Planning The Kitchen Garden
Deciding where to grow your vegetables can make the difference between success and failure. But once the site is chosen, you can use the same plot year after year.
Some of its features, such as a greenhouse, path or long-term crop, should be regarded as permanent; but most of the cropping area will need re-planning each season.
As explained on this post, crop rotation plays a key part in this annual allocation of space and the manuring programme that is linked with it.
Planning your vegetable plot
Vegetables grow best on land that gets plenty of sun and where the air moves freely. This is especially true of green crops, such as Brussels sprouts and cabbages, and also of swedes. So although shelter from north and north-east winds is an advantage, try to choose a part of the garden that is not hemmed in by trees or buildings.
However, all is not lost if the only available plot is in the shade for, say, half the day. The crops will not grow quite as well, but they can be helped by using cloches or a frame to provide a warmer start in spring.
You are unlikely to get worthwhile results if the site is in the shade for most of the day. It would be better to grow shade-tolerant plants, such as raspberries and blackberries, although even these will benefit from some sunshine.
Do not plant fruit trees in the vegetable plot. They create shade and also take nourishment and moisture needed by other crops.
This need for sunshine and air may help to determine the size and shape of the vegetable garden. You may decide, for instance, to have more than one plot, or to use an existing flower border for vegetables and choose shade-loving flowers and shrubs to grow in a part of the garden unsuitable for food crops.
A rectangle is the most convenient shape for a vegetable plot. In a small garden this will often be a single patch, with the crop rows running across the shorter dimension. In a larger garden, two or more beds, divided by paths, are preferable to a large square plot.
Beds can be of any convenient width, but it is worth remembering that the contents of seed packets are often based on the amount needed for a 30 ft (9 m) row. This length is sufficient to give worthwhile yields of a variety of crops, and avoids the extra work of sowing a large number of short rows.
In practice, the best has often to be made of smaller or irregular-shaped beds. Where a bed is much narrower at one end than the other, use the shorter rows for successional crops, such as lettuces and radishes, with which it is better to make small sowings at intervals.
For most crops the direction of rows is not all-important, but east-west rows are definitely better for crops that are overwintered under cloches. In winter, the sun traverses a short arc from southeast to south-west, and if the side of the cloche row is exposed to the south it will gather more warmth than if the sunlight falls obliquely along it.
Rows that run from east to west are also marginally better in gardens exposed to strong westerly winds.
As well as making plans for the main growing area, you should consider the following points:
Set aside space for long-term crops, such as asparagus, globe artichokes and rhubarb. Once established, they will remain undisturbed for years and should be put where they will not interfere with the planning and rotation of annual crops.
These are better grown near the house, in a sunny but sheltered position. If you have to grow them in the kitchen garden, set aside a small permanent patch where they will not interfere with crop rotation.
A path in the vegetable garden need be no wider than 2-½ ft (760 mm), but it should provide a firm surface for walking on and for wheeling a barrow.
Grass paths are the least satisfactory. Gravel or clinker paths are better, though a board or other edging should be fixed to keep the material in place, and at least an annual dose of weedkiller applied.
Best of all is concrete, either laid on site or in the form of paving slabs. The few weeds that will appear between the slabs are easily dealt with by watering simazine into the cracks.
Greenhouse and frame
Ample light, a firm path and, if possible, a, are the main considerations when deciding on a site. Do not place either under a tree.
A standpipe for a hose is not essential, but it saves the inconvenience and possible mess of using an indoor tap.
Crop rotation and planning
Even before digging the vegetable plot you should work out a rough cropping plan. This is because the vegetables will be grown in three groups, each requiring different soil treatment.
It is helpful to know why crops are grouped in this way and why the groups are moved to different parts of the plot each year. This system of growing vegetables is known as crop rotation.
One reason for rotating crops is that different plants need differing quantities of the various soil foods. If the same type of crop is grown continuously in the same soil, it will need special feeding to make up for the depletion of these nutrients.
Even more important is the fact that many crops suffer from soil-borne pests and diseases. However, infection is likely to become serious only when the host plant is grown in the same area of land year after year.
A third advantage of crop rotation is that manures and fertilisers can be used to greatest effect, and not given to crops that may not benefit from them.
Drawing a plan
Once the vegetable plot has been marked out and dug, you can make a fairly precise cropping plan for each of the three sections. Do this before ordering seeds. The easiest way is to make a plan on ruled paper, taking each square on the paper as a square foot — or any other convenient dimension.
When crops requiring different row widths are grown next to each other, leave a space equal to the difference between those widths.
For instance, rows of lettuces are sown 12in (305 mm) apart; rows of French beans are sown 18in (455 mm) apart. So leave about 15in (380 mm) between a row of lettuces and a row of French beans.
