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How I started growing my own (#FirstTimeVegGardener)

I think a good introduction to my gardening skills can be summed up by the reaction of my friends, colleagues and family when I was asked to write a gardening blog for SustFest. There has been guffawing, snorts of derision and blank incredulity… In truth, none of this is unreasonable…

Please enjoy this light-hearted #lockdown guest blog from Helen Burridge – perhaps you have shared some of her experiences?  #FirstTimeVegGardener

Getting started

I had the good fortune at our last rented house to take on the custodianship of the most extraordinary, established fruit cage and proceeded to make jam and chutney for two glorious years, with only a pair of secateurs and YouTube tutorials to help the plants through.

I also attended a SustFest ‘small fruit tree pruning’ workshop to help with my berries, only to discover that the adjective was in relation to the tree being small, not the fruit: I spent 4 fascinating hours in the rain learning how to prune new apple trees, which I didn’t possess!

Helen Burridge photo first time veg grower second attempt at netting

Second attempt at netting #HelenBurridge

Learning from mistakes

When we finally managed to purchase our first house in 2017 we knew the previous owners had been keen gardeners. However, what I discovered was that all their ‘produce’ was ‘down the allotment’ and the (north facing) garden was strictly ornamental. My first task was to put a rhubarb, gooseberry and redcurrant in, though sadly the rhubarb is still (three years on) not quite happy in its location, offering a few paltry stems each spring before going limp and sad by June.

‘the careful nurturing of my “white clematis” only to be schooled on the perils of bindweed’

Historic tales of my black-fingered clumsiness include my serving the family a homemade apple and (what later transpired to be ORNAMENTAL) currant crumble, careful nurturing of my “white clematis” only to be schooled on the perils of bindweed and then last year’s ‘investment’: a raised veg bed…

Helen Burridge yoghurt pot plant labels

Yoghurt pot plant labels #HelenBurridge

Our first (mini) harvest 

At our new house, we cleared a space and commissioned St Albans Wood Recycling to make us a bespoke raised bed. We can’t recommend them enough: they provided the corner posts, and wood boards, all pre-cut and predrilled with holes to assemble, delivered to our door for £120.

By the end of the summer we had spent in total about £200 on the bed, the compost to fill it and a few trays of seedling plugs of beetroot, carrot and radishes from Homebase. The kids had had some tomato seedlings from school and we bunged those in too.

The harvest was quite extraordinary, I’ll think you’ll agree

Helen Burridge photo first time veg grower 2019 harvest

First Harvest!

Give it a Grow

My mother took great delight in my new-found excitement and (rather prematurely perhaps) bought me a box of vegetable seed packets for Christmas to “give it a grow” next summer. Fast forward to March and I found myself on furlough, homeschooling two primary school aged children and trying not to hate Joe Wicks. Those seed packets suddenly didn’t seem so daunting. And anyway, I’d finished all the wine in Hertfordshire so it seemed like this might be something else to do…

‘I was astounded to discover a week later that some little green shoots were appearing. .’

We had a bag of compost leftover from last year, and some old pots in the abandoned greenhouse we inherited… I googled a bit, squinted a bit at the seed packets and donned gardening gloves… First up, sweetpeas and two types of beans (Cannelini and runner, as you asked) that said ‘March indoors’ on their packets… I was astounded to discover a week later that some little green shoots were appearing.

Mistake number one

(I already knew this one from my chutney making days so goodness knows why I did it again)… Never underestimate your ability to remember which seeds were grown in which tray. A series of beautiful and vibrant seedlings were growing without an identity. The shame. Thankfully a neighbour was able to identify the distinctive sweetpea shoots through a gap in our fence (true story) and I figured beans are beans… so we were back on track!


Fast forward another two weeks and I was good to get going on the April Indoors packets… This time I learned to label properly and made sure to sprinkle evenly for carrots and in separate larger pots (larger than the seedling trays that is) for pumpkin and sunflower seeds… Fast forward to Easter and I discover that these verdant shoots GENUINELY LOOKED LIKE CARROT FRONDS (knowledge gained from Beatrix Potter rather than Gardener’s World). I’m using caps on purpose: I shouted with excitement every time a bafflingly unlikely development took place in the greenhouse. We had been gifted mail order pasta which came wrapped in wooly insulating: this ended up being their ‘blankets’ to tuck them in at night.

‘APRIL SOW OUTDOORS’ for the lettuce, beetroot and chard. I did as I was told, in beautiful rows divided by sticks and LABELLED with sharpie-on-cut-out-yogurt-pot-plastic and watered diligently. The fleece was brought outside to tuck these ones in as they seemed more in need of jackets than their cosseted cousins in the greenhouse.

Helen Burridge yoghurt pot plant labels

Yoghurt pot plant labels #HelenBurridge

Trying to keep nature under control

I like to pretend I have some control over what nature is doing in our box of dirt, so I rigged up endless bits of bamboo sticks and bits of wire for our beans. Thankfully, my DIY-friendly husband got busy with a repurposed bit of fencepost to create a bean support.

I attempted again to Do It Myself and make a little pumpkin cosy for my four pumpkin seedlings out of bamboo sticks, four plant pots upended on top to hold the netting on, and the netting artfully placed on top. Within twenty four hours my structure was no more.  Again, my husband quietly replaced my attempts with a pumpkin pagoda of majestic integrity.

Figure it out as you go along

There has been lots of trial and error.

I have NO IDEA what I’m doing in relation to ‘pinching out growth’ or increasing yield. I’ve done a bit of adding in support sticks and pulling out shoots of green that don’t match the leaf shape of the rest of them (I didn’t weed the veg bed for a full 6 weeks to start with as I had NO IDEA which green shoots were goodies or baddies).

(I didn’t weed the veg bed for a full 6 weeks to start with as I had NO IDEA which green shoots were goodies or baddies).

I’ve done a couple of socially distant plant swaps with friends so having pulled out our ornamental currant bush (seriously, what is the POINT of an ornamental currant??), we will shortly be putting in three kale seedlings and two cucumbers, the latter to be trained up a pallet for vertical interest.

We had a slight mis-fire with lettuce seeds which didn’t like being sown directly into the raised bed and failed to produce one single tuft of green: perhaps I was too early? I saw someone ‘pre-soaking their seeds’ to encourage germination so, assuming it was a dud packet, tried that in a small bowl and all the seeds sprouted. I’ve planted those up in a plantpot rather than the bed.

It’s worth it, just for the joy

In terms of outcomes, I don’t know if our yield will be more impressive than last year and at the moment I’m not too worried. It’s been great fun and has encouraged my daughter to spend £3 of pocket money on flower seeds that she’s germinating in the greenhouse. She’s equally excited and astounded that BITS OF GREEN are appearing and we will shortly no doubt be planting out majestic seedlings in our borders for her ‘seasonal colour’ that she’s been told by Grandma is what she’s created.

it’s been great to have the time to spend to potter about with dirt and see life unfold.

I am no gardener yet of course, and I would not have got any of this done without Google by my side, but it’s been fun, it’s been engaging and with the additional time we have on our hands, it’s been great to have the time to spend (probably half an hour every other day?) to potter about with dirt and see life unfold. If there is a harvest then we will FEAST for all of 12 minutes I’m sure but that’s ok too. It’s satisfying and can be done inexpensively. I remain baffled by the whole process.





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