Why and How to grow your own Food?

Grow your own food like fruit and veg is not only addictive but will also completely change your attitude to what you eat. Once you have tried freshly lifted new potatoes or tomatoes picked straight from the vine, or bitten into a handful of strawberries still warm from the sun, nothing will taste the same again. Equally, nothing will match the simple satisfaction of eating food you have raised from seed, planted out, watered, fed, and tended until that moment when it’s ready for harvesting. There is no looking back: you will be hooked.

Why grow your own food?

1. Seasonal and local

We all share a growing concern about the food we eat. Where has it come from, how was it produced, and what has been done to it before it reaches us? Increasingly, we see the common sense in eating what’s in season and what’s grown locally, not what has been shipped halfway around the world, at an unacceptable ecological cost. Growing your own food is a very real answer to such concerns. How can anything be fresher, more seasonal, or more local than if you have only just picked it yourself?

2. Organic or not?

If you care about the food you eat you will probably want to avoid artificaial fertilizers and pestices as much as possible. In the end, it is your decision. Whether you choose to go organic or not, at least when growing your own you are in control; nobody apart from you is going to spray your plants with chemicals.

3. Choice and variety

Look through almost any seed catalog and one thing will be immediately apparent. Growing your own gives you access to a much richer choice of vegetables, salads, and herbs than you can buy in even the best-stocked supermarket. And if you join one of the many seed-sharing societies, you will discover a huge range of rare, heritage varieties that are no longer available for sale.

Designing Plot layouts and bed systems

The layout of your plot is important. Since its and area in which you are going to spend a good deal of your time, you want it to be as easy and efficient to “work” as possible. You want it to provide all your crops with the best growing conditions.

You want a certain amount of built-in flexibility so that you are able to rotate the crops from one year to the next. And, of course, you may also have requirements that aren’t strictly concerned with horticulture allotment may also provide a kids play area, a place for a barbeque, or simply a spot where you can sit and relax on warm summer evenings.

Designing Plot layouts and bed systems

Designing your plot

Find a pencil and paper, measure the overall dimensions of your plot and sketch it out. Now block in the features that are going to stay in one place, at least for the foreeable future: boundaries and paths, sheds and compost bins, perennial crops such as asparagus beds or rhubarb patches. Are they in the right place, or do you want to move them?

The next thing is to decide is whether you want rows or beds. Traditionally, allotments were planted up in neat, parallel rows or patchworl squares interspersed by trodden paths. It is an efficient use of space and beacuse nothing is permament it is completely flexible. However, constantly walking up and down over soil compacts it, which is bad for its structure.

The bed system

Laying out a permanet pattern of beds and paths will kepp you off the areas that tou are cultivating. The beds are soley for growing crops, not for walking on, and shouldbe small enough for you never to have to stand on them. Likewise, the paths are always paths – so you gravel, or bark chips, if you wish.

If you regularly add prganic material to your beds, the soil level will in time become higher than that of the paths. For this reason, raised blocks, or even tiles and slates to retain the soil. Deep beds are the same as raised beds, but without the edging.

The “NO-DIG” system

This approach does away with the need for digging – at least it does once it’s up and running. The aim is to create beds full of well-structured soil which are “topped up” each year with a surface layer of fertilizer and organic material. This suppresses weeds and is incorporated into the soil by earthworms and other organisms, rather than by digging it in. For the system to succeed:

  • Begin by thouroughly digging the bed to open up the soil and improve drainage.
  • Carefully remove all perennial weeds.
  • Each year spread a surface mulch of well-rotted compost or manure.
  • Disturb the soil as little as possbile at harvesting.
  • Use a sheet mulch if necessary to suppress any persitent weeds.

Healthy Soil

The soil in which you plant your fruit trees and bushes is vitally important. If it is fertile and well-structured, the chances are that the plants will grow well, stay healthy and produce good crops. Soils differ widely.Some are light and sandy, others are heavy and clay-like. Some are acid, others are alkaline. And while some are rich in nutrients, others are thin and poor.

1. Soil structure

All soils consist of minute particles of weathered rock, mixed with water and organic matter from rotted-down remains of plants and animals. It is the size of the particles that largely determines the nature of the soil.

