Friday, January 25, 2008

Get Started Growing Vegetables

I received an email from Hazel of Living and Mothering in the Chilly Northeast:

I've been promising Thomas (7) for ages we'd grow our own vegetables, I really couldn't face a completely new project last year as the baby was such hard
work so I told him *definitely* this year, and I haven't a clue where to
start!

I have a little garden, about 7 foot by 25 foot or so, with a raised bed, unfortunately a lot of it is in the shade most of the day. I don't mind using some or all (eventually!) of it for vegetables.

Where do I start?! I have no experience of gardening we never did anything like that when I was a kid, I've tried putting in the odd flowering whatever since we moved here with varied success, the very hardy stuff made it the other stuff died!

Thanks for any input!
The two most important things to remember are 1) start small and 2) have early success. In other words don't set yourself up for failure. Make things easy for yourself.

Climate - You live in "the chilly Northeast" and your garden is in shade most of the day. That's going to be a tough place to grow vegetables. You can forget Mediterranean veg, such as tomatoes, bell peppers, tomatilloes, sweetcorn (not Mediterranean, but definitely hot climate) and so on. I wouldn't attempt herbs either, especially things like thyme and rosemary which are also Mediterranean plants, although we tend to forget it. To make allowances for your situation, add about a week to the earliest planting date on any packet of seeds you buy. If you have a sunny window ledge in your house you might get more success starting seeds in pots indoors, and only putting them in your garden when they are looking fairly big and healthy.

You don't mention your soil. Is is dark and crumbly and fertile? Does it drain well? Or is it sandy and poor, dusty and thin, clayey and heavy? Does it tend to get waterlogged and stand in little puddles? Now is your opportunity to get your soil sorted out before the growing season begins. You also don't say how big your raised bed is. Assuming it's not titchy, I'd start there.

Drainage - if your raised bed drains well, you can go on to the nest step. But if it tends to get waterlogged you need to sort that out. There should be a layer of rubble in the base of the bed, ideally covered with membrane to make sure the earth doesn't clog it up. Did you construct the bed yourself? Do you know what is in there? There should also be holes in the bottom course of brickwork (or whatever the bed is constructed from) to allow water to drain away. Make sure these holes are not blocked up.

Soil - Buy a load of well-rotted manure (not fresh manure - if you can get that, do so, but pile it up in a corner of the garden and let it rot for a year before you use it). Your local garden centre is a good place to start looking for well-rotted manure. Pull any weeds out of your raised bed, and their roots. For now, take the weeds off the site - your council may have a facility to compost them, but don't try to compost them yourself until you can identify perennial weeds from annual weeds, and you can build a compost heap that will get hot enough to kill seeds and diseases. Alternatively you could make them into weed tea, home-made plant food for your veggies. Fork the manure well into your raised bed - if the soil ends up standing in a heap in the middle of the bed, that's well and good. This will provide a naturally fertile growing medium for your crops.

Crops -Suitable crops for your situation (cold, shady) include
  • spinach
  • radicchio (a tasty salad leaf)
  • radishes (definitely grow these - they come up really fast and are trouble-free. They'll give you an encouraging taste of success. Such a shame they're not more useful, just a tasty addition to a salad rather than something you can build a meal around)
  • potatoes (can take a lot of space. Try them in a potato barrel instead of in your raised bed)
  • peas
  • runner beans
  • dwarf beans
  • parsnip
  • onions
  • lettuce (these actually prefer shade)
  • leeks
  • kale
  • garlic (don't try planting garlic from the greengrocer or supermarket - get it from a seed catalogue or a specialist seed garlic producer and look for cold-climate varieties)
  • chard
  • celery
  • cauliflower (will grow in your conditions but it's a tricky plant and not really good for a beginner)
  • carrots (if your raised bed is deep enough for them to put out long roots, otherwise go for a short or a spherical variety. The raised bed will be helpful in deterring the blasted cabbage root fly)
  • cabbages
  • Brussels sprouts
  • broccoli
  • beetroot
  • asparagus (it's a long-term project - if you establish a bed this year you'll begin really cropping in 2011)
Other - Do you have a water butt in your garden, so you can collect rainwater to water your crops? Do you have a compost heap to get rid of healthy plant material and kitchen waste, and turn it into extra fertility for your garden next year? Do you have a weed tea bucket?

When you've got more experience you can try branching out. You might want to try things I've said won't work. That's fine - you'll probably prove me wrong on some of them. And you might want to give over more of your garden to vegetables. You might even feel like getting a couple of chickens. But for your first season I'd stick to things that have a high chance of success.

11 comments:

Z said...

Very good practical advice and could I suggest that you asterisk the plants most suitable for beginners. With two small children, Hazel won't have much time to spare and Thomas will want quick and impressive results. I'd start with lettuces and radishes, put a few early potatoes in a barrel (or black sack will do fine), and have french or runner beans, a row of perpetual spinach (not true spinach as it runs to seed so quickly, while the leaf beet lasts all year) and - I live in balmy East Angular and will bow to your knowledge - but what about a couple of courgettes? They smother weeds and crop heavily.

The only other thing I'd mention to Hazel is to remember that it's better to leave seeds in the packet than to sow more than you need. If she sows a whole packet of cabbage seed, she'll end up with an army of seedlings that will be drawn and leggy before she can thin them out, and she will hate throwing her babies away. I can't think there's any new gardener who hasn't made that mistake! Sow twelve seeds and keep the packet for later.

Melanie Rimmer said...

Thanks, z. I agree that lettuces and radishes are a great place to start, and will give the quick success that Hazel (and Thomas) needs. I wouldn't try courgettes if it was me, although if you've a sunny site two plants will provide all the courgettes you can stand continously for several months. But this sounds like a shady site and I don't think courgettes will do well here. I might be wrong. There are always surprises in gardening. There's probably some smug git who manages to grow olives in North-west Scotland. Seasoned gardeners say "Ah, microclimate", but what they mean is "you never can tell 'til you suck it and see".

You're dead right on the successional planting thing. There is so much more I wanted to tell Hazel, about spacing, and companion planting (bung a few marigolds around the edges of the raised bed - they look nice and they may help your veg thrive), and crop rotation, and using cloches to warm up the soil, and all the rest of it. But there's only so much space on a single blog post.

Mam said...

I'm listening :-) Thanks for your long post Mel. My garden is indeed fairly shady, although one wall gets the sun and your sister Steph has ommented she has dreams of it covered in fruit trees.

We like radishes. I was wonderiing about spinach rather than lettuces, we just don't like lettuce but even 'I hate all veg' Joanna will eat lightly cooked spinach with cheese melted.

Type of soil? No idea. It's dark now I'll have a nosy at it tomorrow then describe it in detail and see what more expert folk think :-)

Hazel

Moonwaves said...

I used to think the same about radishes but recently found a couple of more interesting "meal" recipes including radish as a majore component here:

http://www.greatbigvegchallenge.blogspot.com/

growing vegetables said...

Vegetable gardening is really not an easy task. You should have patience! :) Anyways, great advices! try to search for more ideas too to add into your own. There are many resources online.

Vegetable garden said...

Ya its a long endured practice. Just like anything in life when growing you'll have some winners and losers. But when its all finished you have a self sense of satisfaction.

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