Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My Top Ten Tips for Starting a Food Garden



"Find the shortest, simplest way between the earth, the hand and the mouth." 
Lanza del Vasto

For me, and the whole global community of gardeners, just being out in the garden is a fun and rewarding way to spend part of your day - AND put a smile on you face - good enough reason alone to get out there and have a go yourself? That's why, for me, it has become an enduring passion  - it also saves on gym and doctors fees - it's my keep fit and therapy session all rolled into one. And here's the big plus - YOU GET TO EAT FOOD YOU HAVE GROWN YOURSELF.   But I admit it is often hard work, and requires patience and effort which I frequently see wasted for want of a bit of know-how and a gentle nudge in the right direction.

I know that most people don't have my knowledge or experience - mostly learned from mistakes I should say - so just look at this as your shortcut to happiness.

Flossie - she's always happy

NOTE: If you really think about how nature does it you will be half way there.  The first three points are fundamental to successful food growing and you can't fudge them.

1.  Choose an area that gets 6 hours of sun per day.
Most of the food plants we grow flower and fruit within a few months (annuals) - they need light to do this.  The exceptions are leafy salad plants (lettuce, rocket, watercress) and some annual herbs (mint, chives, sorrel) which will tolerate less than 6 hours - these can go in partial shade.  I have food planted all around the garden - about 70 different varieties - which makes the most of the varying light conditions.  For a complete list of what you can grow, and when to plant, go to the Seasonal Planting Guide on the main page.

2.  Fix the soil.
Food is only as good as the soil it is grown in and a soil rich in organic material is the way to go. If water is held in the soil but does not get waterlogged and it is full of earthworms, then you have probably done everything right and your food will be healthy and nutritious.  Remember, produce gardens are hungry gardens so keep topping it up with the good stuff - compost, worm castings, composted grass clippings, animal manures, lucerne, seaweed, straw; add a liquid feed every couple of weeks and bingo; and, as I am about doing this as cheaply as possible, I make my own brew.

TROUBLESHOOTING If you have done the first two and the garden is just not thriving then do a pH test - which measures the acid/alkaline levels in the soil.  Very simply, soils with a neutral pH are more likely to be fertile; when they are too acid or alkaline the nutrients in the soil become locked up and are unavailable to the plants. 

A Little Story: I recently had a client who thought she had done everything right but her veggie garden was just not thriving.  A simple pH test showed the soil to be quite alkaline - why?  Well, a few questions revealed that she had used mushroom compost to build up her soil and as one of the main components of this is chalk, I knew that this was the cause of her problems - being alkaline, it is renowned for causing pH problems. Easily fixed with addition of acid stuff - blood and bone, chicken manure and good old fashioned urine - it really is a waste to flush it away.



3.  Organic and chemical free.  Experiencing the pleasure that comes from growing your own food and then picking it for tonight's dinner comes with an added bonus - it will be pesticide-free and healthier than anything you can buy in the supermarket. THIS IS REALLY IMPORTANT -  Nature is in a fine balance out there and if you reach for the spray can every time you see an insect you will be killing off all the good guys that help to maintain a healthy balance - as well as yourself.  There are many simple and non-toxic ways to control pests and diseases and going organic is the way to start.  Your garden world is teeming with life - every cup of soil contains millions of micro-organisms that play a vital part in the cycle of life.  Don't be the idiot that causes the circle - that is Nature - to break because, one day there will be no going back.


4.  Do not put your kitchen garden near or under trees.
Why - you will just be feeding the tree roots - the trees will thrive and your veggie garden won't.  Raised beds are the way to go and try to have all/some of your food garden as close to the house as possible - especially the things you are going to use every day like herbs and salads (Permaculture class - lesson one).  If you have limited space - then use pots and whatever containers you can lay your hands on - I love to use old oil and olive cans evocative of Greek courtyard gardens; they have an added bonus of being portable, free and I can put them under cover when we get a Mullumbimby 'big wet'.


5.  Only grow things you are going to eat - or that make you smile.
Make a list of all the fresh fruit and veggies you buy - and all that your heart desires -  and see if your area is suitable for growing them.  Buy local seed and plants and save your seeds from one season to the next - you will have more success with these than anything you can buy in the shops - and swap them with other gardeners.
NOTE:  We tend to start out by planting things we grew up with, but this just may not be appropriate.  I grew up in the UK with all manner of green runner beans, but they just don't do that well where I live now, but snake beans (seeds from Grace, my egg lady), winged beans (bought from Green Harvest) and Purple King (from my mate Dave) thrive - I learned the hard way through disappointment and observation. You can't put a square peg in a round hole and expect it to be happy!



