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Most gardeners dream of nurturing, harvesting, and enjoying their own fresh produce. Not only is it economical, sustainable, and healthy, tending a fruit and veg patch is scientifically proven to benefit our mental health and emotional wellbeing too! Here is a handy, practical guide to cultivating abundant, delicious, and diverse fruits and vegetables in your own back garden!
Mindful planning and planting is the best way to ensure abundant, healthy, and even year-round harvests. In spring, decide which fruits and vegetables you want to grow, what their requirements are, and where you want to grow them. It seems obvious, but the very best crops to grow are those which you and your family enjoy eating!
When planning out your crops, consider the space and light conditions in your garden. If your space is small, select crops that grow, or can be trained to grow, vertically, such as runner beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, strawberries, raspberries, and even melons. You may need to cane and restrain some crops to prevent them from spreading.
Although most fruits and vegetables need a fair amount of sunlight to flourish, don’t despair if your garden is shady. Shade-tolerant crops such as gooseberries, raspberries, rhubarb, beetroot, kale, or lettuce will do well so long as they receive a little midday sun. Most salad crops are heat averse so flourish in cool, shady conditions.
Matching your crops to your soil type will improve your harvest! Brassicas such as cabbage, sprouts, and broccoli all enjoy clay soil, whereas root vegetables like carrot, parsnip, and beetroot will prefer sandy soil. You can modify or enrich your soil in early spring to make sure your crops receive adequate nutrients throughout the growing season. Adding plenty of organic manner such as compost, bark, and manure will improve the quality of any soil type, and spreading a layer of organic mulch will help the soil to retain moisture. Remove any large stones or other debris from the border and loosen the soil with a fork to improve aeration before sowing. Try to keep your beds narrow, so that you can easily reach across them to perform any maintenance without stepping on and compacting the soil.
Even with the best soil quality and light conditions, your crops need fertiliser to really maximise their yield. Nutrient-rich soil produces nutritious, delicious crops. It’s best to add fertiliser in spring and work it into the soil before the bed has been planted. Very hungry crops such as tomatoes will need extra food during the growing season. There is an extensive array of crop-specific food available, which deliver specialised nutrients to complement each crop. Be careful not to over-fertilise though, as this can cause considerable damage to the plant.
Fast-growing veg such as spinach, leeks, and onions can be sown and picked in quick succession. Designate an area for these fast-growing crops, As soon as one crop is harvested, use that space to plant another fast-growing variety. Spring onions and most salad leaves can be sown repeatedly throughout the summer. Succession planting maximises the productivity and versatility of your space.
Growing your own produce is not limited to the summer! There are plenty of ways to extend your growing season for year-round harvests. Resist the temptation to sow early, as most crops will be damaged by a late frost. Wait until the soil is warming up. You can speed up the warming process by covering beds with blankets or plastic in mid to late spring. This also prevents weeds from getting a head start. Get ahead by sowing fragile crops like chilis in seed trays indoors, and plant them out as soon as the last frost passes. Brassicas are fairly frost-hardy and can be grown year-round, carrots can be sown in mid-to-late summer for an autumn harvest, and leafy crops like rocket can survive frost if covered with a cloche. Winter veg should be sown in early summer so they have plenty of time to mature.
Certain vegetables, such as potatoes, can remain in the ground for some time once matured, whilst others such as soft fruits and berries are best picked and eaten fresh as soon as they are ripe. With some crops, like beans, the more often you pick them, the more they produce. Cut-and-come-again veg like kale and spinach will continue to grow back again and again through the summer, so long as you don’t remove all the leaves at once.
Frustratingly, fruit and veg gardens are a haven for all manner of garden nuisances, but there are some clever tricks to keep them at bay without the need for harmful chemicals or labour intensive procedures. Peppermint oil is an excellent natural aphid repellant. Debris and decaying matter are notorious for harbouring pests and disease, so keep borders clear. High-density planting keeps weeds at bay since there isn’t room for them to flourish. Growing in pots or raised beds will offer some protection from ground pests like slugs.
Planting the same annual crop in the same place year on year can deplete the nutrients in that spot. Crop rotation not only helps to maintain soil fertility since different crops will take up different nutrients, but also disrupts the cycle of crop-specific pests and diseases, which may linger dormant in the soil and attack the next year’s crops.
Companion planting, where complimentary or symbiotic plants are grown together, is an excellent way to both maximise productivity and protect against pests by letting the garden do the work for you! For example, planting onions near to carrots will protect them from the carrot root fly, and French marigolds will repel aphids from susceptible crops like tomatoes and beans. Plants from the pea family will release nitrogen back into the soil from their roots, so are a great addition near soft fruits that love nitrogen-rich soil. Avoid placing drought-tolerant herbs near to thirsty plants like beans or tomatoes as they may become oversaturated. Interspersing vegetables with pungent plants like garlic or strong herbs will also help to repel pests. Nectar-rich flowers like sweet pea and nasturtium will attract pollinators who improve the yield of crops like strawberries and courgettes, whilst also brightening up the veg garden with vivid splashes of colour.
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