This tutorial is all about planning your garden – about the infrastructure of your space. You can see how our garden has evolved in these videos here. There is a worksheet to help you plan your space – it is attached as both a word doc (in case you want to fill it in on the computer) and as a pdf (in case you want to print it). Let me know if there are any ‘planning’ aspects you’d like me to add to it!
We’re at 57 degrees north, in the centre of a peninsula not far from the sea. We’re on a small slope, and our garden is south-facing. There is a wall down one side, and hedge on the other three. When we moved here, it was grass and shrubs and a potato bed, and lots of old fruit trees (some really overgrown though). It took us some years to get up the courage to change the layout completely, and to really think about what we wanted. Now the majority of the space is given over to food growing and our chickens and ducks, and we have plans to tame more of the unkempt areas as food-growing spaces. For us, it was the obvious choice: we wanted to grow as much of our own food as we could, and we had the space available, and we didn’t want/need the garden for other things. We’re slowly adding in flowers and other ornamentals, too, to support the fruit and veg – but I think ornamentals will only ever be support for us, rather than the main thing. Over the years we have learnt to read our space: where it drains and where it doesn’t; the channels the water runs down; where the wind tends to come from, and what wind level to expect at different times of year; where the sun is throughout the year, and what shade the trees throw; the kinds of paths we like to take to get from one part of the garden to another (and how they don’t always correspond with the path network we built); the various spots where we like to sit, and where the animals like to spend their time; what shrubs do stuff beyond just being green, and which ones don’t. That took a while to figure out!
This, then, is my first bit of advice for this week’s topic: get to know your space, and take the time to really think about your space. Where are you growing? What’s the weather like? Where do the sun, wind and water come from? Any shaded areas? I find videoing the space really helpful – everything always looks different when you watch it back. I’d encourage you to film a little tour of your space on your phone so you can see it from a different perspective. The other task I’d suggest you do is to draw a ‘to scale’ plan of your space – of how the space is right now, at this moment. And to use this to note any problem areas – bits that don’t drain, or where it’s particularly windy or shady, or where you always get deer or rabbits breaking in. Draw in any beds/pots/growing areas you currently have, and your paths, and spaces you don’t want to grow food in. Between the video and the plan you might find areas where you’d like to do things differently – where you’d like to put in new beds, for example, or pots, or seating areas, or whatever. Knowing how you’d like to use your space is the first step in actually creating the garden you’re hoping for.
If you’re new to veg growing then this might all seem really intimidating and daunting – how are you supposed to know what the water does, or where the wind comes from? My advice is still the same: video your space and draw a plan, and think about whether how your space is at the moment is how you would like your space to be in the future. There might be structures/shrubs/beds you’ve inherited from whoever lived there before, or there might be quite literally nothing but grass and fences. Spend some time looking at pictures and videos of veg gardens online, and see if there are things that jump out at you – things where you think ‘I’d like that’. And then think about where in your space that might fit.
We grow mostly in ‘no dig’ beds straight in the ground, with no wooden sides. The exception to this are the colourful wooden beds in the Free Food Garden. We chose them partially because they’d look cheerful and appealing from the side of the road and give people something cheerful to look at, and because that area can get very wet and we thought it would be easier to deal with it if the plants are raised a bit off the ground. Furthermore, plants such as carrots and parsnips need quite a deep growing space, and they’re loving these beds. The beds are constructed from pallet collars, two stacked on top of each other. Because we’re envisaging this garden as a public space – a space where others might help us grow food – we thought having them higher up would also be a good thing in terms of accessibility as it means less bending over/being close to the ground. Depending on our needs in the future we could raise these beds even further so that they’re pretty much hip height – the pallet collars have that flexibility built in.
