Growing Vegetables – Making a Start
Making a Start
One of the most frightening things for a first-time gardener to be faced with is what might be called the ‘virgin’ plot. It used to be possible to say that the most common one was the neglected garden but, what with all the houses shooting up these days, it’s just as normal to find the virgin plot consisting of little more than a building site.
It doesn’t really matter which one you are confronted by, both are equally daunting to the newcomer. Both are also dealt with in more or less the same way. The first job is to get rid of any junk and rubble that is cluttering the place up. In an established garden, this is usually in the form of broken and rusty tools, possibly a pram or bits of a bicycle and, frequently, corrugated iron. It’s amazing where all this corrugated iron comes from.
If your house is newly built and was one of the first on the plot, all well and good. If though, it was the last, you’re likely to be in trouble. The simple reason for this is that builders tend to move their rubble and bits and pieces along with them from one house to the next. When they reach the end and leave the site, anything they don’t want is normally left where it is; and that’s usually on the last plot.
The sort of junk you’re likely to find will probably be of two kinds. Firstly there will be the old paint tins, various bits of broken tackle and other metal. Secondly, there will be the broken bricks, tiles, pipes and concrete. I’m only dividing these into two because, although the first category should be taken to the tip, the second can sometimes be put to very good use in a soakaway drain.
On heavy land, it may be quite clear that some provision is going to be needed to improve the drainage before you can expect to grow good crops. In the worst gardens of all, you may even need to lay a system of drains 18-24in (45-60cm) below ground. Usually, though, improving thestructure is sufficient. However, that does leave us with the problem of disposing of the surface water that is draining away. In the absence of a ditch or stream at the end of the garden, the best way of coping with it is to make a soakaway in the lowest part of the plot.
A soakaway is made by digging out a pit as deep as you can manage, but certainly not less than about 3ft (1m). It’s unlikely that any of the soil from it will be worth much, because the fertile topsoil and less fertile subsoil will probably have been churned into a homogeneous mud. However, if the topsoil is still distinguishable from the subsoil, lay it to one side on its own for returning last of all.
All the old bricks and things are then thrown into the hole until you’ve filled it to about 1ft (30cm) from the top. If you can get some sticks or old conifer branches, these are laid on top of the bricks to stop the soil that will come next from working its way down into the soakaway. An alternative is to lift some rough or useless turf and lay this, upside-down, above the bricks; it’ll have the same effect. Failing that, use a load of shingle or coarse grit.
The reason for stopping about 1ft (30cm) below the surface is so that, obviously, you won’t keep plunging your spade into the soakaway and spoiling it. Then it’s simply a matter of putting back sufficient soil to over-fill the hole; this will allow for natural settling. Always remember, of course, to use the topsoil you’ve saved in preference to subsoil. Any soil left over can be lost over the rest of the plot. And there you are, a drainage problem solved and all the rubbish gone in a single operation.
Many people ask about the best time of year for doing this heavy preliminary work. Frankly it doesn’t matter; if you move in and the place is like a tip, get on with sorting it out. If the ground is as bad as all that, it’ll become mud in the winter and concrete in the summer anyway!
Once this initial clearance has been done, or if the garden didn’t need it in the first place, most of the basic work is best done in the winter but, here again, don’t stick to this rigidly just for the sake of it.
A plot that has already been in use but which has fallen from favour and interest can have work started on it at any time of the year because the first job is to cut it all down so that the majority of the top growth is removed. Do this with either a sickle or a scythe, andor burn all the rubbish so that everything is pretty well at soil level.
If this stage is reached during the growing season, it is then as well to leave things for a while to allow theto start growing again. This may sound mad but it is as a prelude to chemical weedkilling because the weedkiller you will be using should only be applied to actively growing weeds. If used during the winter, the weeds won’t absorb it and die.
Once the regrowth is 6in or so high, therefore, treat the whole area with the weedkiller Tumbleweed or any other weedkiller based on. This takes ten to fourteen days to show any effect, so don’t expect results overnight. Once the weeds look ‘sick’, the ground can be dug. Alternatively you may want to leave it until the late autumn. Either way, the nature of glyphosate is such that it is inactivated by the soil, so no harmful residues are present. This means that crops can, if necessary, be sown or planted the day after treatment. Although the roots of plants treated with glyphosate will be dead, I always prefer to pick out as many of the large root systems as I can, just to be on the safe side.
The best course of action for those who would rather not use a weedkiller is by double digging. Whilst the principle for both is the same, the trench that is formed in single digging is then itself dug with a fork to a further 10-12in (25-30cm) deep.
When a reasonably large plot has to be dug, it helps to divide it in two and tackle one half at a time in the following way. Dig out a trench at ‘A’ and pile up the soil at ‘B’. The next strip of soil is turned over and forward so that it falls upside-down into trench ‘A’. Continue this back along the length of the half-plot until you finish up with trench ‘C’. Fill this with the soil from trench ‘D’ and carry on until you’re left with the final trench. This is then filled with soil ‘B’.
Once the land has been dug, leave it rough until shortly before you want to sow or plant. It is then broken down more finely by cultivating it with either a hand cultivator or the back of a fork. If necessary, it should be levelled in the same operation.
This will normally be all that the soil needs doing to it if you are going to be planting but, if you’re going to sow, it will need raking to create a finer tilth and to remove any stones. However, don’t be tempted to break it down into a finer tilth than is really needed. As a guide, where large seeds (and beans) are going to be sown, the ground can be left very much rougher than for small seeds (lettuces, cabbages and most other things). In fact, for peas and beans it could be left the same as for planting. This is a good habit to get into for two reasons. Firstly, it will control weed growth to some extent. If it’s necessary to produce a fine tilth for the germination of small vegetable seeds, it follows that small weed seeds will need similar conditions. If, therefore, the soil surface is left rough, fewer weed seeds will germinate.
The other important reason for leaving the surface as rough as you can is that clay soils in particular are less likely to ‘cap’. Capping is caused by the action of heavy rain beating the surface into mud so that, when it dries out, a crust forms — clearly to the detriment of the plants. Leaving the surface rough will, to a large extent, prevent this.
Going back to digging, for a moment, you may read in old books about such things as bastard trenching and ridging.
These honestly don’t concern us in this day and age; they largely disappeared when estate gardens no longer had a large labour force, and in any case they were seldom, if ever, carried out in small or domestic gardens. For the most part, they were different systems used during winter digging to help the soil to be weathered by exposing a greater surface area.
Normal digging, either single or double, provides perfectly adequate weathering. It is the time left for weathering and how successfully nature carries it out that counts, not the system of digging used.