How to create a really effective vegetable garden plan

Posted By: Alexandra Campbell On: March 6th, 2016 In: Grow-your-own

Have you got a vegetable garden plan?

Are you growing the right vegetables, herbs and fruit? The ones you will really eat and use?

Or are you wasting about half your seed budget because you’re not growing the things you really use, and are growing too much of other things?

Spend half an hour now to find out – you might surprise yourself.

This year, I have (temporarily) abandoned the seed catalogues in favour of my favourite cookery books. I decided to be slightly scientific and find out exactly what grow-your-own I really need.

The result really astonished me. My seed shopping list has changed radically.

Start your vegetable garden plan with your favourite cookery books

Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook and Food for Friends plus Nigel Slater’s Appetite are so well-used as to be unrecognisable…

Your unique vegetable garden plan

Start with half a dozen of your favourite cookery books.

For this exercise, I’ve picked Ottolenghi’s Plenty and Plenty More, The Garden Cookbook by Sarah Raven, Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible and Nigel Slater’s Appetite. (note: these are affiliate links, which means you can buy the books by clicking on them, and I may get a small fee if you do.)

Start your grow-you-own garden plan with your cookery books

A cup of coffee with Nigel Slater, Sarah Raven, Madhur Jaffrey and Ottolenghi will sort your veg garden out…

Look through the books for recipes that you cook

Then go through the ingredients in each recipe, making a list of anything you either do or could grow.

Think about how you live first. What have you grown successfully before? What can you get locally without having to grow it?

Do you get a veg delivery box? Or have a good farmer’s market nearby?

For example, I use alot of garlic and spring onions, but haven’t found growing either easy. So they’re not on the ‘Grow’ list (for now).

What local fruit and veg do you already have access to?

A glut of fresh, local apples given away for free on David Simmons’ market stall in Faversham. We are surrounded by wonderful fruit-growers so I don’t grow much fruit myself.

And I live in Faversham, which is a market town.

Local farmer David Simmons has a stall in The Market Place three days a week, selling his own and other farmer’s produce. So I know that it genuinely is local and seasonal. That’s where I buy broccoli, cabbage, parnsips, asparagus, strawberries and other vegetables that I regard – perhaps wrongly – as taking up too much space. So they’re not on my ‘Grow’ list either.

But if you live in an urban area or have an allotment, that list will be different. And if you have a greenhouse, you could grow aubergines or peppers. But I don’t, so I can’t.

Chillies are easy to grow

I grow lots of chillies – and use lots of chillies. Result!

You only need to look at about a dozen recipes from each book.

I kept track of how many times each ingredient was mentioned by marking it with a tick every time it occurred. So, for example, ‘chillies’ acquired 15 ticks, while mint – surprisingly – only got five.

It’s a quick process – going through about 60 recipes only took me about half an hour, although it’s easy to get distracted by new dishes you haven’t tried yet.

I ended up with a list of about 40 different vegetables and herbs. However, the rows of ticks beside each made it easy to pick out a ‘top 10’ of what I should grow.

The result really surprised me. All of my ‘Top 10’ were herbs.

It makes sense – herbs are easy to grow in a temperate climate, and they’re also relatively expensive to buy. A small packet of basil costs much the same as a kilo of potatoes.

And growing a herb means you’ve always got it to hand – while most supermarkets do stock dill, basil and marjoram now, you will sometimes only find them in the larger stores.

Growing basil and mint saves money

Courgettes, mint and basil are all easy to grow.

Discover a few surprises…

I was also surprised to find out which herbs got the most ticks.

Dill and tarragon are two herbs that I’m not aware of using much, and never grow. But they occurred over and over again in my favourite recipes (I suspect I often leave them out or use ineffective substitutes like parsley).

Such as ‘could try harder’ herbs….

Chives and oregano cropped up surprisingly frequently, too – but I’ve been half-hearted about growing them.

Sage and thyme – the English cottage garden classics – are theoretically in the garden, but they seem to dwindle year-on-year.

