Save money by swapping your ornamental garden plants for food producers

With the price of fresh and frozen vegetables in the shops rising not only year by year but almost week by week, no wonder so many gardeners are stripping out ornamental plants or taking large areas of the lawn up in order to grow their own vegetables. Food prices really rocketed in 1976 because of the drought; but because of that drought many vegetables will be even scarcer in future. There really is no greater money-saving action you can take right now than deciding to grow your own vegetables. Exactly the same goes for fruit.

In hard cash terms the savings are huge. Taking last year’s prices, here are some worked examples to illustrate this. And don’t forget, though the price of a packet of seed may have increased fractionally, the price of the food in shops whether fresh or frozen will have risen even more.

A packet of lettuce seed will cost you around 1 5p. You’ll need 4 packets for an average family — that’s 60p. Then you’ll need fertilizers, slug pellets etc. So your total outlay will come to about £1-50. Assuming you do everything right and can harvest the whole crop, it will give you a yield that would have cost you about £25 in the shops, so you’ve saved yourself about £23-50. That’s just on one commonplace crop.

Take runner beans. Assuming that the seeds cost you about £1, that fertilizers and so on cost about another £1, and replacement canes about another £1 – that’s a total outlay of £3. You would have to pay about £14 in the shops for the yield you could expect to harvest between late July and September. You would have to pay about £46 for the same yield at frozen food prices.

You could save over £50 on just two crops. Think how much this could be if you were to grow all the vegetables you need. Enough to pay for your summer holiday. On many vegetables you can get a return of 1,500% on your initial investment in a packet of seed.

Add to that the satisfaction of producing your own food in your own garden, the convenience of having fresh vegetables literally just down the garden path, and the chance to harvest them when they’re at the peak of perfection, and you’ll see that you gain more than just a huge cash saving by growing your own.

There’s another point too. The vegetables you plant yourself may really taste better than the ones you buy in the shops. This is not just autosuggestion. Varieties that reach the shops have to match up to many standards. They have to be the right colour to have ‘consumer appeal’; they have to travel well; and they have to last well under supermarket conditions. These requirements are quite often incompatible with the finest possible flavour. In your own garden you can go all out for varieties that will taste good, and not worry about supermarket standards.

Besides, if you spend most of your life bent double over a desk, you’ll enjoy the exercise that goes with gardening, enjoy being in the open air and you’ll derive enormous satisfaction from the sense of a job well done.

And if you’re worried that all this is pipe dreaming because there may be another drought next summer, don’t worry, we’ll tell you how to cope with that too.

Soil

Whatever your soil, you’ll probably wish it was different, you’ll certainly wish it was better.

Almost any soil can be improved by the addition of copious quantities of organic matter — farmyard manure, garden compost or peat. These materials make heavy soils lighter, easier to work. They make light soils retain moisture better. In both cases they help produce a better crop.

When applying these organic substances the important thing is not to scatter a little here and there all over the vegetable plot. What is needed is a liberal application in one place. Ideally you need to put a layer 7-5 cm/3 in thick on whatever part of the vegetable plot most seems to need it. If the whole plot needs this treatment, apply it section by section, year by year. The best plan is to divide your plot into three sub-plots – you’ll need to do that in order to rotate your crops anyway. Apply the organic matter to the plot in which you are going to grow the heavy feeders — usually the greens (cabbage, cauliflower, kale, sprouts and so on). Since this area will move on year by year the whole of your vegetable growing area will get well fed in three years.

The golden rule with these organic materials is that they should not be dug into the soil, they should be put on top of it. Rain will then wash the goodness into the soil, and earthworms and other soil organisms will gradually mix this surface dressing with the soil. So put the organic matter on top of the soil in winter after you have dug the plot over. Only turn it into the soil when you dig the plot over again the following winter.

