I’ve been running a thrifty urban kitchen garden here for a few years now, and this year I have to confess I was rather late getting most of it started – but that’s a good opportunity to write about how easy it can be to get an edible garden or mini allotment going from scratch.
To be accurate it’s more like a cottage garden as we do have a few ornamental plants and flowers mixed in with the food plants, but I’m just going to focus on the kitchen garden side of things here, including ways to run one on a budget and, how to plan around a late start.
Not completely starting from scratch
There are some edible perennials already planted up here, and they’re in pretty good shape so that’s made things much easier. That includes a small bay tree, some purple sage, a cherry tree (Stella), strawberries (Just Add Cream), wild and alpine strawberries (unknown types), a big clump of rhubarb (Red Champagne) and autumn raspberries (Polka).
These just needed some quick care, such as repotting the herbs, weeding and mulching around the bases of the plants, and applying a small amount of liquid feed where needed. We’ve already eaten rhubarb, strawberries and wild strawberries, so that tiny bit of TLC has already started to pay off. Next month the cherries should ripen, and the raspberries will be cropping after that.
After looking after those plants, I did some more weeding around the whole plot, and dug some chicken manure pellets and compost into the soil to give it some more nutrients and break up the heavy clay. From experience, I think that looking after the soil properly can more than double your yield of food so this was definitely worth doing on the thrifty front.
Finding some last minute seedlings
Now onto the assorted epic fails. I didn’t start off any tomatoes, sweet peppers, chillies or other heat loving plants at the appropriate time (generally March or April for non-greenhouse growing) due to illness and losing our remaining kitty at Easter. I sowed up a few pots of kitchen windowsill herbs, but that was about it until May when I finally threw some tomato seeds into a tray and hoped for the best.
For the non-experienced gardeners out there, plants such as chillies and sweet peppers require a long growing season, and you need to get your tomatoes up and running before blight arrives in the neighbourhood. I still don’t have any peppers or chilli plants, but I managed to swap some interesting seeds at a local gardening event in return for a few tomato seedlings and marigolds, and although most of my home-sown stuff clearly isn’t going to make it we did get some very vigorous Balconi Yellow tomatoes growing against the odds.
In the swap I got Sweet Million, Sungold, and Gardener’s Delight cordon / vine toms, and I was also given three bushy Tumbling Tom Red plants as a gift. They all looked a bit fragile at the time due to the lousy weather, so I moved them to a warm, bright windowsill until they perked up, then exposed them very, very gradually to the great outdoors before planting out into their final positions a few days ago.
While the tomatoes were perking up, I finally got my act together and sowed cucumbers (Marketmore 76 and Crystal Lemon), courgettes (Jemmer, Verde, Tondo di Nizza, Zephyr, Summer Ball), cucamelons, and winter squash (Red Kuri) on the same warm windowsill, along with some marigolds and extra basil. I also sowed some courgette, cucumber and winter squash seeds outside under cloches, as I’ve heard that direct sowing is a way to make up for lost time at the end of May. At the same time I set up some bean poles and direct sowed some climbing French beans and borlotti beans right into the soil, again hoping to save time.
Direct sowing, modules and more
Then I moved on to sowing a few mangetout peas and plenty of salad seeds outdoors (rocket, lettuces, spring onions and radishes) and we had our first crop of rocket within three weeks. I’ve made extra sowings every few days since then too, to ensure a steady supply. If you’re a beginner and lack confidence, start with salads – they’re easy to grow and reward you with tasty fresh food very quickly, plus most of the popular varieties of seeds can be found very cheaply.
The other sensible thing I did (few and far between so far this year) was to sow up some modules and stick them in the mini greenhouse to get some kales (Dwarf Green and Scarlet), rainbow chard, oriental leaves and bigger lettuces going. See picture above. Most of them are currently ready to start planting out in the next few days, so that’s an easy, reliable way to quickly fill gaps in an edible garden.
The direct sowing experiment had generally poor results, with one exception. The cucumbers and courgettes got off to a very, very slow start and still haven’t caught up with their stronger indoor cousins, and the beans started very slowly although they now seem to have recovered. The only plant that liked being direct sown was the Red Kuri, which is kind of strange as it’s a winter squash / pumpkin and I would have expected it to be a lot more finicky at the lower temperatures. Lesson learned, starting plants indoors generally means you’ll be getting food out of them faster, even if you don’t start them off especially early (although you might get away with the beans if there’s warm enough weather).
A snail also took down one of the Jemmer courgettes by chewing almost completely through the stem, see below, and I accidentally knocked the growing point of one of the cucumbers which was then promptly murdered overnight by the local slugs. There were just enough spares for replacements so we should be fine, fingers crossed.
After planting out I had a few spare tomato seedlings left so I gave those away to other local gardeners along with cucumbers, marigolds and a squash plant. I figured that lots of people had been kind and generous to me, which had essentially helped me out of a self-inflicted jam, so it was time to pay it forward.
More epic fails & a small amount of shopping
The next round of epic fails came from finding out that quite a lot of our old seeds didn’t germinate. Some of this was just user error, i.e. me being a bit too thrifty and wanting to use up some ancient stocks (cabbage, turnip, kohl rabi, silver beet, flat leaf parsley), but we also had some in-date ones do no-shows, including Tendercrop dwarf beans and Tom Thumb lettuce. That might have been partly due to one bad bag of compost – everything it touched failed to germinate or died – so I might try sowing some more of those up under different conditions.
In the end I decided to admit defeat over the weekend and bought some fresh stocks in the Mr Fothergills offer (pic above), which is still going and worth a look if you’re quick. They have lots of packets of seeds reduced to £1 per pack, and it’s buy any five packets and get one free as well. The seeds haven’t had time to arrive in the post yet, but I think you get some free samples in there too so I’ll let you know what turns up, as it might turn out to be great stuff and hopefully work out to be eight packets in total for a fiver plus P&P. I only bought seeds you can sow from now onwards, so hopefully we’ll still get some benefit from them during this growing season and there should be a few left over for next year.
That’s a quick roundup of where things currently are: plenty of fruit, some salad, herbs, and the first courgette ready to hit our plates. Beans, courgettes, chard, kale, cucumbers, cucamelon and tomatoes on the way. Not a bad recovery, all things considered, and I’ll keep up the work for the next couple of weeks until the kitchen garden’s properly up and running.
Are you running a kitchen garden or allotment this year, or growing your own food in other ways? If not, are you tempted to start?