder shouldn’t need to use harmful pesticides to help crops thrive. Companion planting is an effective and time-honoured way to create plant relationships that benefit each other, protect crops from pests and improve pollination. Here are a few rules of companion planting:
Anything with an onion scent, including spring onions, garlic, leeks, chives and scallions, is thought to deter aphids and carrot fly.
Nasturtiums lure pests away from French beans, runner beans and brassicas.
Tomatoes can benefit from the presence of scented herbs such as basil, mint and chives.
Courgettes should improve productivity if placed with pollinator-attracting flowers such as English marigolds.
Climbers can also benefit each other – sweet peas, for example, attract pollinating insects, which pollinate French or runner bean flowers.
How to make compost to feed your veg
There are two things a compost heap needs – nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich ingredients. Nitrogen-rich materials are usually lush, green or wet, like grass clippings, green leaves or vegetable peelings. Carbon-rich materials tend to be dry and brown, such as cardboard, dead leaves or woody stems, and keep the compost nicely aerated. The ratio of green:brown ingredients should be 50:50.
You can make a compost heap in a pile, in bays or boxes or in a bin, whichever works for your garden. The wider the mix of materials the better – don’t let one or two ingredients dominate. Most people like to turn their compost regularly – ie. once a month – to speed up decomposition. If you have an open compost heap, consider that there may be creatures using it as a nesting site. In this instance, it’s best to turn your compost just once a year in April. Some people don’t turn it at all. You’ll still end up with compost – it will just take longer.
Soil health and earthworms
Earthworms are mini eco heroes. They play a crucial role in breaking down organic matter – such as dead leaves and flowers – and putting that goodness back into the soil. Thanks to their constant eating and pooing, the wriggly wonders release the nutrients in organic matter by digesting it into tiny pieces, making it available for use by plants, fungi and bacteria.
The secret to a successful smallholding is ‘feeding’ the earthworms with a healthy layer of organic matter every year. Whether it’s compost, mushroom mulch, well-rotted manure, spent coffee grounds or leaf mould, they all add nutrients to the soil. Apply organic material in spring, before the growing season starts, and aim for at least 5cm deep – but even just a generous sprinkling will help. The earthworms will put it down into the ground by themselves.
How to support homegrown vegetables
One of the joys of planning a fruit and vegetable plot is thinking in three dimensions. Gardening should never be just in one plane; plants grow in such different forms – from the vigorous climber to the ground creeper – that you can create a space where food grows upwards, across, tumbles down or climbs over a structure.
Many beans and peas, for example, will grow happily over an arch and so don’t need to take up space on the ground. Tomatoes come in tumbling varieties, and so can be hung up in baskets overhead or placed in a tall pot. Ditto for cucumbers.
Planning with plant supports in mind means that you can create visual layers – obelisks of mangetout peas underplanted with lettuce, for instance, or a trellis walkway of runner beans. Many climbing plants, such as squashes, also tend to be thugs, so this is a canny way to keep them from bullying the rest of the vegetable garden.
How to grow vegetable under cover
The only way to extend the growing season is to cover over your crops. If you buy a polytunnel, choose the best quality you can afford – a manufacturer should offer a five-year guarantee on the cover and longer on the frame. Take advice about where to site it – ideally on a north/south orientation so both sides of the polytunnel get equal amounts of sunlight – but if you have a strong prevailing wind, that will also need to be taken into account.
Regulations-wise, domestic polytunnels don’t tend to need planning permission, but if you want to use one that is more than 3m high, sits within 2m of a boundary, covers more than half of the garden or sits in front of the house, check first with your planning department.
They’re not the prettiest structures, so if you live within an AONB, conservation area or National Park, you will also need to consult the planners. And, if you want to put a polytunnel on an allotment, you will need to pass it by the allotment committee first.
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