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The beginner’s guide to organic growing

You don’t need to be an expert farmer, or even a green-fingered gardener to grow some delicious organic produce at home. You don’t even need a garden! Expert organic kitchen gardener, Will Livingstone, shows us how to get started.

A few herbs in a pot, or a couple of tomato plants on the balcony can enhance your lifestyle and change the way you think about food. The joy of eating something you have grown yourself is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and fortunately with a little advice, something we can all achieve.

If you are starting out, raised beds and pots are the best place to start - they allow you to create good soil from the get-go, so you can avoid the task of trying to improve what you already have. Having good soil from the off will help you grow strong healthy plants, which will aid them in fending off pest and disease. This is fundamental in all organic growing. Healthy soil, happy plants.

Squash seedlings

If you decide on raised beds, build them to about seat height, 50cm or so - this will add an element of comfort to the jobs of planting, weeding and harvesting. Make the centre of your bed arm’s length from the edge, meaning you can reach into the middle without walking on the top, avoiding soil compaction – where vital space for air and water between particles is reduced. Wood is usually the cheapest and easiest material to build your raised beds from, but reclaimed bricks, blocks or corrugated tin can work as well. Avoid old railway sleepers, as they can leech toxic creosote into your soil.

A blend of roughly 60% top soil and 40% compost will give your plants a nice varied diet of mineral and organic matter. Be sure not to fill the bed up to the top as, in an ideal world, you will be adding more compost in following years. Adding compost is the most important job in the garden. When growing organically, we can’t rely on artificial fertiliser, so a good helping of compost each season is a must. Build the raised bed directly onto bare ground, allowing worms to colonise and water to drain away, much like a well-placed compost bin. There’s no need to line it. If you are growing in pots, make sure there are sufficient drainage holes and be aware that you will need to replenish the soil every two years or so, as nutrient depletion is inevitable.

The joy of eating something you have grown yourself is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Growing in window boxes or hanging baskets requires a little more care - you will need to be quite diligent with watering, as you have raised the soil surface away from natural ground level moisture. The edges of raised beds and the base of pots can be the perfect habitat for slugs and snails, so check regularly and remove. No need for slug pellets here!

Buying good quality seeds and plants is a good place to start when growing your own. Like anything, spending a little more with a good organic seed supplier will give you a better start. The seed will be fresher and more viable. Look out for an organic certification symbol, or speak to your supplier about where your seeds come from. I favour UK grown, organic, open-pollinated seed.

Radicchio, freshly picked

If you have limited space, grow produce that is expensive to buy and easy to grow. Salads, soft herbs and strawberries are a good place to start, as they have shallow, fibrous roots which respond well to container growing. Conveniently, they are an easy thing to start off with. Salads and soft herbs grow easily from seed and woody herbs and strawberries can be purchased in most garden centres. Tomatoes and chillies are firm favourites for the urban kitchen gardener, but will need a sheltered, sunny position in order to thrive. If you have areas of partial shade, oriental greens, chard, kale, spring onions, spinach and most herbs do quite well with only 4-5 hours of sun per day.

Create interest in your space by adding ornamental flowers to attract bees and butterflies. This will create a diverse environment in which your produce will thrive. Diversity is the key to a healthy organic environment, so be experimental with variety. I would advise being tentative with weeding until you know what’s coming up. Some poppy seeds could have blown in on the wind, or some borage could have jumped the neighbour’s fence. Sometimes, leaving things be can offer surprising success. It doesn’t have to look perfect, especially when you’re starting out. Imperfections add character and encourage beneficial insects, so go easy and enjoy the process.

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Anyone can have a go at growing their own, whether it’s a pot of herbs on the kitchen windowsill or a raised bed full of courgettes. Have you recently starting growing organically at home? Let us know how you’ve got on via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Will Livingstone

Will Livingstone

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