Digging

Every vegetable plot needs to be dug over once every year. If you imagine that this is a painfully back-breaking job, forget that idea. It isn’t. It’s just that no one ever told you how to dig properly. The important thing to remember when digging is that you should stand erect over your spade. Push the spade into the ground with one foot and with your arms: the effort should go through your shoulders, elbows, wrists, downwards into the soil. Lift the spade load of soil by bending at the knees and elbows, not by bending the small of your back. If you dig properly your arms and shoulders may get tired, but you won’t end up with a back so stiff you can’t stand up straight for a week.

Dig over your vegetable plot to the depth of one spade. Start by taking out a single row one spade deep: put the soil into a wheel barrow and take it to the other end of the vegetable plot. Then turn the second row into the space left by the soil you removed from the first row. Turn the soil from the third row into the space left by the second row. And so on down the vegetable plot. Finally fill in the space left by the row at the end of the plot with soil from the first row you dug.

When you are digging over the plot, you can turn in any annual weeds. But take care to remove completely any perennial weeds.

The best time to dig over your vegetable garden is in autumn, once the crops are out of the ground but before the heavy rains begin. Never dig immediately after rain: you’ll compact the ground and find it twice as difficult to work. Only dig in open weather. There’s no need to dig over the whole plot at one go. Spread the job out over several weekends. As you turn the soil, leave it in lumps and chunks: that way frost and rain will crumble it to a fine texture. The only time you need break up the clods is if you dig in spring, when it’s too late for frost and rain to crumble the clods.

Composting

With organic manures becoming more difficult to obtain, more people are making their own compost. Ideally you need three bins: one full and ready for use; one filled and composting; and one being filled. It is important that the bins have their bottoms raised off the ground so that the air can circulate under the heap. There should also be holes in the sides so that air can get in there too. A bin 1-2 m x 12 m/4 ft x 4 ft will produce 100 kg/1 ton of compost in one year. That’s a lot of compost.

Your bin should be filled with waste matter such as lawn clippings, green weeds, dry weeds, yellowing leaves from the ripening vegetables, peelings, and eggshells. Generally woody materials take far longer to rot than green waste. Twigs from hedge clippings take about eight times as long as soft green waste. If you have a shredder, shred clippings like these into small lengths.

Once you’ve got an even layer about 1 5-20 cm/6-8 in deep, close it off with a 5 cm/2 in layer of garden soil, manure, peat, leaf-mould or some similar non-green substance. You can add an activator at this stage — many brands are available. Use according to the maker’s instructions. Its purpose is to help feed the bacteria which break down the green material into rich brown compost. Keep the heap always damp, never wet. Aim for the consistency of a wet sponge. In high rainfall areas keep the bin covered; in winter cover the heap with black plastic sheeting weighted down with bricks or rocks. Keep building up the cake in layers until you reach the top of the bin. Then level it off with a layer of earth or peat. Leave it for two weeks.

During this period the compost should heat up to about 65°C/150°F, which is sufficiently hot to kill off all weed seeds, pests and diseases. If the heap gets too hot the contents will become sludgy; if it does not become hot enough weed seeds won’t be killed. When the compost is ready to use, the temperature will drop: that’s your first clue. Then it will start smelling fresh and earthy. Check by the feel of it: crumbling between your fingers.

Rotation

The term ‘rotation’ is almost, but not quite, self-explanatory. What it means is that you never grow the same type of crop on the same part of your vegetable plot for two years running.

Here’s how it works.

Divide your plot into three roughly equal areas – A, B, and C. Then lump your crops into heavy feeders, light feeders and nitrogen-producing crops. In Year 1 grow the heavy feeders in Plot A, which has been well fed with farmyard manure, compost or some other organic material; in Year 2 plant the light feeders on that plot, moving the heavy feeders onto Plot B, which will be the plot you have fed heavily that year. In Year 3 grow the nitrogen-producing crops in Plot A, the light feeders in Plot B, and the heavy feeders in Plot C, the one you have manured that winter. Then start the cycle all over again. If you’re starting a whole veg- etable garden from scratch, mark out Plots A, B and C but only manure Plot A. Use Plots B and C as virgin soil.

