So, you’ve decided to start a new vegetable garden? Good on you – it’s the best decision you’ll ever make, trust me!
But first, there are five crucially important things you need to know before laying the foundations for your brand new garden. Get them right and you’re well on the way to abundant harvests…
1. Get the Location Right
To get the most from the most from growing your own delicious and nutritious veggies, you’ll need to select the best spot to grow them in. Compromises inevitably need to be made in most situations, but no matter the size of your new productive plot, the same principles apply.
The first thing to consider is light. Six to eight hours of direct sunshine is required for most crops, particularly in cooler, temperate climates like mine. Track where shade is cast throughout the day. You can do something about overhanging branches or trees within your boundary, but you can’t, of course, move buildings or other objects beyond your control.
If you garden in a hot climate then you may have the reverse issue, and actively want to seek out a space that receives some shade for growing cool-season crops like cabbage and spinach during the warmer months.
Bear in mind exposure to buffeting and prevailing winds. The ideal location will be sunny for at least part of the day and sheltered from the worst of the wind.
Next up is soil. Few gardens have perfect soil for growing vegetables, but avoid areas that are poorly drained or badly compacted, or consider growing in raised beds, which will help to keep plant roots above the saturated soil.
2. Plan Your Garden’s Layout
With the general location decided on, the next step is to consider is the layout of the garden itself.
Narrow beds are usually best. Make them no more than about 4 feet (1.2m) wide, whether raised beds or directly in the ground. This helps to make maintenance and crop rotation easier to manage, plus it avoids compaction of the soil since you should never need to walk on it. Make paths between wide enough to easily tend the beds face-on and to enable a wheelbarrow to pass by with, for example, loads of compost for mulching. A path width of at least 18in (45cm) is good.
Watering can be a big job in the summer. Irrigating thirsty crops is made a lot easier if you can locate your vegetable garden near a water source or, if that’s not possible, add rain gutters and water collection barrels to nearby sheds, greenhouses or other structures. Install as many water barrels as possible so you can have plenty of the best plant-friendly water to irrigate with. It is also worth investing in a high-quality hose with a decent spray attachment.
Other things to include in your layout include a composting area (more on that shortly), and an area where you can sit and enjoy your new garden, because it’s important to stop and admire your hard work from time to time!
3. Clear the Weeds
With your location and layout decided on, your next priority should be to start work on your beds and growing areas as soon as you can, so you’re primed and ready to plant when the time comes. Winter is a great time to do this because growth has slowed to a crawl, so you can get ahead.
The first step will be to remove any larger stones and debris, before getting on and tackling those weeds. Weeds can compete with your crops for nutrients and water, so it’s important to keep on top of them.
The easiest way to get rid of weeds is to cover them. If light can’t get to the weeds they’ll eventually run out of resources and die, it’s as simple as that. In most cases this is simply a question of mowing weeds or lawn close to the ground, and then covering with a layer of cardboard and topping with at least 4in (10cm) of organic matter.
Perennial weeds are the pesky nasty ones! They take a long time to kill off, but you can however still use cardboard and organic matter, then simply hoe or pull out weed shoots that push through, and the weed roots will eventually give up. But a more thorough option is to cover the area with a light-excluding material such as dark polythene sheets for as long as possible to severely weaken, and ideally kill, the weeds.
Weeds grow faster when it’s warmer, so are exhausted quicker during the growing season. But having said that, it’s sensible to get covers in place in the winter months when there’s more time available.
4. Start Improving the Soil
The earlier you take steps to improve your soil, the more time it has to settle down ready for sowing and planting. Very few soils are absolutely perfect for growing vegetables, but almost every soil can be improved by adding plenty of beautiful, rich organic matter such as garden compost, well-rotted manure or leafmould.
I use no-dig methods of growing. This has a number of advantages. Soil is left undisturbed so its intricate network of soil life can thrive, which will in turn support superior crop growth. By not digging the soil, you’re leaving weed seeds buried, which means fewer weeds. And, of course, not digging saves a lot of time and effort! It goes hand-in-hand with the smothering method of weed control, because in most cases you won’t have to wait for the weeds to die before planting straight into the compost on top of the cardboard.
When starting new no-dig growing areas, improving the soil can simply involve spreading organic matter on top of existing weed-free soil, then letting the worms ‘dig’ it in for you. Get your organic matter onto growing areas right now, so the worms can get started.
A thriving vegetable garden requires a surprising amount of organic matter, so it pays to make as much of your own as you can. Setting up your composting area is a top priority! Ideally, you’ll have at least two compost heaps, so that you can be actively adding organic matter to one while allowing the other to mature.
The first season of your new vegetable garden will see your compost bin fill up quickly with cleared annual weeds, grass clippings, leaves and kitchen waste. Locate it within or close to your vegetable garden if you can. That way you won’t have far to carry composting ingredients coming off the garden, and mature compost going back on.
5. Begin Your Planting Plan
With growing areas set up, you’re now free to begin your planting plan. My first consideration when starting a new vegetable garden would be to plant those crops that are going to be in the ground for many years: fruit trees and bushes, plus perennial vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb. Take your time planning where these will go, because you won’t want to move them once they’re planted. Locating permanent plantings near the edge of the garden makes the most sense, bearing in mind the shadow that will be cast by taller crops like fruit trees.
As for the rest of your veggies, start by prioritising what you like to eat and – particularly important in smaller gardens – what will be most productive, for instance climbing beans, courgettes, salad leaves, and tomatoes.
Also consider using software like our Garden Planner. It’ll help you to get the spacings between plants right, so there’s no risk of overcrowding – a rookie mistake every gardener has been guilty of at some point! This will help minimise waste by showing you exactly how many plants you will need and, crucially, when to sow or plant and when you can expect to harvest. The Garden Planner can even help you choose which crops grow best together. Companion planting like this can really turbocharge your success!