Growing your own Vegetables and Fruit
Enjoy growing and eating fresh veg and fruit when you want it.
Here, help is at hand month by month so you can see what you should be doing on your plot when growing your own vegetables and your own fruit. The weather and where you live make a huge difference to what grows, or not, but doing anything is better than nothing. Use the links above if you want specific information on a fruit or veg, or to see what you should have done last month.
Check through January and February’s notes to make sure you’ve done those jobs, but now is the start of the serious seed sowing season. Mind you, it can still snow, as it did in 2006, in mid-March, and at the end of March in 2008 for an early white Easter. 2 March 2010 had about 2cm of snow, but the sun melted it soon where it could, leaving horrid frozen pockets where it couldn’t.
This is when you can identify troublesome frost pockets in your garden, and plan accordingly, ie. No fruit trees should be planted in these spots! It was a dry March 2011 for Eastern and Central England which had only 20% of the normal rainfall. For East Anglia it was the driest March since 1929. This was then followed by the driest April on record! And then what happened? March 2012 beat that record, hosepipe bans were introduced and summer 2012 was the wettest and least sunny on record! And, you may remember that March 2012 was so warm that the fruit trees burst into blossom only to have it cruelly burned away by April frosts which resulted in the loss of lots of apple, pear and plum crops. With March 2013 being the second coldest on record the blossom stayed well hidden, and conditions were perfect when it burst into bloom, two weeks late. The summer 2013 fruit crops were fantastic. Forecasts are that the crop for 2015 will be good because of the mild late autumn 2014, delaying the blossom this spring, so it should have ideal conditions when it emerges.
If your seeds have arrived, read the packets to see when they should be sown, and start off a few in a greenhouse, growhouse or windowsill. I store my seeds in boxes marked with the month they can be first planted, then at the end of the month I move them to the next month. March, April and May's boxes are big!
You may have had your onion sets waiting patiently, and you could start to plant them out now. Ideally the soil will be warm and friable, not hard, wet and sticky. The further apart the onions are the bigger they could get - the choice is yours! But check the instructions as some onions planted out too early will bolt. Make a hole and drop the onion set in, and then just lightly push down the soil around. Cover with netting or chicken wire to stop birds pulling them out. Keep checking that they are still in the ground until they have green shoots and look settled
Anything nasty on leaves or fruit that is left about is harbouring the disease/pest for next season so check your trees and bushes and remove diseased material. Also apply tree grease/sticky tape to the main trunk of trees to trap moths and other pests that will start to appear in spring. Mulch your fruit bushes and trees with manure, or good compost. Do it for young and old alike, but don’t cover the base of the bush/tree, do it around the base to nourish and protect the soil. Prune your winter fruiting raspberry canes by cutting back to the ground – but don’t touch your summer canes!
In the veg patch, cover the soil with some mulching fabric, or cardboard, or clear plastic sheeting, to warm it up, and kill off the first weed seedlings as they kick into life. Remove the material a couple of weeks before planting and hoe off the weed seedlings that will appear. You can do this (takeoff/put back lark) a couple of times in the next few months, particularly if you are planting that area late. This should give your veg seeds a bit of breathing space to germinate and get going, before yet more weeds get going. How often you need to do this will vary depending on whether you are using new land, how much you let weeds take hold last year, and what time you have available. But mulching fabric, (or cardboard, or newspapers) is well worth the effort as when weeds take over your plot it is soul destroying. If you know the plot will not have crops for a few months, sow a green manure; but why is it going to be empty? You could put in some lettuce, radish, or rocket.
Seed beds should have that perfect soil you see in established allotments, and RHS gardens, and the secret I am told is raking. But if you can’t have a seed bed, make your plot bed as good as possible. Without standing on the soil, rake it, and rake again to prepare the perfect tilth. The reason you do not want to stand on the soil is it compacts it, or squishes it. Out goes the air that the roots need to breath, and trap water, so the plant won’t grow. Plants want loose nutritious soil to provide air, trap water and create a lovely growing environment. If you can’t stick your finger into the soil easily, it’s going to be hard going for a seedling.
Sow more seeds indoors/under cover and pot up seedlings which have come through. The fewer seeds you sow in trays the easier this is to do, and you won’t be annoyed at having to throw away seedlings that you don’t have the pots or space for. And label everything, I once planted a row of chives to be ornamental only to find they were leeks. Needless to say the leek crop flowered beautifully!
