Bob Bilson, of the Strathkinness Community shares his knowledge on growing veg in Scottish gardens: from small plots to large, this useful information will inspire you (and the garden volunteers) to plant for a bumper crop this season.
THE SCOTTISH VEGETABLE GARDEN
In the U.K. we import approximately half of our vegetables and salad crops,
the main source being the E.U. Much of this food is produced using artificial
fertilisers and pesticides that deplete the soil of carbon and destroy
microorganisms and pollinators. Salad crops and tomatoes are often grown
hydroponically and lack the flavour of the ones we can grow ourselves.
Commercial varieties are usually grown for appearance and ease of
transportation rather than flavour. We can grow more of our own food in our
gardens, allotments and Community Gardens and have food that tastes
better whilst treating the environment kinder.
WHAT ARE THE BEST CROPS FOR SCOTTISH GARDENS?
We can grow a huge variety of vegetables and salads here provided we work
with the seasons and sow and plant at the correct time. Most of the U.K.
seed companies give generalised instructions and we need to be cautious and
sow seeds and plant out our vegetables when conditions are right which can
often mean several weeks after those on the packet. However our longer
daylight hours often mean our crops can catch up a little and yield well.
The purpose of this article is not to give step by step instructions on how to
grow different crops but to relate some of the “on the ground experiences”
of small scale vegetable growing here in Fife in a similar way to my other
writing “ Reap the fruits…planning for Fruit Growing” . Detailed how to grow
information can be found in “Fruit and Veg. for Scotland”, Ken Cox and
Caroline Beaton’s book ( reference 2). Indeed Caroline’s garden on Orkney
will have extra challenges as regards the seasons and climate. We are also
fortunate to have the BBC Beechgrove TV gardening programme which gives
information applicable to our Scottish conditions. Strathkinness hosted a
very entertaining Gardener’s Question time with the Beechgrove which also
featured the Community Garden, some local gardens, and broccoli growing
on a local farm. Another good source of information which is available on line
comes from Charles Dowding who gardens no dig organically ( reference 3).
Table 1. shows the five beds I have on my allotment in Strathkinness
Community Garden. Bed 1 is perennial planting which is now being used
more and more by gardeners and those who practice permaculture. The bed
needs no digging and little weeding and is mulched with compost in the
Autumn/ early Winter. This builds the fertility of the soil and gradually
increases the amount of carbon stored in the plot. The rhubarb and sea kale
can be covered with a large pot in January to force early crops in March and
April. Different varieties of rhubarb will also extend the season as is the case
for asparagus. The whole allotment plot is netted with 3/4 ” mesh netting
that keeps birds out ( pigeons being the number one problem) whilst
allowing the heavy snow we had in 2021 to fall through without settling on
the roof. This is important as a heavy build up of snow on a veg/ fruit cage or
poly tunnel can quickly buckle the whole structure.
Bed 2 contains brassicas and the table has notes on how to live with the club
root problem that some plots have. Addition of lime in the winter also helps
as club root thrives in the slightly acid, pH 6.7, soil that we have. Kale
including the Italian Cavolo Nero doesn’t appear to suffer from club root
disease. There are plenty of pigeons in the garden and netting helps to keep
them away from the plants. Some plots were not netted and were fine.
Table 1. Plot Rotation on Strathkinness Community Garden Allotment Plot
|Runner beans, tall peas Sweet peas, permanent Plot. BED 5||Runner beans, tall peas Sweet peas, permanent Plot. BED 5|
|BED 1 PERENNIAL VEGETABLE |
9 star perennial broccoli
3 different varieties of strawberry for half bed
|BED 4 WINTER HARVEST |
Catch crop of early potatoes immediately followed by a planting of leeks in late July early August to harvest from February to May.
Parsnip sown April
Celeriac planted May
Maincrop leeks planted in May to harvest from October to February
|BED 2 BRASSICA |
Planted May to July from plants raised in 1 litre pots. (yogurt pots with holes in base) from a cold glasshouse sown seed in March/ April.
Raise large plants to lessen effect of clubroot disease. Choose club root resistant varieties where possible.
|BED 3 SUMMER HARVEST |
Onion sets planted in March
Beetroot sown April
Lettuce sown April to June
Courgette planted June
Squash planted June
On the anti-clockwise rotation used above, in the following year the
brassicas will move to bed 4 containing potatoes. I find it is difficult to keep
the plot clean of potato shoots from the previous year but planting brassicas
in the early summer doesn’t present a problem.
