Working with nature is a key aspect to my method of growing nutritional healthy fruit and veg for the family.
Pulling Your Resources With Your Neighbours and Friends
A few friends and neighbours keen to swop seeds, plants and harvest and share gardening skills, knowledge and experience asked if I would help in co-ordinating a gardening project so that we would all benefit from communal vegetable gardening. This objective to save money on our shopping bills being achieved by pulling our resources in growing our own healthy fresh organic vegetables rather than buy commercial veg from the supermarkets,; and by working together we also save ourselves a lot of time and effort e.g. one person buys seeds, someone else germinates them and distributes the seedlings and others then share their surplus crops as their contribution etc.
This article is as much for my benefit as anyone's in that being at the centre of this gardening project, and too to maximise on the benefits of communal vegetable gardening with my friends and neighbour, I'll need to carefully plan and co-ordinate each key stage for sowing and planting the vegetables. To achieve this I'll adopt some simple project management techniques which will help me to keep an eye on the different strands to this gardening project and to keep tabs on its progress. Writing this article, and keeping it up to date, is part of that process in that from the start and throughout the growing seasons it will help to focus my mind on the key elements and help to ensure nothing of importance is overlooked.
All photos in this article were taken by me; initially most of the photos will be archival but as the project progresses they will be replaced and expanded to show progress throughout the year.
Communal Vegetable Gardening and its Benefits
Sharing Your Gardening Resources with Your Friends
In the context of this article communal vegetable gardening isn't about neighbours and friends sharing one plot of land and all pitching in with forks and spades to help each other grow the vegetables, then sharing the harvest equally between them or proportionately dependant on how much time each person devoted to gardening the vegetable plot; although this method of 'communal vegetable gardening' would be one good way to achieve great results.
For the purpose of this communal gardening project the communal aspect in growing vegetable is in the sharing of 'Resources' where there's a mutual benefit; as fully explained later in this article. Resource in this respect includes, cost, time, labour hours, land, knowledge, skills, experience, seeds and harvests e.g. sharing some of your spare seeds, any even any herbs you have in your garden, with a neighbour or friend and in exchange they give you some of their surplus crops and herbs.
Waste Ground Turned to Cultivation - Helping a Friend Landscape His Garden for Growing Organic Vegetables
The Basis for my Communal Vegetable Gardening Project
Bumper Packs of Mixed Vegetable Seeds
Selection of Different Vegetable Varieties
Buy vegetable seeds is a cost but if you have a greenhouse it is cheaper to buy seeds than buying young plants later in the season from your local garden centre.
The other big advantage in growing from seeds is you can nurture more seedlings than the eventual number of plants you’ll eventually want to plant out for no extra cost; and if you have neighbours and friends also bringing on their own seedlings it opens a golden opportunity for you to swap plants so again for no extra cost you get an even wider range of good healthy vegetables to grow and harvest in your organic garden.
Friends Pulling Their Resources to Achieve Greater Things
This Communal Vegetable Gardening project is a prime example of where the 'whole' is greater than the sum of its parts.
Our neighbour who are not natural gardeners, are partially disabled, and don't get much time for gardening have successfully grown a few vegetables organically in their back garden in the last few years and would like to expand on their success by growing more vegetables. As Vegetarians, they are keen to grow more vegetables (organically) primarily for healthier eating and to save money on their food bill.
The proposal they put to me is that if I prepare the ground initially for them (which they struggle with because of their health condition) and let them have any of my surplus seedlings, which I would otherwise have thrown away when selecting the best seedlings to plant in my organic vegetable plot, then when they harvest their crops they'll give me any surplus vegetables they don't want.
This is an excellent arrangement in that:
- I'll only give a couple hours of my time early in the spring to prepare the ground for them, which is easy as they only live next door so I don't have far to travel
- I always sow ample seeds to ensure I have sufficient seedlings to plant out, so there are almost always surplus seedlings that germinate which I don't have space to plant in my own vegetable plot and if I didn't give them away would otherwise be discard in the compost bin.
