Last week the blog included some tips on starting a new vegetable garden and, judging by the emails I received (thank you), a number of you found it very helpful (fantastic!). With that in mind, I am following up this week with some advice on choosing what to grow which I hope will hit the spot for some of you. Here we go!
How much space do you have?
What you can grow depends a lot on the amount of growing space you have available. If you have a small garden or are growing in containers it is best to stick to more compact crops that will give you a better yield per square metre.
It is very common for beginners to underestimate how much space certain plants need; this is especially true for members of the cabbage family like cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts or purple sprouting broccoli which need nearly a square metre of space for each plant to grow well. In the same square meter as a single cabbage you could fit 40 carrots, 25 beetroot, 20 leeks or 16 medium lettuce so you can see how much difference your plant choice makes.
I would also say be realistic about the range of plants you want to grow. I sometimes see orders on our website where a new grower orders one or two 6x4 raised beds and then a list of plants and seeds that you would need half an acre to grow. This is a totally understandable mistake to make but reinforces the point that planting distance is, in my opinion, the place to start for beginner gardeners. Spacings are important and are ignored at your peril, too many plants squeezed into a small space will result in small and sickly crops and very little in terms of harvest to show for your trouble.
I will cover succession sowing in much more detail in a couple of weeks when I share my own garden plan with you but I am just making the point here that the same space can be used more than once in a season. Therefore, if you have a small space, one plant can follow another e.g. growing beetroot after broad beans have been harvested as in my plan from last year.
Anyway the point is that, if you have a limited space, you should also consider how long a particular crop spends in the ground so you can use the space for a follow on crop. Brussels sprouts would be a good example of a crop not suited to a small plot because they go in the ground in Spring and use the space right through to the following year.
Grow for local conditions
Varieties that are suited to your local conditions will grow easily with minimal input from you whereas unsuitable plants will not yield well if they are able to grow at all.
The most important factor is temperature which is roughly dependant on how far north you are and will make a big difference for warm climate crops. For example if you are growing in southern counties in the UK you should be able to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, sweetcorn or French beans outdoors whereas northern gardeners will need to grow them under cover. On the other hand leafy greens like cabbage, spinach or kale will thrive in a cool and moist climate (like my garden) but will struggle, or at least need a lot more watering in drier areas. Be aware that not every crop may suit your garden and plan accordingly.
I guess local conditions also covers soil types as the soil you have in your garden (heavy clay, light and sandy or somewhere in between) will have an effect on what crops grow best. Carrots, for example, are a crop many gardeners struggle to grow well but, in most cases, it is neither the fault of the gardener nor the carrot.
It is obvious really but a carrot will find it much easier to grow a nice straight and fat root in light sandy soil than in heavy clay simply because it is easier to make space for itself to grow. If you have a sandy soil you are on to a winner but if your soil is heavy, I would be inclined to grow stump rooted carrots (which taste just as good but won't look so exciting) or avoid growing them altogether.
Start with easy to grow crops
I think it is important for beginner vegetable growers to get some solid wins under the belt as soon as possible. Your first harvest is an encouraging and exciting time that boosts your confidence so the sooner that comes in your journey, the better.
I always think salad crops are a great place to start as they can be grown in relatively small spaces and are quick to mature, most will also provide multiple harvests by picking the bottom leaves and leaving the centre of the plant to grow on. Salads are quick too with baby leaf lettuce ready for picking 14-20 days after sowing or 30-60 days for larger leaves or full heads.
If you have the room, new potatoes are a great choice as they grow quickly and are relatively trouble free because they are harvested before the most common potato disease, blight, hits in July and August. The flavour of freshly harvested new potatoes with a knob of butter can’t be compared, they also have the fun element of surprise as you don’t know what you’ve got until you dig them up.
If you want to grow members of the cabbage family I would go for smaller and faster growing pointed cabbages (e.g. 'Greyhound') or go for the 'superfood' kale which is pretty much foolproof. For broccoli, grow 'Calabrese' because it takes up less space than purple broccoli types and matures relatively quickly.
Garlic and onions are very easy, especially onions grown from sets (immature onions) and will give great satisfaction when you string them up to dry.
Peas and beans are pretty easy too though in cooler gardens I would avoid French beans if you are starting off as they don't like cold or wind. Broad beans are very hardy and rarely go wrong as are peas, the only extra work is you need to build a pea support but once done they will grow away happily on most sites.
Beetroot might sound boring to many but is a more versatile vegetable than you might think and is another relatively trouble free vegetable. Beetroot is also closely related to Swiss chard and perpetual spinach both of which crop for a very long period from a small small space and, like beetroot, are rarely troubled by pests or disease.
Grow for Flavour
There are a number of vegetables that taste completely different when homegrown compared to shop bought, even if you are buying organic produce. The first taste of a tangy yet sweet tomato, a cool and juicy cucumber or a sweet and aromatic carrot is a revelation for novice growers and makes the effort of growing them more than worth it.
I would say crops like cabbage, sprouts or onions while delicious from your own garden will need a connoisseur to tell the difference between good shop varieties while tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, French beans or freshly harvested potatoes are really superb, the only problem is you will never be able to stomach their bland cousins again.
Also, and this might sound obvious, grow what you like to eat. You’d the surprised how many people grow things that they don’t particularly like just because they can. Remember to ask your family if they actually like turnip before you decide to grow half an acre of it.
It also makes sense to grow things that you rarely see in the shops. We’ve mentioned tomatoes already but the range of varieties available to the home grower is enormous whereas you will only have 3 or 4 options in the shops, if you’re lucky. Crops like purple sprouting broccoli, broad beans, pea shoots, kohl rabi or kale are all tasty, nutritious and easy to grow yet aren’t easily available in the supermarket.
Herbs are also an easy option with a huge range of flavours to transform your cooking far beyond the staples like parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme. You can also add a bit of fun by growing edible flowers whose pretty petals can be added to salads or deserts.
Growing to save money
Many people get into vegetable growing to save money on their weekly shop. I can tell you, in my experience, you won’t actually save that much but what you do end up with is far more valuable, that is flavoursome fresh organic food which you know has not been sprayed with any pesticides.
If you are keeping a close eye on the purse strings, especially if you have a small garden, it makes sense to grow more valuable crops. Onions, parsnips or Brussels sprouts are very inexpensive to buy but bagged mixed salad or top quality tomatoes are expensive. Fruit is also a great option if you have the space considering the yield you will get from raspberries, gooseberries or currants that only need to be planted once and then pretty much forgotten about.
OK, that's it for now, I will see you next week!
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