How to start growing vegetables
Grow your own!
They're tasty, healthy and very easy to grow: what could be better than tucking into a plate of home-grown veggies flavoured with herbs, fresh from your own garden? Now's the time to get growing, with the help of some top tips from our experts.
Everyone wants to grow their own fruit and vegetables these days. Even the Obamas and the Queen have found room in their gardens for a home-grown vegetable patch. Not only is it incredibly simple to sow and grow a wide range of tasty produce, but your whole family will love getting involved and enjoy eating the results. So even if you've never grown vegetables or herbs before, make this the year to give it a go.
Where to grow?
Every garden can find room for some veggies. Have a look at your garden and think about the best place for the vegetable bed. Somewhere sunny is best but most vegetables will cope with some shade, so you're still good to grow if your site only gets sun for part of the day. If you've already got flowerbeds you can easily turn one over to growing vegetables, or it's an easy job to dig up some lawn to make a plot. If you decide to grow herbs, they should ideally be sited near the kitchen door or on a windowsill for easy access.
Wherever you choose, one of the quickest and best ways to get growing is to use a raised bed, a shallow ‘bed in a box' that has a number of advantages, from being easy to plant and weed (less bending over) to warming up quickly in spring, meaning you can get those crops going sooner. If you fancy growing herbs you can also get herb planters which are split into sections so that fast growing herbs cannot overrun less vigorous ones.
Assembling a raised bed from one of our kits is one of the quickest ways to get an instant veg patch and provide extra root depth for crops. Some kits need to be screwed together and others just slot together - all you need is a sunny spot. Raised beds can be built into an established flowerbed, or you can dig a space in the lawn. If weeds are a problem lay a ground mat of weed suppressing membrane at the bottom. Fill the bed with soil, either from the garden (enriched with compost or fertiliser) or buy a mix of topsoil and compost. If necessary cover with netting to deter birds and cats.
Using raised beds also means you can add the right type of soil from the outset (we sell top soil, multi-purpose compost and manure that would make a perfect mix) to provide the ideal home for everything from root vegetables to beans, peas and brassicas such as cabbages and broccoli.
If you don't have room for a dedicated plot, lots of vegetables can be easily grown in pots, meaning you don't even need a garden. Vegetables will grow quite happily on balconies, in front gardens or even in window boxes. Patio pots are easy to plant, look great and are suitable for a wide range of crops. You can plant tomatoes in hanging baskets (choose a ‘tumbling' variety such as ‘Tumbling Tom') and potatoes grow well in potato barrels or even an old compost bag. Don't forget to ‘grow vertically' too - beans and peas will grow up obelisks or wigwams of garden canes.
What to grow
When it comes to choosing your first crops, the possibilities are endless. Think about what you do and don't like to eat (don't waste space with crops you won't eat). Also take the chance to try vegetables you might not normally buy, or try a new variety of an old favourite - for example if you love beetroot, try the bright yellow ‘Burpee's Golden'. Have a flick through your favourite cookbooks for ideas of things you'd like to grow. How about chicory, celeriac or chard, or winter lettuce and stir-fry mixed leaves? The same goes for herbs, look at your collection of dried herbs to see what you use the most and have a go at growing those - some favourites are parsley, rosemary, oregano and basil. One herb that can never live up to the dried variety is mint, but make sure you grow it in a pot as it spreads madly.
Seeds are cheap and you'll find a wide range of named varieties from well-known brands such as Suttons or Thompson & Morgan, all of which will have detailed description and photo of the vegetable and easy-to-follow instructions. During most months we also stock a wide variety of young vegetable plants ready to be planted straight into your vegetable bed.
Sowing seed is easy to do and fun to try. A lot of seeds such as carrots, beans, peas, lettuce and beetroot can be sown straight into the soil. Rake the soil level, add compost if necessary (although some root vegetables such as carrots don't like being planted into freshly fertilised soil) make a shallow drill or trench using a trowel or even your finger and sow your seed - the packet will tell you how deep and how far apart the seeds need to be. When the seeds germinate and have grown to about 2cm, it may be necessary to thin them out to give each plant more room to grow.
