The empty shelves that confronted many of us at the start of the coronavirus crisis prompted more than panic. They also sparked a new thirst for knowledge about home-grown fruit and veg. Both the Royal Horticultural Society and the National Vegetable Society have reported a significant increase in people growing vegetables at home. While supermarket supplies have now stabilised, the enthusiasm for domestic vegetable gardens shows no sign of a slow-down. And why would it? Gardening is the perfect stay-at-home activity during lockdown. All that digging, weeding and planting provides plenty of al fresco exercise. It’s more economical to grow your own than buy every time. And at the end of it all, you get to enjoy the fruits of your labour – literally – with a tasty dinner. Moreover, growing your own is a healthy hobby, too. Now more than ever, we should all be eating more vegetables to help boost our immune system and keep ourselves well.
However, there are a few things to consider before you start sowing those seeds. I know, because I’ve had mixed results from my own adventures with vegetable gardening, which I started a few years ago. First of all, evaluate the position of your potential vegetable patch. Most vegetables require plenty of direct sunlight to thrive, so anything overly shady usually isn’t suitable. Healthy soil is another important element (as is adequate drainage). It’s also worth taking layout into consideration. Vegetable gardens are pretty needy – I speak from experience – so make sure you allow sufficient space to work. You’ll be watering and weeding regularly, so leave enough easy access to tread safely around, not trample all over, your precious plants.
Which vegetables to grow?
There are quite a few things to consider when choosing which vegetables to grow at home. Some crops are just easier to cultivate than others. So if you’re new to gardening, make sure you opt for something that’s suitable for first-timers. Tomatoes and cucumbers are good choices, as are leafy crops like lettuce and spinach.
Then there’s the question of space. Size matters where certain plants are concerned. If you don’t have much room, peppers and aubergines are suitable for smaller beds. Early potatoes, runner beans and tomatoes yield the most food per square metre, followed by beetroot, carrots and chard. More demanding crops, such as melon or squash, need more space to thrive. So be realistic and work with what you have.
As with comedy, timing is another key element of good gardening. Cool-weather crops can be grown in early spring, while others will not withstand any sort of frost. Luckily, as we head into July, this really isn’t a problem. So, concentrate instead on what you actually enjoy eating – and how much patience you possess! Remember, you’ll have to wait for three to four months to harvest crops like carrots. Whereas radishes – one of the fastest and easiest vegetables to grow – take just three to four weeks to harvest.
Plug yourself in
I’m all for aiming high and embracing new challenges, but growing vegetables can be tricky for all sorts of reasons. In the past, when I first set up my vegetable patch, I tried – and failed miserably – to grow everything from seeds. I quickly learned that plug plants are the way forward, especially if you’re new to the gardening game. These are seedlings which have been germinated and grown in trays by professionals. When the roots are big enough, these plugs can either be transferred to larger pots, or planted directly into the ground. This removes a lot of the guesswork about germination and timing! But it still allows you to join in the joy of growing.
This year, I ordered courgettes, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas and aubergines from Marshalls Gardens. I’ve experimented already with these crops, so know what works (and what doesn’t!) in terms of sunlight and positioning. Growing vegetables is a learning curve, but hugely rewarding when you get it right!
It’s still possible to grow your own vegetables at home, even if you don’t have a garden. Sunny balconies are brilliant for easy container vegetables such as beans, tomatoes, lettuce and peppers. Most beans are climbers, and really easy to grow. Plant them in a big enough pot, and you could even grow spinach or celery in the base!
Cherry tomatoes are a great choice for balcony gardens. They’re lower maintenance, easy to grow and tend to produce lots of fruit per growing season. Lettuce is another crop that likes pots and grows up quickly. Most varieties have shallow roots so they don’t need deep soil, just frequent watering and adequate drainage.
Not blessed with a balcony? Windowsill herbs can be surprisingly resilient – try chives, mint and even oregano. Another option to spice up your cooking, using limited growing space, is chillies. This starter set includes pots, compost discs and five different types of chilli seeds.
Easy crops for growing vegetables at home
Still not sure which vegetables to grow? This handy at-a-glance features five fabulous options for any novice gardener:
SALAD LEAVES Easy to grow and fast to harvest. Sow throughout the summer. Try rocket and spinach, as well as lettuce.
ONIONS Endlessly versatile, and practically maintenance-free to grow. Don’t over-water.
PEAS Fairly fuss-free, and not fazed by cooler weather. Need some support as they grow.
TOMATOES Easy to grow from seeds or plugs. Can even be planted in hanging baskets! Site somewhere warm and sunny to ripen.
BEETROOT Another versatile root vegetable, likes moist soil so water regularly in dry weather. Sow little and often, and harvest when young and tender.
Good luck – and bon appétit!