Vegetable Growing: What I Would Teach

Food security's a hot topic at the moment and I reckon it's set to become even more so over the coming years. Fluffy Muppet and Soilman had some thoughtful posts and debate on this subject earlier this year, and now Matron's joined in too.

Her piece focused on our ability to pass on our vegetable knowledge to those that don't grow their own, which Soilman followed up by posing the following question:

If you had to give three specific bits of help/advice to a total vegetable virgin – once the oil and fertilisers have gone – what would they be?

As usual his response to this question is pithy, smile inducing and thought provoking. Lots of people have left their ideas in the comments already, but I wanted to have a think about it and respond on here. Matron's original post said:

Growing food locally using sustainable methods has been placed at the top of the Government's food security agenda following its first ever assessment on the safety of the country's food supply. So all of us out here, the beekeepers, poultry keepers farmers and allotmenteers will be in great demand. I know I won't go hungry! will you?

Having seen some of the Government's consultation on Food 2030 and their most recent Food Security Assessment, I'm appalled there's hardly anything in there about folks doing it for themselves. Yet we have a country facing a projected population increase to 70 million souls (the current UK population is about 62 million) over the next few decades with greenbelt and farmland being used to meet our increased demand for housing and services - 3 farms are set to go in Wiltshire's proposed plans for Chippenham 2026 alone. Imagine how this will be scaled up nationwide.

So, I can't see us having a hope in hell of feeding ourselves economically without there being a WWII-style approach to tackling the problem to complement anything happening in the UK food industry. So back to Soilman's question, what of my hard-won knowledge would I like to pass on to others?

Grow what you actually like to eat

Ignore any specific advice about starting with cabbages, beans, potatoes or whatever. NAH hates both cabbages and beans, so I'd be wasting both a lot of veg and my time if I'd heeded this advice. Of course, it might be a little tricky if your current dietary favourites include lots of warmer climate items such as avocados and mangoes, so do keep your sights to what can be comfortably grown in this country. Joy Larkcom's Grow Your Own Vegetables will show you not only what's achievable, she also says which crops will give you the best value for money and also provides plot plans depending on whether your needs are feeding the family or are more gourmet inclined.

Things will be different every year

Expect crops to do poorly or to give you the biggest glut you could ever imagine. You will rarely achieve the nirvana of 'just enough for your needs' and what crops poorly one year will probably be a glut the next. A lot of this will not be down to your level of skill, but is dependent on the weather, the health of your soil, what pests are doing well that year etc etc. As your experience grows, you'll be able to take this in your stride and to ensure you provide the best possible growing conditions whatever nature throws at you. You'll also feel increasingly confident in tackling those crops which are more difficult to grow.

Be flexible and adaptable

As space becomes a premium, you'll probably not have enough room to grow everything you need. I'm assuming government plans will focus mainly on the basic foodstuffs, so grow more of the other items you like (or are most expensive to buy) and be prepared to have them in your borders or on your patio. Herbs can be used instead of shrubs and flowers - I grow thyme as a border edging for example and I've planted a couple of apple trees instead of more ornamental ones in my garden. Gluts will mean learning about preserving or sharing/bartering with your neighbours. In fact there's a lot more you could do as a community - you can pool your resources and knowledge, as well as sharing food. Think about seed saving - so you'll need to know about open pollinated varieties rather than F1 ones and perhaps buy your seeds from companies like Real Seeds - and seed swaps. Expect the unexpected and change your plans where necessary.

If all this makes me sound a bit alarmist, well I am pretty concerned about what's going to happen in the future, but I'm also optimistic that the issues we face can be tackled positively if we all get involved in some way. Do you think I'm being melodramatic or just sensible? What advice would you add?


  1. Food security is a big issue in our region as well, with lots of talk about community gardens in the village. We have a growing number of small farms in our area, but I have to say that I am so glad I have a piece of land that could feed our extended family if it came to that. Especially if some of them came over to weed. Planting what you like to eat is one of the best pieces of garden advice I could give.

  2. Sharing is excellent advice. Our own allotments are eensy weensy -- I have two 4'x8' plots, and square footage disappears quickly when a zucchini (aka courgette) starts making itself at home. My sister and I are going to be much more strategic about our collective veg plantings next spring.

