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About the Author
Charles Dowding is a veteran organic grower, having practiced no-dig gardening for 30 years. He is the author of Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Course, Gardening Myths and Misconceptions, How to Grow Winter Vegetables, Organic Gardening, and Salad Leaves; contributes articles to many magazines, including Gardeners’ World, Gardens Illustrated, and Grow It!; gives regular talks; and runs gardening courses. He has appeared on radio and television, including BBC TV’s Gardeners’ World.
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How to Create a New Vegetable Garden
Producing a Beautiful and Fruitful Garden From Scratch
By Charles Dowding
UIT Cambridge LtdCopyright © 2015 UIT Cambridge Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Formulating ideas and first steps
"Life begins the day you start a garden."
A garden grows with you, and the way that it evolves is a big part of the pleasure. Start small, nurture ideas, and develop some plans in your mind and also on paper. The main thing is to create a garden that matches your available time, because it is far more enjoyable to be always in control of growth, weeds in particular, than to be struggling to stay on top of things. It's important to keep an open mind about trying some different approaches as the garden grows, and I recommend that you read the first chapters of this book before becoming too involved! This chapter offers some guidance about where to start and how to manage your plans, with an example of my first project in the new garden.
How much garden you can manage depends on how you set it up, what you grow, how much time you can give and also your level of fitness. The last improves with gardening – an absorbing hobby which can draw you into doing more.
The first few months are key in clearing space: according to what you find there may be stones and rubble to clear, vigorous weeds to mulch and overgrown trees and bushes to cut back, as described in Chapters 3 and 4. This is an intensive phase of garden creation, before things settle down.
One way in which growing vegetables differs from growing ornamentals is in the extra time needed to harvest and prepare or store produce. Then after that there is ground to be cleared before starting again, often replanting the same space twice in a season. Intensively planted, smaller areas can be as productive as weedier and less well-tended larger areas. So, for a busy person, it is worth considering starting with just one bed.
Starting out at Homeacres I had occasional help from Steph and friends, and some help later with harvesting salads, but mainly the labour is my own, on a plot of three-quarters of an acre. It is not full-time, as I have other commitments. The labour-saving methods I explain in this book make it possible to garden a larger area in less time than would otherwise be possible.
To design or not
Everything is achievable, and it's a big help to mull things over while your feet are, literally, on the ground: imagine some ideas while out there, not just by looking at a plan on paper. Even if you have little experience, nothing beats making pictures in the head, while in the garden. Put an imaginary greenhouse right there and then see with your mind's eye if it would be easy to access, how it would look and how it might relate to the rest of your garden. Nurture the ideas you have and sketch them out as a temporary framework or guideline, just in a rough way. Then be prepared as things manifest to alter any bit that feels wrong or impractical. You will find that new and exciting ideas can pop up while actually gardening, which is a highly creative process.
I found that Homeacres daunted me with its overgrown aspect – there seemed too much that I needed to do. Ideas for a new garden were bubbling in the background, but they felt nebulous and uncertain at that stage.
Somehow I needed to have a garden running by next spring, as a base for courses, writing and visits by groups keen to learn. What might I show them?
As it turned out, the answer was "A lot", for example the many possible ways to clear ground, clean soil, create a growing space and have harvests in a short time period. If you like working to a plan, I suggest having one with a 't' on the end – a growing plan that can change and adapt to weather, weeds and growth as it happens.
Time, energy, health
A bold and beautiful plan is useless unless you can give it the necessary time and energy, or have the money to make time. You also need a commitment to turn your wishes into reality, so it is good to ask yourself "How much do I really want that?" A powerful "Very much" will help you somehow make it happen.
Gardening is a physical activity, and the more you do, the more your muscles respond with new energy after an initial tiredness. At first, doing a little regularly is important: keep going and then feel rewarded as your body strengthens, warms up and looks better too. Gardening improves your mental health too, especially in terms of the uplifting effects of working physically outdoors, even in poor weather. Being outside in winter is a powerful tonic, allowing more light to your body at a time when it is particularly valuable for feeling in good spirit. Then you gain more health by eating the vibrant food you have grown. Thanks to all these factors I enjoyed good health while I was creating my garden at Homeacres and never missed a day, or even an hour, to ill health, throughout a wet winter and bitterly cold spring, all during my 55th year.
First jobs to tackle
If you have not gardened before, and are faced with an overgrown or bare or rubble-filled plot, don't give up at the discouraging outlook. On the other hand, don't imagine it finished in a day! Just tackle one thing at a time and keep at it, enjoying the sense of achieving each new job. This process of gradual progress is the underlying story here: taking one step at a time and taking heart from every one.
For example, at Homeacres I was itching to clear the brambles, because they were grabbing my trousers while I was moving furniture through the front door. The 'front garden' showed signs of having been beds and borders long ago, but these were covered with thorns, nettles, ivy, bindweed and other weeds of all kinds, in addition to a few once-ornamental bushes.
