Getting ready to GYO

If you want to grow your own veg this season, Geoff Hodge shares some hard earned tips and advice.

Home grown vegetables and salad

Are you looking to get into growing your own veg at home? If not – why not! There’s no doubt that growing your own ensures you have access to the freshest veggies, bursting with flavour and goodness. Shop bought, once picked, and then shipped across the country – or from the other side of the world – loses its freshness, taste and goodness. And many vegetables are picked early, before their flavour has fully developed, so that they don’t get damaged in transit and last longer on the shelf.

Making a start

If you’re growing your veg in the ground, in raised beds or, following the latest trend, mixing them with your flowering plants in beds and borders – the first secret to success is the soil. It needs to be fertile and friable (lovely and crumbly).

This means digging in lots and lots of organic matter to improve the soil structure, hold on to water and plant nutrients and feed the essential underground populations of friendly bacteria and fungi and other microorganisms all of which are essential for a healthy soil – and therefore healthy plants. Dig in whatever you can lay your hands on – home-made garden compost, leafmould, well-rotted manure, composted bark and mushroom compost.

Even if you’re growing your veg with a “no dig” system, I still think it’s worth digging over the soil and improving it initially, going no dig from then on.

Man forking organic mulch
Dig in lots of organic matter to improve the soil structure. Image: Adobe Stock

Don’t go too early

Once you get the grow your own bug, it’s very easy to become desperate to start as soon as the calendar turns over to January 1. But hold your horses if you want great crops to harvest.

The vast majority of veg that you sow directly into the soil won’t germinate until the soil temperature is a minimum of 5-6C – and that isn’t until March or even April. You can make an earlier start by warming up the soil first. This is easy to achieve by covering the soil with cloches or sheets of clear polythene for a couple of weeks.

Sowing inside in warmth is another way of making an early start – and essential for “exotic” crops whose seeds and seedlings like a nice warm, cosy environment in their early days. If you have a greenhouse, conservatory or a warmish windowsill with good light then you can start early – but not too early. Light levels are on the low side in mid- to late winter, especially in the house, and seeds sown too early can become leggy, stretched and grow towards the light, resulting in plants that are basically only fit for the compost heap. Also, as “exotics” aren’t planted outside until the end of spring/early June to avoid cold weather, they’ll grow too large before planting out if you start too early. Tomatoes, for example, are best sown in March or even April.

If you can’t give the right conditions for starting off such vegetables indoors, you’ll probably find it easier and better to stock up with young plug plants.

And don’t overdo it…..

Obviously, there’s little point in growing veg that you don’t like eating; although a friend of mine hated runner beans, until he tasted some fresh from my garden – now they’re among his favourites, but he grows his own.

Nor, if you have a limited amount of space, is it worth growing those crops that take up a lot of room and/or are cheap to buy, such as potatoes and onions. Having said that, it’s definitely worth growing at least a couple of early potatoes – even in a large container or potato sack – so that you can enjoy a few very tasty new potatoes.

potatoes growing in a sack
Grow potatoes in a sack if space is limited. Image: Adobe Stock

You can save space by growing fast maturing salad crops in between slower growing ones, such as brassicas, parsnips and leeks. Also, try the three sisters, a system of planting sweetcorn, runner or climbing French beans and squash together in close proximity. The sweetcorn provides a support for the beans and the squashes cover the soil below them. Together, the sisters provide a balanced diet from a single planting space. Just remember to keep the squash under control by nipping out the growing tip of overly long stems, as they can easily grow 1-5-1.8m (5-6ft) or train them up an arch or arbour to save space.

Variety is the spice of life

If you enjoy eating your five (or more) a day, then grow a bit of everything, but in moderation.

For instance, you may not want to eat Brussels sprouts and parsnips all year, but find they’re essential for Christmas. Growing one or two sprout plants and half a dozen parsnips may be all you need. A few leek plants will also be essential for winter meals.

If you find upright, cordon tomatoes are a bit too tricky to grow well (although they’re not really, but they do need some regular upkeep), then go for bush varieties and even trailing varieties in a hanging basket. These types are easier to grow, don’t take up much room and you’ll get masses of deliciously sweet cherry tomatoes.

Tomatoes growing in hanging basket
Grow tomatoes in a hanging basket. Image: Adobe Stock

Herbs are an essential cooking ingredient, and fresh-from-the-garden ones have stronger flavours than shop-bought dry ones. Many are ornamental and very attractive and make great border plants or for pots on a sunny patio.

Contain your crops

If space in the garden is tight, or you want to pack in as many veggies into your garden as possible just about every vegetable can be grown in a container. You just need to match the size of the container to the size of the plant or, more importantly, the size of its roots. You can grow many salad crops, stump-rooted beetroot and carrots in a window box for example, but this wouldn’t be suitable for runner beans.

Or how about making a salad bar on a wall. You can buy purpose made planting pockets to attach to the wall, or cut out the sides of used plastic drinks bottles, wire these to a trellis and fill with compost.

I grow all my tomatoes, peppers, chillies, peppers and cucumbers in pots. Yes, I need to make sure they’re watered regularly, but I find I get better crops since the roots are somewhat restricted and plants put all their energy into fruiting.

salad growing in used plastic milk cartons
Grow salad crops in used plastic drinks bottles. Image: Adobe Stock

There’s more info on what to grow and how much of each to grow in some of my other posts here:

Growing your own for one – vegetables

Grow your own salad – growing for one

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