There is nothing more grounding and rewarding than growing your own food. That excited feeling you get when you walk outside to pick some herbs or veggies to add to your dinner is something you never get tired of. On top of that, growing your own food is better for you and the planet - we explain why a little further on. We are also sharing with you our top tips for starting and succeeding with your own veg plot. Why not let this be the year you decide to take the leap into growing your own backyard produce!
Have you heard of the phrase “grow food, not lawns”? It’s definitely created a lot of buzz on social media, and it’s something that we are pretty passionate about too.
There are a number of reasons why we recommend transforming some of that sunny lawn space into edible and flowering gardens, here are just a few:
- Growing your own organic food saves money, and it’s healthier! When you harvest fresh organic produce from your own garden, it’s packed full of nutrients just the way nature intended – none of that goodness has been lost in the transport/storing process, or in the use of pesticides
- Planting a food garden helps to reduce your carbon footprint! Transporting food around the country takes a huge amount of resources. Not to mention the energy used for refrigeration to reduce spoilage. Walking to your backyard uses none! If you’re composting your scraps this is even better. Remember, when we waste food we are also wasting all the resources that were used to grow, transport, package and produce it – including huge amounts of water
- Flowers and flowering herbs will attract pollinators and help them survive – without flowers for them to forage on we end up creating “pollinator deserts” – meaning there’s too much concrete and lawn and our bees and other pollinators are losing their food sources – without them – us humans are in big trouble!
- Lawns can look pretty – but they require a LOT of water to stay green and lush – doesn’t it make sense for that water to be used for something with a bit more purpose?
- Lawns require mowing (which requires lots of petrol) – and be honest, how many people actually look forward to mowing their lawn?!
- You can’t eat grass! By growing something other than lawns, you actually get something in return – food on the table for a bargain price!
- Plants are prettier. Hey – that’s just our opinion, but we’re sticking to it
So, are you thinking about starting a vegetable garden from scratch? Or have you installed a veggie bed but don’t know what to do with it? Perhaps you only have a balcony or small courtyard to work with. Whatever your space, there is always something you can grow! Now it’s time to talk about the ‘how to’.
Spend time observing your garden before installing your veg patch, choose an area that gets around 6 hours of sun every day, and is also sheltered from strong winds. You don’t need 6 hours of continuous sun – a few hours in the morning and again in the late afternoon is perfectly fine. If you’re planting food such as lettuce, rocket, kale and other leafy greens, these plants can be grown in partial shade – also many root crops can produce well with a little less sun (between 4-6 hours). So don’t be disheartened if you can’t get that quota of sunshine – you can still have an abundant food garden if you plan well!
If you’re deciding on the position of your veggie garden in summer, don’t forget to take into account the changing position of the sun during the seasons – are there any large trees that might begin to block the sun as it shifts? Lastly but definitely not least - think about the convenience of maintaining your veggie patch – you don’t want it located too far away from the house.
Utilise pots –
Growing fruit trees, herbs, veggies and flowers can all be done in pots. If you’re limited on space this could be a great option for you. We also recommend reading a book like Grow Food Anywhere by the Little Veggie Patch Co if you have limited space to work with.
Choose your design
Do you want raised beds? Will you be creating beds from scratch? Plan this out first. It might help to mark out the position of your beds to give you an idea of what they will look like. Once you’ve decided on the type of bed and the size it will also help you decide what to plant.
When we installed our first raised veggie beds – I drew up a plan of exactly what I wanted to plant in and around them to ensure I had enough space and was planting a good balance of flowers and edibles for us as well as attracting plenty of beneficial insects. From this I was able to write up a list of exactly what plants we needed to buy, so we didn’t waste money. Don’t forget to have a look at how big your plants will grow – this will have a huge impact on where you decide to put them (I talk more about planting below).
Preparing the soil
If you are creating veggie beds from scratch in your existing garden the first step is to remove weeds and fix up the soil. You’ll need an idea of your soil type before you start. Gardening Australia has a great fact sheet on soil preparation and identification, check it out here. Our garden is mostly clay soil, so we’ve had to break it up by using gypsum. We also add organic matter such as compost to our garden beds regularly, this combined with thick mulching means our soil has now completely changed in structure. It’s very rich and crumbly and entirely different to the clay soil we first discovered 5 years ago.
