The run up to May is an exciting time for growing vegetables, and there’s still plenty of time to get new beds underway to ensure rich pickings in the weeks ahead.
Starting a new garden from scratch may seem a bit daunting, but there are various ways to get going without the need for endless and often back-breaking digging and weed removal.
In last month’s blog I explained the simple steps involved in making ‘lasagne beds’ and potato bags, both of which are easy ways to strike patches of uncultivated ground. Four weeks on, potato leaves are already showing, which means it’s time to cover them in another layer of compost, grass cuttings or kitchen waste. It’s also important to keep them well watered.
Recently I tried another method that I read about in a book called New Vegetable Garden Techniques by Joyce Russell, published by White Lion, which promises ‘essential skills and projects for tastier, healthier crops’.
Written for seasoned growers and newbies alike, it’s full of brilliant advice, but the section that particularly caught my eye was called ‘lazy beds for beginners’.
This method of turning a patch of grass into a vegetable growing area involves folding sections of turves across a middle strip of undug ground, effectively sandwiching any weeds and grass in between.
Unfortunately, the day I chose to have a go myself was bright and sunny, and I quickly found the piece of undug allotment I’d earmarked for the project to be baked hard. But, with a few adaptations, I managed to achieve something similar to what I’d seen in the book.
To start with, I selected a small patch of grass and gave it a good watering, particularly as we hadn’t had any rain for a while.
Then I used a spade to remove square turves to form parallel trenches, a good foot apart, leaving a grass strip in the middle, and shovelled a thick layer of green waste compost over the grass. The book had recommended using manure, but with the current lock down restrictions I hadn’t been able to get hold of any.
The next step involved planting seed potatoes in the compost/manure and then covering them with the turves, placing them grass side down. By this point, I realised just how dry my piece of ground was and ended up filling the narrow trenches I’d made with water to soften things up a bit.
Afterwards the book recommends digging down a little deeper into the newly revealed layer of soil and placing this over the top of the central ridge. Even with the extra water, however, the ground I’d exposed was still pretty hard, so I placed a couple of extra potatoes into the trenches I’d made and, rather than soil, used more green waste compost to cover the lot.
The final step was to mulch the area with grass cuttings, which I’ll be doing next time I mow the lawn.
In the next few weeks I hope to see potato leaves poking through the soil, which I’ll protect with more green waste compost to protect them from late frosts and stop the tubers from being exposed to the light and turning green.
Raise your game
Despite the unexpected hardness of the ground I’d selected for my ‘lazy bed’, I was pleased with the end result, but if the thought of doing any digging at all is thoroughly off-putting, a raised bed might be a more practical solution.
This system requires a few lengths of timber and some screws to create a square frame.
Place the frame over a large piece of weed-proof membrane or a couple of thick pieces of cardboard to supress anything lurking underneath and then fill it with a few bags of good quality peat-free multi-purpose compost to create a reasonably deep planting depth – around a foot (30cm) is ideal.
Alternatively, try sowing seeds in deep containers such as an old sink, metal tub, wooden winebox or dustbin filled with compost.
Choosing what to put in
Once your raised bed or container is in place, the next step is to decide what to grow.
Great vegetables for new gardeners include radish, which take just a few weeks to bring on from seed; lettuce, herbs such as coriander and basil, and carrots. Try a few edible flowers too, which look pretty, taste interesting and are great for insects. I’m particularly partial to the peppery flavour of nasturtium.
Use a stick or some kind of point to make a narrow channel in the compost, and then water the area well to create a nice, moist environment.
Sow the seeds thinly in a row, cover with a dusting on compost and stick a label at the head of each row to act as a reminder as to what you’ve put in; don’t be fooled into dismissing the need for markers because you’re sure you’ll remember what you’ve planted: bitter experience has shown me the error of this way of thinking! If you don’t have any labels, try making them from lollipop sticks or strips of plastic cut from the lids of margarine or butter containers.
Once sown, watch the raised beds for signs of a uniform row of seedlings. Water the compost well if rain is in short supply and pull out any weed seedlings, which will look different from those in the uniform row you’ve sown.
One thing to remember is that slugs and snails like salad and herb leaves as much as we do. A good way to deter the marauding molluscs is to make the soil surrounding your crops as inhospitable as possible - ground up egg shells or grit are especially uncomfortable surfaces for their slimy undersides. Some people swear by organic slug pellets, but I prefer using stale beer or water used for boiling vegetables. Simply pour the liquid into a pot sunk into the soil, with a good centimetre of the pot exposed to stop any ground beetles from going for a swim.
One I made earlier
The hardy broad beans and peas I sowed in homemade paper pots last month came on quickly in the warm weather and have already been transferred onto the allotment.
Since then I’ve been busy making more pots for courgettes, squashes, runner and French beans, all of which need to be started off in a warm environment, such as a sunny windowsill. Once they’re a reasonable size I’ll take them outside during the daytime to ‘harden off’, gardening speak for getting acclimatised to the good old British weather, and eventually leaving them out overnight as well, so long as frost isn’t forecast.
These will be ready to plant in the garden from mid May, once the feast days of St Mamertus, St Pancras and St Servatius, aka ‘the ice saints’, have passed.
It’s a busy time for growing vegetables but if you’re just starting out, the most important thing to remember is to start small, get a bit of experience and enjoy the thrill of eating the freshest possible produce available.