The British are reputed to be a nation of gardeners, yet one seldom finds home-grown vegetables on the table of the average British household. Possibly, there is a reason.
Vegetables of the common kinds—cabbages and peas, beans and marrows—are so cheap to buy in their season that most small garden owners do not think it worth while to cultivate them and give their whole attention to the aesthetic side of gardening.
This argument is sound, as far as it goes, but it results in a deplorable monotony in vegetable diet, for the rarer vegetables, because they are not grown in gardens, become rarer still, and the prices almost prohibitive. I should like to see globe artichokes in suburban gardens as they may be seen in the cottage gardens of France, and a bed of asparagus to each family garden on the new housing estates.
Even those who prefer to limit their efforts in kitchen gardening to the more common vegetables could do much better than they usually do, if a little more discrimination and a little more care were exercised.
The main points to concern the gardener are these :—
1. A vegetable plot should be mainly open to full sunshine.
2. The plot or plots should be arranged so that lines of vegetables can run north and south, or nearly so, and so that these lines shall not be too long.
3. Paths through the vegetable garden should be made to take a heavily loaded wheelbarrow, and should not be of grass, which harbours slugs. Gravel paths, paving, or breeze on well-rolled foundations are suitable.
4. A frame or frames are an almost essential adjunct to the vegetable plot if the plot is to keep a family supplied all the year round with vegetables. There should also be, within reasonable distance, a place to store manure—preferably under cover, though manure can be stored in the open under a covering of soil—and a tool and potting shed where tools, insecticides and artificial fertilizers can be stored dry. If this shed is large enough for the storage of root crops in winter, it will make for greater comfort and save much labour.
5. If a vegetable garden is partly in view from the main flower garden, it should be contrived so that the paths are flower-lined, and add a vista of beauty. Flowers alongside the plots of vegetables are often very useful for cutting, so that the main garden borders are not robbed for the vases.
Vegetable gardens should be planned; they should not seem accidental or afterthoughts. In an ideal garden there would be three or four plots devoted to annual crops, one plot for use as a nursery bed, and sufficient room for the cultivation of perennial vegetables such as asparagus and artichokes. It is sometimes convenient to wall in the vegetable garden, and when this is done the annual crops are well placed in the middle, open portion, while the nursery bed, a salad bed, herbs and perennial or permanent crops occupy the long side borders. The walls are used for trained fruit trees such as apricots, nectarines, peaches and dessert pears.
The reason for the allotment of three or four separate plots for the main vegetables raised annually is that by so doing a proper rota-don can be arranged and thus effect an economy in manuring. The principle of rotation of crops is that each crop takes from the soil only a proportion of the various plant foods present, and that the proportion of each varies according to the crop. If the same crop is not grown on the same ground a second season, it is not necessary to use so much extra plant food. For instance, plants of the pea and bean family have the habit of forming nodules on their roots. In these nodules are bacteria which have the power to fix nitrogen in the soil and make it into assimilable plant food. If the peas and beans are cut off just above the soil level after the crop is gathered, and the roots dug into the ground, the soil will be richer in soluble nitrates for the succeeding crop. It will therefore need less nitrogenous fertilizer, and
will be in a good condition for the cultivation of all green crops that need plenty of nitrates.
The average home gardener does not want to go too deeply into plant chemistry—if he does, there are specialized books available on the subject. But he does want to appreciate the reasons underlying garden practices, otherwise he may be tempted to shirk small but important tasks, such as this one of planning a rotation.
Intensive culture is a gardening term often associated with rotation of crops. This simply means that no part of the plot should ever be idle, except when it is under the spade,” and by no part of the plot I mean no part, not even the unoccupied space between rows of newly sown seeds. For instance, potatoes (which, by the way, are the finest possible crop for virgin soil, because they help to break and clean it properly) can be followed immediately by April-sown broccoli. The broccoli is sown in the nursery plot, and planted out after the final earthing up of the potatoes, or after the first earlies have been harvested. Celery or leeks could also be planted out to follow the potatoes, or small salads, spinach, or other quick maturing summer crops could be sown between potato rows.
The broccoli is harvested during winter and spring, and the ground is then sown with beet, carrots and parsnips, most of which will be harvested the next autumn, though the parsnips will remain for winter digging.
Early peas, broad beans and onions (autumn sown) might occupy the ground the third year, and after the ground has been well dug in winter, potatoes, celery and leeks would occupy it during the fourth summer. The other plots would take a similar succession beginning with a different group, so that a complete supply of vegetables would be available each year without any part of the soil being either overworked or left fallow.
The keen cultivator will be ever on the alert for an opportunity to sow a catch crop of some quick maturing salad, such as radishes or lettuce, or a row of spinach, and will find that this method not only allows for a maximum yield of produce, but also tends to save labour. This it does because the frequent preparation of the soil for the sowing of catch crops prevents the appearance of weeds, and to a limited extent takes the place of hoeing.
The nursery plot in the kitchen garden is of great importance. It pays the gardener to get this going at the earliest opportunity. The ground should be dug deeply and carefully, all weeds being removed as the digging proceeds. This is much more important here than on the larger plots, where the hoe can be used.
It is not wise as a general rule to sift soil so that no stones are present. Stones do much to assist good drainage, the plant roots do not mind them, but find them cool and moist in the dry weather. And even surface stones, so long as they are not large enough to interfere with the use of the hoe, are best ignored, as they prevent excessive evaporation. Instances are known where cultivators have stripped fields of stones, employing a band of boys for the purpose, only to find that they had to take the stones back and dig them in again before plants would grow well!