The traditional image of a vegetable garden is the country house kitchen garden, with vast plots of immaculate vegetables set out in straight lines. This can be off-putting for those who have limited time to spare, and who might just want to cultivate a small area of the garden for vegetable growing.
Fortunately for the modern gardener, things have changed. There are now all sorts of planting techniques that can help you make the best – and most attractive - use of your space, while providing your plants with the conditions they need. Consider:
- The size of your site. If you have a large area and want to squeeze as much in as possible, you might want to grow vegetables in the conventional way. If your garden is medium or pocket-sized, or you want a low-maintenance garden, you could consider the other techniques listed below. A small, informal patch can be an effective way to grow vegetables and can be made even more attractive by growing flower borders between the beds.
- Growing conditions. When you move to a new house the condition of your soil is not always top of your list of priorities, but it is a key factor in growing fruit and vegetables. Heavy clay can be as difficult to work with as thin, stony soil, and poor drainage will always mean that your crops fail to thrive. The traditional way to improve soil conditions is to dig your plot thoroughly and incorporate large quantities of organic matter such as compost or leafmould into it. Other methods (such as using raised beds) are explained below.
- The crops you want to grow. This will mostly depend on what you like to eat, but you should also consider the space available. In a tiny garden, for example, you could focus on growing herbs, a few high-value crops and a variety of salad vegetables.
Quantities and spacing. Producing enough for your household is an important consideration, but to be successful you must also pay attention to the planting instructions on seed packets to make sure that you leave sufficient space between plants for them to grow successfully.
- The health of your crops. Whatever method of gardening you choose, it is important not to grow the same type of vegetables in the same place each year. This is known as crop rotation.
Rotating the place where you plant vegetables each year prevents the build-up of pests and diseases, and allows the soil to replenish the various nutrients required by each type of crop.
Traditionally the following four groups are often rotated together:
- Root plants: onion, shallots, garlic, beetroot, radishes, turnips, carrots and potatoes.
- Leafy plants: broccoli, lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach.
- Legumes: runner beans, French beans, peas and broad beans (these plants increase the nitrogen in the soil).
- Fruiting plants: cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, pumpkins, eggplant, sweetcorn.
However, this simplified approach overlooks the fact that some dissimilar vegetables (such as tomatoes and potatoes) belong to the same crop family and can suffer from the same diseases (both are affected by potato blight).
If you use GrowVeg.com’s Garden Planner tool then each vegetable has a coloured circle around it indicating the plant family it belongs to. It also remembers what you planted in previous years and shows you which areas to avoid, making crop rotation simple and intuitive.
- The traditional vegetable garden. Growing crops on one large patch of soil is a system that still works well for those gardeners who have the time and the space to do it. You will need to dig over and clear the space of weeds, before incorporating as much compost and leafmould as possible. It is a good idea to include paths through the centre of your plot that are wide enough for a wheelbarrow.
- Permaculture. Permaculture focuses on the sustainable use of your land and working in harmony with nature. Permaculture methods are based on the adage: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Working with this system can cut down on your carbon footprint. The idea is to plan your garden for easy access and minimum labour, and to grow food without using chemicals. You should observe the sunny areas, the sheltered spots and the direction of the prevailing wind, and then decide on the growing methods that will work best for those conditions. Permaculture involves minimising wastage, using systems such as water butts, compost bins and wormeries. You can integrate permaculture principles into even the smallest gardens, while using any of the following techniques - see our Permaculture GrowGuide for more details.
- No-dig. It’s easy to understand why people developed a no-dig method of gardening! The argument is that digging is hard work, can cause light soils to dry out rapidly and spreads weed seeds. However, the no-dig technique may not be suitable on soils that are heavily compacted.For maximum success with this method it is advisable to create narrow beds between boards at least 15cm high, held in place with pegs hammered into the ground. Several layers of newspaper are spread over the soil and a mulch of straw, sawdust and grass clippings added. This needs to be watered well before spreading a layer of compost, finished off with about 6cm of soil, which is the layer into which you plant your seeds. The soil level will drop as the layers of mulch rot down, but your beds can be topped up with compost, as required.
- Raised Beds. Raised beds work on the same principle as the no-dig techniques, but tend to be deeper – they are basically large boxes of soil and compost. You can construct them from permanent materials such as bricks or railway sleepers, or from wooden crates or boards. Raised beds are filled with rich compost which is higher than the surrounding ground and therefore remains dryer. This avoids the problems of poor soil and bad drainage. Although more of your garden is taken up in paths between beds, these do allow easier access to plants and prevent soil becoming compacted by being walked on. The deeper soil can often compensate for the lost space. If you plan well in the initial stages, you can incorporate systems for covering your beds with cloches, to provide warmth and protection in cold weather. Some commercially available raised-bed systems include holes into which hoops fit, allowing you to easily cover the whole bed with fleece or netting.
- Square Foot Gardening. This system is particularly effective where space is at a premium. You divide a specially prepared deep raised bed into one foot modules, planting each of your crops into this area. This method is particularly suited to salad crops and miniature varieties of vegetables. Close planting produces a micro-climate in which weed growth is suppressed. The crops are easy to reach from all sides, making it a very accessible way to grow produce directly outside your kitchen door.
You can combine any of the above methods to create a system that suits you best.