Vegging Out

Ideally, the place where you grow your vegetables should be in the sunniest, most sheltered part of the garden and preferably not so far away from the house that you can't nip out in the pouring rain, or stumble out in the dark to pick something. If you're keen to grow edible plants and your site is not in full sun, watch how the sun moves across the patch through the day (in the summer the sun is higher, and it will get more light). Some crops need more sun than others and a few (but really only a few) will tolerate some light shade.

Understanding your soil will give you an indication of what is going to thrive in your plot. It will also help you to decide whether you can start growing directly into your soil and what improvements might be needed, or whether you might be better to construct some raised beds and then choose the soil that goes in them. You can find out a little about the type of soil you have by going into the garden and taking a small trowel full of soil from just under the surface. Take a handful and squeeze it, then open out your hand again. If the soil stays in a ball, or feels sticky to the touch, it is clay. If the handful feels gritty (you can easily see the particles) and it won't stay in a ball even when wet, then it is sandy. The holy grail of soil is loam, which when squeezed will almost form a ball and then crumble nicely into a heap again. These are the main soil types, although yours could also be silty, chalky or peaty. Don't despair if you think your soil isn't good enough, there's a lot you can do to make it more welcoming.

Improve the soil by adding bulky organic matter (homemade compost, animal manure, or spent mushroom compost). This will 'open' it up and help it to retain nutrients and moisture. Soil needs to have tiny pockets of air in it – to encourage earthworms and beneficial micro-organisms and to help the plant's roots penetrate. Make sure any horse or farmyard manure is well rotted, or it will scorch roots and may contain pathogens. If you suspect the compost contains weed seeds, bury it, rather than digging it in, so that any emerging 'weedlings' will give up before they get up to the surface.

Digging is usually done in autumn, so that the frost can break down the lumps of soil and help produce a good soil structure. Double digging is good for clay soils as it helps to prevent compaction, but it is hard work, requiring a trench to be dug two 'spits' (spade depths) deep. The good news is that you should only need to double dig when establishing the plot. Avoid digging when the soil is wet, or it will become compacted and don't dig over the ground too often, as this will change the structure of the soil, upsetting the earthworms and other creatures that are busy under the surface.

The 'No Dig' system relies on the (excellent) theory that digging does more harm than good, disturbing the balance of micro-organisms, bringing weed seeds to the surface and destroying the structure of the soil. There's no need to dig if you have good soil and can wait for the worms and bugs to incorporate any organic matter (spread a thick layer of manure over your plot in autumn/winter and let nature do the work). I'm keen on this theory for obvious reasons, but it can make you feel wonderful, digging your plot on a crisp autumn or early spring day, so don't be put off if you're keen. Just remember not to upset the worms.

How much you feed depends on what you are growing. Brassicas are the greedy, spoilt children of the vegetable world, needing everything to be just right for them – a rich, fertile soil firmed in around their roots. They may also want blood, fish and bonemeal – an organic fertiliser. (Or try a friendlier sounding, but inorganic product like 'Growmore'.) These general fertilisers will release essential nutrients over the growing season; just rake in a handful prior to planting. Most vegetables need good rich soil and lots of nutrients for maximum yields. Many are annuals and a lot is expected of them in a few short weeks. But a couple of contrary crops – carrots and parsnips - shouldn't be grown in freshly manured soil as this causes them to fork (and form into suggestive shapes that can't be easily peeled).

Following a crop rotation system will benefit your plants and is important if you are growing vast quantities of one thing over a big area (picture the vast monocultures of the American prairies), but on a small patch it's less crucial, as most pests will easily manage the distances between a few raised beds and as long as you don't keep growing the same thing in the same place year after year, problems shouldn't occur. Other methods of reducing pest attack and nutrient depletion in the soil are gaining popularity. Polyculture, as the term suggests, is the opposite of monoculture and encompasses methods of growing more than one type of plant in each bed. It's a more natural way of growing crops and has been proven in some cases to reduce the incidence of pest and disease outbreaks and to increase yields. An extension of this is permaculture, where the planting closely resembles that of a natural ecosystem. Green manure (fast-growing, nitrogen-rich plants) can be sown in the ground where the crop is to grow and then dug in, so that the fertilising nitrogen is released as the plants decay. Green manures are sown where the ground would otherwise be left fallow – after a crop in the autumn and over-wintered, or in the early spring - then dug in a couple of weeks prior to planting a later spring crop. They have the additional advantage of stopping soil and nutrients being lost in winter weather and will keep out weeds.

Weeds represent evolution at its most cunning and devious – I am actually slightly in awe of them (and also quite fed up with them). They have developed all kinds of clever tricks to ensure their survival, growing almost anywhere and in virtually any soil. They're very fast to germinate, always before any cultivated crops, and grow so quickly that they will easily out-compete other plants – it once took me an entire afternoon to find where I'd sown some leeks. They can also be hosts for diseases and pests. It's been found that some actually send out substances that inhibit the growth of other plants. If only our cosseted veg plants were as streetwise and thuggish as the weeds, life would be much simpler (but then perhaps they would grow to taste mean and bitter…). It's important to get rid of as many weeds as possible when you're cultivating your plot for the first time, especially the pernicious perennials like bindweed, couch grass and ground elder. The only way to effectively eradicate them is to use a systemic weedkiller containing glyphosate, which will destroy the whole plant, roots and all, or to cover the area with black plastic (or some other light-blocking material) for a couple of seasons. You can dig the roots out by hand, but bear in mind that a new plant will grow back from the tiniest piece of root left in the soil.

Once your plot has been prepared you'll be ready to get started on growing some vegetables. Even if you're only just beginning to cultivate the soil now, there will still be plenty to sow right up until October. Remember that like so many ultimately rewarding activities, much of the success is down to the preparation.

Jo Arnell runs practical gardening courses from Hornbrook Manor Farmhouse in Woodchurch. To find out more visit www.hornbrookmanor.co.uk or call 01233 861186.

  • words Jo Arnell