...Timing your veg
...In heavy Soil
...In light Soil
...With Organic Manure
...Your enemies & friends
...Presenting the product
...Sprouts to Endive
...Eggplant to Salsify
...Sea Kale etc
A vast number of people grow vegetables.
In country areas it has
always been the rule rather than the exception and with the
increase in enthusiasm for self-sufficiency in recent years, many
more urban areas have followed suit. It is much cheaper to grow
your own vegetables and they always taste far better than those
bought in the shop.
The trouble starts when your production outstrips
demand. Even with a freezer there are times when you have
to dispose of surplus crops. When the surplus has not been planned
it is usually a case of passing out bunches of beans to friends and
neighbours. Not many shops are interested in a spasmodic supply
and the bulk does not justify the kind of packaging necessary to
send the vegetables to market.
If you are green-fingered and have put some planning into your
enterprise then it can be profitable. You have to decide at the start
how you intend to make your enterprise work. You can either
decide to produce a wide range of vegetables — as you would
normally to feed your family, only on a larger scale. Or you can
decide to produce large quantities of a few specific crops.
feel your market is among people living locally who will come to
you to buy their weekly vegetables, you should practise the
former. If you do not wish or feel it is impracticable in your area
to carry out a farm gate enterprise, choose the latter course.
Clearly the amount you can produce is limited by the amount of
land you have available and by the type of land.
Early land, that is
land in the south that naturally warms up early, can give you the
advantage of reaching early maturity dates.
A crop that is ready
even two weeks before the majority reaps a good bonus. The
lettuce is always a clear indicator of that. If you have lettuce ready
for sale early and the weather is warm you can never keep up with
demand. The price is good and with tremendous enthusiasm you
raise more seed, encourage your seedlings. Then everybody else
has their own little lettuce glut and you are faced with bolting
lettuces and a price that has dropped to rock bottom. When the
end of the season approaches, lettuce is again in high demand.
It can often pay great dividends to wait a whole year before
going into a vegetable enterprise. That way you can actually
monitor the buying behaviour in your area and decide what to
plant and which peaks to aim for. Either that or accept that there
will be times when you cannot sell all you produce and vice versa.
With bulk crops you must decide either to aim for the highest
possible yield when the market is possibly at its lowest in cash
terms or sacrifice quantity to try for an early market.
There was a
delightful example of enterprise a few years ago in Thanet, Kent.
It is a great potato-growing area and vast acreages are planted. One
farmer was unable to harvest a few acres of late potatoes as Winter
set in early. He did not do the usual and plough them in. Instead,
in the very early spring, he found that most of the potatoes were
in excellent condition. So he harvested the lot, sorted them and
sold them as the earliest new potatoes. It was a tale that has kept
the farming community entertained for months — every year it is
retold in the autumn and the spring. We have never tried it ourselves
but like everyone else who hears it we say that we will one
The initial requirement for producing vegetables is to have somewhere
to grow them. Unless you are 'going hydroponic', that is
aiming to grow plants in a solution of nutrients in water, you will
need some land.
When you walk on your land and dig around in it
you can classify it. If the land is heavy, slow draining and impossible
sible to dig in wet weather, you have to accept that your plants
have a comparatively short growing season. You have to delay
planting until Spring has warmed and dried the land. However, in
high summer you do have an advantage in that your land holds the
available water and is not so susceptible to drying out. If you can
dig in large quantities of organic manure, some ash, sand, and
carbonate of lime (except on alkaline soil), you will obtain heavy
crops. Given this assistance, vegetables thrive on this soil. Choose
suitable varieties for the heavy soil — for example, round-rooted
carrots grow beautifully where long-rooted ones do not.
Chalk soils are produced where limestone is found below the
top-soil. Often the top-soil layer is quite thin and the soil has a
greyish look. Although very sticky in the rain, this soil dries
quickly and you can work on it earlier than on heavy soil. Its
advantage is that it very rarely requires liming where other soils
do. Its disadvantage is that the soil can dry out very quickly and
plants that suffer in drought never fully recover.
It is often worth mulching on clay soils to retain moisture.
