Working with nature is a key aspect to my method of growing nutritional healthy fruit and veg for the family.
Seasonal Vegetable Growing Medieval Style
This is a rolling program and a work in progress of my organic vegetable gardening project in conjunction with a communal gardening project which I'm organising with a few friends to produce good healthy food from our back gardens. This diary is more for my benefit so that I can successfully Project Manage the communal garden project and to have a reference source for future years when restocking on seeds and planning the next seasons growing plan. The aim here is to make this a rolling program monthly diary for the summer months and seasonal diary over the winter period,
Buying seeds which may last two or three years before germination becomes poor and restocking each year as necessary is fine. However, if you don't keep accurate records it's a missed opportunity to seek out those seeds which perform best, especially if they consistently perform well. Keeping good records can also aid in your evaluation of how well or otherwise plants do in different growing conditions taking into account sowing and planting times, the weather, the fertility of the soil.
Saving on Our Food Bill by Growing Our Own Vegetables
Using the Supermarket Price Comparison website in the UK these prices are based on the best value (cheapest) prices in the supermarket as at the times the fruits and vegetables were harvested. Although my crops are organically grown and organic produce tends to be premium price in the supermarkets I opted to use the supermarkets bargain prices as a comparison to give a conservative indication on savings on our food bill; in that if we had bought our fruit and veg from the supermarket we would have bought the cheapest on offer and not the more expensive organically produce.
The table at the bottom of the page shows the total savings on our food bill in one year.
Ideal for the weekend gardener
As described above I've taken my inspiration from research done the National Vegetable Research Station in England where they demonstrated the many advantages of informal gardening, planting crops closer together which helps to smother weeds, reduce the need of water through shading the soil from the sun and reducing evaporation and potentially producing a greater yield of crops per square metre (yard) albeit no exhibition winners as individual vegetables may be smaller; but picked young and fresh, very tasty.
Essentially, akin to the principles for a typical English Country Garden e.g. medieval style gardening. This approach to gardening in the style and theme of an English Cottage Garden lends itself to inter-planting crops with flowers as part of companion planting, which is described in greater detail in my Organic Vegetable Gardening article; the link to this is further down the page.
Once your plot is fully established in mid-summer this style of gardening produces a more informal garden that requires less maintenance and looks more attractive than a conventional Victorian style garden and is rewarding at the end of the year when you start harvesting your healthily grown organic vegetables.
Selection of herb Seeds
Herbs are a great addition to your garden and when freshly picked along with organic vegetables grown in your vegetable plot add great flavours to your recipes. If you fancy starting your own herb garden but don't know which herbs to try then a good way to experiment and find out is by buying a selection of seeds like the ones previewed below and to give it a go.
I planted a few asparagus roots a few years ago in one corner of my main vegetable plot. As advised in all the gardening books we haven't touched them since to allow the roots to establish. This year will be the first year of harvest and so far (late May) there are four spears above ground which will be ready for harvest in within the next week or so. In many respect asparagus is grown very much like rhubarb in that you need to get the rootstock well established before you start harvesting and before the end of the season e.g. by mid-June to allow the plant plenty of growth for a strong root stock the following year.
The growing season is late this year because of a poor spring but we should get a taster of this delicacy before we need to stop harvesting. Asparagus is something I've never tried before so it should be an interesting experience. From what I've read in different gardening books it's not an easy vegetable to harvest and cook. Apparently for best results you need to cut the spears 3-inches below ground level when the spears are about 5 or 6 inches high; which requires close monitoring because at they can easily grow several inches in a few days so by not checking daily you could easily miss the opportunity to harvest. Also, once harvested they should ideally be cooked and eaten with hours.
From what I read the best way is to cut the skin of the shoots off below the growing tip, tie them in a bundle and gently boil them in water for about 15 minutes with the tips well out of the water but with a lid on the saucepan so the tips are steamed. They are then best served with butter; and the water they were boiled in apparently makes a good stock for soup.
However, through trial and error I found it much simpler and just as good to cut the green tips off (which are tender) and to cut the thick skin off the white roots (which are fibrous). Then rather than messing about with tying the asparagus into bundles just drop the white roots in a saucepan of boiling water for about ten minutes with the tender green tips in a steamer (covered with a lid) above the saucepan and then served with potatoes and other vegetables as part of a main dish.
Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower and Brukale
Brassicas take up a lot of space so I'll only be able to squeeze a few dozen into my plot. However, as I'm sowing these seeds in individual pots (one seed to a pot) rather than in seed trays I need to allow for any failed germination and will also wish to keep a few spares back until the required plants are transplanted and established in my vegetable plot. I also need to grow a few extra for the friend who bought me these seeds this year in exchange for me germinating and growing a selection of them in my greenhouse and hardening them off for transplanting to his vegetable plot. Any spare brassicas can then be found good homes with other friends participating in this year's communal vegetable gardening project, as described above.
On this basis I sowed one seed per pot as follows:-
- Cabbage - Red Drumhead (15 pots)
- Broccoli - Early White Sprouting (15 pots)
- Cauliflower - snowball (15 pots)
- Brussel Sprouts - Nautic (6 pots) and Dominator (9) pots
- Brukale - Petit Posy (30 pots)
Sowing: Most Brassicas are winter crops, although there are summer varieties of cabbage and cauliflower, and from my experience I find that with organic gardening if you follow the instructions on the packet and plant them out in the height of summer along with everyone else they are exposed to greater attack for longer from natural predators; such as whitefly, white butterfly, slugs and snails. Albeit in the late autumn when whitefly and white butterfly disappear and come the winter when snails go into hibernation the plants can recover and go onto produce a good winter crop. Also, in a small garden, I also practice successional planting and intercropping by growing quick growing and summer vegetables where the winter crops will eventually be established. For these reasons I normally delay the sowing of Brassicas in the greenhouse until June ready for planting out in August. However, this year as I am working with others as part of a communal vegetable gardening project I need to stick closer to the normal sowing and planting schedule for the benefit of others. Therefore, this year I sowed the Brukale in the first week of April and the other brassicas in the last week of April.
