If life in lockdown has inspired you to start growing your own food but you have no clue where to start then this guide might give you a few pointers to get you up and running.
We are far from experts when it comes to growing fruit and veg here at The Forge – we’d definitely put ourselves in the ‘enthusiastic amateur’ category! - but we do love being able to eat a few homegrown veggies most days and it’s great to be able to add a few in-season goodies to our guests’ welcome hampers too. We are also finding that getting out into the garden is a real tonic for body and soul during these strange times, and it is a great way to entertain the children. When it seems that the whole world is in chaos and uncertainty, nature can be a powerful leveller, just ticking along and doing its thing, regardless of all the human trials and tribulations that are dominating our lives at the moment.
So how do you get started?
First things first, you don’t need a huge garden, or even a garden at all to grow your own food. Windowsills, balconies, front steps and porches are all great places for tubs and pots. When Jamie and I first got together, he was living in a converted stable with just a concrete front ‘garden’ the size of a postage stamp and not a blade of grass or speck of soil in sight. We covered every square centimetre with gro-bags and grew the best crop of tomatoes we have ever harvested, even to this day. The key things are sunlight and drainage – this means a few holes pierced into the bottom of pots and making sure the site gets some direct sunlight (although this by no means has to be all day).
Soil – it’s all just mud and dirt right? Wrong! There is much more to it than meets the eye – and this is where the magic happens. You can buy bags of potting compost online at the moment, or use some top soil from your garden. Ideally a mix of the two works really well. If you have a compost heap you can add some well-rotted compost into the mix too for added nutrients (but definitely optional). Depending on what you are planting, you might also add in some extras – carrots and parsnips appreciate a bit of sharp sand mixed into the soil (but hold on the natural fertilisers or you'll end up with forked roots); peas and beans love some rotted leaf mulch; and squash and pumpkins will thrive on your household compost.
Now what to plant? We highly recommend planting what you actually like to eat! Sounds daft but if all goes according to plan you are likely to end up with gluts of this and that at different points in the year. So if the thought of broad bean omelette for the 17th night in a row turns your stomach then have a little rethink of your planting strategy! Plants that are quick and easy to grow are runner beans, peas, lettuce and radishes. Potatoes are also fantastically forgiving and can be just thrown in a bin bag with some soil and left to do their thing. Courgettes are also a great crop to keep you going all season although, be warned, turn your back for five minutes in August and you will be left with marrows the size of your thighs, which even the most creative cooks will struggle to transform into something delicious!
Open packet, take out seed, put seed in soil and cover. Simple right? In theory, yes. But if you happen to be doing this with some little helpers, you may find yourself knee deep in seedlings after some over enthusiastic sowing, that is if you can even work out what was planted in which pots! Which of course is all part of the fun right?! Some seeds can be planted directly where you want them to eventually end up (carrots, courgettes, broad beans, peas) but some will need to be planted in a tray or pot and then ‘potted up’ when they are big enough (tomatoes, chillies, cucumbers, cabbages etc.) Seed packets can be very useful in helping you work this out!
Once your seeds are in, make sure you water them so the soil is moist, but not waterlogged. The biggest rookie mistake we make is over-watering during the germination process which can cause the seeds to rot or just not get started at all. A good rule of thumb is to pick up the tray or pot and if it feels heavy it is probably moist enough. To turbo charge the germination process you can put your seeds trays under glass or in a clear plastic food bag, although in our experience you are better to just let nature take its course which tends to result in less straggly seedlings.
If you have sowed seeds which require planting out wait until the seedlings have the second leaf before moving them. The plants are really quite fragile at this point so try to handle the stems rather than the leaves to avoid breaking them. They also love it if you talk to them (she said, sounding like the crazy mad old woman she is inevitably going to become!). Once you have potted up or planted out give the plants a good water or, if you are lucky, plan to do this on a day when rain is forecast to save you the bother! One thing that growing vegetables will undoubtedly do is change your whole relationship with the weather. Where once rain was seen as a bad thing, you will now find yourself performing elaborate rain dances and becoming transfixed to the weather forecast to see if you can save yourself the bother of watering every night!
Pests and weeds
Getting you plants germinated and planted out is the easy bit! Now comes the job of protecting them from every other creature under the sun which will inevitably be absolutely intent on eating your produce before you do. Be that slugs, mice, caterpillars, birds – you name it, you will find yourself waging a war of attrition against these wily pests! Slugs hate used coffee grounds, salt and copper wire, but LOVE beer traps, which you can easily set up by sacrificing a few slurps of your evening tipple into a jam jar lid placed strategically near your plants. Oh, and did I mention the weeds? Invest in a good hoe (no, not that type, this is a family show thank you) and spend a few evenings a week keeping on top of the weeds so that your young plants do not get strangled to death. You might also consider covering some plants with protective cloches or wire – there is nothing more demoralising than seeing your entire crop decimated by birds in less than 24 hours (as I find out to my horror every year with my blackcurrants and redcurrants – I am not sure how they know, but the blackbirds time it just on the day when I decide they are ripe enough to pick!).
If all has gone according to plan and you have diligently watered and managed to keep all the pests and weeds at bay, now comes the fun part! Harvesting! There is nothing more satisfying than pulling your first carrot or popping your first pea pod. The smell, the taste, the feel in your hand that something so small and insignificant as a seed can miraculously transform into this bounty of tasty goodness: I can categorically guarantee to you that NOTHING will ever taste as good as food that you have grown yourself. It may look misshapen and be half the size of anything you might find in Tesco but it will change your life forever. Bit of an exaggeration? Why don’t you get out there today and plant a few seeds and tell me again in a few months whether you agree!