What Is A Vegetable?

A vegetable is simply any edible part of a plant that we commonly eat. Colloquially, we consider vegetables as parts of plants that we eat as part of a savoury meal, while we think of fruits as being largely sweeter.

Some culinary items that are commonly thought of as vegetables are actually, botanically speaking, fruit. Tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, corn, cucumber, squash, courgette and pumpkins are some common examples.

Vegetables are edible parts of plants used for their calorific and nutrient content, and often make up the bulk or a large proportion of a meal, while herbs, which could also be included in this category, tend to be used more sparingly, to add flavour to a dish.

If you think about vegetables, a range of common annual and biennial plants are likely to spring to mind. But there are perennial vegetables too. Annual vegetables are plants that complete their lifecycles in a single year, biennials have a two-year lifecycle, and perennials can last for a number of years in your garden.

Starting a vegetable garden is often the pathway into growing your own food, which can be an extremely rewarding and satisfying thing to do. Growing your own vegetables at home can help you reduce your reliance on harmful agricultural systems, reduce your carbon footprint, and save you money. It can also simply be a lot of fun.

Popular Vegetables Grown In The UK

Here are some of the most popular vegetable plants commonly grown in the UK:

Then there are also all the fruits commonly thought of as vegetables, such as:

How To Care For Vegetable Plants

Learning how to care for vegetable plants begins with gaining a better understanding of your garden, and the conditions to be found there. Observation and interaction will help you discover how to grow vegetables in your garden in the best and most productive way.

One of the first decisions that you should make is which method(s) you would like to use.

You can grow plenty of vegetables:

  • In traditional rows in garden or allotment beds.
  • In beds and borders alongside ornamental plants, or in another integrated design, like a forest garden. (Especially perennial vegetables.)
  • Using a raised bed system. (In rows, using square foot gardening spacing, or in mixed polycultures muddled among companion plants.)
  • Inside a greenhouse or polytunnel structure. (Which allows you to grow all year round.)
  • In containers.
  • Or even in water rather than soil, in an aquaponics or hydroponics system.

Once you have decided on a method, you need to think about creating your growing area or areas. In an organic garden, it can be a great idea to adopt a no dig approach. This approach involves gardening in such a way that you protect the soil, and disturb it as little as possible. Taking a no dig approach means creating new beds by layering organic matter on top of the soil surface rather than digging or tilling new beds.

Next, you need to prepare and plan to make sure that you can care for your vegetables and maintain fertility in your growing areas over time. You need to select seeds based on the environmental conditions you can provide, and your own personal requirements and preferences.

When choosing vegetable seeds, remember that companion planting can be beneficial. Consider also which herbs, flowers and other plants will be useful for growing in your vegetable garden. It can also be helpful to create a planting plan, so you can maximise yield from your vegetable garden. Think about things like successional sowing and crop rotation when growing annual and biennial crops.

It can be a good idea, before starting your garden, to get some basics in place. Make sure you have a composting system if you do not already compost at home. And consider setting up a rainwater harvesting system.

There are a number of important tasks when caring for vegetables. Your main jobs will usually be:

  • Sowing seeds (either indoors, or directly into growing areas) at the right time for the plants in question.
  • Pricking out, potting up and hardening off.
  • Planting out (when the environmental conditions and timings are right).
  • Watering (ideally with rainwater where possible).
  • Mulching (with organic matter, to retain moisture, suppress weeds and add fertility.)
  • Weeding (while remembering that weeds can be very useful too)
  • Providing support for plants where necessary.
  • Monitoring for pests and disease. (And taking steps to manage these things organically.)
  • Providing nutrients through liquid plant feeds. (You can make these yourself at home.)
  • Harvesting your crops.

What Conditions Should You Avoid?

Most vegetables prefer a sunny and open site, with plenty of light, that is relatively sheltered from prevailing winds and out of any frost pockets. However, there are vegetables that can cope with lower light levels or partial shade – leafy crops like brassicas (members of the cabbage family), for example. And perennial vegetables, in particular, can often do well in the dappled shade beneath and around trees and shrubs in a border or forest garden.

It is important to choose the right location for your vegetable plot/ food-producing area/ kitchen garden. Make sure it is easily accessible – ideally as close to your kitchen as possible so you can enjoy your fresh grown produce right away. It should also be close to a water source – ideally a rainwater harvesting system, and to your compost heap. Avoid, if you can, placing a vegetable plot that will be tended relatively intensively too far from your home, or in too inaccessible a spot.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is The Difference Between A Fruit And A Vegetable?

Since the term vegetable is a non-scientific word, there are vagaries surrounding its definition. As mentioned above, vegetables are parts of plants consumed by humans as food.

This definition could include fruits. However, in culinary circles, vegetables are often defined as foods eaten in a savoury context, while we think of fruits as largely the sweeter edible parts of plants. We often exclude edible plant parts from our concept of vegetables – often in a somewhat arbitrary way.

The difference between the terms is that the term fruit does have a scientific botanical meaning. It refers to a particular part of a plant. While ‘vegetable’ is a much broader and fuzzier category, which often is just defined by culinary and cultural tradition.