Bed 3 has plants that mainly mature in the Summer or until first frosts. As
this bed begins to finish it is planted with crops of green manure as it is
important to keep as much ground covered during winter as possible. The
green manure crop is dug in just before the land is needed.
Bed 4 has crops harvested from Autumn until Spring. Leeks feature heavily as
they grow so well and are so useful. Notice there is an early crop and a late
one. If you try to plant too many early on then by mid winter the leeks can
start to go to seed and produce a hard core. Just a few first early potatoes are
planted in this bed followed by the late leeks. Celeriac has a very long
growing period and I raise plants in pots from a March sowing in a
Bed 5 is a permanent legume plot that grows tall peas and beans up a two
metre support. This bed was carefully prepared 8 years ago by digging out a
deep trench into which was placed lots of organic matter such as compost,
comfrey, manure, cardboard and newspaper. It is topped up with garden
compost each winter. Although most of the other crops are placed in a
rotation to avoid diseases, I find that this is not necessary for the legume
family. The first plants to go in this bed5 are tall garden peas, mange tout,
and sweet peas all raised from a November or March sowing in an unheated
glasshouse or frame. These are followed by the more tender runner beans
planted out in early June after the risk of frost.
EXTENDING THE GROWING SEASON
We do this by using the communal poly tunnel or one of the shared
glasshouses of which we have seven each one shared by two people/
families. Successful crops are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and chillis. This
is a great way to garden as watering arrangements are easily made at holiday
The communal poly tunnel allows us to grow salad and leafy vegetables all
year around. Our first sowing of the year is mid February and this year we
planted lots of different lettuces, wild rocket, ruby chard, parsley, spring
onions, radish, carrots, mizuna, mustard, and leeks for planting outside in
May. These sowings are repeated in late July with the addition of miner’s
lettuce and spinach. Garlic is planted at the end of October for harvesting in
June. The original cloves came from the supermarket and each harvest we
save the biggest cloves for planting on which results in very large garlic bulbs
every year. The permanent crop we grow in a quarter of the poly tunnel is
asparagus that we feed well with compost and liquid comfrey.
LOOKING AFTER THE SOIL AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The key to the method of gardening described is to have plenty of garden
compost from the compost heaps. We stack ours in layers comprising weeds,
chopped stems, straw, cardboard, lawn clippings, seaweed, comfrey, hair,
woodchip and wood ash. Some councils also supply good compost usually
free for collection and of course there is farmyard manure and mushroom
compost. Make sure the lawn clippings and manure do not contain herbicide
residues. As a liquid feed comfrey is excellent and if you want to do away
with the awful smell when it is made by soaking the leaves in water then give
the dry method shown in the photo a try.There are two bins/ buckets the
inner one with holes sits inside the outer bin/bucket and is piled full with
comfrey leaves. A heavy block is placed on top of leaves and after about a
month there is a strong dark liquid comfrey feed in the bottom of the outer
bin/ bucket. I dilute this 1 part liquor/ 20 parts water to provide a high
potash feed particularly good for tomatoes but also for most other plants.
Application of compost to my allotment plots has increased the organic level
to nearly 10% and the carbon locked into the soil to 5.7%. This is far higher
than most U.K. farmlands that have been fed with artificial fertilisers and
sprayed with insecticides for up to eighty years. It is thought that humus
formed when organic material is brocken down by microorganisms in the
compost , then provides sticky humic acid in the soil that binds the organics
with sand/ clay particles to form a very stable form of carbon. This can
remain in the soil for many years enabling the soil to become a carbon sink
I.e. one that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than is released back
as CO2 by these same soil organisms. Interestingly clay soils are thought to
be better able to store the most amounts of carbon which may be of comfort
to those who are blessed with such a soil. Therefore this method of organic
gardening not only helps to grow healthy crops, it also helps fight Climate
How do we prevent and eradicate pests and diseases? There are organically
approved fungicides and insecticides available but they still may kill
beneficial organisms and leave residues. I don’t use them and rely on natural
predators such as ladybirds and hoverflys and provide the best growing
conditions while accepting some loss of yield.
I hope these words give encouragement to others to grow more food in the
gardens and land available to us no matter how limited the plot size. By
adopting some of these methods it is possible to produce tasty home grown
produce and help the environment.
Thanks to volunteer Marjie for helping put the blog together.