Gardening For Food

The cultivation of vegetable and fruit crops provides healthy exercise, helps the housekeeping budget and produces good, wholesome food. For ease of cultivation and crop-rotation planning, vegetable crops are divided into three types; pod, bulb and stem crops (beans, peas, onions, leeks and celery); root crops (potatoes, turnips, carrots, beetroot); and green crops (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale).

For pod, bulb and stem crops, deeply dig and generously manure the ground, ideally in autumn. Digging and the addition of fertilizer is usually adequate for root crops, although potatoes benefit from manuring. Carrots, parsnips and beetroot tend to be misshapen and split when grown on freshly manured ground. Green crops need well-limed, firm land and fertilizer rather than manure, but there must be at least a one- to two-month interval between the application of ground limestone, at 200 g/m2, and compound fertilizer, at 100 g/m2.

SEED SOWING

Seeds are offered for sale uncoated, much as they are in nature, or pelleted. Pelleted seeds are covered with a chemical preparation to feed and protect them from pests and diseases. Though expensive, pelleted seeds are easier to sow individually and they eliminate the need for thinning later on.

Drills that are V-shaped are used for small, fine seed. Peas are sown in broad, flat drills, 5 cm (2 in.) deep and 10-15 cm (4-6 in.) wide.

After the seeds are covered and firmed, place netting or cotton over the drills to discourage birds. Sow beans in narrow, 5-7.5cm (2-3in.) deep drills, taken out with a draw hoe and filled with fine soil after sowing. Always mark the end of each row with a label noting the crop and date on which it was sown.

If you are sowing a tender crop, then you must wait until all threat of frost has passed. You can get a quicker start if you warm up the seedbed soil beforehand by placing cloches over where you intend to sow. Do this about a fortnight before the sowing date, and leave them there once the seeds have been put in.

PLANTING

Planting out is a critical stage in the growth of any plant. Do it with care.

Always water seedlings and small plants thoroughly, both before and after planting. A calm, dull, showery day is best for planting out, and always plant at the same depth as before their move. Most planting is done with a trowel, but small cabbages and leeks are better planted with a dibber. Their roots are not widespreading when young and planting with a dibber saves time. Place leek seedlings 5-10 cm (2-4 in.) deep in dibber holes, water them in, but do not firm.

Plant onion and shallot sets with a trowel, with their tops, or shoulders, level with the soil surface.

THINNING AND CARE

Vegetables sown in situ often need thinning, in two or more stages. Start as soon as the seedlings are large enough to handle. The space between each remaining plant at this stage should be one third to one half the final distance required. Thin again as soon as the leaves of adjoining seedlings touch, disturbing the remaining plants as little as possible. Remove all traces of thinnings, particularly of carrots and onions, to avoid attracting carrot fly and onion fly.

Subsequent care consists mainly of hoeing and weeding the ground regularly, and watering young plants and those bearing heavy crops, particularly during periods of dry weather.

Runner beans, courgettes and tomatoes can give increased yields when fed with diluted liquid fertilizer; begin watering in fertilizer at pod-forming and fruit-swelling stages respectively. Hoe in 70 g/m2 of balanced compound fertilizer around spring cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli during late February or early March.

Peas, runner beans and tomatoes usually require supports. Push in twiggy pea sticks among pea seedlings, or provide stakes and netting. Poles for runner beans should be in position at sowing or planting time. Stake and tie tomatoes when setting them out in their final positions. Remove the side shoots of tall tomato varieties when they appear and cut out the growing point at the second leaf beyond the fourth truss. Bush types of tomatoes do not usually need side-shooting, staking, tying or stopping, but place straw under the fruit to protect it and keep it clean.

POTATOES

In late winter, prepare, or chit, seed potatoes. Put them in shallow trays in a light, frost-free place to sprout. Those the size of hens’ eggs are best, although larger tubers can be split before planting; be sure each piece contains two healthy sprouts. Plant when the sprouts are 2.5-5 cm (1-2 in.) long, sprout end up.

Plant from March onwards in 10-15 cm (4-6 in.) deep drills. Potatoes are frost tender, so in cold seasons or districts, delay may be necessary. Ideally the soil should have been manured the previous autumn. If this was not done, top-dress the soil with 5 cm (2 in.) of well-rotted manure, after backfilling the trench. Begin earthing up immediately, to protect the shoots and tubers from damage by heavy frosts.

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