You gain two things by rotating the crops in this way. The first is that you reduce the incidence of pests and diseases, especially soil-borne pests and diseases. The second is that the plants that most need a heavy feeding get it. If you grew them in the same plot year after year the soil would soon become exhausted and your yields would diminish. By rotating, the plot that was well manured in Year 1 is used for light feeders in Year 2: they draw on different nutrients in the soil. In Year 3 you grow nitrogen-producing crops which actually put nitrogen back into the soil and so help to enrich it for the heavy feeders which will be growing in that plot the following year.

Heavy feeders include cabbage, cauliflower, kale, savoy, sprouts, sprouting broccoli, kohlrabi, radish and swede.

The nitrogen-producing crops include beans and peas (which have nodules on their roots which actually put nitrogen into the soil). Other crops to grow in this group are celery, leeks, lettuce, onions, spinach and tomatoes.

Seed Raising and Transplanting

Sowing seeds out of doors First prepare your seedbed. Rough dig the soil in autumn, working in any compost or organic manure you want at that time. In spring level and rake, breaking down any clods. When ready, the soil should have the top 5 cm/2 in loose and crumbly in texture. Ideally the soil should break down in crumbs, not powder, when you rub it in your hands. Open slit to depth required for seeds and plant. Cover lightly, drawing soil back over V-slit with the back of a rake or with a hoe. Firm lightly. With shallowly planted seeds, especially those that take a long time to germinate, it is important to keep the sprinkler moving over the rows. If the seeds dry out they may never come up.

Label every row clearly with a tally, telling you what the crop is, and the date on which you planted it.

Sowing seeds indoors Many crops, especially those that need high temperatures for seed germination or which have a long growing season, are best started in frames, greenhouses or in the home.

Use compressed peat pots, trays or strips. These are better than flats or pots because when the seedlings are transplanted later on there will not be any root disturbance which would otherwise cause a setback to the plant. Fill the peat pots with soilless growing mix and sow seed to the correct depth. Once roots start showing through the sides of the peat blocks, then it is time to plant out. Just open a hole in the bed and put the plant in, peat pot and all. This way you get no root disturbance, no check to growth.

Transplanting Seedlings should be hardened for two weeks out of doors before being set in the soil. If you’ve grown them in a light sandy growing mix, such as a soilless growing mix, don’t put them straight into heavy clay. Dig plenty of light sandy soil into the planting position. Open a hole with a trowel large enough to put the peat pot or root ball in without having to squeeze or distort it. Return surface soil and make firm. Water lightly.

Even at this stage of their growth, most seedlings are still vulnerable to extremes of weather so cover the young transplants with cloches. These will keep cold winds off the plants and protect them from frost, but will accentuate the damage done by being exposed suddenly to a very hot sun.

There are two types of cloche generally available, glass or plastic. The glass ones are probably best for the plants. They have roof panes that can be removed to increase ventilation when temperatures rise suddenly. Therefore it gives the plants less of a shock if you suddenly whip the whole lot off one sunny afternoon. The main disadvantage of glass cloches is that you have the problem of broken panes, and storing them when not in use.

The best alternative is the plastic tunnel. Just push half-hoops of 11 gauge wire into the soil over the seedlings, and lay plastic sheeting over the hoops, pulling it taut. Cut the sheeting 30 cm/1 ft wider than you need it. Lay 1 5 cm/6 in flat on the ground and cover with earth or bricks to weight it down, stretch the plastic sheeting taut over the hoops, then use the other spare 15 cm/6 in the same way on the other side, weighting it down to secure it. If you want to seal the ends of the tunnel, just gather the plastic sheeting together, tie a knot in it, string it to a tent peg and hammer the tent peg into the ground. Alternatively, loop the sheeting round the end half-hoops and staple it to itself, then seal the ends with a sheet of rigid plastic or glass. The advantage of this method is that you can then ventilate when you need to, or keep the tunnel ventilated and merely seal it when severe frosts threaten.

