GROWING FOOD: A No-nonsense Beginner’s Guide (part three)

GARDEN GROWING

Having grown food in pots and trays, we’re now ready to step outdoors and have a go in the garden. While it may seem a little late in the season to write this belated post, in many ways it’s just the right time, for reasons that will become clear. I’m keeping this post simple because (a) we’re using the same principles we used before (just in the garden this time), (b) it is a subject all too often mired in over-complexity and the occasional nonsense.

 1. MAKE THE DECISION (AGAIN)

Similar to the first part of this series, you first need to decide if you really want to do this. Tending a vegetable patch, even a small one, can and will be difficult at times, not to mention that the further away your patch is from home, such as in an allotment, the harder will it be for you to keep up the routine of looking after it, especially once the initial excitement and novelty of this new hobby has waned. Don’t just imagine your vegetable patch in all its glory, also think of the rain, the snails and slugs, the blackflies, the weeds, and all the less appealing things that fair-weather gardeners conveniently forget about.

 2. CHOOSE YOUR GROUND

If you are determined, then you need to find or make your patch. When deciding, ask yourself the following:

– Is the patch accessible and practical for bringing in tools or even storing them? Is it perhaps even too accessible and prone to litter or vandalism?

– Does it receive adequate daylight and rain? Is it prone to flooding? Is it suitably sheltered from strong winds?

– Is it pest free? Do cats regularly use it as a toilet? Do foxes pass through it?

 Be honest with yourself, this patch needs to be built on common sense and reality, and not on well-meaning hippy ideals.

 3. LAYING YOUR GROUND

While the temptation to turn over the entire garden may be calling, building it up slowly over time is a better option, and one you will be glad you chose further down the line. As with every other part of growing food, start small, safe and neat.

To begin with, build a raised bed. You can either buy some in garden centers, or else build one by nailing three or more wooden planks into whatever shape you want. Keep it small – perhaps one or two square meters – you can always build more later. There are many advantages to using a raised bed filled with fresh compost, for a start you will be isolating the patch from the garden soil which might be contaminated with lead (if living in a city) or cat poo (among others), the bed will also give you a clear delineation for your veg patch, so you know exactly where you are drawing the line as to the space you are using. Building the bed as well as filling it with compost might cost you anything from £10 to £100, depending what resources you have access to, but at this stage a little investment is a good thing, testing your resolve and helping you decide to take the step.

 4. START GROWING

At this stage it is important to still just think of this as a hobby, don’t place too many expectations on your shoulders, just enjoy yourself. As always, keep your equipment simple to begin with, a little trowel and fork for managing the soil, and any fancy things your friends and family might throw at you.

Starting late in the planting season (such as in August) can be an ideal time for beginners, as it would encourage you to plant simple and hardy things you can learn the basics from. Radishes are always a good start, as are chard and lettuce. Use a crop planner from a gardening book or off the internet (see an example here), or look on the back of seed packets to get an idea of what you can plant and when, but do keep it simple to begin with. In the first year you best want to focus on vegetables that grow reasonably fast. Come late autumn you can experiment with over-wintering crops such as onions and garlic. Whichever book or guide you choose to follow, don’t get bogged down in the details, just follow the basics and learn from mistakes.

 5. STAND YOUR GROUND

Even if you find you are loving your new veg patch, proceed with caution, get to know the ins and outs of gardening and wait till a few challenges have tested you (bad weather, garden pests, weeds, etc.) before you decide to expand or upgrade. When gardening goes well you can feel on top of the world, but when things go wrong it can be severely demoralising. Remember, what’s the rush? Think of it as a course you will progress through over a number of years, getting better slowly but surely; let the activity slowly become part of your daily routine, to the point you barely notice it, as opposed to forcing yourself everyday to do more than you are either willing to or have the time for. Be in it for the long run.

This series of posts was created as a response to some of the frankly moronic ways in which food growing is sometimes taught, especially by the clan of organic perma-clowns who put their own agenda before their students’ needs. This series has aimed to keep track of the basics, helping any keen beginners realise that the skills are there to be learnt, simply and reasonably cheaply. You will know you are on the right track when you find that saving eggshells to use as a slug repellent and pollinating flowers to make your own seeds becomes as normal a part of your routine as brushing your teeth. And even if you eventually end up converting your whole garden to growing all sorts of fancy fruit and vegetables, you will all the more be able to think back to your first raised bed and your first precious crop of radishes, with the satisfaction of having learnt something new and mastered a noble skill. Along the way you will make many mistakes, these will both teach and test you; as hard as it can get, take comfort in the fact that you are making mistakes because you are gardening – you are the real deal, in the thick of it, which is more than some people can claim. Mastering the basics, of course, is just the beginning. As you carry on you can gradually start learning about the more advanced principles, such as crop rotation, making your own compost, and so on. Just take it one step at a time, give yourself credit for what you do achieve, and have fun.