Applying large quantities of organic manure increases yields. If
you grow broccoli and cabbages through the winter on this soil,
they will need a dressing of a nitrogenous fertiliser or they will
You should be happy if you have a well balanced mixture of
clay and sand in your soil.
Your soil is no doubt dark and friable,
you can work happily on it for most of the year except directly
after rain and your vegetable enterprise should flourish. Bearing in
mind, of course, that all your neighbours have the same excellent
soil, you will probably have to grow for a market some distance
away and be involved in the packaging that involves.
With light, sandy soil you are able to plant very early in the
spring. Every drop of water and fertiliser you add, however, is
draining away at speed. It is therefore wise to delay the application
of organic manure until after the main winter rains and also
to apply any chemical fertilisers little and often. Even with
generous mulching, you will probably need to irrigate in the
summer. You can grow long, tapering carrots and parsnips and
early cloche crops. Runner beans are happier in heavier soils so
grow French beans instead.
Farming vegetables in light soil seems
more elegant than in heavy: the root vegetables are elegantly
tapered and even the beans are French! And the soil does not walk
around with you as our Kentish clay does. At the end of a wet day
we walk around laden down with mud collars around our Wellingtons.
Our latest attempts to make our progress lighter has been to
rub our boots with goose grease but unfortunately, this just makes
the dogs wind in and out of legs trying to lick it off. The next
attempt will have to be with something they do not like — perhaps
If you are fortunate enough to have access to great quantities of
that precious commodity, manure, a great many of your problems are
solved on any soil.
If you have well rotted manure and straw
mixed with animal droppings, ideally with a liberal mixture of
poultry droppings for nitrogen, you can obtain heavy crops with
little else added. Dried blood and bonemeal are also organic
manures but are used in small quantities. Sewage sludge, although
it sounds evil, is usually quite pleasant to handle. It is not available
everywhere but where it is, it is often free or very inexpensive.
There is a problem, however, as was proved on a local village
cricket pitch. Lovingly maintained and fertilised, the green grass is
the pride of the cricket club. One year it grew an excellent crop of
tomatoes! Well, that is an exaggeration because the plants were
not allowed to reach fruiting size. The sad truth is that treatment
at the sewage plant does not destroy tomato seeds and under
suitable conditions very hardy tomato plants will appear.
We had a
similar experience some years ago when our septic tank, hidden
down at the end of a field, overflowed. A couple of months later
the area of spillage was knee-deep in fruiting tomatoes. We leave
you to guess whether we ate them or not!
Deep litter poultry
manure must be well rotted before use as it contains wood shavings.
This usually pollutes the atmosphere so is not worth doing
unless you have an area well away from neighbours and your own
If you are intending to rely on garden compost to supply
valuable organic material, become a waste miser and put absolutely
everything you can on to it. Even a small amount of animal
droppings, say from a pet rabbit, adds life to the compost heap.
Certainly add household peelings and waste. Good leafmould takes
a year to become suitable for application. The leaves should be
layered with soil. There are often local speciality manures such as
spent hops in brewing areas and wool shoddy near wool factories.
The traditional methods of application of these substances are
always the most efficient.
If you live near the sea, seaweed is really fantastic.
You have to
stack it for a month or so for most of the salt to be washed out. In
fact, if it is gathered in a dry summer, you will have to water it. It
really does produce heavy crops. If you feel tempted to bring
some back from a holiday by the sea, it may be worth remembering
that to be really effective you have to apply 12lb (6kg) per square
yard (metre). Even if your car will carry a hundredweight of it, you can
only fertilise ten square yards, and of course you may well find
your family refuses to appreciate the odour of decaying seaweed
at close quarters.
Preparations from a seaweed base for foliar
application are available from garden centres. We often concoct
our own liquid mixtures using well rotted manure and these are
particularly effective if there is a dry spell and the plants are not
able to draw all the required benefit from the soil. These liquid
feeds are not a substitute for well-dug-in manure, just a helpful
supplement. If you apply a general fertiliser to growing crops but
do not dig it in, just sprinkle it on the ground — the rain will
gradually water it in and it will reach all the roots instead of
You have now decided where and what to grow and the sort of
manure you are going to use.
