Practical tips from the planning the plot workshop

 

After discussing the finer points of fruit growing basics in our October workshop, in November our Growing Coordinators, Teresa and Andrew Widd, turned to the bigger picture of planning an overall growing space, with veggies firmly in the spotlight.

Graph showing origin and miles travelled by the vegetables
Miles travelled by vegetables bought at the local shop

Teresa started us off with a “How far has your veg traveled?” quiz, featuring ten vegetables bought at a local supermarket. All of them could be grown in Scotland (although the audience cautioned that you should not expect much from your sweetcorn in Tayport – especially with summers such as the one we’ve just had). We have plotted the origins and distances for you above. Even with the local growing season over for some of the veggies on the list by the late November, it was a bit of a shock that all but one, the swede, traveled to us from outside of Scotland, and six – from outside of the UK! Teresa tells us that one participant got all of the answers right this time – we are truly impressed with their dedication to tracking the origin on the packaging labels:)

The selection included an unusual ‘red herring’ – marsh samphire, a gourment ingredient which has appeared in supermarkets of late. This one was sourced from Israel, although it is common around the UK coast, especially in the South. It is best harvested during July and August, so perhaps it’s best to try it in summer?

We have to warn you – since our last workshop we have been reading up on our food miles at Shrink that footprint. So if you are not into your carbon footprint intricacies, it’s probably best if you skip the next three paragraphs straight to the growing advice:)

It looks like food miles are a useful and quick rule of thumb for minimising the carbon footprint for your shop-bought food, but the relationship between distance traveled and carbon emissions is not always so straightforward. For example, the method of production has a great impact – tomatoes grown in heated glasshouses locally may have a bigger carbon footprint than those imported from warmer regions, where they can be grown outside. But it also depends on the mode of transport – air-freight produces 100 times more emissions than transport by sea. So if the tomatoes are flown into the UK, it’s unlikely they would be less carbon costly than those produced locally. Worryingly, the UK seems to be the commonest destination for air freight these days (Beaton and Cox), which means that it is likely any shop-bought imported items will have a high transport-related carbon footprint. Even worse, freezing and storing the excess of home-grown vegetables in summer for the winter months may also increase the carbon emissions beyond those you would have incurred by bringing the produce into the UK on the boat. The plot thickens when you go beyond the environmental impact and consider the fact that vegetable exports may be crucial to some region’s sustenance and economic development, such as French beans may be for Ethiopia – or indeed locally grown kale may be for Fife (Oxfam’s 2009 ‘Fair Miles’ report expands on this issue).

Growing your own is certainly starting to look like the easiest option if you want do your bit for climate change by saving on emissions from transport and production chains! Our funders, Climate Challenge Fund, estimate that on average a kilogram of food grown in your own garden cuts emissions by a quarter compared to the shop-bought. However, it is unlikely that you will be able to produce all that you need yourself – for example a survey of Garden Organic members in the UK, revealed that they only grow 50% of what they eat, despite their commitment to the environmental cause and ample growing space. But even if you grow just a proportion of your own food the impact can be substantial: “The Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society (SAGS) estimate that an average family growing ¼ of their produce will save 4% (0.5 tonnes) of their total emissions each year” (p. 2, Allotments. A Scottish Plotholder’s Guide – PDF). When you do need to supplement with shop bought, Lindsey Wilson of Shrink that footprint suggests that buying local and seasonal is most likely to minimise your carbon footprint due to emissions in the commercial production process, storage and transport.

If you are really driven by minimising your carbon impact, you may also need to consider your gardening methods and inputs. A recent Royal Horticultural Society research review on gardens’ environmental impact found that although gardens benefited the environment overall, their carbon emissions are an area of concern. Consumption of manufactured and transported horticultural goods and use of power tools for gardening maintenance were identified as significant contributors to emissions, and lawns are the most carbon costly garden component. Garden Organic gives several suggestions on how to minimise your carbon footprint when growing vegetables in the UK (see pages 29-30 here), as does this nicely concise post from Grow Veg’s Jeremy Dore.

That’s enough about the carbon. Let’s get back to the workshop:)

Andrew started by reassuring us that a food garden or an allotment does not have a standard look and feel. What you grow and how you grow it is entirely up to your personal preference – you may want to supplement your vegetables with some fruit and flowers, for example, or simply stick to the fruit or just your favourite salad mix! It will also depend on your ability, how much time you have and what kind of space you are working with. A quick look through the PLANT gardening library shows there are a vast number of gardening techniques and philosophies to choose from, some of them with quite a cult-like following. They range from organic, through permaculture, to biodynamic methods. From double-dig through no dig to lasagna ground preparation techniques. From designs using traditional crop rotation with beds of regimented rows of veg to an ornamental potager, mixing flowers and food plants in a pretty mess, advocated by Alys Fowler. You may want to visit a local example of the latter in an organic edition at Kellie Castle, or a more modest, but still very pretty and productive, Fife Eats bed in Newburgh set up by Gardens by the Tay’s David Ross! Gardening with children brings its own requirements and The National Allotment Society has some wonderful advice here (PLANT library also has a number of books on the topic).

