Cultivate your own
Welcome to my first column where I hope to impart some of my knowledge, and hopefully some of my love for the earth and all that we can grow in it.
There are many reasons why you should sink your fingers into the soil and cultivate your own. A great concern these days is the dreaded pesticide explosion that seems to be taking over the world. Who wants to fill their bodies with chemicals? I certainly don’t, so growing my own is one excellent way to counteract this and ensure that I know what is going into my body. For me, my initial interest was sparked as a child when my dad used to take me hunting for wildflowers and herbs in the woods of the UK. When I was hit by a financial emergency many years ago, I decided to give veggie gardening a try and what started as an economic need turned into a great love of the earth and the quiet spiritual feeling that it gives me whenever I work in the garden.
So what is it all about then? Where do we start? Growing your own can be as simple as a pot of herbs on your kitchen windowsill or for a lucky few, as large as a farm. So how much space do you have available and how much time are you willing to spend? Let’s say you have a garden, can you spare a full sun spot or even a semi-shade spot of approximately 1 meter by 2 meters? If not, what about containers? There are so many vegetables and herbs that are suited to growth in a pot, even the smallest of balconies can support a tomato plant or two.
You don’t need expensive equipment, but a garden fork or spade, or trowel, if you are planting in pots and a pair of garden gloves, is a good place to start. A watering can for pots and or hose pipe is also a good recommendation. The idea is to be as thrifty as possible but still provide great tasting organic food for our tables.
So let’s start by choosing our veggie gardens position. Full sun is always great, but not always possible, so try and pick a spot with partial shade but not full shade. Plants need at least some sun to grow nice and plump healthy food for us. Give this patch a good digging over, removing as many stones, roots and weeds as possible. Good depths to loosen the soil at would be about 6 inches for plants that grow above the ground, and about 10 inches for a root crop. The soil needs to be nice and loose for the roots to spread well and for root crops to be able to grow without constriction
Now you have your chosen piece of ground and dug it over, what comes next? Well, a growing plant needs feeding in much the same way as a growing child. Plants use their roots to draw nourishment from the soil and use all of that goodness to grow well nourished, healthy food for us to eat.
So how do we feed our soil? There are loads of chemicals on the market, but we want to try and avoid that as much as possible, so the easiest way is to go and buy a bag of compost from your local nursery. I was at a friend’s farm recently and was lucky enough to return home with the great gift of a couple of bags of lovely crumbly, well-rotted cow manure. If you have access to poultry, horse or cow manure make use of it; it is awesome for feeding the soil. Remember that it needs to be well rotted down and dug deeply into the earth. The idea is to create lovely deep friable soil, full of organic material to nourish our spring planting. Don’t use too much manure, especially for root crops as this can cause forking in carrots or another root veg, a huge production of leaves on top of the soil, but the bulb/tuber never actually develops. You can also make an excellent foliar feed for your plants by tying some manure in a canvas bag and letting it soak for about four weeks in a bucket of water, topping it up with more water if required. It doesn’t smell that pleasant, but once you have removed the bag of manure, the residual water is a concentrated plant food that you can dilute and either spray on leaves or directly onto the soil around your plant.
Don’t worry too much about time constraints at this stage as we are just preparing the ground for the upcoming growing season. It’s good to allow the garden area to lie fallow for a few weeks and allow the goodness from the compost or manure to leach into the surrounding soil.
For coastal regions, many vegetables can be grown during the winter season, with the main planting season starting from August onwards. In areas where you receive frost, you are going to need to either start your seedlings indoors or wait until the last frost has passed before planting outdoors. Young seedlings don’t take kindly to being cold.
No one wants to go to all of this trouble preparing the soil for our crops to fail, so let’s think about what we are going to plant. Over the years I have developed a sort of “fail-safe” crop that I always plant as my staple food supply. These are easy to grow, don’t seem to mind if you neglect them a bit and are always useful in the kitchen. Once I have my basics on the ground, I decide what else I’m going to grow. I also base my decision on what my family likes to eat. It easy to grow masses of swish chard, but not much good if no-one is going to eat it. So my personal choice would start with lettuce. Don’t start with the ones with a tight head such as Iceberg; they tend to need a lot of looking after. Rather go for the loose leaf varieties such as cos, oak leaf, etc. You can buy packets of mixed lettuce leaves which will give you a good range to start off. With the loose leaf types, you can also pick the outer leaves and leave the plant growing in the soil and pick some more again at a later stage. Another great plant to have is more of a herb than a veggie but consider a nasturtium plant or two. They will grow just about anywhere, and their leaves give a great spicy flavour to any salad. The flowers can be used as decoration or stuffed with cream cheese and eaten, and the seeds can be pickled and used like capers. They are also one of nature’s best antibiotics.
Swiss Chard comes next, easy to grow and only asks for a good watering once or twice a week. Not only can you eat the leaves, but the ribs are delicious when stir fried. So that is the fail safe, leafy vegetables, let’s add a little bit of variety that’s easy to handle. Everyone loves tomatoes and with so many varieties to choose from they should be included in everyone’s garden plan. Bite size cherry tomatoes that ramble and climb need a little more space, but the upright varieties are ideal for growing either in the ground or a large pot. Now the salads have been dealt with; let’s move on. How about carrots? Easy to grow either in the ground or pot…yes, carrots in a pot! I usually pull the ones in a jar much earlier than the ones in the ground and use these as my supply of baby carrots. They need loose soil to grow in so make sure the ground is well dug over if you are planting carrots. Last but not least in my fail safe plan is green beans, the bush variety. They grow literally in bush form and don’t get very high. The only trouble I have ever had with green beans is the occasional slug.
A quick last word about choosing your seeds: Personally, I would recommend open pollinated organic seeds. The advantage is that although they are a bit more expensive to start with, you can save seed from your strongest plant and keep it to use for the next growing season, and not to forget that they are not genetically modified. The seed police won’t come knocking on your door if you want to go with supermarket seeds to start off with, so you choose which you would like to start with.
Next month we will take a look at getting those seeds planted. Happy digging.