| why grow your own |
Have you ever tasted really fresh peas, popped into your mouth a matter of seconds after picking? It's one of the greatest food pleasures, and one which no supermarket on earth can compete with. The sugar in peas starts to convert to starch the moment they are picked, explaining why they are so much sweeter straight from the plant. So, our first reason is that we can grow tastier vegetables than we can buy in the shops.
Supermarkets naturally have to cater for the masses, and so stock the most popular and reliable varieties of fruit and vegetables. By growing your own veg you are freed from the mainstream and are able to select and grow varieties renowned for taste rather than uniformity. I can't ever see my local Tesco or Safeway stocking the nobbly, low yield Pink Fir Apple potato, yet they have the most sublime flavour of any early spud I've ever experienced.
When your primary source of vegetables is your garden you start to appreaciate the wonders of seasonality. Fresh green beans and sweetcorn in February disappear as options, but sprouting broccoli, parsnips and leeks more than make up for it. There seems to be a natural balance to our seasonal crops too, with vegetables suited to hearty meals like stews becoming available in the coldest months, and the freshest, zestiest crops like peas and spring onions ready for your plate in the warmest.
Next time you're browsing the shelves in the produce section of your local supermarket have a closer look at the origin labels. Chances are that some of the produce will have come from the UK, but it's a certainty that some of it will have come from further afield. South Africa, the US, Kenya, South America, France, Spain, Italy - all of these and more will feature. Sure you can't grow pineapples on a commercial scale in Europe and they have to be imported, but it's still a fact that much imported fruit and vegetables could be grown and supplied by UK producers. The key here is the concept of Food Miles - if your food is better travelled than you are, there is something wrong with the world. The supermarkets will tell you they are merely responding to consumer pressure and offering choice - I say that choice should be about variety of produce not variety of country of produce.
| what to grow |
deciding what to grow is one of the best things about vegetable growing, but it's important to choose carefully and not get too carried away. Choose vegetables you really like, and look out for interesting varieties that you can harvest progressively. This will ensure that you have a ready supply of delicious vegetables throughout the growing season.
Vegetables can be ordered into four main groups, so choose the vegetables you like from each of these groups.
Potatoes, beetroot, carrots, chicory, artichokes, parsnips and salsify
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, swede and turnips
Peas, all types of beans
All other vegetables and salad crops
Once you've made your selection, divide up your plot into four beds. Grow vegetables in four separate beds, grouped according to our guide. The reason for this 'grouping' is that you should not a grow the same vegetable in the same place year after year. Continuous cropping of the same plant can exhaust the soil of nutrients and pests and diseases can build up.
The answer to this potential problem is consistent plot rotation: in your second year of vegetable growing, your vegetables will 'move up' one bed. Your group two vegetables will be planted where the group one vegetables previously were, group three moves to the group two bed and so on. This allows the soil to recover, and the rotation can even be beneficial to future vegetables: for example, the nitrogen that peas and beans naturally deposit in the soil is perfect for encouraging growth in cauliflowers and cabbages.
When you're laying out your vegetable plot, bear in mind these starter tips:
Leave sufficient space between the beds to allow easy access to the plants. A path the width of a wheelbarrow is ideal.
If your soil is poor or doesn't drain well, consider building raised beds. By creating a retaining wall from bricks or old railway sleepers, you can add a thick layer of organic material that will improve the soil. In addition, raised beds are easier to tend and don't need digging over in the autumn.
If you've only got a small space, choose early or dwarf vegetable cultivars as they require less space and can be planted closer together.
| planting |
Sow Early Peas and Broad Beans in the soil in mild areas, protect with cloches
Sow Bulb Onions seeds under glass .