Feeding transplants

Transplants should be fed 2-3 weeks after planting out. Use a mixture of balanced fertilizer to give instantly available food and organic manure to give a mulch and slower feeding. The mulch effect helps to prevent the soil drying out. Apply the mixture either in 15 cm/6 in wide strips down each side of the rows, coming no closer than 7-5 cm/3 in each side of the seedlings or, with big growing plants, put the mixture in a ring round the plant, again coming no nearer to the stem than 7-5 cm/3 in. Make the band of mixture 30 cm/1 ft.

Cultivating the Crop

While some vegetables have special cultural needs – like tomatoes need tying and some cucumbers need pollinating — all vegetables have certain basic cultural requirements: they all need competition from weeds kept down; and they all need an adequate supply of moisture in the soil.

Keeping Weeds Down Weeds are always a problem in the vegetable garden. If you’re growing vegetables in open ground, every time you turn the soil you bring up more weed seeds. They were buried too deeply to germinate. When you bring them to the surface, they germinate. Weeds rob your vegetables of valuable water and plant foods. If you let them grow enough they’ll smother your seedlings completely. There are three ways of keeping them down.

The first is chemical. You may use selective pre-emergence weedkillers. They can be very effective, but precisely which chemicals home gardeners can use keep changing: consult your local horticultural officer or garden centre.

The traditional way of keeping weeds down is to use a hoe. Use a Dutch hoe with a push-pull action, or a hook hoe with a chopping motion, cutting the weeds off about 2-5 cm/1 in under the surface of the soil.

A modern approach to weed control is the use of mulches. Suitable materials for mulching are peat, well rotted compost, spent hops, basic slag, sawdust, pine needles, ground pine bark or black plastic sheeting. Such mulches not only suppress weeds, they also conserve soil moisture by slowing the rate of evaporation.

Watering

You’ll never grow a good crop of any vegetable if you allow the soil to dry out. There are two reasons. The first is that plants can only absorb essential nutrients in the form of a weak solution: if the soil is dry they can’t feed themselves. The second is that the bulk of any vegetable is water: 96% of a cauliflower is water: 94% of a ripe tomato; 92% of a cabbage; and 89% of broccoli is water.

What most vegetables need is an even supply of water, never too little, never too much. Just how much you give and how often will depend partly on the crop, partly on your soil. If you live on a light, sandy soil you will need to water far more often than if you live on a heavy clay soil.

As a general rule shallow rooting vegetables need a little water often. deep rooting vegetables rather more water less often. The sort of relative rates are a teacup full of water to each lettuce every four or five days; a couple of pints/1 litre to every parsnip every ten to fourteen days. In general only water in hot weather. Do not water in rainy spells. In cloudy weather only water if no rain has fallen for over ten days or if there are obvious signs that the crop is drying out.

The traditional method of watering vegetables is with a watering can. In a hot, dry summer a far more effective method is the use of seep hoses. These are hoses made of flat alkathene stitched together in such a way that a small amount of water seeps out of the stitching. The way to use these to best advantage is to lay a length of solid hose along the side of the vegetable plot, with a junction on it where each of the rows starts. Link the seep hose into the junctions as and when they are needed, and seal off the other junctions. These hoses should be as close to the vegetable stems as possible. Cover with a mulch of peat, compost or black plastic to prevent upward evaporation of the water. Just leave them to trickle.

In a drought, when hoses are banned, re-use all the water you can — bath water, washing-up water, hand basin water, washing machine water, even the water you boil the spuds in. Collect it all together in a 170 litre/37 gallon butt – or in a linked series of butts — the more the better. And link your seep hoses into that.

If you are applying dirty water on vegetables, make sure to water the soil, never the leaves. You could get some very curious moulds and fungi growing on the leaves if you wet them with water that’s been used for washing up or in the washing machine.

