Jonny Magnanti and his family have recently moved to a wonderful home in Sussex which includes over an acre of ‘garden.’ The house is at the south end of the plot with a large, gently sloping lawn which leads to a fairly steeply sloping north facing field.
From the look the field appears neglected and has a rather indifferent grass sward with heavy infestation of perennial weeds. The land s heavy clay. Although the field is on a north-facing slope, for the most part it still gets a considerable amount of sunlight and certainly plenty enough to grow crops for most of the year.
The vegetable plot will need to be fenced. The field can be improved by grazing and mowing. However, it is also an ideal spot to plant some fruit trees. Looking back up the slope I can see that the steepest part of the field is at the top.
Looking south from the edge of the lawn I can see that it would not be difficult to prepare some raised beds in the field creating a terrace of three one-metre wide by seven-metre long beds running east west. I would cover the ground with a large sheet of black polythene and leave for a year to kill the grass and weeds. However, the first place to start growing now is with a modest couple of raised beds at the end of the lawn. Because your ground is heavy clay you should consider filling your raised beds with good quality top soil and be sure to add at least 15cms of well rotted manure when you turn over the ground.
Jonny says, ‘This is terrific! We love it. We are going to take pictures and bring you regular updates and put into practice your suggestions. I neglected to tell you there is also a front garden which does get a lot of sun. We are planning to put some beds in this part too. The soil is really good, not clay like the slope.’
He sent me these pictures of work in progress in March.
‘There is a brilliant place in Hastings that does re-claimed wood, sea defence groynes, and scaffolding planks, so it’s raised beds a go-go round here. Will keep you posted’
Solid looking raised beds but you need to add soil so that they are genuinely raised as opposed to simply being enclosures. But this can be done bit-by-bit as you work through the growing season. Be sure to incorporate plenty of well-rotted farmyard manure and/or compost. I like the cloche!
This close-up shows the challenges Jonny has ahead of him. Firstly, I think the beds are a little too wide. I may be wrong but I think you need very long arms to reach to the middle of the bed. I think the optimum width is between 1 and 1.2 metres. Another point is the construction. remember that the wood will be damp on the inside and drier on the outside so will curve outwards over the next year or two. This means that the Nails or screws holding the corners could pull out or tear the wood. I like to hammer lengths of 2×1 inch roof batons against the outside of the boards to hold them in place. Then, when you want to turn the boards around in a couple of years time it is an easy job to knock out the batons and re-form the bed. Have fun filling them up!
‘Our next plan after the potatoes is the fruit trees in the field, hence forth the orchard. We would like apples for eating, cooking and even cider experimentation, medlars and quinces and pears. Where do you think is the best place on the slope, what are the best varieties, and is it too late to plant them this year? We would also like to add a raspberry patch, a pond and a goose house somewhere on the field.’
The best place to plant your fruit trees is on the sunniest part of the slope where it is not too steep. If the trees have been grown in pots you can transplant them at any time but remember to make sure the young trees are very well watered to get them properly established. Dig a good large hole and sprinkle a handful of bone meal in the bottom to help root growth. As the ground is heavy clay I would also incorporate a couple of buckets of well rotted manure and some decent topsoil to make the initial growing space nice and rich and reasonably well drained. I suggest you see what varieties of apple and pears are being grown locally and ask round to see which do best in your neighbourhood. Medlars and quince are fantastic trees and can give wonderful crops in the right conditions. Check out your local nursery for advice.
‘Nearer the house we planted a fig tree and now we need to know where to put a strawberry bed and an asparagus bed. All by the end of April…(joke)’
You should plant your strawberries and asparagus in raised beds where they will do very well. Asparagus requires a well drained soil so make sure you add lots of good loam before planting. But it’s too late now for asparagus. You need to wait until the spring next year and I would then plant two-year-old crowns. You can always grow them from seed starting now and plant out the young seedlings in the autumn. better still, keep them somewhere frost free and pant out next spring when they come back in to growth.