If you are cultivating a new area,
you may well have to remove grass. Before you dig it in or remove
it and stack it somewhere to rot, it is worth considering whether
you can sell it for turf. The best turf comes from new leys neatly
cropped by sheep; your turf may be like this or it may be a
portion of garden you are digging up with equally suitable lawn
grass. In any case have a good look at it. There is nothing more
heartening in a new venture than to get an instant cash return.
Whenever you are cultivating, remove and burn perennial weeds.
Each weed you remove will save you dozens next year. Never be
tempted to put such horrors on the compost heap or they will
merrily return along with the manure. In fact, many permanent
weeds grow from chopped up bits of themselves so you could
greatly increase your problem if you hope to simply dig them in.
Aim to have the area dug and manured by Christmas; you can
then celebrate with an easy mind while frost and rain complete
When you can get on to your land again depends on your soil
type. Heavy soils mean late access; light soils mean you can get
going early. In any case, you should now find that the top few
inches of soil break down to a fine crumbly tilth when raked.
You may find that the soil beneath is compacted. One cause of
bad drainage is continually rotivating at a set depth: this causes
the soil beneath to become compacted and water finds it difficult
to drain away. If this is your problem, you will have to dig right
down and loosen the bottom layer. This is remarkably heavy work
and certainly worth avoiding by varying the heights at which you
If you have ditches near the area you are cultivating,
keep them really clear.
A well-cared-for ditch is a great help in
draining land and one that is often overlooked on small land
enterprises. By digging down an extra foot, ditches that have
long ceased to be effective can be returned to active life. Watch
an effective ditch at work when the weather is wet and imagine
what all the water it is carrying away would do to the land it is
draining. Without ditches it is more difficult to drain land. To
drain a large area you may need to use land drains leading to a
constructed soakaway. Envisaging all this digging may persuade
you to practise small-scale ditch digging. This is really an application
of polder farming. Dig ditches, with the lie of the land vertically
down your plot, dig a ditch at the bottom leading to a
collecting area such as a small pond.
On clay soils you can construct
a pond in a time-honoured way by using the natural clay
as an impervious layer. If you live on different soil or do not have
such faith in nature, you must resort to polythene liners. Of
course, if you live on very light soil then you can run the whole
system in reverse. Put the pond at the highest point and lead the
ditches running away; if the soil is extremely light it is worth
lining the ditches with polythene. These methods of carrying
water to and from sources have been practised all over the world
It is amusing that now we have developed cheap
plastic sheeting to make the whole process more foolproof, we
seem to use the method less. This is, of course, partially due to a
mechanised approach to vegetable production. When the enterprise
is looked at from a smaller point of view, machine and daily
labour requirements can take on a different position and it is often
logical if you are producing on your own to use the winter months
to construct waterways and drains so that the summer workload
can be lessened.
When it comes to Summer and you are actually applying water
to the vegetables, the essential point to remember is that when
you water, do it enthusiastically.
Lightly watered plants scorch in
the sun, rain-watered plants do not, so that when water has to be
applied artificially it must be in rain quantities, not in watering-
cans. Water storage tanks are often necessary. In old garden
systems they were often incorporated as part of a basic design.
have a greenhouse containing an enormous grapevine. It has its
own tank that fills from the gutters and apparently from
underwater drains. It has never gone dry and so there is always
water on hand. Even a rain butt under a gutter collects a vast
amount of rain in a downpour.
Water storage puts two extra
responsibilities on you. The first is to make sure that the water is
completely safe from a child's point of view. Even if you do not
have children, other people do and little children can trot remarkable
distances when unguarded. A water tank is a potential killer
and must be fenced in or covered.
Your water storage can also be
an ideal place for mosquitoes to breed and flourish. A drop of oil
on the water surface cures that and in the summer it is well worth
keeping an eye out for them. It is apparently only the females
that bite but it is impossible for anyone but another mosquito to
tell the difference, so do not bother with the niceties and kill
One creature that anyone cultivating does not want to destroy
is the earthworm.
If you have applied generous quantities of
manure, you will certainly increase this useful creature's numbers.
