Ooooh I’ve been meaning to write this post for so long but as I sit here looking over my fledgling pots and seedlings for 2021 growing adventures, now feels as good a time as any. It’s a funny old world – if you’d have asked 38-year-old me, stumbling in at 4am from a drunken night out and very unaware of how I even got home, whether I’d ever be content just pottering in the garden I’d have scornfully mocked that as being something for losers.
But an awful lot has happened in the last 3 years – leaving my long-term job completely unexpectedly, being diagnosed with a chronic illness, not to mention a global pandemic, that I’m probably quite a different person now than I was in my late 30s and I’m not mad about it.
Last year, just like most of the UK it seems, we decided to use our sudden forced staying at home mandate to try and grow vegetables. Its been a fun, interesting, challenging, exciting time and as a complete and utter novice I figured it might help some of you if I shared what I’ve learned here. With mixed determination last year, I tried: chillies, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, mange tout, rocket, lettuce, runner beans, lettuce, beetroot, sweetcorn and potatoes
Things WILL Grow
It may not be everything that you sow, it may be everything if you’re really lucky! But I guarantee that if you sow a mix of things be they flowers, vegetables and so on, you’ll have success with something. If you’re growing with children, then I can really recommend sunflowers, cucumbers and courgettes as fairly speedy germinators.
I honestly had the worst quality soil and remember digging out turf to create a veggie bed finding broken glass, rubble and all sorts and I still ended up with a flourishing patch so be patient, keep trying and I promise you’ll be rewarded.
People Will Give Unsolicited Advice (And Often Quite Unhelpful)
There are two types of advice: that which you need and that which you really don’t. Whilst I’m sure most of it is well-meaning, someone who lives down in Cornwall or up in the Outer Hebrides really, really doesn’t know or understand your gardening conditions. They don’t know what soil you have, what way your garden faces or what your average climate is. So when they tell you you’re planting things out too early, perhaps you are relative to their conditions but you may have it spot on relative to your own.
I skirt around that by relying immensely on my next-door neighbour for advice and guidance – she has been growing veg for years and still says she’s learning, and it was interesting last year to see what we did and didn’t have success with (and it was different in some cases despite near identical growing conditions). I’ve also found a couple of very local Instagram accounts to me who share vegetable growing adventures who at least have a fairly similar climate to me and their advice is so helpful.
Likewise, some elements of advice are just unavoidable facts and worth paying attention to. Things like sweetcorn is wind pollinated (rather than insect) so needs to be grown in a grid, rather than a row. Chillies and peppers need very warm conditions to germinate. Tomatoes are tender and cannot be planted out too early as frost will kill them. And on that subject…
FROST (and otherwise obsessing over the weather)
Before last year, the only reason I cared about the weather was because I needed to know when I could finally emerge from my winter hibernation and de-bundle from millions of layers of clothes. I used to think it was maybe a bit chilly as I walked to the station in the morning but that was about it. Now, like almost every other gardener in the country I have half an idea of when my final frost can be expected because as mentioned above, frost will do for some poor tender plant babies. Disregarding vegetables, I have a Chocolate Vine climbing up some trellis against one of the fences and the new tendrils actually turn from green to blue and die on a cold night!
You Don’t Need Much To Start With
If like me you end up following lots of growing accounts either via blogs or social media, it can feel a little overwhelming. These are people who perhaps have been doing it for a long time, have learned a lot or are maybe studying the field. They’ll have professional set ups and share lots of scientific information behind the growing process. It’s super interesting but please don’t be put off by it. I grew a lot of my seedlings last year in any old empty food packaging I could find from yoghurt pots to falafel trays and used endless amounts of empty toilet rolls.
For us it was more a case of we didn’t know if it would work, if we’d even enjoy growing things, so we didn’t want to spend any money on it. Now it’s the second year and we’ve built a second raised bed and I’ve bought a couple more propagating trays and a heat mat. Add to things over time once you know you enjoy what you’re doing.
Courgettes Really Are The Plant That Just Keep On Giving
Last year I sowed 4 courgette seeds, they all germinated and I planted them all out. Two people do not need that many courgettes, ever. Everyone told me that it would result in a lot of courgettes but in my doubting newbie grower mind, I worried they wouldn’t produce any. I ended up giving lots and lots away (this year hopefully by the time it comes to produce time, we’ll have a chest freezer so I can cook/store more). Am I tempted to plant another 4 this year? Maybe 😉 I may sow 4 seeds, to guarantee germination and then give two plants away for someone else to enjoy. We’ll see!
Some Vegetables Do Need Growing Support
Last year I grew a couple of runner beans that my neighbour started off for me, but I only staked them with a single cane and they grew a few pods but didn’t have anywhere to go after that. This year, I’ve added an arch so that when I hopefully grow them again, they’ll have something lovely to climb over and wind around and it will hopefully look very pretty. Cucumbers and tomatoes also need some kind of height/staking in terms of support so it’s something to bear in mind.