Initially I wasn't sure I wanted to commit time to creating much garden in the front, so we just did some basic clearance, mainly cutting back brambles and mowing the wilderness. This was a great start, even though the soil was still full of weed roots and stems. Shade was another issue, and many gardens have this overhanging problem. If the trees and hedges are yours and you want to grow food, I urge tight pruning if you want to keep them at all. You can also cut back to your neighbour's boundary any overgrowth such as ivy or honeysuckle.
I was bothered by a line of 9m (30')-high spruce trees on the south-west boundary, planted 40 years earlier to create a windbreak. They kept out the prevailing wind, but were very dark and slightly foreboding. The house was in shade from early afternoon in the winter months, and the conifer roots were pulling moisture and nutrients from an area I wished to grow on. So I booked a local farmer to cut them down as soon as he was free.
I was a little unsure of how my new neighbours would react to these trees coming down, and one afternoon a rather stern-looking woman walked up the drive while I was clearing brambles. She briefly introduced herself as a near neighbour and then said, "I hear you are having these trees cut down and I thought I should let you know that you are going to make a lot of people very ... happy!" Apparently all the neighbours hated the shade, and I was so relieved. Increase the light coming into your garden as much as possible, and your house will feel more cheerful too.
Weather and climate
The weather and climate at your site are fundamental influences, so it is worth taking time to observe them, such as how much frost lies in the garden and how the wind comes in. Mark Twain said "Climate is what we expect; weather is what we get", but, in short, climate is the average weather conditions over a long period of time. This, more than anything else, affects what you can grow, and you will enjoy best harvests if you plant according to climate, rather than being tempted by exotic plants from distant areas. Look at what your neighbours are growing, especially those who have gardened for a while. Climate also affects sowing and harvesting dates, so check where any gardening advice is coming from to see if it is appropriate for your area.
The advice in this book is based on the conditions at Homeacres (see table below), which is in a climatic zone equivalent to zone 8 or 9 in the US system of plant hardiness zones. Here, it is often mild, cloudy and windy. The amount of sunlight is low relative to temperature, which is mild thanks to the Gulf Stream. Gusty south-west winds often blow off the Atlantic, where they have been warmed by the sea. Much of the time there is some wind from the ocean, which brings relative warmth, especially in winter. This makes it possible to grow, and also to garden more, in winter.
Apart from what to start with, another question is when to start. Winter is an oft-neglected season in which much can be achieved to make the rest of the year more successful. A good place to be in gardening is one step ahead, rather than one step behind. For example, when there is an unexpectedly warm spring it can feel as though you are running to catch up, unless you're well prepared. Start as soon as possible – there is no right or wrong time to begin those first jobs, but creating the bones of a garden in winter will give you more time to flesh it out in spring and summer.
Watch the weather forecast and grab any chances to be out there on fine days in winter; even be willing to garden in unpromising conditions. Weather is often a constraint in gardening, and it's no good waiting for perfect conditions. I arrived at Homeacres during one of the wettest years on record, so the soil was saturated throughout the first months. However, a no-dig approach can continue in almost any weather, and you can certainly spread compost and mulches on soggy soils that could not be cultivated in any way, so I made a lot of new beds in those sodden months.
Sometimes it turned colder, which helped because frosty weather made the surface hard, giving better support to me and my wheelbarrow. By the end of February, I could already see a garden in the making.
The compost heap
Starting a compost heap is one of the first things to do in a new garden, as you will have plenty of waste material to put somewhere. You can then enjoy watching it turn into something really useful. You don't even need to give it special attention – lovely compost happens, even where no particular heat has been generated. Cool compost of high quality is made by fungi, rather than the bacteria that are active in hot compost heaps.
Enclosure or container?
In small gardens, an unobtrusive plastic 'hive' container is suitably compact and can be sited wherever is most convenient. Which? Gardening magazine did a trial of different compost bins, including proprietary ones, reported in their issue of May 2014, and found that in fact a wooden enclosure made the best compost, probably because it provided more exposure to air than plastic containers. You can spend a lot of money on rotating drums, but these were found to work poorly, apparently from lack of ventilation as much as anything. Their main virtue was being impenetrable to rats, and, unfortunately, even if you put no food in a compost heap, rats may live there in winter because of the warmth it gives. A good compromise is a plastic bin sitting on chicken wire on the soil, to exclude rodents, and the contents occasionally lifted and loosened with a proprietary spiked aerator.
Location and turning
In larger gardens, a central location for the compost heap has the advantage of giving access from all parts. Heaps can be 1-1.2m (3-4') square and enclosed with old pallets for their sides; I put mine against an existing fence for one side. Turning once, into a neighbouring bay, about a month after a heap's last fill, is an optional extra for quicker compost, and it is usually ready for use when 8-12 months old.
