GARDENING: TILTH TACTICS

THE ART OF VEGETABLE-GROWING; PART THREE OF OUR FOUR-PART GUIDE BY MICHAEL LEAPMAN AND MARY KEEN

THERE is no such thing as a low-maintenance vegetable garden, and your plot will need quite a lot of attention. Getting the soil ready for planting is half the battle - and our first section explains how to create the perfect tilth - but only half. Like livestock, vegetables need to be watered and fed and kept in a clean, disease-free environment. You have to set higher standards than in a flower garden, flowers are more tolerant of neglect. But with vegetables, poor husbandry can destroy the prospect of an edible crop. Our second section explains how to maintain your plot

PREPARING THE SOIL AND SOWING

Die hard gardeners, who do things properly, get their digging done in winter, so that the frost can finish the work of breaking up the vegetable patch. Rough clods are left through the cold months so that by spring all that is needed is a light forking over, followed by much raking, then trampling - in the heaviest of boots - more raking and finally sowing. This produces the Perfect Tilth - ground which has been tilled to a state of even-sized tiny grains of earth.

Most people start late and dispense with the spade. If you can get a fork in the ground and turn it over without too much effort you will probably get away with this. A technique of digging and then bashing, digging again, followed by raking backwards and forwards should produce a halfway decent soil. Spadework will always be needed if you plan to dig trenches and fill them with manure, compost or even wet newspaper to enrich the soil and help it to retain the vital moisture that vegetables crave.

Beans, peas and potatoes are first choices for this treatment. But it is possible to grow vegetables with what is known as top dressing, which means adding the fertiliser in granule or liquid form around the crops as they grow. If you do take this course, be prepared to water often, which is not something you will want to do if your conscience is green.

A long-term option for those who cannot or will not dig, is to go for the deep bed method described earlier in the series (compost is heaped on to raised beds every autumn and the worms will do all the rest). If it is too late, or your soil is heavy unworkable clay, you may have to raise seeds in pots or trays and plant them out when they have about five leaves. Potatoes will struggle through most soils but you cannot expect small seeds, like lettuce, to germinate in clods of sticky clay. To test whether the ground is in a fit state to sow, pick up a handful of soil from the forked and raked ground and crumble it between your fingers. If it is stale breadcrumb or cake crumb size it will be perfect. If it runs through your hands like sand, you can sow, but don't expect it to be very nourishing or to retain water for long periods. Hand-sized lumps of Plasticine - and you are in trouble. Small seeds will never manage.

For sowing in the ground, you need two sticks and a piece of string to make a straight line. Set that out then drag a hoe lightly down it so that you have made a long dent about an inch deep. As a rule, plant each seed two to three times its own depth, so broad beans will have more of a dent than carrots or lettuces. It should tell you on the packet how deep to sow and how far apart to space the plants. Gardeners with top quality tilth can pull the earth gently over the seed bed. If you are worried about your soil you can sprinkle some loam-based John Innes compost into the little trench (Die Hards call it a drill) instead. Sowing indoors means less work outside because the plants then have their own capsule of earth to give them a good start in life. Sow in small Jiffy peat pots which you pack into trays - two seeds to each pot. When they germinate, pinch one out at the base to leave one per pot. You can then plant them at their proper spacing straight away, rather than thinning the rows of continuous seed - always a tricky business. The easiest option of all is to buy plants. MK

TENDING YOUR PLANTS

IF YOU are transplanting from a seed bed or trays, the first few days after planting are critical. The young roots need time to establish themselves. Until they do, their capacity to take up water is restricted; so the soil should be kept moist.

It helps, if possible, to transplant when the weather is dull and rain is in the forecast. But even if your newly planted lettuces and cabbages wilt in the sun after a day or two in their new position, do not despair. They will often recover. Watering was a subject of debate a year or two ago, after a succession of dry summers and hose pipe bans. Forced to cut back, many of us found that, once established, vegetables need less water than we tend to give them.

As they grow, their roots burrow into the ground, drawing up moisture even though the surface may be dry as dust. As cabbages, sprouts and cauliflowers reach maturity, they can probably find the water they need without your help.

