Planning your garden or plot for self-sufficiency involves a certain amount of knowledge – and a healthy dose of experience. You will need the answers to questions like: What yield will we get from each crop? How much do we need to live on? And how much space do we have available? The best way to learn is to get started – and keep a detailed notebook about the varieties you grow and what you harvest. After your first year growing vegetables, you”ll have lots of ideas to improve the yield and reduce waste in your second year. You’ll know when the ‘hungry gap’ occurs and how you might be able to deal with it. You’ll know how long your frozen runner beans kept you going! And you’ll know if you want to, for example, devote a bigger patch to strawberries. This article covers some techniques for anyone who is interested in maximising their yield and planning a successful, continuous vegetable plot.
Vegetables can be divided into three groups, which should ideally be rotated on your plot from year to year. This is particularly important for organic gardeners, because it reduces the risk of certain diseases and helps the soil to recover (as each type of crop takes different nutrients from the soil). When planning your vegetable plot, it is useful to keep the groups together, and try to use an equal amount of space for each group. Perennial vegetables (asparagus, artichoke, rhubarb), Curcurbits (squash and courgettes) and Fruit are best given semi-permanent beds of their own. The three rotation groups are:
Legumes – Peas, beans, onions, shallots and garlic are included in this group (the latter for convenience).
Roots – Carrots, swedes, parsnips, kohl rabi; potatoes and salads are usually put in this group for convenience.
Brassicas – Cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, kale, chard and so on. After Year One, move the Brassicas to the ground formerly occupied by the legumes, the roots to the brassica beds, and the legumes to the roots beds.
‘Intercropping’ is a technique where you grow a line of one variety ( usually a fast-growing type) in between lines of slow-growers like leeks, swedes and parsnips. Because vegetables like leeks need a lot of space, and are in the ground for a very long time, this technique allows you to use the ground more productively. By sowing a line of something like radish or spring onion between your leek rows, you can squeeze an extra crop from the bed and clear it before the leeks (or other roots) need the room. Here are some examples of intercropping that you can use to increase your yield:
Intercrop parsnips with beetroot or radish. Sow beet or radish seeds carefully between each parsnip row – they will be ready long before the parsnip swells to full size.
Intercrop maincrop potatoes with broad beans. When you plant seed potatoes in February, sow a hardy Broad Bean (such as Claudia Aquadulce) right beside each one. The broad beans will grow quickly, sheltering the young potato plants from frost, and can be harvested and cut before the potatoes are ready.
Intercrop onions with salad. Use a fast, leafy crop such as ‘Oriental Saladini’ and sow in broad drills between onion sets. It will be cut, regrown, cut again and lifted before the onions need the space.
Intercrop Climbing Beans with squash or courgettes. This is part of a three-way partnership called ‘The Three Sisters’, with the third complement being sweetcorn. All three plants can be grown as a trio; the beans will climb up the sweetcorn without sheltering it from the light, and the squash or courgettes will spread over the ground, retaining moisture and keeping down weeds. The nutritional needs of these crops mean that they balance one another out.
Maximising Space Over Paths and Sheds
If you’re scaling up, look for any small space where you could squeeze in an extra crop. Runner beans will scramble over a shed if you tie some string in vertical lengths down the sides. Strawberries and tomatoes can be grown in hanging baskets (look for tumbling varieties) as long as you remember to feed them regularly. Where you have paths between vegetable beds, look at ways to use those too: erect canes on either side of the path and create a tall tunnel for French beans to grow over (while leaving space free to walk through).