Ten things I have learnt about growing veg this year

Here’s a quick list of some of the things I have learnt so far from my first year of growing vegetables. Some might be useful to you if you’re starting out too.

Parsnips, carrots and a few leeks still left to harvest

Parsnips, carrots and a few leeks still left to harvest

1. Grow more of the vegetables we actually eat

This one seems obvious, and I knew this before we started but it still didn’t stop me dedicating a whole corner of a raised bed to broad beans which no one really eats. They failed and that space has gone unused aside from the nasturtiums which have taken over a little. Which brings me onto my second point…

2. Don’t grown nasturtiums ithe vegetable patch

I had read that nasturtiums are a great companion plant and so I popped a few very small plants in amongst the vegetables. I think this was a mistake, because they have taken over in some places, which I was not expecting! The bees love them, and they are a tasty addition to salads (leaves and flowers) but I think next year it would be better to grow them just outside of the raised beds to allow more space for the vegetables.

Humphrey was chasing off a large white butterfly.

Humphrey was chasing off a large white butterfly – note the nasturtiums in the back

3. Onions don’t grow in shade

I had a bit of space alongside a hedge which I dug over and planted the leftover onion sets in. I sort of knew they wouldn’t work, but didn’t have anywhere else to plant them and thought it might be worth a try. It really wasn’t as although they did sprout, they never got any bigger than the onion set originally was when it was planted. Then, they got eaten by the slugs. Next year, I’ll leave this area alone. Maybe I’ll plant some red campion Silene diocia which likes growing in shady areas.

The onions spouted, but have since been devoured by slugs

The onions spouted, but have since been devoured by slugs

4. Chose the compost carefully – or feed more

Because we were just starting up we needed to buy in a fair amount of compost to fill the raised beds and pots. We did try to find topsoil on freecycle but had no success. Trying to keep the cost down, we used compost from our local garden centre which was an organic general purpose compost, £12 for four 75 litre bags. This was the cheapest option but definitely came at a price. After a while, anything growing in a pot turned yellow, and the vegetable patch began to do the same. I could only assume that the nutrients we being used up, because once I fed everything with a home-made mix of nettle and comfrey fertiliser, the plants all perked up and got their lovely green colour back.

The compost looked dark and rich but soon ran out of nutrients

The compost looked dark and rich but soon ran out of nutrients

5. Try some of the container varieties

We had a lot of space around the garden which I don’t want to dig up, but could have been utilised with more container plants. Next year I think I will try some of the smaller varieties of courgette plants as well as growing my dwarf runners in pots rather than the veg patch. They didn’t do very well because they were soon shaded out by the bigger beans.

One of only two courgettes.

One of only two courgettes

6. Watch out for slugs around harvest time

Earlier in the year around the time we were sowing seeds we used nemaslug to help control our mollusc population and it worked – we have lots of fully-grown vegetables. However I have noticed a growth in the number of slugs and snails recently and We’ve lost beetroot, french beans and potatoes. I think that a secondary dose of nemaslug is required to stop this because hand-picking doesn’t seem to be working enough.

This leopard slug was saved the slug-knife because he's quite handsome - for a slug

This leopard slug was saved from the slug-knife because he’s quite handsome – for a slug

7. Nobody likes kale – except the butterflies

A continuation from the first point really, but serves to reiterate that it is important to only grow what your family will eat. It’s tempting to try out different varieties, new vegetables or to create that perfect mix for rotation. But resist the temptation to grow things unless you are sure everyone likes them otherwise, come harvesting you’ll kick yourself that you could be eating delicious squash, but instead you have half eaten kale.

Mmmm... Kale

Mmmm… Kale

8. Sowing carrots thickly is a good idea

I sowed the carrot seeds quite thickly thinking half probably wont germinate and if they do I’ll just thin them later. Then I read that thinning carrots can attract carrot root fly because they can smell the carroty goodness from miles away and I wondered if it was a good idea after all. We protected the carrots with a fine mesh net all around, about 2′ high so hopefully we were safe – and I am glad I did it this way because we’ve been enjoying carrots for over a month now and there are loads left. Okay, the first ones were just baby carrots, but tasty nonetheless. By picking out the larger carrots, the smaller ones are allowed to continue growing. Much better than thinning and chucking a load on the compost heap.

