A Cunning Plot

How to grow vegetables without breaking your back

By George Monbiot. Introduction to the Guardian Growing Your Own guide, 5th April 2008

Why do people become obsessed with growing vegetables? It’s not exactly high-octane. It won’t make you rich or boost your social status. But millions who can afford to buy their food devote every free moment to the kind of labour our ancestors were glad to abandon.

I think it is because the results are tangible. In much of the rest of our lives, we work our butts off without discovering whether it makes any difference. But in this case you can see and taste what you’ve done. You can admire the work of your own hands, and this is the greatest satisfaction that any task can give you.

I do most of my gardening at night. I lie in bed walking, in my imagination, around my vegetable beds, working out what I could do better. I love this strategising. It takes my mind off the bigger issues and allows me to see – when otherwise I feel powerless – that there is something I can change.

When I took on my first allotment, I covered it in black plastic to kill the weeds, then spent a year talking to other gardeners and studying their patches. The failed plots taught me as much as the successful ones. I began to discover why people couldn’t control their weeds and slugs, why their beds were drying out, why their soil had compacted and why they were producing for only six months of the year. I learnt more before I touched my own plot than I have done since.

I realised that most of the work I needed to do would take place before I planted the first seeds. By clearing the ground of perennial weeds then building raised beds and putting down several tonnes of manure, I would save myself hundreds of hours of pointless labour later on. It was hard work, but not as hard as spending the rest of my life struggling with a plot that hadn’t been established properly. From then on gardening became almost too easy. I was growing all the vegetables we could eat in about half the time I wanted to spend. So I took on another plot, and another. I ended up with five, growing vegetables on two and fruit on the others.

As soon as they were ready, and the hard work was over, we moved to Wales. Everyone thought I was crazy: all that work for nothing! But it wasn’t for nothing – it was the most satisfying thing I have ever done. I started all over again, building a new plot in our back garden, and working out how best to adapt to the different conditions there. This extreme gardening has kept me fit for the past five years. I think I must have moved 50 tonnes of earth and manure.

Now at last I can stop hauling muck and remember the other reason for growing vegetables. Some species – such as potatoes, onions and squashes – keep their flavour for months after they’ve been picked. But most begin to deteriorate immediately. I’ve noticed that even half an hour after I’ve picked them, crops like sweetcorn, purple sprouting broccoli, radishes and french beans lose much of their sweetness (the vitamins start to break down as well). After they’ve been sitting in a shop for a few days, you might as well eat this newspaper.

I find that I am becoming that most anti-social of creatures, a vegetable evangelist. I want to take people by the shoulders and beseech them to save their tastebuds before they go to the devil. With this in mind, let me suggest a few techniques which will make vegetable growing easier and more productive.

1. Get yourself a digging hoe (in this country they are sold under the Spanish name, azada). Everywhere else people use gravity to break the soil, bringing a hoe down onto the ground. In Britain we work against it, lifting the soil from below with a fork or spade, which doubles the work and knackers your back. A good azada will dig out brambles with a single stroke and break up compacted soil very quickly.

2. If your plot is full of small perennial weeds, such as couch grass or marestail, don’t try digging them out. Cover it with damp-proof membrane for 12 or 18 months. (Don’t use carpet, which contains toxic flame retardants). Otherwise you’ll engage nature in a battle you cannot win.

3. Don’t walk on your beds and don’t manure your paths. In other words, keep them separate, preferably by building raised beds.

4. Don’t grow your perennials (such as fruit bushes or rhubarb) in the same bed as your annuals. They’ll harbour weeds, which will keep invading your vegetables.

5. Keep your compost heap as far from your vegetables as you can. This is where the slugs and snails breed, and they will destroy everything within a radius of about ten feet.

6. Start your vegetables as early as possible, under cloches or on the windowsill. They become well-established before the slugs wake up and the summer droughts start.

7. As soon as you’ve harvested one crop, sow the next. There are at least 20 kinds of vegetables and salads (mostly oriental varieties) that you can grow through the British winter. You should be able to eat fresh greens every day of the year.