Whether you have a large or small garden, allotment plot or community garden, knowing where to start in its design or creation can often be a major stumbling point, particularly if you can’t afford to use a landscape gardener or garden designer.
I still remember looking out at the grass field in front of me and wondering where on earth to begin. Would it ever become the vegetable garden that I dreamed about. We wanted to grow lots of food in the garden but I hadn’t a clue how to do it on a larger scale. Should I scrape away the grass or dig it in? We were busy renovating our farmhouse and had no budget for raised beds or bringing in top soil and anyway, we’d been told that we had beautiful soil so why go to the bother of importing fresh when it might not be as fertile.
If this is the year you’ve decided to have a go at growing your own vegetables, this post is for you. I’ve come up with 10 steps to help you create a budget vegetable garden that will take time and some hard graft, but it should get you started if you’re determined.
Once the soil’s prepared, ideally leave it for three or four weeks to settle before planting or sowing.
10 Steps to Creating a Budget Vegetable Garden
1. Start small
It’s okay to plan a dream garden and do sketch your plans on a piece of paper, marking where everything will fit in several years time. Include things in your plan such as a greenhouse, fruit and compost area, shed and pond, but to begin with, only clear as much as you can manage.
If you get carried away and prepare too much, you might find you don’t have the time to handle it all and you’ll be much more likely to give up.
This article gives ideas for 14 vegetables that are ideal for growing in smaller gardens to get you started.
2. Choose your site carefully
You might not have a lot of choice but if possible, avoid creating a vegetable garden in a shady or wet area. The majority of vegetables like to grow in sunny, well-drained sites. Don’t forget you’ll need access to water so plan your garden near a water source to avoid trudging around with watering cans on those hot sunny days.
3. Clear the ground as best as possible
If your ground is overgrown with briars and rough grass, unless you’ll consider getting pigs or goats, only hard work is going to clear it.
Don’t resort to herbicides – the weeds will grow back and do you really want to eat food from an area that’s been sprayed with a chemical designed to kill plants? Whether you use shears, a strimmer or a scythe, hack it all down as close to the ground as possible, digging out seedling trees or shrubs where necessary. If you’re looking for tips on clearing ground without chemicals, this article gives 16 natural alternatives.
Anything that’s compostable can be saved for a heap that you will hopefully have the space to build too. This PDF gives tips on how to compost effectively which will ultimately save you money as well. If there’s too much waste, most County Councils now have green waste areas that it can be taken to.
Cover any areas that you won’t have time to dig over with black plastic, cardboard or old carpet until you’re ready. This will prevent any weeds growing in the meantime.
4. Mark out the area
Once you’ve cleared the land you’ll be able to see it to mark your bed sizes. String, bamboo poles, an old hose pipe or flour are useful tools for this exercise.
Vegetable Bed Sizes
To avoid walking on the soil and compacting it, the ideal vegetable bed size is 1.2m x 2.4m. Any longer than that and you’ll be tempted to jump or pole vault over it with your rake, believe me, I know…
We find that bamboo poles work well to start with for laying a plan down on the ground as they can be moved and re-positioned until they’re in the right place. Practice walking around the marked out area with a wheelbarrow to make sure you have room to manoeuvre. Once you have an idea of the size and shape, mark the area out with string and pegs.
5. Remove the ‘turf’ or the top layer of grass
Herein lies the hard work. If you were installing costly raised beds you could skip this bit and cover the top growth with cardboard before adding your topsoil, however this is a budget garden so you are going to have to remove the turf with a spade and dig the weeds out using a garden fork.
A straight sided spade is the best tool for this job and the idea is to only remove the grassy thatch that’s on the top of the soil. If you have space, the turf you remove can be placed upside down in a pile out of the way and covered with plastic. Eventually it will turn into topsoil that can be used again.
6. Turn over the soil
Preferably use a spade or fork. As tempting as a rotavator is, any weed roots that are still alive will get chopped up by the blades and reappear as new weeds in your lovely prepared beds and unless your rotavation is shallow, you’ll upset the structure of the soil. If you use a fork you can pull out weed roots as you find them.
Double dig if you have the back for it but avoid digging at all if the soil is frozen or too wet as again, it can damage the soil structure which is key to good growing conditions. Avoid standing on the soil too or it can compact, something we need to avoid at all costs. If you really hate digging or aren’t able for it, you might like to consider the No Dig method of gardening as championed by Charles Dowding.
7. Pick out the larger stones
You’ll never remove all the stones so don’t try! Don’t worry too much about the smaller ones, they’ll keep rising to the surface and you’ll be at it for years. Just pick out the larger stones as you find them.
8. Test the soil
I know of gardeners who never test the soil but you will save money if you find out your soil pH now. There’s no point planting blueberries which are acid loving plants in soil that’s highly alkaline. They just won’t like it.
There are some readily and cheaply available kits at all garden centres or online. Choose one with instructions and follow them. The instructions should also tell you how to adjust your soil if necessary, but to be honest, I’ve worked with lots of gardens and we haven’t had to make adjustments; we’ve chosen instead to grow fruit and vegetables that will thrive in the soil they’re given. For more tips on testing soil and fertility, take a look at this handy PDF from Garden Organic.
If you’re not sure what was in your garden before you were (it might previously have been an industrial area), it’s recommended to send off a sample of soil to a testing lab to be on the safe side. They will look for contaminants as well as the mineral and nutritional elements you’ll need to know to grow successfully.
9. Add some well-rotted organic waste
It’s quite likely that your soil will need improving by adding well-rotted organic matter to it in the form of animal manures (find a local farmer), leaf mould or garden compost. If you’re finding organic matter hard to source, garden centres sell it in which will get you started until you can create your own.
10. Rake and flatten
The final job is to flatten and rake the soil over. Some people are better at this than others. I thought I was okay until I worked with a couple of community gardeners who clearly have more patience than me and their resulting soil was like breadcrumbs (hence the expression, until your soil reaches a good crumb). Use the back of a rake to flatten out the lumps and gently pull the rake backwards and forwards through the top of the soil until it’s light and fluffy.
It’s not necessary to edge the beds but personally we’ve found it tidier and easier to manage. We used old house rafters that we were replacing during our renovation project for the first couple of beds but it’s really up to you and your budget.
If you’re a beginner and would like more advice on growing fruit and vegetables, community gardens are great places to join as you’ll pick up tips from a range of people. Alternatively keep an eye out for a Greenside Up workshop that can help you to grow food more confidently and successfully.