With some vegetables, though, watering is essential at critical times in their development. Potatoes, for instance, absorb a lot of moisture as the tubers start to swell, so in dry weather, the rows should be soaked regularly once the leaves have appeared above ground. Leeks and radishes, too, need a lot of water through most of their lives. And when you water, do it thoroughly. A light sprinkling does more harm than good as it encourages roots to turn upwards for their drink. Roots too close to the soil's surface will singe in the heat of the sun. Weeds compete with vegetables for the available moisture so it is important to control them.

To reach their potential, vegetables need a proper balance of nitrogen, phosphates and potash. Most gardeners achieve this by a mixture of organic and non-organic methods - by digging compost and manure into the soil in spring, then raking in a general fertiliser such as Growmore from time to time during the season. Those who abhor chemicals will not use Growmore but, since the BSE scare, some of the organic alternatives - bone meal and hoof and horn mixture - are suspect. Fertilisers increase yields but some say they detract from flavour, so if you have doubts you could settle for quality, not quantity.

It is harder to ignore pesticides. Blackfly is the most persistent scourge of the vegetable plot, especially on peas, beans and globe artichokes. If left untreated these sap-sucking aphids can quickly destroy whole crops, or at least render them inedible; so you need to spray against them as soon as they appear. Both chemical and organic sprays are sold at garden centres.

Specific remedies are available for most of the pests and soil-borne diseases that affect individual vegetables. For airborne pests such as carrot root fly and whitefly, some prefer a physical barrier, such as garden fleece. Clubroot in brassicas is a soilborne disease that lingers for years: dip seedlings in a preventive mixture before sowing. To find out exactly what is going wrong with your crops and how to control it you will need a well-illustrated manual. I find David Hessayon's The Vegetable Expert (Expert Books) invaluable.

Some of the most rewarding vegetables are native to warmer climates, so have to be started indoors. Tomatoes are the most popular of this group, which also includes peppers, aubergines, courgettes and squashes.

The method is broadly the same for all. Sow in pots or trays of seed compost in March or April. After the last frost, plant the seedlings in the vegetable garden or in pots or growing bags on the patio. With a conservatory or greenhouse you can advance the schedule by a few weeks, and you have a wider choice of varieties.

Vegetables in pots need regular-watering and feeding. A proprietary tomato fertiliser is suitable for everything in this group, both organic and non-organic kinds are available. It is vital to keep the compost moist, because once dried out it will seldom recover. In really hot weather this can mean watering twice a day, though too much water can cause blossom end rot.

Cherry tomatoes - small with concentrated flavour are less prone to blossom end rot, and are increasingly popular. Many swear by one of the older varieties, Gardener's Delight, but the newer Fl hybrids give a better yield. Sungold, from Thompson and Morgan, combines an attractive orange skin with a superb flavour. For slicing and cooking you need larger fruit - some prefer the irregularly- shaped Marmande from Provence. In the middle range, Ailsa Craig, and Alicanti are well-tried favourites, or for a colour change try Yellow Perfection (Marshalls).

Most tomatoes are best grown as cordons. This means nipping out side- shoots - growths between the stem and leaves - to leave one strong main stem that will need support. After four or five trusses of blossom have formed, nip out the top to prevent further growth. Peppers and aubergines need more warmth. In most areas it is safer to confine them to the conservatory or a well-protected patio. Only try marrows, squashes and pumpkins if you have space, as their growth rate is phenomenal. Butternut squashes, such as Buttercup from Dobies, have superb flavour. Atlantic Giant is the largest pumpkin. I find Spellbound (Marshalls) more manageable. Crown Prince, from Marshalls, is a prolific cropper.

Where space is restricted, go for courgettes. The yellow variety, Gold Rush, looks good on the plate but I prefer the flavour of the traditional green kind, such an Zucchini or Ambassador. ML

! Seeds of most varieties mentioned are widely available from garden centres. For details further details contact: Marshalls 01945 583 407; Dobies 01803 616888; Thompson & Morgan 01473 688 821. Blooming Things, 01655 781256, has a good list.

NEXT WEEK: PEAS, BEANS AND BABY VEGETABLES

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