Alan Titchmarsh: The immutable truth of gardening? You only get out what you put in

In gardening, there are no shortcuts says Alan Titchmarsh: you only get out what you put in.

A friend of mine was walking past some allotments back in the 1970s. As he gazed over the fence at the serried ranks of 10-pole plots, he noticed a cloud rising from one of them. From the centre of the cloud, a figure appeared carrying one of those puffer packs of insecticidal dust. ‘Are you all right?’ enquired my friend of the emerging allotment holder. ‘Oh yes. I’m fine,’ came the reply. ‘It’s only DDT.’

From those far off days of 50 years ago, we have come a long way in the appreciation of what we eat and the way we want to grow it. We have learned to balance the necessary use of chemicals — in medicine, for instance — with a need to feel comfortable about the provenance of our food and the effect that growing it has on our own health and on the wellbeing of the natural world.

Organic vegetable gardening is, for me, the only way to raise my food. I might produce cleaner crops if I employed what we used to call, back in the 1960s, a ‘spray programme’, but I doubt that I would want to eat them. By growing a mixture of fruit and vegetables in my modest-sized kitchen garden, well fed with oodles of well-rotted garden compost and my trusty blood, bone and fish meal, I seldom encounter epidemics. I grow my soft fruit in a well-constructed cage, so that the birds can only stare longingly at the ripening fruit. I put all the work in, so it is I who will eat the bounty — the birds can make do with the seed-rich feeders that are kept topped up every day of the year.

“Should one of my grandchildren pull up a carrot or pick a raspberry and pop it in their mouth, I have the satisfaction of knowing that they will survive”

When it comes to the soil, I firmly believe that you only get out what you put in. I have two large compost heaps — one full to the brim and rotting, the other in the process of being filled. Every year in late winter, the contents of the full heap go onto the garden — flowerbeds and borders, as well as those in my fruit and veg patch. The brown and crumbly mixture, which includes chipped woody stems (a powered shredder is one of the best buys I have ever made) is forked in and, just before sowing or planting a crop, the ground is given a liberal dusting of the aforementioned B, B and F. From then on, provided the crops are not allowed to go short of water, which stops them growing and can lead to woodiness and lack of succulence, they grow away with little bother. I conserve water wherever I can — avoiding using it on the lawn and on established plants — but, on the vegetable plot, it needs to be readily available to keep crops growing steadily.

What is so special about the organic nature of blood, bone and fish meal as opposed to the inorganic ‘National Growmore’ that my grandfather used on his allotment? Simple: because it is organic in origin, it needs to be broken down by soil bacteria before it can be absorbed by plants. The result of this is that these beneficial organisms are encouraged; the soil is a healthy entity, rather than the lifeless confection of dust laced with minerals that is produced by inorganic fertilisers. They may be more rapid in action, but their effect is more transitory, less long lasting than B, B and F.

Then there are the benefits of companion planting — using one plant to help ensure the health of another. Onion sets or chives are planted alongside rows of carrots to deter carrot fly (they are fooled by the aroma of the alliums). By mixing things up, and by thoughtful cultivation techniques — not thinning out carrots, for instance, which releases their innate aroma and attracts the carrot flies to lay their eggs — I prevent attacks using native cunning rather than noxious sprays or dusts.

I grow rows of flowers, lavender and scabious, sweet peas and marigolds, to encourage pollinators that will ensure a good crop of peas and beans. My cabbages are covered with fine mesh netting to prevent the large and small white butterflies from laying their eggs. As a result, I have clean plants that have not been polluted with pesticides.

Should one of my grandchildren pull up a carrot or pick a raspberry and pop it in their mouth, I have the satisfaction of knowing that they will survive. And so, too, will the invisible army of ‘goodies’ that thrive on my vegetable patch.

Alan Titchmarsh’s new novel The Gift is out now