Welcome back to Part 4 of my series about growing vegetables.
In Part 1 we looked at designing your vegetables beds, Part 2 at preparing the soil and Part 3 at making compost. Now we are ready to start the exciting part – thinking about what lovely vegetables we would like to be eating in just a few months time!
My personal aim in growing my own vegetables is not to be self sufficient – I love the fun of shopping at farmers markets and farm shops and the variety of supermarket produce too much to want to limit my choice of food to only what is available from my garden. I do, however, love to eat seasonally and I see my vegetable plot as providing delicious young seasonal treats that are not available in the shops – tiny bright green broad beans, crisp fresh lettuce, sun warmed tomatoes – the list of tastes you cannot match unless you grow your own goes on.
-Vegetable Seedlings In The Greenhouse
When you are planning what to grow it is important to think initally about where you are going to plant your crops and how you will move them around in the future. It is not a good idea to have permanent sites for individual crops, for example always growing potatoes in the same place. Eventually the soil will become infected with pests and diseases that will affect your potatoes. If you aim to move your crops around every season you will largely avoid this problem. I divide my patch into four beds and then roughly move the four families of crops around the four beds each year. This is known as a four year rotation plan and many books will explain it in great detail. It is not necessary to follow a strict rotation however – in a small garden you can grow lovely crops just by making sure you move your crops regularly around your growing space.
Last year I grew all my vegetables in one 3m square bed. I divided this bed into four growing quarters and wrote my plan to fill these quarters. This year I have four completely new beds available in another section of the Kitchen Garden. My original vegetable beds are all going to be devoted to cut flowers this year. The new beds will eventually be the perennial flower beds for the Cutting Garden, but whilst I make sure that the soil is well prepared and free of perennial weeds I am going to grow vegetables here for one or two years. This gives me the luxury of 4 beds to organise my crop rotation into. I hope in the future to create a dedicated vegetable area in the Kitchen Garden with raised beds, but for now this is just a plan. You will notice that the new beds are cut into grass, edged with wood and covered with compost as we discussed in Part 1.
-The New Vegetable Beds
The strict layout of a four year rotation system is to divide the crops into their families – roots, beans and peas (legumes), brassicas and onions. This is the plan I roughly adhere to, slotting in my other favourite vegetables such as sweetcorn, courgettes and salad where there are spaces. I also like to inter crop salad between slow growing vegetables to make the most of the space available.
Perennial vegetables such as asparagus and artichokes are best grown in permanent sites. I grow artichokes in my flower beds and asparagus has its own bed.
-Freshly cut asparagus.
It is hard to beat just cooked asparagus dipped in a freshly laid poached egg as a light summer lunch.
-My Buff Orpingtons.
I also regard rhubarb as a perennial vegetable and grow a few plants in their own bed in the Kitchen Garden. I grow two varieties – Timperley Early and Victoria. I would also like to try the new autumn cropping rhubarb Livingstone, so plan to order a new crown to plant in the spring.
-Rhubarb at the Chelsea Flower Show.
The annual vegetable crops will be divided into roots, legumes, brassicas and onions and grown in the four crop rotation plan. I try to get two cropping seasons out of each section. The first crops will be finished by late June/early July and will be cleared so that a second crop can be planted to harvest in September/October. There will also be cut and come again vegetables such as kale, salad leaves and spinach freely available throughout the growing season.
Looking first at roots, the vegetables I choose to grow include carrots, beetroots, fennel and parsley. I have tried growing parsnips and celeriac, but found they have a very long growing season so take up the ground for most of the year. As we tend not to eat either vegetable on a regular basis I would rather just buy these when I need them. Similar principles apply with the carrots. I can buy perfectly good tasty carrots, so I like to grow something unusual that I cannot find in the shops. My favourites are the round carrots and purple carrots. I grow all three variations of beetroot – red, orange and striped and we eat it from its lovely baby stage to mature crops in the autumn.
The first crops will be sown in March under fleece tunnels until they germinate. After germination I will need to protect this crop from the birds who eat every shoot at this early stage in the year. These crops should be ready to harvest by early June, along with the first potatoes. I will sow another batch of these vegetables every month until August, after which it is too late for the crop to mature.