Most of our space, though, has ‘no dig’ beds. They are constructed like this: we place cardboard down on the area where we want to grow food, about a foot wider than the growing space we’re planning. We then add compost or well-rotted animal manure on top, about 6-8 inches. We surround the beds with woodchips on top of the cardboard to form a path. The path is also the side of the bed – we don’t bother with wooden sides because we found they were a haven for slugs and snails. The compost/manure just stays on and does not wash away. It will sink down over the course of the growing season, and each year we top it up with 2-3 inches of compost or manure – literally just put on top and not dug in. We get the cardboard free from supermarkets and from neighbours’ deliveries. The woodchips are free from a local tree surgeon, who delivers a big pile ever so often – this took quite a bit of emailing/phoning around but eventually we found someone. The compost/manure is also free and comes mainly from our local community, where many people keep horses. We pick up the manure in big plastic garden trugs in the car. Again, this took quite a bit of phoning around and finding people. We deem the manure old/rotted enough when it no longer smells like horse when you shovel it – if it still smells horsey then it is too fresh and needs to rest longer. It could rest on your beds over winter, though – if you build them and then not grow anything on them for a few months that works. We also sometimes use peat-free commercial compost as well as compost we have made ourselves, but we don’t produce enough of that to fulfil our needs. This is one of those things where you need to think about what you have more of: time or money. In our case it’s time, and we’re happy to go shovel manure etc. and build our beds slowly, but you might find it easier to buy in compost or manure and have it delivered.
We have found several advantages to constructing our beds in this way:
- Tt is very cheap – it takes time, but the materials are mostly free. With the caveat, that this is possible here in a rural area but might be harder in a city. But it works for us.
- There is no digging – literally. This is a massive help because I don’t have the energy to dig and Seamus doesn’t have the time, and it means that we can spend our time and energy on other garden tasks.
- The beds are quick to build because there is no digging, and you can plant into them straightaway.
- Beds can be any shape, and you can use this methods to have oddly-shaped beds that fit into your space.
- What is bed this year can be path next year and vice versa (or be put to lawn, or whatever) – you’re not committed to a ‘forever’ layout. I find this really helpful, and it made a big difference to our confidence when we were still learning how to tame our space. It makes it much easier to think of something as an experiment, and to change your mind about it if it isn’t working
- The beds retain moisture well, but they also drain well. Much more so than any raised beds with sides we’ve built, and much better than areas of the garden that are just grass.
- There are fewer weeds. The cardboard and compost/manure acts as a mulch and over time the grass underneath your beds dies away, and new weeds do not come up from the ground. The first year of a new bed requires more weeding as your compost/manure may come with weeds (nettles and dock, we often find), but it’s easy to weed these when they’re small because they do not have deep roots. For this to work, though, you need to remove some things from the ground before you built your beds: brambles, couch grass, dock and ground elder are some of the things that have given us trouble.
We don’t grow much in pots because we don’t have a courtyard or anything like that, and because pots need a lot more attention: they dry out more easily than big beds in the ground do. That said, we do grow some things in stacked tyres, and half-barrel planters. Things that do well in pots for us are carrots, peas/sweet peas, strawberries, peppers/chillies, tomatoes, and also fruit bushes like blueberries. Blueberries like acidic soil and pots are one of the ways to control that. But you can grow loads of different veg in pots, including indoors on a sunny windowsill. Be sure to add in good drainage to the bottom of your pot and sufficient holes, and check the water levels frequently.
Our paths are the backbone of the garden – its skeleton, if you like. Around the beds they function as boundaries, and elsewhere they formalise the routes we take to get around the place. Our paths are ‘no dig’ ones – cardboard with woodchip – and we vary the width according to our need. Between longer strips of beds the paths are quite narrow, but the main path down the garden is quite wide. Because I’m sometimes a bit unstable on my feet there’s often room enough for either a stick or another person to hold onto.
Something to think about with paths is whether you really need them – or could you have growing space there instead. With our long beds, paths run down the side but the beds themselves are not intersected by paths. If they were, then we’d lose about 80cm of growing space to them. Our ‘no dig’ beds don’t mind being stood or sat on, and that helps keep paths to a minimum. In general, keeping paths as narrow as possible is a good thing – wide enough to push a wheelbarrow down at least, but if you don’t have any health issues that necessitate holding on to another person or using a mobility device, then you could have much narrower paths than we have, and thus more growing space.
It’s worth thinking about what your paths do for you. Are they boundaries? Desire paths, that have come about because you walk through your space in a certain way? Ornaments? And also to think about how practical they are, both in terms of location and material. Woodchips work well for us – but I just love the look of bricks. Bricks are hard to come by here, though, and they get very slippery, so they’re not a great choice for us. But they might work well for you.