What Are Cruciferous Vegetables?

Cruciferous vegetables, also known as brassicas, are members of the Brassicaceae family (which is also called Cruciferae). The vegetables within this family are one of the dominant global food crops, and often form an important part of a domestic vegetable garden. Most of the common cruciferous vegetable crops are within the Brassica genus. For example:

  • Broccoli
  • Broccolini
  • Broccoflower
  • Broccoli Romanesco
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Choy sum
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Komatsuna
  • Mizuna/ Mibuna
  • Mustards
  • Pak choi
  • Rapini
  • Swede
  • Tatsoi
  • Turnip

Other cruciferous vegetables include members of other related genus, such as:

  • Daikon radish
  • Garden Cress
  • Horseradish
  • Land Cress
  • Radish
  • Rocket
  • Wasabi

What Are Root Vegetables?

Root vegetables are simply plants whose main edible part is the root. Root vegetables include:

  • Beetroot
  • Carrots
  • Celeriac
  • Daikon radish
  • Dandelion
  • Parsley root
  • Parsnips
  • Radish
  • Salsify
  • Skirret
  • Swedes
  • Turnips

What Are The Easiest Vegetables To Grow?

There are plenty of vegetables that are easy to grow and great for beginners. It is important to bear in mind the growing methods you have chosen and conditions in your area when deciding what to grow. But if you are just starting out, here are ten easy crops to consider:

  • Loose-leaf lettuce
  • Chard
  • Spinach
  • Pak choi
  • Kale
  • Radishes
  • Spring onions
  • Potatoes
  • Peas
  • Broad beans

What Vegetables Can You Grow In Winter?

Which crops you can grow over the winter months will depend on whether you are growing the vegetables indoors, undercover in a greenhouse or polytunnel, or outside in your garden.

Indoors, you can sow seeds for sprouted seeds or microgreens even in the depths of winter. Brassica seeds can be great for this. You can also grow pea shoots on your windowsill.

Indoors, winter is also the time to sow vegetables (technically fruits) like tomatoes and peppers to get them off to a good start before the weather warms and you place them into their final growing positions. You can also start chitting seed potatoes so they sprout with green shoots before you plant them out.

If you have a polytunnel or other undercover growing area, which is not heated but which does offer some protection from frosts, you’ll be able to overwinter a range of vegetable crops, from which you can harvest after the first frosts, or little and often over the winter months. Sow brassicas, leeks and root crops in spring or early summer, to be ready by the following winter, add more leafy greens in July or August for the winter months, perhaps even some new potatoes for Christmas with protection, and overwintering peas and broad beans in September or October.

Undercover or outdoors, a number of brassicas (Kale, Brussels sprouts etc. will withstand winter conditions in most of the UK. In many areas, garlic should overwinter successfully when protected with a mulch. Leeks can remain outside in the winter garden and used as you need them. Carrots, beetroots, turnips, daikon radishes etc. can also only be improved by the first frosts, though must generally be protected or lifted before a harder freeze.

If you plan and prepare wisely, you can grow a wide range of vegetables over the winter months.

Can You Start A Vegetable Garden In A Small Space?

You can grow vegetables in a small space. In a small garden or courtyard, on a patio or balcony, there are techniques you can use to grow your own vegetables at home.  Even if you do not have any outside space at all, there is a lot you can do on a sunny windowsill, or in another bright spot inside your home.

A range of vegetables can be grown in containers that have a volume of around 20 litres, or other planters and pots. Remember, you can upcycle and reuse containers in a range of different ways.

In addition to considering the potential of container gardening, however, small space gardeners should also think about the vertical space as well as the horizontal area. When thinking about how to use the space, remember that often, the sky is the limit. The yield of a space is theoretically unlimited, or limited only by our drive and imagination.

Vertical gardening techniques involve making the most of this dimension. It can involve:

  • Layering plant species – taller plants can be underplanted with other companion plants to create abundant tiered polycultures that provide as high a yield as possible.
  • Growing climbing or vining plants up trellises or other support structures.
  • Creating vertical gardens with planting pockets perfect for leafy green vegetables and herbs. (Such as wood pallet vertical gardens, and fabric pocket vertical gardens, for example.)
  • Placing shelves or support brackets for containers on walls or fences.
  • Creating planting towers or stacking containers.
  • Using hanging baskets or other suspended containers.

Growing vegetables in a small space, it can also be interesting to consider other small space solutions – like small-scale hydroponics, for example, or a small-scale aquaponics (‘barrelponics’) system which incorporates fish as well as plants.

Which Vegetables Grow Well In Clay Soil?

Clay soils can be challenging because of their dense, heavy texture. The characteristics of clay soil, unfortunately, mean that it:

  • Can get waterlogged and muddy.
  • Is more prone to compaction than other soil types.
  • Does not incorporate water as quickly or easily, so run-off can be an issue.
  • Tends to freeze in winter.
  • And is much slower to warm up come spring.
  • Is heavy, and harder to dig/ work than other soils. (Though this should not often be an issue in a ‘no dig’ garden.)