The delicious trombone squash - seeds also from Dave

6.  You can't grow everything you eat but you can eat everything you grow.
Most people I know who have a food garden suddenly become more interested in cooking and exploring new recipes - and we all know by now the benefits of a home-cooked, home-grown meals.  You also learn new skills and find yourself pickling, preserving and jam making - and sharing -  discover the joy of giving away food.
A LITTLE STORY:  As I am writing this I have had an email from my neighbour, who is overseas, telling me to go round anytime and help myself to the bountiful chard in her garden.  I have just been and picked a basketful so it's veggie lasagne on the menu tonight.
Check out my tried and true recipes on the main page - simple and delicious.


 Sharing abundance - Belinda's chard (a relative of spinach and silverbeet)



"Garden design should be as personal as underwear: (Who wants to wear white cotton knickers every day?  Or have a garden like everyone else's in the street or like those in garden magazines?) No-one can design a garden for someone else - a garden should be an intensely personal thing.  Forget about the sterotyped gardens you see all around you, and just work out what you love and what you need.  What do you want to do in your garden?" Jackie French
7. Start small.
If this is all new to you then start out with a few simple herbs and leafy greens. This does not have to be an expensive exercise and you can use all manner of recycled containers as planter boxes.  I think the most fabulous I have ever seen was a garden in the engine housing and boot of an old car - recycled heaven!
A creative gardener using bits of concrete drainage pipe and an old bath for their garden.

If you are not sure what to plant then have a look around local gardens for ideas, and take a trip to any allotments or Community Garden in your area; talk to people.  I have learned more from talking to other gardeners than I have ever learned from a book.  And, you really don't need that much space to grow food for two people.  How many kale plants does a girl need - my answer is one?

Kale that has been going for two years - I just keep cutting it back and mulching it


8. Dig as little as possible.
It's not good for your back or the soil.  Sheet mulched no-dig beds are the answer. Often, the best spot for a veggie garden is taken up by lawn - if it's not used for walking, lying, sitting or playing on then get rid of it - turn it into a productive garden bed.


From lawn to garden bed the no-dig way
9.  Think about the vertical.
I can guarantee that if you start using the vertical spaces in your garden to grow plants up and over it will suddenly become much more interesting and beautiful.  Do you have a gap between a couple of posts - then cover it in chicken wire and grow some tomatoes and sweet peas, or attach some wire along the underside of the eaves to grow a passionfruit vine.  I have seen amazing things done with up-turned bed-frames then smothered in flowering vines and edible plants.  Build a simple arbour over your veggie garden for beans, cucumbers and peas - mine is made out of recycled timber - in fact, most of the landscaping materials on my patch have been hunted or gathered.  Thinking about putting up a fence - then plant an edible hedge instead.
A LITTLE STORY: Way back in the 80's I did my first Permaculture course with Frances Michaels at Crystal Waters in Queensland (they now run the on-line organic supplies company Green Harvest) and a lot of it was conducted in their bountiful and massive food garden.  What really impressed me was the timber arbour they had built between two garden beds; it was covered in climbing plants and was like walking through a happy green tunnel where you could reach up and pick cucumbers, beans, squash and passionfruit.

Passionfruit vine - the view from my bedroom window

10.  A gentle plea for chaos.
  • Don't be a slave to neatness - straight lines and regimented rows are for the army not for a sustainable garden.  I'm going to say it again - think about nature - does it grow that way?
  • Plant a mixture of annual and perennial food plants so you will always have something to eat. Check out the Seasonal Planting Guide on the main page.  
  • Think about the birds and the bees; attracting beneficial insects to your garden, birds, and small reptiles will keep your garden healthy and happy.  PLANT LOTS OF FLOWERS - zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, daisies ...............................and some natives - grevillias, tea trees, lomandras.
  • Let some herbs and veggies go to flower and seed (like parsley and dill); the benefits of this are threefold - they attract pollinators and you can collect the seed for next season - and it looks gorgeous. 
  • Edge with logs and rocks - they make handy hiding places and large shallow dishes make great birdbaths.  Mixing everything up helps to create balance and harmony in a garden; some call it companion planting, I just call it common sense - and you will have less pests and diseases. 




A healthy and productive garden can't help but be beautiful.  Don't give up, just give it a little time and love.


11. ( I forgot) mulch, mulch, mulch

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