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  1. If you prefer to garden without using chemicals then spending some time planning your vegetable plot and herbaceous borders to take advantage of the benefits of companion planting will certainly be time well spent. Many plants can help others to grow better either by enriching the soil or by repelling pests. Some also attract pollinators or other beneficial insects which are predators of pests. The slight fly in this ointment is that some plants which are beneficial as companions can also be a disaster when planted with certain vegetables, flowers or even trees so if you decide to use companion planting to enhance your garden you will find that there is a lot of research to be done first.

    Many gardeners instinctively know, either by observation or by listening to old wives’ tales, that some plants help others to grow better. One of the best known is that marigolds are one of the best companion plants of all and this is why in many very old cottage gardens, they are found just about everywhere. It doesn’t even matter what kind of marigold you plant, from the old fashioned almost wild kind to the most elegant of tagetes, the effect is pretty much the same. Marigolds help most plants, but they are especially good for brassicas (cabbages and that kind of thing) where they prevent root damage, tomatoes and peppers. The secret of the marigold family is that they have a very strong pesticide in their roots which actually stays in the ground for years after the plant has gone. They also suppress weeds and marigolds are certainly a lot more attractive than mares tails and less invasive. The downside of marigolds of course is that they are hard to control as they seed very freely, so the principal of ‘after the plant has gone’ is a bit theoretical! Also, the effect can be very strong, so some delicate plants can’t take it, but planted among the basic vegetables found in most kitchen gardens they can only do good.

    Companion plants can also act as traps for pests and two of the best known are geraniums and nasturtiums. Any gardener will know that nasturtiums are really badly affected most years by blackfly, but better blackflies on your nasturtiums than on your broad beans. If you grow flowers to use cut in the house, a few nasturtiums in the border will mean that the cut flowers will be cleaner to use; blackfly exude a sticky secretion and can make a real mess when brought inside. Petunias and sunflowers are also trap crops and are certainly a very attractive way of keeping aphids off other plants. Sunflowers are one of the earliest known examples of early peoples employing the benefits of companion planting, as they were in use before Europeans arrived in America, to keep aphids off the maize crops.

    The benefits of companion planting can be quite technical, as you need to decide whether you want a quick fix of keeping pests at bay or whether you want to take the longer view in attracting pollinators or other pest predators. This usually means that the companion plant has a more attractive smell or appearance than the plant needing its help and benefits may be less dramatic than, say, that of the ubiquitous marigold. Even more subtle can be the effects of the nitrogen fixers, such as lupin. These plants improve the soil over time, as they have nitrogen fixing bacteria in nodules on their roots. This is also an example of what might help one plant could disadvantage another, as not all plants can tolerate raised nitrogen, so care is needed when planting some of the soil improvers.

    It is intriguing once you start planning your garden to take advantage of the benefits of companion planting to see how many of the classic garden pairings are beneficial. To take an example which everyone knows, drifts of daffodils growing under apple trees are not only beautiful, but also doing the trees the world of good. The details of the benefits are not known but there is good evidence that apple trees do better when daffodils are grown in the orchard. Garlic and leeks also are good for apples, but let’s face it, Wordsworth probably wouldn’t have written such a good poem if orchards were planted with leeks!

    To take advantage of the benefits of companion planting, appearance mustn’t be forgotten. Sometimes only a few of the beneficial plants are needed, especially in the case of attracting pest predators, and so there is no need to swamp a border or vegetable garden with other plants to reap the rewards. The dark side of companion planting also has to be taken into account and it is important that in helping one plant you don’t disadvantage another. A good example of this and one into which many gardeners accidentally fall by lack of space is onions – they will help you grow great tomatoes and potatoes but your beans and peas will be rubbish if onions are nearby. So, with companion planting as in so many other gardening practices, you pays your money and takes your choice!

  2. Whether you are a gourmet cook or just someone wanting to put a little more zing into everyday cooking, creating a herb garden is an easy and fun thing to do. You don’t need loads of space because most herbs grow happily in containers and a mixed lot of earthenware pots, old buckets and troughs can look great massed beside the kitchen door where they will be most handy when inspiration strikes.

    When you go about creating a herb garden there are several factors to consider, not least of these being what herbs you generally use. Start with these and go on from there; if you are mainly a mint, thyme and sage person it is pointless starting your garden with annuals like marjoram, basil and coriander. These softer herbs are not difficult to grow but are not that attractive to look at and die off completely in the winter leaving you with a bit of a gap. The perennials such as mint die back but often leave green shoots at the base except in the harshest winter and are good value because you only need buy them once. In fact, mint and some of the other perennials like lemon balm are so vigorous they should be in a container even if you are creating a herb garden in bare soil as otherwise you will find you have a mint garden, rather than herb!

    Another consideration is space available and also the position of the site. Many herbs are Mediterranean and love the sun, so you should really try to give them the sunniest spot in the garden. This may well turn out to be near the patio or other sitting out place and this is an added bonus. There is little that is nicer than sitting in the sun with the scent of herbs such as lavender and thyme mingling with the sound of the bees gathering the nectar. You have a little taste of holiday right there in your own back yard. Containers for herbs are fine, but if you have the space it would be rather nice to plant in the traditional way with the plants in squares or rectangles with small walkways between. This is the style which has come down to us from the early herbalists and it is important to remember that herbs were grown in the first place as valuable medicines and that most of our common culinary herbs have a healing property as well. Some of them should be avoided by pregnant women and people suffering from certain medical conditions – obviously no dish calls for huge amounts of any herb, but it is better to be safe than sorry, so it is a good idea to check.