If you want to be sophisticated about re-using water you can filter it. Collect the water from the house in a 170 litre/ 37 gallon water butt: leave this permanently trickling into a filter cistern. The filter cistern is quite simply a round plastic 70 litre/15 gallon cistern with 7-5 cm/3 in of charcoal over the bottom covered with a layer of fine sand about 1 5cm/6 in deep, covered with a layer of gravel, again about 15 cm/6 in deep. Allow the water to trickle out of this filter at the same rate as it flows out of the collecting butt, and gather the filtered water in another butt or series of linked butts.

The time to start collecting dirty water for re-use is when you see a drought coming, not once the stand pipes are working. By then it’s too late.

Troubleshooting

We grow vegetables because we enjoy eating them. One of the problems we run up against is that quite a lot of other things enjoy eating them too. The majority are insects in various stages of development: caterpillars, butterflies and so on. Others, curiously enough, are vegetables themselves — moulds, fungi and so on.

The first thing anyone needs to know about pests and diseases of vegetables is why they attack our food plants. Think of it this way. In the wild you will never see a lame, sickly or malformed zebra. Every zebra in the herd is fat and sleek. The reason is simple. Lions, hyenas and other predators kill off malformed young, the lame, the infirm. The result is that only the strong survive to breed.

Pests and diseases perform the same function in the vegetable kingdom. It is always the weak or sickly plants that are attacked first. If you look round an allotment you will see that the cabbages that are not growing well are attacked first by cabbage white butterflies. Only later do they move on to the healthy plants.

Prevention In gardening, as in medicine, prevention is better than cure. The best way of beating the bugs is not to have any. And the best way of setting about achieving that end is good garden hygiene.

That means keeping the weeds down, not just in the vegetable patch, but all over the garden. Weeds provide perfect breeding places for most pests and diseases.

Remove all rotting vegetation, twigs, yellowing cabbage leaves, things of that sort: they attract pests and diseases.

Grow the right plant in the right place. A healthy plant growing strongly is far less likely to be attacked than a sickly plant. Get rid of any plants that are doing so poorly that they will never make a crop worth eating: as long as they stay in the ground they provide a focal point for an invasion by some pest or disease.

Grow disease-resistant varieties wherever these are available. There are more and more of these for more and more vegetable crops. Use only disease-treated seed. Again, this is becoming more and more commonly available.

Rotate crops, even those that are not particularly disease-prone.

Know your friends and encourage them.

Overall, an abundance of humus (derived from garden compost or organic manures) in the soil will do more to minimize infestations by pests and diseases than any amount of pesticides, fungicides and so on. The more humus you can get into your soil, the fewer problems you will have with bugs.

Dealing with Bugs The first thing to do when you come across a bug on your cabbage or tomato is to see whether he’s on his own. or whether he’s brought his family along. Watch for a while: see whether he is chewing or sucking the vegetable leaves, or whether in fact he is eating the aphids you hadn’t noticed were there. Take a good look at him (it helps to carry a hand lens), then rush back to the house and try to identify him. Whatever you do, don’t kill him till you’re sure he’s an enemy.

Assuming he’s an Enemy If he proves to be an enemy there are several options open to you. Work through them, and only take drastic steps when drastic steps are called for. Start with the mildest measures first.

Harmless Materials The mildest measure you can take against any grub is to squash him between finger and thumb. You can get rid of a relatively large population of bugs by this method. If, however, you don’t like getting your fingers dirty, try some of these:

Water. This commonplace liquid can be used with lethal effect against many bugs. Squirt them under high pressure —through a hose, syringe or spray gun — and it’ll wash them off the leaves on to the soil. They won’t climb back up the plant and risk facing the water cannon a second time. Many clinging bugs will simply be drowned by this treatment.

Highly effective against aphids, greenfly, blackfly and many others.

Vegetable oils. Use corn oil, blended cooking oil, castor oil, or one of the proprietary products available from some garden centre. Either spray on to the bugs with a spray gun, or wipe on with a rag. Kills bugs by preventing them from breathing. Deteriorates quickly, leaving no adverse effects on plants or soil.

