The 101 on how to start your very own vege garden
Written by Bea Taylor
If you’re sick of binge-watching and baking banana bread, maybe it’s time to flex your fingers and see if they’re green? Here’s your foolproof guide to vege gardening.
There are many benefits to gardening, the obvious one is, of course, having freshly grown produce a couple of steps from your kitchen. But there are also mental and physical pluses — apparently, one hour of gardening is equivalent to one hour of pilates.
Illustrator Kelly Thompson, who has graduated from novice gardener to green-fingered guru, says, “I love the slow reward of gardening, it’s so satisfying seeing something go from seed to become something you can eat… I would say my garden is the most rewarding project I’ve ever had. It’s calming to spend time in, without technology, getting your hands in the earth, getting dirty — it’s very restorative.”
Get the site right
It’s all about location, location, location. The recipe to a good site is sun, water and good soil. But most importantly sun — most veges need between four to six hours of sun a day. Plants also don’t like strong winds. Even moderate breezes make them a bit upset (and could cause root rock). So a sunny and sheltered site is what you’re after.
Do you need raised beds? Probably not. They look good and keep the soil a few degrees warmer, but they can dry out faster and do require constant topping up — plus they can be a bit more expensive.
The second most important thing is making sure your garden is within reach of the hose. You don’t want to be heaving watering cans everywhere, nor having to fork out on an extra-long hose.
Once you’ve chosen the site for your vege garden, you’ll need to make sure the soil is going to provide an adequate bed for your plants. To do this is easy; take a trip out to your garden and dig a little hole in your soil. Hopefully, you’ll see a layer to topsoil (a dark top layer). Underneath this might be a layer of paler, denser stuff — this is subsoil (nutrient-rich but structurally poor). If you don’t have topsoil, you’ll either need to put some in or use gardening beds or pots.
If you dig down and see a layer of reddish-brown soil, you have hardpan. This layer of compact soil will block fine roots and prevent water drainage, so you’ll need to dig down below the hardpan and break it up using a digging fork to punch holes at regular intervals.
Gardening expert Carol Bucknell says it’s important to make sure the soil is as fertile and healthy as it can be. Healthy soil needs to contain air and water, too much water and the plants’ roots won’t be able to breathe. Too much air and organic matter will decompose too quickly.
“Add plenty of (ideally home-made) compost if you have it,” says Carol.
Seeds or seedlings
From a financial point of view, it’s much, much cheaper to buy seeds over seedlings, there’s also more variety available if you buy seeds. But, if you have a small garden, it doesn’t make much sense to sow hundreds of plants, so seedlings might be more convenient.
Kelly says, “80 per cent of my garden is grown from seed, primarily because it’s easier to find non-GMO and heirloom varieties as seed. I really want to support maintaining heirloom varieties as they are much more hardy, healthy and flavoursome.”
Always check that your seeds are fresh (there should be a best-before date at the back of the packet), and make sure they have enough heat and moisture to help break dormancy.
What to plant
Carol says, “As I don’t have much space, I prefer to grow leafy greens (spinach, silverbeet, lettuce, kale and rocket) as these lose their freshness the fastest on supermarket shelves. They also don’t need a lot of soil depth and you can grow them in pots or troughs.”
Kelly also found silverbeet, bok choy and warragal greens “super easy.” She says, “silverbeet goes nuts with no effort. I’ve found brussel sprouts hard and I find things, like kale and broccoli can be prone to disease in the colder months.”
Beans are good to start with because they grow vertically (space saver) and they’re easy to grow. Courgettes are another fast and easy to grow vegetable, but make sure you pick them as soon as they are ready because they can quickly turn into large marrows.
The most likely culprit for problems with your vege patch growth is over or under-watering. Giving your plants a deep soak once or twice a week will encourage them to send their roots deep, instead of producing shallow roots at the surface. If you need to check how much you’ve watered, dig down into the dirt to see how far the water has soaked through.
Mulch is an important component to watering as it helps to keep the water in the soil and keeps weeds at bay. Lay mulch over your garden after it’s had a good spell of rain (or deep irrigation). If you lay mulch on dry soil, you’ll be locking water out instead of keeping it in.
Don’t plant your veges too close together. Carol recommends planting your taller veges at the back of your garden (so they don’t throw shade over the others) and planting rows in a north-south direction for maximum sun exposure.
Water your plants in the morning so the leaves will have time to dry out before night and always be vigilant about weeds — remove them as soon as you see them.
Kelly says, “I always choose organic soils, mulches and pest control, they do work and if you’re putting it on your food, it will end up in your body eventually.”
She suggests looking into companion planting (close planting of different plants to enhance each other’s growth or protect each other from pests), “after a while you’ll find that you won’t need much pest control after all.”
Carol suggests calendula and marigold as great companion plants. She says, “well-fed plants are not as susceptible to pests and diseases,” — even more reason to keep up the composting.
And what about those pesky slugs and snails? Carol says, “I prefer to remove them by hand and feed to the birds rather than using pesticides. After rain is an ideal time, or in the evening when they come out to munch.”