Organic vegetable growing: simple steps and ideas

Organic vegetable growing: simple steps and ideas

Growing organic veg has lots of benefits including:

  • Provides safe, uncontaminated food
  • Reduces food miles and the use of fossil fuels
  • Waste can be recycled via composting and eliminates packaging
  • Better for the environment
  • Better flavour and higher nutritional value

Site

The ideal site for any vegetable plot is a fertile, well-drained and moisture-retentive soil, in a flat, sheltered but sunny position. Most gardeners don’t have these ideal conditions, but they still manage to grow excellent vegetables by making the most of their site.

Sun and shade

Deep shade will hinder vegetable growth, but some are fine in light shade, including lettuce, chard, beetroot and kohl rabi. In cool climates, try to position tall vegetables so that they won’t cast a shadow on low-growing plants. In hotter climates, you can do the opposite, and use them to provide welcome shade.

Drainage

Vegetables will not thrive in a waterlogged site, which is better used for something else like a pond or bog garden. You can improve heavy soils gradually by adding low-fertility organic material on a regular basis.

Shelter

Exposed sites should be protected with permanent or temporary windbreaks – such as hedges, fences or netting. Protect individual crops with barriers, cloches, or other covers when plants are young.

Slopes

Use terracing to prevent soil erosion, and run rows or beds along the contours of a site rather than up and down. Don’t forget that the bottom of the slope can be a frost pocket.

Space

Select your vegetables to suit the space available – even quite small areas can be productive. Research the vegetables that you’d like to grow early on in the season, so that you can maximise space available to you.

When you’re planning your garden, try to include space for making leaf mould and compost. Vegetables do well in raised beds, which can help you avoid the risk of developing joint problems from too much bending over. Container-grown vegetables are also increasingly popular for people who only have a patio or balcony. It’s also worth remembering that some vegetables prefer not to be planted straight into the ground – for instance, chillies and aubergines.

Preparing the site

You may have a site already prepared. But if not, there are various organic methods of doing it.

A light-excluding mulch can be useful way to clear a weedy patch. Landscape fabric or Mypex weed-suppressing fabric can both be used – both of these products let water through and keep light out. Planting potatoes as a first crop in a certain area can be beneficial. Used as a cleaning crop, their fast growth and large leaf canopy can suppress weeds by casting heavy shade over the ground.

Before starting any planting, find out about your soil and start to think about it organically. You can easily do a pH test which can be done by purchasing a pH testing kit, sending it away for testing then using organic soil improvers, organic matter and fertilisers as necessary. To get an accurate pH reading, your soil temperature should be 10°C, and you may be able to get advice from the Royal Horticultural Society, they may offer this service if you are a member. The Soil Association may also be able to help (although in general they only offer this service to commercial growers seeking organic status).

Plans

Even if you’re only growing a limited amount of vegetables to start with, make a simple plan of crop rotation. Keep a close eye on what happens through the season, so you can deal with any problems and adjust growing conditions accordingly. Throughout the year, keep records of yields, pest and diseases, weather conditions, and what grew well and where. Just remember not to plant the same family of plants in the same spot within the next 3 years, in order to reduce the risk of soil-borne pest and diseases.

Forward planning

Forward planning is really useful to help you to get the best results from growing vegetables, and it is possible to harvest vegetables all the year around if you plan everything properly. Thinking about the full length of the year also helps to spread the workload – letting you to put aside time for compost making, collecting leaves for leaf mould, incorporating green manures and applying soil improvers, as well as sowing, planting and harvesting.

Crop rotation

Crop rotation is the time-honoured practice of planting vegetables of the same family together, but moving them into different plots during consecutive years.

This is important because vegetables of the same botanical family can be susceptible to the same pests and diseases. (For example, parsnips belong to the same family as carrots, and potatoes and tomatoes belong to a different group). However, it‘s not always easy to guess which plant belongs to what family: cabbages and Brussels are easy, but did you know swede, turnips and radish belong to the brassica family too?. All of these would need to be rotated with their family groups.

3 or 4 years are the usual recommended minimum for crop rotation, but you can choose to make the cycle longer if you know that your soil has a serious problem such as potato eelworm, onion white rot or club root.

Nutrient availability

Vegetables differ in their nutrient requirements, so moving them around the growing area helps stop the soil becoming depleted of nutrients. For example, peas and beans fix nitrogen in the soil, so it makes sense to plant a vegetable that needs lots of nitrogen in the same spot the following year.

Soil treatment

Some crops need soil amendments to do well, while others make good use of residual fertility left by previous crops like peas and beans. Growing crops with similar requirements together makes it much easier to apply suitable soil treatments, so that all parts of the vegetable area will receive the same treatment over the period of rotation.

 

Weed control

Planting vegetables like potatoes and marrows help to suppress weeds because of their foliage. Others like onions and carrots aren’t so easy to weed around, and do not have a growth habit that can compete well. Alternating vegetables with these characteristics helps keep weeds under control.

Soil structure

Plant roots occupy different levels of the soil. Alternating deep with shallow-rooting vegetables has a positive effect on soil structure.

How to plan

Make a list of what crops you want to grow throughout the year, including rough quantities of each. Group your vegetable families (see below) and draw a plan of the growing area, divided into equal-sized sections according to how many years your rotation will last. Be flexible and prepared to adapt your plans: unexpected weather and crop disease can affect everyone. Keep records of what you have planned and what actually happened, because this will be useful information if you want to adjust the rotation in following years.