Introduction to Veg Growing (Part 1) – Where to start

Any ‘grow your own’ advice is always going to be a guideline only. Because it isn’t based on your specific space, location, climate and weather, it will be an approximation – something to start with, and develop your own version of. I’m thinking of things like sowing and planting times; the kinds of crops that grow well where you are; infrastructure such as beds, paths, hedges, etc.; and harvest times. Up here in my corner of the Highlands, light levels play a big part – it’s dark half the year, and it barely gets dark the other half, which really messes with plants that are bread for different conditions. Wind is an issue for us, too, and sea fog/low cloud. Snow and frost aren’t usually that much of a problem in our space, but they are for friends just a few miles away. And every year is different, so what works one year really doesn’t work the next, and it’s hard to know whether it’s us, the conditions, or something else entirely. Over the past few years, we’ve worked out some things that work well for us: no dig beds, woodchip paths, polytunnels, starting seeds in multi-cell trays and transplanting them later, growing things all year round, when to expect fruit and veg to ripen, what to do with our harvests. But that’s taken time and, like a science experiment, we’re forever keeping notes and changing things up. This is the first thing to keep in mind: veg growing isn’t a static thing. It changes, and the more you do it the more you figure out what works for you.

For us, figuring out how to grow food reliably all year round was a combination of several things: learning about no dig and permaculture; finding the right equipment that works for us; figuring out what crops do well and how to enjoy them; keeping effective notes. These are all things that will be covered by these tutorials.

Where to start

So, you’d like to grow your own? Or maybe you’ve been growing some stuff for a while and would like to become more self-sufficient in veg? Here are some things to think about – and some activities for you to do.

1. Survey your growing space. Is it right for what you’d like to do? Is it working for you? Have you got beds set up already, and are you happy with them? Are you looking to grow in pots? Draw a plan of your space, to scale. You can find apps for this, but I like to use pen and paper. Squared paper works well for this, or the sort of dotted squares you get in some notebooks. Draw your space, add in any beds and pots that you already have (to size). And then add in new beds, or expand yours, or change their size and location. Or draw your space a second time, and – starting from scratch – draw where you would like to grow veg. Compare the two, and see where you’re at. 

2. Take stock of where you are in your veg-growing journey. Are you a complete beginner, or do you already grow your own? What is working well and what isn’t? What would you like to grow that you don’t currently grow? What are you unsure about? 

3. Think about your location and climate. What are some of the challenges where you’re growing? Weather? Wind? Light? Pests? Find out your last frost date , and, if you’ve grown your own veg before, try to remember when you sowed and planted stuff, and when you harvested it. 

It’s ok if your answer to all of those things is ‘I don’t know – I’m new at this!’. Totally fine! Think of it as things to keep track of this coming season – things to think about as you wander round your space.

No Dig and Permaculture

We are total converts to the ‘no dig’ way of growing, as practiced by Charles Dowding. I would very much recommend his website, books and youtube videos. What we have found particularly useful about his way of doing things:

  • there is no digging! Literally no digging, and that really helps with my energy stuff, and means we can spend our time and energy doing other things
  • it’s really flexible: because your beds and paths are built in the same way (cardboard underneath and then either compost/manure (beds) or woodchip (paths)), you can change the layout easily. What is a path this year can be a bed next year, and vice versa. We found this really liberating because it doesn’t commit us to one layout – there’s lots of room for experimentation
  • it’s cheap! Or rather, it can be. It’s taken us a while but we’ve managed to find free sources of cardboard, horse poo and woodchips, and that’s what we need to keep our garden going. If we’d had to pay for these things we wouldn’t be able to grow as much. Our woodchips come from a local tree surgeon (he even delivers them), and our horse poo comes from various horse keepers that live local to us, and we pick it up in the car in plastic buckets. We don’t need beds or wooden sides at all in this method.
  • it helps with moisture retention/drainage, and weeding is easier too
  • his way of starting pretty much everything in multi-cell trays and planting out small seedlings rather than sowing things straight in the beds works really well for us, and multisowing of crops has been a life changer with regards to how much we can grow in our space

I would recommend two of his books in particular: No Dig Organic Home and Garden, and Course Book 1. They’re both really comprehensive, and if you’re only going to buy one gardening book buy one of these!

Similarly, subscribing to Permaculture Magazine has been great for us. Lots of fabulous ideas and projects in each issues, and its shop is full of useful books. There are loads of really great permaculture websites out there, too, and many different courses. I really enjoy following Milkwood online, and I hear good things about their course, too. They’re really good at talking about permaculture in a way that does’t make you feel that you need a smallholding or farm to be able to live and grow food that way.

A related recommendation is Stephanie Hafferty’s book The Creative Kitchen. It’s a plant-based cookbook full of recipes that use ingredients you can actually grow yourself – no nutritional yeast and avocados. It really changed the way we thought about veg growing because it gave us something to aim for – looking at the recipes in there and thinking about what we’d need to make them made us think about what to grow, and how much of it, and what to do with it once we’d grown it.  

What’s next?

In the next three tutorial we’re going to be thinking about our space, our seeds, and our plants. 

Part 2 focuses on spaces and layouts – how we do ‘no dig’; what our beds look like; what does and does not work for us; our polytunnels; and so on. Things broadly to do with ‘infrastructure’ and planning.

Part 3 is about seeds: about what to sow when; where to get seeds and compost; how to keep track of stuff; what equipment to use; where to keep your seeds and seedlings.

Part 4 is about planting things out: spacings; rotations; successional sowing; weeds and pests; propagating plants; perennial fruit and veg.

And then there’s the one-on-one support. If you’d like to talk to me about your garden and plans, you can! Message me and we’ll set up a time to chat. 

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