Milk. Deadly to most bugs. Use as for vegetable oils. Kills by the same means.

Relatively Safe Materials These are relatively safe materials to use, and have the advantage of degenerating very rapidly once used:

Derris. Made from the ground-up roots of the derris plant. Use it against sucking and chewing insects. Safe for man and pets, but highly toxic to fish.

Pyrethrum. Made from the pyrethrum plant, a relative of the chrysanthemum. Use it against any pests on vegetables. (In general garden use do not use it on any member of the chrysanthemum family.) Like derris, safe for man and pets, but poisonous to fish.

If you have pest problems, don’t use only derris or only pyrethrum: use both, first one, then the other. You get better results.

Bordeaux mixture. This is a copper-based fungicide. Use it as a safe and effective treatment for fungal infections. Especially useful against mildew. Usually bought as a wettable powder, dissolved in water and then applied with a spray gun.

Ultimate Deterrents These are man-made chemicals, the majority being derived from substances originally developed for use as nerve gases. They can be dangerous to man, beast and fish, as well as the pests against which they are used. Only use them when you really need to. Never use them on vegetables within two weeks of anticipated harvest.

Gamma BHC/Sevin/Carbaryl. Usually applied as a powder from a puffer pack or through a spray gun. Being a powder, tends to drift in the wind. Use with caution against pests in general.

Malathion. Probably the most deadly of the currently available organo-phos-phorus compounds, this is a liquid, usually applied by means of an aerosol. A highly effective wide spectrum pesticide.

WARNING

Keep all garden chemicals – even ones you consider safe — out of reach of children, preferably in a locked cupboard. Keep them in their original containers. Follow manufacturers’ instructions to the letter. Never leave empty containers lying around: get rid of them fast. If you do not have a regular refuse collection, bury them deep. Never burn them.

Harvesting and Storing

In general terms, harvest a crop when it is ripe; in a few cases harvest it just before it is fully ripe – it’ll be tastier and more tender then. Once harvested, all vegetables should be washed. One reason is to get rid of any grit that may have got on or into them as a result of rain or water splash; another is to wash off any chemical sprays or powder residues there may be on them. Do this for all vegetables, whether you are going to eat them straight away, store them or freeze them.

Most of the vegetables the home gardener grows can be stored successfully given the right conditions. These are: darkness, coolness (temperatures around 0°C/32°F), high humidity (about 85% to 90%), and good ventilation.

Construct yourself a chest-of-drawers structure using 5 x 2-5 cm/2 x 1 in slats. Cover the outside with hardboard. Nail fine-gauge chicken wire over the outside as protection against birds, mice and so on. Then make the drawers. These should be quite deep, anything from 15 cm/6 in to 30 cm/12 in. Make the bottom of the drawers of fine-gauge chicken wire or extruded plastic netting to allow for good air circulation through the vegetables.

Store your vegetables when and as they become ready. Buy yourself a combined hygrometer (which will tell you relative humidity in the room) and thermometer. Keep humidity between 85% and 90%. If it drops, sprinkle the floor with water, or keep a wide-topped bowl filled with water in the room all the time. Place the storage stand near a window, and keep this open as much of the time as possible to provide ventilation. Alternatively, keep a cool fan blowing air round and round the room.

Most vegetables will store well under these conditions. Exceptions are ripe tomatoes and greens – which will not store long unless frozen – pumpkins, squashes, marrows, onions, peas and beans which store better under cool, dry conditions. If in doubt as to whether a vegetable will store successfully, don’t.

Freezing is rapidly replacing the cool storage of vegetables for winter use. Freeze the vegetables in season when and as they are harvested. Frozen properly, most vegetables will be a joy to eat as much as eight to twelve months later. After that, taste and texture may begin to deteriorate. Ideally, try to maintain a complete turnover of vegetables in your freezer every year.

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