Many of us enjoy planting some fruit or vegetables in our gardens. Growing something together as a family and seeing the seeds turn to plants, through to the harvest and all the way to our table is an incredibly wholesome and rewarding experience, one which teaches us patience and respect for the things we eat on an everyday basis. Also, anyone who has ever cooked with their own vegetable will tell you this; home-grown produce simply tastes better. I mean, taking something straight from the soil, washing it and using it fresh or cooked in a dish in a matter of minutes – it doesn’t get fresher than that!
Growing our own produce also has positive ethical implications which we often don’t think about.
Do you ever as yourself who grows the beans which we buy in the supermarket? Or why a Papaya from Brazil may cost €1.99 despite the 8000km in air miles it has travelled? More and more of us are asking exactly these questions and are making more informed decisions about what we put on our table. Buying in season fruit and veg from local suppliers and markets is the first step to balancing a global food trade system which, when you look at it, is completely unsustainable.
So how do you go about growing your own and doing something for a more sustainable future? While some people may have time and money to put into creating a large scale growing area, many of us will need an easier and more achievable approach to starting the process of growing something delicious for the table.
No matter how large or small, the first thing to do is to identify your plot. Where do you want to grow the vegetables and what do you want to grow? Will you plant them within view of the home and therefore need some sort of surround such as a small hedge to hide unsightly areas near the ground? If so, you could also consider adding some edible flowers- thus creating a combination of productive crops and pretty flowers which will look great from the home. This is especially useful for smaller urban gardens where space is limited and a growing area will also be a view from the home.
In order to know what to grow you will also need to assess your soil. What sort of soil do you have and how suitable is it to growing the produce you would like to grow? In many cases you may need to get rid of weeds or grass and while digging is certainly an option, the ‘No dig’ method which Charles Dowding developed is a great way of keeping the soils structure of your garden whole. The idea behind this is to use minimum interference with soil, which generally already has a good structure for roots and has many growth enabling organisms. I like to think that this is a wonderful starting point to creating a vegetable plot and a very simple and un-daunting approach.
One of the best ways to prep and improve soil for sowing produce when you’re limited in the time you have to invest in year one is to grow something called ‘green manure’ in the chosen area. In my own garden this year I cleared a small section of shrub-land where I hope to plant some vegetables in the next years but I was just too busy to do it all in year one. Green manure is the term for various growing plant varieties which enrich and benefit the soil in many different ways and these plants are a super way to bridge the gap from when you’ve cleared the bed, to the time when you have the time to plant your chosen crops. These plants are called ‘green manure’ because they are dug into the ground while still green and thus give valuable nutrients to the soil.
The benefits of green manure
They control weeds
Most green manures are fast growing and can be sown to cover large areas of bare soil. The first benefit is that they prevent the spread of weeds. Bare soil is quickly colonised by weeds meaning it is hard to get rid of them once you’re ready to plant your vegetables or fruit. The green manure will out-compete the weeds and prevent them from spreading.
They improve fertility
Green manure has the added benefit of improving soil fertility. Especially plants from the legume family release beneficial nitrogen to the ground when they are cut down.
They loosen your soil structure
Some green manures send their roots deep into the ground and areate the soil around them which improves drainage and makes the soil more welcoming to beneficial microbial life.
They give your soil a rest
Being productive can exhaust a good soil and green manure is a wonderful way to give your soil a rest, especially if it’s been cultivated over a period of time and needs time to recover its fertility.
When and how to plant
Generally green manures are sown in late Summer of Autumn and dug in the following Spring when they release the nutrients back into the soil. Some faster growing green manures such as mustard for example can be sown before mid September and dug in in October.
To sow most green manures you can sow them randomly across soil and rake them in or alternatively you can create seed rows which will give a more structured effect.
About two weeks before you want to plant your produce the foliage can be chopped down and the plants are left to wilt. The plants and the foliage can then be dug into the top layer of soil (about 25cm down). About two weeks or so, the decaying material will have incorporated into the soil enough to plant your vegetables.
Some green manures to try
1. Comfrey (Symphytum × uplandicum) ‘Bocking 14’
One of the prettiest green manures out there, this garden favourite is a wonderful choice for a patch which is being cultivated to grow produce. Comfrey is high in potassium as well as potash and nitrogen making it a great green manure for a bed which will become home to fruit production. The ‘Bocking 14’ variety of the herb is vigorous but is non-invasive which makes it a good choice for many gardens.
2. Fiddleneck (Phacelia tanacetifolia):
This is another lovely lilac, flowering green manure which is a super for insects and pollinators such as honeybees. It is a robust Winter annual which generally grows to about 20-120cm and has fern-like serrated leaves. Its intensive root system does wonders for soil structure and is great for smothering weeds dues to its dense leaves. It does self seed freely if let go to flower but is so worth it!
3. Winter tares (Vicia sativa)
This is a gorgeous plant which I have growing wild all over my own garden. It has been part of the human diet for a long time and both its young leaves and flowers can be eaten- they taste like sweet, young peas and no wonder- they are part of the legume family. They are great nitrogen fixers and due to their sparse growing habit are best sown with other green manures such as Forage Rye or Italian Rye to give good ground cover.
Get your own green manure at www.quickcrop.ie