Continue to sow Early Peas and Broad Beans in mild areas
Sow early Carrot seeds in a cold frame
Sow Bulb Onions and Lettuces under glass
Sow Beetroot, Spinach and Carrots in the soil, protect with cloches
Sow Parsley in the soil unless the weather is cold or wet
Sow Lettuces, Radishes and Spring Onions in the soil
Sow Summer Cabbages, Leeks and Brussels Sprouts in a seed bed
Sow Tomato seeds in trays or pots and keep at 18°C (65°F)
Sow Beetroots, Carrots and Turnips in the soil
In the south, plant Early Potatoes and Onion Sets from mid month providing the soil is not excessively wet
Continue to sow Lettuces, Radishes and Spring Onions in the soil
Sow Cucumbers, Marrows, Pumpkins and Squashes under glass
Sow Winter Cabbages and Late Summer Cauliflowers in a seed bed
Continue to plant Onion Sets
Plant out Onions grown from seed under glass into the soil
In the north, plant Early Potatoes providing the soil is not excessively wet
Plant Main Crop Potatoes
Plant Onion Sets and Potatoes in the middle of the month unless the soil is excessively wet
Plant Tomatoes in the greenhouse or in cold frame
Continue to sow Lettuces, Radishes and Spring Onions in the soil
In the north, sow Runner Beans under glass
Sow French Beans, Runner Beans and Long Rooted Beetroot towards the end of the month
Plant out Late Summer Cauliflowers
In the north, plant out Brussels Sprouts
Plant out Cucumbers, Marrows, Pumpkins and Squashes towards the end of the month
Continue to sow French Beans, Peas and salad crops in the soil
Continue to plant out Cucumbers, Marrows, Pumpkins and Squashes
Plant out Brussels Sprouts and Winter Cabbages
Plant out Tomatoes
Plant out Leeks
Plant self Blanching Celery
Continue to sow salad crops in the soil
Complete planting Brussels Sprouts, Leeks and Winter Cabbages
Sow early Winter Lettuces and Spring Cabbages
Sow early Carrots
Sow Broad Beans, Spring Cabbages, Carrots and Lettuces under cloches
In the north, plant out Spring Cabbages towards the end of the month
Continue to sow Broad Beans and Lettuces under cloches
In the south, plant out Cabbages
Plant Winter and Spring Lettuces
Continue to sow Broad Beans under cloches
In the south, continue to sow Lettuces under cloches
Sow Early Peas under cloches
Continue to sow Broad Beans, protect with cloches in colder areas
| promoting growth |
correcting soil acidity
The pH level of the soil is the measurement of acidity or alkalinity, a pH of 7 is neutral, readings above this indicate alkaline soils and readings below 7 indicate acid soils.
Most Top End soils are acid, generally reading pH 6 or lower. The ideal pH level for growing crops is pH 6.5. At this
level all nutrients are available to the plant, at levels above or below, certain elements become tied up in the soil and are not available to plants. This is especially the case with trace elements.
To raise the pH in acid soils (that is make them less acid) it is necessary to lime the soil with
dolomite or agricultural lime. Dolomite is preferred because it contains both calcium and magnesium in the approximate ratio of 3:1 which is desirable for optimum plant growth.
Other forms of lime may only contain calcium and create an imbalance in the Ca:Mg ratio in the soil, which can be difficult to rectify. Most virgin Top End soils require an application of at least 2.5 tonne of dolomite per hectare
(250 g/m2) to raise the pH to the optimum level of 6.5.
To maintain the pH level at 6.5 in any soil where vegetables are grown on a regular basis requires an additional 0.5 to 1 tonne of dolomite per year (50-100 g/m2). This is best applied at the beginning of the Wet and dug into the soil together with any organic matter at least a month before applying any nitrogenous fertiliser.
| pests |
Insects are a valuable part of nature’s balance but they’re not always welcome in the garden. How can you tell a good bug from a bad bug? What’s the best way to prevent an infestation of crop-destroying insects and how can you attract the beneficial bugs?
identifying harmful insects
Insect pests in the garden include soil-borne pests such as cutworms and wireworms, and airborne pests such as aphids, beetles, and flies.
Start by learning to identify the primary insect and pest species in your garden. Get a good book on insect and pest control. Some good bugs and bad bugs look very much alike and so it is often hard to learn to distinguish between the two. Check the BBC gardening website which leads you through a series of questions about the symptoms your plants exhibit, which insect might be the cause, and how to treat the problem.
Below are just a few common insect pests found in the vegetable garden and suggestions for remedies.
