It’s never too late

You’ve decided to get yourself an allotment or dig a veg patch, but while the old-timers say it’s too late to plant anything, you can turn back time and still get yourself a crop this year

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The trouble with gardening is, you have to start somewhere. Whenever you start it’s going to be the wrong time of the year for something, but these tips will help you get something productive in June, when all the others are knee deep in produce and all you seem to have are weeds.

But it’s June already! So what are we going to do? What are we going to plant and how can we get through our first year with our backs intact, our pride enlarged and something to show for it all?

Join an allotment society
You might not actually want an allotment, but the benefits of signing to up your nearest society are not to be missed. Membership is cheap, sometimes a non-gardening member pays as little as £1 a year for which you get to use the shop, for material, fertilisers, compost, tools and lots of advice.

Then you get to know the people on the plots, and invariably they have too much produce to fill their own plots. Just by talking and being interested you can get a lot of free plants to start you off.

And then you get ideas, ways of doing things you never would have thought of, like starting peas off in plastic gutters, growing garlic in tin cans. It could be the best £1 you ever spent.

Plan, plan, plan!
And then realise that the best-laid plans…

You are looking for the lightest, most well-drained part of the garden, should you be building a veg plot at home. Start small, and that goes for people who have just moved onto their first allotment, which are usually overgrown, frequently over-populated with terrible weeds and need a lot of work.

Clear and cover! Choose a small space. It doesn’t matter how small, and with a garden fork, dig out all the weeds, removing the roots by hand if necessary. If this is your first digging session, keep it to 20 minutes, no longer! The rest, cover it with good quality ground cover, old carpets, tarpaulins, anything. Then you can top the ground cover with pots of produce, so you get to grow and kill the weeds as you go along.

The space you have cleared you can enrich by forking in some compost and plant away. Then as your garden grows, peel back some more ground cover and repeat.

What to grow and sow in June
Truth is, nature catches up. Planting late is fine because the ground is already warm and the plants do come on quicker than having to bide their time through a cool spring.

Most gardeners will have planted potatoes up to two months ago, but you can still plant potatoes, eight inches deep and two feet apart, in June and have a crop in September. And they do just as well in large containers too. At this time of the year, all the “seed” potatoes, which are not seeds as such but are just specially grown tubers for planting, are bought up. You’ll have to hunt round the garden centres. There are usually a few left in bins, and don’t worry about them looking a little sad – they pop up like everything else. But, don’t tell anyone – many’s the time I have simply planted supermarket spuds and got a brilliant crop, though it’s supposed to be against the rules, according to many.

If you can, try Charlotte seed potatoes from the garden centre, or look around on the internet to see what is still available.

Oh! You can have great fun with carrots. They are grown in drills. Think about the trooping of the colour – soldiers stand in straight lines called drills. It’s the same with most vegetables. Chop the soil to as fine as you can get – a hoe is good – and mark out a shallow furrow, about three inches deep. Sow the carrots into this and cover with compost. Then give them a good watering. As they pop up thin them out to about 4-6 inches apart.

If you have a box – any old box will do, say 12 inches square, about the same depth – fill it with compost and broadcast the carrot seed over the top, cover and water, then forget them. Feed them with liquid feed once a month and keep on watering them. What you get is a mass of carrots – baby ones that roast perfectly!

Another drill one. Treat them like carrots except you need to thin them out to about eight inches apart. The wider the space, the bigger the turnip. Try the variety Snowball from most garden centres.

French beans
Simplicity itself! Go for dwarf French beans. They hold themselves up and don’t need a frame. Make a drill, three inches deep, and sow two seeds every eight to 12 inches, and if you want more rows, make them 18 inches apart. Pick out the slowest growing seedling and then simply water, water, water.

Swiss chard
For a bunch of edible colour try the variety Bright Lights. Sow now in very shallow drills, about one inch deep. Water and cover well. If you thin them out to about three inches you will get baby leaves for salads; thinning them out to six inches will give you large leaves for cooking. It takes a just over six weeks or so to get a pickable crop. Keep moist and feed once after a few weeks with liquid fertiliser.

Pumpkins are fun
And easy to grow. Start them off now in a warmish spot, either directly in the soil or in little pots. They need rich soil, so add some compost to their planting position and, if started in a pot, transplant them when they are about four to six inches tall. The key to success is water and, as the fruit forms, get them lifted off the ground on an upturned plate. The variety Hokkaido does really well in cooler climates.

Salads and radish
You don’t need much space for these. You can be all formal and sow them in drills, or simply scatter seeds and cover. Radish do a little better thinned to about three inches once they have grown a little. Don’t forget you can eat your thinnings.

Lettuce like Little Gem can be grown in drills, thinned to about six inches. Repeat sowings every three weeks until mid-August and you will have salad all the summer long. Don’t forget, they grow well in containers too.

Always popular, peas are easy to grow. If you have mice in the garden, start the peas off in little pots or modules (trays of compartments for growing) for transplanting when they are about four to six inches tall and able to hold their own. Space them at about four inches, and about 30 inches between rows. Try Rondo for a good cropper.