- Our neighbours don't have a large freezer so any surplus crops they grow that they can't eat fresh only ends up going to waste. Whereas we have three freezers, including a large chest freezer and a spare seasonal freezer in the shed specifically to deep freeze any surplus crops we have at harvest time that can't be eaten fresh or preserved or used in any other way at the time e.g. chutneys, pickles and wine etc.
A friend of ours who is an ardent organic vegetable gardener, and who spent several years growing vegetables on the City Farm in Bristol, is more knowledgeable and experienced in organic vegetable gardening than I. He has written his own vegetable gardening article which can be accessed from the link below.
Our mutual benefit is that we always exchange surplus plants, tips and ideas; so any surplus seedlings in excess of our neighbours requirements I can give to my friend in exchange for any surplus seedlings he may have, and if there are too many of what he gives me I can always pass a few of these onto our neighbour or other friend involved in this communal vegetable gardening project. The net result, and benefit for all, is an increase variety and type of vegetables we all grow, rather than an increase in quantity, without any additional costs to anyone.
His other skill, which I'm keen to learn and capitalise on where appropriate, is that he never buys any seeds. He always allows some of his harvest to go to seed so that he can collect the seeds to dry and store and then use them the following year to grow new crops. I'm not proposing to do this for all my crops because, with the exception of beans, allowing vegetables to go to seed can take up valuable garden space for quite a while and hog ground which could otherwise better be utilised for growing other crops.
So, where I already have a good seed stock there's little benefit to me in collecting my own seeds, but for special varieties that have done well that year and where I'm likely to be low on seeds the following year for that type of vegetable then it's a skill worth learning from my friend. I already collect seeds from bean plants when needed, that's easy and doesn't take any additional time or space, but I've never tried it with other crops because it takes more time and care and often valuable garden space that could otherwise be put to good use growing more vegetables. Although I have been tempted to save tomato seeds, which should be quite easy to do without too much effort, by selecting the odd tomato that's fallen to the ground unnoticed during the growing season and consequently spoilt. The seeds would need to be scooped out and separated from the tomato flesh and allowed to dry on blotting paper before storing over winter and sowing the following year. As regards beans, at the end of the growing season there's always the odd bean pod that's escaped my notice at harvest time and have already matured; which I collect up and allow to dry in the shed before storing away for planting the following year.
A third friend (partially disabled) who has little gardening experience and no experience in growing vegetables is keen to set aside a plot in his back garden to grow fresh vegetables organically. As a keen cook his motivation in the communal organic vegetable garden project is not so much cost but more in that it would enable him to pick a selection of fresh organically grown vegetables, packed with goodness and flavour, straight from his garden for using in tasty recipes in his kitchen.
Agreeing a Game Plan
With a number of close friends offering to share experience, knowledge and resources I was prompted to write this article as a way of getting my head around the complexities of project managing a project of this nature, partly to help me pull all the strands for this communal vegetable project together in a coherent and organised way; and partly to share my experience with this on HubPages for the benefit of others.
One of my friends very generously offered to buy me a wide range of vegetable seeds as 'payment in kind' for my services to him as follows:
- For me to spend a couple of afternoons building a raised vegetable plot in his back garden and preparing it for planting a selection of vegetables. Currently in his back garden he has a flowerbed by the house with a garden path going right up the middle of his garden to a flowerbed at the far end. On one side of the garden path is a lawn, and on the other side are a couple of garden sheds, a fishpond, flowerbed and near the back door a piece of waste ground where he intends growing his organic vegetables. The waste ground he intends utilising for growing vegetables is approximately 3 metres (10 feet) by 2 metres (6 feet), which with using medieval style gardening techniques rather than Victorian gardening methods should allow him to successfully grow quite a few vegetables throughout the year. To get the best use out of the ground and to raise it slightly so that he doesn't have to do so much bending his intention is to make a raised bed. His initial thought was to use a wooden log roll or railway sleepers as the retaining wall to make a raised vegetable plot about 450 mm (18 inches) high but has opted to use breeze blocks because the cost would be half, with the bonus that the retaining wall will be solid and isn't going to rot; although, unlike wooden log rolls railway sleepers would also make a solid retaining wall that will last. Due to his bad leg and because I have experience part of my initial help to him (in exchange for his kindness in buying me the vegetable seeds) will be to build the retaining wall for his raised vegetable plot, with him giving me a helping hand where possible.