Remember that some crops, such as leeks, can be grown on land where another crop has been harvested. Others, such as lettuces, may be grown as a quick catch-crop between slow-growing plants.
Allow space for a seed bed where you can raise plants of Brussels sprouts, cabbages and other brassicas.
Making the most of your vegetable garden
The smaller the vegetable plot, the greater the challenge to the gardener who wants to harvest crops throughout the year.
This aim can be achieved in many ways, but the main point is not to allow any ground to lie idle. As soon as one crop is cleared, follow it with another. This is known as successional cropping and generally follows the sort of crop-rotation programme outlined on pp. 26 and 27.
Sometimes, however, there is a gap of a few weeks between the harvesting of one main crop and the planting of another. In such cases sow a catch-crop — generally a quick-growing salad vegetable that will be picked before the ground is ready for another main crop.
After Brussels sprouts have finished, for example, sow ‘Tom Thumb’ lettuces in March to crop just before the bed is needed for tomatoes in June.
Another form of intensive cultivation is inter-cropping — that is, growing quick-maturing vegetables, such as radishes, turnips or spring onions, between rows of slow-growing crops such as parsnips or Brussels sprouts.
Under certain conditions, some root crops may be sown closer together than is usually advised to produce a heavier crop. For instance, carrots may yield up to 50 roots per square foot by being sown broadcast — that is, scattered thinly in drills 6in (150 mm) wide and 1/2 in. (12 mm) deep, instead of in traditional single rows.
When growing by this method, pull continuously as the roots become large enough to eat, so that those remaining have more space to develop.
In a few cases a slow-growing crop and a quick-maturing salad crop may be sown together in the same ground.
Parsley is notoriously slow to germinate, and it is often difficult to find the seedlings among the weeds, so at sowing time mix the seeds with those of radishes. The radishes, which will appear in only a few days, mark the row to make it easier to hoe the weeds. In pulling radishes you will also be starting to thin the parsley.
Radishes may also be sown in the rows with slow-germinating parsnips and, again, in the potato bed immediately after planting.
Extend the cropping period of a row of lettuces by sowing a mixture of varieties that mature at different times. Packets of carefully selected mixtures are available from seed merchants.
Some crops, such as sprouting broccoli, spring cabbage or early peas, are harvested at the height of the growing season. As soon as they are finished, prepare the ground for a successional crop, which may be quick-maturing for harvesting in the autumn, or slower-growing for winter and spring use.
Quick-maturing crops, such as lettuces, turnips, beetroots, peas and French beans, will not affect your rotation plan.
Those that are slower-growing — for instance, winter and spring cabbages, Brussels sprouts, sprouting broccoli and leeks — can be fitted into your rotation plan. For instance, the brassicas, which are in Group 2 in the plan, will be followed in the next season by either root crops in Group 3, or by a summer crop of peas, beans, tomatoes, sweet corn and other `hungry crops’ in Group 1.
Some examples of successional sowings, month by month, are:
MAY-JUNE To follow winter cauliflowers, winter lettuces, spring cabbages: lettuces, marrows, ridge cucumbers, spinach, sweet corn or tomatoes.
JUNE-JULY To follow early potatoes (mid-June to early July): early varieties of carrots and peas, leeks, celery, swedes, spinach beet or salad onions.
To follow broad beans or early peas (early to mid July): turnips, globe beetroot, early varieties of carrots, calabrese, autumn or winter cauliflower or sprouting broccoli.
JULY-AUGUST To follow second-early potatoes, maincrop peas or dwarf beans: kale sown where it is to grow, spring cabbages (for transplanting, or to leave standing closely where sown for spring greens), lettuces, radishes, and before the end of July, a final planting of leeks.
As will be seen from this calendar, successional crops are sown or planted in the summer, when the ground is generally dry. A different form of soil preparation is necessary from that in spring.
Clear away the remains of the old crop and any weeds. Break up the top few inches of soil with a fork or hoe, but do not dig deeply. Deep digging will only accelerate loss of moisture from the soil.
On heavy land, where the soil has been trodden down, fork the top few inches into lumps and leave to dry thoroughly. Give a through soaking with water and leave for another day, when the clods will rake down to a fine tilth.
Dress the ground with a compound fertiliser at the rate of 2 oz per square yard (60g per square metre), water the drills before sowing and give a good soaking to the ground after planting.
If sowings of winter vegetables fail in the seed bed, make a direct sowing in the prepared bed before the second week in July.
Sow a pinch of seeds, spaced at the distance the brassicas would normally be planted. When the plants are about 2in (50 mm) high, carefully remove weak seedlings to leave only the strongest in each batch.