  • Sandy soils are made up of fairly large particles, so they are usually light and gritty to the touch.
  • Clay soils are made up of much smaller particles, so they tend to be dense and heavy, more like dough or pastry.
  • The more organic matter the soil contains the better its structure. It males clay compacted or waterlogged.
  • And organic matter makes sandy soils more water-retentive and counteracts any loss of fertility that may occur when nutrients are washed out by rain.
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2. Soil acidity and alkalinity

All soils have a pH value. Its a measurement of how acidic or alkaline they are. Soils with a low pH are acid, and those witha high pH are alkaline. Its rarely a big issue, as most fruits are fairly tolerant, if anything preferring neutral or perhaps slightly acid soils. The exceptions are blueberries and cranbetties; they frow well only in acid soils.

  • Acid soils – are low in calcium. It is fairly easy to make them more alkaline by adding lime(calcium carbonate) or a lime-rich material, such as mushroom compost.
  • Alkaline soils – are high in calcium, and are often found in chalk and limestone areas. They can trigger a nutrient disorder called lime-induced chlorosis. Alkaline soils can be make more acid by adding composted sawdust, composted pine bark or mneedles, sulphur dust or chips, or loam-based ericaceous compost.

Acid or Alkaline?

1- 5Very acid
6acid
6.5slightly acid
7neutral
7.5slightly alkaline
8alkaline
9-14 very alkaline

3. Feeding your Soil

Generous crops of fruit year after year make heavy demands on the soil. They take out a lot of nutrients. It should come as no surprise that some of that goodness needs putting back. Feeding your soil will keep it healthy, fertile, and productive. There are two methods. The first is to add organic material in the form of compost or manure. The secong is to use fertilizers -either organic or inorganic, whicever you prefer.

4. Composts and manures

These are natural organic materials made up of decomposed or rotted plant matter and animal waste. When dug into the soil before planting, they improve its structure by breaking up compacted masses so that air can circulate, and roots can grow deeply and spread widely. They improve drainage, too. Sandy soils drain more freely, whereas clay soil retain moisture for longer.

Farmyard and stable manures are ideal soil improvers if you can find a source for them. They usually comprise straw and animal dung, sometimes with wood shavings or sawdust as well. Leave them to rot down for at least six months before using them. Garden and household compost is a decayed plant matter that has been broken down by tiny micro-organisms. You can buy it, but it’s easy to make your own.

Once trees and perennial fruits are established, its best to add composts and manures as a surface mulch. In time, worms will do the work for you and draw it down into the soil.

5. Fertilizers

These provide a more concentrated, quick-acting, source of nutrients than manures and composts. They are ususally sold in liquid, oowder, granule, or pelleted form, and may be organic or inorganic. Organic fertilizers are derived entirely from plant or animal material. They include:bonemeal, dried blood, hoof and horn, fish meal, blood, fish and bonemeal, and seaweed extracts. Inorganic fertlizers are extracted from minerals or are produced using industrial-scale chemical processes.

6. Key nutrients

All fertilizers contain at least one of the three key elemtns that plants need from the soil: nitrogen (N, added in the form of nitrates),phosphorus (P, added in the dorm of phosphates), and potassium (K, added in the form of potash). Many contain a mixture of all three. Some also incluse calcium, magnesium and sulphur, as well as trace elements such as boron, copper, iron, manganese and molybdenum.

Composts, Manures and Fertilizers

Grow your own food like fruits and vegetables makes greater demands on a plot of land than growing ornamental garden plants. To guarantee healthy growth and the production of generous crops, fruit and vegetables depend on being able to extract a lot of nutrients from the soil. And of course the more you frow, the more is taken out. It will come as no surprise, then that all soils need some of that goodness putting back. The way to feed your soil is twofold. First, by the addition of bulky organic material, such as composts and manures. And the second by the use of fertilizers -either organic or inorganic, as you choose.

1. Manure and composts

These are organic materials, that are composed of rotted plant matter and animal waste. They may vary in ferlility. Some materials may be rich in nutrients, others may not. Some may be high in nitrogen , others high in potassium.

The important thing is that, because they are all formed from bulky organic matter, when added to the soil they significantly improve its structure. They break up compacted masses, improve drainage in heavy soils, and increase water retentiveness in light soils.

Well-rotted manure and compost can be dug or forked into the soil, or spread over the surface of the soil as a mulch and left for the earthworms to carry it underground and mix it with the soil.

2. Farmyard and stable manure

If you can find a good source, manure is among the most highly prized of all soil improvers. It is usually a mixture of straw and animal dung, although it sometimes contains wood shavings or sawdust too. It mush be well-rotted before you add it to your soil.

3. Garden and household compost

Compost is decayed and decomposed plant matter that has been broken down by tiney micro-organisms into a rich fertile material that itself looks much like a dark, crumbly soil.