- For my advice on soil type and condition, on adding compost where and as appropriate; giving him advice on when, where and how to sow the seeds; and tips on maintaining his vegetables and harvesting his crop.
- To give him just a few seeds from some of the seed packets he gave me so he can try sowing his own seeds; the quantity and variety of seeds being his choice.
- Later in the growing season to give him a small choice selection of young vegetable plants to fill any gaps where his seeds have failed; and to plant the odd vegetable in any available space between flowers in his flowerbed in medieval gardening style. At the right time I would supply him with just a few young vegetable plants ready for planting, which he would choose from a choice selection of vegetables, to give him variety in his vegetables plot to harvest and use for cooking in his kitchen; variety being the key rather than quantity.
The First Season Tasks - First Steps to Growing
Plan your Growing Season
Taking Stock of Your Vegetable Seeds
This is where, without proper planning, it's going to get complex because (thanks to the generosity of my friend) I have lots of seeds to choose from for sowing but only a finite amount of garden space in which to grow vegetables; further complicated because I need take into account the extra seedlings I need to produce for my friends participating in this communal vegetable garden project and bear in mind that one of those friends will be giving me some of his vegetable seedlings in exchange for the seedlings I give him. The matter is further complicated by the fact I also have a small stock of old vegetable seeds, which I couldn't use last year because of bad weather, that may not geminate well (if at all) because of their age.
I don't want to sow seeds just for the sake of growing seedlings only to have them wasted because there's more than everyone needs. If kept dry and cool seeds will usually stay viable for two or three years so any unused vegetable seeds this year can be kept and sown next year.
So the plan for the beans and brassicas (leafy vegetables) is to assess how many of each seed variety and vegetable type I'm likely to need for my own vegetable plot, and how much surplus of each type and vegetable variety I'll need to successfully germinate for my friends participating in this communal vegetable gardening project. In the planning I also need to take into account expected losses at each stage of growing from germination to successful planting out and plant establishment in the ground due to the risks of poor germination, bad weather and pests; the risks of losses can be high at each stage. In particular the high risks are poor germination (particular for old seeds); seedling failing if the seed trays are kept to wet or allowed dry out or the greenhouse gets too hot or too cold; late frosts if planted out too soon or not hardened off properly, drought once planted out if the weather is too dry and the seedlings are not watered regularly enough until established or pests like slugs and snails if the weather turns wet.
Sowing Vegetable Seeds in the Greenhouse or Open Ground
Beans, Brassicas and Roots
Generally, vegetables fall into three broad groups (four if you include fruits), Beans, Brassicas and Roots. The beans being runner beans, broad beans and peas etc., Brassicas being the leafy plants such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Kale and Broccoli etc. and the roots being carrots, turnips and swedes etc.
For the majority of the beans and brassicas seeds once I've estimated how many seeds to sow for each variety and type of vegetable I'll sow and nurture the seeds in my greenhouse, either in seed trays or pots as appropriate; with the timing for sowing being dependant on the variety and type of vegetable. To edge my bet against weather conditions and pests I'll also plant a few beans straight into open ground at the same time as I plant out the beans nurtured in the greenhouse, just in the event that those seeds sown straight in open ground fair better than the ones nurtured in the greenhouse; if both do well then in medieval gardening style I'll let nature take its course. The friend who's give me the seed packets will want to try sowing some of the brassicas straight into the open ground himself, with any failures later being replaced by those which I'll bring on in small pots in my greenhouse.
