For this month’s edition of Glutbusters I thought I would herald the imminent start of the new growing season by concentrating on some useful techniques – I’ll do the basics now, in part 1, and come back to look at some other methods next month. If you want to go straight into gardening then the advice I gave in March last year is still good!
We should start with a reminder of the Glutbusters mentality – which assumes that the 21st century gardener doesn’t have acres of space, hours to while away in the garden or endless shelving on which to preserve the harvest. Glutbusters try to avoid feast and famine, and even glorious gluts, and aim instead for for diversity and interest. I want my garden to be a delight to every sense, a haven for us and for wildlife and somewhere I love to spend my time. I don’t want to measure my success by weight or volume; my definition of ‘yield’ is less tangible, and more fulfilling.
So… with that in mind, how can we maximise the return on our efforts, and ensure that we can pop outside every day and find something tempting to nibble on, without being overwhelmed with produce we can’t eat? The key is to plan ahead, know what you’re going to grow, and where and when, and how to manage sowing and planting.
So much gardening advice is aimed large vegetable gardens and allotments, with sowing all done in one big batch, and harvesting likewise. This is a guide to gardening in moderation 🙂
Cut & Come Again
With some plants you get one harvest, and that’s your lot. You harvest the whole plant (e.g. a carrot) and it’s gone. But there are plenty of leafy vegetables that – a bit like grass – will carry on growing after they’ve been cut (if you cut the properly). Salad greens aren’t immortal, and you’ll only get two or three cuts before they’re exhausted and need to be replaced. But sowing a tray of mixed leaf seed every couple of weeks will keep you in salad all through the year – without a bolted lettuce in sight. All you need to remember is not to cut too low on the plant; the base needs to be protected if it’s going to regrow. Snipping off enough leaves for one meal means no waste, and you’re ready to eat in no time!
Actually, I’ve just mentioned succession sowing above – it’s simply staggering your seed sowing so that your harvest is spread over several weeks. It doesn’t work for long-season plants (such as peppers and tomatoes and winter brassicas), but for species that mature in a few weeks it’s ideal. Rather than sow a whole row of lettuce in one go, so that the plants all mature at the same time, try sowing a pinch of seed every few days (or however often you would like to eat lettuce!). It’s good for all sorts of leafy greens, spring onions and even small brassicas such as turnips, calabrese and kohl rabi.
Multi-sowing refers to sowing several seeds in the same place and allowing them to mature into small clumps, rather than thinning them down to one plant per station. You can multi-sow in modules, and then plant out the whole clump, or sow directly into the soil. It’s usually used for roots and bulbs, and what it gives you is several smaller bulbs or roots from the same space – but a larger harvest overall. So you may prefer a little clump of baby beetroot to one large one, for example. It’s also good for bulb and spring/ salad onions, leeks and chives and round or stumpy varieties of carrots.
Catch cropping/ double cropping/ intercropping/ undercropping
Catch cropping is planting a quick-growing crop in ground that you will later use for something else. So an early crop of radishes or salad leaves where you will be planting out your courgettes, for example. Or, later in the season, some Oriental greens in the grow bags from which you’ve just removed your tomatoes, or in the bed where you had your onions. It’s about making use of space which would otherwise be vacant, even if only for a little while. Intercropping is planting a small, quick crop to make use of the space between young plants that – when mature – will be much larger.
These are all variations on multicropping, growing more than one crop in the same piece of ground during one season. It’s polyculture, relying on the fact that different crops need differing amounts of space, light, water and nutrients over time. A classic (American) example is the Three Sisters – with sweetcorn, climbing beans and trailing squash all being planted in the same area. It can be hard to get the balance right, so that each crop thrives.
If you’re short on ground space then it pays to think in another dimension. There are plenty of climbing edible plants that could, with a little help, clamber up your fence or over an arbour, and it’s easy enough to put in some cane supports for (e.g.) climbing beans, which will then give a large harvest from a small footprint. Or you could put up some hanging baskets, and look into trailing edible plants….
All we’re really talking about here is not only looking at your garden in three dimensions, but thinking about the fourth – time. The Glutbusters mentality is about making use of all the niches in your garden, and planning a range of crops to take you through the season. One way of doing that is to extend the season – at either end – by employing some plant protection. We don’t all have space for a greenhouse, but cloches are designed to protect individual plants, and needn’t be expensive – temporary cloches can be made from clear plastic bottles (and have the added advantage of protecting against slugs as well as the weather! There’s a whole range of crop protection strategies available to suit every garden – from mini cloches and fleece through to plastic and mesh tunnels right up to cold frames and greenhouses.
With a little planning, you can have fresh crops to harvest as early in the season as possible, and as late in the season as possible, with enough diversity inbetween that you won’t get bored with anything!
These are all traditional methods to maximise the harvest from your garden space, no matter how large or small. In next month’s Glutbusters I’ll have a look at some of the less traditional ways to do the same thing 🙂
How do you make sure you get the most from your garden?