You can get your crops growing (and thus harvesting) earlier in the year by protecting them with fleece, polythene tunnels or plastic cloches, keeping them safe from cold and wet until warmer weather arrives. Some crops such as tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines and peppers need a bit of help to get going in our colder spring climate, so sowing these indoors in pots or cell-trays using multi-purpose compost, either in a heated propagator or on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse. Don't plant these crops out until the risk of frost has passed, normally around May.
Whether you sow straight into the ground or indoors, don't forget to label your seeds clearly - one seedling can look very much like another!
Caring for your crop
Once your vegetables are growing, strongly, a little bit of TLC will help ensure a bumper crop. Water well in dry weather using a watering can or hose or install a watering system, which saves you time and ensures the water goes exactly where the plants need it.
Make sure your plants aren't competing for nutrients and water by keeping them clear of weeds; just a few minutes a week with a hoe will keep them at bay. Hoe in the morning in the summer and the roots you bring to the surface will shrivel and die in the heat. Hoeing also helps water reach the plant roots rather than evaporating on the surface of the soil.
Making compost is a great way to improve your soil and boost your crops - for free. A good compost heap needs a mix of ‘green' and ‘brown' material. Green includes grass cuttings and non-woody prunings, plus kitchen waste such as veg peelings, tea bags and coffee grounds, but avoid meat, fish and dairy products. Brown materials include cardboard (torn up), hay or straw, animal bedding (but not cat or dog droppings) and dead leaves. Mix or turn the materials and water if they get dry - remember that water and air are the triggers for making great compost. Depending on what you add, your first compost should be ready in 6-9 months. When it's crumbly and brown, it's ready to go. We sell a range of compost bins, from plastic hoppers to wooden boxes and beehive composters.
Kids love watching things grow and will enjoy getting their hands dirty too. Let children choose the seed they want to grow (small sweet carrots are always popular), equip them with some children's tools and let them ‘grow their own', encouraging them to check the progress of their crop as seeds germinate. You'll be surprised how vegetables that are normally refused at the dinner table are suddenly their absolute favourites when they've grown them themselves.
Not only does growing vegetables help improve your family's diet, it's a great family activity, it gets the kids out in the open air and it helps them make the important connection between plants and food.
From pot to plate
Harvest time is the really exciting bit. With a bit of planning (see our handy timeline below for some tips) you can be harvesting from your vegetable patch almost all year, from spring greens to fresh veggies with Christmas dinner. Leave harvesting until you're ready to cook your vegetables as this ensures the maximum level of vitamins and nutrients makes it onto your plate. Herbs can be picked as you need them too and you can even dry your own or freeze the leaves in ice cubes to use through the winter.
Vegetables can be attractive too and can even be planted among the flowers. Beetroot, for instance, has pretty purple veined leaves, while black kale (cavolo nero) not only tastes fantastic but looks amazing planted among bedding plants. Rainbow chard and purple sprouting broccoli look great throughout the winter, when you really need an injection of colour as well as fresh produce.
The Vegetable Year
With a bit of planning, your garden can provide you with tasty veg all year round.
January: Broad beans in pots, covered lettuce
February: Spring onions, radish under cloches
March: Carrots, beetroot, parsnips, bulb onions, shallots
April: Peas, carrots, kale, spinach, potatoes, globe artichoke, asparagus
May: Purple sprouting broccoli, Swiss chard, salads crops, celery, sow lettuce, sweetcorn, tomato seedlings
June: Marrow, calabrese, plant out tomatoes, peppers, Brussel sprouts and leeks
July: Kohl rabi, beetroot
August: Oriental vegetables, turnips
September: Salad plants, spring cabbages, over-wintering onion sets
January: Purple sprouting broccoli, leeks
February: Brussel sprouts, parsnips, turnips, celeriac, kale
March: Leeks, spring onions
April: Purple sprouting broccoli, spring cabbages
May: Carrots, salad crops
June: Asparagus, Swiss chard, radish
July: Lettuce, spinach, peas, potatoes, broad beans
August: Calabrese, peppers, sweetcorn, tomatoes, bulb onions
September: Kohl rabi, globe artichoke, beetroot, leeks, marrow, celery
There really is nothing more satisfying than sitting down with your family and enjoying a plateful of delicious home-grown vegetables, knowing that you've sown, grown and picked them yourself. We're here to help and happy to offer advice, so what are you waiting for? Get growing!