Thursday, 8 April 2010

Thoughts on growing your own vegetables for the first time

This is a guest post from my friend Polly, whom I interviewed earlier in the week.

As I'm a keen amateur gardener, Penny has suggested I write a piece about the joys of growing your own. I should make it clear up front that I'm hardly a qualified expert, but having acquired a garden a few years ago I can testify to the trials and tribulations of a new vegetable grower.
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that it's already April so a post about growing your own is perhaps a little late. But that brings me to my first tip - I think that one of the main things I've learned is not to be put off if I don't do things exactly as it says on the instructions. If you're using seeds, it's well worth taking a chance on a late sowing as the price of a packet of seed is not a large stake. And with the late spring this year, seeds planted last year are only now germinating, so it's not too late to get started (as I finally did, today - ahem).
The other factor which works in your favour is a greenhouse. There's no need for a fancy glass walk-in one - I use a very basic plastic one which you can get for around £10 from discount stores (it's also great for small gardens as it doesn't take up too much space). Failing that, a sunny windowsill is perfectly good for getting your seedlings off to a good start. Once it gets to June and there's no more risk of frost, seeds can be planted out into the ground or else transplanted into containers if you don't have much space.
Third tip in, and you'll have noticed that I've been talking exclusively about seeds. It can be very tempting to buy the 'baby plants' which are everywhere at the moment, but personally I've never had much success with them and have consistently had better results from seed which is of course also much cheaper. But I can't speak for every gardener, so you may want to try both to see which works better for you.
It's been a matter of trial and error as to what will grow in my garden and what won't. I've really struggled with brassicas (I've tried sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli) as they get decimated by caterpillars, but I've found that peas and beans are easy to grow. The other plus for peas and beans is that you can plant them outside directly without having to start them off in the greenhouse. In previous years I've grown some vegetables in containers and some in beds, but due to a glut of slugs and snails the last couple of summers I'm opting for containers as much as possible this year for damage limitation. I've sown peas and beans in large round pots, and radish and little gem lettuce in long troughs. The courgettes will need to go into the ground when they're big enough.
One of the tips I've seen elsewhere is to grow what you like to eat, which seems rather obvious. What wasn't perhaps so obvious to me though is that it's worth thinking about the quantity you want of the vegetable and when - so I've kept back a few pots for subsequent sowings so that I don't end up with just the one crop. The instructions on seed packets are very helpful in this respect, though I've often found them over-optimistic about how late you can do a final sowing.
Finally, if you are on the late side with sowing your seeds, don't despair - I've quite often been surprised by what's germinated in the spring, such as a beautiful patch of honesty which I'd forgotten I'd sown as it had failed to germinate the previous summer. And I've overwintered cherry tomatoes on my kitchen windowsill before now.
So what do I get out of gardening? I can hardly say that I'm self-sufficient, but growing my own does mean I spend a bit less buying veg, and I probably do end up in profit. But the quality of eating my own veg outweighs the financial savings for me. Eating a freshly cut salad, or a handful of peas straight from the pod, can't be compared with produce which has travelled hundreds of miles to get to the shop. And, food aside, it's a very cheap and healthy hobby which gives me a new appreciation of my environment - from the beautiful Jersey tiger moths in my garden last year (quite possibly the same caterpillars which ate the broccoli) to the pair of robins who are currently nest-building in the neighbourhood. So I would heartily recommend growing your own for both economy and quality!

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