Alan Titchmarsh: Eat what you sow

Even if you’re short on space, it’s still worthwhile growing your favourite fruit and veg. They taste so much better when you eat them within minutes of being picked.

Who says veg don’t look as gorgeous as they taste? Sow cabbages in April and you’ll get a wonderful display – and can eat them freshly picked – in late summer. Image: Getty Images

Growing your own gives you a tremendous feeling of achievement. It’s a real treat to wander out into the garden with a trug on Sunday morning to pick a few fresh vegetables for lunch, or to pop out after work to collect some salad for supper.

But don’t even think about trying to grow everything. What’s really worth growing at home are unusual crops, and those that taste best picked and eaten straight from the garden. If you are short on time, concentrate on a few quick, compact crops that you have time to grow well.

Veg do look gorgeous, too!

Even in a tiny space, you can grow worthwhile crops in tubs, growing bags or a small raised bed. What you will need for edible gardening is deep, rich, well-drained soil and a sunny situation. If the soil you have isn’t too special, there’s quite a bit you can do to improve it (see here [SOIL LINK]). Shade isn’t easy to alleviate. You can thin out surrounding trees and shrubs to let more light in, but if the only available space is shady, stick to leafy varieties such as brassicas, lettuce, sorrel, rocket and most herbs, which will cope.

Work with the seasons

The veg growing year has quite a soothing routine to it. Autumn, winter or now, in early spring, is when you prepare the ground. Spring is also the main sowing and planting time. Then, the basic jobs of sowing, thinning and transplanting are the same regardless of which veg you are growing.

Sow veg seeds thinly in shallow drills (furrows) made with the tip of a cane. Cover small seeds to a depth of no more than 6mm and large ones, such as beans, to their own depth. Don’t sow root crops (such as carrots or turnips) in ground that has been manured within the past six months.

Thin out seedlings to 2.5cm-5cm apart when they first come up and are easy to handle, then thin them again to their final spacing a few weeks later. Don’t transplant root crops – it makes the roots split or the plants run to seed prematurely.

Hoe between rows of veg to stop weeds swamping your crops. Water veg regularly in dry spells and feed long-stay crops – such as courgettes, brassicas, leeks and tomatoes – several times during the growing season.

Control pests and diseases organically (see here). Rub off blackfly and greenfly and pick off caterpillars by hand. Cover brassica and carrot plants with fine woven mesh to screen out cabbage root fly, cabbage white butterflies and carrot fly. Grow disease-resistant varieties whenever you can – try ‘Fly Away’ and ‘Resistafly’ carrots, ‘Toledo’ leeks and ‘Tarmino’ or ‘Defender’ courgettes. Gather crops little and often, without waiting for a new row to be ready, or some will go to waste.

Protect very early or late crops with a row of cloches or use the economical modern equivalent – cover them with sheets of horticultural fleece (from garden centres).

What’s good to grow now

Your aim is to make the best use of your space to produce a good range of crops you can eat all year round, without ending up with a glut. Some crops are sown or planted early in spring but have been harvested by midsummer, so then you can re-use the space for something else.

For example in mild March weather outside you can sow parsnips, lettuces, early varieties of carrots, shelling peas and beetroots, spring onions, leeks, brussels sprouts and parsnips. Undercover (for example, in a greenhouse) you can also sow turnips, spinach, globe artichokes, mangetout peas and summer-sprouting broccoli.

The best advice is to make a planting plan with what you intend to plant in spring, roughly how long the crops will occupy the ground, and what you’ll then follow them with. My book, The Kitchen Gardener: Grow Your Own Fruit and Veg has information on planting and harvesting times for fruit and veg, and you’ll also find details on the backs of seed packets and catalogues. It may sound complicated, but you can fine-tune your masterplan year after year, and it gets easier the more you do it, honest!

How to grow patio veg


Runner beans, tomatoes and courgettes are so productive you can grow worthwhile crops in a few tubs on the patio, and they are so good looking that if you didn’t know better, you’d think they were chunky bedding plants.

All these vegetables can be grown in containers. Image: Getty Images
  • In one growing bag, you’ll fit 12 runner bean plants or two bush courgettes or three outdoor tomatoes. After planting, water them in well, and after four weeks feed with liquid tomato feed every two weeks. Once the plants fill the bag fairly well, you’ll need to increase watering and up the feeding to once a week.
  • Support tomato and bean plants with growing bag frames or tie them to a trellis – don’t poke canes in, as they go through the bottom of the bag and make it leak.
  • For tubs, use 30cm-38cm pots filled with a 50/50 mixture of John Innes No 2 and peat-free potting compost. Plant one tomato or courgette, or five runner beans. Feed and water as before, but use canes, sticks or decorative obelisks for support.

Building a raised bed

raised bedThe idea is to make beds of deep, rich soil and plant crops closer together as the roots can grow deeply. The beds need little weeding, but you will need to feed and water more frequently. It’s easy to cover them with pest-proof netting or surround with copper strips to deter slugs and snails.

  • Mark out an area – a good size is 3m x 80cm – then fork over the ground as deeply as possible, removing roots, weeds and rubble. Ideally, work in some well-rotted organic matter, such as compost, too.
  • Next, construct raised edges using wooden planks (above, scaffolding planks are ideal). Treat them with a plant-friendly wood stain.
  • Knock 5cm x 5cm wooden posts in at each corner, and at 90cm intervals along the inside of the framework, then nail your planks to these posts.
  • Fill the bed to the top with a mix of well-rotted compost or manure and good topsoil.
  • Finish with an all-weather path around the bed with gravel or paving slabs.

Alan’s book Grow Your Own Fruit and Veg will be republished on 4 March by BBC Books, price £18.99. To order a copy for £16.14 before 27 March go to or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.