Buying commercial produce is cheap, but they are often sprayed with industrial chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers. On the flip side, buying organically grown produce is expensive and they aren’t as easy to find. So what’s the alternative solution? Grow your own vegetable garden.
Growing a vegetable garden isn’t for everybody. If you are very serious about nutrition and adopting a healthier green lifestyle, then you may have the patience required to commit. There are many benefits into growing a vegetable patch, the main one being that it improves your emotional, physical and mental health, therefore helping to relieve stress and deter depression. Other benefits include having more exciting and flavoursome meals, as well as encouraging children to participate and learn where real food comes from.
Growing your own food will certainly exercise your patience levels, so why not make it a family project. Not only will this project be saving you money in the long term, but it will also strengthen your family relationships too.
Here is a simple 6 step guide to get your family out the door and into the backyard to begin your vegetable garden project from scratch.
Step One: Gather and organise your tools
- Trowel – for digging small holes and weeding.
- Gardening gloves – protect the hands.
- Sun hat – UV protection.
- Watering can and/or hose – where your water source coming from.
- Wheelbarrow – transporting mulch, dirt and compost.
- Roundhead shovel – digging larger holes.
- Rake – for spreading mulch, gathering and transporting debris.
- Shears – prune away browning leaves or snipping herbs.
- Pitchfork – for creating a compost heap or pile.
Step Two: Choose what type of garden and where it will grow.
After choosing a sunny spot for your garden, decide on which type (or what combination) of the three garden types that best suit your needs. Here are their pro’s:
Type 1: Traditional Garden (in-ground)
- In-ground provides you with limitless options for what you can grow.
- Utilizes the natural ecosystem of nutrients, bacteria and insects already present to help plants grow.
- Choose a site that receives 6 hours of direct sunlight and faces south.
Type 2: Container Garden
- The best solution if you have poor soil or no soil at all (i.e. apartment or city dwellers).
- Containers can vary in shape, size and material to suit your needs and personality.
- Anything can work as a gardening container besides the ordinary terra cotta and clay pots. Experiment with plastic bins, untreated wood barrels, a hanging planter, or even an old boot.
- Make sure container has adequate drainage and appropriate depth to sustain roots of the deep rooted plants (10-12 inches is a good depth for carrots).
- Ideal vegetables for containment are leaf and head lettuces, spinach, green beans, peppers, onions, radishes, tomatoes, squash, carrots, garlic and herbs.
Type 3: Raised Bed Garden
- A happy medium between a traditional garden and container garden are raised beds.
- ‘Square foot gardening method’ is most commonly used in raised bed gardens.
- You will have better control over the soil, more manageable weed control and it’s much access for gardeners who experience pain from bending over or have limited mobility.
- Materials used to create raised beds are cinder blocks, bricks, untreated wood and even rocks.
- Measurements are usually 6 inches off the ground to the height of a standard table and about 3-4 feet wide with a depth of at least 16 inches.
- Fill in the beds using good soil enriched with compost.
- Carrots, cabbage and other deep-rooted vegetables do great in raised beds.
Step Three: Test, prepare and compost the soil.
Poor quality soil can seriously hurt your chances of having a successful vegetable garden. What makes high quality soil is:
- Well-aerated soil (which means air circulates through it well) because it helps roots grow and it drains well.
- Free of stones and other obstructions for roots to grow.
- Soil is not too sandy.
- Rich in organic matter, such as compost or aged manure. Organic matter provides the nutrients for plants to grow, making the use of artificial fertilizers unnecessary.
It is also important to do a quality test on your garden to find out its pH levels, and this can be done at any garden centre. Generally, plants thrive in soil with a pH that is slightly acidic (there are exceptions however, such as beets enjoy alkaline conditions). If your soil is too acidic however, try adding bone meal, dolomitic limestone or wood ashes. To amend alkaline soil, try adding peat moss, sawdust or pine needles.
Insects, bacteria and microbes do better in well-drained soil. So if your soil is too thick and does not drain well or hold moisture – then add a little sand and compost!
Mulch is an effective soil coverer which aids in water retention and weed suppression. It often has wood products in it, which is why it shouldn’t be used under the soil like compost, but only as a soil coverer.
There are two types of mulch: organic and non-organic. Organic includes formerly living material such as chopped leaves, straw, grass clippings, nut shells, wood chips, shredded bark, sawdust, pine needles and paper. Inorganic includes gravel, stones, black plastic and fabrics. Organic mulch improves the soil as it decomposes, whereas inorganic doesn’t enrich the soil, but it still has its merits, for example black plastic warms the temperature of the soil, radiating heat for heat-loving vegetables.
Typically a 2 to 4 inch layer of mulch spread evenly on the ground beneath the plants is sufficient. Be mindful of the pH level of your soil and correct your mulch accordingly to it.
Compost is a soil amendment additive which overtime improves your soil and welcomes beneficial microscopic creatures. If the ingredients you put into your compost are unbalanced, it may produce an unpleasant end product. An ideal mix for a good compost is an equal amount of ‘greens’ and ‘browns’ by volume, and you may include small amounts of other ingredient’s that are also compostable. Take a look at the lists below to differentiate yourself between the two:
GREENS (Nitrogen-rich ingredients):
- Animal manure from herbivores (eg. Cows, horses and rabbits).
