In an ideal world, one’s vegetable garden would be in an open yet sheltered site, receiving plenty of sun and with little pockets of shade for those crops that tend to wilt or go to seed under hot, dry conditions. It would also have fertile soil that is consistently moist but free-draining.
Few gardens meet these exacting requirements – mine certainly doesn’t – and creating the perfect site can be costly and back-breaking. It’s always best to work with what you’ve got, but there are a few tips and tricks to mitigate the problems posed by difficult gardens so you can enjoy growing your own food, even in less-than-ideal conditions.
1. Coping with a Shady Garden
Many gardeners bemoan the inevitable shady spots in their garden, but shade is not necessarily a bad thing. For instance in summer, when the sun is at its strongest and can cause lettuce and rocket to wilt or bolt (go to seed), a broadleaved tree provides welcome shade to keep salad leaves lush and fresh. In autumn the leaves will fall from the tree and let in more sun just as days shorten and light becomes precious. With the addition of a cold frame or row cover tunnel for extra insulation, hardy salad leaves can bask in enough weak winter light to keep on cropping right through the tree’s dormant months.
While you can never expect to equal the harvest of crops grown in full sun, some crops will do quite well in a bed that is shady for part of the day. Salad leaves, carrots, beetroot, chives and even kale will cope, while shade-tolerant fruits include sour cherries, gooseberries and currants. To ensure that sufficient light reaches all parts of your plants avoid growing crops too close together, or you’ll find that yields tumble.
Remember, too, that even if there is shade at ground level, climbing plants such as beans may be able to stretch up into the sunshine. Consider whether using containers or raised beds might help elevate other plants up out of the shade. Another trick that some gardeners use is to paint walls and fences white, or to use swatches of foil to help bounce light back off surfaces onto plants.
Consider also whether judicious pruning of tree branches might help. As well as cutting out any that cast shade or topping the tree to reduce its height, you can also remove some of the lower branches. This is called ‘crown raising’ and it’s particularly useful for letting in the low morning or evening sun.
2. Windy or Exposed Gardens
A windy garden is challenging. Windbreaks are essential, but there are a couple of problems with using solid walls and fences. Firstly, when wind hits a solid vertical barrier it will whip up and over before crashing down on the other side, where it can flatten plants. Secondly, in less gusty periods the air behind the barrier can actually become too still, giving fungal diseases and pests such as aphids an ideal microclimate in which to thrive.
Porous windbreaks are more effective. If you prefer hard landscaping, this can be a slatted fence or even windbreak netting, but in my opinion the best windbreak by far is a deciduous hedge such as beech or hawthorn. As well as gently filtering the wind while allowing good air movement, a hedge provides food and habitat for the birds and insects so vital in the garden. You can even opt for edible hedges to really make the most of your productive plot.
While establishing, a windbreak hedge may need wind protection itself. Windbreak netting is usually sufficient.
Beans and other lanky plants are inevitably going to suffer in a very windy garden. Runner beans seem more resilient to the drying effect of wind than French beans. Sturdy supports are essential. I have had a metal arch snap under the weight of wind-walloped beans! Growing beans up canes or poles arranged as a wigwam will stand up to the wind more stoutly than a row of vertical poles.
Low-growing crops tolerate wind more easily. Try dwarf varieties of beans, ground-hugging salad leaves and sprawling squashes. Narrow-leaved vegetables such as onions tend to be less affected by strong winds.
Wind is a real enemy of greenhouses, so take care how and where you site one. Better still, opt for a polytunnel – its curved shape sheds wind much more readily.
3. Hot and Dry Growing Conditions
Relentless fierce sun, particularly in the early afternoon, can really cause plants to struggle. You can use a swathe of fabric to cast shade to keep the soil cooler, or try growing taller plants in front of vulnerable ones.
Even sun-worshippers such as tomatoes, peppers and aubergines can fall victim to a spell of hot, rainless weather. It’s important to keep the soil evenly moist for good fruiting and to prevent issues such as blossom end rot, but watering by hand can become time-consuming. If this is likely to be a regular problem then it could be worth automating your watering. A system of soaker hoses hooked up to a timer will go a long way towards keeping soil moisture consistent.
Mulch the soil regularly with bulky organic matter such as compost to enhance its ability to hold on to water and nutrients. Mulch after watering to lock in the moisture and slow down evaporation.
Completely renovating your garden to make it more amenable to growing every type of fruit and vegetable may not be feasible, but the pointers above will really help to expand what you can grow in a difficult garden. Do you have any clever tips or tricks you use to overcome difficult growing conditions? Share them with us by dropping a comment below!