    Some herbs are quite tall and so are best against a fence or some other support. Fennel is rather unusual as a herb as you can use it also as a vegetable by harvesting the bulb at the bottom and as a herb by collecting the seeds. It is a beautiful plant with the most gorgeous feathery foliage but can grow six feet tall if left to its own devices. It also seeds freely so it does tend to pop up where you least expect it. But the lovely smell of aniseed which wafts from it if you brush against it makes it all worthwhile. One of the most important factors to take into account when creating a herb garden in fact is how to keep the little devils in check! Herbs do have a tendency to wander about, with mint being the worst offender and so you are not going to be able to plant the seeds or seedlings and then ignore it. Mint is best planted in a container to keep the roots in and some herbs such as rosemary and lavender have to be pruned savagely every once in a while as otherwise they can become very substantial shrubs which will overshadow everything else. Some herbs can be bought which are of a low growing habit but in the right place they will be off like a rocket and before you know it half your lawn will be made up of thyme. This is great in some ways, as the smell when you mow is glorious, but not so great if you like your lawn to be nice soft grass to lie on, as mown off thyme is a bit on the prickly side.

    If you have cats that like to lie in the herbs – and why not, cats like a nice smell as much as the next person – put them off with a couple of plants of Coleus Canina. They hate the smell with a passion, but to people it is not really that bad at all. Just be careful you don’t pick some for the stuffing! The one thing to avoid is catnip, of course, which is a kind of mint which drives cats wild. After an afternoon of all the cats in the neighbourhood rolling in it, your beautifully created herb garden will look like a battlefield!

    If all of this makes it sound as if a herb garden is more trouble than a wagonload of monkeys, don’t be put off; it’s not. If you create a herb garden with your personal tastes in mind nothing should get out of hand because you will be picking the tips out all the time and so they get a prune on a regular basis. Also, herbs freeze very well, so the annual trim needed by the woody plants can be harvested and frozen against the cold winter days – if you open freeze and then pack into small portions you will have fresh tasting herbs all year round. Mint freezes well chopped up, moistened with a little water and packed into ice cube trays for almost instant mint sauce. So go on – get your thinking cap on and spend a while in the garden (and the kitchen) and start creating a herb garden.

    Check out our herb seeds for sale

  3. For the reluctant gardener, there is no finer moment that tasting the very first vegetable from their own plot. You don’t have to be fabulously green fingered to turn out something that tastes a million times better than anything you can buy in the shops. The sense of satisfaction you get when you pop that first pea or pull a baby carrot, sweet as honey and a pale gold so far removed from the supermarket bright orange is amazing. Heaven!

    Growing vegetables from seed could not be easier. As with any gardening project you have to follow a few rules, but rules are sometimes made to be broken, so if you don’t have an enormous plot, don’t despair. Many seeds these days are bred with the smaller garden in mind and by reading the labels with care, you can choose vegetables which crop at different times of the year, so you can have a summer full of fresh salads and a winter of fascinating vegetables for stir fries, Sunday lunch and hearty stews. You don’t have to have row on row of leeks or cabbage; by sowing the seed in squares at the corner of a flower bed, or alongside a path, you can make all but the largest brassicas part of your herbaceous border.

    Salads are a great way to start your vegetable growing career and if you have children who don’t like eating their five a day then getting them to grow their own is a really good way of getting the veg down them. Choose a lettuce which you can pull leaves from and leave growing – Salad Bowl is a good one – and some radishes, little round carrots and perhaps a tomato which you can grow in a hanging basket – Cherry Cascade is great for the kids as the fruit is small and sweet and you get loads – and the children will be eating their vegetables in no time.

    Once you have the bug, the vegetables you grow will become more of a challenge and so that much more delicious when you pick them. Things like sweetcorn, broad beans and peas take a little more room and planning, but look good in the back of the border and a bonus with broad beans is the incredibly sweet smelling flowers. Growing vegetables from seed is not necessarily a cheap way of providing food for the family, but you will know exactly what conditions they grew in and nowadays you can buy seeds in quite small packs, so there is no waste. It isn’t really very good practice to use old seeds because they might not come up very well and so a lot of effort will be wasted.

    The ultimate grow it at home vegetable has to be the potato. Everyone waits for the first Jersey Royals to come into the shops but even these lovely little new potatoes can’t hold a candle to ones you grow at home. You can prepare a bed if you like, but an old dustbin will do just as well and some people have even grown quite decent crops in the supermarket ‘bag for life’ type carrier bag, with holes for drainage. The secret is to buy top quality seed potatoes - some garden centres sell them loose, so you only buy what you need – and plant them quite shallowly, topping up the earth as the shoots show. The stem that you cover with soil is where the potatoes will grow, so be vigilant because when the plant goes green in the light, no more tubers will grow. This is called ‘earthing up’ in bare earth and has to be done quite carefully with a hoe. Things are easier in a bag or dustbin as you just have to add more soil to cover the growing shoots. The final stage is burrowing down and harvesting the potatoes. You can buy earlies or main crop but if you want a taste explosion, go for earlies and give yourself a treat.

    In the main, you won’t save a fortune growing vegetables from seed, because you will have to buy the seed in the first place – although frugal friends with the same taste can share – as well as feed the plants and prepare the soil, not to mention the time you will have to put in. The advantage in growing vegetables from seed is the taste – there is quite literally nothing like it. In your first season you might struggle to get more than a few servings of any one vegetable from your plot, but it would be worthwhile for just one mouthful! Nothing says summer like new potatoes and peas and when it comes to a warming vegetable soup in winter, it is all the more delicious if the carrots and onions have come from your own back garden. So, for a rewarding and delicious hobby, try growing vegetables from seed!