Seed companies have recently reported that sales of vegetable seeds have rocketed over the past 12 months, which goes to show that more and more of us want to grow our own food, even if it is just a few herbs on the windowsill, or a couple of pots of tomatoes growing against a sunny wall. Growing your own doesn’t require a lot of space, and more importantly … much money!
I’d like to share some of my gardening experience with those of you who are new to growing your own. I have grown my own food for many years and have had some brilliant results and disasters … So kick off your wellies and read on!
Late February is the perfect time to start growing seeds inside. Slow growing crops such as tomatoes, chillies and sweet peppers benefit from an early sowing, especially in the UK, so that the plants are large enough and covered in plump ripening fruit during the summer months. If the seeds are sown too late in spring, the fruit will not ripen in time as the weaker autumnal sunshine will struggle to ripen your fruit.
When I first started growing my own veggies, I had quite a few crop failures and I think that was due to me being impatient and a bit slapdash. I often forgot to water my plants during warm weather and I was too impatient. But luckily, I have learnt that plants, animals and of course people, need lots and lots of patience! I have always grown my food organically without the use of herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Organically grown food tastes so much better and, I’m sure, is much healthier for us. The one thing that I love so much about home grown produce is that it is so fresh – you can steam a few tender vegetables within minutes of picking them from the garden.
The first lesson I learnt, which is such an important one, is to feed the soil and the plants will feed us! If the soil doesn’t contain enough nutrients, the crops will become weak and susceptible to disease, so it is very important to grow fruit and veg in good quality compost. However, during the winter months I grow lemon grass and spring onions in jars of water and they seem to be fine. I’m pretty sure that the reason for this is because we eat the green stems of these plants and they are cut and eaten before seed heads are produced. In order for a plant to produce fruit (and ultimately seeds) the plant needs nutrients.
Therefore, the number one purchase when growing vegetables is to buy good quality seed compost. I always sow indoor seeds in purchased seed compost which has been sterilized to stop little weed seedlings growing amongst the vegetable seeds. You can guarantee, in ordinary soil, that the little blighters will grow a lot faster than your precious vegetable seedlings, making it difficult to tell the seedling you grew and the weed seedlings apart! Last year I paid about £4 for a bag of seed compost and I still have some left for this year.
Herbs, on the whole, are quite different. As many of these originate from the Mediterranean, where the soil is shallow and doesn’t have many nutrients. They don’t seem to be too fussy about the soil they are grown in and seem to be quite happy in ordinary garden soil. So easy!
The only purchase I make for growing my veggies are the seeds themselves and a bag of seed compost. I scrub out last year’s little plant pots in hot, soapy water and reuse them for sowing seeds. If you don’t have any small flower pots, recycled yogurt or cream pots make good containers, just pierce a few holes in the base for the water to drain.
Recycled ice cream tub lids can be turned into free plant labels. Simply cut the lid into long strips and snip off each corner at one end with scissors. Grow Your Own Feb 14 (4) I use a CD marker to write the type of plant and variety on the label.
Fill the pots with compost, place a few seeds just under the surface of the compost (as instructed on the back of the seed packet) and moisten the soil with a little water. Used mushroom or other used vegetable trays from the supermarket are brilliant for sitting the pots of seeds in to stop muddy water seeping onto your windowsill. Large, upturned jam jar lids are also ideal.
Once the seedlings have grown, and the weather has warmed up, the plants need to be potted up into larger containers. I have a number of large plant pots but old bowls, buckets or dustbins with holes in the base will work fine too. I also use thick, round, recycled plastic grow bags which are a lot cheaper than large plant pots and they’ll last for several years, especially if they’re kept in a garage or shed during the winter.
