At the time of writing, Scotland is still in lockdown. In an effort to stop the spread of Covid-19, we are still walking two metres apart when we go for our daily exercise and queuing patiently-ish outside the supermarket for our turn to see what is left in the aisles. But what about our gardens? If you are anything like me, the first few weeks of social isolation saw the back of the weeds, the turning of the soil, the wilting of the daffodils in my postage stamp sized garden. But what next? Garden centres are closed. The planting season demands seeds and betting plants. But this year feels different. There is a nation-wide move away from flowers and shrubs. The novice gardener is feeling the need to turn their hand to fruit and veg – but what to plant? And, with our short growing season and ever changing climate, what to plant in Scotland?
In this extract from Fruit and Vegetables for Scotland, Scotland’s best-selling garden writer Ken Cox – nurseryman, gardner and owner of the garden-centre at Glendoick, near Perth – explains why Scotland is different and how to get started. With his guidance you can confidently move forward. Garden centres around the country have closed their doors but many are still delivering locally, including Glendoick. And whatever you end up with in you basket, make sure to add a copy of this book.
Please note the photographs in this article are not taken from the book. They show the humble growing efforts of this blog writer.
Scotland’s Climate: What Grows Well, Where, How and Why?
Scotland’s northerly latitude and Gulf Stream-influenced climate provide cool summers, low sunlight intensity, plenty of rainfall and lots of wind. The climate is ideal for many fruit and vegetables – raspberries, strawberries and potatoes, to name but three. However, the climate also dictates that many crops which grow fine outdoors in the south of England struggle in Scotland. Cucumbers, most tomatoes, figs and peaches are barely worth growing outdoors here – although you won’t find this information in most fruit and vegetable books. Many other crops are excellent as long as they have a little protection in early spring or are started off indoors. This is particularly important for exposed sites, inland and more northern and island gardens.
Scotland boasts a considerable range of climates, from milder parts of the west coast and islands with little frost, to near Arctic conditions in the Cairngorms and the wind-battered Shetlands with little summer heat. As Jedburgh is further away from Shetland than it is from the south coast of England, you’ll understand why there is no one-size-fits-all advice for Scottish gardeners. Even within a single region there can be big differences. Borders growers explained to me that distance from the North Sea is a key factor in what they can grow. Towards the east it is milder but windier, while west of Galashiels it is much colder, with late frosts, but more sheltered from the wind. So, what grows well in Coldstream, for example, may not grow in Peebles. Scotland wide, fruit crops do better in the drier east of the country than in the wetter west.
However, every corner of Scotland can grow a huge range of edible crops as long as you select the most suitable varieties and adapt your husbandry a little.
The key is both to manipulate conditions through shelter and soil preparation and to work with nature, choosing plants suited to local conditions and ensuring that you get the timing right. If you sow too early, for example, your newly germinated seedlings will be stunted by cold or wind and you’ll never get a bumper crop.
Getting Started: What Do I Need?
As a first-time grower, you’ll be faced with endless choices – from selecting what to grow from garden centre seed racks, to the bewildering number of varieties of fruit trees and bushes, not to mention the plethora of ‘grow-your-own’ accessories. Fruit needs a bit more planning but, to grow vegetables all you need is a container and some seeds.
How much to grow depends on how much space you have and how ambitious you want to be. If you have never grown anything before, then start with the simple and quick crops – salads, carrots, radishes, potatoes and the easier fruits such as rhubarb, strawberries and gooseberries.
Most of these crops can be grown in a modest space and are suitable for containers and raised beds. Garden centres now have a baffling range of equipment for grow-your-own enthusiasts. Much of it is very useful but some is largely gimmickry. You don’t need wicker-edged raised beds or strawberry towers but, by all means, buy them if that’s what you want. If your budget is tight, a lot of what you need may be available for nothing – ask fellow gardeners for their spare old pots, canes for making bean and pea wigwams, etc. Gardeners often pride themselves in ingenious ways to grow vegetables without spending money. Shetland allotment holders, for example, found that used tyres were being given away, so they snapped them up for perfect raised beds and containers.
Buy seed of the things you’ll want lots of and want to sow several times – carrots and salads, for example. Vegetable seeds can remain viable for a year or two as long as they are stored in a cool, dry, dark place. If you freeze seed, it will keep for several years. With the exception of F1 hybrids, you can collect seed from many vegetables and sow them the following year. For vegetables that you only want a few of and if you don’t have a greenhouse, tunnel, cold frame or windowsill to raise tender plants in early spring, it is often cheaper to wait until May, when garden centres sell trays of small seedlings – tomatoes, courgettes, beans, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc – ready for transplanting.
Above all, you should invest in compost and soil preparation. Best results come with well-drained fertile soil enriched with lots of organic matter, manure, household compost, etc. And you must start with a clean, weed-free patch or bed. If you are gardening in containers, the best medium to fill them with is a combination of different things – John Innes compost, topsoil, farmyard manure and composted bark can be combined to make an ideal fruit and vegetable cocktail. Beware of using peat-free compost alone as many brands are not suitable for all crops.
Some crops – salads and radishes, for example – go from seed sowing to harvesting in a matter of weeks, while most vegetables take less than six months. It takes at least a year to get a decent crop on currants, raspberries, brambles and other soft fruit, two to five years for tree fruit such as apples and pears and, with them, you’ll need to do some pruning and training.
You will need some basic tools for any serious vegetable growing. A spade and a fork, a rake and a hoe, some secateurs and a hand trowel are probably the most useful. Don’t go for the cheapest option if you can afford to spend a little more – the really cheap tools tend to be heavy, fragile, bend or rust easily and are harder work to use, whereas a good stainless steel spade with a -year guarantee may cost four times as much but it will last longer and be easier to use. The cheapest form of frost protection is a roll of frost-grade fleece, which can double up to keep off pests, but it does sag after rain and it can blow around. Also offering some shade and a little frost and wind protection, but better for pests, are rolls or sheets of fine mesh sold as Wondermesh (from a fine Scottish company) or Enviromesh and other cheaper but often less robust brands. With so many uses, protective mesh is probably the most worthwhile investment you can make. Laid over and around crops, this acts as a barrier to many of the worst pests – snails, larger slugs, rabbits and household pets. Although it is relatively expensive, it lasts for several years and will save many crops – brassicas from birds and cabbage whites, carrots from carrot fly and fruit from birds. Don’t wait until you see the problem, as you’ll risk keeping it in rather than out. Get the mesh on as soon as you have planted/sown.
Whatever you do in the garden, the key is to enjoy it. Don’t try to do too much so you resent the time spent. Make your gardening activity fit your lifestyle, your world view, your pocket and, of course, your site and prevailing weather conditions, and then give it a go. Early success is likely to encourage you to greater gardening feats. Early failure hopefully won’t stop you.
Start with what you have, get to know your piece of land – however tiny – and then grow what you would like to eat.
Fruit and Vegetables for Scotland by Ken Cox and Caroline Beaton is a GARDEN MEDIA GUILD PRACTICAL BOOK OF THE YEAR