~ Tips for Beginners ~

If you are just starting out growing vegetables, here are a few bits of advice we think might help:

Tip 1: Don't buy too much seed.

It is really easy to get overenthusiastic and carried away reading catalogues. Lots of first-time gardeners order huge amounts of seed, far more than necessary or advisable. If you try to grow loads of different things, and try to learn how to garden at the same time, you won't be able to look after them all properly, and you may end up discouraged.

We think you will do best trying fewer things the first year, as you'll be able to give them each more attention and learn from what they do. In general, if you spend more than £30 or £35 on seed in your first year, you may be setting your sights too high. Growing veg is really easy & fun, but it is a learning process and you need to walk before you can fly . . . .

Tip 2: Read the instructions

All of our seed packets have basic sowing instructions for the variety printed on the label. Do read these before starting! Make sure to check sowing times - sowing too early into cold soil is usually worse than sowing a bit late.

Tip 3: Get a really clear gardening book.

If you are a complete gardening novice, we would recommend getting hold of a good book from your library. We recommend Joy Larkcom’s book Grow Your Own Vegetables, which is very clear and easy to follow.

Tip 4: Don't just scatter seeds on the ground & hope

Sometimes if you're new to this it may seem tempting to skip all the boring work of filling seed trays and carefully sowing seed in them, and instead just scatter the seed & see what happens as nature does its own thing. A lovely idea but you will get absolutely nothing in return! Yes, it is true, this is what happens naturally - but the plant makes thousands and thousands of seed for every one or two that survives by chance, and you need a much higher sucess rate if you're going to get a decent crop from an affordable packet.

Unless specifically told that it can be 'sown direct', the correct thing to do with your precious seeds is to sow them in small trays/pots of nice compost, and only plant them outside once they are bigger and able to fend for themselves. Very much as you would need to provide care for a baby animal when it was young, and not just leave outside to see what happens! The key is that you can provide better conditions and care for them , protecting from slugs, birds and other threats, while they are small.


And some general guidelines:

Vegetables need light, space and water . . .

and suitable soil to grow in. Sadly, you can’t grow a vegetable garden in the shade - you really need your plants to be in the sun for most of the day.

If the weather is dry, you’ll need to water your crops. Before deciding that you need to water, dig down a couple of inches, you’ll often find that the soil is quite damp enough down by the plants’ roots. If you do need to water, it is much better to water thoroughly a couple of times a week rather than a little bit every day. The aim is to make sure that there is plenty of water deep down. Pots and containers are an exception to this - they’ll need watering every day in summer, and possibly twice a day if the weather is very hot.

Most garden soil is fine for growing vegetables, though you’ll need to think about keeping it fertile from year to year. The best way to do this on a garden scale is to make plenty of compost from all your weeds, kitchen scraps, lawn mowings etc. Most councils offer free or subsidised ‘dalek bins’ and often advice on composting too.

Sowing in pots or trays

To start your seedlings in trays, modules or small pots (many can be sown direct in the garden), you’ll need to buy ‘seed compost’. This is a special mixture for sowing into, different from the garden compost that you make at home. You can make it yourself, but its best to buy from a reliable source for your first few growing seasons. Peat free compost is best, but you need a good quality one - ask your local garden centre to recommend a good brand for seed sowing.

Weeds are easy to kill when small.

Getting over run by weeds is really bad for your crops - it's not just light but water and nutrients they steal in huge amounts. Many people leave the weeding until too late - once they get their roots down it is hard work to pull them out - especially without disturbing your plants.

But the secret is this: when only an inch or two high you can kill weeds with a very light and easy hoeing. Weed on a hot dry day and they die from the damage with no chance to recover and re-root.

Cold spells will prevent seeds germinating.

Seeds need a certain number of hours of warmth to germinate. Your seeds may not germinate on a windowsill or greenhouse even when they days are warm - because they are getting too cold at night. If you are having problems with germination, 99 times out of a hundred, you need more steady heat.

An easy test is to wrap the 'stuck' pots & trays in a carrier bag (to keep them damp) and stick them in the airing cupboard for 2 days. Often they will come up straight away.

Once you see the problem you can come up with other solutions: Bring your seed in from the greenhouse at night. Or cover it with cardboard boxes , or a quilt or something at night to keep the heat in.

We actually germinate a lot of our seed in the airing cupboard, and whip it out into the greenhouse as soon as it comes up. It doesn't need such high or constantly high temperatures once it has germinated - but it does need light once it has broken the surface of the soil.


And finally: Learn to save your own seed.

Seed saving is VERY EASY. Even doing it really well is still PRETTY EASY. It constantly amazes us that people keep buying seed from us year after year. There's really no excuse, we give you seed saving instructions with every packet, and we offer a subsidised seed-saving book, so there's no need to give us your hard-earned cash for the same seed next year.

Seed saving allows you to select varieties that suit your soil, keep growing veg that are commercially unavailable, and will give you really great seed to share with your friends. We won't be doing this for ever (maybe another 10 or 20 years at most), so if you want to keep on growing these great varieties, you should have a go at keeping your own seed occasionally.

Do read our free instructions though and check the basics:

All the answers are easy, by the way.

And also: Befriend the oldest gardener you can find.

You will learn the most from the oldest gardeners. Want to know when to sow cabbages? Find the oldest person you can who has truly great cabbages, and do exactly whatever they say*. They will have seen it all, and they will know what you can and can't get away with in your particular local climate and soil.

*of course, if they use F1 Hybrid seeds, lots of chemicals and pesticides, then this doesn't count. But in that case their cabbages won't actually be truly 'great' cabbages, they'll just be big shiny cabbages full of toxic residues, which isn't the same thing at all, so the advice still holds.

But most of all, enjoy growing your food, and pay attention to what is happening to the plants as they grow, and you can't go too far wrong.