The Root Vegetables are different in that unlike Beans and Brassicas you can't easily transplant them, with the exception of onions, so in all cases these will be sown in open ground at the most appropriate time; which will largely be dependent on the type and variety of root and weather conditions. Therefore, unlike the Beans and Brassicas where I'll likely have surplus seedlings to share with others, these seeds will only be shared with the friend who bought them for me.
Seed Trays or Pots
Quality vs. Time and Space
I always start off my beans in the greenhouse up to a month before it's safe to plant out by sowing them in deep pots, three seeds to a pot; and I always sow twice as many seeds than plants needed to allow for any losses.
Brassicas seeds are tiny and it's much easier to start them in a seed tray later transplanting the more successful ones that germinate into individual pots when their large enough to handle; which is the standard method for propagating seeds in the greenhouse. However, no matter how careful you are the roots get damaged and the plants get traumatised when you transplant and plant out, and then the seedling or young plant needs time to recover and careful nurturing during that time to make a good recovery.
Therefore as I have plenty of space in my greenhouse and a large stock of small pots I intend to sow as many seeds as possible straight into small pots rather than using seed trays; sowing them in groups of three seeds to a pot. It may be fiddly (handling such small seeds individually) and time consuming sowing them in individual pots but it will eliminate the need to transplant later and reduce plant trauma; and the compost for any pots where no seeds germinate can be reused next time.
The other advantage is that if plants begin to get pot bound before I'm ready to plant them outside I should be able to simply replant them into larger pots without disturbing the roots too much so that minimal root damage is done when they are eventually planted outside aiding a quicker establishment of the plant giving it a better chance to fight pests and resist unfavourable weather conditions.
If I do need to sow more seeds than space would allow in using all pots I can compromise by sowing some in pots and some in seed trays as space permits.
Crop Rotation Rule of Thumb
The benefits and problems of crop rotation
For clarity, the three main groups for crop rotation is described in simple terms as follows:
Runner Beans and Broad Beans etc.
These crops love rich soft soil e.g. soil with plenty of added compost, and these plants add nitrogen to the soil; so leave their roots in the ground at the end of the growing season.
Cabbages, Brussels Sprouts etc.
Happy with ordinary soil, which should be firm so the roots get a good anchor in the ground to reduce the risk of the plant uprooting as they get big and heavy. However they do need lots of nitrogen so should be planted in ground where the beans were grown the previous year.
Carrots, Turnips etc.
Not fussy on soil so can grow where the Brassicas were grown the previous year, also the root crops (especially potatoes) help to beak-up the soil making it easier the next year to add compost for growing Beans. However, Root Crops do need lots of potassium so any ashes from garden fires or charcoal BBQs should be added to the soil for growing Root Crops.
Some form of crop rotation is essential; growing the same type of vegetable in the same ground year after year will deplete vital nutrients in the soil and encourage the build-up of pests and diseases which that particular crop is vulnerable to.
If you have plenty of space in your garden to properly follow the simple rules of crop rotation, and especially if you adopt the Victorian method of vegetable gardening, then crop rotation is easy. However, if space is of a premium and you adopt a more informal medieval style approach to gardening then it's becomes more difficult to follow the rules of crop rotation accurately; but with a little carful forethought and forward planning it should be possible to follow some form of crop rotation closely approximately a good crop rotation plan.
The main problem in a small vegetable plot is that brassicas take up far more space than beans and roots; with the root vegetables taking the least amount of space per plant. Therefore if you divided a small vegetable plot into three equal parts to achieve proper crop rotation you'll not have enough space to grow many brassicas. To overcome this you may allocate more space for the brassicas and less for root vegetables, if so then there will be overlaps where the same ground is used two years running for the same type of crop; this may be unavoidable In a small garden but should be minimised where possible.
If you also practice succession cropping and intercropping in your vegetable garden, maintaining good crop rotation then becomes even more complex and requires a lot more careful planning; especially if you also incorporate companion planting in an informal medieval style of garden, as I do.