The earthworm obligingly cultivates deep down into your soil by
his continual ingesting and passing out of the soil.
'Baddies' in the
vegetables such as slugs can be disposed of using proprietary killers
or more profitably by letting egg-laying ducks do the work for
you. The duck eats the slug (she loves the succulent beasts) and
will give you eggs in return. Chickens love slugs too, but they will
also eat your vegetables. Just a sprinkling of ducks keeps the
ecological system working to your advantage. Instead of all that
digging in the winter, you could let a few free-range pigs do a lot
of the work for you. You can also use goats to eat their way deep
into scrub and brambles. This all depends on whether you want to
integrate different areas of production or not.
Planning a kind of
animal-assisted ideal life is very useful to fill in wet days when you
cannot get on to the land. Of course, once you have committed
yourself to the livestock you must be out irrespective of the
weather. That is always a point worth remembering.
When you look at the price of a packet of seeds you can instantly
see the potential profit.
A few pence produces pounds of crop.
That is assuming that you are able to help the seeds along and also
that the seeds are worth planting in the first place. There are
always great differences in the price of seed on offer. The only real
advice to follow is to choose seeds from a reputable company, buy
them where you are sure they have been kept correctly and choose
a suitable variety for your conditions. Last year we did not buy
courgette seeds until the season was quite advanced. There were
very few packets left in the shops and it was clearly too late to
buy by mail order. We bought a brand that we had never heard of,
the packets looked a little crumpled but the dates were still
correct. The seedlings made a disappointingly sparse appearance
and the plants had nothing like the vigour we had hoped for. Next
year we shall order early; there is nothing more disappointing than
labouring away at something that will never come up to standard.
If you are planning to plant a wide variety of standard crops,
try to buy the seed by weight. There is not much point in going
out and paying for dozens of pretty little packets when you are
growing commercially. Seeds are usually tiny things (unless they
are banana seeds), but they need warmth anyway. Do not be
tempted into sowing too thickly: it makes thinning unnecessarily
time-consuming and is wasteful. There are all sorts of tips
on how to plant small seeds. You can mix them with sand and
sprinkle the lot along a row, you can sprout the seeds in wallpaper
paste and put that into an icing bag and dribble it along the row.
If you have a steady hand, you can simply deal with them by
When producing crops for sale you must find the balance
between over-effort and under-effort.
To produce single specimen
parsnips is an enviable achievement unless you intend to make
money selling them. Rather produce a larger quantity of good
parsnips and leave out the 'stars'. All growing is like that if done to
be commercial. Your product has to be excellent to sell but not
so excellent that it becomes uneconomical to produce it. That is
why it is worth getting a head start by having the ground well
manured and buying good seeds. When the growing and harvesting
season is under way you will need all the time available to keep up
with gathering and packing without having to encourage under-
nourished plants or pamper 'prima donnas'.
Weeding becomes a pressing occupation during the growing
season. After all the ideal growth area that you have prepared for
your vegetables is also a paradise for weeds. Using weedkillers can
today cut down a vast amount of labour. However, weedkillers are
of necessity very powerful toxic substances. We use as few of these
substances as we can, partly because we do not like putting
chemicals near the food we intend to sell or eat and partly because
we do not like having dangerous substances around. Anything of
this nature should be kept in a locked cupboard.
We grow a lot of our crops in blocks rather than in traditional
This increases ground cover and if you keep the weeds at
bay in the early stages the plants soon become big enough to
make their own way. Planting closer together than usual also helps
this method. It means that things like beetroot and lettuces tend
to be harvested while they are smaller than most for sale. This
achieves two objects: first, it decreases the amount of possible
damage from slugs and other things that eat into your growing
plants and secondly, it provides a more attractive crop. A bunch
of beetroot, the globes some 1.5 to 2 inches across, tied with raffia
around the stalks with the deep green leaves still attached, is a
beautiful sight. Buyers at the farm gate and local shops will often
be tempted by this natural presentation to buy. Once the beetroot
grow to a standard three or more inches in diameter, your product
is just the same as that available everywhere. You have lost the
advantage that smaller scale production can have.