Hardening Off: Most brassicas are winter crops so frost isn't a problem although having been nurtured in the greenhouse (albeit unheated) they still need to be acclimatised to the outside environment before final planting out; achieved by transferring them from the greenhouse to a cold frame for a week before planting them out in their final position.
Planting: This year I hardened off the Brukale mid-May so that they could be planted out in the third week of May specifically to make room in the cold frame to harden off the runner beans for planting out at the end of May. The other brassicas being winter crops and there being no urgency I shall harden off mid-June once I've hardened off the rest of the summer crops waiting in the greenhouse to be planted out.
Harvesting: All the brassicas I'm growing are winter crops so harvesting (dependant on type and variety) will be through the winter months from October to March; in accordance with the info on their seed packets.
The Bean Family
The Broad Beans seeds I sowed in individual pots in the greenhouse this year are Green Windsor (30 pots), Imperial Green Long Pod (12 pots) and Bun Yard Exhibition (15 pots). I've promised to share the Green Windsor plants with a friend, which he can have at any time as he has his own greenhouse to bring them on before hardening off and planting outside. Another friend planted the seeds for the other two varieties straight into the ground and given me the remaining seeds to bring on in my greenhouse as a backup to fill in any gaps in the event of any not germinating and any remaining plants are mine to put into my vegetable plot.
Sowing: These are a hardy plant so they can be sown straight in the ground in late autumn to give a crop early in the summer season the following year; or they can be sown 2-inches deep in open ground in March to give a good crop that season. My experience is that generally they do just as well planting them in March as they do if they were planted the previous year so I tend to plant them in the same season as harvesting. However this year due to exceptionally prolonged poor weather I couldn't plant them in the open ground in March and instead opted to sowing them in individual pots in the greenhouse in early April.
Hardening Off: As these are hardy and being late in planting out due to the poor spring weather these were the first plants to be hardened off in the cold frame from the greenhouse. I hardened these off early May for transplanting to open ground in mid-May.
Planting: These were planted into their final position in open ground in mid-May, and by growing one plant per pot disturbance to their roots was minimised so they all quickly settled in their new home and are showing signs of good growth. Of the 15 seeds my friend planted in open ground in his vegetable plot (at the same time I sowed the seeds in the greenhouse) only 3 germinated; therefore as part of the back-up plan I gave him 12 of the broad beans I raised in the greenhouse (after hardening them off) which he planted in his garden and are now all doing well.
Plant Care: Broad beans (with their weak square stems) are susceptible to being blown over during windy conditions so need some support; achieved with string strung across a few canes which individual plants can be loosely tied to as appropriate. Broad beans are also susceptible to blackfly; for organic garden a few can be tolerated but to avoid infestation which can seriously weaken the plant pinching out the growing tip when the plants have reached a suitable height (about three feet) and are producing pods helps to reduce the attack from blackfly. And as a last resort soapy water is a particularly effective organic gardening method of controlling blackfly.
Harvesting: Due to the continued winter conditions during spring (where's the global warming) and the subsequent lateness of planting out I expect the growing and harvesting season to be shorter than normal this year. Although, dependant on weather, we should still expect a respectable crop this summer.
Brukale - Petit Posy, a cross between a Brussel Sprout and a Kale. A rather novel brassica which a friend of mine bought and gave to me so that I could bring on in my greenhouse and let him have just three plants for his garden; with the rest being mine to do with as I please. He only has a small vegetable plot so can only fit three Brukales into it but he fancied giving it a try because it's such a novel vegetable. There was about 35 seeds in the packet, I sowed 30 in pots individually (not knowing how well they would germinate) and kept 5 back for next year. As it happened 29 germinated and with the three my friend wants that leaves me with 26. I'll be able to squeeze about a dozen into my vegetable garden which leaves finding homes for the other dozen; which shouldn't be too difficult.
Sowing: I sowed these in individually in pots early April, although being a winter crop I could easily have delayed sowing them until June.
Hardening Off: These were transferred from the greenhouse to the cold frame in mid-May for a week for hardening-off. The official gardening websites recommend three weeks for hardening off plants in a cold frame, for the first week or so open up the top of the frame during the day and closing it at night; whereas in contrast other websites suggest as little as a week or two. As I'm transferring the plants from an unheated greenhouse the transition to the outside environment isn't as great as it would be for a heated greenhouse so from experience I find a week is sufficient if you need to free up the cold frame for other plants or you're late in getting the plants out due to poor weather in the spring.
Planting: This year these were planted outside in the third week of May. My friend who bought me the seeds in exchange for me germinating them managed to find space for nine in his vegetable plot rather than the original intended three; he managed this by buying two wooden raised beds at a bargain price while visiting a garden centre in Belgium. I've also given six Brukales to one friend in our communal vegetable gardening group and three plants to another. I found space for six in my own vegetable garden, planting them in a vegetable border behind the greenhouse; this just leaves 5 spare plants to offer to other friends in the group.
Harvesting: Being a cross between a Brussel Sprout and a Kale harvesting should be from October to March.
This is an excellent companion plant for an informal vegetable garden which has been well established in my garden for years. They're easy to grow and once established in the garden self-seed prolifically. Although the harsh winters and poor summers for the last two years has all but devastated the marigolds in my garden; therefore I was grateful when a friend gave me the remaining seeds from a packet he bought to sow as companion plants in his vegetable plot. I've sown 32 seeds in 16 pots (two seeds per pot) which should be more than ample to re-establish pot marigolds in my vegetable plot; I've given the rest of the seeds in the seed packet back to my friend for his future use.
This is a hardy plant so once established you should get good blooms most of the year; especially if you have the time for dead-heading; which I rarely do but even so I still get a good display all summer long and well into the early winter months.
The advantages of this companion plant is that not only is it one of the line of defences against pests but they also look great in amongst the vegetables and as a bonus the petals are edible. Sprinkle a few petals on top of your salad, adding a splash of colour, and it looks just great; a brilliant way to present your salad to your guests and friends when you host your house parties and BBQs.
