It isn’t difficult to grow your own veg in a town garden but you do need to have a realistic expectation of success and ways of avoiding disaster. So where do you go to get really reliable information on how to grow veg?
I think tv programmes don’t always provide the real picture and give a false expectation to the whole subject. Do you remember Jo Swift transforming an allotment into a perfect vegetable plot on that top viewing show Gardeners’ World? What they didn’t tell you there was an army of helpers to clear and weed the plot. I reckon they must have used some kind of weed killer to destroy the horsetail, a plant that is usually very, very hard to eradicate. Then there was GroundForce – just how did they get rid of those serious weeds in such a short time before planting up? What I want is reality and how problems are overcome, not a smooth, problem free entertainment show with perfect results. Having said that I have found a whole load of excellent short BBC videos. The one about growing potatoes in bags on your patio is particularly good.
More realistic are books giving reliable advice from experience and two gardeners I both admire and respect are Carole Klein and Anna Pavord. Both write in a most accessible way.
But for me the most inspirational book is The Edible Garden by Alys Fowler. I find her down to earth approach to growing veg in her tv programmes and books very appealing and resonates with my own experience.
My failures include newly planted cabbage and lettuce seedlings decimated within a day of planting by voracious slugs. Yes I used organic slug pellets and the dreaded beer traps, but somehow there was always a wayward specimen on the prowl and we never did get to eat any lettuce or cabbage that wet summer. My husband used to collect the slugs and throw them into the hedge across the road reasoning that the hedge was better cover for them and if they did venture across the road the chances were they would be run over. Well that was the theory although the slug numbers didn’t seem to drop.
The only solution that has ever worked for me is to use self adhesive copper strip attached to plastic bottles with the tops and bottoms cut off. It does mean a lot of work to begin with, but the containers can be used for years if you use reasonably thick plastic. If mine break up I remove the copper strip and reuse it as it is fairly expensive.
I have had great success with brassicas for the first time ever. In the past I have given up on growing any kind of cabbage because pigeons systematically stripped the cabbage seedlings. So this year I covered the area with fleece. Then as the plants grew I removed that and put netting over them, which works. I forgot to cover this one.
What has worked well for me so far this year
Seeds that germinated easily, that is to say fast and profusely!
- Leeks & Onions – not having sown these before I wasn’t sure what to expect. They germinated quite quickly and came up ‘broken’ but gradually straightened out. They were quite floppy though as seedlings.
- Parsley – I add the leaves to veg/fruit when I use the juice extractor as parsley has such a good reputation for providing valuable vitamins. It is an annual though so be prepared to resow every year and don’t rely on seed from those plants, the growers are really good at making them sterile so you have to buy new every year. However I do let some plants go to seed and add them to stews for flavour in winter
- Par-cel – a cross between parsley and celery, the plants are doing well, good to add to salads, stir fries, even stews
Mizuna – can be used in salads and stir fries
- Kale – the purple leafy kind
The broad beans have been very successful. I received this advice from Sine Chesterman, our gardening guru:
Pinch off the tops once you see the first beans forming on the lower stem. This stops blackfly colonising the tops of the beans and hence working their way down and ruining the crop. We used to give the tops to our goats (who love the whole plant) but when our last goat died and we didn’t replenish, we ate the leaves ourselves. Boiled with a little salt, strained and warmed with a little pepper and butter – superb.
Another tip I received was to be sure to water the beans regularly – just at the base. I added mulch thickly round them as well to retain moisture and to keep the plants from going through the stress of drought which results in stunted/slow growth and poorer crops.
One new herb I sowed from Suttons is Stevia. The seeds germinated quickly. Once the plants are about 4 inches high the leaves can be used to sweeten drinks – one leaf per cup. I will be experimenting with the leaves in baking and cooking. The seed packet came with recipes.
I put some wooden frames together and sowed carrots, beetroot, spring onions and large onions with a fleece cover, a system that has worked very well. I like the frames, they give protection from wind and put off insects. On the outside of the frame containing the salad stuff I’ve added copper strip to deter the slugs.
