‘Keep the faith and keep on digging, knowing that you will eventually succeed.’ Photograph: Lucy Chamberlain
Fancy building the vegetable garden of your dreams from a weed-strewn wasteland? Lucy Chamberlain shares her sage advice
For culinary gardeners, creating your own edible garden sets you on an almighty high. It can be daunting at first if you don’t know exactly what you want, but for most of us that isn’t an issue – we’ve been planning it in our mind for years. You may be standing eye-high in couch grass, but if you just close your eyes, grand visions of raised planters and manger beds come meandering in.
For our rural setting I’d envisaged timber-edged beds, gravel paths, espaliered apples and regimental rows softened by cottage garden billowiness. In reality I was standing by an old brick wall barely visible under decades of vegetation. Above my head was a dense canopy of hazel and walnut, while beneath my feet lay a generous tangle of ivy, nettles and ground elder. We knew this 40 x 50ft plot was once a pristine vegetable garden. Now, 30 years later, nature had reclaimed the land – goodness knows when the sun’s rays had last warmed the soil. One almighty hazel tree, alongside a walnut tree in the neighbour’s plot, had given rise to the thicket of saplings. Despite not being able to see a square inch of bare earth we had hope – you must have hope.
It’s amazing what can be done with a sharp pruning saw in the middle of winter – by day we would slice through woody stems and fork out strands of ivy, by night I would draw up my design. Both me and my husband were working full-time, so weekend daylight was precious and utilised to the full. Restoration can feel overwhelming, so keep a strong focus on that day’s task and clear the ground in bite-sized chunks.
‘Keep a strong focus on that day’s task and clear the ground in bite-sized chunks.’ Photograph: Lucy Chamberlain
Keep the faith and keep on digging, knowing that you will eventually succeed. Community projects can rely on the workforce mustered by volunteer days. Mini diggers and tillers offer alternative horsepower for individuals. When faced with removing the “mother” hazel stump, we threw forks, loppers and our weight into hauling out that 80cm-diameter beast. We knew we’d win in the end, but thank god for our sandy soil. For those of you on heavier clays, I’ll confess you’ve got a more stubborn client on your hands: adding copious amounts of composted bark and grit to the top spit of soil is the route to happier digging. Perennial weeds such as couch grass, ground elder and bindweed can be dug out if you need the ground within the year, as can glass, rubble, polystyrene and plastics – you just need to wear your “meticulous” hat.
Ensure any design makes maximum use of the boundaries that surround your plot – think of these as echoing the walls of Victorian kitchen gardens, because they’re your bread and butter, especially for patio and balcony gardeners. If space permits, 40cm-wide beds running against their whole length will allow wall-trained fruit to grow around the garden’s perimeter – sun-loving figs and peaches can bask on the south side whereas tarter currants and gooseberries will be content on the north.
‘The beds were timber-edged and my husband did a fine job with 100mm x 50mm timbers, a spirit level, mitre block, string line and drill.’ Photograph: Lucy Chamberlain
Our access path widths were a maximum of 50cm – just wide enough to pass on foot. Too many times you see unnecessarily broad paths on veg plots when maximising bed space should be the priority. Bed widths set at twice your arm’s stretch will, with paths either side, negate the need to stand on your soil. Don’t slash and burn wholesale – keeping mature features adds instant structure – our old apple tree adds gnarly charm that would otherwise take decades to create. Inherited fruit canes and bushes will, if healthy, thrive after a hard renovation prune. We kept a row of cobnuts at the bottom of our plot to supply endless peasticks and create a subtle barrier to the wilderness beyond (another project).
‘Laying the pea gravel was a transformative moment – in just over two years the image in my mind had finally been realised.’ Photograph: Lucy Chamberlain
Our beds were deliberately not raised – the light, sandy soil needs no help to drain and dry out. Clay soils are a different beast and benefit no end from a slight elevation. The beds were timber-edged and my husband did a fine job with 100mm x 50mm timbers, a spirit level, mitre block, string line and drill. With this hopefully being our forever home, we used treated wood, but dismantled pallet timbers offer a budget alternative. Once the timberwork was complete, my task was to skim off surplus pathway soil with a spade. Our narrow paths were easy to level by eye, and were then covered with lengths of weed control membrane. Edges were tucked underneath the timbers with a decorator’s scraper, and overlaps were secured using ground pegs. Laying the pea gravel was a transformative moment – in just over two years the image in my mind had finally been realised. Let the planting begin.