Other companion plants that have self-seeded in my medieval style vegetable garden and growing well include a couple of fox gloves (which is not edible) and love in the mist.
Working with Nature to Combat Pests and Increase Yields
The above books highlight the importance of companion planting, some focusing on paring vegetables together and others on companion planting flowers with vegetables. Either way it helps with pest control and helps to improve your harvest; and with the use of flowers adds a splash of colour to what could otherwise be a drab looking vegetable patch.
Normally I use just a few seeds each year to grow half a dozen lettuces at any one time in the greenhouse through the summer months. I propagate them in a planter trough, and as most of the varieties are leafy we just keep picking the leaves when required which are quickly replaced by new growth until the lettuce starts to go to seed; at which time I replace it with a fresh seed.
By using the seeds this sparingly it generally means that by the time the seeds are well out date from an old packet of about 200 mixed lettuce seeds I'd still normally have about 150 remaining seeds; as is the case this year. So anticipating poor germination from this very old seed packet I did a trial run by sowing about two dozen seeds in three small seed trays, of which only three germinated. Therefore, not to completely waste what's left I sowed the remaining 100+ seeds in a seed drill in the greenhouse in front of where the marrows will be grown; with a possibility that a few more lettuces may yet grow and be picked young before they get swamped by the marrow plants. From this last ditched attempt to not waste any viable seed about a dozen germinated which should give us a good crop this summer, albeit when they get completely swamped in their current position by the marrows I will need to carefully transfer them to a safer haven.
Long Green Bush
I had bought my own marrow seeds for this year but just before I was about to sow them a friend gave me the rest of his packet to use rather than waste them; as the seeds are coming up to their expiry date. There were 16 seeds in the packet, I only need two healthy plants for the greenhouse but as they'll be out of date next year and I already have a new packet which I can keep back until next year I decided to put four seeds straight into the ground in the greenhouse and the remaining 12 in pots in the unlikely event of poor germination. As it's happened all the seeds in the pots germinated, although none of the four planted straight in the ground did; so I'll need to find new homes for most of them. I planted the two I wanted in the ground and they are now thriving well, I also gave a couple to the friend who gave me the seeds and another friend has agreed to adopt two once I've hardened them off for planting outside. Although these plants are difficult to give away because they take up a lot of garden space I'm hopeful to find others who are happy to adopt some of the marrow plants for their gardens.
Sowing: Marrows (like tomatoes) are not a hardy plant and can't be grown outside until the danger of frost is over; which in southern England is the third week of May. However, as I grow mine in the greenhouse I can bring on and plant them earlier in the month and get a longer growing season with potentially a heavier crop (dependant on weather) than I would do if I tried growing them outside.
Planting: As I grow mine in the greenhouse I was able to transplant the seedlings I'd grown in pots into the vegetable bed in the greenhouse early in May. For the rest which I hope to find new homes for I shall harden them off late May for transplanting outside early in June.
Harvesting: In a good year I can expect a good continues harvest in the greenhouse anytime from July right through until late September or early October. I've never tried growing them outside but like tomatoes the growing season would be much shorter and the harvest yield much smaller. However, if growing in the greenhouse marrows require plenty of ventilation, should be feed regularly with tomato feed and kept moist, although overwatering can cause the fruits to fail and reduce the harvest.
Early and Main Crop
For the amount of work involved, the space required and relatively low price in the shops compared to other fresh vegetables potatoes are not what I would consider a cash crop; although space permitting I do occasionally grow a few potatoes, especially earlies. However, it doesn’t matter how careful I am at harvest time I always seem to manage to miss a few potatoes in the ground and get an unexpected bonus crop the following year; as happened this year. Where the odd potato plant emerges from a previous year crop if it’s not unduly in the way of crops I’m growing in the current season I’ll let it ride and come harvest time see what I got; sometimes the results can be disappointing, sometimes a bonus free meal or two. This year the free crop of potatoes has done exceptionally well, as shown in the Value of Harvest chart shown below.
When I do plant seed potatoes I don’t dig deep trenches widely spaced and subsequently earth up as the plants grow, as described in all the garden books. I like to keep gardening simple, breaking with tradition where it works if it means I get good results with less effort. The purpose of earthling up can be two fold; one it can protect early potatoes from heavy frosts and two screen tubers growing near the surface from the sun which causes them to green; important as the green in potatoes is a toxin. Even though I dig shallow trenches (just a spade deep) close together and place the seed potatoes close e.g. about six inches apart, once in the ground I don’t subsequently earth up and I’ve never had any problems with frost and little problem with tubers being exposed to sunlight. Besides, you can grow seed potatoes in large tubs on the patio where obviously they are not earthed up, and get a worthwhile harvest from each tub (provided the tubs are well watered) without the problem of loads of green potatoes; so I see growing potatoes in open ground no different to this.
I’ll only grow potatoes if I have a suitably large enough patch of ground which I don’t plan to utilise for other crops that season; often opting for early potatoes which can be harvested mid-summer so that I can successionally plant winter brassicas brought on in the greenhouse earlier in the year and which can be planted out as late as July and still produce a reasonable winter crop.
Low Maintenance with High Yield and little garden space required
Rhubarb is a real winner. It’s easy to grow with little maintenance, takes up little space and once established produces high yields; and in the shops isn’t cheap so a real cash winner.
If you buy a vigorous variety (as we did) and plant a couple of roots anywhere in the garden where there’s an odd space then by the third year you’ve got an endless supply of free rhubarb every summer thereafter (without any maintenance); it’s that easy.
For a successful planting the roots need to be dug into the ground when they are dormant, in the winter after the first frosts. Rhubarb doesn’t mind shade so you can literally plant the roots anywhere, such as at the back of a flower border or even under a hedge. Although they will happily grow in the same ground for years if for any reason to decide to transplant the roots do it in the winter months when they are dormant; this is also a good time to split the roots to create two plants. When planting (or transplanting) your rhubarb they will need three years to settle in and build up their strength so during this period you should only harvest them lightly, and in the first year resist the temptation to harvest any stems. Once establish they can be harvested heavily right through to July. From July onwards you should leave any further stems that grow to allow the plant to build up its strength for the following season. If you want to force an early crop you can place chimney pot (or similar) over the plant in the winter; although this should only be done alternate years so as not to weaken the plant.
