Top tips for growing your own food

If you’ve been looking out of the window at your garden and thinking you’d like to start growing your own food, then this article is for you. 

And although it's quite late to start a whole allotment this year, you can still plant salad leaves and some varieties of peas, beetroots, and carrots.

You don’t have to go as far as Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal in ‘The Good Life’ either, so here are some top tips for growing your own and doing yourselves, your families and the environment a great deal of good...

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1. Choose your patch

The key advice here is to make the most of sunlight. Study your garden and work out which part gets the most sun – at least five hours day. That’s the place to put your new veggie patch. 

Like sundials, ice cream salesmen, and the cast of TOWIE, vegetables perform at their best if they can soak up the rays on a regular basis.

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2. Get your spade dirty

Dig it. Really dig it, to at least the depth of a spade and remove all the weeds, especially those annoying, tangly roots you’ll find beneath the surface.

And do all this just before you want to plant your vegetables, or it’ll get weedy again before you’re ready and you’ll be discouraged.

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3. Improve your soil

OK, you’ve dug it. Now you can improve your plot and make it more grow-your-own friendly by improving the quality of your soil. There are plenty of books about doing this, but here’s a simple golden rule to stick by:

Clay soil: it gets too wet, so apply liberal amounts of organic matter, like well-rotted compost, to help break it up.

Sandy soil: it hasn’t got enough nutrients, so apply liberal amounts of organic matter, like well-rotted compost, to improve the nutrient value.

Any other type of soil: apply liberal amounts of organic matter, like well-rotted compost, to make it better.

Yes, there’s a decent solution for every not-perfect soil type – and it’s the same decent solution every time. Buy your compost in bags from your local garden centre, or from a council recycling centre, and spread an inch or two over the surface of your plot, and then dig it into the top six inches.

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4. Make sure your plot is unfriendly for pests

The slug, which you never really warmed to anyway, is now your mortal enemy. Unfortunately the slug is always with us, but you can discourage it by keeping your plot clear of weeds, giving slugs fewer places to hide, and surrounding your plot with a path where slugs can be picked off by birds – even if the path is just trodden-down soil.

Make sure too that you haven’t got long grass or dense flower borders next to your veggie plot, or your slimy cabbage assassin will hide there during the day and invade during the night.

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5. Plant some stuff

But don’t make the classic beginner’s mistake of planting things too close together. Plants, like people, hate being crowded together.

Each packet of seeds or tray of plants you buy should have instructions about the space to leave between those seeds or plants. You might be surprised how much space that is: courgettes, for example, need at least 75cms for each plant. Thin plants out if they’re too close together.

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6. But make sure it’s the right stuff

The truth is, you probably won’t be growing every single thing you eat – unless you’re a super-keen gardener and retired. For example, red peppers and aubergines are tricky and maincrop potatoes just take up loads of room.

Instead choose vegetables that are expensive in the shops, taste better when they’re squeaky-fresh, and are comparatively quick to grow. The legume family springs to mind: runner beans, broad beans and peas.

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7. Try intercropping

Don’t worry, it’s quite simple. It just means growing fast and slow-growing crops together. So between your tomato plants (which take a while to grow), plant a few fast-growing things like radishes or salad leaves.

They won’t get in each other’s way, because you’ll have whipped the quick-growing stuff out before the slow-growing stuff has expanded to take its place.

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8. Look for alternatives

This may sound weird at first, but – as the BBC website ‘Dig In’ puts it – you don’t have to plant everything in the ground.

Some plants will be happier growing in pots on the patio, or indoors. Herbs like basil (a delicate herb, happier in the Med) and mint (which can run riot and take over a veg patch) both spring to mind. Starting off your tender seedlings in pots indoors can be good too. It’s a nursery for them, before the big, tough, secondary school playground of your outdoor vegetable patch.

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9. Add flowers

Worried that your veggie patch won’t look very pretty? No need. Firstly, many vegetables, like courgettes or runner beans, have colourful flowers and second, many other vegetables like the feathery-leaved carrots and plump little lettuces are lovely in themselves.

But if you’re still unconvinced, there are no rules that say you can’t stick a few flowers in among your veggies. French marigolds are particularly good, because they (a) look pretty and (b) discourage pests, who don’t like the smell.

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10. Be Green

You shouldn’t need any pesticides on your little veggie plot. Be organic. That way you are not only growing in a way that’s kind to the earth and your family, you’re also growing things that are much more expensive in the shops.

For example, courgette plants that cost you 50p could easily yield organic courgettes that would cost you £5 at a checkout. Beat that Mr Sainsbury.

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