Planning a Vegetable Garden 
 
Recently I was asked to write a blog for Sitting Spiritually – purveyors of the finest swing seats so I thought I’d share it with you here: 
 
Much is made in horticultural circles of ‘the end of the season’ – which generally means the garden centres are stocking up with Christmas decorations. 
 
All true gardeners know there’s no end of the year – just a natural turning of the seasons with its joys and laments, seasonal tasks and future plans. And vegetable gardeners in particular aim to keep one step ahead, with an eye on the weather, maximising their time and garden space. The long dark, blustery evenings of winter are for planning what to sow and grow in the coming spring; what cropped well last summer and what didn’t do so well? Hmm… maybe not so many courgettes next year… 
 
If you’re new to vegetable gardening and planning a veggie plot – but feel it might be all too much hard work – fear not: the key to success is in the design. 
 
It’s easy for newbies to get carried away on a fit of enthusiasm, intent on being self-sufficient and growing fresh, healthy veg for the family all year round. 
 
Stop! This way leads to overwhelm, trying to grow too much, too soon, when weeds and the weather and work will erode your good intentions and leave the plot neglected or worse – abandoned. 
 
I design an increasing number of vegetable or kitchen garden for my clients in Devon, as the trend for home grown veg and healthy living blooms. Increasingly the vegetable plot takes on a more central role in the greater garden scheme, rather than being relegated to a scruffy plot at the bottom of the garden with the compost bins and the ‘dumping ground’. 
 
And I always include a seating area within the veg plot – after all, this is where you’ll be busiest and a rest most needed! Vegetable gardens can be beautiful as well as useful – prerequisites for good design. 
 
The following are keys points to consider when planning your plot: 
 
Firstly accept you won’t be able to grow everything – it’s unlikely you will have the time, space or a suitable soil for everything on your wish list. 
 
The next most obvious question is: What do you want to eat? Don’t waste time, space and energy growing things that are cheap and plentiful in the shops such as main crop spuds or onions. Better to grow unusual varieties of new potatoes or shallots – easy to grow but pricey and less available. 
 
This also includes Asparagus and soft fruit- expensive to buy and as with so much home grown produce, delicious when fresh from the garden. 
 
Once you’ve compiled a list of crops you’d like to try, cut it down to the essentials – don’t let beginner enthusiasm run away with you; there’s always next year! 
 
To start, try three crops grown from seed and establish a couple of permanent crops – for example, new potatoes, French beans, a ‘cut and come again’ lettuce mix, and permanent crops such as Rhubarb with some soft fruit like gooseberries or currants. 
 
Next consider your space – be realistic about how much room you have and note where the sunny and shady spots are in the garden. Is it exposed or sheltered? Is there an obvious spot at the bottom of the garden or would it be more practical to have it much closer to the kitchen door? 
 
Most important is your soil – is it heavy, sticky clay or a gritty, crumbly loam? These factors will effect what you can grow well – but most soil problems can be resolved or at least improved. 
 
Next consider the layout. Before you site your beds and growing areas consider other practicalities such as a greenhouse for propagating seedlings, a shed for storage, a compost heap - or three - and a utility area for storing bulky items like grass clippings, leaf mould and bags of compost. You may not want all these things as space - or lack of it, is an issue, though if I were to pick one, a compost heap would be favourite. 
 
Now consider where to site all these things. The sunny areas are good for fruiting veg –courgettes, outdoor tomatoes, beans – as well as onions. Shadier sites will suit leafy crops like lettuces, cabbages, root crops and surprisingly, soft fruit. Gooseberries and currants are generally woodland plants and will cope well in at least partial shade. 
 
And the beds themselves - are these to be raised beds or open ground? Raised beds create more manageable growing space where the soil drains and warms up better, plus you can control the type of soil put in them, if your own ground is hard work. An area of open ground is useful too, for permanent or long term crops that mop up space such as Rhubarb or sprouting broccoli. 
 
Three raised beds would probably be enough for one household with the option of being able to put a rotation system into practice. In a very small plot it probably isn’t worth worrying about however, and you will find crops grown hugger mugger with each other grow quite happily and confuse the pests! 
 