One of the most destructive garden pests is the cutworm - aptly named as it cuts off the stem of the plant at ground level. The cutworm caterpillar ranges in colour from grey, brown, black, red, and greenish-white to striped or spotted. One way to identify cutworms: if poked with a stick, they curl up into a 'C' shape. The adult forms of cutworm larvae are small brown moths often called millers. Millers are very attracted to bright lights and are often seen flittering around a porch light at night. Cutworms also feed and do their damage at night. Prevention is the only cure. The best solution is to put a 'cutworm collar' around each plant, which the cutworms won’t crawl over. Collars should be about 5-8 cm (2-3") high and can be made from many recycled materials, such as small tin cans, rings cut from plastic yoghurt cartons or cardboard rolls, or stapled strips of plastic or cardboard. Press the collars securely into the ground. Natural predators for cutworms include birds, toads, and ground beetles. Bats will also eat the adult moths. Biological controls include parasitic wasps and parasitic nematodes.
Wireworms are the larvae of the click beetle, and are thin orange-coloured worms, pointed at both ends. Wireworms are usually only a problem in new gardens where there previously was grassland. Wireworms feed on grass roots - if there’s no grass, they’ll feed on the roots of your vegetable plants instead. One solution is to dig the new bed in the fall and turn over the soil several times, so that birds can feed on the unearthed wireworms. Beneficial nematodes are another option. Predators include chickens, which will gladly rid your plot of wireworms!
Aphids are sap-sucking insects that leave a telltale sticky honeydew, which results in plants being covered with a sooty mould. Beans, brassicas, lettuce and other vegetable crops can be infested with aphids. Beware of adding too much nitrogen to the soil, which can be an attractant. One treatment: blast sturdy plants with a strong stream of water, making sure to spray underneath leaves. Aphids like the color yellow: fill a recycled yellow plastic margarine container with soapy water. The aphids will fly in and drown. Insecticidal soap is another option. Ladybirds (ladybugs), soldier beetles, lacewings, and damselflies all eat aphids. Plant basil, chives, dill, fennel, garlic, or mint as a deterrent.
cabbage root fly
The white larvae of the cabbage root fly are about 1 cm (1/3") long and will feed on the roots of all brassicas. Preventative measures include using collars as for cutworms, growing under floating row covers, and parasitic nematodes. Putting wood ashes, diatomaceous earth, or hot pepper around the base of the plants may also help.
carrot root fly
The carrot root fly maggot, or larva, attacks carrots, celery, celeriac, and parsnips. Affected foliage will have a reddish discolouration, and affected roots will have dark spots and tunnels through them. Preventative measures include not adding too much manure to the soil, growing under floating row covers, and companion-planting chives as a deterrent. These are just a few of the common insects that you may encounter in your garden.
These small black beetles - called flea beetles because they jump like fleas - can cause serious damage. They can kill young plants and eat holes in the leaves of larger plants. Time plantings to avoid peak populations, or plant under cloches or floating row covers. Keep plants well-watered, as flea beetles are attracted to hot, dry soil. A shallow pan filled with beer will attract and drown flea beetles. Dusting plants with wood ashes or diatomaceous earth are other alternatives. One of the best solutions: interplanting. Flea beetles find their host plant by its scent. The differing scents from a variety of plants confuses them!
| soil condition & pH |
Improve the Soil with Organic Matter
Organic matter in the soil acts as a sponge and buffer to extreme water conditions. In the event of a drought there is a larger amount of water stored in the soil to help carry the garden through to the next rain.
In extreme wet weather, the organic matter increases the soil's capacity to absorb water and the improved structure will allow oxygen to still get to the plant roots. Plants, like animals, can literally drown if no oxygen is available. So improved soil condition will benefit whichever way the weather goes.
To test your soil, it is a good idea to dig out samples from several places to see what the soil is like. Soil that hasn’t been worked is seldom ready for new plantings. It may have too much clay, too much sand, tons of rocks, very little organic material, a high or low pH, or other issues that you’ll need to deal with before you plant.
You can test the pH of your soil with a pH tester. A good quality tester is worth the extra expense because inexpensive ones are often inaccurate. You can even buy an electronic soil tester that will also test the pH, as well as fertility, how much light you are getting, and other aspects for effective flower gardening.