square inch gardening with charles dowding
Square-inch productivity is the name of the game with growing vegetables these days, getting the maximum harvest out of minimal space, effort and time. Many of us want to be able to eat from our gardens, or from pots outside the door, but don’t want the whole process to take over our lives.
That’s where high producers that take up little space make fantastic sense. One of our national specialists in doing this successfully is Charles Dowding, the salad-growing expert, who has pioneered the no-dig technique of growing veg in raised beds.
Charles has a productive plot of an acre, from which he supplies local shops, pubs and restaurants in the Bruton area of Somerset, all within easy delivery distance. This is hardly acres of veg growing, more like a smallholding, but from this relatively compact area, he is able to produce £25,000 worth of produce every year.
He achieves this high level of productivity by choosing varieties that can be cropped, not just once (as with brassicas such as cabbages and cauliflowers and roots such as parsnips and celeriac), but more like 10 or 20 times. Their roots can be left in the ground to produce a long, light, drip-drip of delicious harvest.
He harvests most Tuesdays and Fridays from what is often 30 different species of plant, but he never grows them in quantities much larger than you would in a domestic garden. This means he can deliver much more interesting mixed bags or boxes of herbs, salads and veg than you’d find at the average supermarket – and with the right varieties he can do this all year round.
Charles is a rich source of advice on the best crops to sow now that will quickly and continually give us lovely stuff to eat. His number-one recommendation – for a plot of any size – are pea sprouts. With the crunchiness of a lettuce stem and the sweet flavour of a pea, these have become fashionable for sprinkling over a salad, or as a key, genius ingredient to a pea and ham pasta or primavera risotto. For these, you don’t want to cook the pea tips and lose their water-filled crunch, but add them as the plates go to the table.
You can simply sow your peas as you would for shelling varieties and harvest a few side branches and growth tips every so often, but Charles recommends growing the pea tips as a separate crop to allow a substantial harvest once a week. He uses any quick-growing, vigorous, tall variety such as Pea 'Alderman’ or any mangetout or sugar-snap pea forms. These produce tips quickly, or you could sow the special pea tip variety Pea 'Serge’.
Three seeds are sown into one medium-sized module or small pot – into any old potting compost – and left on a bed in the greenhouse for two weeks. Once they’re up about an inch, Charles plants them 8-10in apart in the garden. They are left to grow on for about three weeks until they reach a foot and are well established, and then the top one or two inches of every tip is harvested from the clump.
After the first pick, he advises leaving them for two weeks to stabilise. Shoots then break from the base and the leaf axils like sweet peas, and you can start to crop once a week. Charles says you don’t have to have a garden to grow pea tips, but can plant them in a deep pot, spacing them slightly closer and they’ll still produce well.
You’ll get six to eight weeks of weekly pickings from one sowing. Resow every six to eight weeks to ensure a regular harvest, rather than feast or famine.
Onions and Beetroot
Charles also grows beetroot and spring onions in much the same way, packing lots of plants very efficiently into a small space. He sows three to five seeds in a clump (straight into the ground or into their own individual module).
His favourite spring onion for sowing now is Spring Onion 'White Lisbon’, the fat-bottomed, bulging form. His favourite purple beetroot for now is Beetroot 'Boltardy’, which has excellent flavour and is much less likely to bolt if we suddenly get some cold nights than most beetroot forms. He also loves the golden varieties, such as Beetroot 'Burpees Golden’ and the stripy pink and white Beetroot 'Chioggia’, now often named 'Candystripe’.
Both the beetroot and spring onion clumps are planted about 12in apart.
The key to their long, steady production is the method of harvest. Rather than hoicking out the bunch altogether, Charles carefully twists one plant out from the rest, the first at the size of a golf ball, leaving the others to grow on. You don’t need to thin as you have given the remaining plants more space and can go back and take the next in a couple of weeks, then the next later and so on.
This gives you beetroot right through the summer and autumn, when you can dig up the odd plant, pot it up, bring it under cover and harvest its light cropping of delicious beetroot leaves until the following spring.
Charles’s next recommendation for efficient use of space is the second early potato 'Charlotte’. He and his wife Susie, who helps him on the plot, have three hungry teenagers to feed. They find 'Charlotte’ tasty, very heavy-cropping and reliable. It’s also good in the kitchen as it sits halfway between the waxy and starchy in texture and so makes a fine boiling potato as well as a delicious variety for mashing and baking. It stores well, too, and they are only just finishing last year’s crop stored in crates in a cool barn.
They do not bother to chit 'Charlotte’ but plant them straight into the ground at 15 - 18in spacings (two rows in a 4ft bed) in a raised bed with plenty of compost added. Charles earths them up with friable compost, six weeks after planting. Then he can easily harvest the top tubers by just rummaging around with his hands, with no spade or strenuous digging needed. He lifts them in early August, when the haulms are just beginning to yellow but with luck before blight strikes.
Charles’s next recommendations for sowing now are for delicious and reliable summer herbs, with three basils at the top of this week’s sowing list.
'Sweet Genovese’ basil is his and many people’s favourite. It has large leaves, good production and sweet, intense flavour, but he also sows one of the citrusy lemon basils and one of the spicier, cinnamon forms. This is very vigorous and adds a good zap of flavour to their salad bags.
The basil is all sown in the greenhouse – or on a sunny window ledge – one seed to a module full of freely drained compost, such as John Innes No 1.
They are then planted in a sunny spot, or in a polytunnel and kept well-watered, always watering the soil and keeping the leaves as dry as possible. They need a good squirt of water every day. Flat-leafed parsley, 'Giant of Napoli’ is better for cooler areas. Sow this in the same way, but plant it outside anywhere — in sun or part shade.
Finally Charles sings the praises of four lettuces for delicious sweetness, crunchiness of stem and a range of colour that looks good in your salad bowl.
For a bright green, crinkly leafed, repeat cropping form he loves 'Fristina’ and then two reds with different leaf shapes, 'Rosemore’, a red cos, and 'Rubane’, with frilly edges. He also loves the cos lettuce 'Freckles’ for its long, slow cropping pattern and elegant crimson splodged leaves.
These four will all give you a few leaves harvestable from every plant every week from about a month after sowing for an eight to 10-week season. The lettuces are all individually sown into their own cells in the greenhouse or in a cosy corner outside for planting out within a month, 9in apart.
How they are harvested is crucial to how much you’ll get from your row.
Charles never cuts the whole plant to within an inch or two of the ground — as is traditional with these Continental loose leaf forms — but picks only a few leaves from the outside of every plant. He can then go back and do the same only a few days later.
With this wonderful spring weather and plenty of bank holidays to come, now could not be a better time to ensure you get a huge harvest from even a tiny space outside in your garden. Take Charles’s advice and get sowing.