'Grow Your Own' Week: Getting started

by Kate Bradbury

[...] we all have to start somewhere and we will always make mistakes. And the best thing about making mistakes is learning from them.

Kate Bradbury's first harvestI've just thrown a 'plant party', as part of 'Grow Your Own' Week. This involved my friends coming to my flat and learning how to sow tomatoes and chillies. We also discussed pricking out, transplanting, feeding and watering. It reminded me of my first venture into growing fruit and veg, and the many mistakes I made while progressing to the level I'm at today (pretty good, I think). It's been a steep learning curve.

For a brief spell, aged 11, I had a vegetable patch of my own. My mother – a gardener – naturally gave me the bit of garden she didn’t want: a north-facing bindweed-ridden patch of earth beneath an apple tree. There I grew courgettes, carrots, lettuce and runner beans. I harvested the carrots too early (how my mum laughed), the beans were stringy, the courgettes didn’t thrive and the lettuce was eaten by slugs.  My compost heap was good though. I’ve always loved a good compost heap.

I had a break until a few years ago, when my dad brought me a couple of tomato plants to grow in my high-rise flat in Manchester. I just had the two plants, and did exactly what I was told: stake them, water well, pinch out the side shoots and shake the plants to release the pollen. I got a good crop and was proud of myself. I’d buy mozzerella and rush home to make tomato and mozzerella salads (it was then that I first had the urge to grow basil).

The next year I asked my girlfriend what we should try growing on the balcony. "Sweetcorn", she said. So I did. I grew six sweetcorn plants on the sixth floor if a high rise flat in Manchester city centre. One per 30cm pot in multi-purpose compost. I also grew tomatoes and courgettes. This time it wasn’t just my mum who laughed. I won’t be growing sweetcorn in pots again. They didn’t get enough water or nutrients and my balcony faced north-west, so they didn’t get enough light either. Undeterred, I stuck it out and finally harvested three, tiny cobs. We ate them and they were delicious. I had another good crop of tomatoes and another poor crop of courgettes. My mini balcony compost heap, however, was perfect.

The following year I got my first allotment. I made mistakes there too. I sowed radish seeds in trays to transplant (and got laughed at by my new allotment friends), I planted potatoes in frosty ground, in which all but two rotted. I tried everything the books told me not to grow: onions from seed, celery, cauliflower. Even aubergine – which, against all odds, produced quite a good crop (I left them on the plant too long though, hoping they’d grow bigger, and they just rotted). But my three compost heaps, dotted around the plot, were the envy of the allotment.

So we all have to start somewhere and we will always make mistakes. And the best thing about making mistakes is learning from them. The golden rule of growing root crops is to sow them direct in the ground, not in seed trays as I did with my radish. If you're starting out don’t grow complicated crops like celery or onions from seed – stick to salad leaves, tomatoes and courgettes (which I’m now, thankfully very good at growing). If you don’t know when to harvest something ask a friend, or look on the internet, rather than leave crops rotting on your plants. Don’t let your mother’s, or your friends’ ridicule get you down, and always have a reliable back-up to compensate for your mistakes, like a compost heap.

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Gardeners' World Web User 01/04/2010 at 12:14

Thanks for the advice. I'm a complete novice but I started with a compost bin last year and now the compost looks good. I've just bought my first raised bed to sow veg in. I've bought plugs of broccoli, leeks, cauliflower & sweetcorn. But I have bought some potatoes to sow and carrot & parsnip seeds. I'm going to give it a go and as you said any mistakes I make will be part of the learning experience. Thanks.

Gardeners' World Web User 01/04/2010 at 15:02

Good advice Kate. This will be my third year of growing veggies and I've made lots of mistakes, but I've had a lot of success as well. The first year I lost all my tomatoes to the dreaded blight, my dwarf french beans were covered in aphids, the brassicas were decimated by caterpillars and I stupidly sowed carrot's in modules and then transplanted them into the raised beds, they were the most peculiar shapes when harvested,lol, but still edible. So last year I only grew tomatoes inside my greenhouse which were a success, I planted marigolds in amongst the dwarf french beans and not an aphid in sight and my husband built a sort of fruit cage for the brassicas,we could not find any info on how tall sprouts or broccoli grew so he made it 90cm high, which turned out to be not tall enough and was lifted off the ground by the plants,lol. The carrots were still not great, I probably didn't thin them enough and although they were planted in trugs balanced on stacked up bricks to avoid the carrot fly they still managed to attack them (how high do they have to be?). This year I've bought the carrot seed tape and am planting them amongst the garlic and keeping my fingers crossed that this works, if not I'll try the resistant ones. My husband is going to extend the height of the brassica cage(can anyone tell me how tall they do grow?) I've also had great success with beetroot which I make into chutney, the sweetcorn was so much tastier than shop bought and the butternut squash not only stored well but tasted great, and I have just dug up the last of the leeks. Oh and the new potatoes that I grew in bags were both tasty and plentiful. As you can see I've learnt from my mistakes I'll also not be sowing all the seeds in the packet, last year I gave lots of plants away and this year I'm going to be succesionally sowing the lettuce so that they do not all mature at once. If I could pass on one piece of advice it would be not to give up as the rewards far outweigh the effort.

Gardeners' World Web User 02/04/2010 at 10:26

I totally agree with Kate and Dalia Lover! My success over the past few has been varied to say the least. Last year I had allium leaf miner desimate my Leeks, tomato blight destroy my outdoor toms, my courgettes were less than impressive and my potato crop was disapointing too. The previous year however I had a smashing harvest...I hope this year will be better. I do sow more than I need and generally have to give a glut away (but for me this is half the fun and instills a sense of pride that is quite difficult to describe). Seeing those tiny seeds grow into something you and your family can eat is amazing...don't give up!!!

Gardeners' World Web User 03/04/2010 at 09:51

Hi, I've grown some tomatoes from seed this year for my allotment, they are now about 6" high and need potting on into individual pots, can anyone let me know if I can put in an unheated greenhouse to grow on. I dont have a heated greenhouse over my allotment and very limited space at home. I really dont want to run the risk of them dying but what can I do. Its the beginning of April and I live quite near to Heathrow Airport London. Can anyone advise me please.

Gardeners' World Web User 03/04/2010 at 21:30

Last year was my first year and I lost all my toms to blight yet could have saved all but one had I known the signs as the first plant became infected. My tatties in a bag did awful as did my peppers which cooked in a 2 shelf mini greenhouse with doors zip closed but I did get good results from my peas, strawberries and the few radishes I grew. This year though, with all my newfound experience and knowledge and my greenhouse which is coming next week and my plants which are all growing indoors under lights (couldn't wait), fingers crossed I will be inundated with great stuff to eat and spare to share.

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