1. Get to know your plot really well
Have a very thorough look around your growing space.
- Where does the sunlight fall in the morning, afternoon and evening?
- Which areas get no direct sunlight at all when the winter sun is low in the sky?
- Do you have a spot where nothing seems to grow?
- Are there any places that seem especially dry or waterlogged?
- Is part of your plot exposed to high winds or in a frost pocket?
- Will large trees, walls or nearby buildings block light or rain from reaching your crops?
- What’s the soil like? Clay? Sandy? Compacted and trodden down? Stony? Weed-ridden?
- When was the area last cultivated?
2. Make a list of what you love
- Start by making a long list of all the fruit and vegetables you like to eat, and remember to get some input from everyone else in the household
- Don’t grow things just because you think that you ‘should’ – you need to like them
- Narrow it down to a shortlist of, say, six to 12 varieties of plants by looking at growing requirements, ease of cultivation, yields, and prices of plants or seeds
3. Work with the location and the seasons
For your first year of growing, try not to fight too much with nature. Make it easy for yourself:
- Stick mostly to crops that will naturally thrive in your current conditions
- Don’t get ahead of yourself and sow seeds too early – late sowings usually catch up just fine and may even do better than earlier sowings, so be patient
- Try to avoid growing too many plants that need special treatment, soil or feed, at least to begin with – it can become more expensive and time consuming than you might expect
- Ask around friendly local gardeners to find out which plants grow well in the area
4. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
- Be realistic about your time, spare cash and any other resources – how much can you afford to invest?
- You don’t have to cultivate your entire available plot, at least to begin with, so don’t be worried about starting small
- Use second hand or inexpensive equipment, and don’t get sucked into buying this season’s ‘must-have’ gadgets in the gardening catalogues
- Take into account how much time you’ll need to spend watering your plants
- Grow a few low-maintenance varieties to make life easier (such as rhubarb, drought-resistant dwarf beans, hardy kale and leaf beet, cut-and-come-again salad leaves and so on) – they will still taste great
- Don’t try to grow everything all at once, start with a limited number of varieties and add more later
5. Be kind to the soil and local wildlife
- Start a compost heap or a worm farm to feed the soil and add organic matter
- Don’t grow the same crop season after season in the same place – it can deplete the soil and encourage pests and diseases
- Avoid using chemicals that are harmful to bees, hoverflies and other pollinators, and be nice to friendly bugs such as ladybirds that can keep pests in check
- Encourage friendly wildlife into your garden by sowing a pot of wild flower seeds
- Grow a few ‘companion plants’ such as basil, nasturtiums and French marigolds
- Check plants regularly for pests and pick them off as soon as you see them
There’s also another article specifically about saving money in a kitchen garden or on an allotment, for anyone who’s sticking to a budget this year.
Experienced food gardeners, do you have any top tips of your own for newbies?