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How to start a vegetable patch

Tom and Barbara dug it. Michelle Obama digs it too. And with our quick guide, you’ll find that growing your own delicious veg is easy-peasy…

Vegetable patch (© Ben Crystall)

If the thought of fresh broccoli or crisp carrots picked from your own garden appeals, then it's time to try growing your own food. Sounds like tough work? Don't worry - it's not all hard labour, and you won't simply end up filling great-looking beds with grubby old veggies. These days, home-grown food is suprisingly easy to produce and you won't even need to compromise on the appearance of your garden either: veggies that taste good can look brilliant too.

What to grow and where

There are two key decisions to make before you can begin planting. First, ask yourself how much space you should dedicate to a veg patch. Second, decide what kind of things you want to grow. Courgettes or cauliflowers, for instance, will take up a lot more space than carrots or onions, though typically a spot about four feet square is fine for most purposes. If you have kids and are keen to get them involved, perhaps try giving each of them their own plot and turn it into a competition to grow the biggest, or smallest plants?

Don't forget to make the most of walls and fences for growing climbers such as beans and peas. And don't create a monoculture - try growing a mix of veg, herbs and flowers. Experienced gardeners have discovered that mixing crops together seems to help protect against pests, and this way you'll soon find which kinds of plants do well and which ones struggle. You'll also find that your veggie patch won't just taste good - it will be ornamental too!

Sort out your soil

Sticky clay or wind-blown sand - whatever kind of soil you have, if you want to grow jumbo veggies you'll need to enrich it somehow. Rather than adding artificial fertiliser, you are better off digging in well-rotted horse manure: this will do wonders for your crop as the nitrogen, potassium and phosophorus it contains are just the thing for fast-growing, healthy plants. Plus manure gives gardeners a double whammy - it helps preserve moisture in sandy soils and improves drainage in clay.

Vegetable patch (© Ben Crystall)

Adding manure isn't precision chemistry. As a general guide, add one bucket full of material to every square yard of soil. But make sure it has rotted for at least six months before growing veg on the plot or plant roots can be damaged.

Protect your plants

Whether you plan to plant seeds or buy small "plug" plants, to get them off to the best start you may want to raise them on a sunny window sill, or in a small greenhouse or coldframe. Alternatvely simply pop a "cloche" made from a cut-off plastic drinks bottle over the seedling and this should help protect it from chilly nights.

Then there are garden pests to think about: after all, don't let others enjoy the fruits of your labour before you get a chance to do so yourself. While hungry slugs and snails are the mortal enemy of the veg grower, some crops are more vulnerable than others. Veg in the brassica family, for example, are preyed on by the cabbage white butterfly, and carrots have their own particular nemesis: the tiny carrot fly. One way to avoid this little monster is to grow your carrots a few feet off the ground in a raised bed - amazingly, the carrot flies won't find them!

Vegetable patch (© Ben Crystall)

Pest control the natural way

Whatever you grow, get yourself a good guide to pests and diseases, and watch for the first signs of attack. Pick off caterpillars when they appear and collect slugs and snails last thing at night. You might also want to think about using netting to keep birds away. Adding fragrant plants such as marigolds or rosemary among your veg also seems to help put off the pests. And rather than throwing down slug pellets, use natural forms of pest control such as nematodes (roundworms - slugs' natural enemy) - these deadly assassins will wipe out those slimey visitors in a few days.

Small is beautiful

Even the smallest garden can create a healthy crop of delicous food. And the truth is that your plot doesn't have to take up a lot of space - as long as the plants get plenty of sun you can stuff veg and herbs into pots, window boxes or even hanging baskets. This kind of container gardening is particularly suitable for salad crops or dwarf varities such as dwarf leeks and aubergines, for instance. But wherever you plant, tend your patch well and in a matter of weeks you will be enjoying your own freshly picked veg.

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