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It’s been a difficult year for everyone. Lots of the things we may have taken for granted once, were suddenly taken away from us, for a time we couldn’t even leave the house. But having more time at home gave me the opportunity to focus on some of the things I’ve been meaning to do for years but just haven’t got round too. One of those things was setting up a small vegetable garden with the aim of growing some of my own food. I’d dabbled with veg gardening in the past, but I was always so busy at River Cottage (cooking veg) that the weeds tended to get the better of things.
We actually began work on the garden in January 2020, a few months before the pandemic hit and everything changed, so most of the groundwork, heavy materials and the Rhino greenhouse were already, and somewhat fortuitously, in place, before it became difficult to organise things like that.
I live down on the Devon/Dorset border, not far from the town of Lyme Regis. Our house is south facing and sits on the edge of a wood, which falls away to the coastline below. Certain areas of the garden are quite exposed, so I thought carefully about where we sighted our new growing area. I wanted it to be out of the prevailing wind to protect the plants but in an area where they got the best of the sunshine throughout the day. We settled on a good spot and it has worked out well, although being some distance from the driveway, where 10 tons of compost, 8 tons of gravel and 40 plus oak sleepers were delivered, there were moments when I questioned this decision.
I’ve built 4 large raised beds and two ground level patches. I have a 8 x 12 greenhouse that sits pretty much in the middle. This arrangement provides plenty of growing space; at least, it’s enough to grow vegetables for our family of four.
My biggest concern was keeping out the deer that amble in from the woods, as well as the rabbits, which have warrens all the way along the high bank, which runs along the east edge of the garden. The only real solution was to put up a fairly conventional stock fence. It’s about 6ft high and has an additional 2 – 3ft of small gauge chicken wire that runs along the lower half of the perimeter. It’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but it certainly does the job. The only time the rabbits get in now is if I leave the gate open by mistake.
Although it took a bit of extra effort, laying a membrane and topping that with gravel has made an easy to manage garden even easier, particularly over the winter, when the ground is wet. I considered woodchip, but I’m glad I decided against that now. In the corner of the garden we built 3 sturdy compost bays. They’re a good size (4ft x 4ft) and should last for years. In the 14 months we’ve been using them I still haven’t managed to fill the first bay.
Next to the compost bins there’s a garden tap. I’m so glad we put the pipework in for this at the beginning of the project, even if it did mean digging a trench through the garden. I can connect a hose and water the garden if it’s been dry, and I can fill a watering can to keep seedlings happy in the greenhouse.
Watching the first seeds you’ve sown germinate and grow is one of the most magical things about growing your own food. It’s almost as wonderful as harvesting the plants themselves when they’re ready to eat. Last year this was all new to me and I had the time to step back and really absorb the process. Slowing down and just watching things happen made me happy and it paid off too. We grew all sorts of good things to eat last year. Some were a big success while others were less spectacular and had me scratching my head, but with each seed you sow and with each plant you grow you learn about how to do it a little bit better the next time.
There were some things we planted last year that won’t be ready to harvest until next year, because they need time to establish themselves. So we’ve got asparagus to look forward, as well as globe artichokes and several varieties of rhubarb. But for the most part, we had baskets and baskets of amazing produce to cook with from late spring onwards.
All the germinating took place in the greenhouse, and then, when the new seedlings had been potted on and were strong enough, I transplanted them to the raised beds and the low level patches. Courgettes, kale, purple sprouting, celery, broad beans, French beans, squash, celeriac, swede, leeks and all sorts of herbs were all brought on this way and they did really well, except the broad beans, which I struggled with hugely. By late spring I was sowing directly into the beds. Spinach, chard, radish, sorrel, new potatoes, peas (weirdly peas didn’t work either, but the sweet peas did amazingly) all these plants, save the aforementioned, thrived and were very productive. I’m still harvesting last year’s chard and sorrel now.
Once the bulk of germination was out the way I gave the greenhouse over to growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and gherkins. Home grown, sun ripened tomatoes are one of my favourite things to eat and one of the reasons I wanted a greenhouse in the first place. I made sure I had a good-sized L shaped bed in the greenhouse specifically for this purpose. Over the winter it’s been full of hardy salad varieties instead. I grew 2 varieties of cherry tomato, and a larger slicing tomato called Marmande. This was my favourite.
This year I’m going to train my cucumbers so they climb up and over the tomato plants, as I ended up with a fairly confusing tangle over the green house floor. That said, I had plenty of cucumbers and dozens of gherkins which I pickled with dill and red onion for the autumn.
So, I’m into my second year of growing now and so far so good. I’ve been having a few issues with snails. They crawl over my new seedlings in the night and end up snapping the stalks and eating the leaves. In the day they hide under the greenhouse racking, but they’re easy enough to spot. I just pick them off and take them outside, it’s satisfying to see them flying through the air.
I’m working to a no dig system, which means, instead of turning the soil over with a fork each year, you simply add a new layer of compost to the top of each bed instead. This feeds the soil and provides all the nutrients the ground needs for another productive year. No dig soil contains lots of beneficial organisms and microbes and it lends itself to raised bed gardening perfectly, because you get very few weeds, if any.
This week I’m putting my new potatoes in the ground. They’ve been chitting away now for a few weeks so they are ready to go. Last year they were in the big low-level bed, but this year I’m rotating my crops, so the potatoes will be in the bed behind the greenhouse. I’m growing Vivaldi and International Kidney, two varieties that come with good credentials.
It’s been quite cold recently, so I’m holding off sowing beetroot and spinach until the ground warms up a little more, although raised beds tend to be a bit warmer than conventional beds anyway, there’s still no rush. Taking your time is one of the joys of vegetable gardening.