Of the two rhubarb plants we have, one is in a north facing flowerbed near the house and the other in the corner of the garden next to the vegetable plot; neither gets a great deal of sunshine, and I never bother watering them during dry spells but both produce a good crop of rhubarb every year.
The Bean Family
On good enriched soil in a sunny spot runner beans are easy to grow, they don't take up much space, and almost always provide a good heavy crop. Therefore it's a choice crop for most vegetable gardens. The seeds can't be sown outside until the risk of frost has past; which in southern England is the third week of May. However, they can be bought on in the greenhouse a month early and hardened off nearer the time to get an early start to the season; which is what I like to do although until established there is always a slight risk of losing a few due to unexpected bad weather or from pests. So provided you kept a few seeds back you still have the option of popping a few seeds in the ground at the same time as you plant out your beans as an insurance against a few losses; and if you don't lose any then you end up with a few extra plants, which for beans is fine as they can be grown much closer together than generally recommend without affecting yield. I bought one variety early in the year and more recently a friend gave me two other packets to share in exchange for me bringing on the seedlings in my greenhouse and hardening off for planting in late May or early June. So the three varieties of Runner Beans sown this year, one seed per pot, are Painted Lady (15 pots), Enorma (21 pots), and Polestar (21 pots).
Sowing: Outside in late May once the risk of frost is over or a month earlier in the greenhouse for hardening off late May and planting out at the end of the Month or early June.
Planting: Runner Beans are not hardy so they can't be planted outside until the danger of frost is over and they have been hardened off in a cold frame e.g. end of May or early June.
Harvesting: A good continuous cropper from July until the frosts in late September or even early October. You shouldn’t let the pods get too big otherwise they will be stringy. It’s much better to pick little and often when the pods are still quite young, tender and full of flavour; ideally harvesting twice a week. If for example the average length of pods for your variety is about 12 inches long then aim to pick them when they are about eight or ten inches long, leaving the smaller pods for a few more days to grow. If you’re not sure on this then Runner Beans grow quickly and are a prolific cropper so you’ll get plenty of practice throughout the summer to gauge the ideal size for picking in order to ensure young, succulent and tasty runner beans for the dinner table.
If you just want a regular supply of runner beans throughout the late summer and autumn for the table then 12 healthy runner bean plants will be more than sufficient. If you intend growing a surplus crop to freeze for a year’s supply then a couple of dozen plants should see you through.
Black Currents, Blueberries, Raspberries, Strawberries and Wineberries
Soft fruits generally like plenty of sun, heat and water. New to our garden this year is a black current bush in a large west facing tub by the house so obviously only a small crop this year. In previous years the Wineberries (like a small raspberry but much sweater) has been our winning crop but with a late start to the summer they along with our strawberries hasn’t done quite so well this year. Our winner this has been the raspberries, especially the yellow variety that fruits both in the summer and autumn; and the blueberries have done quite well also.
Black currents and blueberries are bushes which once established should be regularly pruned to cut our dead wood and to keep airflow through the plant; similar to pruning a rose. However, some of the most prolific blueberry varieties do require being companion planted with a compatible blueberry species for cross-fertilisation and successful fruiting; therefore check carefully with the garden centre, and on the label, for advice when buying a blueberry bush.
Strawberries are plants that can be grown in the greenhouse, in open ground or in a strawberry pot. We also have an alpine variety that loves some shade, which we grow next to the wineberrie canes for shading. So far we’ve found growing in strawberry pots quite successful but being in the pot requires plenty of regular watering. They are easy to propagate as each plant sends out runners which root in the soil to grow new plants which when established can be separated from its parent and grown on in pots for the next season.
Raspberries and wineberries are canes; generally the fruits grow on the new canes the following year (or in some cases as with the yellow raspberries we have the following season). So once the harvest season is over cut the old canes back to just above ground level and for each plant choose the five most suitable canes for training against a south facing fence or wires, in a fan shape for fruiting the following year. Wineberries can be a very prolific cropper but grows fast and takes up a lot of space. Raspberries also are generally prolific, producing a lot of fruit in a small area; ideal for growing along the side of your plot on a south facing border. And once you’ve made your initial investment there are no additional costs other than your time to prune and train the canes in the autumn or early spring and harvesting in the summer and or autumn dependant on your variety. Generally ten canes, which are how they are normally sold, are sufficient for a respectable crop in future years. Also, if you have a wild blackberries growing near where you live then spending the time picking them in August is a welcome free addition to your year’s harvest and rewarding when you make that traditional seasonal blackberry pie.
Great for flavouring mashed potatoes
Spinach is an easy to grow crop that doesn't take up much space (you can plant them close together) and they prolifically produces fresh leaves all summer long and often well into winter. I normally sow them straight into the ground but because of the late start to the season I'm bringing them on in the greenhouse this year to transplant to a convenient corner of the vegetable plot later. I use spinach as a good healthy natural and nutritious way of flavouring potatoes as an alternative to using salt. Once I've prepared the potatoes for boiling I nip out and pick several of the older more mature outer leaves, quickly rinse them under the tap and quickly chop them into large pieces about 12mm (0.5 inches) square and pop them into the top of the boiling potatoes. Once the potatoes are boiled and drained the cooked spinach just gets mashed in with them. The varieties I'm using this year, one seed per pot, are Perpetual (15 pots) and Oriental (15 pots).
Swede is a very traditional British winter root crop, easy to grow provided you keep it well watered during the summer and easy to harvest in the winter months as required; very hardy and the flavour benefits from frost so each plant can stay in the ground and pulled when required for the dinner table. If in the summer you fail to water the roots during dry spells they’ll not swell and grow properly and be very woody; so as with any root crop stressing the importance of water in dry weather can’t be over emphasised.
