By Darren Venables, Head Gardener of Chewton Glen Hotel
Our new monthly feature is designed to give you the guidance you need to start or develop your own fruit and vegetable patch. Darren shares his experience of years of gardening at one of the country's top hotels and helps you to plan and plant your own produce patch.
Planning your produce patch
If you are starting your own fruit and veg patch, I think the first thing to think about is what you want to grow and what you like to eat. A friend of mine used to grow cucumbers every year but never eat them himself, but he loved to grow them and give them away to people. Now I look back on this I think that sums up the joy of growing your own produce, it made him happy to help other people.
With that in mind think about the space you have available, the crops you would ideally like to grow and what do you like to eat. Once you have a rough idea, sit down with a piece of paper and divide it up into a calendar with a section for each month, write down when each of the crops you want to grow can be sown, planted out and harvested on each month of your monthly planner. This information can be easily found on the back of seed packets or in gardening books. This will give you the ability to see what you will have room for in your veg patch and when, there is no point raising lots of beautiful plants from seed only to find you have no room to plant them out because there are already plants growing where you want to plant them out.
As well as planning I think the secret is to start small, only grow a small quantity of each crop in the first year. Also try to avoid gluts by only sowing a few seeds of each crop every week. Another benefit of growing small quantities is that if you have a problem with one week's crops you can learn from that problem and do something different with the next sowing until you get a system that works for you.
I really recommend reading books and magazines, I am a big fan of any idiot's guide to anything, I personally don't like lots of jargon I like small pieces of concise information with lots of pictures. Before we started the veg garden at Chewton Glen I read so many books in the library, picked out the pieces of information I wanted and then used that information to help me. Also don't be afraid to ask people around you, gardeners are very friendly people who are more than happy to share their experiences with others.
Once you have your crops in mind, and you have your plot of land, there are several jobs you can be doing in January to get you started. Turn over your soil; January and February generally bring heavy frosts and bad weather which gives you an excellent opportunity to improve your soil for the coming growing year. Dig your soil to open it up and remove any weeds as you go, I always like to add bone meal and blood, fish and bone to the soil and if I am not planting for a few weeks I also add Growmore. If you sprinkle these on top of your newly dug soil and then rake them in they will break down over the next few weeks so there is nutrient available to the plant when you start to plant out your crops in February / March.
January is also a really good month for planting fruit trees and bushes. Apples, pears, plums, currents and raspberries are all available this time of year and it is a really good time to plant them as they are dormant and so will settle well and start to grow in a few weeks when the weather warms up.
My final tip for January is for rhubarb, we grow three different types of rhubarb for the hotel, Glaskins Perpetual, Victoria and Red Champagne. In January we begin to feed the crowns with blood, fish and bone and bonemeal to give them some nutrient as they start to grow. We also start to force some of our Red Champagne and Victoria crowns, we do this by placing a Terracotta container over the crown to restrict light and keep the crown warmer to encourage growth, the growth is anaemic and pale but forms very sweet early stems which should give us our first crops at the end of February. Forcing can be done with nearly any container, buckets and dustbins work equally as well. If you are looking for a good starter crop I would always say give growing rhubarb a go.
Next month Darren will be focusing on early seed sowing, clearing out winter crops and preparing beds for planting. He also hopes to be able to pick some of the hotel's forced rhubarb.
Read more about Darren's education and career at the link below, Introducing: Darren Venables.