As summer fast approaches, the garden erupts into life. Although a busy and comparatively stressful month for the gardener, all this is far outweighed by the excitement of blossoms, bees and bountiful spring crops headed our way. Planning your time in April is very important; it is easy to get bogged down with the seemingly endless list of jobs at this time of year. I usually create a prioritised to-do list, working through it systematically. Remember: you can only do one job at once.
Keeping your young plants in good condition is vitally important for success going forward. Plants in cell trays or pots can dry out very quickly as the weather warms up in April, so be consistent with your watering. Overhead watering is suitable for mature plants but be aware that it can disturb newly emerging seedlings. We simply place the trays or pots into a water bath and let the compost naturally draw up the water. This gets the water to where you need it without damaging the plant, and ensures that it is completely soaked. We have capillary matting on our potting benches; this retains some water and really helps with keeping the bottoms of your trays from drying out. If you feel like your seedlings are outgrowing their pots, transplant them into a bigger container before planting into their final position – this will prevent them becoming pot-bound, which would ultimately stunt performance. When your plants are ready to plant out, they should be fully turgid - this means they have the maximum amount of water in their cells, which will give them the best start possible. As the season progresses, it is wise to develop a routine of watering early in the morning or in the evening, as the sun and hot weather can scorch the leaves of tender plants if watered in the heat of the day. And as always, water-in newly planted seedlings very well to settle them in positon.
Aspect is very important when choosing a veg patch. It covers two things: wind and sun. We all know that a south facing garden is preferable for growing fruit and veg. So be aware of where the sun is when planting and sowing. I visited some allotments last year where they were growing tall climbing beans on the south side and short plants behind them, in the shade - obviously not ideal planning. Manage your rotation with shady and sunny areas in mind. Wind can have a very negative affect on the health and yield of your plants. If you live in a windy area think about putting in a wind break to reduce damage on delicate seedlings and blossoms.
When choosing our own dwellings, garden space often comes secondary to the house itself, sometimes resulting in less than ideal outdoor areas. This poses a few problems to the keen home-grower. Your garden may not be south facing, limiting the yield and health of most food crops; it may be shadowed by a neighbour’s ghastly Leylandii hedge sucking any remaining life from your soil; or it may be infested with a hoard of neighbourhood cats digging, defecating and generally driving you to distraction. All is not lost however - there is always something you can grow successfully, despite adversity.
Raised beds or pots can be the only option for growing in small spaces - they allow you to create a good soil media in the first season, avoiding the laborious task of improving what you have; sometimes in built-up areas, you dig down to find only rubble and rubbish. I normally suggest building your raised beds to about seat height, 50cm or so - this will add an element of comfort to the jobs of planting, weeding and harvesting your raised bed. Make the centre of your bed arm’s length from the edge, meaning you can reach into the middle without walking on the soil, reducing compaction. Wood is usually the cheapest and easiest material to build your raised beds from, but reclaimed bricks, blocks or corrugated tin can work as well. Avoid old railway sleepers, as they can leech toxic creosote into your soil. I would suggest a blend of roughly 60% top soil and 40% compost, giving your plants a nice varied diet of mineral and organic matter. Be sure not to fill the bed up to the top as, in an ideal world, you will be adding more compost in following years. Build the raised bed directly onto bare ground, allowing worms to colonise and water to drain away, much like a well-placed compost bin. No need to line it. If you are growing in pots, make sure there are sufficient drainage holes and be aware that you will need to replenish the soil every two years or so, as nutrient depletion is inevitable.
Container growing requires more care - you will need to be quite diligent with watering, as you have raised the soil surface away from natural ground level moisture. The edges of raised beds and the base of pots can be the perfect habitat for slugs and snails, so check regularly and remove. During April, young plants are at the greatest risk of being predated by slugs and snails so be vigilant.
If you have limited space, grow what you use the most of. Salads, soft herbs and strawberries are a good place to start, as they have shallow, fibrous roots which respond well to container growing. Tomatoes and chillies are firm favourites for the urban kitchen gardener but will need a sheltered, sunny position in order to thrive. If you have areas of partial shade, oriental greens, chard, kale, spring onions and spinach do quite well with only 3-4 hours of sun per day. Everyone can grow a few herbs no matter where they live.
Using herbs is the gateway to good food. They freshen up heavy winter dishes and enhance delicate summer flavour; with very little effort they can transform something ordinary into something really special. Fortunately, most are easy to grow, and for the home gardener the best thing to get you started.
Culinary herbs are usually divided into two categories: soft herbs and woody herbs. Soft herbs are normally grown as annuals, sowing and harvesting in the same year. Woody herbs are perennial and need to be maintained accordingly. Grow both types - and be creative with variety; there is a huge array of colour, fragrance and flavour waiting to be unleashed on your senses.
Most herbs will tolerate most conditions, so don’t feel limited by what space/soil you have. The general rule is that fertile free draining soil will set you in good stead, but thyme, for instance, likes it dry, and mint likes it wet, but thankfully both will produce well without. Herbs with shallow fibrous roots can also be successfully grown in pots and will grow well without full sun.
Good garden centres or specialist nurseries will have most herbs for sale in pots but most, (especially soft herbs) are easily grown from seed, and this is the most economical way to have herbs all year round. Seed is cheap, so successionally sow basil, parsley, coriander, chervil and fennel throughout the year. Coriander is a herb that people struggle with - “it always bolts”! Avoid growing coriander in the hottest months of the summer, sowing in the early spring or autumn under cover will mean it crops during the cooler months and will help with the bolting. However, letting coriander run to seed can give delicious rewards - the flowers and seeds, green or dried, are delicious in the kitchen.
Perennial herbs are simple to grow but easy to mismanage - in the first few years of planting, pick sparingly as herbs like rosemary and tarragon need some time to get established and suffer if heavily picked. I have never successfully been able to grow a large rosemary plant at River Cottage HQ because it is simply too tempting to the chefs swinging knives! If your herb plant is looking tired or overworked you can cut it back hard, which can rejuvenate new growth. But don’t be afraid to cut your losses and start again with a new specimen. Perennial herbs appreciate a mulch in the winter months to replenish nutrients and supress weeds. Most annual herbs can be started now from seed but don’t be afraid of buying perennial plants because they take longer to get established.