01/12/2015 12:00 AM
We’ve just had a battering from Hurricane Barney, the weather is getting colder and the days are getting shorter.
The inconveniences aside (and it’s actually quite nice to get outside on the nicer days, and blow the cobwebs away), at this time of year you have a few advantages on your side. The first is time - you’ve got quite a few weeks until the main growing season starts and you can get your groundwork done without feeling pressured. Nothing much is growing and what is growing is growing slowly, which means it’s easier to keep on top of weeds in the winter. And the ground is wet (unless it’s frozen!) which (as long as it’s not too wet) can make weeding and digging much easier.
Plus, the new vegetable seed and plant catalogues have just come out, so when the weather is really horrid you can stay inside with your garden plan and work out what to spend your Christmas money on.
First, you need to choose where to put your new veg patch. Most of us don’t have much choice in the matter - gardens are small and we may even be limited to a few pots on the patio. That’s OK, gardening is all about working with what you have. (If you want to branch out, now is probably a really good time to get your name on the waiting list for an allotment - ahead of all those people who will have the same thought in spring!)
Imagine what that spot will be like in spring and in summer. Is it sheltered, or exposed? Will it get full sun, some hours of sun, or is it very shady? These things govern what will grow in a particular area - some plants need a lot more light than others, and they won’t thrive in the wrong conditions.
What’s there at the moment? Are there ornamental plants that need to be removed? Are you taking up paving slabs to make some growing space? Do you want, or need, to put in raised beds, so that you have some depth of soil? In some gardens, particularly new builds, there’s not much topsoil for plants to root into. If you’re taking up slabs, or digging up shrubs, then the soil underneath will need building up.
Now is the time to invest in a compost bin, or build yourself a compost heap. Read up about composting, and learn to love the fact that vegetable peelings, cardboard tubes and plant waste can be recycled into the best plant food there is! (I’ve got a great guide to choosing the right composting option for you on my website.) Although the composting process slows down in the cold days of winter, it carries on - and by spring you could have enough compost on hand to jump start your veg patch.
It’s also a good time to put in a water butt. Or two. Plants love rainwater more than anything else (and, unlike metered mains water, it's free!). It's amazing how much water you can go through in a dry summer, and a full butt or two at the start of the year can go a long way to keeping your garden hydrated. If you're a practical sort then you can even use them to put together a drip watering system, so you won't ever have to get out there with a watering can.
With the groundwork and preparation underway, it’s time for the fun part - planning what you’re going to plant. It can be as simple as a list of crops you’d like to grow, or as complicated as a proper project plan with sowing and harvesting times and a scale map of the area showing exactly what is going to be planted in which spot at any time of the year. People generally say that, in a vegetable garden, you should grow what you want to eat - and it’s not bad advice. Why would you grow something you weren’t going to eat? But I like to experiment a bit and try new things each year - you never know when you’re going to come across something that becomes a firm family favourite!
In the first year you don’t have to worry about crop rotation. In later years it’s a good idea to make sure that you don’t keep planting the same crop or type of crop in the same place. This is because it will exhaust the soil of nutrients, ensure all of the pests and diseases know where to find their favourite plants, and can encourage weed problems. Moving things around keeps things healthy (and adds another layer of excitement to plot planning, if that’s what floats your boat).
Your plan should take into account what you know about your plot in terms of sun and shade and soil depth, so that each plant is grown in the best possible place
Don’t worry about making mistakes - plants are remarkably resilient and just want to grow. They need a helping hand from us, but they know what they’re doing. If something doesn’t work out this year, then try again next year. Every garden, and every gardener, is different and being a good gardener is simply a case of taking the time to find out what works for you, in your new garden.
Oh, and start small. It’s much easier to get the hang of a small plot and there’s more chance of your vegetable garden becoming a permanent part of your life if you don’t get overwhelmed at the beginning.
Emma Cooper has been gardening, and blogging, since the dawn of the new millennium. She’s utterly smitten with edible and useful plants, and is never happier than when she’s in the garden, up to her elbows in compost. She’s in the process of building a new garden, and you can follow her progress on her gardening blog, The Unconventional Gardener.