It’s too late for large onions, and the onion sets (bulbs for growing in your garden) are usually all gone by now. But you can try putting a few shallots in the ground about eight inches apart. Even if you buy them from the supermarket you’ll get six or more from every bulb that grows.

You can also sow spring onions. Treat them like carrots really, and you’ll get a very useful oniony crop. I confess to growing them (and chives) in used dog meat tins, but that’s just me.

Break the rules
Don’t be afraid to experiment. Just because someone says you have to do something by such a date, it doesn’t mean they are always right. And besides, you learn a lot from just messing about. Pests can be kept at bay using horticultural fleece, and lots and lots of marigolds to confuse flying insects. Remember, plants want to grow, so stick it in the ground, see what happens. Search the garden centres and you’ll find loads of plants to have a bash at, and don’t forget the seconds shelf – it’s surprising what you can do with a little TLC!

Last tip
In June you can pick up lots of tomato plants and cucumbers for outdoor planting. Just put them in the light, water, support and feed. Then next year you can start all over again!

Redemption through radishes

When she’s not Big Issue North deputy editor, mother of two or tending an occasional social life, Antonia Charlesworth is down on the allotment – and sometimes very down

My husband’s a vegetarian so when he signed us up for an allotment this time last year I think it was his version of bringing back the bacon. Bringing back the broccoli would be an appropriate metaphor if it were the slugs he was providing for.

Taking on an allotment was a passing idea that became a reality when a harmless enquiry revealed that the long waiting lists for plots are seemingly nothing more than a good bit of PR from the allotment society. We agreed to have a look around before making any decisions but when we learnt that rent was only £50 for the year and that you could get a plot with a greenhouse, a shed full of tools and raised beds, it seemed like we had nothing to lose and all the vegetables to gain. It would be great for our two children too, I thought, to plant seeds and see vegetables grow – maybe they would actually eat one.

My husband won’t be offended by me saying that, of the two of us, I’m the more green fingered. He might object to me saying that setting up as a pro grower when you only have a basic understanding of photosynthesis and
not a lot else is so him.

There’s no point in growing celery – it should be used sparingly in soups and nowhere else ever

I like to believe I’m a plant lover but it’s not the healthiest of relationships. A few times a year I dedicate time to them, coo and marvel at them, familiarise myself with their every idiosyncrasy and find out exactly what they need to flourish. Then I deny them access to it and watch them droop and tweet each other with #MeToo hashtags, before sweeping in to save/compost them. I know it sounds sadistic but I’m a victim of my own toxic humanity. I’m of a generation that chopped down hydrangeas and landscaped lawns, and shunned the neighbourhood greengrocer. If a cucumber isn’t wrapped in cellophane, is it even a cucumber? But seriously, I have two children, a full-time job and occasionally attempt a social life, so I only have room in my life for the hardiest of plants and the rest is just natural selection. But with a deposit paid and a Pinterest board set up we
were obligated to give it a go.

You’ll know now that this isn’t an advice column, but I still think it quite clever of me to have started by making a list of all the veg we eat regularly. There’s no point in me growing celery, for example, because it should be used sparingly in soups and nowhere else ever.

Next I planted seeds in the handily prepared raised beds, now known as the clay pits. Nothing grew. Some stuff tried and was eaten by slugs. By the end of our first summer we hadn’t enjoyed any fruits from our labours – but plenty of other people’s. We’ve learnt that allotment folk are neighbourly and generous. They’re also harbouring years of bitter resentments over plot politics so I’ll also advise you to be careful who you accept asparagus from. If you get invited to a group Facebook page, play the technophobe.

We realised we were in wader deep when the bad weather started and didn’t stop for six months. Neighbours delighted in revealing our plot was prone to flooding and had been abandoned by a long line of novices with dashed dreams of sweet strawberries and G&Ts in the sunshine. Our plans for home-grown Brussels sprouts underwater, around Christmas-time we received an email asking if we still wanted the plot as we’d not been seen around site for a while.

But spring is the season of hope and after infinite wheelbarrows of manure, and sweeter-smelling pine wood chippings (all delivered to site for free – yes, really, free poo!), we’ve managed to raise the ground level, aerate the clay pits and actually grow a couple of things. I’ve started (again) cautiously, with soft fruit bushes and canes (apparently good in moist conditions), potatoes, onions, peas (slug munched), beans (replacing peas) and tomatoes, which, after struggling to propagate through the April snow, are now looking to keep me in soup through winter (is it too late to get that celery in?). I’ve also grown all my own bedding plants for my garden, which has saved me a few quid and stirred a bit of latent remorse for my years of plant abuse.

Ultimately, it’s cheaper and a lot easier to buy cellophane-wrapped supermarket veg, but you can’t really put a price on fun and free family time that educates and inspires kids – and parents – on the wonders of Mother Nature (despite her needing a bit more help than at times seems reasonable). Firsts for us all have included finding a newt and a bright red toad (rare but normal, apparently). And, as the twee metal plaque in the shed of abandoned tools mocks: “Home grown tastes better.” As for whether or not I’ll be hanging that on my plot, ask me in a few weeks.

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