Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Setting up for self-sufficiency from scratch

Broadforking a large new vegetable bed
Chatting with a friend who's just about to start working a croft has focused my mind on how I would set up our veg garden from scratch if I had to start over again and what I'd consider essential in a veg garden. We've worked these things out over several years and have implemented the suggestions below, but we could set up even quicker, with what we know now.

First of all, I'd identify the sunniest, best drained land by walking the land at diffent times in different conditions, like after heavy rain (be aware that light levels might quite different in winter, but spring to autumn levels are really the most important since that's mainly when you're growing). If it's sheltered as well - super. Otherwise hedge planting has to be top priority - put in a temporary windbreak fabric fence until the hedge is established (about three years). If it's reasonably level ground - even better, but you can work with terracing. It should also have easy access to water for watering (not so crucial in Scotland, but elsewhere it could be). If it's downhill from the house you can easily collect rainwater from your roof to water your veg.

Vegetables and herbs

Last year's squash bed
Raised beds
Part of the large herb garden
This area will eventually be totally
given over to perennial veg
Then I'd make a plan for four large vegetable beds (about 4m x 20m, scaled appropriately if you have less space) for the large crops: potatoes; onions, garlic, leeks and carrots; brassica; and a three sisters bed - courgettes and winter squashes with beans and sweetcorn (if you're lucky enough to live somewhere warm enough where these will grow outdoors - for us it's just squash). This makes it very easy to keep track of crop rotation, which can be a challenge otherwise. To minimise work I'd put down black plastic for a minimum of six months where these beds are going to go. This kills all the grass and weeds underneath and makes preparing the ground a lot easier.

If you think your ground is suitable consider no dig, in which case you can use cardboard as your base layer and top it with compost and organic matter. This uses a lot of compost, however, so think about cost implications. I'd advise trying to dig in several spots first, to see just how stony the ground is and what drainage is like. Much of our ground was very stony and drainage needed to be improved so no dig will have to wait. On the other hand, if your ground is too stony to do anything with, possibly the best way is up: making huegelkultur beds on top. That is, if it's not too windy to go upwards! We ended up making an underground huegel in a particularly wet part of ground.

In addition to the four large beds, I'd have a dozen raised beds for lettuces, salad leaves, beetroot, chard and crops that do better in raised beds such as celeriac. These beds don't have to have permanent structures; they can just be created by mounding up the soil. In this area there also needs to be space for an easy to move pea fence or trellis.

Somewhere near the house, I'd set up a herb garden with lots of perennial herbs and some annuals. This would also incorporate edible flowers, wild flowers and medicinal herbs (often the same plants!).

Next on the agenda would be an area dedicated to perennial vegetables, with some luxury crops such as globe artichokes and asparagus, some great staples such as Daubenton's kale, Good King Henry and a few varieties of perennial onions and some of those tubers that keep on coming like Jerusalem artichokes and oca.

The last of the winter crops and
the first of the spring crops
Then on to a polytunnel for extending the season. In this case, it is critical what the winter light levels are like since you'll be overwintering a lot of crops in it. Choose a very sunny levelish site with easy access to water. Our polytunnel is 20ft by 8ft, which is a great size for the home grower who doesn't want to grow vast quantities for sale but rather wants to keep growing salads and greens throughout the winter and have a wider option of veg to grow in the summer. Of course, it would be no problem to fill a larger tunnel, but it would also mean a lot more watering! A lot of things are better grown outside, such as onions, for example. And you don't have to worry about pests such as aphids as much. A 'cloudy' polytunnel cover is better than a fully transparent one since it lets plenty of light through but doesn't scorch plants in the heat. A south-facing conservatory or potting shed is very useful for pre-growing seedlings in the spring.

Fruit and nuts

When it comes to soft fruit, I'd get all my cuttings from other gardeners if possible, since they are so easy to grow from cuttings, especially currants and gooseberries. The same goes for vigorous rhubarb - a split of a plant that does well in your area is the way to go - and strawberry runners (which will need to replaced every three years to maintain vigour, easily done by taking runners from your plants in the summer after the harvest is done).

The orchard four years on
We have a dedicated soft fruit area, which could be netted over in a fruit cage arrangement (this makes harvesting easier since you can walk in and stand up). However, this hasn't been necessary so far, but it is a consideration in areas with flocks of pigeons especially. I've also made little hedges of berry bushes for most of the large veg beds and along the side of the main vegetable garden. I'd go for a huge variety of fruit, with some more unusual berries such as Siberian honeyberry (blue honeysuckle), Saskatoon berry and Chilean guava thrown into the mix to extend the fruit season. I'd rather err on the side of too many plants; that way, the birds can have some and there should still be enough left for you.

When it comes to fruit trees, I'd again err on the side of too many. We've ended up with eleven apple trees, two pears, two plums, two mirabelles, two mulberries, three cherries and one quince. It's crucial to get the pollination groups right, especially if you're in a remote area with no other fruit trees around! The one thing I would change next time is to make sure to have a couple of apple trees with apples that store really well; usually these are the late-fruiting varieties. We only went by flavour in our selection so none of our apples store particularly well without processing them.

Edible hedging around the veg garden
Other than planting an orchard, I'd also recommend incorporating edible plants into your hedging schemes. For example: crab apples, wild pear, wild plum, rosa rugosa (for rose hips), elder (for berries and blossom), hazel nuts, hawthorn (for berries), blackthorn (for sloes), sea buckthorn (for berries - this is quite a vigorous plant though, which can be invasive in some areas), guelder rose (for bark, anti-cramp medicine), willow (for wands and bark - natural aspirin - and as one of the best wildlife plants in the UK), tilia/linden (for leaves and flowers) and beech (for young leaves).

If I lived in a climate where they'd crop, I'd also plant lots of nut trees such as walnut, cobnuts and sweet chestnut. Now this is a really long-term proposition! Sadly, although they grow well enough here they only rarely produce a usable crop, with the one exception of hazelnuts - but we've yet to harvest a single nut from our 10+-year-old trees. In the meantime, we're going have a go at growing tiger nuts instead.

Following a programme like this will give a high degree of food self-sufficiency in just a few years, without needing to sacrifice interest and variety in the diet.

1 comment:

  1. Wow what a great read! Thank you so much for sharring all the information, advise and experience. im looking to planting excatly what you described :-)


Comments and questions are welcome.
If you've tried something after reading about it here, or have suggestions, please tell us about it!