Remember to dig and turn the soil where you are creating your veggie patches – and if you need to remove lawn try the sheet mulching method. You’ll now need to blend some delicious ingredients into your soil that your veggies will find irresistible – adding organic matter like compost, manure and organic fertilisers will give you a lovely rich soil bed and help to promote strong root growth and healthy plants. Water everything in well when you’re done. I would do this a couple of weeks before planting your new veggies. If you are putting in raised beds and bringing in soil from a garden supplier – be sure to get a high quality veggie mix – do your research first.
How will you water it? Is it too far from the house that watering with a hose will become a chore – you may want to look at installing some irrigation if this is the case (this can be as simple as a dripline.) Think about installing a water tank if you have the space.
We thickly mulch all our veggie beds with organic sugar cane mulch. This keeps the weeds down and conserves moisture which can in turn reduce temperature fluctuations in the soil. Also another bonus is that when the mulch begins breaking down, it’s also adding organic matter to the soil and encouraging those lovely beneficial organisms.
We prefer to rely on organic-based fertilisers, such as natural manures to feed our veggies. We also prepare the soil with homemade compost. But you can also give your veggies a boost by watering with a diluted organic liquid seaweed fertiliser.
Always plant seasonally. A gardening calendar can be very helpful in working out which fruits or veggies to plant when, as well as harvesting times. We always plant in stages, otherwise called “succession planting” – this means you are staggering the sowing of your seeds or planting of your seedlings so they don’t all grow at once (which is a happy problem really!). Be sure to plant things you love to eat – if you end up giving it all away or worst case scenario, throwing it out - it defeats the purpose of growing your own food in the first place. However if you do end up with excess, sharing with neighbours, family and friends is a wonderful idea - and if they have their own veggie patch you may even be able to offer a trade!
Some easy to grow plants we recommend starting off with are herbs, lettuce, cherry tomatoes and climbing beans.
We also recommend planting as much as you can from seed. We explain this in more detail in our blog post on the benefits of growing plants from seed, which you can read here.
Start a compost
Composting is a fantastic way of reducing your household food waste – such as vegetable scraps – by mixing them in a compost bin and leaving them to break down naturally. You also need to add a source of carbon to add to your compost such as shredded newspaper or dried leaves (you’re aiming for about 2 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen – vegetable scraps, grass clippings and manure are all nitrogen). Remember to keep it damp and aerated! When your organic matter breaks down the end product is a gorgeous, rich, black and crumbly substance that looks like soil and is very rich in nitrogen. Using compost in your garden is a great way to improve your soil and on top of this you are also reducing your carbon footprint! For tips on how and what to compost as well as troubleshooting advice, check out this link.
Practice organic pest control –
Companion planting is a great way to do this. Companion planting is basically growing complimentary plants near each other – this is thought to be a natural way of controlling pests as well as boosting the productivity of certain plants when grown with their companions. We use this method all the time, in fact when we first started planning our veggie garden much of our inspiration came from reading Companion Gardening in Australia by Judith Collins – a fantastic reference for new gardeners.
Rotating your crops between plantings is also another way to reduce pests by breaking the breeding cycle of pests and soil diseases. We never under any circumstances recommend using pesticides or insecticides in your backyard – the use of these harmful chemicals is damaging to our fragile eco system and can be deadly for the beneficial insects needed to maintain a healthy and abundant food system. Always keep in mind the importance of the thousands of pollinators that visit our backyards to feed on our flowers – when we harm them, we’re only harming ourselves.
You may not wish to start with chooks right away, but I highly recommend keeping a few chickens in your yard! If you have the time and space to invest in chickens, they are truly wonderful pets that enhance your garden no end (as long as they don’t get into your veggie patch and ruin it!) Their manure can be added to your compost and is an extremely good fertiliser. Your chooks will also gobble up fruit and veg scraps (nothing old or mouldy!) and provide you with a constant supply of fresh eggs. Just like any pet, they require a bit of work to keep them happy and healthy, so if you don’t have the extra time or space to dedicate to some feathered friends, they might not be a good fit. If you are interested in learning more, why not have a read of our blog post on keeping chickens!
Lastly and most importantly – “Think like a bee”
We are pinching this phrase from Doug Purdie’s The Bee Friendly Garden – put on those bee goggles and take a look around your garden – are there plenty of native flowers for our native bees? Do you have different plants flowering all year around so there is a constant source of food for pollinators? Think colour and variety! We recommend planting flowers of all different shapes and sizes to suit the many varieties of pollinators. There’s no such thing as too many flowers and flowering herbs in your garden – but if you don’t have the space – grow them in pots if you can!
Remember, when you have a thriving backyard eco system, your veggie garden will thrive as well.
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