Wondering how to start a vegetable garden, and what you can do now to prepare for the year ahead? Whether you are an absolute beginner or need to refresh your memory, we look at what you can be doing right now in your garden or allotment.
If you have just got a new allotment or garden, or you have made it your New Year’s resolution to grow some food, you may be wondering how to start a vegetable garden. The task can seem huge, but if you know where to start, you can start to make some steps now that will prepare you for the season to come.
January can be a strange month in the garden. As soon as the dust settles from the New Year’s celebrations, we gardeners start itching to get outside. We want to feel the soil on our fingers again, and long to see seedlings pushing up through the earth, tiny new beginnings. But for many of us, January is too early to start sowing most seeds and too wet/cold/windy to do much else.
There are a good few productive things that we can be doing in January to prepare for the year ahead, whether you are starting a vegetable garden or heading into a new season with your existing garden. Please remember that you don’t have to do all of these things at once. You can easily start out with a single bed and expand from there.
HOW TO START A VEGETABLE GARDEN
Starting a vegetable garden requires two things. First, you will need some space. This can be anything from a vast field to a few small containers on a windowsill or patio and anything in between. Second, you will need to know what you want to grow. The answer to this second question may be an enthusiastic “EVERYTHING!”, but you are going to have to narrow that down a little!
Your space will determine what you can grow. If you are starting out, even if you have a large space, I recommend you start with a modest selection of crops. It’s better to have a few good successes than to fail at everything. Tending closely to just a few crops will allow you to learn how to care for them, and about your space. You will get a feel for the climatic conditions, soil conditions and pests you are likely to encounter. I recommend you try some easy crops for beginners. Try perennial crops, woody herbs and fruit trees and bushes for low-maintenance food.
PREPARE FOR THE YEAR AHEAD
Once you know what you will be growing, and where, the next step is to prepare your vegetable patch. This can be done at any time of the year. It’s a great idea to build any beds, fill containers and build structures before you start tending to seedlings. Not only will this give you a better idea of your space, but it also frees up your time when spring is upon us.
Do not feel as though you need to do all of these things at once. It is perfectly fine to start by building a single raised bed and expand from there. A vegetable garden will always be a work in progress, so aim towards what you want for now and accept that some things can easily be changed. I do recommend making a rough plan, though. This will give you a good idea of where things will go, so you don’t end up having to move the big things around.
PLANNING YOUR VEGETABLE GARDEN
When planning your vegetable garden, you need to think about the following things:
- The size and shape of your plot; measure the area and draw it to scale on a piece of paper.
- Light; where does the sunlight come from, and what areas will be in the shade or full sun?
- Access; where do you come and go, and what are your most frequent routes? In a working space such as a vegetable garden, the direct route will always be best!
- Prevailing wind; if you are in an exposed space, you may want to plant or build something to act as a windbreak.
- Soil type; does the soil regularly dry out or get flooded? If so, you may consider building raised beds instead of planting straight the ground.
- Structures; would you like a greenhouse, polytunnel, shed or fruit cage? Perhaps you would like an arch or a tunnel, a pond or a few trees. Would you like a compost bin or large compost bays? Be clear about what you would like.
- How will you use the space; do you want raised beds, straight lines, wide paths, a mix of crops or a few large beds of single crops?
Take your scale drawing and mark out any pre-existing structures, or plants you would like to keep. Trees, large blackberry bushes, fruiting shrubs, fences and ponds are among the things you may wish to leave.
PLANNING WHERE THINGS GO
Next, think about where to put your larger structures. If you want a greenhouse or polytunnel (or both), put them in the sunniest spot. These items can also act as windbreaks, providing they are properly installed. Trees will also act as windbreaks. Be mindful that polytunnels and trees will cast shadows, so orient them so as to cast the least shadow on your growing space. Sheds and composting areas can be placed in shady, sheltered spots that might not be ideal for growing.
Then think about laying out beds. Your paths should be no less than 45cm wide if you want to use a wheelbarrow. Consider access to your shed, greenhouse/polytunnel and compost area. You will need to access these things regularly, so direct paths will be your friend!
Think about the structures that you would like in your garden. January is a great time to build these structures. If you are on a tight budget, you may be able to pick up a second-hand greenhouse or polytunnel. Try a local buying and selling page, or eBay. Alternatively, you can order new. Be mindful that new greenhouses often come with a 6-8 week waiting time.
If you’re wondering whether you should choose a greenhouse or a polytunnel, there are a few differences to consider. A greenhouse is really good for raising seedlings. They are also good for growing some larger plants such as tomatoes, chillis, peppers and aubergine. Polytunnels are great for both too. Generally, greenhouses are better for raising seedlings, and polytunnels are better for planting established plants. I have both, and I grow my seedlings in my greenhouse and then transfer them, into beds in the polytunnel.
January is also a good time to put up other structures: Raised beds, compost bins or bays, arches and sheds. Take this time to build and prepare your space for the burst of life it will experience in spring.
