What a difference a few weeks make: this time last month I was marvelling at the stunning new gardens at The Newt in Somerset and now, like the rest of the population, my wings have been clipped and I’m thankful to have an allotment to provide a welcome diversion during the coronavirus lock down.
News reports about record sales of seeds and compost would suggest I’m not alone in seeking solace in sowing and planting to keep body and soul together during these testing times.
Indeed, the rush to grow our own backs up studies that show gardening is good for our mental health, providing a mindful activity and access to mood-improving elements such as birdsong and feel-good enzymes in the soil, as well as being a great way to keep fit and provide the family with fresh food.
But what happens if you’ve never had a go at gardening before, and don’t have the luxury of yards of freshly-dug soil in which to grow things?
Bags of Fun
The good news is that it’s not necessary to have an allotment, or even a garden to produce your own vegetables. ‘Grow Bags’ or containers of compost are all that’s needed if outside space is in really short supply.
It’s even possible to grow seed potatoes in a thick plastic bag filled with compost, garden soil or even everyday kitchen waste. Punch a couple of drainage holes into the bag to prevent the crop becoming water logged and keep adding more soil or organic matter to the top of the bag as the potato shoots come through to protect them from the frost and stop the tubers beneath turning green. Once all risk of frost has passed, allow the leaves of the potato to continue growing and water regularly. Early potatoes take around 10 weeks until they’re ready to harvest, while main crop cultivars go on for around 15 to 20 weeks. The great thing about growing potatoes in a bag is that it’s possible to delve in with a gloved hand and remove two or three as required.
If you’re considering devoting a section of lawn for a kitchen garden, or who are dreading the thought of back ache from dealing with an expanse of uncultivated ground, lasagne beds are a quick and easy way to get started and will go on to yield reasonable crops of potatoes for very little effort.
I’m a big fan of this technique as it’s an easy way to start off a new vegetable plot without the need for lots of digging and great for recycling kitchen waste and lawn cuttings. Once the potatoes have been harvested, this bed will be ready to use for growing many other types of vegetables.
Here’s how it’s done:
Step 1: Gather together some seed potatoes, a large piece of cardboard, a couple large buckets of kitchen waste – the contents of a home composter is ideal - a large bucket of grass cuttings, a pen knife, a hand trowel, a tool to help cut grassy clumps and a filled watering can.
Step 2: Select an area of lawn or uncultivated ground. Cut back any large clumps of grass and dig out any perennial weeds such as docks or dandelions using a hand trowel.
Step 3: Water the ground well: this makes it easier for the worms under the soil to move about.
Step 4: Take a large piece of reasonably thick corrugated cardboard. This cardboard layer is placed directly over the watered piece of ground to smother the grass or annual weeds underneath.
Step 5: Cut well-spaced crosses into the cardboard using a penknife. Aim to leave a good foot (30cm) between each cross. Open up the four points made by the cross to reveal the grass beneath.
Step 6: Place a seed potato into each of the spaces in the cardboard. A potato that’s started to produce shoots (known as chitted) is ideal, although not essential.
Step 7: Cover the cardboard with a thick layer of kitchen waste, removing any citrus peel if possible as the red (brandling) worms that help to process compost aren’t overly keen on it.
Step 8: Cover the kitchen waste with a thick layer of grass cuttings. This layer will keep the kitchen waste moist and warm, creating the perfect environment for red worms to do their stuff.
Step 9: Water the lasagne bed well.
Step 10: Continue adding kitchen waste to the bed, particularly as the potato leaves begin to emerge. Aim to keep these leaves covered until all risk of frost has passed, after which, continue to add lots of kitchen waste and grass cuttings to the area beneath the potato leaves, or haulms as they’re known, as this will stop the tubers underneath from turning green. Aim to keep the surface of the bed moist, especially during dry spells.
Step 11: Early potatoes should be ready to harvest after about 10 weeks, after which the stems and leaves may start turning yellow and dying back. Use a garden fork to push through the layers to reach the potatoes below, taking care not to push the prongs directly into the crop.
Step 12: Digging out the potatoes will help to disturb the soil below. Once you get to this stage, it’s easy to turn over the soil to bring the two layers together to provide a growing medium for plants that have been started in pots at home, such as broad beans, courgettes or peas. Over time the remaining compost will break down and be absorbed into the soil, eventually making it good enough for direct sowing.
Pots of joy
Gardening is an activity for which there is a tool for every occasion, but it’s not necessary to have a shed full of implements or stacks of pots, seed trays and other containers when starting out.
Large thick polythene bags, such as those used for animal feed, can be filled with compost to create an instant container, while food cartons and plastic bottles can be easily cut to size and used to bring on seeds to a size when they’re big enough to be planted outside. Don’t forget to add a drainage hole to make sure the compost doesn’t become water-logged.
Toilet paper tubes are particularly good for long-rooted plants, such as broad beans and peas, as are pots made from strips of newspaper, and the beauty of using biodegradable materials is that everything can be planted straight into the ground later on.
Place seedlings to grow in light and reasonably warm spots. Window sills, kitchen counters and porches all work well.
To make a newspaper pot:
Step 1: Cut strips of newspaper to size and simply roll them around a rolling pin, aiming to end up with something resembling a toilet tube, with just over half an inch (1cm) of overhang.
Step 2: Fold the overhang over the base of the rolling pin, hold it in place and gently remove the rolling pin, then push the folded section of the newspaper so that it’s inside the pot to ensure everything stays in place.
Step 3: Fill the ‘pot’ with compost and place a bean, pea or any other type of seed into it.
Step 4: Bring together several paper or cardboard pots in a small plastic tray: a fruit punnet, mushroom tray or margarine tub is ideal. Keep the seeds well-watered. Once the seeds have emerged and look ready to be planted outside, gently harden them off (get them acclimatised to the elements by placing them outside for several hours each day) before taking them to their final destination. Link to video
Ten easy vegetables to sow/plant in April
- Seed potatoes – early, second early or maincrop
- Broad beans
- Runner beans (later in the month)
- Swiss chard
- Courgette (later in the month)