These steps will make your veg plot less time-consuming and easier to maintain. Next year, you'll have more time to spend harvesting your veg.
Gardeners of the old school will tell you that, unless you've dug over the whole plot, you aren't doing it properly. Don't believe them. If you adopt a bed system, once you've done the initial work, you don't need to dig every year. Digging isn't needed as permanent beds don't get walked on and permanent paths are solely for walking on.
Seedbed preparation is another chore you can cut out. By starting seeds off in modular trays or pots, you can plant out young plants as with bedding. All you need to do is to roughly level the surface.
You can take the bed system a step further and adopt a completely no-dig system. In this case you don't even dig in organic matter, but apply it as a surface mulch. This will eventually be mixed into the soil by the earthworm population and they do the digging for you.
A no-dig system will also help to reduce what is perhaps the most soul-destroying job on the veg plot, weeding. The old adage, 'one year's seeding means seven year's weeding', is all too true for common veg plot weeds. By not continually disturbing the soil surface, you'll leave all those buried weed seeds where they are instead of prodding them into growth.
An even more satisfying solution is to mulch the beds with a deep layer (5cm/2in is ideal) of organic matter. Such a mulch must be weed-free, or you'll add to the work instead of reducing it. Mushroom compost is usually weed-free and is pleasant to handle, too. Home-made garden compost can be used, provided it is free of weed seeds.
If the prospect of barrowing compost about doesn't appeal to you, there are other strategies you can adopt to keep weeds at bay. You could grow crops close together so that they quickly smother germinating weeds. This works well with most leaf crops and potatoes, which can shade out most weeds, but not at all with onions, leeks and garlic.
Between these two extremes, carrots need careful weeding, particularly within the rows, until the foliage is touching the next row. Thereafter, the crop won't suffer if you don't weed again, but let any weeds set seed and you'll regret it next year.
Plastic mulches These can be used to cover bare soil between widely spaced crops, such as sweet corn, larger Brassicas and Courgettes. Gardeners are often advised to use black polythene and plant through slits. This is easier said than done and black polythene effectively sheds rain and makes watering difficult.
Permeable plastic mulch is better, though more expensive. Rather than hack holes in the material to plant through, cut strips that will fit between rows. If they are standard widths they can be reused year after year.
Another advantage of raised beds is that the mulching material is simple to fix to the boards.
Paths Put plastic mulch down on the permanent paths between beds to prevent weeds growing. Fix the plastic to the boards either side with wooden battens.
Mulching of any sort will help to keep moisture in the soil longer and increasing the organic matter in the soil will enhance this effect further.
However, mulches will only prevent evaporation from the soil surface. Once the soil is covered by growing plants, the mulch may actually prevent rain getting to the roots. Continually wetting the surface of an organic mulch will have no effect on the soil beneath. And wetting the soil surface may even make matters worse by encouraging surface roots.
Instead, aim to soak the soil to a good depth every fortnight or so, weekly in very hot spells. With a bed system, concentrate on watering one bed at a time, really thoroughly. Two and a half two-gallon watering cans full per sq. yd. of bed are equal to an inch of rain.
Water in the evening so that most of the water soaks in rather than evaporating.
Organic matter Adding plenty of bulky organic matter to the soil will help to retain water in the soil and alleviate the effects of long, dry spells. Dig in as much organic matter as you can spare when you first make each bed. From then on, top up regularly with a surface mulch.
If you can't water vegetables because of a hosepipe ban, increasing the normal planting distance by half will help it's surprising how resilient vegetable plants are. Give the area a thorough soaking before you plant out or sow. Apply a mulch to seal in the moisture and leave them to get on with it.
Automatic watering If you don't have a hosepipe ban, consider investing in some leaking hose to water your veg plot automatically. With a bed system, use non-porous hose to link beds and loops of leaking pipe for each bed. Run the tap long enough to supply around 4 gallons a sq. yd (20 Litres per sq. metre.) of bed, for leafy and fruiting crops, less for root crops.
If water or your time is limited, concentrate your efforts on leafy salads and fruiting crops (e.g. Peas and beans).
One solution is to use a pesticide, but, environmental and health issues apart, this can be time-consuming and sometimes expensive. With some vegetables you can plan cropping to avoid them.
Timing Early crops of peas, harvested before mid-July, should be free of pea moth grubs. About the same time carrots, cauliflowers and Calabrese start to succumb to carrot fly and cabbage caterpillars. Harvest them all before the pests reach plague proportions, or you can physically exclude these pests.
Barriers Garden fleece is a real boon to the low-maintenance veg gardener. Not only will it protect tender crops from late frosts and cold winds; it will exclude most pests, too. Even aphids are defeated by its fine mesh. Later in the summer, crops under fleece, though pest-free, may scorch. Very fine plastic netting, such as Enviromesh, lets more air through, but still excludes carrot fly and the many pests that afflict the cabbage family.
© copyright 1999, P. A. Owen