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).