Planning is key to the success of your vegetable patch. You need to be systematic in your approach and very well planned. This is especially important when working with children and if you are a beginner to vegetable gardening. Siting your patch: If possible choose a spot that isn't too shady, vegetables love to bask in a sunny position. Avoid a spot that it too near to hedges and trees as not only will they shade the plants but the roots will also rob the ground of moisture and nutrients as well as making digging extremely difficult. The patch should be as level as possible. This not only allows easier maintenance but avoids drainage problems. The bottom of slopes can become very wet and boggy. Frost pockets can also develop at the base of slopes. You should also consider how far from a water supply your patch will be to avoid having to carry water further than is necessary. If your patch is to be in a windy, exposed position you may wish to plant a windbreak to cut down damage and also to make gardening a more pleasant activity in windy weather. Alternatively you could erect a wind break using special wind break material. Style of your patch: You need to decide on the overall style of your vegetable patch. When working with children it would be maybe advisable to create beds of a size that are easy to maintain and also that allow the children to work without constantly walking on the soil. The size of beds will therefore depend very much on the age of children who will be working on them. Work out how far the children can reach - they need to be able to reach the middle of the beds without overstretching. If you wish to work with whole classes then you will need to consider how many beds you will need to provide easy access to all of the children and ensure that they all have an area in which to work. You may decide to allocate total responsibility for an area to a group of children.
If you are working with very young children you may even choose to grow your crops in containers. Bear in mind that the size of the containers including the depth will limit what you can grow and also that greater care should be taken when watering or feeding container grown plants. Some crops such as potatoes can be grown in special growing bags. Whether you choose to use a raised bed systemor not is personal choice but bear in mind that raised beds may need more regular watering. Do not use treated railway sleepers as these pose health risks and are no longer legally available for garden use.
You also need to consider paths between the beds. The first task is to make sure paths are level and also to consider what type of paths you would like. Grass looks attractive and wildlife friendly but is high maintenance. It needs to be cut regularly and can become worn in wet or very dry weather courtesy of lots of pairs of feet. It can be especially difficult around the edges of raised beds. Unless you choose to grass your paths you will find that laying a weed suppressant membrane will help keep paths tidy. This could then be covered by your chosen path material. Paving slabs are probably the most superior option but unless you can source a free supply will be the most expensive option. Another option is to use wood chippings which you may be able to source from your council's parks department. As the wood chippings break down they will need topping up each season. One feature that should not be overlooked is the compost area.
Make sure you have all the necessary equipment and materials: Do not 'make do' with second hand adult tools for the children to use. Consider which toolsyou need. Preparing the growing areas: The first task would be to use a spade or strimmer to skim off any top growth. Mark out the vegetable beds which will then need to be well dug over and as many weeds as possible removed. You should try to remove all roots of weeds such as docks, thistles, dandelions, buttercups, brambles, nettles etc. Gloves, long sleeved tops and long trousers should be worn when clearing the patch. Not only can some plants sting but the sap of many plants can irritate or burn skin especially when the sun is shining. Depending on what the land had been used for previously you may need to remove rubble and any large stones. Digging will improve the soil structure - if you dig in autumn or early winter the frost will help break down lumpy soil which can then be dug again in early spring. As the first lot of digging could be heavy going it would be wise to enlist adults to at least help the children with this. Once weeds are removed, if you can find an adult with a rotavator that's even better. Don't rotavate weed infested soil as this will only chop up perennial roots and cause more weeds to grow - Once dug the patch should be levelled and the beds marked out. The soil may benefit from an application of manure if so make sure that you can obtain a load from a safe supply. Read this first. Always wear gloves when handling manures. Alternatively you could use bags of compost obtained from garden centres or garden compost if it is available. Maybe you can make a collection of donated spent compost from used grow bags etc. Take care to obtain a safe supply when using green council waste in the same way as you would if using manure. You can also add bonemeal or fish blood and bone to feed the soil. You may also wish to test the soil to determine how acidic or alkaline it is and then treat the area accordingly. Click here for the story of how we tamed our overgrown allotment plot.
Planning what you will grow and where: At this stage you will need to consider crop rotation. Many gardeners operate a three or four year cycle so that similar plants are not grown in the same area year on year. This is to try to avoid a build up of plant pests and diseases and also try and make best use of soil nutrients. Although it is good to avoid growing crops in the same place every year you don't need to become too obsessed with rotation it is good practice to take the principle into account. Another option is to use a mixed beds system where different crops are mixed in the same bed or a sort of ornamental kitchen garden where flowers can be grown alongside food crops. Consider which plants will grow together and what the needs of each type of plant are. In other words learn as much as youcan about the plants that you intend to grow. An online vegetable plot planning toolis available from Growveg.com. This has proved very popular in some schools and a school licence is available which allows a single account to be used by multiple pupils or groups of pupils in a class. This is basically the same as a single-user account but is marked for concurrent access. It costs about £25 for 2 years (which can be invoiced to the school if required). The teacher will usually set up the plan for the garden as a template that they then copy over for each child/group.The pupils are all logged on to the same account but open the plan allotted to them so that they don't save over each other's work. Setting it up this way enables the teacher to log on and get access to all the pupils' plans after the class. For more information use the contact button on their website. Please refer to this website when you do so. To read more about how we have used GrowVeg click here