As well as the benefit of fresh tasty and interesting produce without visiting the supermarket, many people find fruit and vegetable gardening an enjoyable way to exercise and relax. Oh, they also save money!
A productive plot can be easily maintained providing you follow some golden rules.
- Only grow what you and your family like to eat, and the appropriate amounts
- Consider when it needs to be harvested, make sure this fits in with the other parts of your life. For example, if you go on holiday in August grow vegetables that crop before or after August.
Make good use of your time and grow a few vegetables well, rather than a lot of vegetables badly.
Digging-This can be almost be eliminated by separating the walking areas from the growing areas using a no-dig bed system. Create a series of beds with paths in between for easy access. Add a raised edge such as gravel boards made of pressure-treated softwood, to help prevent the beds spilling onto the paths. Once the no-dig bed is built, apply a thick mulch of well rotted organic matter each autumn, letting earthworms incorporate it into the ground for you over the winter. Although deep beds take longer to construct and prepare, they will repay the effort with time saved over the long run.
Watering-Reduce the need for watering by applying a mulch in early spring to keep moisture in the ground. Water only those crops that will benefit most. Apply the water to the rooting area, doing the job thoroughly every week-or consider investing in an automatic watering system.
Weeding-For quick results destroy perennial weeds when preparing a plot with a glyphosate-based weedkiller. For a seedbed, after preparing the ground, cover it with clear polythene to warm the soil and to encourage weed seeds to germinate. Hoe off the weed seedlings before sowing the vegetables: hoe shallowly so that you don’t bring a fresh crop of weeds to the surface. Concentrate on hoeing around young vegetables before their leaves start to touch between the rows. The crops will then create so much shade that no further weeds will germinate. Hoe on a regular basis so that weeds to not develop beyond tiny seedlings. They can be left to shrivel up and die on the soil surface. Hoe on dry sunny days only because many weeds will reroot in damp soil.
Easy to grow vegetables
Most vegetables are annuals so they need sowing or planting fresh each year. Hardy vegetables are easier to start off than tender types, which need frost protection. But tender plants such as runner beans and courgettes are easy once frosts have passed provided you grow only a few plants. You will get better yields from those that can more or less fend for themselves. See vegetable selector below.
To spread your workload during the gardens busiest time-in spring and summer-create two beds, one for hardy crops and one for frost-tender ones. Prepare and plant the one for hardy vegetables in March or April and the other at the end of May. You will then be able to stagger the work of soil preparation and planting.
Only the bed for hardy crops needs to be weeded and watered between March and the end of May, while the other is kept covered in black polythene in order to stop weed growth. This method will also give you a good spread of vegetable types.
Overwintered onions are an easy winter crop to grow. Plant them as sets in mid autumn. By late spring you can start pulling the biggest, then harvest the rest by early summer. With some crops such as runner beans and courgettes you will only need a couple of plants to get lots of produce, but you will need to pick regularly in summer.
Vegetable Easy to grow Worth the effort Keeps well in soil What to look for when choosing
Beetroot Yes Yes Bolt resistant
Broad Bean Yes Yes Short ones need less support
French Bean Yes Dwarf ones need less support
Runner Bean Yes Reliable
Calabrese Yes Easier than cauli or broccoli, more productive
Carrot Yes Yes Early varieties grow faster than main crop
Courgette Yes Compact varieties take less room and give same crop
Garlic Yes Any variety
Leaf Beet Yes Easier to grow than spinach
Leek Yes Yes Reliable
Lettuce Yes Bolt resistant
Pea Yes Mangetout-Easy to prepare
Potato Yes Early ones
Radish Yes Any variety
Spring onion Yes Reliable
Tomato Yes Bush or trailing types
Fruit pickings that require little effort
Fruit crops require less work in spring than vegetables and, once established, they require little attention and will bear rich rewards for many years. You can reduce maintenance time by choosing easy care fruit and by growing them in the correct situation. The best site to grow most fruit is one that gets sun for at least half the day, but is sheltered, with well drained soil that retains moisture in summer.
An apple tree makes a good focal point in a garden. Choose a half standard with a 1.2m trunk. After planting and staking, lay a sheet mulch. Disguise black plastic with bark chippings, but wool-mix sheets look acceptable as they are. A sheet mulch will prevent weeds from competing with the young fruit tree for moisture and nutrients, so less time needs to be spent on improving the soil.
Sunny fences or walls are an ideal site for trained fruit such as plums or pears. Although training involves a little extra work and skill, the benefits include an attractive cover to the fence with two seasons of interest. By training the tree you will make picking the fruit easier. Cordon apple or pear trees can be a productive alternative to a conventional screen or barrier in a garden. You will need full access on at least one side for pruning and tying in new growth to supporting wires.
A walk in fruit cage is an excellent time saving investment. It keeps birds off the crop all year round and removes the need to net each individual bush.
The easiest fruits to grow
Apples, raspberries, redcurrants and strawberries are easy to cultivate as well as being useful in the kitchen.
Apples are hardy and suitable for most soils-even neglected trees produce some crops.
Pears are less hardy and need more shelter and warmth than apple trees. They can however be trained as single-stemmed cordons against a warm wall.
Plums blossom early so they are prone to frost damage. Varieties of plums that are fan-trained are easier to protect from frost because you will be able to use netting. Choose self-fertile varieties such as Victoria or Czar so that only one tree needs to be grown.
Bush and soft fruit
Blackberries are too vigorous for most gardens, although unlike most other fruit they tolerate wind and shade.
Hybrid berries, such as the thornless loganberry, are tasty and pretty in flower. They can be trained against a sunny fence.
Blackcurrants are easy to grow but are fiddly to pick. The fruit is of limited use fresh, but makes excellent jam and desserts.
Redcurrants are sweeter than blackcurrants and easy to grow. However protection from birds is essential. Cordon trained plants produce the heaviest crops and are easiest to pick, prune and protect from raiding birds.
Gooseberries are spiny, so picking and pruning can be unpleasant. Vertical cordons produce larger fruit which is easier to pick. Like currants they need to be shaded from hot summer sun. Thin fruit in early summer and use the small, unripe fruit for cooking, leaving the rest to mature on the plant. The plants are long lived.
Raspberries are easy to pick and very versatile. Summer-fruiting types are usually grown in a line with a wire support. After fruiting the old canes are cut out and the new canes tied in. The easiest to grow are the autumn-fruiting varieties such as ‘Autumn Bliss’. They need no supports and are simply cut down to ground level in February.
Strawberries crop a few months after planting, making them a popular choice of fruit. They grow best planted through a mulch of black polythene in mounds of raised earth. Use cloches or netting to protect them from birds. Plant new stock every two to four years on a new site. Alpine strawberries make pretty easy plants for shaded areas of the garden. The fruits are small and tasty but not juicy.