One of the most common problems I see with people starting vegetable gardens is going too big – too early. The setup can be a lot more work than was originally planned, the maintenance might have got too much or it became more expensive than budgeted. Often it’s a combination of all three!
Vegetable gardens should be fun – not hard work, a chore, or a money pit. Consider not making it so hard for yourself at the start. Go small, and see what you can grow in a smaller space. Start eating some produce while you contemplate your next move. Learn about the plants before you create new places for them to grow.
Once you’ve got one bed fully planted, you can move onto the next. When you’ve run out of room, expand by all means, but one step at a time.
Gardening for food is a lifestyle not a one-of project so take your time, start small and learn as you go – just like all food growers do.
Try and have some veggies close to your kitchen
The very best place to grow food is right next to your kitchen. As near as you can to where you cook and somewhere they’ll get some direct sun during the day. The further away your vege patch is, the more likely it is you’ll neglect it and/or forget to pick it. If it’s rainy or super-hot, it only makes sense that you’d rather a garden right near your back (or front) door.
Even if your main patch needs to be away from the house a little bit, try and find some spots near the kitchen to grow culinary herbs & salad leaves – you’ll be surprised how well the plants respond to regular visits and how easily you can incorporate some truly fresh food into your diet.
Watering systems save time AND water
The more reliable & consistent their water supply – the better your plants will grow. Unless the weather is helpful (and sometimes it is), food plants will struggle without regular watering. Before I move a muscle preparing gardens, I plan and install a watering system. One that waters entire areas simply by turning on a tap. It actually saves water as you only put it where it’s needed, and for how long it’s needed and you can water after the sun goes down which reduces evaporation.
I know some people enjoy hand watering and you can still handwater to your heart’s content, but when you don’t have time you can just turn a tap on. That’s a big secret to successful food gardening
The other important strategy for keeping your plants well watered is to maintain a good level of mulch. Apart from reducing evaporation (which means you can irrigate less often), you’ll be protecting and slowly feeding the worms and microbes that constantly work to improve your soil.
I recommend never digging again!
I’ve never understood why conventional farming involves digging up the soil or why home gardeners dig it up with a spade every season. Perhaps it’s to remove weeds, or to loosen up the soil so the roots can grow penetrate the soil easier. As far as I know, this doesn’t happen anywhere in nature. Don’t the plants drop their leaves on top of the soil, which are then recycled by worms and bacteria to create a humus rich topsoil which then in turn supports the plants for the whole thing to happen all over again? Whole forests seem to grow just fine this way.
Unless you enjoy digging up your garden, I’d suggest you never do it again. Let the worms and soil bacteria do their jobs without interruption. Build it up instead.
Simply add layers of manure, hay, compost, seed-free garden waste, mushroom compost or manure pellets on top of the soil – no need to dig it in.
New gardens can be started this way too – just start with a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard to suppress weeds. Below are photos of a new garden being built layer by layer. You don’t need to use the same materials I have – just go for a variety of different ones if you can.
Some gardeners advise that the bed should be left for a few weeks to breakdown somewhat, but I never bother. I simply dig little holes into the bed, add a handful or two of compost or garden soil and put my seedlings or seeds in that. By the time the plant gets settled and starts to spread it’s roots, the layers in your no dig bed will have already started to breakdown.
Building a no-dig garden
a six layered no dig garden in photos
… and the results
Give everything a go!
I started out food gardening by reading lots of books and following much of the advice to the letter. What grows in my climate, what soil & water conditions it likes, when to plant it & what to feed it.
The more books I read, the more confused I got – it seems there’s many different opinions about what individual plants like, and my actual growing experience was often quite different to what the books said.
So my tip is, give everything a go. If you buy a punnet of seedlings, ignore the instructions & try planting in different positions and see what happens. Throw seeds in many different spots and see what comes up.
Plants like to grow – that’s what they do. Just care for them the best you can and let them do their own thing. If a plant’s happy in the position you give it, let it grow, if not, dig it up and try it somewhere different. Some of the results can be quite amazing despite of what the books say – and some plantings that should grow well will be complete flops!
Learn to eat what you grow
It makes sense to only be bothered growing the vegetables you eat right?
Well yes, but what vegetables would you eat if you knew about them, or tasted them fresh from your own garden?
One of the pure joys of having your own garden is learning about a new plant and using it in your cooking. If you like cooking, it’s a chance to be creative or to find some new recipes. Once you get to know the plant, you’ll find ways to incorporate them in your favourite recipes too.
If you expand your plant repertoire a little, and have a big variety of plants to choose from you’re much more likely to have success in the kitchen. You’re also protected against bugs or the the weather ruining a particular favorite crop and leaving you with nothing to cook!
You’ll also find yourself cooking with in-season foods which is the way nature intended it and probably better for your health.
It’s a simple idea, but it can make a huge difference to how much of your own food you eat.
Ladybugs are our friends!
At certain times of year, mostly in the warmer weather, you are going to be faced with garden pests of some type. That’s a fact of gardening life and one you might as well accept.
When they have their season, if you like, you can go to war with them and try to wipe them out – that’s going to cost you time and money and often it’s a pretty hard war to win. In fact it can drive you nuts! If you’re going to take this path, at least ensure you use organic pest control so you don’t ruin the food you want to eat.