Weed roots and seeds
The first heap you make while clearing a garden is likely to contain more weed seeds than usual, from the soil on roots being full of them; I certainly found this to be true. An important point is that you can put all roots of brambles and perennial weeds, including bindweed, dock, couch grass and stinging nettles, on the compost heap: they add goodness and decompose well. Long-stemmed waste is best cut to 10cm (4") lengths for faster decomposition and easier spreading of compost.
My first compost heap at Homeacres, made from weeds including all the roots, kitchen waste, wood ash and some mown grass, was full by April after 5 months of gradual filling. I left it a while, then turned it into an adjoining enclosure in June, then by August it had become quite beautiful: soft and fine. In a container trial with four lettuce plants, this compost gave good growth compared with plants grown in cow manure, green-waste compost and multipurpose compost. The downside, however, was the huge number of grass and stinging nettle seeds in it (see Chapter 4, page 59).
Creating the first beds
My first gardening project at Homeacres was to turn an old chicken run into beds for vegetables. The photographs overleaf illustrate how it unfolded. This is a good example of concentrating on creating one space for growing, in damp winter weather and quickly too. I was fortunate that there were only annual weeds in this area – mostly grasses, thistles and chickweed – and so most of the initial work was done in one weekend, in late November.
Edges are important to keep tidy and a good place to start, so I removed the old wire fence and cut off a row of stinging nettles along its line, pulling out many of their roots, then I pruned back shrubby growth from my neighbour Gert's garden. He is a keen organic gardener and in just 6 years has created an oasis of trees, flowers and vegetables, full of birds, and some of the plants spill outwards.
Mulching to clean soil and for planting
Creating a garden in the old chicken run was simpler than in the rest of Homeacres, thanks to the absence of vigorous perennial weeds (see Chapter 4, page 62) – so, for example, one layer of cardboard was enough to create clean paths.
I laid 60cm (2') strips of thick cardboard boxes, making three pathways 1.2m (4') apart, and then spread 10cm (4") of 2-year-old cow manure to make raised beds between the cardboard, without any sides.
Putting all the ingredients on top saves messing with potential problems underneath: in this case there is gravel and some clinker of coal ash, from when the boilers for heating greenhouses had been here 50 years ago. Also, there are occasional large paving slabs under the soil, which my dibber sometimes bounces off when making holes for planting, but the plants can root around them.
Small time input, many harvests
The area measures 5m x 6m (16' x 20'), and needed 16 hours of time and 1½ tons of compost for this initial preparation, then through the first year it produced lovely harvests of onions, garlic, salads, beans, courgettes, kale and sweet peas.
Growth has been healthy and weeds have been few, with occasional hoeings and hand weeding to keep the surface spotless. It helped that the cardboard was from removal boxes, so it was thick and lasted for a good length of time before decomposing in situ. I maintain the high fertility in these beds with a wheelbarrow of compost for each bed in the autumn or winter, whenever the ground is clear.CHAPTER 2
Beauty in the food garden
A garden both ornamental and edible
"In a garden, making the veg space a place to linger is top priority for me."
Bunny Guinness, garden writer and designer
While a vegetable garden rarely boasts the year round visual appeal of mixed ornamental plantings, there are ways to make it beautiful. You can make an attractive look by growing smaller annual flowers among vegetables, judicious planting of fruit trees along edges, creating flower borders where space allows, and regular maintenance of the garden to keep plants in good health – as well as the vibrancy that comes from soil being in good health. This chapter describes ways in which ornamental plants can be integrated with vegetables without compromising their growth, indeed sometimes improving it, and suggests planting ideas for a striking look with vegetables alone. It also includes examples of how I created flower beds and a grassed area at Homeacres, in a short space of time.
Specific needs of vegetables
A garden of flowering plants intermixed with food plants is possible but not easy, for the reasons described below. However, there can be beauty in a vegetable garden in every season. Even in winter you can have richly composted beds among vegetables of varied form and colour, from kale, leeks and salads to emerging seedlings of broad beans and garlic – appealing for their symmetry and a promise of harvests to come. Growing together
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Table of Contents
Foreword Steve Mercer 7
Part 1 Clearing ground and preparing soil
1 Starting points 17
2 Beauty in the food garden 29
3 The setting 43
4 Clearing ground 55
5 Mulching 67
6 Building beds 85
7 Dig versus no-dig (with compost) 105
8 Dig versus no-dig (without compost) 119
Part 2 Sowing and growing
9 Raising plants under cover 135
10 Early sowings and plantings 149
11 Successional sowings and plantings 167
12 One bed, one year 185
13 Growing under coyer 195
14 Hot beds 215
15 Perennial vegetables 231
Appendix: Seasons and climate zones 244