Succession cropping is where a new crop (which may be of a different vegetable type) is planted as soon as one crop is harvested enabling you to get two or three crops harvested from the same ground in the same year e.g. after harvesting early potatoes planted in March plant runner beans late May and once they've been harvested in September plant a winter brassica crop such as a suitable variety of cauliflower or cabbage variety; following of course the instructions on the seed packet as a guide to planting times.
Intercropping is planting small quick growing crops in rows between larger, slower growing vegetables e.g. quick growing carrots or lettuce between rows of winter brassicas such as Brussels sprouts, Kale or Broccoli; the carrots or lettuce will have been harvested long before you start to harvest your late winter/early spring variety of brassica.
Old Seed Stock
Germination may be Poor but Nothing to Lose by Trying
The seeds I have fall into two categories, my old stock of seeds which are likely to have poor germination and a fresh stock of seeds that all being well should have good germination.
The old seed stock I had in the first year of this gardening project included the following:-
- Lettuce (mixed), Iceberg, Cos and Butterhead. These I'll plant in a trough in the greenhouse (which is how I normally grow my lettuce, just three seeds in each of six holes and provided they germinate then as soon as one lettuce is harvested more seeds are sown in succession to replace it. This then keeps us supplied with a small steady stream of lettuce throughout the summer.
- Onion (Kelsae), sown in a propagator in February for potting up, acclimatising, hardening off and eventual planting in May for harvesting in September.
- Cauliflower (all the year round), to be sown in seed tray in May or June for potting up about a month later and transplanting to open ground in July or August; options to sow earlier or later and for succession cropping if conditions permit.
- Broccoli (redhead) is a winter crop that's sown in seed tray in June, for potting up and planting out when large enough and harvesting the following March and April.
- Spinach (Oriento F1 Hybrid), is my favourite, it's a summer quick growing crop that can be sown in open ground anytime between March and August, and although the advice on the packet is to so successional crops every three or four weeks for a continuous supply of fresh leaves and tender stems, in practice I've found that just the one sowing of half a dozen plants early in the year keeps up supplied for the rest of the year. Rather than pick the young tender leaves we pick the older leaves and use them for flavouring when cooking potatoes.
- Spinach (Perpetual) is a winter Variety which is sown from March to June for harvesting from September to January. Again we use this spinach for flavouring when cooking potatoes. As this is a slower growing crop I may be tempted to sow the seeds in a seed tray in the greenhouse and pot up ready for planting out as and when suitable; and if so, provided germination is reasonable I can offer any surplus seedlings to others who may be interested.
- Turnip (Golden Ball), sow in open ground between April and August for harvesting from June to December.
- Swede (Best of All), sow in open ground between May and June for harvesting from September to February.
Available Seeds for the Communal Vegetable Gardening Project
Variety and Choice
Fresh seeds I have for this year which will form the main part of the Communal Vegetable Garden Project are from two sources, those that I bought myself when we visited Beamish and packets of vegetable seeds bought for me by a friend in exchange for help I'll give him in establishing his own vegetable plot.
Beamish is a living museum of the North portraying what life was like in northern England prior to the first world war in 1914, covering a period of history from the late Georgian in the 18th century, through the Victorian era and on into the Edwardian period. While in the Beamish town of 1913 I nipped into one of the Edwardian shops in the High Street and purchased half a dozen packets of vegetable seed that were in common use in the Victorian period.
The seeds I bought from Beamish were:
- Broad Bean (Green Windsor), available by 1771.
- Runner Bean (Painted Lady), available after 1817.
- Broccoli (Early White Sprouting), available from about 1777.
- Cabbage (Red Drumhead), available by 1878.
- Cauliflower (Snowball), available by 1830.
- Marrow (Early White Flat), available from about 1591.
- The vegetable seeds I've been kindly given as part of this sharing communal vegetable gardening project are:
- Broad Bean (Imperial Green Longpod) and (Bunyards Exhibition).
- Runner Bean (Enorma) and (Polestar).