Some of the first 'baby' carrots

Some of the first ‘baby’ carrots

9. You can never have too many tomato plants

This is quite simple really. We love tomatoes and there can never be enough. Both our children love tomatoes so I am not worried about having a glut, but if we do, we’ll be making tomato sauce and freezing down our own ‘tinned’ tomatoes for use in sauces throughout the year. I’ve grown four varieties this year; money maker, plum, sweet million and black cherry.

Just a few of the many tomato plants

Just a few of the many tomato plants

10. But tomato plants will take over if grown in a veg patch

I had a little space left in the top veg patch and a few plum tomato plants which needed a home. It made sense and I popped them in the ground. They have since taken over and smothered the beet, chard and butternut squash.  If I had an allotment, I’d probably dedicate a whole patch for tomatoes, but when we only have two small raised beds, the tomatoes can stay in pots.

The tomatoes have almost filled half the patch - just in front of the runner beans

The tomatoes have almost filled half the patch – just in front of the runner beans

Building a veg patch

Last year was the first year I had grown more than a few runner beans and couple of tomato plants. To say it didn’t quite go as I had planned is one way of putting it – another would be ‘complete disaster’. Read on and I’ll explain why.

Last year we decided to dedicate a good portion of the garden to growing our own organic food. We allocated an area to the southern side of the garden below the gigantic christmas tree. Although it was sloped, the only flat area of the garden  – which is also sunnier – had already been set aside for the kids to play on.

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We started out by marking the beds with string and then we (I say we, but it was mostly my partner) dug two vegetable patches but it wasn’t easy. The ground was solid, dry and full of stones. Then there were the roots belonging to that giant tree. Lots of little roots. Eventually we got through them enough to get some plants in the ground, just.

I had started off a lot of veg seedlings in a mini greenhouse on the patio. I had carrots, swede, beans, lettuce, courgettes and more. The greenhouse was full because as usual I had sown too much. I really need to have more faith in the seeds to germinate – partly why at one point this year I had 70 tomato plants! I planted everything out and so it began. We were growing our own food and it was really exciting.

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we also built a little fence!

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That was until the slugs came! We weren’t prepared for that many slugs and reluctantly we resorted to (wildlife-friendly) pellets as the attack was so ferocious but we really wanted to eat our food. It worked for a while and our vegetables were beginning to grow.

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Lettuces above and beans and squash below

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Then we ran out of pellets and no matter where I looked I couldn’t find any locally (we didn’t have a car at the time so our options were limited). Resorting to ordering some online, we anxiously waited for them to arrive, picking slugs by hand in the meantime. In the two days it took for the postman to drop them off, all of the vegetables above were eaten. Only one chard plant was left and I was devastated. So for 2014, the only produce we managed to harvest were the tomatoes and chillies growing on the patio.

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2015

Because of the mollusc onslaught the previous year, we decided to take a few more steps to protect our crops. After spending a few months during winter reading about it we planned our counter-attack. Firstly, we decided to grow in raised beds. Wanting to try to keep the cost low we built the beds from old pallets. Pallet wood is good enough for raised beds but won’t last forever. Given we don’t plan on being here forever as we are renting, it was perfect. Other alternatives are old scaffolding boards (I did try freecycle but with no luck!). During this process I collected a lot of pins so feel free to take a look!

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The first of two of our beds

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To fill the beds we used local compost; 4 x 75l bags of organic compost for £12! This worked out to be the cheapest option, although I was hoping to see a post for topsoil on freecycle which would have reduced the cost dramatically. Each bed took around 5-6 bags.IMG_1475 copy

Once the bed was full of compost, we used nemaslug on them as well as around the garden. Nemaslug is a box of millions of nematode worms which parasitise on slugs and snails keeping the population under control. Slugs will bury underground during the day and it is then that the worms will get to work. It’s not as effective on snails which do not bury underground but it can infect water snails so keep it away from the pond.

I also used beer traps – recycled margarine tubs half filled with cheap beer and a hole cut in the side (make sure the hole is big enough for snail shells). The molluscs are attracted to the beer and will climb in and drink themselves into an intoxicated death. I had a lot of success with the slugs collecting up to 10 per trap a night. So, from being able to collect 125 slugs in one night, we now find around 10 so much better, and guess what? Our vegetables are growing like mad this year (but more on this later).

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