Introduction to Veg Growing (Part 4) – Planting, weeding, and enjoying your space

In this final Veg Growing tutorial we’ll be looking at planting. There is no worksheet to go with this, but attached is the Planting Guide with info about spacings.

Planting Guide

A note on terminology (or rather, how I use those terms):

  • to plant – this refers to plants, not seeds. I sow seeds, I plant plants. As I start almost all of my plants in modules, the plants I plant are plugs and about 4-6in tall
  • to plant out – this means getting my small plants into the ground (or into pots, or wherever I want to grow them). For me, this mostly involves moving them from their multi-cell trays in the polytunnel to the big beds in the garden.

When to plant out

Generally you’re best to wait until after the last frost date has passed. This is the point when frost is no longer expected, and you can work out when yours is here. Ours up here is the second week of May. We tend to get a decent warm spell in April, but we’ve learned not to be lured by this and that anything we plant out before mid-May needs to be either hardy, or is a risk that we mitigate with things like fleece. 

I usually plant the following before the last frost date: broad beans, onion, spring garlic, and any hardy overwintered salad plugs such as lamb’s lettuce once the ground has warmed up. Generally, though, I tend to get those in later in the year, in autumn, to overwinter in the ground. It all depends how well my timings work out. I will usually plant out the first lot of brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, maybe some brussels and kohlrabi) at the end of April if they’re big enough by then. And I’ll keep a close eye on temperature and will cover them with fleece and bubble wrap if we’re predicted a cold spell. If this works out I’m rewarded with earlier harvests, but when it goes wrong I lose all those plants. It’s fine for us because there’s always more plants in the nursery, but if you only have room to start a small amount of plants in Feb/March I would hold off planting them out until the last frost date has passed.

Once we’re past the late frost date you can plant out to your heart’s content. That said, depending on where you live some plants will always prefer to be under cover. For us, that’s chillies, peppers, aubergines, tomatoes, cucumbers and sweetcorn. Tomatoes will sometimes do ok outside, but are generally much happier in a polytunnel, or on a windowsill inside the house (or in a sitoutery – a conservatory).


A clump of radish seedlings ready to be planted out. 

Hardening Off

I have a confession: I don’t bother to harden off my plants. A few years ago I noticed that there seemed to be no difference between plants I plant out straight from the polytunnel, and plants that I take outside and back in for a few days, so I stopped doing it, and now everything I grow goes straight from multi-cell tray to where I actually want to grow it. This works because my cells are big enough for plants to stay in there until they’re ready to go out, and because all tender ‘hot’ plants will stay in the house until it’s warm enough for them where they end up growing (in the polytunnel and in the house). But if you start your seeds in a different way, or with different timings, then hardening off is something you might well need to do. It’s all about slowly acclimatising your plants to the outside growing conditions by placing them outside during the day and bringing them back inside at night – slowly, over the course of a few days.

Spacing

Seed packets and planting instructions will tell you how much space each plant needs. I am attaching my Guide for this. Use this to work out how many plants you have room for in your beds, and what is the best use of your space – fewer bigger plants or more smaller plants. That said, it’s worth thinking about this in a 3D way – that is, not just in terms of literal space, but also in terms of time. Big plants take a long time to grow, and while they’re doing that you can plant smaller quick-growing plants in the gaps between the big ones. When the big ones are big and getting towards harvest time you can plant the next lot of plants in between them so that there are new plants growing when you’re ready to remove the old ones. This is called interplanting and successional sowing, and when you get it right it’s brilliant because there is so much less empty space and you end up with an ongoing supply for food. It also means you don’t have to worry about crop rotation unless you get diseases, because you’re rotating your crops continuously all the time. It takes a while to get this right – we find that following suggestions for what to plant when exactly doesn’t work for us because they’re inevitably written for a different location, and because we have so little light at the start of the season, and then again so little light from September, things never work out quite as planned here. So have fun and experiment – sow some quick salad crops like lettuces and radishes as your interplanting experiments and get bolder from there.

Broad bean spacings. I won’t interplant between them because it’s still too cold – but if these were broccoli I probably would.

There are some plants that I’m happy cramming in together, and some that I always underestimate. Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels and courgettes always need more space than I think, but any kind of salad leaf can be much closer together than I’m comfortable with. That’s because I harvest those leaf by leaf rather than taking the whole plant out, so I’m not needing as much space as the seed packets suggest. I do this by harvesting leaves from the outside whenever they’re the size I want, and I do this for pretty much all leafy things. In winter, that’s how I grow my kale – the late summer plantings (from July onwards) are much closer together than those earlier in the year because the plants won’t get as big over winter and I’m looking to harvest small salad-sized leaves from them – and for that they don’t need as much space. When I get this right and it works I remove every second plant in spring to give some of the plants the chance to grow on and get bigger. Sometimes this works, sometimes this doesn’t – depends on the weather, the right timings, and removing all flower buds as soon as you see them to stop the plants from bolting (the flower buds look like little broccoli shoots and taste like that, too. They’re so delicious).

Winter kale, with its neighbours close by. 

Peas and beans are also plants I plant quite close together. I mostly grow them up sticks in a tent-shape and I’ll plant 3-4 plants at the bottom of each stick. Makes it hard to untangle them when it comes to taking them down again, but means much more produce.

A general note for all of this: the happier your soil, and the better fed it is, to more it supports plants close together. Also have a think about root length – a parsnip with its massive deep roots will draw nutrients from a different bit of soil than a shallow-rooted plant will.

