A new year brings with it the temptation to mix things up in the garden, expand your growing ambitions or simply fine-tune the way you do things. I myself spent a fun few hours on Friday planning the Quickcrop vegetable garden for the year ahead, making a start on clearing the polytunnels and preparing our beds. Drawing a plan of your garden will make your year's growing so much easier: it will help you be more efficient with plant feeds and get the most from your space using succession sowing and follow-on crops.
Feeding your soil
You lot are all very enlightened. so you will already know the importance of feeding your soil rather than your plants. Bulk feeds like garden compost, seaweed or manure are key to a healthy, sustainable garden as they feed the beneficial life in the soil. The friendly soil life, including bacteria, amoeba and earthworms turn these bulky feeds into plant food while also building new soil. Direct plant feeds only benefit the plant, so they don't improve your soil for next year's or the next generation's vegetable crops.
Manure is a great soil feed, but while it will be perfect for your brassicas (cabbage family) it will cause your carrots to produce too much leaf and make them likely to fork. Good compost or well-rotted manure is a valuable (and sometimes expensive) addition to your garden, so it makes sense to use it only where needed. A basic plan allows you to start preparing the soil now with an eye on the demands of each crop. You can view our range of soil improvers by clicking this link.
Testing your soil allows you to be even more accurate with your feeding regime. There are two main things you should know: the pH of your soil and the concentrations of the major plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium). You can get very accurate soil tests done professionally but the basic garden test kits will give you a good idea of where you are and will be sufficient for most gardeners. The tests can either be done with a simple battery powered probe or a test tube soil test kit. You can view our range of soil test kits by clicking this link.
Testing the pH tells you if your soil is acid or alkaline and will help you choose the crops which will grow best or show you what you need to add to correct the balance.
Most vegetables are happy with a pH of 6 - 7.5 (7 is neutral) but potatoes will be grow in a more acid soil (low pH). On the other hand it is better to grow cabbages in neutral to slightly alkaline conditions. It you have a pH issue it is more likely to be low than high and can be easily raised by adding ground limestone. A slightly high pH can be corrected by adding plenty of compost or, if very alkaline by adding granular sulphur.
Testing for nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (N.P.K) gives you the levels of the three major nutrients needed for healthy plant growth and allows you to top up as required.
Aspect - Sunlight and Shade When drawing up your garden plan it is worth taking light and shade into account. Shade can be created by neighbouring trees or buildings or by the crops themselves, this is the case with tall growing plants like peas or beans.
Given that most vegetable plants will prefer at least 6 hrs of sunshine a day, avoiding shade in your plan makes a lot of sense. In the Northern hemisphere try to place tall growing plants at the north end of your beds with lower growing crops in the front so they can all take advantage of the sun. Crops like lettuce, chard, spinach and beetroot will tolerate semi shade so can be planted in the shadow of larger crops if necessary.
Crop rotation Crop rotation is an important part of your yearly plan as it helps prevent the build up of disease and avoids depleting key nutrients in the soil. Crop rotation is a simple process which avoids growing a particular crop in the same place year after year.
For example cabbage is prone to attack by a soil borne fungus that causes the disease club root while it also needs a lot of nitrogen to grow. If cabbage is grown in the same spot every year the levels of club root fungus in the soil will reach a point where growing a healthy cabbage will be impossible. The soil will also become deficient in nitrogen as the hungry cabbages will have been using up the soil's reserves.
It is worth mentioning that if a soil borne disease has become a problem you may not be able to grow the affected crop for at least 10 years so you can see why this practice is important.
I use a 4 year rotation which means if any member of the cabbage family has been growing in a bed it will not be back again for 4 years. The same goes for all the other vegetable families. A plan is essential here but once drawn up the process is very simple, you just grow each family in a different bed each season .
Succession Sowing & Follow on Crops One of the problems with growing your own, if you could call it a problem, is having too much produce and not knowing what to do with it. Succession sowing is the answer. Sow smaller amounts over the season so you don't have masses of one particular crop ready at the same time. Instead of planting a full bed of lettuce put in a few plants every 2 weeks to ensure a steady supply. Again planning is key here to make sure you have seedlings at hand and space to put them in.
Follow on crops allow you to use your space more efficiently by putting a new crop in after a harvest (provided there is still growing time). The photo above is one of my raised beds from last year after a new potato harvest. The bed is being pressed into service again to grow cool Autumn spinach which I had waiting in trays giving me two harvests from a single bed.