‘If well managed, nothing is more beautiful than a kitchen garden’.
- William Cobbett
Many budding gardeners with small plots have often remarked that they don’t know how or where to begin when contemplating growing vegetables for the first time. So yours truly has devised a cunning plan to get you started.
If you have a small garden and can spare a bit of ground 6ft by 4ft, surrounded by a grass or slabbed path, try the following method.
The best time to start is in late autumn by preparing the bed so that the soil will be broken down by the winter frosts.
Double dig your 6ft by 4ft plot.
No, this does not mean you need to dig it twice, you will only need to do this once! Double digging such a small area should not be too hard and should not take too long.
Start by making a trench to the full depth of the spade across the width of the bed. Place the soil in a wheelbarrow for use later. Next loosen the soil in the bottom of the trench with a garden fork. This breaks up the ground and aids drainage. Move back and turn over the next row of soil placing it into the empty trench, repeat the forking of the bottom of the new trench. Continue until the last row when you should have an empty trench, the bottom of which has been loosened with the fork. Place the soil you saved in the wheelbarrow from the first row into the trench.
You will now have the satisfaction of knowing that your little plot will not need digging again for a few years provided you do not walk on the bed. Being only 6ft by 4ft it will be easy to reach all parts of the bed without your feet trampling and compacting the soil.
It is good to add some ‘organic matter’ when you dig a bed for the first time. Organic gardeners will have a supply of home made compost available, but if you are new to gardening you might not have a compost bin. It’s good to start one as soon as you can!
In place of garden compost you can use one of the many commercial composts available, but if you want to be organic then you should avoid all peat-based products.
Do not fill the trench with compost as you need fine soil for seeds in the top couple of inches, many organic gardeners spread organic matter on the soil and leave over winter. This helps to prevent damage from heavy rain and gets the compost where it is most needed.
If you are starting in Spring you will need to rake out your newly dug soil and then rake in some compost. How much you use will depend upon the condition of your soil. When you have finished digging you can edge the bed with timber board or other suitable material. The board should be 4″-6″ deep. This will raise your bed to allow for organic matter to be added in the future.
Ready to roll.
When the seedbed is ready for planting mark off your 6 by 4 plot into 6, 2 by 2 squares thus…
You can use a variety of methods and I suggest using wooden pegs and string. Remember to place the pegs at 2ft intervals on all sides. This will give you 6, 2ft squares, each of which can be planted with a different crop. The small size of the beds makes it much easier to manage the crops.
Choosing what to grow in your new bed might appear difficult.
To start, there is a general rule that tall crops should be planted in the squares on the north edge of the bed with progressively smaller crops in the remaining rows of squares until the smallest occupy the row facing south.
This ensures that the small plants are not shaded by taller ones.
Check seed packets for heights of full grown plants.
As a rough guide, tomatoes, climbing beans, broad beans and peas are likely to be the tallest and lettuce the shortest. Plants like beetroot and carrots are in-between.
When you have decided what to plant in each of the 6 squares you can begin to open the seed packets. It is wise to follow the instructions about how and when to plant.
However it is important not to follow the instructions regarding the spacing of plants printed on the seed packet as this technique uses its own spacing within the 2ft squares.
A good seed sowing technique, is ‘station sowing’.
Using a stick, make a small hole at the required depth for the seed. Space out the holes so that you get the plant density for the crop. For example, for carrots make 32 equally spaced holes in your 2ft square. Next, drop 2-5 seeds into each hole as germination may be irregular. Do not forget to add a label or keep a record of what is planted in each 2ft square.
One of the most effective ways of avoiding trouble is to cover the crop with fleece as soon as the seed is sown. With only 2ft squares to protect this is easy. You can also make small cloches or covers for your crops from plastic sheet or small pieces of glass. This is a good way of warming up a small area for a crop that will not tolerate cold. Or you could make a cover for the whole bed. If all the seeds germinate, carefully thin out the weakest seedlings and leave the strongest seedling in place. Ordinary vegetable varieties at close spacing means that the plants will grow to a size allowed by the space available, they will be smaller but perfectly edible.
Each crop in a single square.
Broad beans, Mange Tout peas, Kohl Rabi, Leeks, Beetroot, Carrots, Lettuce, French beans.
This technique is equally applicable to larger plots.
What you can expect to get from your plot will depend on many factors, especially the weather. Finally, remember to harvest your crops at regular intervals. When one crop is finished plant another in its place, you might want to find out about crop rotation and start moving your plants around the bed. This technique is an ideal way to start growing your own food, it is so easy. Study the seed catalogues. Enjoy!