We love fruit! Any and all, and the more the better! To me, raspberry canes are the best fruit bush to put into your garden – because they thrive on neglect, multiply, and give you an amazing crop of something that is relatively expensive to buy. They’re a lot less fussy than strawberries and blueberries, and they’re so delicious! I’d recommend buying fruit bushes as bare root plants in the winter, when you can buy them for a fraction of the price of a potted plant. We have raspberries, strawberries, brambles, currants, gooseberries and blueberries, as well as tayberries, sloes and honeyberries. We also have a an unhappy kiwi and fig, and a quince that is yet to flower. Of these, raspberries and brambles are by far the most prolific and joyful. Elder, too, is a great fruit bush for us, and we use both the flowers and the berries.
In terms of trees, my favourite has to apples, followed closely by any and all kind of plum. If you can find room for a fruit tree or two I’d very much recommend you go for it – think about size, location, and what you’re wanting to use the fruit for. There are really prolific ‘patio’ trees on dwarf rootstock now that can be kept in pots and stay small. That makes them a possibility for small spaces and if you live in a rental home.
If you’re into blueberries remember that they like acidic soil – that’s why keeping them in a pot is a good idea, because you can add in pine needles or buy ericaceous compost for them. Raspberries come in two types: summer and autumn fruiting, and if you get some of each you get fruit for a really long time. They are pruned differently, so be sure to find out more about that.
Polytunnel, greenhouse etc.
We have polytunnels but no greenhouse – I refer to them as ‘growhouses’. They are sat on grass and have ‘no dig’ beds in them, so the plants grow straight into the ground. We use them for all sorts of crops all year round, and also to raise our seedlings before planting them out. Years ago we had a little greenhouse with plastic sides and an aluminum base, and it twisted in a winter storm. Our growhouses have done well though! They are the cheaper type with green plastic, but have a door that opens like a door (not a zip one) – we pop a tyre in front of it to keep it closed in the wind. We have three sizes: 2x3m, 3x4m and 3x6m. One of the 3x6m one is filled with tables made from pallets, and that’s what we grow put our seedling trays on.
Our growhouses all have cardboard underneath, like a normal ‘no dig’ bed, and the cardboard extends about 1m outside the frame. We fold the plastic to the outside, and way it down with woodchips and tyres – more space to plant, and protection against wind. This has worked well for us for several years now, and our oldest tunnel has made it through 5 winters without needing any work done to maintain it, other than giving it a wash every spring.
Be sure to keep your polytunnel or greenhouse well ventilated – keep the doors open whenever you can during the day, and open any vents unless there is a big storm coming.
You can grow loads of veg indoors! The obvious things are ‘hot’ plants like chillies, peppers and aubergines, which do nicely in pots on a sunny windowsill, but you could also try tomatoes or cucumbers, preferably in a pot on the floor in front of a tall glass door or window. Lettuce, too, might do ok (though it would prefer things a bit cooler), and you could try other leafy greens to see how they like it – but the cooler the better. A great thing to try any time of year is pea shoots – fill a container with compost (any container – grape punnet, pot, whatever), and chuck on some peas. Any dried peas will do – marrowfat ones from the supermarket word well. Cover with compost and water, and within a week you should have pea shoots coming up. Cut them off whenever you’d like to eat some – they taste like fresh peas and are amazing! Keep cutting for more and more shoots. Just keep the compost moist, and resow regularly throughout the season for a steady supply. You might have to fertilise indoor plants yourself if you don’t get any insects – simply use a paintbrush or your finger and move the pollen from flower to flower.
As well as Charles Dowding, who I linked to last time, I would very much recommend the youtube channel and books of Huw Richards – his books Veg in One Bed and Grow Food for Free are fab. He is offering a ‘plan your garden’ course, which looks really great, and isn’t too expensive.
If you’re thinking about what to do with your polytunnel, Joyce Russel’s Polytunnel Book is excellent – really practical advice and a breakdown for what do each month. Aranya’s Permaculture Designand Sally Morgan’s Living on One Acre or Less are also really useful, as is Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden. And Permaculture Magazine is well worth a look (and subscription!).