Irish Association Of Self Builders The Representative Body for Self Builders of Ireland
Grow It Yourself – where to start?
It does seem amazing how quickly DIY gardening appears to have been overtaken by GIY (grow it yourself) gardening! Not so long ago, growing your own vegetables, was seen by many to be a popular past time for a few old gardeners lucky to have a large site or allotment. These days with large sites hard to come by and allotments much in demand, old gardeners or gardening junkies are no longer the sole exponents of GIY, no, many new entrants are young professionals, nature enthusiasts, people who are genuinely interested in getting closer to nature or reducing their dependency on mass market produce. Others wish to experiment and growing their own vegetables, almost like micro farmers or even environmentalists, taking positive steps to reduce carbon footprint or better still growing for organic consumption and self satisfaction. Not surprising therefore to see reports about the sale of vegetable seed overtaking the sale of flower seed. So if you are a potential GIYer and do intend starting a programme or project of growing your own vegetables, some tips might helpful during the early planning or implementation stage So whether your stimulation is reduce air miles or taste organic food, there are some important points to consider when planning to start a vegetable garden.
Does size matter? No - not really, whether you have a pot, an old kitchen sink, a window sill or a sprawling site, growing your own vegetables is not only easy and exciting, it is also very rewarding.
Location – unless of course you enjoy longer walks through your garden, for practical reasons, the vegetable plot or kitchen garden should ideally be positioned nearer the house.
More importantly best to choose a position which permits the vegetable plot to enjoy a sunny aspect for much of the day. Although some vegetable produce will tolerate some shade (for example lettuce, runner beans etc), most won’t, so pick the site very carefully, pick a sunny and a sheltered position, avoid exposed windy sites. Other site aspects worth considering include picking a site where the prevailing ground conditions are level and free draining. Finally do bear in mind that good soil conditions will also be required, whether you prepare the ground by digging or mix in new soil or soil conditioners, most vegetables will require a growing depth of at least 300 mm.
What to grow? Some might have favourites, some might stick with old reliable:
Potatoes are good, and probably one of the easiest to grow, they are also great at breaking down heavy soils. But do remember to give them plenty of water.
Leeks - easy to grow from seed and young leek tastes wonderful
Broad beans - very tasty when young but are very easy to grow
Sweetcorn - harvest when tassels are brown and boil in salted water
Radishes - many different varieties to choose from, but an ideal and fast growing crop from which to teach the children GIY
Runner Beans – quick growing, plentiful and pick and with lots of pick’n’grow fun
Deciding on the Layout – is important especially where space might be limited. For example you can grow some varieties at ground level whilst others such as French and Runner Beans can be trained to grow very effectively up trellising or bamboo canes. In larger sites, plan a series of long narrow beds which are easily accessible from both sides, but do remember to leave plenty of space between the growing beds, for example you should be able to move along pathways between beds with a wheelbarrow or more importantly if you like to get down on your hand and knees and get dirty, you’ll need at least 900 mm – 1200 mm spacing between the beds. Growing beds can be ground level on larger sites or raised on smaller sites or where soil conditions are poor. Raised beds can be developed using soil from other sites and mixing with compost, manures, soil conditioners etc. Also because they are raised you can ensure that drainage is good. As stated earlier, most vegetables prefer to grow in sunny areas, therefore it make sense to orientate beds on a north south axis, this ensures that all vegetable get sun each day. Be generous on spacing between beds, and consider a surface material so that all weather access is possible.
Ground Preparation – the better the soil, the better the performance, it is not impossible to provide good growing conditions. Vegetables require nutrients, water and oxygen. Soil plays a vital role in providing nutrients to plants. So it is important to prepare ground by digging to improve plants take up of nutrients. Alternatively if ground conditions are poor, you can use raised beds to provide better growing conditions for plants. In contrast to the ‘dig system’ the concept of using Raised Beds is sometimes referred to as the ‘No dig system’. Raised beds can be constructed from a variety of boards/timbers, recycled pallet boards, railway sleepers, pressure treated new sleepers, builder’s scaffolding boards all being popular choices.
Using crop rotation wisely – rotating the planting and growing of vegetables yields many benefits in terms of efficiency, bounty and disease/pest control. For example, Broccoli grows well in soils containing good levels of nitrogen, on the other hand, beans put nitrogen into the soil. Potatoes with the large canopy of foliage are very effective at suppressing weeds, whereas onions grow particularly very well in weed free soils. So from a crop rotational perspective, one would plant beans before of broccoli and potatoes before of onions.
Starting a rotation cycle – you should plan for at least three years, meaning the same vegetable will grow in the same spot every third year. However if you wish to also grow potatoes, better to use a four year rotation. The RHS has a very simple way to remember where each vegetable comes within the cycle: British Rail Late, where:
B = brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, turnips etc) was
R = roots (beetroot, parsnips, carrots)
L = legumes (peas, Broad bean, French bean, Runner bean, onions, garlic, chives)
How it works in practice is in area 1, you plant brassicas first year, roots in second year and legumes in third year. In area 2, you plant roots first year, legumes second year and brassicas third year. In area 3, you plant legumes first followed by brassicas and roots.
Maintenance – providing you have done good ground preparation, maintenance of the area shouldn’t be much more than adding a good fertiliser (Fish Bone & Blood) before planting or manure in Autumn. Watering is important especially during the early vulnerable stage, again bets done early in morning or late in evening and always check to make sure water is getting down to plant roots. Weed regularly to avoid unwanted competition for nutrients and water.
If at first you don’t succeed – try again. Sometimes it is only as result of trial and error that you will discover what grows best for your area and conditions. Don’t be afraid to ask other local gardeners for tips or advice with particular problems, most of all, have fun in growing your own vegetables and join the ever burgeoning legion of GIY enthusiasts..
Owen Chubb is Director of Owen Chubb Garden Landscapes Limited, based in Rathfarnham, Dublin 14. An established and award winning landscaping company offering Private & Commercial clients a complete landscaping service including Garden Design, Construction and Planting. A full member of the Association of Landscape Contractors of Ireland (ALCI), the professional association for landscaping contractors.
We are proud winners in 2005 & 2006 of the prestigious ALCI Awards for BEST PRIVATE GARDEN Design & Construction.