4. Leafmould

Fallen leaves rot down very slowly. So its best not to add them in large quantities to compost heaps. Instead , pile them in wire cages or store them mixed with a little soil in plastic bin liners punctured with small holes. Leafmould is particularly good for aerating heavy clay soils.

5. Mushroom compost

Spent mushroom compost is the medium in which mushrooms have been grown commercially. It is usually still fairly high in nutrients, but can be alkaline so is not always best for limy soil.

6. Organic and inorganic fertilizers

Proprietary fertilizers provide nutrients in a more concentrated form than composts and manures. Organic fertilizers are derived entirely from plant or animal material and rely on soil microorganisms to break them down so their nutrients can be taken up by plants.

They incluse: bonemeal, dried blood, hoof and horn, fish meal, blood, fish and bonemeal, and seaweed extracts. Inorganic fertlizers are extracted from minerals or are produced using industrial-scale chemical processes.

They are absorbed in solution, not via soil bacteria. The most important soil nutrients are nitrates(N), phosphates(P), and potassium(K). Others include trace elements such as boron, magnesium, manganese, and molybdenum. Most fertilizers include some or all, in different amounts.

Must have Tools and Equipments

Its surprising how few tools you do really need. Of course if, like me you are a tool junklie, you have far , far too many: our sheds are full of them.

If you are prepared to listen to any advice at all, here it is. Buy fewer tools. But the very best-quality ones you can afford. And look after them. That way, they will be a pleasure to use for years and years.

1. Fork

Most standard-sized forks ahve four prongs or “tines”, each about 30 cm(12 inch) long. They are usually square shaped in section, although special potato forks have flat tines, sometimes with rounded tups. The handle grips may be D-, Y- or T-shaped. Forks are also available in border or somewhat disparangingly termed- “ladies”, sizes that are narrower and lighter to use, whatever your gender.

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2. Spade

The rectangular metal blade on standard spafe usually measures 20 cm(8 in) wide and 28 cm(11in) deep. Its invaluable for heavy digging. However, like forks, border spades are lighter and much easier to use, they usually measure 15x23cm(6x9in).

3. Secateurs

There is a certain amount of snobbery about secateurs, but its worth investing in a good -quality pair, since you will use them alsmot constantly – for cutting, trimming, pruning and even harvesting. Keep the secateurs clean and sharp , so that you make neat, tidy cuts and don’t spread diseases.

4. Draw hoe

With its flat blade attached to the handle by a curved or swam, neck, the draw hoe is used to cut through weeds witha sort of chopping action. It is also useful for earthing up(potatoes, for example) and for marking out seed drills. The onion hoe is a small , hand held version.

5. Rake

Most standard rakes have metal heads that are 30 – 38 cm(12 -15in) wide with 12-16 short teeth or prongs. To be comfortable, the handle should be at least 1.5m (5ft) long. Rakes are most often used for levelling soil and breaking it down into a fine “tilth”, ready for sowing or planting. There are also wider, wooden, plastic, or wire rakes that are useful for clearing up fallen leaves.

6. Dutch hoe

Also knoen as push or scuffle hoes, these are probably the most useful of the different types of hoe. They each hace an angled, flat blade that can be pushed and pulled backwards and forwards, to slice off weeds just below the surface of the soil.

7. Trowels and hand fork

Although somewhat all-purposes, trowels are most often used for digging small holes and for planting out. They may have either wide or narrow blades. hand forks are used to loosen the soil when weeding or lifting crops. Long-handled versions of both are avialble.

8. Loppers and pruning saw

Long-handled loppers and pruning saws take over when secateurs are not strong enough. Most loppers will cut through branches up to about 4 cm (1.5in) in thickness. any thicker than that and a pruning saw should be used instead. Grecian saws have curved blades and will cut only when pulled, not when pushed.

Sowing seeds and raising seedlings

Vegetables are almost always grown from seed. using seed bought from reputable seed merchants has its advantages.

  • Firstly, seeds are guaranteed to be viable, so they should germinate successfully.
  • Secondly, they will be true to type: the cultivar will be what is described, not a hybrid variation created by cross-pollination.
  • And thirdly, growing from seed is a relatively cheap way of producing your own vegetables. You can even grow vegetables from seeds you save yourself, though there are risks.

1. Sowing inside

Sowing seeds indoors means that it is easier to control the temperature, humidity, soil type and amount of food and water. Many seeds need a constant minimum temperature to germinate. Keeping them in a cold frame or under a cloche should suffice, but in certain cases, they will need a heated greenhouse or propagator.

