Growing your own? There’s a hugely temping big mistake you have to avoid

Abundance may sound like success to a gardener, but if you’re growing crops at home to meet your own needs, then little is often a much better goal. Mark Diacono explains.

We, gardeners, are accustomed to taking all measures available to us when sowing seeds. We study the backs of seed bags, listen to the weather forecast, check the app on our phone, look at the sky; tea leaves can even be read in search of optimal sowing.

While we dedicate ourselves to the beginning of our plants’ lives, we don’t always think so about their end when we make our plans. I’m not the only person to sow at the right time and then find myself dragging a wheelbarrow full of green beans home, a sense of triumph mixed with a sense of decline as I contemplate the amount of chutney I (and everyone I know) will be guzzling in the coming year.

Of course there are times, like when I’m making cider or raspberry jam, when I need a big catch, but most of the time I’m looking for a steady supply.

There is no aspect of gardening that I get most emailed about than this one; this is perhaps what we consider the most important indicator of the success of a vegetable garden. Fortunately, consistent harvesting is quite achievable with a little forethought.

“The urge to sow in bulk can be strong—it’s a to-do list item—but we must resist.”

Careful selection of varieties can provide a “natural” complementary offer. Homemade apples can be eaten 12 months a year; potato varieties are conveniently grouped into early and major divisions and subdivisions; autumn raspberries bear fruit later than summer varieties, and so on. Attention to cultivar descriptions can further expand this: for example, by growing different cultivars, it is entirely possible to harvest broccoli in the coldest six months of the year, with each cultivar reaching its peak at a different time. This works well for many perennials, such as germinating broccoli, that are in the ground for most of the year and where the slower growth rate means the moment of harvest is measured in days and weeks.

For crops with faster turnover and short shelf life, where the ideal time to harvest is measured in hours or even minutes—peas, coriander, lettuces, radishes, and more—too much is even more difficult to manage: oversupply inevitably means waste. The way to deal with these crops is to apply a little and often approach when planting.

Consistent planting is important for crops such as radishes, as the short shelf life makes it difficult to work with large yields.

The urge to sow in bulk can be strong—it’s a to-do list item—but we must resist. Instead of planting, say, 24 beans or lettuce at once, plant 12 now and then 12 in four weeks. You can exaggerate the effectiveness of this by planting each batch of 12 seeds under different conditions: four plantings in the propagator, four in the greenhouse, and four directly in the soil will cause them to develop at different rates and reach maturity at different times. This ensures that you get smaller, repeating crops – if you’re lucky, one lettuce a day, rather than 24 ready in one week – so you’re never left with a crop, and that there’s always more of the next crop coming soon.

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An important tip that can’t be overstated is this: When you’re about to plant seedlings that you’ve started growing under cover, lay them down and sow a fresh batch before planting them out. It’s so easy to get carried away with the garden when you’re planting; Planting the next batch first ensures that you have plants – and therefore food – to continue when those new seedlings are exhausted.

Succession also takes a different form: when one crop is harvested, what takes its place? Planning your garden is what most of us do. Many make one by the start of the season, but

it can be easy to let things fall apart at the seams as soon as the first harvest is done. Of course, this is an imprecise science—a lot depends on the weather, the relative abundance of pests, etc.—but marking on the plan when each first crop is likely to be harvested means it becomes second nature to ask yourself early questions such as: “When potatoes sprout, what is included? It can even help with when to plant a second crop: you can be more relaxed about not risking early planting, say, zucchini when you realize they will likely be ready to plant before space becomes available.

Mark Diacono grows his own Otter Farm.

Gardening Cheat Sheet – Temper

The cold frame can protect young garden vegetable plants from cold and being eaten by garden invaders.

Semi-resistant plants, those that winter indoors and summer outside, need to be gradually accustomed to the transition – and the month for this is May. Move the plants to a cold greenhouse and close the light. During the day, give some air by propping the lights open and then close them at night. Build on this theme for the next three weeks by opening the light wider each week, and then, for the last week, pulling the light out completely. If frost threatens, turn on the lanterns again and cover them with matting. The first day of the next month is the day of release.
Stephen Desmond

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