If you take all of the world’s arable land and divide it by the world’s population we each have around 2000m² . Our 2000m² plot produces a wide variety of vegetables for most of the year, with over 2 tonnes of veg grown on it in 2015/16. Growing vegetables at 1000 feet in Scotland with a short season is still a challenge, though, and many gardening books assume a slightly warmer climate than we have here in the Borders. So, here is a bit of what we’ve learned from the project, which we thought might be useful in your home or community garden.
Start as early as you can
Having three polytunnels in addition to the 2000m² plot extends the short growing season here, and means we’ve been able to have a go at growing peppers, aubergines and sweetcorn. Nevertheless, crops like tomatoes and peppers need to be sown early as possible to give them the best chance of fruiting before the weather turns chilli (sorry, chilly!). These seeds are best started off indoors as early as February or March to give them a head-start. Choose a sunny windowsill with a clear plastic cover over your seed trays. If you are really keen, electrically-powered heat mats can help seeds germinate earlier. Some growers use compressed manure to build a hotbed for seedlings – really making the most of composting! (This tends to work well on a bigger scale, though, and your household may not appreciate you storing that much manure at the bottom of the garden!). Hardy crops like kale and leeks can be sown early too, especially in a polytunnel, greenhouse or under cloches outside. You can make your own mini-greenhouse with a piece of polycarbonate or even a recycled plastic bottle!
No dig = less work
Turning over the soil – while sometimes necessary – also brings new seeds to the surface – and they’re not the seeds you planted! 2000m² is a lot of weeding to keep on top of by hand. In the Project polytunnels, we’ve been spreading compost on top of the raised beds, rather than digging it in. The compost suppresses weeds (a bit) as well as adding nutrients to the soil. If you have raised beds at home, try giving your back a break from digging this year! You’ll still need to dig seed drills and potato trenches, but have a go at not turning the soil over, just adding compost on top. This also helps the soil keep its natural structure.
The caveat: minimal digging also means minimal treading, to avoid compacting the soil. Keep beds narrow enough to reach the middle of them from the paths without trampling.
Sowing in Succession
Admittedly it wasn’t a strong point this year (2017/18), but it is very much worth it if you can find the time. Successional sowing means not planting all of one crop at once, but staggering it (by anything from a week to a month, depending on the crop and conditions) to give yourself a longer cropping period. It works particularly well with salads, giving you a steady supply and a bit of variety year-round, instead of ALL the lettuces at once (and then a fortnight of lettuce soup when they all bolt)! You can also achieve succession by planting a mixture of fast and slow maturing varieties at once.
Crop Rotations and Green Manures
Some vegetable crops are hungrier than others! All plants make their own food (sugars) by photosynthesis, but they need minerals from the soil to be healthy. We, in turn, need food grown with enough nutrition to get the nutrients we require. Not planting the same crop in the same place twice in a row also prevents the build-up of pests and diseases. Green manures are a way of giving part of your plot a year off from production and of adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil. “Hungry” crops such as potatoes follow after the green manures in that spot, with lighter feeders such as carrots at the end of the rotation. On the 2000m² plot we use a six-year rotation, but there are lots of different ways to do it, and plenty of ideas out there.
Grow what you want to eat!
This might sound obvious, but the big advantage of growing your own is that you’re no longer limited to a few varieties that the supermarkets have to offer. Usually these are varieties that are uniform and crop heavily, rather than the tastiest! As a grower you can explore the wide variety of fruit and veg out there. The most rewarding part of growing on the 2000m² plot has been sharing produce with our local community groups and schools, seeing people enjoy really fresh carrots and develop a taste for cabbage (thank goodness – there’s been a lot of it!).
In November 2017 we went on a study tour to various Community Supported Agriculture sites in Wales and England – you can find out more here.