It is hard to know how much to sow, but if you read the packet’s instructions, you can calculate how many plants will fit in the area you have set aside. For an average garden or allotment plot it is not really going to matter if you sow too little, you can sow some more later (known as successional sowing) or try something else. It is far better to sow a little often, than all at once.
Outside you can sow some early varieties of vegetables (check your packet, and the weather forecast), and some early potatoes that you’ve successfully chitted. But be careful, the weather is very changeable, so be patient and keep plants covered rather than lose what you’ve just planted. If you put out potatoes and the shoots are through, make sure you cover them at night when it seems cold, frost is a killer of new shoots. I saw a TV program that tested ‘to chit, or not’ and it concluded that earlies and second earlies must be chitted, but for maincrop it’s not so important.
Tomatoes are the most popular ‘vegetable’ that we grow, and according to Organic Gardening Magazine (Winter 2008) calculating your sowing date is the route to success. You need to make sure the plant produces pollen as otherwise you’ll have no fruit. The way to calculate this is by temperature, easy in a greenhouse, less so outside. Ideally you need around 20C to ensure pollen will be produced, so when do you think this will be? Work this out and then sow your seedlings 6-8 weeks before this date (the earlier your calculated pollen date the longer the growing time). So, for an expected early July 20C temperature, sow your tomatoes mid to late May keeping them nice and warm and watered. And then of course you need to check the varieties that you want to grow... but, even in Yorkshire tomatoes grow just fine outside, with a bit of protection, a nice sunny wall and plenty of mulching and feeding. Sadly blight completely wiped out our whole tomato crop in summer 2008, 2009 and 2010. At the start of August the trusses were set and going red and it looked wonderful. By September they’d turned to a sad black, rotten mess.
Supports that plants such as peas and beans will need can be put up now. It will make you feel you are doing something even though it could be a couple of months before they are needed. Things like pea sticks (birch or beech twigs) can be gathered on walks, but you can do this bit by bit, so long as you remember. All the catalogues sell pea and bean supports, but you can be creative and make your own; try growing some willow, or hazel to coppice to make supports.
If you have lots of slugs and snails, put in some pest barriers now, and check them to remove the pests so they are not lying in wait for your plants. Try using plastic plant pots with the bottom cut out as a barrier for young plants, beer jars and upturned grapefruits as traps. I think slugs and snails are creatures of habit, so learn these habits and launch your ‘seek and destroy’ mission before planting out your precious, and vulnerable seedlings. You can buy nematodes (microscopic worms) that kill off slugs and snails. You just water them into your soil, and if the instructions are followed they are successful. I haven’t used them, for no reason other than I don’t like the thought.
Plant this month:
At the plot in March 2007 we were harvesting endless purple sprouting broccoli and curly kale. In March 2008 the plot let us pick the last of leeks, kale, chard. At home the chives were peeping through and we could pick rocket, kale, and the last cabbage. March 2009 started off cold, but had lots of warm sunny days and by the end I was picking rocket and chives, and salad leaves from the coldframe, and still Brussels Sprouts! The plot gave up the last of the Beetroot and leeks, and Jerusalem Artichokes. 2010 saw sun in March, quite a lot of it in fact, but there was still snow at the start, ice at night, and cold winds. The grass started growing around 20 March, as did the weed seedlings. The last of the parsnips were dug out as they started to sprout again, and some delicious last carrots were eaten. The new spring brassicas are growing, but not supplying much yet, and the rhubarb has some pink stems just peeping through. Asparagus plants are due, and the potatoes have chitted, ready to go out in April. Chives are peeping through at home, and the lettuce seeds have been sown. In March 2011 the days were wonderfully warm and sunny, but there was often a heavy frost at night. The last leeks were lifted and sadly the brassicas are very small, but those that survived the winter must be hardy, so hopefully they will succeed. Lots of chitted potatoes have been planted, and sweet pink rhubarb was picked and eaten. I spotted a finger sized asparagus spear on a plant whose roots appeared fully exposed! At home the chives are through. March 2012 was warm, dry, sunny, with heavy frost at night. Rhubarb was tender and sweet, and the one plant now produces lots of stems housed in an old chimney pot. The cabbages, purple sprouting broccoli and Brussels sprouts started to bolt as the last were picked, and the chard kept going. Chives are peeping through, as is the fennel, and the fruit bushes are in leaf. There was nothing to pick in March 2013, as nothing had got going in 2012 with all the rain. But, the rhubarb stalks are there and trying! March 2014 was warm some days, wet on others, with occasional frost, in other words, Ok really. Chives are through, fruit bushes are sprouting, and seedlings are germinating in the greenhouse.