The very first time I stepped through the door in the hedgerow that guards the entrance to our allotment was in the summer of 2013. The sun was shining brightly and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. Emerging from the deep shade of the tall hawthorn hedge, I shielded my eyes but all I could see was an ocean of green – for the weeds were waist high and had merged themselves into the surrounding landscape. From underneath my feet and every visible corner knotweed weaved its way into the garden, climbing high up the dilapidated greenhouse structure in front of me. Beyond it, waves of emerald green nettles swayed in the breeze only broken by the white wash like crowns of light green grass. Here and there poppy seed heads were dancing above it all.
While we were excited about the prospect of growing our own, it was plain obvious we had a big task at our hands. ‘Till that day we’d barely managed to keep our potted herbs alive. All of a sudden we had 300sqm ground to look after. I remember walking out of the library the next day with a stack of heavy gardening books and upon perusing the first two on the top for a while, giving up on the research. There was so much talk about soil type, digging methods, watering systems, I felt positively overwhelmed. Apart from all the usual questions and uncertainties we had as first time gardeners, we also hadn’t actually seen the ground under all the weeds yet. When we finally did start clearing the mess it became apparent that there was a lot more lumber to dispose of than just a few weeds. Years of hazardous use and neglect had turned the allotment into a tip rather than a garden.
But we weren’t so easily deterred and by March the following year our first Kitchen garden was up and running. It was a simple affair, but proved a prosperous source of food and fun and I shall tell you all about it, in case you’d like to dig in this year and start growing your own too.
Our Kitchen Garden Manifesto
Our aim with this garden was and always has been to supplement our kitchen throughout the seasons, therefore we concentrate our efforts on vegetables and fruit that we like to eat and provide a high yield with relatively low maintanence. We also know that while we’d like to spend a lot of time in the garden, our other commitments don’t allow us to visit every day; sometimes not even every week. In our very first full season we went on holidays during harvest season and we just accepted that some things will stay undone. We trust that nature is a lot more resilient and striving than we often give it credit for. We focus on simplicity and efficency, embracing recycling and organic techniques for our gardening methods – no fertilizers, no fancy slug traps, no intense digging or reconstruction. We give and we take. Some years we eat lots of our own courgettes, some years we don’t.
The Garden beds
A functional kitchen garden doesn’t have to take up acres. While our city allotment in total accumulates to some 300sqm; of that our kitchen garden for the first year was merely two beds of 3x2m and some pots – amongst a wild jungle of weeds and waste. As our Jamaican allotment neighbour and all the weeds assured us that the soil on our allotment was generally rich and healthy, we started preparing the land by ripping out and digging up all the unwanted plants in that area and then raked the ground so that the soil was nicely lose and even on top. Where needed we added a top layer of shop-bought compost – by simply laying out the compost bags like a carpet until they filled the beds.We did not build any raised beds, but instead marked the borders with sticks and wood beams, in order to allow us to change the layout of our garden as we continue to uncover and clear the vast grounds.
Potting it up
Broadly thinking we assumed that if it’s a native vegetable or herb it will grow in our garden no matter what the soil. However, some plants do have more specific requirements; Mediterranean herbs for example prefer it dryer than the English weather so would need a lot more drainage, or root vegetables need loose soil. These plants as well as plants that grow deep in the ground like potatoes or are invasive like mint, we grew in pots instead of in the ground as it made maintenance and harvest a lot easier.
Growing what we eat
What should we plant and when was the question I pondered most. Upon perusing a few gardening books it became clear that there were a lot of factors that played into this question, the amount of sunshine and rain, light and shade, temperature, soil type etc. For our first year therefore I concentrated on regional vegetables. I checked our local supermarket for all the vegetables that were grown in the UK to decide what will work in our garden too and chose those amongst them that we liked to eat. The list below contains all the vegetables and fruit we successfully grew, harvested, ate in the past years from those first two vegetable beds – making them a sustainable, simple supplement for our kitchen. They make a fine first selection for any English cuisine supplementing Kitchen Garden: Peas, broad beans, French bush beans, garlic, zucchini, pumpkin, squash, lettuce, brussel sprouts, broccoli, kale, red and white cabbage, radish, carrots, parsnip, potatoes, spinach and strawberries, plus cucumbers and tomatoes from our greenhouse/polytunnel.
A Spade, a rake & a fork
Amongst the weeds, beer cans and broken glass we found on our allotment in the first weeks, we also discovered a spade, a rake, a fork and a hand fork and apart from a watering can haven’t purchased any further tools. Like with many hobbies, you could get as techy as you like with gardening but we’ve found these tools sufficient for a simple upkeep of the allotment. While the spade is our most used tool due to our continued efforts to clear the plot; the fork is probably the most versatile. It loosens the soil when weeds have grown too big, digs out plants at the end of the growing season, breaks heavy clumps and evens the beds if no rake is at hand. The rake we use predomenantly for even out the beds when applying compost or fertilizer, but it is also useful for easy weeding – we simply rake away the tiny weeds that grow through again. A hoe, however, would do the job just as well.
The Planting Plan
Planting in groups
As part of our attempt to keep the garden organic and low key we followed a crop rotation system which gathers plants into four groups according to their plant family and growing requirements:
Brassicas like broccoli, Brussel sprouts and other cababges; Legumes like peas and beans; Squashs including garlic, onions and courgettes and Roots like carrots, beets and parsnip. The groups are planted together and rotate every year in a four year cycle to ensure that the soil structure and nutrient composition recovers naturally and without much extra effort from us.
The seed packets know when
Once we had decided what we wanted to grow, I bought the seed packets and then scanned the backs for planting instructions to make a lose plan of action.While many plants could have been started off as early as February if a sufficient window sill or greenhouse was available, it turned out even the late, unorganised and less industrious gardener can still get a good crop going. As in our first year we didn’t manage to start our seeds off earlier than the end of March, beginning of April and not much has changed since then. Even so it is only our brassica, squash, cucumbers and tomatoes that really profit from a head start on the windowsill. Most other vegetables are happy to be sown directly into the ground.
It was really quite something to see our allotment turn from the brown mush of March into the lush green jungle that greeted us in the late summer months – with a strawberry bed bursting with fruit, cucumbers climbing out of their polytunnel and broad beans growing so tall and heavy that they broke their support beam. Therefore I really hope this guide to our first kitchen garden serves you well when you decide to start growing your own. May it help you navigate through the many questions and doubts you might have and give you the reassurance you need that it is all much easier than it might seem!