PREPARING THE SOIL IN YOUR VEGETABLE PATCH
If you are not growing in containers, the easiest way to create a healthy growing space is with no-dig gardening. If this sounds like a daunting way to start a vegetable garden, it needn’t. No-dig is simply the practice of using the soil’s natural processes to produce good soil structure and feed your plants.
HOW TO CREATE A NO DIG BED
To create a no-dig bed, all you need to do is:
- Clear your growing space. If you’re building a bed on top of grass, cut it as short as possible. You may need to dig out pernicious perennial weeds such as brambles. Small weeds can be pulled or hoed out. DO NOT use weed killer. Aside from being terrible for the environment, it will pollute your soil and potentially affect your crops.
- Lay cardboard. Aim to cover your bed with a layer (or several if possible) of cardboard. This will suppress weeds and break down over time, adding to your soil structure.
- Add compost on top. Use a thick layer of compost on top of the cardboard. The more you can apply, the better, but aim for a minimum of 2cm. You can use well-rotted manure, garden compost or store-bought peat-free compost such as my favourite, Dalefoot Composts.
- Frame the beds. You may find that your compost gets distributed around by weather and little creatures at first. So it’s a good idea to put something around your bed to hold in the compost. Logs, bricks or a raised bed frame around the bed will help hold it in place. Over time it will become much more stable, and you can remove this frame if you wish.
Once you have followed this process, you can plant into the bed straight away. Alternatively, you can leave it to “bed in” for as long as you need to raise your seedlings.
Prepare containers with fresh compost just before you need to use them, and ensure that there is ample drainage.
Paths are important in a vegetable garden. In an ornamental garden, we are encouraged to create a journey through the garden. We want to take in all parts of the garden. When you start a vegetable garden, you will soon find that you take the direct route, wherever your paths are. I planned my first allotment with lines of beds and straight paths, but still found myself leaping over beds in the middle of summer. Especially when you are working, and need regular trips to the compost area, you will be grateful for straight paths.
Build your paths out of whatever you have available, but there are a few pitfalls to consider. Woodchip is great but breaks down quite quickly and will need regular refreshing. It can also harbour woodlice. Bark chip is slightly harder wearing and my favourite medium for paths. However, it is more expensive than woodchip that can often be sourced for free. Stones or shingles can be good, but may be expensive, and can be difficult to keep weed-free after a while. You can’t hoe a gravel path, but you can hoe wood or bark chip.
Paving slabs are a good option, but they can also get weedy, depending on how well-laid they are. Be mindful of putting very permanent paths, like concrete or paving paths, in your first year. You may find the path position isn’t right as you start to use the space.
STARTING A VEGETABLE GARDEN
There is a lot to consider here. If your vegetable garden is particularly overgrown, you may want to measure up, plan and do it little by little. Build a single bed and go from there, you don’t need to build a shed, plant an orchard and set up a 3-bay compost bin at all, let alone first thing. But of course, if you are keen and have the time, off you go! Once you have your structures in place or planned out, and at least one bed or container prepared, you are ready to get growing.
The next step is to plan your planting, and order or source your seeds and plants. We will cover this topic next week.
WHAT IS THE BEST MONTH TO START A VEGETABLE GARDEN?
There is no better time than right now. It doesn’t even matter when right now is! There are crops that you can sow and harvest almost all year round, so you can build a bed and get growing whenever you like.
I think that starting in mid-winter, around January, is a great time. We are just heading towards the growing season, but with plenty of time to plan, order seeds and plants, establish bare-root trees and shrubs and build your beds. Most seeds can be sown between mid-February and mid-April, so if you want to make the most of the summer – get started now.
HOW DO YOU MAKE A VEGETABLE GARDEN STEP BY STEP?
- Choose your location.
- Plan your site, where you will put any structures and beds in relation to light, access and pre-existing features.
- Choose what you want to grow.
- Build your beds.
- Sow seeds; make sure you are sowing at the right time of year, and keep your seeds protected.
- Plant out your seedlings. When they are 3-4 inches tall (this will differ from plant to plant), and temperatures are right (check if your seedlings will be frost hardy or wait for the last frost to pass), you can plant out your seedlings.
- Water and tend to your crops, and you will soon have food to harvest!
It is as simple as that, but you will need to follow care instructions for each individual crop you choose to grow.
HOW DO YOU PREPARE THE SOIL FOR A VEGETABLE GARDEN?
Preparing the soil with no-dig gardening is easy using the method described above. However, if your soil is particularly compacted, waterlogged, sandy or stony, you may want to consider building raised beds. This is the easiest way to achieve good soil, without having to dig too much and disturb the life in the soil.
If you are growing in a particularly stony area, or on a patch of land with some rubble in the soil, such as in some new-build developments, you may want to dig the soil over in the first year and try to remove some of the pieces of rubble and large pieces of stone. The soil will recover from this digging in time, and it may be a worthwhile investment of your energy.