If you've ever been tempted to grow your own vegetables, April is the perfect time to get started. Our gardening expect Kim Wilde shows you how.
For me there's no better way to spend time than outside under the ever changing sky, getting my hands dirty, rubbing shoulders with nature and getting plenty of exercise at the same time. Then later, to sit down to a freshly pulled lettuce garnished with herbs, or a bowl of new potatoes served with last autumn's crop of pickled beetroot with fresh horseradish-all from your own back yard!
If you're a bit short on space to grow your vegetables in, large pots or containers will do as long as they're a minimum of 25cm wide and deep. You should always use good compost and check the drainage too. It's a good idea to put containers in a tray, as the vegetables can become very thirsty on hot days, and use a slow release organic fertiliser to keep them in good shape.
Pots, growbags, window boxes, wheelbarrows and even old sinks can all be used to grow your produce in and they are especially good for tomatoes, courgettes, French beans (dwarf and climbing), lettuce, potatoes and mini beetroot. Try mini vegetables which are specially developed to produce mini sized vegetables in less time and a lot less space. Most seed catalogues have a wide range of these mini varieties which are ideal for stirfries and barbecues.
Make your food taste even better by keeping a pot of mixed salad by the kitchen door ready to add fresh leaves to all your meals.
Leaf lettuces are a good choice as there is re-growth after cutting~try lollo rosso, salad bowl or red salad bowl types. Tomatoes need a warm sheltered spot - choose from a wide variety, from currant tomatoes with strings of tiny fruit to yellow, orange, pink or even stripy ones. Look out for Tumbler F1 hybrid, Yellow Debut or Gardener's Delight, all of which are ideal for growing in sma1ler gardens. If space is not a problem for you, then raised beds are perfect. Make your beds from old railway sleepers, weather-proofed wood or even hazel posts woven with willow sticks. Create a bed about 1.2m wide so you can work to the middle from both sides. Apart from giving easy access, raising the beds will also improve drainage.
A good site for a vegetable garden would be a gentle south-facing slope which has the shelter of hedges or trees on the north and east sides. The slope will ensure good drainage and the hedge can protect your crops against harsh winds. To improve growing conditions, cut back trees that cast heavy shadows and block off cold draughts funne1led through narrow openings between houses.
Choose the f1owers you plant carefully - go for the varieties which attract friendly insects that feed on plant pests. Pot marigolds, echinacea, Californian poppies and daisies are havens for friendly insects including centipedes, hoverflies, ladybirds and garden spiders, which all help zap those annoying bugs.
Tips to get your vegetables off to a good start
- Clear soil of any large stones and then rake to a fine tilth (crumb texture) before planting.
- Never sow or plant until the soil is warm enough. A good indication is when you see the first flush of annual weeds.
- Choose a sunny spot to plant your vegetables in.
- Don't grow related vegetables in the same spot year after year. See crop rotation.
- Incorporate plenty of manure, preferably in the autumn. Dig it well into heavy soils and spread as a mulch on lighter soils, then let the trost break it down for you. Don't use it tor root crops as it causes roots to divide, which creates some bizarre shapes.
- Wider spacing between your plants produces larger crops. The closer you plant, the smaller your vegetables will be.
- To avoid a glut of any one vegetable it's best to make three or tour separate sowings from April through to July.
- Plant the rows of vegetables north to south so that they I receive equal amounts of sun on both sides and won't shade each other too much.
- Create an asparagus bed. The results are all the more mouth-watering as you'll have to wait three years for your first harvest.
Roughly speaking, there are three main groups of vegetables.
- Leaf crops including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and spinach.
- Root crops, for example beetroot, carrot, swede, parsnip, potato and turnip. 3 Seed stems and bulbs such as beans, peas, celery , leeks, onions and shallots.
Divide your plot into three sections. Each year, plant a different category of vegetable in each section to help avoid a build-up of pests and diseases. Moving the crops each year also evens up the levels of soil nutrients, as each category requires different ones.
Sowing the seeds for success
Raising your own plants from seed is very satisfying and also very cost effective. It's amazing to think what you can grow from just one packet!
Before you start, make sure containers are scrupulously clean to prevent disease spreading to your seedlings. If sowing outside, make sure soil is weIl dug over and that the surface has been broken up to a breadcrumb consistency.
Check the packet to see what growing conditions the plants need and choose the right place to sow them. If growing plants on a window-sill. make sure that new seedlings don't get scorched by the strong sun.
Check what depth and distance apart the seeds need to be planted - this is vital for success. The pack should always tell you, but if it doesn't, space seeds 1 - 2.5 cm apart.
If planting in pots, use fresh, sterile multi-purpose compost from a good garden centre. This will make sure your seedlings get off to a good start as it contalns all the necessary nutrients and is free of bacteria and diseases.
Fill pots to brim and tap on a work surface to settie the soil. Don't press it too firmly, or it will get waterlogged and could lead to seedlings rotting. If planting outside, firm down soil but don't compact it too much.
If planting outside make a hole or a small trench to the correct depth (see packet instructions), sow seeds thinly and cover lightly with soil. Water the seed bed using a watering can with a sprinkler attached. Don't overwater them at this stage, as you could wash all your hard work away.
Once the seedlings are big enough, thin them out by holding a leaf and levering out with a pencil. Transfer them into larger pots.
In bloom this month
This flowering currant has sweet-smelling yellow flowers.
The delicate light blue flowers of this forget-me-not last well and are also very decorative.
The spotted leaves of this lungwort contrast perfectly with its lovely flowers which start out pink and then gradually turn a delightful blue colour.
These brilliant Percy gardening kits - containing two terracotta pots with saucers, a fork and trowel, two tins of exotic vegetable seeds, shears, a dibber and gardening gloves - are a bargain at 16. From Habitat (0845 601 0740).
Q: Everytime I open my compost bin lots if small black flies appear from inslde. What are they, and are they pests?
A: They sound like sciarid flies, which are also called fungus gnats. Their larvae feed on decaying organic matter and they're usually harmless in compost bins. They tend to disappear of their own accord after a while, but you do need to make sure they don't go near your cuttings or houseplants as they will damage them.
Things to do in April
- Apply a handful of fertiliser to spring bulbs - this will help them to flower well next year.
- Plant dahlia tubers in large pots. These can be put outside in May then the danger of frost has passed.
- Prune back your buddleia, willow and plumbago to encourage healthy new growth for the spring and summer.
- Take delphinium cuttings from any new 5-7 cm shoots which appear. Root them in a gritty potting compost on a warm windowsill or in the greenhouse.
Well worth a visit
Wyld Court Rainforest
Hampstead Norreys, Newbury, Berkshire (01635 200221). The huge greenhouse gives you a taste of life in the rainforest, complete with monkeys and posionous tree frogs.
The Beth Chatto Gardens
Colchester, Essex (01206 822007). Enjoy the glorious spring beauty of the woodland garden and the bulb gardens (left).