Soem vegetable such as tomatoes, aubergines, and peppers have a long growing season. To ripen fully by the end of the year, they may need to be started off inside before it becomes warm enough outside for them to be planted out.

Moreoever, plants raised from seeds sown inside, in carefully controlled conditions, tend to be stronger, healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases than those raised outdoors.

If you haven’t actually got an outside area, don’t underestimate the value of windowsill space- there are a few vegetables that can be grown in pots indoors without ever needing to plant them out.

a. Pots, trays, modules, and propagators

Terracotta pots look nice, but plastic ones are cheaper and easier to keep sterile. Tube-shaped biodegradable pots can be planted directly into the soil with young seedlins inside. They are ideal for plants that develop deep roots – broad beans, sweetcorn or tomatoes, for example. Over time, the pots rot away naturally.

Modules are trays divided into cells. Seeds are sown in each cell, and seedlings are transplanted by pushing them out from beneath , leaving the rootball undisturbed.

The simplest propagator is a clear plastic bag tied over a plant pot. It creates the warm, humid microclimate in which seeds germinate best. Purpose-made propagators are plastic trays with close-fitting clear lids. Some have a heating element and a thermostat.

b. Seed and potting composts

If you buy these specially formulated composts fresh each year, they should be sterile and free of pests, viruses and other soil-borne diseases. Seed compost is made of coir or pear and sand. It doesn’t contain any soil nor any nutrients, as germinating seeds don’t need these. once seedlings have rooted, pot them on using potting compost, which may or may not contain soil but does contain the nutrients they need.

c. Pricking out

Once seedlings have deeveloped a couple of leaves, move them into individual pots or modules. This is known as “pricking out”. Use a dibber or a pencil to lever them very gently out of the soil, taking care not to damage the delicate roots. Always handle seedlings by the leaves, not the stem.

Sowing outside

Most vegetables sown outdoors go into the groundMost vegetables sown outdoors fo into the ground in their final position – brassicas, leeks and root vegetables, for example. There is no point in sowing too early; most seeds need a minimum temeprature to germinate, and if the soil is too cold they wont perform until it warms up or worse, they will rot or be eaten by predators.

Lend a helping hand by warming up the soil artifically. Use cloches or frames, or cover with sheets of black polythene. This will not only allow heat to build up, it will keep off rain, stopping the soil becoming water logged.

a. Preparing the soil

Assuming you dug over the soil last autumn or winter, and incorporated plenty of well-rotted organic material, you must now produce a “fine tilth”= fine,crumbly soil with no large clods of earth. This is achieved by hoeing to remove any new weeds and then by raking backwards and forwards until you have broken down the soil into fine particles. If it is too dry and dusty, water it. And if it sticks to your hoes when you walk into it, wait for it to dry out a little more.

b. Sowing methods

Seeds are sometimes sown in a drill – a shallow trench marked out in the soil with a hor- or they are scattered over a prepared area of ground(known as “broadcasting”_. They are then covered with soil and watered. When seedlings appear they usually need “thinning” so that they are not overcrowded.

Planting out

Before long, younf seedlings that have been raised under cover in pots and modules will need planting out or “transplanting” into their final growing positions.Deciding exactly when to do this is a bit of an art. If you do it too early, the ground may not yet be warm enough or there may still be a danger of frosts. If you do it too late, the seedlings may outgrow their containers and their roots will become pot-bound. However, timing is less critical for plants that have been raised in a nursery seedbed.

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Hardening off

Seedlings raised indoors or under cover get used to a warm, sheltered microclimate. If you suddenly move them outdoors into the cold, they will probably experience a sharp shock. To avoid this , they should be acclimatized slowly by being “hardened off”. Either put them outdoors during the day and bring them in at night or keep them in a cold frame with a lid you can open and close. Alternatively, plant them out but cover them at night with cloches.

Transplanting from pots and modules

Seedlings should be planted out once they ahve four to six true leaves and before their roots fill their pots. Before you start, soak both the seedlings and the holes in the ground into which they are being planted. Carefully remove the seedlings from their pots or modules, holding them by their leaves rather than their stems or roots, and retaining as much of the potting compost as possbile. Drop them into their planting holes and gently firm soil around them.

Transplanting from a seedbed

Don’t transplant in full sun. Seedlings already under stress from being uprooted wil only wilt further in the heat. Instead, choose a day when the weather is grey and overcast. Give your plants a thorough soaking before attempting to lift them, then dig them out with a hand fork or trowel, keeping as mch soil intact around their roots as you can. To keep them damp, put them in a clear plastic bag or a bucket with an inch or so of water in it. After watering the planting holes, carefully inset the seedlings, drawing the soil around them , then firming it down.

