Organic gardening: How to grow your own vegetables, herbs and fruit
For first timers, the best things to try out are the easy ones. Recommended starter crops include herbs and salad leaves. Salad is simple to grow, quick to mature and actually saves you money. Try a few different things like lettuce, rocket, and mizuna to give your salads added interest.
Think very carefully about what you are planning to grow and how you will grow it. Bear in mind:
- It's cheaper to grow in the ground than in pots as compost can be expensive.
- Some crops such as potatoes can be cheaper to buy than to grow.
- Do your research to find out which crops pay their way – forced rhubarb is easy to grow in spring, as is asparagus once it's established and both can be expensive to buy.
If you crave the uncommon, new ranges of seed are starting to come onto the market for exotic sounding things like calaloo, cucamelon or chop suey greens.
There are tough laws regulating the sale of vegetable seed in the UK. This means that the easiest way to get your hands on the more unusual varieties is to join an organisation (for an annual fee) that distributes packets of seed. A great one to check out is Garden Organic who have a heritage seed library to preserve our old-fashioned varieties.
Use your time and space effectively
The amount of space you have and the length of time you are prepared to wait for your crops are strongly linked. If your vegetable beds are small then you won't want to devote much of your precious space to crops that sit in the ground for months before reaching maturity.
Where to grow your crops?
Wherever you grow them, most vegetables like plenty of sunshine, so locate your beds or containers in a sunny spot and make sure that the soil has been well prepared before you start to grow.
To dig or not to dig?
This will all depend on what kind of soil you have, whether you want to, and whether you are able to spend hours digging. Here's a simple guide...
Dig over the soil and add garden compost or well-rotted manure.
Badly compacted soil?
You may need to 'double-dig' (digging down further than the depth of a spade) for better quality soil. Please note – this is very hard work and not for the faint-hearted!
Raised beds / reasonably good soil?
Try the 'no-dig method'. Spread 3 to 5cm of compost or well-rotted manure on the surface once every year – the frost and worms will do the rest!
- Read the instructions on the seed packet – you may need to start your seeds inside. If you don't have a greenhouse, a sunny windowsill or a propagator will be fine.
- Plant your seeds, making sure that they are the right depth and width apart.
- Water regularly.
- Your seeds will germinate and start to compete for light and nutrients.
- Thin out your seedlings into the spacing recommended on the packet – either transplanting carefully to pots or straight to their spot outside. You may need to 'harden-off' little plants – standing them outside by day and protecting them by covering them at night.
- If you have a lot of slugs and snails, start seedlings off in pots until they are stronger. That way they will be more likely to survive a few nibbles.
Make sure that whatever you are growing isn't going to ripen when you are on holiday – you may miss out on a plentiful harvest.
What types of fruit to grow?
Most fruit bushes and trees bear fruit year after year. While they are initially expensive, they can reward you with crops of fruits and berries for many years.
Trees obviously need space. But did you know that most, including apples, pears, cherries and plums, can all be trained as fans, espaliers or cordons to fit into a much smaller area?
Soft fruit like gooseberries, blackcurrants, raspberries and redcurrants are easy to grow and can produce huge quantities of berries.
For the smaller garden or container grower, strawberries and blueberries are excellent choices. Just bear in mind that some soft fruits may require netting to protect them from birds who can strip the bushes very quickly.
Image courtesy of Jiri Vaclavek/Shutterstock
Make your own compost
Making your own compost can save you money and is more environmentally friendly. Here are some top tips on how to put your garden waste to best use:
- Start the bottom of the heap with something that will allow air to flow up into the pile. Old bunches of flowers or leaves and stalks from plants that you have cut back for example.
- Add layers of the ingredients opposite, trying to alternate soggy materials such as grass and vegetable peelings with drier materials. Make sure that larger items are chopped up (a good mixture is key).
- Mix up your compost from time to time using a spade or a fork (though be careful to look out for hedgehogs!) Or invest in a rotating compost bin to make your life easier.
- Veg or flowering plants you have pulled up
- Fruit and veg peelings
- Weed leaves (not seeds and roots)
- Grass clippings
- Coffee grounds and paper tea bags
- Prunings and hedge trimmings
- Straw and sawdust from pet cages
- Wood ash – a little at once but not big lumps
- Paper and card (crumpled or shredded and nothing glossy).
- Weed seeds or perennial weed roots
- Cooked food – as this might attract vermin
- Anything you think might be treated with chemicals (weed killer etc.)
- Plants with diseases
- Pine needles and similar thick leaves that don't rot quickly
- Cat and dog poo
- Autumn leaves – they take a long time to rot down. But they can be used in a separate heap to make leaf mould.
Making your own compost is an ongoing but very rewarding project. You can try involving your grandchildren to teach them important lessons about growth and recycling. But if their imagination isn't quite captured by this activity, there are plenty of other gardening activities to enjoy with them.
Herbs image courtesy of Oliver Hoffmann/Shutterstock