If you are aiming for self-sufficiency, you may need a full-sized allotment plot of 200-250 m² to supply most of the vegetables for a family of four (here is an example of what can be produced by an allotment on the east coast of Scotland – PDF). But be prepared to put in around 8 hours of work per week, especially in spring – warns George Seddon in the GYO classic “Your Kitchen Garden”! Luckily, our library suggests that there may be ways to save you time – and your back – by using no-dig and forest gardening methods which require less maintenance but provide comparable productivity. For those interested in seeing what a Scottish forest garden might look like, there is a wonderful Cottage Garden in Coldstream, in the Scottish Borders run by Graham and Nancy Bell – they have just reported an impressive harvest of over 1 tonne of food from their 800 m² in 2015. If you are not up for travel that far – have a look at the forest garden blog from an allotment in Aberdeen – this includes a great list of plants which work locally and where to get them!

But as Andrew pointed out (and as all books we’ve had a look at agree), as a beginner you may want to follow some simple traditional principles and designs, and start relatively small, building it all up with time. The workshop focused on such basics, as you’ll see below. You might also want to check out the square-foot gardening system developed by Mel Bartholomew in the US, which was not covered in the workshop, but is often recommended for beginners and for smaller spaces. His books are also available via PLANT gardening library if you’d like to explore it further.

During the course of the workshop, Andrew explained how to assess your plot, the importance of preparing the soil and watering strategies, crop rotation and a brief mention of methods for ensuring continuity of crops. Here are the brief notes on each.

Ideal plot

It is important to assess the area where you plan to put your plot – your plant selection and growing methods will need to be adjusted accordingly. If you are not sure where to start, Andrew offers such assessments as part of our Grow@Home support. Don’t panic if your plot is not ideal – there is plenty of advice on how and what to grow in less than optimal and even difficult conditions!

  • As Scotland’s growing season is relatively short, and a lack of light and warmth will limit growth, you will want an open aspect, to maximise the amount of sun hitting the ground and your plants. South and West facing sites are best for this reason. South facing walls in particular create great heat stores which can extend the growing season and allow more sensitive crops. If your site has deciduous trees which may cause shading, the site is best assessed in summer, so you can map how the sun and shade travels across the garden during the day.
  • Tayport gardens, like many in Scotland, can be quite exposed to the wind. Cold easterly winds can slow crops down in spring, persistent wind will dry the plants out, especially at a seedling stage, and gales can topple and break tall crops such as Brussel sprouts. Try to find a sheltered site or research ways of protecting your crops.
  • Look out for frost pockets, created by heavy, cold air sinking into dips or gathering against walls and fences at the bottom of sloping gardens. Avoid frost-sensitive spring plantings in those areas.
  • Try to pick a level site to minimise the water and nutrient run off and the frost pockets at the bottom of the garden. Cox advises that a slight incline to the South, South-West may be beneficial for better sun capture and cold air drainage under Scottish conditions.
  • Soil is the real heart of the garden. The type of soil determines drainage, structure and nutrient availability, which all affect plant growth. In Tayport you are likely to find either sandy soil (on the flat bits nearer the river) or clay soil (on the slopes of the hill). Neither of them are ideal for gardening but the difficulties can be circumvented – RHS has some good advice for what to do with clay and sandiness. From what Andrew said – if in doubt, put a raised bed on it! If you are lucky you may inherit a garden that’s been cultivated for a while, where soil is much improved (although this can also cause accumulation of soil-borne diseases such as brassica club root and onion white rot). Not sure what soil you have? Here is a simple method to help you find out. You may also want to test your drainage.

Soil preparation, feeding and watering

Andrew acknowledged that there are a number of soil preparation methods but based on his own experience he recommends the double dig. Although this requires much effort, it may be particularly useful for plots that have not been cultivated before and when soil structure and drainage needs to be improved, even if you plan to use approaches with less soil disturbance in the long run. On the other hand, from what we hear, the no-dig approaches are said to increase soil biodiversity, organic matter build up and carbon storage in the soil – so they may be more environmentally and carbon friendly.

Although Andrew does not recommend watering much past the seedling and transplant establishment stage, since this hinders root development, water sources will still need to be designed into your garden. You can use tap water where it is available, but it is considered more environmentally sound (as well as low-carbon) to collect rainwater for this purpose or use your grey water. If you are growing in containers or in a glasshouse – you will need to water quite often.

Finally, you will need to ‘feed’ your soil and plants with organic matter and nutrients. Andrew recommended well-composted cow or horse manure, or compost supplemented with a slow release fertiliser such as blood and bone. For lower carbon impact, Jeremy Dore recommends home-made compost and green manures. For tips on composting at home see our composting workshop write up. Seaweed, traditionally used around coastal Scotland, also makes for a great addition and provides some essential microelements. If you forage for this yourself, however, be sure to collect only the stuff washed up on beaches and not attached to rocks, and wash thoroughly to remove salt first. Application of fertilizers and soil improvers is best in late winter to early spring, so as to prevent excessive leaching of nutrients. Usually, these should also coordinate with the stage of crop rotation (see below).