  3. I'm glad you mentioned preserving - a good way to store any gluts and use them later. Once the oil/fossil fuels have gone, we may not be able to freeze things; I see pickles, salting coming back in a big way. No I don't have these skills - just jam making. Remember my mum salting down runner beans to have at Christams one year, I must ask her about it:-)

  4. I grew up on a farm where we pretty much raised everything we ate. I remember a lot of fruit and berry plants. We froze and canned all of our excess, but I agree with Scattered Gardener about being a little nervous of freezing produce. All it takes is a few days of no electricity and everything in the freezer is spoiled. I'd teach dehydrating and canning over freezing. I have a friend who set up a stove outdoors in the shade which makes canning much more comfortable than heating your house up on the hottest days of the year.

  5. Delighted to see the topic taken forward!!

  6. What a great post VP and - I have also popped over to Soilman's and read his post as well.

    I think my biggest tip for a new veg grower would be sow little and often ... everywhere and anywhere. Have seedlings waiting in the wings to pop in the ground when a space becomes free.

    Oh, and here in Wales (well this year and last year anyway) invest in lots and lots of umbrellas.

  7. PS -
    Sorry I should also have mentioned Matron's great post on the topic too.
    Worth reading, together with the comments.

  8. I'm not much of an expert at veggie gardening, but I guess if I had some advice, it might be to start with a small garden. A little failure won't discourage you so much that you won't try it again, and a little success can breed the confidence to keep going.

    But if you start out with a big garden, you are faced with this: A lot of failure can discourage you forever, and a lot of success leads to forcing excess zucchini on random strangers at bus stops.

  9. I like what they do here

  10. Interesting post! I agree with all three bits of advice, and I would also say...It all takes time, don't expect instant people seem unable to wait for anything and want it now! Flighty xx

  11. A most thoughtful post VP. My advice would be to do little but often and get together with other like minded folk to keep the cost down.

  12. It just amazes me that this kind of thing isn't splashed across the news every night instead of some kid not in a balloon. It's sad that our news media fail to focus on the important issues facing us all & our future. I've started trying to grow edibles mixed in with ornamentals as you are doing with the herb edging. It just makes sense.

  13. I couldn't think of anything to add when I read this last night, then I went to bed and immediately thought -

    Don't sow all the seeds in the packet at once!

    Now I knew about this in relation to things like carrots, where you get 400 seeds in a packet, but as a flower grower I thought 30 tomato seeds weren't very many - well, they were a freebie - maybe 15 would germinate, I'd discard the weaker half, 7 or 8 plants would be about right to fill my patio planters ...

    You guessed it - 28 germinated, I ended up with 22 big plants, gave away 8 of them, had to hunt for pots to put all the spares in!

    On the plus side, we now have a freezer full of tomatoes for winter sauce-making :)

  14. Hi everyone - I thought I'd responded to your comments already, but now I remember my computer crashed towards the end. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

    Commonweeder - sadly community gardens and CSA seems to be a much more developed concept in the USA than it is over here.

    Helen - sharing with Sarah sounds a very good idea, especially if both of you are limited for space.

    Scattered Gardener - I've made a much better use of my gluts this year and aim to do even better next!

    Moonstone Gardens - welcome! Generally freezing stuff doesn't last as long as canning (aka bottling on this side of the pond) either. I think we'd have problems with dehydrating here though as it would take fuel to do so and we don't usually have the weather to do it outdoors.

    Soilman - only too pleased to do so!

    Karen - yes, succession sowing's the thing! Or choosing varieties which crop over a long period, they tend to be little and often too.

    Susan - good point. A similar thing happens with most people taking on an allotment: they go at it great guns trying to clear everything, get tired and give up before they reap the rewards :(

    Angie - thanks for the link. I've reformatted it so that people can go there directly.

    Flighty - I think we all need to learn to have more patience, I know I do!

    Anna - good points.

    MMD - it amazes me too. It's bl**dy important! Sounds like you'll be one of the few that are prepared :)

    Juliet - I wish I'd had your success with tomatoes this year!


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