This exercise has reminded me to look into how sage, thyme, oregano and chives need to be grown – and to grow more of them.

Old faithfuls…

The old faithfuls are mint, rosemary and bay, which I hardly even need to think about – we have them all in pots and they just go on and on without much attention. Parsley, basil and chillies are no-brainers, too – They’re easy to grow and I know I use them a great deal.

High risk but worth trying…

Finally, the new high-risk herbs that I clearly need to try are curry leaves, lemongrass and coriander.

Coriander has always bolted for me in the past, but I clearly use so much of it that it’s worth trying again. I rarely see curry leaves in shops, and lemon grass can be elusive, too.

Then look at the next 10 most popular…

The ‘main’ vegetables that emerged were courgettes, carrots, tomatoes, salad and runner beans.

They all do well in this garden, so I feel reasonably confident in growing them again.

Multi-coloured carrots aren't easy to buy

2015’s multi-coloured carrot harvest. Carrots are cheap in the shops, but they do taste better straight out of the ground.

Until I carried out this exercise, I thought I needed to expand my range of ‘main veg’.

Discovering that I can make the most impact and save the most money by concentrating on herbs came as a complete surprise to me. But you will come up with a completely different list for your vegetable garden plan.

If you’d like some great cookbooks that will use up your garden produce, I’m over at the Saucy Dressings blog on Foodzube talking about Cookbooks for Gardeners. I’ve also done a post here on the best cookery books for your grow-your-own produce.

Let me know how your vegetable garden planning goes, and please share this using the buttons below – thank you!

16 Comments

  • Matt says:

    An interesting and very sensible approach. When you have either limited time and space to grow your own then it makes sense to try and maximise the benefits . Although, in growing some herbs and vegetables that I don’t usually eat I’ve discovered a lot of new recipes and expanded my range of go-to meals. I’d never cooked with Kohl Rabi before planting some seeds on a whim and now it is a firm favourite in our household.

  • Catherine says:

    What a great idea! I’ve never planned my crops this way and now I’m wondering why, it makes such sense. I bet herbs would dominate my top ten too, we certainly never have too many!

    • Although I have to admit that I’m still trying to take my own advice – thyme really does seem to need frequent replanting, as it never lasts more than a year or so in my garden.

  • Elaine says:

    I like your idea of starting with your recipe books! I’ve recently started running my vegetable garden on a no-dig basis and when I did that I compiled a list of vegetables we actually eat. I’m adding in some I think we could or should eat, with varying success – mange touts yes, kale less so…

    • I’m thinking of trying mange-tout this year, as well – a friend said they were surprisingly easy to grow. As is the kale, if you can keep the pigeons off it! I love the no-dig ideas, keep meaning to do it properly but never quite manage it.

  • Matt says:

    We found growing for the restaurant at Sissinghurst, that the best results both financially and success wise were in growing herbs and salad. They are used frequently, and expensive to buy, so made sense. Potatoes, whilst easy to grow, take a lot of space and are cheap, along with many other bulkier veg.

  • Dawn says:

    What a great way to think about what to plant in the garden! I, too, have decided on mostly herbs – nice “bang for the buck” here in the U.S. I always try something new, too, sometimes it works better than expected and becomes a repeat, like the scarlet runner beans last year that I grew over my arbor for the flowers and found them soooo useful as young beans and also saved many and enjoy them as dried beans.

    • Dried runner beans! What a great idea. And thank you for reminding me that scarlet runner beans started off as an ornamental crop – I keep meaning to combine it in my beds.

  • Niamh says:

    Very interesting approach. I grow food for a Cafe and this year I have decided that aubergines are not worth the effort, but will be growing lots more spring onions and radishes. More kale is needed but less lettuce. We pickle our chillies and cucumbers so they are used all year round so I hope that this year to triple our seedlings.

  • Anna says:

    A really great idea, that makes me wonder why I haven’t tried it before!
    We have a young family so not too much time. For little effort and far less money that shop bought fruit, we grow gooseberries and berries- anything that works in Summer Pudding. We extended the season by planting autumn raspberries.

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