When plants need bigger pots, you’ll need compost. Garden centres often have discounts where the third bag is cheaper or sometimes free. I make my own compost from grass cuttings and vegetable peelings etc. In fact I use any leftover vegetation that my dog and pet rabbits won’t eat! I include egg shells, used tea bags, soot from the log fire, shredded paper – you name it! The compost must be made from uncooked vegetable matter, and shouldn’t contain tough weeds (e.g. docks, nettles, thistles or dandelions). Turn the compost heap over with a fork every now and then and within a few months, the compost will have no smell and is crumbly to feel. That’s when it’s ready to use! I grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, chillies, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, beans, peas, spinach, chard and salads in homemade compost. I also grow courgettes, but I plant these directly into the compost heap as they are really greedy plants! Once they have finished fruiting, I dig the courgette plants into the compost, and so the cycle continues …
Compost containers can be bought from garden centres or are available in the UK from local councils – these are good value, come in a range of sizes and there are often multi buy deals. The bins are cheap, durable and do the job well. So if you can’t make compost this year – start making it now for next year!
The other thing I wish I’d know about years ago is to
Plant veg next to companion plants.
A companion plant is one which is beneficial for your crops, for example, when I grow beans up a wigwam of canes or long sticks, I also sow some sweet pea seeds with the beans seeds. When the sweet peas blossom, they encourage bees and other pollinating insects to pollinate the sweet peas, but they also pollinate the bean flowers too! The other bonus is that I always have beautiful, scented sweet peas in vases around my house – ah, the scent – even though it is still February, I can almost smell them!
There are a large number of plants which suffer from aphid attack (e.g. greenfly, whitefly and blackfly), and salad crops in particular seem to suffer. To overcome this, I dot the odd chive, garlic or lavender plant next to them which keep the aphids away. It must be the strong scent of these plants which the aphids don’t like or perhaps they are just confused by them. I haven’t bought chives for years as they are so easy to propagate (or multiply). Just take the chive plant out of the pot, and with a sharp knife, slice the plant into four. Pot the quarters into four plant pots and they will grow really quickly! I allow some of the chives to flower as the mauve flowers attract more beneficial insects (and look lovely) but I give the rest of the chives a “haircut” regularly to stop them flowering as the flower stems are tough to cook with.
Certain plants should (or shouldn’t) be grown next to each other. For example, onions and garlic shouldn’t be grown next to peas, French beans, broad beans or runner beans. Potatoes and tomatoes don’t get on well and if these are planted together, I have found that the harvest is greatly reduced.
Brassicas including broccoli, cabbages, cauliflowers, kale and Brussels sprouts shouldn’t be planted near runner beans or strawberries. I’m afraid I don’t know why but I know it’s true!
Plants need feeding especially when they’re growing and producing fruit or leaves. Compost only has enough nutrients in it to feed the hungry plants for a couple of months. To overcome this, I feed my plants (flowers, fruit and veg) with an organic liquid seaweed plant food. A few drops in a watering can full of water, makes all the difference. Another way to feed the plants, and it’s free, is to submerge a pile of nettles in a bucket of water. Put a lid on – a piece of wood will do or whatever you have, then leave them for a couple of weeks. The nettles will produce the most wonderful nutrient rich plant food (it smells rather bad!) then dilute in water, about ½ pint/250ml to a bucket of water and pour on the soil. It is important, when watering and feeding plants, not to wet the leaves but to water the base of the plants. Feed the plants at least once a week when they’re growing vigorously.
Grow Your Own
Finally, water, water, water! When the weather is hot and sunny, water your plants at least once if not twice a day, depending on the temperature outside and especially if your plants are facing south. With all the horrific floods and wet weather we’ve had in this country, it may be difficult to imagine a drought in the summer! I’ve heard that the Met Office have forecast a hot, dry summer (believe it or not!) so saving water now will help to water your plants in the coming months. There are a number of cheap water butts available – check out your local council to see if they subsidize them. They can be “plumbed” into a downpipe and catch all the rain water. I have them, and sometimes during a couple of days of rain, the water butts will completely fill up. I find that, in my garden, one water butt has enough to water my plants for 2 weeks! Great, especially if there’s a hosepipe ban!
So if you’re new to gardening – go on, have a go! Even if you only want to grow a few herbs or a couple of pots of tomatoes against a sunny wall, I can guarantee you’ll become addicted! It’s very rewarding, relaxing and above all you’ll have something to eat, then you can quietly boast to yourself “I grew that!”