Myself, I’d rather put my that time & money into starting new plants, fertilising and waiting it out. Eventually a predator will come along or the weather will change & the bug population will get wiped out anyway.
There are a few easy strategies that will help in minimising the impact of bugs though:-
- If the bugs are ruining half of your crop, then maybe it’s as simple as planting twice as much!
- Please, please don’t put your food plants in nice neat rows. This is an open invitation to the bugs, once established, to ruin your entire crop. Instead, mix your plantings up as much as possible to help confuse them. If you’ve got broccoli planted in all different spots in the garden amongst lots of other plants, there’s a good chance that the cabbage moth won’t find all of them. If they’re in a nice neat row, once they find the first one, you can kiss goodbye to all of them.
- By all means, spend a bit of time manually removing the caterpillars, grasshoppers, snails and slugs. Every one you pick off interrupts the breeding cycle and can have a marked effect on their population. Try offering the kids some pocket money for every one they pick off for great effect.
- Leave spiders, wasps & lady beetles be – they kill and eat many of the same bugs you’re trying to eradicate.
- Plant more plants from the onion family like chives, shallots & garlic. Most bugs don’t like them and dotted throughout your garden, they can act like a pest repellant. Nasturtium is another good companion plant for bugs.
Get the soil right & the plants will look after themselves.
Most plants will either work in a position or they won’t. If it’s too cold, dry, shady etc. they’ll just struggle & eventually die. If all other conditions are OK, they’ll mostly do reasonably well in even poor soils without much help.
If you want to help them, think about improving the soil not attending to the plants. If the soil’s good, many plants will thrive without any care whatsoever – if it isn’t thriving, then it’s probably better to try something else.
My approach to the soil is to make it as attractive as possible for the worms and bacteria living under the soil – they do all the work in making nutrients available to plants – nutrients that end up on our tables. They also improve the structure of your soil making it easy for your plant’s roots to obtain air and water.
My worms seem to like compost, animal manure, mulch I’ve grown myself (especially Comfrey), seed-free garden waste, hay or lucerne mulch, mushroom compost, seaweed drenches, blood and bone and even newspaper and cardboard!. Rather than use the same “worm-food” every time, I prefer to vary it as much as possible, thinking that will make a wider range of nutrients available to the plants (and me).
I get what I can locally (living in a rural area helps) and I go out of my way to try and get organic products. If you don’t have access to fresh manure, try the animal manure pellets that are available in garden shops – especially if they have added trace elements – good for the garden – good for you.
Even better – grow your own worm farm and use the juice on your garden for great results.
It’s worth learning which season to plant what.
I find it quite frustrating when I walk into garden shops and see them selling seedlings that are out of season – I know that someone will take them home, put them in the garden and slowly watch them fail. For some people that will reinforce their idea that vege gardens are too hard and that they can’t grow this or that when in fact they just planted the right plant – but at the wrong time of year.
It very much depends on your climate, but generally you’ll find plants are either warm season or cool season crops. It’s a pretty blurry line between the two sometimes and some plants might grow all year round, some might die down in winter and come back in spring – and vice versa.
The best knowledge comes from experience and so chat to an experienced vege-gardener in your area to get the best information possible – local knowledge. Maybe the person selling you plants can help. Labels on plants and seeds will often give you the information for your climate type.
You’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly, and the interesting side benefit is that you start to observe the seasons differently – through the eyes of a food gardener!
Just know that it matters when your plants go in and if they’re bolting to seed or dying quite suddenly it could well be due to the season.
Organic vegetables from your garden simply taste better
OK – it’s time for the inner hippy in me to come out and rant about the virtues of organic food gardening!
Maybe another time, but it’s safe to say it’s not that difficult to go organic in your own garden – so why not?
I would never advise using chemical sprays or fertilisers on something you’d eat or serve to others and I’m betting you already feel that way. If not you probably will eventually if you grow your own so it’s worth thinking organic right from the start.
My feeling is, that artificial products interfere with the soil and make it less attractive for worms and bacteria. They might still grow healthy looking plants, but over time they deplete the soil, which means you need to use more & more product and the soil gets more and more depleted. Organic gardening methods work on building up the soil so it improves year after year. (oops- I couldn’t help a little rant!)
And of course the best reason has got to be the taste!
Perennials are plants that you put in once and it keeps growing year after year, sometimes dying down in winter and returning (often stronger) the following spring.
So by planting perennials that you like to eat, yes that’s right – you plant them once and just eat the plant year after year. Very often perennials will give you less problems with bugs, and even help surrounding plants avoid them too.
The only real problem I’ve struck with perennial food plants is they can be invasive – if you put them in a garden bed they might choke other plants out. Mostly you can deal with it by hacking the plant back, but some might be better in pots to stop them spreading.
You can get a very similar effect with annual plants by allowing them to self seed and thinning out the seedlings once they sprout.
It’s kind of lazy-man’s gardening – once you put the plants in you let nature take care of the rest and it really works. Often I let my garden run down a bit, but the perennials keep thriving without any help.
I’ve got information about a large list of perennials here – why not try some in your own garden?