Be generous with paths around the beds; most of my veg gardens are half growing area, half path – but this is not wasteful. A path needs to accommodate a wheelbarrow and the use of larger garden tools so plenty of space around beds makes working the garden more manageable – plus it looks good and you won’t feel overwhelmed with the abundant growth in summer. 
 
Suitable surfaces for paths include bound gravel - a fine compacted substrate that drains and copes well with wheelbarrows. Recycled crushed concrete is also a cheaper option. 
 
Less attractive features such as sheds and compost heaps could be screened off, and the screen itself used to support tayberries, espalier fruit trees or climbers such as beans. 
 
And don’t forget a sitting area from which to contemplate your labours – a Sitting Spiritually swing seat is ideal here – you’ll appreciate the rest! You may also want to consider a simple pergola or archway over the seat to train fruit trees or cordons. 
 
And the bees will thank you for a nearby bed with herbs and cut flowers - and repay you by pollinating your fruit and veg! 
 
Lastly, there is a cornucopia of information about vegetable growing in countless books and via the internet – more ‘overwhelm’!  
 
Call me old fashioned but I suggest you select about two well illustrated books that inspire you and you will actually enjoy reading – in your swing seat of course! -and use the internet to research specific crops as a backup. 
 
Alison Böckh www.gardendesignernorthdevon.co.uk 
 
Tel. 01805 804 322 Mob. 07772147518 
 
September is good time to lay turf by the way, if your lawn suffered over the summer, as most did. The ground is still warm and there be rain... 
But earlier in the year after the seemingly unrelenting wet of the winter, I hardly walked across any prospective clients lawn without the accompanying squelch - and then the Beast from the East waded in for good measure. Lawns were looking less popular.  
 
And suddenly summer arrived - and showed no intention of leaving! Not for me to complain but months of dry, hot sunshine brings its challenges in the garden - and not just how strong to make the next batch of Pimms... 
Lawns blanched in the heat and I put off returfing my excuse for a vegetable patch until the weather broke. See below... 
 
I'm often asked about fake turf - at which point I blanch in horror!  
FAKE? Fake grass!?  
Now I'm not a huge fan of the perfect lawn but I've yet to acquiese to a fake one. There'll be borders of plastic perennials next! 
But wait... 
They say the first casualty of war is the plan - as this is broadly true of any project - including a garden design. However accurate the survey and meticulously detailed the design there are always anomolies once the landscapers get on site. 
It's unforgiveable if the designer hasn't taken account of the basics like drains but all manner of unknowns lurk beneath the surface to cause the design and build team a headache. 
 
Most landscapers I've worked with usually are quick to point out these hitches but equally quick to come up with a solution; a good designer will anticipate likely problems and be ready to be on hand with the resolution process. They should have in mind how the finished project should look, at least in hard materials and not allow details to slide for the sake of expediancy or time. Cost is separate issue that will have been negotioated before the vans turn up and even this can subject to reveiw...Communication between all parties is key. 
 
Any design, however thought through and detailed, is only ever a skeleton on which to build. Many clients can be really excited about their new garden but a find it really difficult to visualise in reality. Even 3D renderings aren't the same as having it there outside your back door. Once the bones of the new garden start to take shape however, the client may start to have light bulb moments - and make changes and add details of their own. In my view this is to be welcomed - the more involved the client becomes the more likely the ultimate garden will be a success - one that they feel fully involved with and want to care for. Mananging this is really the designer's job - to listen to the client's concerns and ideas and find practical resolutions with the landscaper. 
 
The latest projects to arise from the mud- or concrete after weeks of hot sunshine - are a soon to be garden on a new build site - a very high spec house but on an awkward, sloping site (aren't they all?!) In this case the builder still on site felt obligated to complete the exterior so agreed to lay the patio ( for an agreed cost) rather than lay unwanted turf.  
For me this rushed the design process a bit but we all saw the benefit of utilising skilled labour ready to go. Result - clients with a patio to relax on for the rest of the summer, who were prepared to wait for another landscaper to finish the job.  
 
This may not sound ideal but with any project there is a need to adapt to changing circumstances - and for me working with people the clients are happy with, is crucial for ensuring good communication all round. 
 
