How to make a vegetable garden from scratch

Val Bourne / 24 August 2015

If you're planning on transforming a patch of lawn into a vegetable garden, read gardening expert Val Bourne's tips for getting the ground ready and what best to grow in the first year.



Prepare the ground

Start your preparation now by pulling out any annual weeds before they self-sow. Whilst busy you can assess whether or not you have many perennial weeds in your grassy area. The likely suspects are buttercup, clover and bindweed and they will need removing.

If you have lots of perennial weeds you will have your work cut out. As there is now some concern over the use of glyphosate it may be better not to apply weed killer but instead to cover the ground with carpet or black impermeable weed suppressing membrane until the weeds have turned yellow and completely died. Once dead wait for a week or two and then turn the soil over with a garden fork, but don’t break down the clods. Leave them and allow the winter to break down the lumps.

If your lawn in mainly well-behaved grasses, there is another alternative to spraying. Lift the turf by cutting foot-long squares and pile it up in a stack. You can either leave the turf in this stack and it will decompose and produce loamy soil which can be added to the top. Or you can bury your turf a spade’s depth down and this will feed the soil.

Once the ground is clear fork the soil over roughly, leaving the clods of soil intact. Let the weather, ie the frost and cold, break down the soil for you. By spring it will hopefully be fine and powdery, unless it’s heavy clay. Then it may take longer to break down. Clay soil lays cold and wet for longer, so planting and sowing on clay needs greater patience. You need warm conditions and drying soil. However clay soil is fertile and it hangs on to its nutrients well.

The act of turning over the soil will bring lots of seeds to the surface and they will germinate, so in the following year there will be lots of weeding. The best method is to try and catch the seedlings early and hoe them off using a small hoe. This will also deter slugs, because they hate the ground being disturbed.

Plan your vegetable garden

Set your new vegetable patch up into separate areas if you can, rather than one large patch. Each bed could be partitioned with planks, although do frisk the ground underneath the wooden planks for slugs on a regular basis.

Raised beds are popular with some gardeners, but keep the sides low because if they’re too high they exclude slug-munching beetles and amphibians. This system will preserve the soil structure, because you won’t have to trample over the patch every time you harvest. If you can devise a four-part system it will make rotation easier. This system of moving crops round deters diseases and avoids the build up of soil-borne pests such as cabbage root fly.

When and what to plant

Virgin ground should be very fertile for the first year, but the trick with vegetable growing is timing. Wait for spring to appear before getting busy. The grass should be growing and the birds should be nesting.

What to plant in the first year

Opt for plants that go in an out of the ground within weeks at the start. If you wish to grow fruit, such as strawberries, or asparagus, give it two or three years of weed clearing before you plants.

Opt for vegetable varieties with an AGM if you can. This Award of Garden Merit, awarded by experts, denotes a superb variety. Be prepared to pay for F1 seeds. Although more expensive, they have greater vigour at every stage and that includes germination.

Potatoes

Potatoes condition the soil and break it up so they cover as much of your new plot as you can. Opt for first or second early varieties and buy them in January or February. Place them somewhere cool and light so that they chit. ie produce small shoots. Plant them in mid-April and try to lift them before the end of July, before potato blight strikes.

First Early Potato ‘Foremost ‘AGM
Ever popular ‘new potato’ with slightly waxy, firm, white, good-flavoured flesh that does not discolour or disintegrate on cooking.

Second Early ‘Lady Christl’ AGM
Bulks up quickly and the tubers stay small. Shallow- eyed, pale yellow-skin and creamy flesh which remains firm on cooking. Eelworm resistant.

Read more on growing potatoes.

Early carrots and beetroot

Sow in early April in wide, four-inch drills. This negates the need to thin the seedlings. By late June you should be harvesting both.

‘Amsterdam Forcing 3’ AGM
Smooth colourful carrot which bulks up well early on.

‘Purple Haze’ F1
Sow two or three weeks after ‘Amsterdam Forcing’ because purple varieties need warmer temperatures to germinate.

Beetroot ‘Alto’ F1 AGM
Cylindrical roots which push up through the ground so it’s easy to see the size of each root. Crops well and it’s early.

Read more on growing carrots.

Runner Beans

Go for tripods rather than rows and sow the beans in modular trays and then plant them out when they are a foot high. Sow in late-April, but make sure that the beans do not get planted outside until early June and, if you’ve grown them under glass, give them at least a week outside to harden off. Red-flowered varieties prefer cooler summers. White-flowered varieties do best in warm summers and hybrid runner x French beans do well whatever the weather.

Hybrid Runner x French ‘Moonlight’ AGM
Self-pollinating with creamy-apricot flowers followed by fleshy stringless beans about a foot long.

Runner Bean ‘Polestar’
British-bred red-flowered runner bean that produced rounded plump beans.

Runner Bean ‘White Lady’
Vigorous heavy cropping white runner bean that sets beans even in high temperatures.

Read more on growing runner beans.

Lettuces

A good catch crop round the beans, to tempt the slugs towards them rather than the growing tips of your runners. Grow three varieties ( loose leaf, a small hearting lettuce and a Cos) to harvest in succession. Sow and prick out into modular 6x4 trays in march, then in June and then in early July to ensure a succession.

‘Salad Bowl’
There are green and red forms of this loose-leaf lettuce, or mixed packets. The advantage of a loose leaf variety is that it’s ready first and doesn’t bolt as easily in dry weather.

'Little Gem’
The perfect small hearting lettuce for two people. Green and sweet.

‘Lobjoit’s Green’
Large heritage Cos Lettuce, with an upright habit.

Read more on growing lettuce.

Courgettes

Try a couple of courgette plants as well, because these will crop in the second half of summer. Fruits must be harvested three times a week to keep the supply coming.

‘Venus’ AGM
Compact plant, with almost spine-free stems. Good yield of dark-green glossy fruits.

‘Orelia’ AGM
Golden yellow courgette with slender fruit. A vigorous and heavy-cropping variety.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.