I’ve sown some climbing beans in the same way as from experience slugs absolutely love them. I like to see the flowers moving in the wind on the bamboo wigwams. When the beans were first introduced to Europe in the 1400s they were grown just for their flowers, I’m not sure how quickly the beans were found to be good to eat. A big advantage of purple beans I found is they are highly visible and quick to pick.
The only real disappointment were the first purple dwarf french beans sown. Out of four rows only three beans germinated, I assume mice got the rest. To reduce the risk of mice getting the seed I sowed more beans in loo roll centres in the conservatory, like I did for the broad beans. They quickly germinated in the warm weather.
I have had a lot more success this year by spot targetting plants reusing milk containers with an adjustable tap. See article
To encourage germination of my fruit I deliberately sow seeds of plants attractive to bees and other pollinating insects throughout the garden:
- pot marigolds
- love in the mist
- forget me nots
My seed suppliers:
By the way www.ourfrontgarden.com is the website we write about the ongoing renovation and care of a front garden in a garden city
Val Reynolds Brown, Editor
Some years ago I came across a packet of Lemon Basil seeds from Thompson and Morgan – my favourite seed supplier since 1970! – that I have to confess had been ‘loitering’ in my seed box for some time, four years in fact! As I had a bit of space in my tiny greenhouse, I thought I would see if they germinated, expecting a few to come up which would be very useful for salads. To my great surprise the whole seed tray bounced into life and I had so much basil I had to give much of it away! Recipes and more information is here.
With that experience in mind I decided to go through the T&M catalogue looking for herbs that I could grow to add to salads, even if they didn’t grow to full size they would add a variety of flavours. Most herbs are available at very reasonable prices and with germination rates generally pretty high it’s a win win situation!
Most recently I have successfuly sown
Outdoor Basil This gave an excellent germination and again found I had so much I had to give many plants away. I kept some indoors and others in the kitchen garden. I love picking a leaf or two and eating it when I’m wandering around looking for weeds to pull up.
Borage, the young leaves have a cucumber taste and widely used in salads and the bright blue flowers look wonderful in drinks, or salads. At the end of the season the plant can be added to your compost. It does get a bit untidy but I can forgive that characteristic as it attracts so many bees and other insects, it is a joy to see it thriving.
Coriander This can be sown direct in the ground. However it is useful to sow some in pots to keep indoors for year round fresh leaves to add to salads, salsas and Asian cuisine. Another flavour indispensable TO the adventurous cook.
Chervil Used in French cooking to flavour fish dishes, sauces and soups, is a familiar taste of France. Can be grown in pot on the windowsill for all year fresh leaves.
Summer Savory this comes highly recommended from Bob Flowerdew who waxes lyrical about its effect on broad beans! Try it chopped and mixed with melted butter. Thompson & Morgan suggest adding it to breadcrumbs to coat fish, added to soups and stew – said to be magnificent!
Endive not often found on sale here in the UK, is easy to grow from seed. Easy too to grow it as salad leaves.
Other seeds I have successfully grown for the kitchen garden this year are globe artichokes, beetroot, parsnips, carrots, lettuce, sugar snaps, french beans, courgettes, leeks, pumpkin, outdoor melons – the jury is out on these they are not growing very quickly and I wonder whether they will flower and produce mature fruit, they are protected by a cloche to keep the heat in and the wind out.
I have grown many plants to attract insects. French marigolds, calendula, I have allowed the parsley to go to seed for insects to feed on, poached egg plant, nigella, and alfalfa to dig in as a green manure. Red clover has been sown for the same reason.
I have also used odd spaces to grow flowering plants for the main garden, for instance escholtzia, chrysanthemum daisies, scabious, sweet peas and I have experimented with unusual plants, for instance cucumelon.
It will be some weeks before I know which plants are worth keeping and which seeds are worth sowing next year. As always the gardener in me is constantly adding, subtracting and repeating plants, always aiming at perfection. Ever hopeful!
Val Reynolds, Editor In Balance Magazine