Welcome to my first post in a new series on Managing An Organic Vegetable Garden.
One of the great joys of life comes from growing and eating your own vegetables. As most gardens do not come with a ready made vegetable patch, getting started can prove to be the most difficult part of the process. The endless questions such as where to site the patch, whether to grow in raised beds or not and what size to make the vegetable plot can be paralysing. All to often we let the season move on until it seems to be too late and we leave it all to yet another year.
My hope is that by starting now, in November, I can convince you to take the steps needed to make that vegetable patch a reality for the next growing season. Most of what you need to do now will involve a notepad and pencil, with a little bit of time outside in the cold making your plans a reality. The real work will start in late winter when the seed sowing season commences.
This week I will be looking at the first stage in the process, which is planning your site. Many of the photos that I have taken for this post are of my own garden in November. They are quite bleak, but do show the structure more clearly than in the summer when the beds are bulging. I have also included a few summery shots of lovely fruit and vegetables to keep us inspired! Although my plot looks very large, most of the space is used to grow flowers for cutting, so do not be put off. You can grow a lot of vegetables in quite a small space and I like to keep my vegetables to a manageable quantity that the family is able to eat.
These are the first steps I believe you should take if you are thinking about starting a new vegetable garden or renovating an old one.
1. The very first consideration is where to site your vegetable garden. If possible make your plot as accessible to the kitchen as possible. You are far more likely to run out in the rain for a few beans if you are just popping outside the kitchen door than if you have to trek to the end of the garden.
2. Make sure the site is close to a source of water. Vegetables need regular watering and lugging a heavy watering can around is not going to encourage you to give your vegetable garden the care that it needs.
3. Think about the light. Vegetables will grow better in an open sunny site than under a tree or in the shade of a wall or shed.
4. Finally think about size. My advice would be to start small and increase your patch as you become more experienced. You can grow an amazing amount in a small patch if you choose your crops wisely.
Looking at my own kitchen garden, I choose to make it in an old paddock, so it is a bit of a walk from the kitchen. On the plus side the paddock fences meant it was easy to rabbit proof the area and the water trough for the horses was easily changed into a hose pipe stand. Also it is the only completely open area of the garden, so the light is fantastic. It is far to large for me to develop all at once, but I have divided it into quarters and am gradually bringing more of the area into cultivation.
Having chosen your site, it is now time to retreat indoors with a new notepad and lots of pens and pencils. First draw your patch roughly to scale on a blank piece of paper. Then think about your options. Do you want one big bed into which everything can be sown. Would you prefer smaller rectangular beds which you can reach easily from the paths. Perhaps a combination of the two. If you are planning to grow soft fruit this should grows well in separate beds and asparagus always works best in a bed on its own. Apples and pears can be grown as espaliers to edge or divide your plot. Play around with ideas and make a few different sketches until you find something that works for you. I have one large bed about 3m square in which I grow all my annual vegetables. I have smaller separate beds for asparagus, strawberries, raspberries and fruit bushes.
If you are new to growing vegetables, please do not be too ambitious. A small plot would be ample growing space for your first year. The main thing is to actually do it and not just think about it!
Having planned your beds you should now think about how the beds will look. Do you want to use raised beds, or beds cut directly into the grass. If you are making beds in the grass would you like to edge them with wood or willow hurdles? You could leave grass edges which would be the cheapest option, but you will need to trim these regularly with edging shears to stop weeds encroaching into your new bed.
A major downside of raised beds is the cost of purchasing them and the need for help to install them. They also require more regular watering than a bed cut from the grass. On the plus side you will have a really good soil to sow into with excellent drainage. If you are gardening in an area with difficult soil, raised beds can be an easy way to create ideal growing conditions.
Having started my vegetable garden with beds cut from the paddock grass, I moved this year to a wooden edging. I found that grass and weeds kept invading the beds and this has been stopped by the new wooden border. The slightly raised borders also make it easier to compost the beds and to cut up to the boards with the lawn mower. Grass edges do need time consuming edging. Having initially planned my vegetable garden as cheaply as possible, I am glad that I spent the money to have the edges installed as it has made the garden more manageable. I am also glad that I did not opt for raised beds as my soil is very workable and being clay based holds the moisture well.
The next decision is how to mark the boundaries. A vegetable garden needs protecting from rabbits, deer, dogs, chickens, children, husbands and sons with balls etc., so ideally you should plan to have a fence or hedge protecting your boundaries. Even a small patch can be protected by a few posts and some chicken wire.
In my large plot I have a post and rail boundary, which is clad in chicken wire to keep out the rabbits. Inside I have surrounded the boundary fence with baby yews which will hopefully one day grow into substantial hedges and give this area a ‘secret garden’ feel. Within the vegetable plot I have used more yews and an avenue of espaliered fruit trees underplanted with lavender to divide the space into more manageable quarters. At present I use only two of these quarters but have plans to start using a third next spring. I would recommend espaliered fruit as a productive way to divide your plot – in a small plot step over apple trees could be used to mark the boundary edge or to divide a large bed into smaller segments.
Having chosen your site, designed your bed or beds and decided on how to make your boundaries, it is good to consider what structures and supports you can use to add height and protect your crops. I have a combination of arches, obelisks, hoops and cages that add interest, support and protection to my beds. Growing vertically is also a good way of making more growing space in a small bed.
My final piece of advice is do not think too hard about this. Look at your garden and choose a site – if it proves to be wrong you can always move it somewhere else. Unlike permanent shrub plantings, vegetables are dug up every year, so mistakes are easy to rectify. Make your plan and then decide how you will implement it. A small space can probably be prepared yourself over the winter. Anything larger may involve asking for help from friends and family, or employing someone for a day or two. Aim to have your preparation completed by early March and you will be ready to start sowing your first seeds.
Next time I will be looking at preparing your soil. In the meantime if you have any questions please do ask and I will do my best to help.