Cultivation for novices

Over the last couple of years since I began growing fruit, veg and flowers, I’ve been asked what my secret is. I tend to reply well, there isn’t a secret – I pick what’s easiest to cultivate and learn from my mistakes. I get the reply “oh I couldn’t be bothered with it”, which is is fair enough, but once you begin seeing results and realise you won’t have to add something to your shopping list for a season, you suddenly realise the effort is worth it. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve had some form of propagation for whatever we’ve been growing, however when we haven’t, we’ve picked up a few tips from our local allotments or online.

How do I start? What if I have no garden?

I’m unsure of the rest of the world, but here in the UK and even inner-city locations, there are allotments dotted around. Before you ask, no, I don’t have a plot, thus lots of land to grow stuff. I have a garden, and when I’ve been unable to use my garden, I let the natural light and warmth of a windowsill do the job. Allotments, however, provide heaps (he he) of knowledge from the older, experienced folk, as well as – if you’re lucky – Open Days, whereby in the Spring, plot holders will have started off some growing for you and offer their fruits (he he – I’ll stop) for £1 or less. We’ve picked up small tomato plants in the past for 20p and had amazing crops from them. Much better from paying (the minimum of) 60p for 6 tomatoes which have been sprayed with God-knows-what, no? So if you’re not confident in scouring online for information, pop by your local allotment and find out if they hold Open Days or want to sell off some plants. The answer to at least one of those questions will be yes: the purpose of an Open Day, after all, is to encourage growers to come and provide some income to the council/growing society through rent of plots. They’ll entice you with some bargains and it’ll be worth it!

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Don’t live near an allotment? We picked up some cheap strawberry plants from Aldi 2 years ago and this is the third year they’re showing signs of success. We’ve dotted them around the garden in the past, but at the moment they’re actually in bog-standard flower pots as we’ve had to salvage them indoors after all the snow and heavy rain. Again, if you have no garden, hanging baskets or outdoor window pots will do the job. Strawberries love the sun but they’re also partial to the shade as they need moisture to develop all of that juicy goodness. Although they seem delicate, they’re an incredibly hardy fruit and one which is fond of the British Summer. Just be careful of rodents – they love them.

Mostly everything I’ve started off from seed, I’ve began indoors.

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Tomatoes are simple and don’t necessarily rely on propagation (being incubated), however I like to propagate them and get them off to a good start. The same with courgettes, cucumber, leeks and any flowers I’ve tried to grow. Cheap propagating trays as well as cheap, good quality compost, can be bought from the likes of Wilko or Home Bargains – though steer clear of the expanding compost blocks. If you can’t get your hands on any trays, save up some shallow containers, such as your Chinese takeaway boxes, margarine tubs, etc, and cover with cling film instead of a plastic lid. You’re recycling at the same time as saving money!

What’s easiest for me to grow?

If you have some outdoor space, fantastic. Pop seeding potatoes (you’ll find them in the Wilko garden section for about £2.50-£3) straight into some worked ground. We LOVED the red roosters last year, but have a look into what you’d like to do with your potatoes. If you like making chips for example, go for the larger varieties.

If you have no ground to dig up, you can get growing bags from Poundland. They work, though not to the quality of ground-grown potatoes. In the grow bags, you’ll still get around 4-5 potatoes off one seed if you follow the instructions properly.

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Carrots take time, patience and unfortunately outdoor space to grow. Plant the seeds straight into the ground. Again, shops like Wilko or even Sainsbury’s sell vegetable seeds on those spinny racks, usually for £1. It seems like forever until they’re actually ready, but extremely worth it when they are! Makes you realise supermarket-bought carrots taste of nothing. Carrots are fans of the weather here in Britain, but on those rare hot days, do make sure they’re watered well!

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Tomatoes, as mentioned, are super easy to grow. Some varieties can even be grown indoors on your windowsill or just outside your window in a regular flower pot, for example Tumbling Toms. One of Jamie Oliver’s favourites, the tomato comes in loads of different varieties. Just keep them well-watered – and supported with canes, if needed – and you’ll reap the benefits. We usually get our canes from Home Bargains if we need to. All very affordable.

Courgettes are another favourite of mine – much easier than cucumbers. Start them off indoors, propagated, then transfer outdoors. You’re going to need fairly big pots if you don’t transfer them straight into the ground. If you choose to use plant feeds, courgettes are a fan of tomato feed! In fact lots of vegetables love it. Just check the ingredients to ensure it’s what you want to use, and never use feeds until the plants have started flowering.

Talking of flowers, just look at these:

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Alliums are stunning and have many benefits. They attract bees (please find the time and effort to attract them – as scary as they sometimes can be!), butterflies – another dwindling species, they look great and in my experience, multiply year upon year. I’ve not grown them from seed – always bulb. If you can, try and grow flowers near your crops. Pollination of flowers means possible pollination of your crops! Sweet peas are especially attractive to wildlife and wild flower mixes are always a winner. With the mixes, most of the time you just need to rake and scatter the seeds around. Nature will do the rest for you.

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I hope this helped. I’m still new to cultivation myself and am always learning something new. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! I’ll leave you with one last request: do get the little ones involved. Some scoff at a twenty-something year old growing her own vegetables, but one day there could come a time where we’re not able to do this. Most are put off by greengrocers because of their prices in comparison to the supermarkets: so just grow your own. Instead of putting your money into the CEO’s pockets, learn something new, reap the health benefits by knowing what your food is or isn’t sprayed with, and most importantly, get everyone – young and old – outside.

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