- Poultry manure (eg. Chickens).
- Fruit and vegetable peels.
- Tea bags.
- Coffee grounds.
- Grass clippings.
- Green leaves.
- Strips of turf.
- Comfrey leaves.
- Urine (diluted with water 20:1).
BROWNS (Carbon-rich ingredients – slow to rot):
- Cardboard (eg. Cereal packets and egg boxes).
- Waste paper and junk mail (inc. shredded paper).
- Bedding from vegetarian pets (i.e. hay, straw, wood shavings).
- Woody prunings.
- Old bedding plants.
- Wood chips.
- Ground-up twigs.
- Pruning scraps.
- Fallen Leaves (make leafmould).
Other random compostable items:
- Wood ash, in moderation.
- Hair, nail clippings.
- Egg shells (crushed).
- Natural fibres (eg. 100% wool or cotton).
Do NOT compost:
- Cooked food.
- Coal and coke ash.
- Cat litter.
- Dog faeces.
- Disposable nappies.
- You can also use compost as a mulch, but you should not use mulch as a compost.
- Bury fruit waste among other ingredients to prevent masses of fruit flies. Fruit flies are a sign that the compost is a little too wet or has many ‘green’ ingredients, so add a lid and add some brown ingredients to re-balance the heap.
- Although ants help the compost process, if you do find ant nests in your compost then that is a sign that the compost is too dry. Water thoroughly and give it a good mix.
- If there are wasps nests too close to your compost, call your local council’s Environmental Health Department for advice on removal. If you are able to, leave the wasps alone as they are useful predators for common garden pests. To avoid this problem in the future, make sure your compost heap has a lit with no air gaps and doesn’t get too dry.
The more effort you put in, the quicker you get results. Once the ingredients have turned into a dark brown, earthy-smelling material, then the composting process is complete. Don’t worry if it’s not fine and crumbly as it’s still all usable. It is then best left for a month or two to ‘mature’ before it is used.
Step Four: Decide what plants to grow.
Decide on which fruits and vegetables to grow depending on the size of your garden and your specific diet requirements. Do you want to grow something that’s rare, exotic and hard to find at your local market? Or perhaps your favourite produce is too expensive to buy from the shopping centre? For only a couple of dollars, a packet of seeds from your local nursery is a good cheap start, however buying seedlings (also known as ‘starter plants) is the faster option, as they are all ready to be planted outdoors. Either one you choose, both will come with directions about the spacing, seasonal information, watering and thinning practices suitable for that particular fruit or vegetable you’ve bought.
When thinking about what plants to grow, think about what plant neighbours will accompany then. Effective companion planting helps attract beneficial insects, prevent pest problems, help each other grow and even enhance each other’s flavours. For example Garlic goes great with beetroot and Basil accompanies Tomatoes nicely. For a thorough planting guide chart, head to www.yates.com.au/vegetables/tips/companion-planting/
If you have limited sun in your backyard try Kale, Parsley, Beets, Cilantro, Scallions, Lettuce, Garlic, Bok Choy, Mustard Greens, Spinach , Parsnips, Chard, Carrots, Potatoes, Arugula, as they are all shade tolerant vegetables that only need about 4 hours a day of direct light.
Step Five: Water management:
Seedlings should never dry out, so water daily (preferably mornings to reduce loss of evaporation) while they are small until their roots become established. After that, how often you need to water will depend on the quality of your soil, how humid your climate of living is, and how often it rains. If you see your plant wilting slightly, water slowly and deeply so the water soaks in instead of running off into the street.
Some vegetables require constant moisture than others, so be mindful of what vegetables you choose if you’re on strict water supply. Conserve water by mulching the soil surface, removing weeds, shading seedlings in hot weather, applying water to soil and not plants and collecting as much rainwater as possible by using water butts.
Some vegetables become drought intolerant once established. They are onions, leeks, carrots, beetroot, sprouting broccoli, Brussels sprouts, winter cabbage, winter cauliflower, parsnips, spinach beet, radishes and turnips.
Step Six: Dealing with Pests:
Aim to not use chemical pesticides or fungicides when dealing with intruder pests. What is far more effective is Integrated Pest Management.
IPM tactics fall into the following categories:
- Biological – conservation or release of natural enemies that will attack or feed on pests (i.e. wasps)
- Cultural – such as crop rotation, removal or destruction of diseased plants.
- Chemical – use of pesticides as a last resort only.
- Physical or mechanic – barriers such as covers and screens plus vacuums.
- Genetic – pest resistant plant varieties.
IPM is really all about teaming up with beneficial insects, such as earth worms, lady bugs and non-stinging trichogramma wasps which hunt bad bugs and destroy them for you. Alternatively, you can create your own
And that’s it! Organise a gardening calendar for yourself to stay on top of the process and continue being patient. Your garden will be on its way; just keep watering when needed and pull weeds out before they get big. You will learn as you go.
For more information on vegetable gardening in Australia, head to the following sites: