Growing your own organic vegetables – a month by month guide.
More and more people want to grow their own organic vegetables but often don’t know how to get started. Our new series is designed to help the complete beginner and will guide you step-by-step through the calendar year.
The series is provided by local expert Robert Wiseman who works very closely with South East Essex Organic Gardeners (SEEOG). Robert has been gardening since the age of 5 and has always been an enthusiastic plant lover if not always a gardener. He is a well known plantsman at both local and national levels and regularly contributes articles on a wide range of horticultural subjects to gardening publications.
For the last 10 years, Robert has been growing all his food crops organically, and nearly organic on his show flowers. Robert’s knowledge and experience will help to get the most reluctant gardener motivated!
I have been gardening since the age of 5 and have always been an enthusiastic plant lover if not always a gardener. For over 20 years I have grown, exhibited and judged roses and daffodils at national level and a wide range of other fruit, flowers and vegetables at a local level. I was the Training Officer for the Essex Guild of Horticultural Judges for many years.
With many years experience in teaching and lecturing in both Computer Technology and Gardening and Horticulture, I firmly believe the learning experience should be available to all adults and should be low cost, fun and offer new skills which are sustainable and transferable. I am particularly keen to encourage growing vegetables, fruit and other food and flowering crops. Such knowledge was traditionally handed down from parents / grandparents to children but these old skills have now been lost as a result of cheap food, smaller gardens and busy lives.
As a result of my teaching experience and the ever decreasing funding for hobby courses in the traditional adult education sectors, I started successfully teaching a range of short freelance courses in Essex in gardening related subjects. Following on from these and working closely with Carole Shorney of South East Essex Organic Gardeners, I ran a pilot course in Organic Principles in Westcliff last year. We then applied for and obtained a Grassroots Grant to promote the concept of “Organic Gardening” to the wider South East Essex Community.
More information can be found on my web site www.gardencoursesessex.org.uk
Vegetables in containers
I, like many others don’t have an allotment or a vast garden to grow all my own food, although I do grow a lot of soft fruit as it’s so expensive in the shops. I have however grown a wide variety of vegetables in containers, so over the next year I hope to give you a month by month approach to growing some easy garden vegetables using organic principles
At the moment I am harvesting my salad leaves sown in late February and my New Potatoes and Broad Beans are well on the way to harvest in June. I have just planted my Dwarf Beans, Tomatoes and Peppers all in large pots.
As I try and grow as organically as I can, I start with peat free organic compost from my local garden centre. I use this to fill my containers: these are mainly recycled florist buckets - the type you see in most supermarkets, florists and garages. I find if you ask nicely you can sometimes get them free or for a modest sum. I got eight for 99p in one supermarket! Not only cheap but it continues the re-use, recycling theme that goes hand-in-hand with organic gardening. These buckets will need a few holes in the bottom before use. Use a sharp pointed knife or drill to make about 6 holes in the base and 3 or 4 round the side - about 6mm diameter is ideal.
What to sow
I would start with trying a few Dwarf Beans (French Beans.) Fill the pot to within 50mm of the top and then sow 5 seeds around the edge of the pot evenly spaced and 1 in the middle and then cover with 25mm of compost and water well. In approx 12-14 weeks you can be picking your own beans. You can plant another pot in both June and July to extend the crop (One packet of seed often contains far more than you need so share between friends or keep till next year. Beans seeds are often viable for 2 years)
I will start another pot of salad leaves this week (mid May) as I find these are always useful. I tend to have 3 or 4 pots on the go at any one time with different types and at different stages of development. Pictured left are mixed salad leaves and lettuce “Lollo rossa”
If you like Radishes and Spring Onions these can also been sown now.
If you have tried only one vegetable before it is likely to have been Tomatoes in a grow bag. Why grow bags ever became popular I will never know! I no longer use them but I buy a grow bag and empty the contents in to a couple of the above buckets. I then plant one Tomato to a pot. From two pots I have found I get a bigger yield than from three plants in a grow bag and they are easier to keep moist, feed, stake and harvest. If you haven’t already started to grow your own tomato plants there are still plenty around. Adequate water and feed are two essentials for a successful Tomato crop: they need at least a gallon of water a day in warm weather and up to two gallons on a hot day plus a ½ strength liquid feed twice a week. Always water in the evening if possible.
One other easy vegetable is the Courgette. These are best grown in an open sunny space. Plant out when all risk of frost is passed and treat the same as the Tomato. One plant in a good year will supply a family of three. Compare that with buying in the supermarket – plus you have lovely fresh, organic produce that is better for you and much, much tastier!
June and July are some of my favourite months not only are the Roses in full bloom but we can harvest the early sown carrots, spring onions and radishes. These, together with the lettuce we have been picking for weeks, give us a pretty good home grown salad. Plus we have our first beans and potatoes of the year and most importantly lots of the soft fruit to pick.
It’s not too late to sow all the above salads for a second crop. To do this I fill a flower bucket or any large patio container with compost to within about 30mm of the top and then sow thinly a mix of all three seeds across the top of the compost. I then cover with about 10mm of compost and water with a fine rose on a watering can. Using this method I find the Radishes mature first within 8-10 weeks, the spring onions in about 12, and the carrots after about 16 weeks. The onions also help keep away the carrot fly. Repeat sowings every 2/3 weeks means you can keep the pots going well in to the autumn.
Varieties to choose are Radish Red Globe or Sparkler, Spring Onion White Lisbon and Carrot Parmex or Paris Market or in a deep container an early Nantes type. If planted in good compost they will only need lots of watering and an occasional liquid feed. The important thing is to never let them dry out.
I grow lots of soft fruit as it is so expensive in the shops. I always have lots of redcurrants, raspberries and strawberries to pick. These do need to be grown in the ground, but this year I expect in excess of 10kgs of redcurrants from 2 bushes, similar quantities of raspberries, picking right through to early autumn. But by far the best are the strawberries. Growing most soft fruit is relatively easy as they will tolerate some shade, require little pruning and maintenance, and once established will crop for over 20 years. What’s more they fit onto the shrub border. But more about these in the autumn, when I will tell you how to plant them.
In a small space you can still grow strawberries by using a hanging basket. I obtain 3/4 good rooted runners (these are shoots that the plants send out) or 3/4 plants from a local garden centre, and plant them into a 12/14 inch hanging basket using good quality compost. This I half fill with compost and lay the plants equally spaced around the side then fill with more compost. Water well. I then add a little (5 grams) of blood fish and bone or pelleted chicken manure and treat as a normal hanging basket keeping it well watered with an occasional liquid feed. This time next year you can have your own fresh strawberries for Wimbledon week. The plants will survive outside through most winters but if you have an unheated greenhouse or conservatory you can often get fruit in late May by bringing them inside in November. Strawberries grown this way will last 2-3 years as long as they are well fed and watered: the plants by then are considered exhausted and the basket needs to be emptied and started again. Strawberries can be grown in most types of container quite successfully as long as you remember the watering and feeding.
The most important thing to remember now is watering, and even more watering in this spell of hot weather! Early July tomatoes will need up to 10 litres of water a day. Pumpkins and courgettes need a similar amount and most others vegetables need a good soaking once a day. Evening is best as the plant can absorb more moisture in the cooler late evening and night.
Finally last month I said I would be harvesting my first broad beans and early potatoes pictured below.
Find out about the series of seminars led by Robert Wiseman in the community across the south east of our county at the HL events section or visit South East Essex Organic Gardeners www.seeorg.org.uk or Garden Courses Essex www.gardencoursesessex.org.uk
Robert is also using his IT and Horticultural skills to develop a range of E-learning internet based courses using the Moodle learning environment. For further information please visit www.gardencoursesessex.org.uk