Growing your own? The big mistake you have to avoid

An abundance might sound like success for a gardener, but if you're growing crops at home to supply your own needs, then little and often is a much better aim. Mark Diacono explains.

We gardeners are used to taking every measure available to us when sowing seeds. We study the back of seed packets, listen to the weather forecast, check a phone app, stare at the sky; tea leaves may even be read in the search for optimal sowing.

Although we dedicate ourselves to the start of our plants’ lives, we are not always so mindful about their end when we make our plans. I’m not the only person to have sown at the right time and then found himself wheeling a barrowful of runner beans to the house, the feeling of triumph mixed with that sinking sensation when I contemplate the amount of chutney that I (and everyone I know) will be eating over the coming year.

Of course, there are times — such as when I’m making cider or raspberry jam — when I want a large haul, but, for the most part, a steady supply is what I’m looking for.

There is no aspect of gardening that I am emailed about more commonly than this; it is perhaps what we consider the most vital indicator of kitchen-garden success. Happily, successional harvesting is entirely achievable, with a little forethought.

“The urge to sow in volume at once can be strong — it’s a line ticked off the to-do list— but we must resist”

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Careful selection of varieties can bring a ‘natural’ incremental supply. You can eat homegrown apples for 12 months of the year; potato varieties are handily grouped into Early and Main-crop divisions and subdivisions; autumn raspberries fruit later than summer cultivars and so on. Attention to variety descriptions can extend this further: for example, by growing different varieties, it’s perfectly possible to harvest sprouting broccoli for the coolest six months of the year, with each cultivar peaking at different times. This works well for many perennials, for plants—such as sprouting broccoli — that are in the ground for much of the year and where the slower speed of growth means the moment of harvest is measured in days and weeks.

For more quick-turnaround, short-shelf-life crops, where the perfect time to harvest is measured in hours or even minutes — peas, coriander, salads, radishes and more — too large a harvest is even harder to deal with: a glut inevitably means wastage. The way to deal with these crops is by adopting a ‘little and often’ approach in sowing.

Succession planting is important with crops such as radishes, as the short shelf life makes it tricky to deal with a large harvest.

The urge to sow in volume at once can be strong — it’s a line ticked off the to-do list— but we must resist. Rather than sowing, say, 24 broad beans or lettuces at once, sow 12 now, then 12 in four weeks’ time. You can exaggerate the effectiveness of this by sowing each batch of 12 seeds under different conditions: sowing four in a propagator, four in the greenhouse and four direct in the soil will cause them to develop at different rates and reach maturity at different times. This ensures you get smaller, repeated harvests — with luck, one lettuce a day rather than 24 ready in the same week — so that you never get overtaken with a crop and that there is also always more following on soon.

An important tip that’s hard to over-emphasise is this: as you go to plant out seedlings you’ve started under cover, put them down and sow a fresh batch before you plant them out. It’s so easy to get caught up in the garden once you are planting out; sowing the next batch first ensures you will have plants — and, therefore, food — to follow on when these new seedlings have been exhausted.

Succession also takes another form: when one crop is harvested, what takes its place? Drawing up a plan for your kitchen garden is what most of us do. Many make one for the start of the season, but

it can be easy to let things come apart at the seams once the first crop is taken. Of course, it’s an inexact science — much depends on the weather, the relative abundance of pests and so on — but noting on the plan when each first crop is likely to be harvested means it will become second nature to ask yourself early questions such as: ‘When the potatoes come up, what goes in?’ This can even help with when to sow that second crop: you might be more relaxed about not risking early sowings of, say, courgettes when you realise they will likely be ready to plant out before space is available.

Mark Diacono grows his own at Otter Farm

Horticultural aide-mémoire – Harden off

A cold frame can protect young garden vegetable plants from the cold and being eaten by garden invaders

Half-hardy plants, those that spend the winter indoors and summer out, need to be gradually accustomed to the transition — and May is the month to do it. Move the plants to a cold frame and secure the lights closed. During the day, give a little air by propping the lights open, then shut them at night. Develop this theme over the next three weeks, opening the lights wider each week, then, in the last week, remove the lights altogether. If frost threatens, put the lights back on and cover them with matting. The first of next month is the day of liberation.
Stephen Desmond