If you aim to encourage the public to buy directly from you,
plan the vegetable area with visual effect in mind. Marrows are
quite spectacular in growth. Plant them in a compost heap and the
trailing variety will soon cover the area with umbrella leaves and
bright yellow flowers. The flowers themselves can be harvested
and stuffed and deep-fried. Perhaps your customers are not aware
of this — a small recipe sheet often inspires specialist buying.
There are some examples of ones that we have successfully used in
the RECIPES SECTION. Leave some of the yellow flowers to grow into
marrows and you have had two incomes from one crop. Selling on
a farm gate scale means that you can also bundle together succulent
little carrots taken as thinnings from a main carrot crop.
These little carrots do not look beautiful for long as they wilt in a
dry atmosphere but if they are sold quickly and cooked gently,
they are the most delicious carrots of all.
Everyone, public and
shopkeeper alike, will be encouraged to buy if you can chat about
the special delights of your products. Become an enthusiastic
vegetable-eater and the feeling will soon come across to other
people. When you see what a small portion of housekeeping fresh
vegetables have become, it proves that there is scope for an
enthusiast. Some health shops will sell fresh vegetables — they
must usually be organically grown.
Many young housewives have
been brought up almost entirely on a diet of frozen vegetables.
The same customers are often the ones with a keen interest in
cooking so if you can put a tempting array of vegetables in front
of them, you will have willing buyers. A trip to the continent
always shows what many of us are missing: there every little
corner grocery seems to offer a tempting variety of fresh
vegetables. You can even carry the presentation theme as far as
preparing strings of onions for sale. It is quite simple, you simply
tie the dried onion stalks to a piece of string and form a chain.
While we would not think of suggesting that the vegetable growers
of Britain take to their bikes as the French used to do to sell us
their onions, it is certainly a product with tremendous visual and
There are a few seedsmen who now specialise in selling exotic
varieties of vegetable seeds.
In a suburban area, the market for
exotic vegetables like yellow tomatoes and red beans can often be
tapped through a high-class greengrocer's or health shop. There are
often even outlets in supermarkets in towns.
The essentials for exotic vegetables are professional packaging
and standard production. It is much more complicated to produce
a succession of exotic vegetables through the season than to grow
the traditional crops. However, if that kind of challenge appeals to
you, it is certainly most worthwhile and often a lot of fun.
Children, and adults who have never come across tiny cherry
tomatoes, are hooked for life. How about growing spaghetti
plants? Even a few regular customers, becoming converted to the
fascination of eating hitherto unseen varieties, leads to continuing
sales. Even vegetables that were once popular, such as sea-kale,
are unknown by many today. Often all a vegetable like this needs
to increase its local popularity is a recipe leaflet. If you consider
how we all happily consume avocado pears, kiwi fruits and other
exotic fruits it is clear how powerful effective marketing is.
Some less usual vegetables to consider are Jerusalem artichokes.
Grow the smooth-skinned variety; their long stalks make excellent
game cover. Globe artichokes are delicious but never as prolific
here as on the Continent. Asparagus peas are tiny tender little
things and very popular in a speciality market. Try unusual
coloured beans and even home-grown haricot beans. Haricot beans
do not provide a heavy crop but they are finer in flavour than the
mass-produced ones. If you follow a really good, complicated
recipe for baking them, guess what? They taste just like canned
ones! Not nearly as many red beetroot are sold fresh as cooked
but there are a lot of good recipes for borsch about and if you
introduce them to your customers, you can sell the fresh roots.
To sell Brussels sprouts pull up the whole plant. Hung upside
down in a shed, the sprouts stay fresh for a few weeks. This often
encourages people to try fresh as opposed to frozen ones.
Red cabbage is delicious cooked or uncooked; it sells well in areas with
a continental population.
Cardoons are appreciated on the continent but you will have to
do some customer-education here with a recipe leaflet. They look
rather like globe artichokes but it is not the spiky globes that you
are after. Tie black polythene around the plant in mid-September
to blanch the stems: this is the part you cook, using the same
recipes you would use for celery.
