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7 May 2024

Trust gardeners’ tips for growing your own veg

Written by Sarah Burnett
The walled garden at Fyvie, with beans growing around pyramid-shaped canes in the foreground. More fruit trees are trained against the stone wall behind. A white patio chair sits beside a large terracotta planter in a gravel area.
The walled garden at Fyvie Castle, well known for its collections of Scottish fruit and vegetables
To celebrate the arrival of longer days and better weather, two of the Trust’s expert gardeners in the North East have shared their tips for a successful and sustainable vegetable garden – whether you have a small urban patch, an allotment, or a space for growing on a grander scale.

Among the 38 gardens and designed landscapes we care for across Scotland are numerous kitchen gardens growing fruit and vegetables – which visitors can often buy to take home or sample in our cafés and tearooms.

To help amateur gardeners enjoy their own home-grown veg crop, the head gardeners from Fyvie Castle and Castle Fraser have revealed some of their horticultural secrets. Gordon Thomson, Head Gardener at Fyvie Castle, and Ruth Wardle, Head Gardener at Castle Fraser, have put together a seven-point plan for successfully and sustainably growing your own, whatever your level of planting prowess.

With April–May the time of year when the Trust’s gardeners do much of their sowing, now is exactly the right time to put their advice into action.

1. Success relies on good soil preparation and condition.

Your site should ideally be in a sunny and weed-free (especially perennial weeds) location.
Add a generous layer of good quality peat-free garden compost or leaf mould in autumn/early winter and leave to rot down into the ground over the winter until you are ready to sow or plant in the spring. Rake the soil level and then ‘tread over’ with your feet to leave a firm (but by no means compact) surface. Rake level with a landscaping rake (removing any debris) to create a fine, firm but fluffy surface (called a ‘fine tilth’).
Alternatively, you can opt for raised beds using the same basic principles, or dig or fork peat-free compost into the ground in late winter/spring.

The vegetable garden at Fyvie Castle, with neatly raked soil in the beds and rows of vegetables planted. In the foreground are arched support canes, almost creating a tunnel.
For gardeners at Fyvie Castle, good soil preparation is the first secret of success.

2. Get to work in the greenhouse.

If you have the luxury of a greenhouse – even one of the mini or portable greenhouses available at garden centres – many vegetables, such as brassicas, salad crops and peas, can be sown in March and April to give you a head start.
At the start of May, more tender crops, such as courgettes, pumpkins and runner and French beans, can be sown indoors.

3. Watch out for late frosts – these can keep the soil too cold for planting out until May.

Once the danger of frost has passed, you can get on with sowing vegetables directly outside. Set up a string line if you want neat, regimented rows and use the tip of a trowel to make a shallow drill before sowing, lightly covering over and labelling. If the soil is very dry, water the drill before sowing.
When planting carrot seed, sow as thinly as possible to avoid the need to thin out the seedlings, as this releases the scent that attracts carrot root fly.

4. Plant any strongly scented plants along with your vegetables, such as marigolds or onions, as this will confuse the pests.

This is a good example of ‘companion planting’, a very popular method of helping control garden pests organically, by encouraging beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewings that eat aphids. At Castle Fraser, one of the gardening team’s favourite companion plants for vegetables are French marigolds (Tagetes patula), which are known to deter root-eating pests and keep weeds at bay. They look amazing too.

Vegetable beds in a walled garden are surrounded by bright yellow marigolds. Sunflowers grow up wooden stakes in the background.

5. Plant a variety of annual and perennial flowers with your vegetables to encourage pollinating insects into your garden.

A favourite at Fyvie is Nepeta (catmint), which is especially good at attracting bees and hoverflies.

6. Reduce plastic use ... and also waste.

At Castle Fraser, the gardeners use wooden seed boxes to avoid buying any new plastic, but any shallow tray will do for planting as long as there is drainage at the bottom. You could use anything from a fruit punnet to yoghurt pots. When planting your seeds, only grow a small number of seeds at a time so as not to have a glut later in the year or be forced to throw seedlings away. The Trust’s gardeners often divide a tray into sections or even sow just a line.

7. Be creative about repurposing.

After a birch tree had to be taken out at Castle Fraser, the team have found numerous ways to make use of it, from using the twiggy tops to be woven into the bases for Christmas wreathes to deploying longer stems as supports for peas and beans. The team also use fuchsia stems, after they are cut back in spring, to make pea and mange-tout supports.

A view of the immaculately maintained walled garden at Castle Fraser on a very sunny day. The beds are carefully bordered and neatly line with flowering plants or vegetables.
The walled garden at Castle Fraser

Ruth Wardle, the Trust’s Head Gardener at Castle Fraser, said: ‘As a gardener, I get great satisfaction from providing a place of inspiration, education and peace for all those who visit our beautiful garden at Castle Fraser. I am keen to share those skills with people of all ages, encouraging them to garden for their own health and wellbeing. I’m privileged to do this in my own career and am very grateful to all our charity’s members and supporters whose generosity makes it possible to care for, nurture and share our gardens, supporting our vision of nature, beauty and heritage for everyone.’

“The act of sowing, nurturing, harvesting, storing and then re-planting is a balm in a busy and ever-changing world.”
Ruth Wardle
Head Gardener, Castle Fraser

Gordon Thomson, the Trust’s Head Gardener at Fyvie Castle, added: ‘The heritage and stories of remarkable gardens such as Fyvie Castle date back centuries, but our charity’s ambition is to make them accessible to many more people and keep them relevant, valued and resilient for the 21st century and beyond. Sharing our gardening expertise and enthusiasm with home gardeners is one way we can do that.

‘I hope that, in my role as a professional gardener, I can inspire others to benefit from connecting with plants and nature – not just by enjoying the garden at Fyvie and the other gardens the Trust cares for, but also by taking our gardening tips home with them.’

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