Sowing: The seeds are sown in the spring (April/May time) thinly in 0.5 inch deep drills in open ground and thinned (according to the books) to 9 inches apart. Thinning can be quite a chore so (in the style of medieval gardening) I sow seeds individually at about half the recommended distance (about 4 inches apart) so that no early thinning is required. The chances are that a few seeds will not germinate and some seedling will be eaten by pests so there will be an element of natural thinning anyway. As small as they are I sow the seeds individually using a simple hand held seed dispenser.
Harvesting: If the plants are sown close together as described above, and many germinate and successfully grow to maturity then come October you can thin out any excess roots to leave the rest to continue growing in the ground for harvesting when needed. The thinning’s which this year was 11.5 lbs. in my garden can either be stored in dry sand in the shed or blanched and frozen. The flavour benefits from frost so I’ll leave the rest of my swede in the ground until we’ve had a few heavy frosts, which may be from mid-November onwards; then I could regularly individual roots as required right through until March. However, I may be tempted to pull the remainder late December and freeze the surplus in that from January onwards there’s always the risk of the ground becoming frozen making it difficult to pull roots.
Juicy and packed with flavour unlike shop bought tomatoes that tend to be hard and tasteless
Tomatoes, marrows and lettuce are the main plants we grow exclusively in the greenhouse. We normally buy six tomato plants in late April, one each of six different varieties. Well worth every penny because they're juicy and full of flavour, as opposed to the supermarket tomatoes that are always hard and tasteless. In a good year, when we get plenty of sunshine, we can expect to be harvesting bumper crops from mid-July right through until November. The six varieties we've opted for this year are Tumbling Tom (Yellow tomato), Ailsa Craig (medium sized), Money Maker (a traditional tomato), Alicante (medium sized), Gardeners Delight (small tomatoes) and Tumbler (cherry sized tomatoes).
You can of course grow tomatoes outside but they're not hardy so the growing season is much shorter and the harvest yield much smaller. So I prefer to grow my tomatoes in the greenhouse, where they are well suited, with the added bonus that it leaves valuable garden space free in a small garden for growing other vegetables outside. The tomatoes should be well watered (but not overwatered) and once the first flowers appear fed at least once a week with a tomato feed; and if grown in the greenhouse, the greenhouse should be well ventilated.
Each tomato plant should be staked-up using canes and from July onwards when they grow quickly regularly checked and new growth tied to the stake for support. All the gardening books will tell you to regularly pinch out new side shoots leaving typically only six flower trusses for indoor tomatoes and four for outdoor tomatoes, and to remove the lower leaves; specifically so all the goodness (nutrients) goes to the fruits and not the plant, which is a lot of hard work as tomato plants are vigorous growers. However, I’ve found that by not continually pruning the plant but just letting nature take its course and allowing the tomato plant grow as a bush, with a bit of management of regularly tying new growth to cane supports that I still achieve a good harvest of tomatoes; albeit it can be like pushing your way through a small forest when harvesting the fruits. So it’s something you may wish to experiment with and perhaps find your own compromise between pruning and letting nature do its own thing. If you have several plants you may wish to try a different approach on each one and decide for yourself how you would prefer to manage your tomato plants in future years.
In the event of poor weather e.g. little sun during the summer, or where tomatoes are grown outside, at the end of the growing season you'll usually end up harvesting green tomatoes which can be ripened-off indoors or used to make green tomato chutney, as given in my recipe below.
The two varieties I grew this year were Snowball and Golden Ball, both quick maturing early varieties that are ready for harvesting within a couple of months from sowing. I prefer the early summer varieties in that they are tenderer than the winter turnips provided they are well watered from sowing to harvesting. As with any root crop if you don't water them during dry spells they'll not grow and become very woody; and if the dry spell is short will split with the onslaught of rain. However, if they are properly watered in dry weather then all being well you should get a good crop ready for harvesting when they are about tennis ball size.
As I practice a medieval approach to gardening I grow closer together than recommended on the seed packet, which doesn't adversely affect their size and once the foliage is well established shades the ground helping to keep moisture in and suppress weeds.
Sowing: Sow from April/May. The advice on the packet is to sow thinly in drills 0.5 inches deep and thin out to 6 inches apart, with rows about 9 inches apart. Thinning out can be a momentous task, I find it much easier to take extra time and care during sowing so that seeds are sown individually every 3 inches (and 0.5 inches deep); quite easy to do with a small dibber and a dedicated hand held seed dispenser (which I picked up in a garden centre while visiting Belgium). The big advantage of this approach is that there is no thinning to do later, so not risk of disturbing the roots when they are young and a big labour saver. In doing this some seeds will not germinate and of those that do some may be eaten by pests so there is a natural thinning process anyway; which is fine provided any loss is not too extensive, and where there is no loss and plants grow as close as three inches most will still quite happily grow to tennis ball size. Also, I tend to pack the vegetables in (medieval style) and have the rows closer to six inches rather than the recommended nine inches; just enough space to get the how in until the foliage is well established.
Harvesting: The summer varieties are smaller, more tender, and quicker growing than the more traditional winter turnips; generally ready to pull within six to eight weeks from sowing. Although as I packed my roots in closer than recommended in today’s gardening books I was regularly harvesting the roots this year from two to three months from sowing; over a five week period pulling 20 lbs. of turnips in a 12 foot double row.
The Start of the Growing Season
The last two years have been a bit of a washout with the unseasonal poor weather in Britain; with two of the coldest winters for years and lots of windy rain, cool temperatures and few sunny days during the summer months. In fact 2012, where it rained just about every day for almost the whole year is the second wettest year on record for Britain. It has meant that due to exceptionally weather everything is currently a month behind; with not being able to start any gardening properly until the first week of April rather than late March. However, I'm hopeful this will be a better year and that given some good weather everything will catch up and we can get back on track before the height of the summer.
