Reap what you sow

With plant-based diets on the increase, now might be the time to dig up the lawn and grow your own vegetables. Years ago, it was highly unusual for homeowners not to have a vegetable patch. Whether it was just a strip running alongside the lawn or turning the whole garden into a backyard allotment, post-war austerity and a limited amount of produce in the shops meant it was the only way to get fresh veg and vitamins into the daily diet.

However, the arrival of the supermarket changed that, and now we can buy what was once termed ‘seasonal’ produce year-round, thanks to advanced farming methods, high-speed global transportation and rapid refrigeration.

But now the wheel has turned full circle and ‘home-grown’ is fast becoming the norm again, either out of necessity or because, in this health-conscious world, there is a hunger to know the food on our plates is free from any artificial interference.

Can you dig it?

Well, if you’re staring at a blank canvas, congratulations, you’ve avoided the back-straining bit. If, however, you want to convert part, or all, of your garden then the best time to start the groundwork is autumn, allowing nature to take its course over the colder months. But if you want to start off with light produce, spring is as good a time as any to start.

And start small. Don’t dig it all up and discover you’ve taken on more than you can chew. If you are lifting lawn, cut it into squares, stack it and it will decompose, producing loamy soil and this can be added to the top. Alternatively, you can bury the turf a spade’s depth down and it will feed the soil.

Converting an area populated with mature shrubs is best done over late summer to let the soil start the recovery process in the autumn, and its round about October that weeds should be tackled – but not with quick-fix weed killer!

If you are looking to plant in a vacant patch of ground, consider covering the area with a black weed-suppressing membrane and, even after weeds have died, do not turn the soil over for at least a couple of weeks and then let the winter weather break down the clods.

By spring, the soil will hopefully be fine and powdery – unless it is clay-based, meaning it will be colder and wetter. Therefore, planting needs greater patience although, on the flip side, clay soil can hold on to nutrients better.

Start planning

It’s best to divide your vegetable patch into areas, reason being they become easier to manage and you won’t trample through the patch when you harvest. Raised beds are popular – particularly with chalk or heavy clay soils – but try to keep the sides low so you don’t put off any slug-munching beetles and amphibians. Building raised beds also preserves soil structure and, if you have room for more than one bed, it will make crop rotation easier and deter diseases and soil-borne pests.

Lighting is crucial. Don’t plant in full shade – some veg can cope with dappled shade, but most like the sun. Also pick as pot sheltered from the wind if you can.

When and what to plant

The key to vegetable growing is timing. Wait for spring, making sure the grass is growing and birds are nesting before you start to get busy. It may be best to start with plants that go in and out of the ground within weeks –carrots or salads are best.

Many experts feel it’s best to start with potatoes, which condition the soil as they break it down. And the early months of the new year are the best time to buy the first and second early varieties so they can be placed somewhere cool and light to ‘chit’(produce small shoots). Then they can be planted mid-April for lifting before potato blight becomes an issue in late July and August.

A good variety to start with is Foremost, an old favourite introduced more than 50 years ago. The round, white-fleshed tubers are firm and waxy when young and retain their fine taste.

Carrots can also be sown in April, and if you put the seeds in four-inch drills, this will negate the need to thin the seedlings. Amsterdam Forcing are recommended as they are smooth, colourful and bulk up early.

And remember…

You’ll only get out what you put in. So, give your veg the best start by making sure the soil is right. A pH test kit will help you get the right balance – neutral soil is best so add lime to acid soil or sulphur to alkaline.

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