Celeriac is now sold in many
supermarkets. It is a celery-flavoured root and really at its best
Chicory is interesting to grow; you produce a root from
seed, then you dig it up and force it in pots in the dark and up
come those shiny nobs of chicory (some varieties produce a pink
Corn Salad looks like forget-me-nots. You can eat it in
the winter when other salad stuff is in short supply and it makes
an excellent salad mixed with thinly sliced red cabbage and a few
Courgettes are not really very special unless you grow yellow
ones. If you live near an area with a continental population, grow
a few big dandelions and blanch them; these are delicious in salads
and much appreciated by healthy eaters because of their beneficial
effect on the liver.
Endive is another salad vegetable not appreciated
so much here as it is on the continent. It has a bitter flavour
and we only like it when it is mixed with lettuce.
Egg-plants (aubergines) grow remarkably well if they are well
manured. We have tried egg-plants under glass and out in the
garden and found that they preferred a sheltered spot in the
garden where they grew enthusiastically. They look very decorative
and like being used as patio plants in pots as long as the
bottom half of the pot is filled with rotted manure.
another decorative vegetable to grow and its aniseed flavour is very
refreshing. Garlic grows well in good soil but not to the enormous
size of Italian bulbs unless you use a giant variety. Usually we
grow ours from healthy garlic cloves bought wholesale. There is a
variety of giant bulb on sale from one of the specialist seedsmen
and we are going to try it this year — apparently it has a mild
flavour. If you edge your vegetable area with nasturtium, you can
pick the seed heads and pickle them like capers.
Shallots are worth
growing because they are often not available from ordinary greengrocers
and are necessary in many recipes. Peppers grow well,
especially under polythene tunnels. If you pick some of them
while they are still small, it gives the keen cook a chance to
preserve them in oil and vinegar.
Salad potatoes have a waxy flesh
and make the most delicious potato salad; they also sell for a lot
more money than ordinary potatoes. Growing several varieties of
radish offers your purchaser a wider variety; French Breakfast are
our favourite ones. Winter radishes are cooked in the same way as
The farmer's name for kale is fodder but for humans it provides
greenery at a time of year when hardly anything else is available.
Salsify and scorzoneras are similar in appearance, both being long
tapering roots with a green growth on top. The main difference
between them is that salsify is a brown-skinned root and
scorzoneras have a black skin. They have different flavours but are
cooked in the same way. You can eat the leaves chopped in a
salad; the roots should be cooked in acidulated water and are
delicious in cream sauces or deep-fried. They grow rather like
carrots and as they are hardy, you can leave them in the ground
until you wish to lift them.
Sea-kale, like asparagus, requires a
permanent bed; as with chicory, you grow the root in the ground,
lift it and then force succulent young shoots to grow. You can eat
the unforced green leaves, using them as you would spinach; the
blanched stems should be boiled in acidulated water and served
with butter or a sauce.
All the different types of spinach are worth
growing; you can have some of at least one variety available all
year and good-looking fresh spinach sells well.
Pumpkins are great
fun to grow and very decorative — they always look like great big
plastic monsters lurking in the vegetables and there seems to be a
returning enthusiasm for using them at Halloween. This year we
saw a lot imported from Spain and they were astonishingly expensive,
compared to the price fetched by a similar vegetable, the
There are other exotic squashes and continentals and
Americans certainly use them far more than we do. All the odd-shaped
tomatoes are worth growing for a specialist market, in
particular the really giant ones: they were fetching twice the price
of their humbler cousins this summer.
Well, that is a list of the more unusual vegetables. No doubt we
have left many out. Add to them all the standard vegetables, like
carrots and onions, and it goes to show what an enormous choice
we could have available in Britain.
Remember, any kind of root vegetable has a very limited life if
you wash it to improve its appearance. Interestingly enough if you
wash it you are theoretically carrying on a different business from
simply growing and selling produce and could require a change of
use planning permission. Farm gate sales of home-grown vegetables
and fruit often leads on to other things and many smallholders
happily sell oranges and plastic-wrapped cucumbers that clearly
were never grown on site. In an area where planning officials are
plentiful this can lead to conflict.