I know that at this time of year some people will be acting upon their New Year Resolutions, one of which may involve a foray into self-sufficiency, sustainability, eating more healthily, growing one's own food, etc, so in this post I'm going to offer a few tips for anyone setting out to start their own first Veg Plot .
1. Before you start, take a look round and see what other people have done. Read some gardening books (get them from your Library if you don't own them yourself); visit some websites; read some blogs; look for something that inspires you - and then copy it, or at least use it as your guide. One such resource is the website of my friend David Offutt, the Gastronomic Gardener, who is running a series of articles on starting-up your own garden, which will provide you with some useful initial advice.
2. Size matters! Think very carefully about how big your veg plot is going to be. Gardening is not necessarily hugely time-consuming, but there is no point in starting a massive plot if you are only going to be able to devote an hour a week to looking after it. It's probably best to start small - maybe with just one raised bed or a few containers or something - and expand later if you enjoy the hobby.
3. Don't be in too much of a hurry. I know most people will be just itching to get some seeds sown, but it really is best to prepare your ground first, and delay sowing until everything else is ready. If your new veg-plot is "virgin soil" (for instance if it was until recently covered in grass / turf), then you will need to dig it thoroughly, eliminating any perennial weeds, removing the bigger stones and any other miscellaneous debris - such as builders' rubble. You should also enrich the soil by digging into it a fair bit of "organic matter" - which can be either well-rotted animal manure, or compost. Being a newcomer at this stage, you probably won't have any home-made compost, but if you're going to be a serious gardener you soon will have! For now, just buy some from the garden centre...
4. Only sow or plant when the weather conditions are right. Sowing seeds too early in the year is the most common cause of crop failure. It is better to delay until the weather warms up before sowing. In the UK this means about April. [Of course, if you have a greenhouse, or indoor heated propagators, you can get things started earlier.] Late-sown seeds usually seem to grow quicker, and usually catch up with those which have been sown early and have been struggling to survive. Also, don't sow or plant if the soil is very wet, or very cold.
5. Only grow what you like to eat. Have a Family Conference and discuss what you are going to grow. There's no merit in growing something that produces a bumper crop of veg that no-one in your family will eat. On second thoughts: you may decide to go into "Growing for Showing" - growing veg that is destined for the Exhibition table rather than the kitchen worktop. In this case, it obviously doesn't matter how things taste, but I suggest that you leave this type of gardening for a year or two until you have mastered the basics!
6. Explore the concept of Value For Space Rating (VSR). Basically this involves getting the best return from your space- judged not just in terms of weight / volume, but also in terms of things like price and availability, and the time required to bring the crop to maturity . Maybe you would like to read this blog-post that I wrote some while ago on the subject of VSR.
7. Accept the fact that gardening, like any hobby, takes time to learn. You wouldn't expect to be a World-Class golfer in your first year of playing the game, would you? Therefore be realistic in your expectations. You may not get a bumper crop of perfect veggies first time round, but I assure you that you will get plenty of pleasure from eating anything you have grown yourself, however wierd its appearance! And with experience your harvests will improve.
8. Accept the fact that the weather has a big part in determining the success or failure of your enterprise. Plants are living things, and you will need to consider their requirements: how / when will you water them? How will you protect them from sun / wind / snow / frost etc? How will you support their upward growth? (e.g. bean-poles, netting, stakes etc). If you have enough funds available, I certainly recommend investing in crop-protection measures, such as fleece or cloches. Many of the "hardware" items involved in gardening are durable and will last many years if properly looked after, but there is no escaping the fact that you will need to spend a bit of cash up-front. The mini-greenhouses in my next photo were each bought for less than £10.
9. It's not just the weather that you need to guard against either; it's also animals, birds and insects. I have a lot of trouble with foxes in my garden (they root around in the soil searching for worms) so I often cover my crops with nets. Chicken-wire is also a useful asset if you have only a small space to protect. Other people may have a similar problem with birds - especially pigeons, which can quickly destroy any crop of succulent veggies. Slugs and snails are probably the biggest threat to many gardens, and you will need to consider your plans for deterring them. I use proprietary Slug Pellets. I've tried everything else, and nothing works as well. These days you can buy environmentally-friendly ones, so you can use them with a clear conscience.
10. Diversity is good. In my opinion, it is best to sow / plant small quantities of lots of different veggies rather than huge quantities of only one or two. My reason for saying this is that I have found that despite your best efforts, some years some crops will not do well, whereas others will thrive. You don't know in advance how each will perform, so it's best to hedge your bets, by growing as big a variety as you can manage. Another good approach is to try a few of the mixed packs of seeds, such as the variants of "Baby Leaf Salad". You could also try one of those selections of mini plug plants, grown for you by the supplier to the stage where they are ready for planting-out.
This post is already very long, so I'll stop here for now. Subject to positive feedback, I may revisit this theme later.
I'll leave you with one more photo... Now get out there and grow something!