Not Every Vegetable Is Worth It
Last year, I tried broccoli because I love it and we eat a lot of it. For me in the end, broccoli simply isn’t worth it. Perhaps if I had an allotment with a bit more space, but honestly we could easily eat 2-3 heads a week and to grow that much would take up a lot of space and most importantly time since broccoli have a long growing season. But that’s ok, its trial and error to work out what you enjoy, what you have space and time for.
Conversely, Some Don’t Stop
Two of my favourites from last year were rocket and mange tout because both of them are spectacularly low maintenance. I direct sowed both into the ground (and again, rubbish crappy soil at that) and they just loved life. With things like rocket and lettuce you can just tear off the leaves you need and they’ll keep producing more. Be wary though, rocket especially is more of a cool weather plant and will quickly bolt (ie get quite bitter and not very tasty plus flower) if it’s too hot.
Mange tout comes with a force of nature which means you can pick ferociously for about a week/10 days and then they’re gone but you’ll have supplies for the freezer for a good few months. With both rocket and lettuce you can successional sow, this is where you sow more seeds every 3 weeks or so, so that you have a more regular supply of your faves.
A quick word on slugs because we have an abundance of them where I live – it’s not uncommon at certain times of year to step outside in the evening and easily see 40 slugs in the garden. My first attempt at lettuce I direct sowed into the ground and no sooner did some tiny seedlings emerge than the slugs devoured them entirely. I tried again in a pot this time and it fared better but I need to do more with natural slug protection (I don’t like to use chemicals/pesticides or kill anything). I’ve tried wool pellets and also copper seems to work quite well but be aware that depending on what you grow “pests” will find them (birds, butterflies, you name it!) Or event cats and dogs *rolls eyes*
A Word On Flowers
Last year I tried half-heartedly to grow a couple of flowers from seed and it was an abject failure. My heart wasn’t really in it and so I didn’t give them any care or attention. This year (and there will be a separate post on what I’m trying this year) I’m making a bit more of an effort as I’ve learned a bit more about gardening in the intervening time so watch this space.
Seeing Veggies Out Of The Supermarket
Most of us have probably seen tomatoes on the vine in a shop, but do you know what a rocket flower looks like, or an aubergine flower? Because I’m ashamed to say I didn’t. Aside from wondering whether things will grow, it’s just such an education on so many levels and you realise I utterly commercialised we are. Last year I successfully grew sweetcorn and the tassles at the top were pink! Who knew that was even a variety
Potatoes Will Surprise You
I hadn’t planned to grow potatoes, they seemed like a bit of effort and I didn’t really understand first earlies, second earlies, main crop and so on. So when my neighbour gave me a few potato tops that had little roots growing out of them I reluctantly planted them. Then, we built our raised bed over the top of them (I had to plant some veggies out before the bed itself was finished). I resented the concept of earthing up, I didn’t water them enough and basically just left them well alone.
Imagine my surprise then when come October, and I finally decided it was time to remove all the old, decaying left over vegetables that I dug around and discovered about 15-20 really fantastic quality potatoes. My mind was literally blown and I couldn’t stop laughing that despite my best efforts to deliberately destroy them they still found a way.
It May Get Overwhelming
I’m not afraid to say I lost my way last year. I fell really poorly around the time that I should have been harvesting and was in an Ulcerative Colitis flare for 6 weeks barely able to get out of bed let alone get in the garden and cook so unfortunately some of my carefully grown veggies went to waste. Depending how you sow and what you grow, a lot of things will come to full-term at the same time and it’s quite the frenzy.
Greenhouses/Growhouses Can Get Very Hot
I thought the whole purpose of a greenhouse was to keep things warm so you keep the doors close and keep all the veggies toasty which is basically how I’d choose to live, obviously. I just didn’t realise how hot they get and managed to fry some beans and peas that I left in there on a sunny day with the doors shut that just didn’t recover. I learned that lesson very quickly.
Ultimately GROWING SOMETHING IS A MARVEL
I hope I’ve been realistic in this review of what I’ve learned, whilst also encouraging but not too negative. Honestly? Growing something – anything – from a seed never won’t blow my mind. For real it’s just such an exciting feeling when you take care of something water it and give it light and it responds with the first shoots. I can’t recommend it enough, it’s therapeutic and mindful and fulfilling. Yes, frustrating at times and I’ll never know why some pots germinate and others don’t. But when it works it’s just really utter pure magic.
Do you like to grow from seed? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll be sharing my favourite veg-focused accounts and also what I’m trying this year, in a couple of future blog posts.