Crop rotation

Chart showing crop rotation
Four-year crop rotation suggested by Andrew

Crop rotation is the principle of growing “specific groups of vegetables on a different part of the vegetable plot each year. This helps to reduce a build-up of crop-specific pest and disease problems and it organises groups of crops according to their cultivation needs.”  It is used when growing annual vegetable crops to prevent build up of soil-borne pests and diseases, balance the nutrients in the soil and control weeds. There are a number of rotation systems, depending on preferences and the amount of space available. Andrew recommended a 4 year rotation which can be squeezed into 3 years if you don’t want any tatties (see image above). He advised to set up 4 beds corresponding to 4 crop groups and rotate them by following root vegetables with potatoes, then the brassicas (turnip and radishes are often added here instead of in roots as they  belong to this plant family) and finally finishing with legumes. Salads, onions, courgettes and squashes can be added to any of the rotation beds. You may also want to set a bed aside for perennial crops such as asparagus and artichokes, as well as some fruit trees and bushes. The RHS briefly describes a traditional 3 year rotation (where brassicas and potatoes are important) and a 4 year rotation (with more emphasis on legumes and onions) on their website. John Harrison gives in depth information on several options, as well as the history of the practice, on the Allotment Gardener website. Both websites give recommendations on rotation of soil improvements to coincide with each crop group.

In small or potager gardens it may not be practical to follow strict rotation rules. Andrew’s advice here is – don’t worry too much about it, as long as you do some rotation, for example by not growing the same crop group in the same spot two years running.

Companion planting, catch cropping, intercropping and successional planting

Andrew briefly mentioned that the basic rotation plan can be supplemented by additional plantings. Companion planting is often recommended for chemical-free pest control (e.g. onions are meant to repel carrot root fly) or enhancing pollination (flowers attractive to bees such as nasturtiums and English marigolds which can also double as salads). It is also common to ensure continuity and make the best of the space by using catch cropping (growing fast crops, e.g. salads, in between the main crop before they get too big), intercropping (growing several crops together e.g. squash and corn) and successional sowing/planting (sowing in small batches over time to prevent shortages and gluts). These are quite substantial topics and may be covered in another session.

Finally, Andrew recommended the classic RHS Vegetable & Fruit Gardening by Michael Pollock as a good, no-fuss reference. We also suggest two books aimed at Scottish gardeners: the brief but informative Growing Your Own Vegetables from Edinburgh Botanics (we also recommend a visit to their food garden for ideas on your plot design – and a chat to resident horticulturists!), and a more extensive Fruit and Vegetables for Scotland by Cox and Beaton, with lots of information on locally succesful varieties. Both are available from the PLANT gardening library. Is there a book that you found particularly useful to get you started with your veg growing?

A great addition to all this theory was the hands-on “Plan Your Plot” activity which followed. Everyone was given an A4 piece of paper to represent a plot, and strips of paper accurately representing areas required to grow a number of crops (by weight and number). The task was for each participant to plan a plot (real or imaginary) according to the type and amount of veg they wanted. This was a useful introduction to practicalities of planning – giving everybody a better idea of how much space each crop would take up and how much can be produced from the area they have. Everybody took to it with gusto! It looks like a useful exercise to go through at home, after assessing your own plot and working out your veggie needs and desires. Teresa pointed out that the information on plant spacing is available on seed packets, and typical yield can be looked up online or in most gardening books. Or if you are a bit of a geek, you could try one of the computer-based tools. We found a recent selection reviewed on US-based The Self-Sufficient Living website, and our very own blogger, Cathy, recommended Sutton’s Vegetable Garden Planner aimed at the UK growers. Most of them have a free trial period of a month or so – a perfect chance to have ago. Let us know if you try any of them!

Of course, it may be simplest to follow a pre-set standard design to start with – most gardening books have suggestions for different plot and family sizes. If you grow too much you can always donate the excess to the neighbours or a local food-based charity:)

If all this planning seems too much, you may want to simply follow the advice for veg growing beginners from Jono of Real Men Sow blog:

Don’t plan. Just plant. Plans are for next year. Buy some seeds, follow the instructions on the back, and get it planted. Some worked for me and some didn’t, but I got a great idea of how to grow vegetables, what area of my plot gets the most sun and other knowledge that proved invaluable in my second year.

Tea and coffee followed, accompanied by a splendid spread of homebaking using local ingredients – who knew that you could make such yummy cakes using root vegetables! Janice made gluten-free pumpkin muffins and Jessie worked her magic with beetroot and chocolate mini-cakes (recipe – PDF). The break gave everyone a chance to get to know each other and look around the colourful boards illustrating crop rotation, perennial crops and catch crops, vegetable recipes and growing charts.

By the time this blog is published, we will have had our Festive Christmas Workshop. We are now also planning next year’s offerings which will be listed here. Is there anything you would like to be included?

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