Plants that just keep on giving

I’m a big fan of plants that don’t need much attention, and that will give harvests over the long period of time. It’s the opposite of potatoes or carrots – where you grow the plant for their root/thing and once that’s harvested that’s it. My favourite ‘keep on giving’ plants are kales, any and all kale, because for us they keep going pretty much all season and over winter, too, and they’re delicious fresh and cooked, which means I can chuck them into any meal, from breakfast muffins to salads to any and all dinners. One plant will give us lots of food for a long time, and needs very little from us during that time, except regular harvests and protection from slugs, snails, butterflies and pigeons. That said, they also bounce back really well, and my lazy approach to ravaged plant removal has been rewards many times with new growth.

Lettuces are like that, too. They don’t last as long but once in the ground you can keep picking from them, and rocket will just keep going on and on and on. 

I also really like plants where I can eat more than just the thing you find in the supermarket. Broccoli are a great example of that: the leaves and stems are delicious, but you never see them for sale so it doesn’t occur to folks to eat those bits. Beetroot, too – sometimes we’ll plant them really close together just for the leaves (without any expectation of getting the actual root swelling up), and sometimes we’ll just take the odd leaf off a plants grown for their roots. You can usually get about three cuttings of pea shoots and still get peas off the plants – simply give it a haircut early on to harvest the delicious pea-tasting leaves and stems.

Feeding your plants, and mulching your soil

I generally prefer to feed my soil, and that’s what ‘no dig’ is designed to do: by topping up the soil with compost or manure once a year you’re feeding it and giving the plants the best growing conditions. That said I’m partial to a bit of homemade fertiliser, particularly tea made from nettles, comfrey and seaweed. We stew this in buckets and dilute it with water (1 part fertiliser, 10 parts water) and water the plants whenever we remember, probably once a fortnight or so. 

Mulching means to put a layer of something on your soil to stop weeds growing, and to help with water retention. We use a range of things for this: compost, manure, straw, raw wool, rhubarb leaves, grass cuttings. They’re things we have access to easily. The compost and manure that we put on over winter to top up our beds acts as both feeding and growing medium and as mulch. And the cardboard underneath our beds also acts as a mulch between the grass and the bed above.

Weeding

There is no getting away from this: you’ll need to weed your beds or your weeds will take over and smother the plants you’re actually trying to grow. That said, you don’t have to have empty neat beds – just keep on top of things, and learn to distinguish unwanted weeds from those that are beneficial to your space. Self-seeded borage is one of those things for me – it grows in the beds, but I don’t mind that – I love looking at it, and the bees love it, and its flowers are edible – that’s a win all around. Dock, on the other hand, and nettles I’m less happy with in my veg beds, and I’ll remove those from there because they compete with my veg too much. 

We find that ‘no dig’ makes weeding a lot easier because the plants tend to be smaller and weaker, and thus easier to remove. Our manure often comes with weeds so the first year of a new bed is one of vigilance, but after that it really does make a massive difference. And even then those weeds are much easier to remove than ones grown from the ground itself. 

Pests and Protection

Our main pests are slugs, snails, butterflies (or rather, caterpillars) and pigeons. And chickens and a hungry Dalmatian, but fencing helps with those. Defence against these creatures is a two-pronged approach, really: 1. protecting your crops; 2. making your growing environment somewhere they don’t want to be.

The best defence against slugs and snails we have found is keeping ducks, because they’ll enjoy rootling for them. Chickens are less efficient – they’ll eat them if presented with them, but they tend to get distracted in a way that ducks don’t. Other than that, going out at dusk to search for them and remove them to a space where you don’t mind them being is our next approach – we usually move them to the tasty side garden where they can munch on stuff to their hearts’ content. I have a theory about seaweed fertiliser and mulch – that the salt in it is something slugs and snails don’t like and that that’s why they keep away from seaweed’ed beds. I’m going to experiment further with that this year. We have also tried all sorts of other things (except chemicals – that’s not something we’re willing to bring into the garden): beer traps, copper, sheep wool, shells, coffee grounds. But none of them have really worked as well as the ducks or removing the slugs and snails, and I feel uneasy killing the beasties just for the sake of killing them (rather than them feeding my birds).

Slug Defence Unit

More slug defence

Butterflies and pigeons are best kept at bay through netting or mesh – strung over hoops or bamboo sticks. It doesn’t stop them entirely but it makes a big difference to how much you lose to them. Particularly if you pair this with growing sacrificial plants.

Sacrificial plants are things you plant especially to lure predators to a different areas and away from your actual plants. A row of sacrificial cabbages away from your main cabbages might work to confuse the beasties – for a while, at least.

There is a larger consideration in all of this, though – finding ways to make parts of your garden more attractive to the beasties, and other parts less so (the less-so parts being your veg). For example, removing the wooden sides from our beds has decreased our slug problems because they were hiding under the sides – no sides, nowhere for them to hide. The woodchip paths, too, help, because they don’t enjoy crawling over those as much as over grass, and can be steered towards other areas that are more tempting. Growing onions and garlic dotted around the patch can help too, and flowers as well – try to confuse your pests so your veg don’t register as a tasty snack. Watering in the morning can help, too – if you water at night you’re creating perfect conditions for slugs and snails to enjoy, but if you water in the morning when they’re hiding you might end up with an environment better suited to your veg, rather than the slugs and snails.

Share your plans

I’ve found instagram to be a cheerful platform for all things veg growing – there are so many nice folks growing veg, so much helpful advice, so much support. Sure, there’s competitive corners and advertising nonsense, but there are also lots of lovely ordinary folk sharing their gardens, allotments and balconies. I’d encourage you to join in and document your veg growing – and chat to others doing the same thing. I’m @highlandseedlings there – come say hi if you haven’t already!

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