 
What with Royal Weddings, Chelsea Flower Show and not to mention the gorgeous weather we've had lately, we've had plenty to celebrate and what better way than to be in our gardens with a Pimms or what ever is your tipple.  
But have we offered our plants a drink? Lovely though it is when spring finally kicks in, this can be a treacherous time of year for our new plants. Often they struggle and may even die later in the season from lack of proper TLC when first introduced to our tubs and borders. 
 
Shrubs are particularly prone - many times have I pulled a forlorn shrub easily from the ground having made no root growth and died. Often it's sitting on a wet sump of compost, having rotted away over a wet winter. We are the culprits - the prized shrub is brought home, planted with a shovel of compost in the bottom of the planting hole, a quick splosh with the hose and then left to get on with it while the owners relax and go on holiday. All appearences suggest the shrub is fine - it grows a bit, flowers - then promptly dies over winter. 
 
Hilliers, the nursery chain across the South claim the average life expectency of a small shrub bought from their nursery is about 3 months - not something you would think they want to shout about . But the fault is not theirs but their customers; they are not always right, apparently.  
It can be daunting faced with a new garden - and I mean a new garden. Brand new house, no garden to speak of , builders rubble lurking under the compacted soil , not so much as a weed to inspire even an experienced gardener that just possibly, an oasis will one day arise from the mud patch. 
As a new client said in her inquiring first email 'Where the hell do you start?!' And I quote. 
My answer of course was - 'With someone like me'. 
Most new clients come with at least some experience albeit unwilling, others come with a lot and very willing, but confronted with something resembling the Somme can take the shine off their brand new home. A garden designer comes to the first visit with an unemotional eye. Not without excitement mind, as this prospect is a blank canvas devoid of sentiment - so anything could happen. 
 
At first I just listen - where have they come from, tell me about your last garden - often a family's history unfolds and some aspects of that home will need expression here. And the important question - how do you want to spend your time in the garden? The response here is often also a reaction to the last garden - less work , more relaxing - and pottering. Truly I do not believe there is a translation into any other language for 'pottering'. 
I met a new plant today. A neat unassuming little thing, quietly minding its own business at the entrance to the shade tunnel of one of my favourite nurseries (www.millwoodplants.co.uk). Unshowy though it was I was taken aback at the fresh perfection of its lobed, heart shaped, fleshy leaves on delicate stems. While everything around is starting its autumnal decline, this little chap seemed full of the joys of - well, autumn. 
I'm reliably informed by one of the two incredibly helpful and knowledgable owners that it goes by the name of Eomecon chionanthe - yes, now repeat after me - Ee- Oh - Me - Con - Chio - Nan - Thee. A mighty big name for such a little plant. 
I rightly assumed that it obligingly dies away in winter completely, rather than hanging around looking dead or depressed. As if its pleasing leaves and habit weren't enough it flowers twice no less over the growing season, producing simple four petaled white blooms with yellow stamens - rather like a poppy being a distant relative. 
There's always a bit of a lull in mid summer - I have plenty on but happily the phone goes a bit quiet and I'm given a chance to catch up with the 'spring rush'. And just before the kids go back to school there's a bit of flurry of interest and I think - 'A smart move - potential clients who are already thinking about their gardens for next year'. 
Design projects always take longer than you think -the design process can take weeks and a landscaper might take a few more to find. As for the start date - sharp intake of breathe - that could be a few months more. So a good move is to start that process now, while we are actually in our gardens with perhaps some time to contemplate its good points - and not so good. All being well the build process can start over the winter into spring, ready to enjoy by the summer.  
This year the Christmas decorations had barely been put away befor the phone started ringing - I'm certainly not complaining, but if you really want to beat the rush, call me now! 
 
A shove in the right direction 
Sometimes a consultation is all need to make some firm decisions about which direction you want your garden to go. And it's always a real pleasure when as a designer you have been instrumental in helping the garden owners to get there. Earlier this month I was invited to return to a garden in mid Devon to view how the owners had developed their site and made it their own. Experienced and keen gardeners themselves the new owners loved the cottagey garden surrounding their thatched Devon long house garden but were certain it needed some bold tweaks. 
 
While replanting a local garden's borders recently I was firmly reminded of the value of evergreen shrubs in a planting scheme. 
The borders were a tumult of cottagey flowers - a very pretty mess over summer . And the client was not happy- while not a fan of formal planting this was too chaotic even for her. 
 
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