The main tasks for the outside was to clear and tidy the whole garden, dig the plot over and empty the compost bins. This is one area where I differ from the Victorian ideology in that rather than digging the compost in I prefer to rake the compost out over the topsoil where needed e.g. the beans, and let the worms do the work of pulling it and the nutrients down in their own time towards where needed by the plants roots once the beans are planted and establish. In this respect the Broad Bean seeds and seed potatoes would be the first to be planted late in March, but now we're now in April and I hadn't even cleared and prepared the ground I dispensed with any potatoes this year and decided to sow and bring the broad beans in the greenhouse and to transplant them later once they've been hardened off and ready for planting outside. Interestingly though, while digging the ground over I dug up over 3lbs of fresh potatoes leftover and missed from my harvest two years earlier.
Of the seeds sown in the greenhouse, some we old packets well pass their use-by date which I just thickly sowed in seed pots on the basis that few if any will germinate, and other packets are new seeds so rather than using seed trays for these I've generally sown them individually in pots and seed pots.
As I'm co-ordinating a communal vegetable garden project this year where we swap seeds, plants, advice and help I've sown far more seeds than I require for myself; a bonus of this being that the risk of me being short of plants due to poor germination is minimised. I made two sowing sessions this month, one early in April of Broad beans, Marrow, Brukale, Pot Marigold (Companion Plant) and Lettuce; and the other sowing at the end of the month of Brassicas, Runner Beans and Spinach; I also planted six tomatoes plants in the greenhouse at the same time, one each of six different varieties.
Included in the seeds sown late in April were three out of date seed packets of brassicas, Broccoli (Redhead and Purple Sprouting) and Cauliflower (All Year Round). As I expected poor germination (especially one packet I found at the bottom of my airtight box in the shed where I keep my seed packets that was ten years out of date) with any seedling emerging being a bonus, unlike the other seed packets where I sowed one seed per pot I just sowed these thickly across three seed tray pots. As it turned out germination was very poor but conveniently just enough germinated for me early in May to fill one seedling per seed tray pot by transplanting some of the seedlings to the empty spaces in the seed tray pots where germination hadn’t occurred.
The Risk of Frost Reduces by the Third Week of the Month
Apart from two or three days early in the month May has been once again cold, wet and windy with little sunshine; not as bad as last year so plants have grown although the growing season is still a good month behind what it should be. Hopefully, as the year progresses we'll get some better weather and nature being as resilient as it is growing plants will make up some of the lost time and produce some respectable crops; albeit the growing season will be shorter than it should be.
Outside in the main vegetable plot all the root vegetables seeds I planted late April (including some old seed packets) have germinated quite well, the herbs in the herbs wheel are thriving, the soft fruits on the south facing fence are (in spite of the weather) coming out into bud and beginning to flower. The broad beans were hardened off early May and subsequently planted out in two rows with canes and string to give support during windy weather later in the season. The Asparagus is emerging from the 'love in the mist' and will soon be ready to start picking. Self-seeded marigolds and fox gloves are also popping up; I shall leave these as companion plants as part of my informal medieval style of gardening akin to an English Cottage Garden. I've also hardened off the Brukale and after distributing plants to the others in my communal gardening project group planted what I need in a border plot behind the greenhouse; I've currently kept a few spares back in the event anyone needs more. And in late May I'm currently hardening off the runner beans propagated in the greenhouse so that they can be shared with others and transplanted to open ground early in June. Further to adapting my BBQ as an ideal cold frame (as detailed further down the page) which can hold up to 30 3-inch pots I've since added a spare wire tray to hold a further 30 3-inch pots, or up to three seed trays.
Of the seeds sown in the greenhouse even the old seeds germinated better than expected except for the lettuce. Germination for all the new seeds bought this year was very good, some with 100% germination and none below 90%. So my plan of sowing seeds individually straight into small pots or seed pot trays has worked very well. Sowing small seeds individually is a little more work initially (especially for the very small seeds) but it pays dividends later in time saved by not having to thin out and replant seedlings and it also means less disturbance to their roots when they are finally transplanted to open ground, which gives each plant a better chance to recover and to thrive in their final planting position.
Another Cool and Wet Summer
For the third year running a cool and wet June in Britain with little sun, apart from the odd few days; therefore the sun loving plants such as runner beans are not as vigorous as they should be but they visibly perk up and put on a growing spurt whenever we do have the odd good summers day. In contrast the root crops such as swede, turnips and carrots are lapping up the wet conditions and growing well.
In the unheated greenhouse (in spite of the lack of sun) the tomatoes and marrows have taken off and are now growing rapidly with small tomatoes forming and the marrow plants well into flower with signs of young marrows not far behind so looking good for an early crop for July. From an old seed packet of lettuce about two dozen lettuce plants germinated and are producing a regular supply of fresh young leaves which we’re picking regularly. Rather than letting the lettuce fully mature and then picking it I prefer to take just three of the oldest and most outer leaves from each plant (as required) to allow new leaves to grow from the centre so that we can perpetually harvest lettuce leaves from each plant throughout the summer until it shows signs of going to seed at which point I will then harvest the entire plant.
This month, as well as the lettuce we’ve also harvested some asparagus, over 2 lbs. of rhubarb and a few strawberries in the greenhouse and a couple of early ripening strawberries from our Alpine strawberry plant under our raspberry canes. The raspberry canes, blueberries and outside strawberries in the strawberry pot are well in flower and fruiting.
All long last there are plenty of bees in the garden so pollination for the rest of the summer seems well assured. The broad beans, planted late due to a poor spring, are still growing (healthily and rapidly) and are well in flower so it’s shouldn’t be long before harvesting starts. The pear and cherry trees are fruiting well in our mini orchard.
The last few plants (mainly brassicas) have been hardened off in the cold frame and planed out in the garden. I also found a few tomatoes that had self-seeded in the greenhouse from last year so (although a bit late in the season) I potted up a dozen which on growing well I hardened off and found a spare spot for one in the greenhouse and one outside. They’ve got a bit of catching up to do so will not crop early and may not crop heavy but any additional tomatoes these may produce will be a free bonus; the other surplus plants I’ll give away to neighbours and friends.
The spinach have been planted out and growing so perhaps next month we can start harvesting their leaves for adding to our potato dishes.
