Having been brought up on a farm the outdoors had been a huge part of my life, so when my husband and I moved back to Kirtlington from London in the spring of 2018, we arrived with a renewed vigour to shake off the remnants of city living and to live more sustainably.
By joining the grow-your-own revolution and creating a new kitchen garden, we felt we could embrace the space that we have, whilst reducing our carbon footprint, but never having turned our hands to growing vegetables, this was to prove to be quite a revelation.
Thankfully, I soon found an inside track that took the steep incline of our mountainous learning curve and softened it to a mere tump.
When I joined the team at The Oxfordshire Gardener in the summer of 2018 I was thrilled, because although I am not a professional gardener, I had long-held a passion for gardening, in particular vegetable growing. Being around the horticultural and landscaping teams I began to pick up information, learning by osmosis as well as probing Simon and the team at every given opportunity.
I soon found myself supercharged to learn as much as I could from this endless source of knowledge and encouragement that I’d had the good fortune to find. Be it plants, bulbs, compost, soil health or landscaping hints and tips, I’ve absorbed so much to help us to make our dream a reality, and all of these teachings offered up with boundless positivity and enthusiasm (and condolences when we learned the hard way!).
Step 1 – Building The Kitchen Garden
Selecting the best possible spot for our kitchen garden meant going on the hunt for a sunny, sheltered area which was not currently in use and would be easy to fence off from the deer and rabbits which we have in abundance at home. We eventually opted for an old muck heap that was not only walled on 3 sides, but also the ground had benefited from the accumulation of over 30 years of horse manure and straw.
When deciding what materials to build our raised beds from, we knew we had to take into account the position of the vegetable patch and the longevity of the project. We finally landed on building the beds with hardwood sleepers, which we learned would offer durability, as well as being aesthetically pleasing (the kitchen garden would be visible to passersby so it was important make it as attractive as possible, for our pleasure and for the enjoyment of anyone else who viewed it too).
We chose to build 3 large beds of 2.4m x 4.8m to maximise growing space. In hindsight, this was a mistake! With huge beds we found that we couldn’t reach the middle to weed, go on slug patrol or even pick the fruits of our labour without clambering all over the soil compacting it and clumsily treading on unsuspecting seedlings.
Handy hint from Simon – lay boards over the bare soil to spread your weight reducing the compaction of soil and accidental plant damage.
When the build was complete we turned our attention to what to fill them with. We opted for a 50/50 mix of top soil and horse manure, mixed it in thoroughly and raked it carefully to ensure that the seeds and seedlings had the best possible start. Filling the beds was hard work, but ultimately very rewarding.
Step 2 – Planting And Harvesting
With the beds all present and correct, enthusiasm got the better of me and I rushed off to the nearest garden centre and grabbed every seed I could find. I then busied myself planting up endless seed trays, filling every windowsill in the house with gay abandon and no concept of the gluts of vegetables that were to come…
Once they were large enough (and we had tired of living in a makeshift greenhouse) we planted out our seedlings in rows, ensuring that there was adequate space between the rows for them to grow. Soon, with a lot of watering (it was an incredibly dry summer), frequent fertiliser application and what seemed like constant weeding, our hard work began to pay off.
Picking our first beetroot, beans and new potatoes was a huge moment and the difference in taste from supermarket-bought vegetables was staggering. Not only did we get a thrill from picking our own vegetables, but growing our own also upped our vegetable intake hugely. We embraced learning new recipes, trying them out on friends and family. Who knew there were so many ways to eat beetroots, tomatoes and courgettes?!
Our first year learnings:
That might all sound very plain sailing, but there were in fact a myriad of minor disasters. Here’s what we learned from some of the most memorable ones:
- It’s not as easy as it looks – It took three attempts at growing runner beans, the slugs love of the seedlings. Every time I got them in the ground they seemed to disappear overnight.
- Being rather naive I didn’t cover my brassicas which all got completely destroyed by pesky cabbage worm – invest in netting.
- Unless you REALLY love marrows I would advise against growing 10 courgette plants as they turn into marrows seemingly quickly whilst you’re trying to keep up picking
- But you can never have enough new potatoes.
- Horseradish and mint should be grown in pots – at this rate I will be waging war on them forever.
Step 3 – Year 2 And Embracing Our Learnings
Year two went off with far less glitches, with the help of the team at The Oxfordshire Gardener and all that I have learnt from them, especially Simon and Lindsay – our edibles experts, it was a lot more successful and less stressful. Not only did we plant heritage varieties that tasted even better, we were introduced to succession planting, reducing the need to make chutneys and giving us the ability to enjoy a wider variety of vegetables all year round.
We’re still enjoying our squash, onions, garlic, parsnips and brussel sprouts with our Sunday lunches now. It turns out that two courgette plants are plenty for us and the rest of my family to gorge on!
Step 4 – The Orchard
Who doesn’t dream of walking through their own orchard picking off plums and apples, savouring them straight from the tree? This is something that we both enjoyed as children and wanted to replicate in our own garden. So in December 2018 we set to creating an orchard.
Under the careful supervision of Simon and Rob, we selected the most suitable varieties of fruit trees. They took into account the flavour and variety of fruits that we would enjoy the most and the space available. We opted for apple, pear, damson, quince, plum and cherry trees which were self-pollinating, won’t grow too tall and swamp each other, which would prohibit the harvest we hoped to enjoy.
The dry summer meant the trees needed weekly watering, frequent fertiliser applications and constant weeding of the tree circles to give them the best possible start to life.
But last year, we gained our first small crop (they were just settling in, so fingers crossed for an abundance of fruit for the table this summer!)
Our second year learnings:
- The taste of fruit and vegetables straight from the garden is unbeatable.
- Growing your own vegetables can be hard work, but well worth the feast
- We eat many more vegetables and waste so much less, going out to pick your own produce fresh from the garden gives you an abundance of choice and reduces the amount of plastic we use dramatically.
- An unforeseen bonus, but maybe my favourite thing about the project, has been watching my niece take an interest in vegetable growing and the joy it brings her to pick what she would like for tea.
With the growing season just around the corner we have prepared our beds, mulched the trees and purchased the seeds in anticipation so watch this space. We still have a lot to learn but with a team of experts on hand to ask endless questions to we are definitely in safe hands.
Want a glorious kitchen garden of your own? Talk to us about your dreams for a productive space.