In this roots bed I will also grow parsley, which will be cut back regularly to ensure a good supply of fresh leaves and fennel.
The next bed to consider will be used for legumes. The first broad beans and early peas are one of my favourite crops of the year. I have never found young broad beans for sale, so I grow plenty of this crop and freeze the excess tiny beans for use throughout the year. I grow a smaller pea crop to use mainly as a raw vegetable in salads. In addition to normal peas I like to grow mangetout and sugar snaps. Rather than trying to have all three available all year I start with an early crop of peas, pop in a row of sugar snaps in May and then finish with a row of mangetout sown in July to be ready in September.
I will plan 2 crops of dwarf french beans – the first to be ready in mid summer and the 2nd to be ready in September when we return from our holidays. With the surfeit of peas and beans early in the summer I like the runner beans to be timed for eating in September and October as well. There is no point in growing lots of vegetables that will be ready to eat whilst you are away on holiday!
I also always find room for a tray of sweetcorn in my legume bed – this is an unreliable crop as it needs a long hot summer with plenty of rain, but in a good year there is nothing to beat freshly picked corn on the cob, cooked and eaten within minutes of picking.
-The first peas.
-Young runner beans climbing up jute netting.
In the onion section I grow garlic, shallots and potatoes. Maincrop onions I prefer to buy as they take a lot of room to grow and need space to be stored as all the crop is harvested at once.
I will intercrop spring onions and radishes between the rows of garlic and shallots early in the season. I also put potatoes in this bed. I only grow what are known as First Early potatoes and salad potatoes and then only in small quantities. I am happy with just a few crops of tiny new potatoes in June to eat with the first peas, broad beans and young carrots. All these crops – the garlic, shallots and potatoes will be harvested by the end of June and I will replace them as the ground comes free with leeks, courgettes and squash plants.
-A young yellow courgette.
-A pumpkin for Haloween.
The final bed is reserved for brassicas. I do not grow much in the way of cabbages – I find the numerous pests that you need to protect them from make this too onerous a crop to grow. I do like a few early spring greens though – these can be eaten before the slugs and whitefly become an issue. Instead of cabbages I tend to grow a lot of cut and come again crops including kale, chard, spinach and salad leaves. I do love sprouting broccoli in early spring so if I am organised I will sow these in March and keep a few plants netted throughout the year to protect them from birds. Spinach is sown on a successional basis and sometimes I will sow a few turnips with the spinach as this is another quick crop to grow.
-The multi coloured stems of chard ready to sauté for dinner.
So what do I have left that I like to grow? Tomatoes are a favourite but I always grow these inside in my greenhouse to avoid blight. I will choose a beefsteak variety, a dark purple and a striped variety and one or two cherry types. In late summer a salad made from all these different shapes and colours looks delicious. I will also pop a cucumber plant into the greenhouse bed although only one as we do not eat a lot of cucumber. I will need some more herbs – coriander, parsley and basil being the main annual herbs that I grow and these can be slotted in wherever there is space. I love to grow lots of varieties of lettuce – this is a crop which is quick to grow and best eaten young I so will sow a row wherever there is space (often between other newly planted vegetables) throughout the summer. I grow lettuce in pots near the house, in the cold frames and greenhouse in the cooler months – in fact anywhere that I can find some space.
I also need to mention beautiful borlotti beans – these are a crop worth growing just for their looks alone, although they are also useful in the kitchen and french climbing beans. I tend to direct sow these at the base of the wigwams and frames where I have been growing sweet peas rather than in the vegetable beds. I try to keep the sweet peas going for as long as possible, but inevitably some of the frames become a mass of brown stems and seed heads. At this stage I whip them out, enrich the soil with compost and direct sow some climbing beans for an ornamental and edible treat.
-A striped tomato.
So there you have it – my crop rotation plan for the year. I will be including details of what I sow in my Garden Jobs post each week and in Part 5 of this series I will list the seeds I have chosen for each type of crop this year. We have plenty more to cover as the year moves on. I will be looking at fruit, herbs and edible flowers, dealing with pests, feeding, watering and harvesting your crops and focusing on how to sow, grow and harvest individual crops. As the season progresses I hope to share my successes and failures (there are always a few!) as well as some ideas of how to use your delicious harvests.
As always your questions and own experiences are very welcome!