Naturally growing in our vegetable plot is a large bunch of potatoes growing, a patch of potatoes I missed when I grew them a couple of years ago. Rather than disturb them I’ve planted the brassicas around these potato plants so that I can leave them in the ground and see what sort of potato harvest I may get in a couple of months; while preparing the ground in March for this year’s crop I dug up 5 lbs. of potatoes (which was a bonus) so perhaps in August I can expect a respectable potato crop. The companion plants that have self-seeded from previous years and now rapidly growing includes pot marigolds, poppies and fox gloves; some of the fox gloves are already fully in flower and looking grand in amongst the beans.
Fruit and Veg Garden Summer Views - The Season for Growth
July to September
At last a hot summer
After a cool and wet start to the year July switched to become an unexceptionally hot and dry month, so much so that daily watering was essential; especially for the root veg to keep them growing and prevent them from becoming woody. August and September were cooler and wetter than August but still quite mild and reasonably dry in comparison with previous years.
July to September is the growing season where everything grows and blooms and to pick fruit and veg when they are young and tender, especially runner beans and raspberries, ideally you need to harvest them twice a week but at a pinch could get away with harvesting just once a week. Also at this time of year your tomatoes and marrows need regular feeding; at least once a week.
It’s also the time of year when pest are at their height so vigilance and prompt action when necessary can save a crop from destruction; although if you’re gardening organically you will want to monitor the situation very carefully and work with nature when possible; being careful of any remedies you choose isn’t too destructive on the pests predators so that at some point you can ease off and let the predators do their job of defending your garden for you. A few blackfly or greenfly on the odd leaf isn’t much to worry about; especially if you see the odd ladybird nearby; but the first sign of an infestation of a whole plant may be an indication that a quick squirt of soapy water maybe in order to bring the attack into check as a temporary measure with a hope that by the following week the ladybirds are back and keeping things in check for you.
Some of the crops did better this summer than others; which is quite normal and is dependent on the weather, soil conditions, pests, watering and the level of tendering of your crops; so it can pay to plant a wide variety of vegetables rather than rely on the success of just a few. A good learning curve is to experiment with what vegetables you plant and when you sow your seeds. An early planting may do well if weather conditions are favourable but a sudden and unexpected late frost may knock them back so having a few plants in reserve in your greenhouse could save the day.
Many crops featured in this article are easy to grow with some such as runner beans and raspberries having high yields without taking much space in the garden; yet these are surprisingly expensive to buy in the supermarket and therefore a real money saver; as shown in the Value of Harvest chart above.
Hand Held Seed Dispenser
For sowing seeds individually
A Simple hand held device for sowing small seeds individually which I picked up in a garden centre while visiting Belgium. This seed dispenser is a great device, inexpensive to buy and very effective in dispensing the seeds one at a time. To operate you pull the top off of the box, place your seeds in the centre well, place the top back on and turn it so the appropriate size hole for the seed aligns with the dispensing channel. Then all you do is hold the device in one hand and gently tap the top of the box to release the seeds one at a time, and keep gently tapping the top of the box as each seed pops over the edge and into the hole or drill you previously prepared.
The only skill you need, which quickly comes with practice, is to get the finger tapping right and the angle at which you hold the seed dispenser; too deep an angle and too many seeds will drop-out together and too shallow an angle and the seeds will just bounce around and not work their way to the end of the channel. Likewise, tapping too hard will send seeds down too quickly and in bunches and too soft and the seeds will just sit where they are.
You can improvise, as I did until I found this most ingenious gadget; initially I used the groove in the back of the tool normally used for smoothing mortar in brickwork as a channel to gently tap down seeds individually into their designated holes.
Background and Introduction
The Roots to my style of Gardening
The first home we owned had a typical urban back garden for Britain, just 12 feet wide and 30 feet long of which about a third was lawn. I'd never done gardening before but was keen to have a go and quickly learnt that growing a few vegetables can be both profitable and fun; saved a bit of money on the shopping bill and an enjoyable way to spend a hot sunny afternoon on weekends. Steaming from this initial experience we bought some raspberry canes to put a row at the top end of the lawn and beyond set aside a plot of land about 10 foot square for vegetables.
Obviously if you follow traditional Victorian gardening techniques placing the plants at the distances they did there's a lot of weeding, watering and tendering of plants and in such a small plot only enough space to grow a few vegetable plants. However, one of the first gardening books I ever owned came to the rescue; it formed the foundations for my ethos in gardening and I've cherished it ever since (A Christmas present from my wife). The book, aptly named 'Know and Grow Vegetables' (ISBN '0 19 857547 5'), compiled and written by The National Vegetable Research Station, Warwickshire, England describes in great detail (with few images and charts) how to successfully grow lots of vegetables in a small space. It throws away the rule book on gardening and adopts methods practiced for centuries, typically in English country gardens (medieval gardening), before the Victorians reinvented gardening.
Since these early days we've moved to a bigger house with a larger garden which fortunately for us is unusually large for a British urban garden.
Fruit Trees in Small Spaces
How to Maximise on Space in a Small garden
Traditionally orchards require a lot of open ground because fruit trees are quite tall and need to be spaced out. Although in the Victorian Estate gardens it was normal to grow fig trees against a south facing wall, as the Romans did; and in more recent decades other fruit trees like apples and pears have been developed to be fanned out against wall and fences in smaller gardens.
However, these days with dwarf root stock and growing trees in containers there’s no reason why you can’t maximise on space in a small garden and enjoy the fruits of your labour; as demonstrated in our garden where we’ve utilised the bottom end of our lawn for fruit trees. Not only does it look great in late spring when they’re all out in blossom but also for the rest of the year these miniature fruit trees add extra height and depth to your garden giving a it a more natural and more pleasing look and feel.
Layout and Function
How we have adapted our back garden
Our current back garden, 30 feet wide and 100 feet long is divided into two rooms, the first section being near the house is the patio and lawn surrounded by flower borders and a small potting shed to one side. The other half of the garden houses the greenhouse, garden sheds, wildlife pond, vegetable plots, flower boarder, compost bins and a smaller patio with brick BBQ; the main vegetable plot being 12 feet by 20 feet.
