Success in the garden: simple rules for beginners

The English horticulturist Monty Don believes that the secret to a successful harvest tomorrow is the right approach today. As someone who has spent his life in direct connection with gardening, he certainly has something to share with aspiring subsistence gardeners.

I was born in a small village in Hampshire. In the 1950s and 1960s, it and others like it were not yet a cross between a bedroom community and a fence-encircled complex of private estates, as is common today. Even the most modest cottages had a small plot of land set aside for beds. I remember once walking past a neighbor’s house – and its gate was always open – and seeing the owners at the kitchen table covered entirely with the seeds they had just received in the mail. They were laying out the seeds in a particular order, in order of sowing: in front of them lay three piles of packets, through the thin slit between which the wooden surface of the table could be seen. It was a real event for the hosts.

Growing up, I haven’t forgotten that moment and always put seeds on the table in groups, lovingly sorting them and anticipating the results of the next season. In my childhood days, gardening was not a hobby and had nothing to do with a healthy lifestyle. It was dinner on our table. Not a single plant on the plot grew for nothing. The money spent on seeds was an investment, and the harvest determined what and how much was on our plates. Don’t forget: this was only about 10 years after the war. Food was no longer issued on ration cards. Only a few people owned cars. Money was tight. Everyone hoped for a good harvest.

The present life is easier for most people, though perhaps not better. It takes the same amount of effort, time, and money to get a bad or good harvest, which is why it is so deeply disappointing when expectations are not met. The last few years have been a failure for so many. In my experience, 2012 was better than 2011, though, and it didn’t do particularly well either.

And there is nothing surprising about that. All crops, from the wheat that sows an entire field to the small plane of radishes in the basket outside the window, depend on the right weather and time. History has known cases in which a sudden change in climate and crop failure has starved millions, and we still don’t know which way the weather has changed now-if it fits into any system at all. Ten years ago I would have predicted a warmer climate, with wet winters and hot, dry summers, but that is not true, so it has become quite difficult to predict. Springs are getting warmer and drier, and winters are getting colder.

Be prepared to be flexible

So, how should a confused gardener prepare for the next season? The first and most important rule: Don’t fight nature. Doing things the way your father or grandfather did and then complaining about bad weather is not the answer at all. However, we really don’t know what kind of weather to expect. So expect the unexpected and prepare to adjust to the situation.

Grow fewer seeds, but with a greater likelihood of success. Prepare soil for them that will dry out quickly in wet weather and retain moisture in periods of drought (I know, seems contradictory, but it is not). Use protected soil agronomy if possible. A greenhouse is ideal, but greenhouses have a simpler design and are much cheaper.

 Collect rainwater in case you need it. Make sure you stock up on compost and leaf mulch so that you always have the right amount of organic ingredients at your disposal. Think about what you usually grow, and adapt that list to the varieties that are best suited to the weather that might happen in reality, rather than the weather that “should be.” This also applies to a little compromise in quality: sometimes a good enough result is a result that is.

Again, start with the soil. It is absolutely useless to expect vegetables and plants that require fertile soil to reach record size as long as you don’t think about fertilizing. Heavy soil retains moisture and nutrients longer, but it warms up slowly and has poor breathability. Light soils, on the other hand, are well-drained and warm quickly, but they do not retain moisture or nutrients for long. Vegetable crops prefer something in between these two extremes, and the solution is always one: add as many organic components to the soil as possible. Gardeners often worry too much about fertilisers and completely forget about the composition of the soil. If it is good – it does not stagnate water, but it remains enough for the plants – your efforts will be rewarded with a strong and healthy root system. The vagaries of the weather will go as smoothly as possible with good soil, and the plants will always have access to enough nutrients.

Let’s focus on the seeds

Enough about the land. Let’s move on to the choice of vegetables. The main condition: grow what you want to grow. If you fiddle with a tomato in a cold and shady plot, expecting it to grow healthy and bring you a big crop, it won’t work. Many gardeners have a rather strange tendency to take pride in plants grown against their natural needs. I have always been surprised by such attempts to defy the laws of nature. Peas, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, raspberries and gooseberries all tolerate a slight drop in temperature and dampness quite well. Beans, pumpkins, zucchini, tomatoes, corn, asparagus and strawberries need sun to bloom. So if your soil is slow to warm up, postpone sowing for a later time, but so that the crop has time to ripen by fall.

If you don’t know which varieties you prefer, try two or three. Think carefully about what you really want. Some varieties provide a rich harvest at the expense of flavor, while others do not produce as much, but have incomparable flavor. Always think about what you want to see on your plate before you plant, and take the mistake as a lesson for the future.

The importance of the growing season is often underestimated. Many annual and biennial crops are quite short, and therefore they are especially sensitive to light, heat and moisture, which are very tightly controlling the life cycle of plants. In 2011 I encountered a serious problem with the lack of light in April and May, which immediately affected the timing and volume of the harvest. Sometimes you plant seedlings 10 days earlier or later, and the plants will not catch up with the expected development schedule.

In short, the secret to success in the vegetable garden is constant attention. Be patient, and give your plants the best soil you can, learn new varieties, plan your planting scheme, and occasionally help nature give you a better harvest.