Heart and soil: If you're serious about growing your own food, then follow our list of dos and don'ts
Saturday 16 January 2010
So you've made a resolution to grow more of your own fruit and vegetables this year. Bad idea. Not the vegetables but the resolution. Most of us never keep them and then we feel twice as bad. The veg idea is good, but let the notion just sit in your mind for a week or two, quietly simmering away. Don't see the grow-your-own thing as a great hurdle to be jumped, but something to sidle into, a little at a time. Growing food should be a pleasurable, manageable occupation, not another worry, another weight on your mind.
It may be useful to ask yourself why you want to do it. Is it because you think home-grown tastes better? Or because growing food connects you back to a more grounded way of life? Do you suspect that bought food is contaminated with chemicals? Do you want to save money? Is it because everyone else seems to be doing it? Your reasons to a great extent will dictate your approach to the whole business.
Then there's the question of space. Plenty of veg can be grown in pots, but the containers shouldn't be smaller than 30cm across. Vegetables are hungry and thirsty. Small containers dry out quickly and cannot contain the amount of compost that vegetables need to develop properly. I'd use a loam compost rather than a multipurpose one. It's heavy stuff to carry, but it hangs on to moisture and nutrients better than soil-less composts. In containers, its weight can be an advantage, as they do not blow over so easily. Salad crops (the cut-and-come-again kind) are one of the easiest and best crops to grow in pots. Baby beet, baby carrots and radish also do well. Last summer, as an experiment, I grew a couple of courgette plants in pots. They cropped well at the beginning of the season, but ran out of steam much more quickly than plants growing in the ground. But, even in pots, I'd still put courgettes on the list of things to grow. They are ridiculously expensive to buy and very simple to grow.
For more than 30 years in our last garden, I grew in quantity every fruit and vegetable that it was possible to grow: peaches, Morello cherries, scorzonera, peas, shallots, potatoes, garlic, plums, medlars, strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, greengages, Brussels sprouts, chard, carrots, beetroot, lettuce, runner beans, blackcurrants, figs, onions, loganberries – the lot.
Now I don't. I no longer have the drive towards self-sufficiency that I once had. Farm shops have arrived. There are generally less people around our kitchen table. But if fate decreed that I should move to a city, and take on a typical long, thin city garden, food would again be the first thing I would think of growing.
First, I'd plant trees – fruit trees of course. They are as beautiful in bloom as any other flowering tree and become wonderful in silhouette as they age. Stripped down in winter they still look terrific. Pears would be my top choice, then apples. I'd make sure the apples had been grafted on proper rootstock, not the dwarfing kind. Fruit trees on dwarf stock never make good-looking trees and they are much fussier about growing conditions than trees on good, strong M25 stock. I'd have to wait longer for a crop, but correspondingly, the tree itself would live much longer. Eventually (if the next owner of the garden did not chop it down) it would become the best-looking element of the place.
The fruit trees would be spaced quite well apart, zig-zagging towards the bottom of the garden in grass (with wildflowers) that has been allowed to grow long before a late summer cut. The boundary at the bottom would be nut trees and elder (for elderflower cordial and champagne). I'm not supposing that the side boundaries would be anything better than sagging larchlap panels, but one side would be sunnier than the other. While saving up to remake the boundary fence, I'd grow autumn fruiting raspberries, tied in to long parallel wires in front of the fence.
Because raspberries take up vertical space, they can be fitted into a small garden more easily than strawberries, which require more room (and more work). I'd plant standard gooseberries along the middle of the one wide flower bed, running down the side boundary where the raspberries aren't and train cordon redcurrants up the shady wall of the house. Both fruits are easy to grow but crazily expensive to buy.
I'm imagining a bit of terrace at the back of the house, with a strip of border running along between the terrace and the beginning of the grass. On the terrace I'd have pots of mixed-leaf salad and a galvanised trough planted with shrubby herbs. Herbs such as coriander and parsley would be in separate pots.
Last March, for £1, I bought an 8cm-square pot of parsley seedlings. I broke that potful into four and replanted the blocks in four separate small pots. When they had developed well, I brought the four potfuls together again in a bigger pot (30cm across) which is still providing as much parsley as I can use. At some stage it will run up to flower. Then I'll chuck it on the compost heap and start again. The important thing is to keep the pot outside but close to the door. On a windowsill, parsley grows too lax and stemmy.
In the restricted space of a city garden, I would not bother to grow potatoes, onions, shallots or any of the cabbage tribe. They are all cheap to buy and taste is not so much of an issue. It's important to understand potatoes and use the right kind for the right purpose, but even the worst supermarkets offer a decent choice among ones to mash, ones to roast and ones to use in salads.
I'd certainly grow tomatoes, though, probably in pots, rather than gro-bags. I tried those for the first time last year, and did not find them easy. Or attractive. I'd also rig up some kind of shelter for the plants to keep the rain off. Blight (carried on rain) became a big problem for my outdoor tomatoes, when I used to grow a lot of them. Without a greenhouse, I wouldn't bother with aubergines, peppers, or cucumbers but I would certainly find room for a tripod of climbing beans, French not runner. That's just a personal preference. One tripod's worth of beans keeps going all summer, if you pick them regularly. It's another thing that can be fitted into a flower border, especially if you mix the beans with sweet peas on the same support.
I would certainly not make raised beds. They give an illusion of order and control, but in a small space, they fix the script too firmly. The making of them consumes materials that need not be consumed and the soil in the beds, raised as it is above the natural level, drains faster than normal, so that you need to do more watering. Sometimes there is a good reason for making them. More often, there is not. There is no orthodoxy in gardens. Each one requires its own particular solution. Looking for the best answer is what turns us into decent gardeners.
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