Since our son has grown up and we don't need such a large play area we adapted the bottom third of the lawn to become a miniature orchard by planning six fruit trees with dwarf root stocks. The big advantages of choosing fruit trees with dwarf root stocks, which are heavy in fruiting, is they'll never grow very big so we can squeeze a lot of fruit trees into a small area and it makes it easy for picking the fruit because we can easily reach up even to the top branches.
Established Fruit Trees
The six fruit trees we have are all grown on dwarf root stock in our miniature orchard at the top end of the lawn; they are:-
- Pear, with three varieties grafted to one dwarf root stock to cross-fertilise.
- Cherry - Stella Giesla.
- Two plum trees to cross fertilise, Opal St Julien and Prunus Mallard, Pixy.
- Peach, Avalon Pride, and
- An apple tree
Other Established Plants
The other established plants as an annual food source from our back garden includes:-
- Two rhubarb plants, one tucked in at the back of the potting shed near the house and the other in the corner at the far end of the garden.
- Asparagus roots, planted in one corner of the vegetable plot, which we gave three years to settle in so we can now start harvesting them during the summer months just like the rhubarb.
- Chinese chives, planted in a small area on one edge of the vegetable plot; these roots were given to use from neighbours of ours from china. The plant looks more like a broadleaf grass than the usual chive you'll find in British gardens, but it's hardier and provided you keep it regularly chopped to keep the leaves young and fresh can be used in the kitchen just like any other chive; and with that distinctive chive flavouring makes an excellent garnish to you salad and other suitable dishes. It's also great onion substitute for flavouring in recipes when you don't happen to have any onions to hand.
- Soft fruits including a mixed variety of summer and autumn raspberries (including a yellow variety) positioned against a south facing fence next to the vegetable plot; and at the far end a well-established wineberry plant under which is an Alpine strawberry plant (that likes shade). Just above the wildlife pond and at the start of the raspberry canes are two companioned blueberry bushes, different compatible varieties for cross fertilisation; and another blueberry plant (Jersey) in a large planter with a blackcurrant bush (Big Ben) near the house. Also strawberries in a strawberry pot next to the brick BBQ and a few more strawberries growing semi-wild in the greenhouse.
- A range of common herbs in pots and containers dotted around the garden (some in the herb wheel at the top end of the vegetable plot near the rhubarb); and several varieties of the all-important mint. Full details (with images) of these herbs are given separately in my herbs article, which can be followed from the link given further down this page.
The Mini Orchard at the End of Our Lawn - Six Fruit Trees Grown on Dwarf Root Stock
Our greenhouse isn't huge, but at 6 feet by 8 feet it's a descent size. When buying the greenhouse we opted for safety glass rather than the standard glass; it wasn't that much more expensive but a lot stronger and a lot safer.
I also opted for two 6-feet aluminium stagings, each with six removable aluminium trays. Normally you would by one and put it at the end of the greenhouse or on one side. Buying two and putting one on each side would create dead space at the ends. But thinking out of the box, and with some modification, I married them together to create an L shape staging; which has served me well over the years.
During the early part of the year I can use the whole staging for seedlings and later in the year remove some of the aluminium trays to make space for the marrows or tomatoes which are grown in the ground underneath.
Optionally I could also remove the rest of the trays and clear out the storage space underneath to also utilise the ground space at the far end of the greenhouse. I may do that this year to give more breathing space for the marrow and tomatoes if we have a good sunny summer and they do well.
I also occasionally use a propagator in the greenhouse over the winter months to bring on early crops for the following summer such as onions, which can be sown in late November or early December. The propagator is ideal for this, it houses up to two seed trays or pots to the equivalent space and maintains a temperature of about 20C (68F) for just 40W, so it's very economical to run.
Greenhouses and mini greenhouses
Protect your plants from frost and bring on your seedlings early
Nothing beats a proper glass greenhouse but even if you don't have the space or money for one there are plenty of inexpensive clear PVC mini-greenhouses that although not so durable, for the price they are handy to have.
Adapting a BBQ to make a Cold Frame
Innovative and Novel Multipurpose use of a brick BBQ
With space at a premium in a small garden my innovative way to create a functional cold frame on a shoestring budget without taking up valuable garden space was to utilise the space in our brick BBQ as an ideal cold frame, as detailed in the link below.
Multipurpose Brick BBQ as a Cold Frame
Value of Harvest for the Year in Our Back Garden
|Fruit/Veg||Kg/g.||Value £||Ib/oz.||Value $||Notes|
Pick as required, new leaves grow summer and winter. Price comparison website shows approx. �1 per 100g in supermarkets.
Intercropped between brassicas, Main and early potatoes self grown from previous season's crops.
Winter Crops: Cabbage, cauliflower, Brukale and Brussels Sprouts.
Swapped with neighbour for two marrow plants and Brukale seedlings.
Below �5 value; lettuce, broad beans, herbs, asparagus, carrots, black currents, strawberries, wineberries, parsnip and radish.
Total Value to Date
Includes estimated value for pick as required e.g. herbs and spinach etc.
Are you an Organic Gardener?
Home grown vegetables freshly picked from the garden is full of flavour and highly nutritious, and of course if organically grown very healthy. In contrast shop bought vegetables tend to be bland and often after processing and packaging not as nutritious, and often with the use of artificial chemicals to control pests and encourage growth are definitely not as healthy.
Chemical Free Food
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 Gardening Tips and Comments - How Do You Garden
Billy Henry on August 18, 2018:
I compost all of our vegetable scraps in two bins. Ond large and the other small. Well composted soil has been my answer to a good garden.
Arthur Russ (author) from England on June 16, 2017:
Thanks anonymous for your feedback, greatly appreciated, as always.
anonymous on April 29, 2013:
I love gardening. For me it is nothing better to see those little seeds germinate. For me it is awesome. I love the little tote bags! Very nice lens.