Mulches

A layer of organic or inorganic material spread over the surface of the soil is called a mulch. It might be a sheet of plastic that you hae been using to watm up the ground; is fo you can cut holes in it and plant through it. Alternatively, it might be well-rotted manure, compost or grass cuttings. Its best to apply mulches after watering newly planted seedlings but not when the soil is either very wet or very dry.

Mulches serve a number of purposes. They keep the soil warm. They retain moisture by preventing water from evaporating. They can act as organic fertlizers if they contain nutrients that will be absorbed into the soil. They inhibit weed growth. And they may also depending on the material deter pests and parasites such as slugs, snails, and certain insects.

Crop rotation

With the exception of one or two perennials that occupy a permanent position(artichokes, asparagus or rhubarb, for example), vegetables are sown or planted afresh each year. Its smart to grow them in different places from one year to the next. That way, you will prevent your soil from becoming exhausted by the same crop continually taking the same nutrients out of it. You will also reduce the risk of pests and diseases establishing and becoming difficult to eradicate. There are numerous crop-rotation systems, which all group together crops belonging to the same family or sharing the same needs.

Five year crop rotation

Most allotment plots are large enough to be divided into numerous, different sized beds or planting areas. If so, you might like to try this longer-term rotation plan, which means that it will be five years before any one crop is grown again in the same place.

  • Year 1: brassicas
  • Year 2: Peas and beans
  • Year 3: Potatoes and fruiting vegetables
  • Year 4: The onion family
  • Year 5: Root and stem vegetables
  • Its not so critical to rotate vegetables such as courgettes and squashes, or leaces such as lettuce, spanish, and other salads, they may be slotted in as part of any rotation group.

Three year crop rotation

Year1: Peas, beans, and fruiting vegetables

Peas and beans are all legumes and share an important characteristic. they absorb nitrogen from the air and store or “fix”, it with the help of bacteria in small nodules on their roots. If you leave those roots in the soil after harvesting, the crops that you grow there next year can benefit from the nitrogen left behind. Along with brassicas, this group includes fruiting vegetables like aubergines, cucumbers, peppers, sweetcorn and tomatoes.

Year 2: Brassicas

This rotation group includes related crops such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflowers, kale and oriental greens- as well as the lesser-known brassicas such as kohl rabi, radishes, swedes and turnips. Moving them around a plot from one year to the next is particularly important because they are all susceptible to the soil-borne fungal disease clubroot. Brassicas are all nitrogen-hungry, so grow them in the section in which last year’s peas and beans were grown.

Year 3: Roots, Onions and leaves

Root crops for example beetroots, caroots, and parsnips and tubers, such as Jerusalem artuchookes, potatoes and sweet potatoes, don’t have a particularly high requirement for nitrogen. They are therefore ideal for following on in an area after brassicas, where the nitrogen levels in the soil will have been depleted. this rotation group may also include crops from the onion family, such as garlic, leeks and shallots, and salads and leafy vegetables for example lettuce, spinach and swiss chard.

War on weeds

Here’s an alarming statistic: it is estimated that in every square meter of soil there are probably 100000 seeds. This is why regular weeding is inescapable. Resign yourselg to the fact that its going to be a constant battle. Weeds are invasive and competitve – they drink the water and absorb the nutrients you want your vegetables to have; they crowd them for space, higging the light. And they can be a home to all kinds of pests and diseases.

1. Annual weeds

Regular hoeing will control annual weeds such as chickweed, speedwell, shepherd’s purse, and hairy bittercress, which spring up between rows of plants. Don’t let them flower, or they will generate a new crop of fresh seeds. Keep your hoe sharp, slice off weeds just below the surface, and clear away the remains if it is wet.

2. Perennial weeds

These are harder to eradicare, and will probably need digging out by hand. Remove every last bit of root or rhuzome; perennial weeds can regenerate from tiny segments, so using a rotavator rarely works. More effective is a sheet of thick black plastic or carpet laid over the ground. It deprives weeds of light, weakening or even killing them. You may even be able to plant crops through it.

3. Weedkillers

restrict the use of chemical weedkillers to heavily overgrown plots that need clearing. Tenacious perennials that are simply too deeply rooted to dig up are best tackled using a systemic weedkiller. Wear protective gear when applying, and spray on a still day to prevent it being blown onto nearby plants.

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