But clay soil does have one massive advantage – it is incredibly fertile, and contains and retains more nutrients than other types of soil. Manage clay soil effectively, and take steps to improve it by adding plenty of organic matter, and it can be great for a vegetable garden.

Leafy green vegetables with shallow root systems, which appreciate the higher moisture levels in the upper layers of clay soil.  For example:

  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Chard

Brassicas, also known as cruciferous vegetables do well in clay because they like to be held securely in the soil, and the structure clay soil’s structure means it has a firm hold. Brassicas (in the list of cruciferous vegetables given above) should thrive in a garden with a high proportion of clay in the soil.

(Mustard, one of this family, can also be a beneficial green manure, which can help in adding organic matter to improve aeration and drainage in heavy clay soils.)

Crops will high nutritional needs will benefit from the nutrient-rich clay soil types. Examples of crops that will like a rich clay soil because it is high in nutrients include:

  • Courgettes
  • Squash
  • French Beans
  • Runner Beans
  • Peas

Some edible crops don’t just grow well in clay, but also help combat some of the issues with this soil type. For example:

  • Fava beans
  • Alfalfa

To reduce soil compaction and break up the clay, you should also consider growing root crops and tubers such as:

  • Potatoes
  • Daikon radishes

How Often Should You Water A Vegetable Garden?

There are a huge number of variables that will determine how often you should water a vegetable garden. You need to think about:

  • The temperatures and general climate and microclimate conditions where you live. (The hotter and sunnier it is, the more water plants will typically need.)
  • Your soil type and soil conditions. (Some soils retain water more easily and remain moister for longer. Others are more free-draining. Free-draining soils and media will generally need to be watered more frequently.)
  • How much organic matter there is to retain water in the soil and on the soil surface. (Organic matter helps store water. And organic mulches reduce the rate at which it is lost through evaporation from the soil surface.)
  • Whether your garden is indoors, undercover or outside in the elements. (If growing indoors or undercover, you will be responsible for meeting all your plants’ water needs. Outdoors, of course, rainfall naturally plays a role, so how much additional water is required will depend on how much it has rained.)
  • Whether you are growing at ground level, in contact with the soil, in raised beds, or in containers. Ground-level no dig beds will need the least water, raised beds typically need a little more, and you’ll need to provide more water for plants in containers.
  • How effectively water is delivered. (Remember, plants need water in the soil, around their roots. So it is important to avoid waste to make sure that water is delivered at or below soil level, where it is needed. Watering from above can be inefficient, and can also cause problems due to water resting on the foliage of your plants. Consider using drip irrigation methods to make sure you use less water in your garden.
  • Which vegetables you are growing. (Different vegetables have different water requirements. Some need much more water than others. Over time, you can learn more about the needs of different plants, and group them effectively to establish a watering regime that works.)

How Can You Keep Cats Away From Your Vegetables?

You may have your own feline friend, or enjoy seeing your neighbours pets in your garden. But cats may not be quite so welcome when they kill birds that you are trying to attract to your bird feeders, or scratch up or dig in your vegetable plot. Worst of all – they will not be welcome when they turn your carefully tended beds into litter trays. So how can you keep cats away from your vegetables?

To deter cats from disrupting your vegetable garden you can:

  • Create physical barriers
  • Plant to repel cats
  • Add smells to deter felines
  • Or attract cats to a different part of your garden

Physical barriers like fences and walls do not usually deter cats, which can scale them easily. So it is unlikely that you will be able to keep them out of your garden altogether. But you can create barriers around specific parts of your garden – such as your vegetable plot.

If a persistent cat becomes a problem, consider using a frame cage or frame and mesh covering for the beds.

Placing spiky sticks, forks or chopsticks closely spaced around vulnerable plants can also deter them from digging or lounging around in an area of soil and breaking nearby plant stems.

If cats are attracted by the smell of a compost heap, consider creating an enclosed bin or creating a barrier around it to deter tomcats from scent marking in the area.

Since cats often choose the path of least resistance, you can also create partial physical barriers of closely planted prickly plants or thorny shrubs that might encourage cats to take a different route.

Plants that cats do not like the smell of. Plants that are said to deter cats, at least to a degree, are:

  • Coleus canina (scaredy-cat plant)
  • Curry plant
  • Pennyroyal
  • Rue
  • Rosemary

These plants won’t keep cats away entirely. But they may deter them from lingering in the immediate vicinity.

Cats also dislike the smell of citrus, dried herbs (from the above plants), certain essential oils (such as citronella) and cayenne pepper. So scattering or sprinkling these things around a vegetable bed might help in keeping them away.

Finally, you can attract cats to a different part of your garden so they don’t damage your vegetables and other crops. Create a sandbox litter area for them. Or attract cats by planting a cat-friendly garden area with:

  • Catnip
  • Catmint
  • Cat thyme
  • Valerian

These are just some tips to help you co-exist happily with feline visitors.

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