- Brukale (Petit Posy), a cross between a Brussels sprout and a Kale to produce frilly rosettes instead of the usual sprout on Brussel sprouts; which should be interesting to try, and a real novelty.
- Brussels sprouts (Dominator F1) and (Nautic F1).
- Carrots (Baladis F1), (Paris Market - Atlas) and a free trial packet of a new variety of Nantes F1 Carrot being field tested (with a form inside asking for feedback).
- Turnip (Snowball).
- Parsnip (Tender and True), and
- Swede (Invitation).
So all in all it should be an interesting and busy year, and over the course of time (plants grow slowly) I should be able to document and photograph the progress and update this article as appropriate; which in subsequent years could prove as a useful reference document as I continue to grow organic vegetables with my friends and neighbour.
Phase 1 - The Start of the Growing Season
Early March, at the start of the growing season is where it all begins. The above photo, looking down our lawn was taken one winter a few years ago; since then we've planted half a dozen miniature fruit trees at the end of the lawn, which will be featured in more detail in my gardening article 'Organic Vegetable Gardening Diary and Planner' as the seasons progress.
Not much to do at the moment, the only two major tasks completed so far is:
- Sown some old onion seeds in a propagator, which should have been sown a little earlier e.g. between December and February; so if they germinate they'll not be any show stoppers, and
- Help a friend clear part of his back garden and build a retaining wall for him to form a small raised vegetable plot near the house where he can grow a few beans and some vegetable root crops; in exchange he's bought me a load of vegetable seeds, some of which I shall share with him and when they germinate seedlings too. His next task is to back fill his new vegetable plot with soil ready for sowing and planting in the coming months.
Early April and Onwards; progress with this project is reported (with photos) in detail in my Organic Vegetable Gardening Diary and Planner Article which can be viewed from the Relevant Link below.
Greenhouses and Mini Greenhouses
For bringing on and protecting seedlings and growing plants in a more controlled environment
I've used these type of multi-tier mini greenhouses in the past in the garden as a mini-greenhouse to bring on seedlings and a cold frame to protect the seedlings from frost and harden them off for planting outside and I've also used them inside the greenhouse for extra protection of sensitive plants over winter and as a form of propagator to bring on seedlings early in the season.
Even though they are popular and do get lots of good reviews the only real downside to them is that they're not really that durable, the wire trays are flimsy, the zip tends to fail within a year or two and sometimes the plastic may rip; and outside are prone to being blown over during windy conditions if they are not fully weighted by plants and firmly stuck in the ground if in an exposed area of the garden. However, they're not overly expensive and are very useful to have and if you are mind of their limitations and take care to look after them can last for years. And even then if the zip goes and the plastic does rip you've still got some useful shelving which can be handy in the greenhouse as staging or storage.
Walk in greenhouses nearer to the size of a conventional greenhouse but of the same general or similar design and materials to the mini-greenhouses so although not as durable as a glass house are a good compromise as they serve the same job but less expensive. If you want a proper glass house (although these days often polycarbonate panels) similar to the one I own as depicted in this article then the well-priced 6 foot by 8 foot Brighton Greenhouse would be a good choice.
Sharing Plants and Knowledge
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Arthur Russ
Your comments and views on Communal Vegetable Gardening - Neighbours helping each other
Arthur Russ (author) from England on June 16, 2017:
Thanks all for your feedback and comments, which is greatly appreciated. I always believe that society is stronger when it works together.
Rose Jones on September 20, 2013:
Your gardening lenses are always so knowledgeable and helpful. I hope that someday you write instructive ebooks on this if you have not already.
anonymous on March 11, 2013:
It seems I've been hearing more and more about communal vegetable gardening over the last few years and those thinking of getting started will sure love how you cover the subject with your usual thorough excellence with each step for another great DIY! You seem to make the labor you put in seem light and what a great opportunity to be neighborly.:)
GardenIdeasHub LM on March 06, 2013:
Thanks for the information about communal vegetable gardening. I think it will really help me.