Firstly, I would like to say that it is highly unlikely that food security will become an issue for most Australians as we deal with this Covid-19 situation. Even though the grocery stores have been smashed by people setting up their pantries there has always been plenty of fresh food available.
However, growing “some” of your own food is never a bad idea and anything you can produce right now is a good thing. The more local and the fresher the food you eat, the better it tastes, the higher the nutrition and better it is for you and the environment. I have been critically aware that a lot of people in my own community are currently hastily setting up their own Veggie Patch or Balcony Garden and I wanted to jump in, not as a gardening expert, but as a friend here to encourage you and to help where I can. I lot of what I know is from my own trial and error and letting failure become valuable lessons. With any luck by sharing some of my knowledge you can avoid some of my failures.
I am lucky to have gardening and growing my own food in my DNA. I am a natural problem solver and enjoy the creative, physical and nature connection that comes with gardening. I also surround myself with a virtual community of others who are either experts or are passionate about gardening. Instagram is bursting with “garden influencers” and there are so many great gardening TV shows like Gardening Australia, Better Homes and Gardens, Garden Rescue, Love Your Garden and Gardener’s World. If you can’t get these on your local TV catch up services then you can find them on YouTube.
There really is only a few basic principles of growing your own produce.
Here are my 12 steps for setting up your first simple Veggie Patch or Balcony Garden
1. Choose a sunny spot
It is important that most fruit and veggie plants get at least 6 hours of sun per day. All day sun is good but you should always choose morning sun over afternoon sun if only one is an option. Afternoon sun is the hottest of the day and can cook sensitive plants. Some veggies tolerate less sun or even no direct sun and you can grow things like kale and parsley in mostly shady spots.
2. Water your plants
Watering your plants first thing in the morning, before the heat of the day is preferable (if there has been now rain). This gives the plant water to last them all day while the sun is shining. It also means that the foliage is dry by the end of the day and lessens your chances of mildew taking over.
3. Fertilise and enrich your soil with compost
Generally I would suggest setting up any veggie bed with a mix of compost, cow poo and high quality well draining soil. This will get your plants off to a great start but to keep up the nutrition regularly top up with liquid fertiliser. I also like to add blood and bone with added potash (which you can purchase from any garden centre) to beds about 4 times a year.
4. Mulch your garden
Getting a thick layer of mulch on your garden beds and around your fruit trees is very important as it locks in moisture, supresses weeds and breaks down into compost over time. You can use a range of different organic materials to mulch your beds. I use sugarcane mulch but you can use seaweed or straw, etc.
5. Start composting
I can’t stress enough how important this is. There is a compost system for almost any home from large 1m square composing bays to plastic compost bins and Bokashi systems suitable for an apartment. You can basically make compost for free by mixing your kitchen scraps (high in nitrogen) with dry (high carbon) elements like dry leaves, dry grass clippings and straw. You add these in layers and to speed up the process you can mix regularily to keep it oxygenated. Compost is widely used by successful gardeners, is brilliant for the environment and is strangely satisfying to make. And your plants will love you for it!
6. Choose plants right for your season and location
This is very important and I am often surprised by the seedlings that are for sold at nurseries that are completely out of season. If you want your plants to achieve their maximum potential they have to be planted at the right time of year. This information is no secret and the labels on many seedlings and the info panel on the back of seed packets include this information. This information is also available in the form of seasonal/region planting charts you can find in books and online. Choosing the right location also includes planting your seeds or seedings at the right spacing and in an area of your garden with the correct amount of sun. This information is also found on the back of most packets. Here I am trying to keep things simple but many gardeners also look at the pH of their soil as some plants enjoy a specific pH. For example I grow my blue berry plants in their own raised bed which is enriched with pine bark mulch which results in a more acid soil that they prefer.
7. Watch your garden like a hawk
When I did an organic gardening course I went into the day expecting to learn all sorts of recipes for organic sprays but the main take away was that observation is the best skill in avoiding pests and disease. This means that as soon as you see your plants struggling this is your que to switch things up. Put simply this could mean increasing or decreasing your watering, moving plants into a most suitable location, planting some companion plants, removing diseased leaves/branches before it takes over the entire plant or increasing your fertilising. Also keep in mind that the healthier your plants the better they are able to resist pests and disease much like our own immune system. You might have to cover garden beds with a net if they are getting targeted by pests.
8. Set up the rights size growing zone for your place
Everyone has their own situation with the amount of space, resources and time to spend on gardening. You can start as small as some pots of herbs on a sunny windowsill or containers on a balcony. When growing in containers it is especial important to keep the plants well-watered as they dry out quickly. Liquid fertilising is also a great option for growing in containers. Greens like lettuce, silver beet, spinach, radishes and rocket grow really well in nice deep pots. You don’t need anything fancy and you can even pick up good sturdy plastic pots for free on the side of the road or very cheap in reject shots. It is just important that if you are recycling pots that you wash them thoroughly with soap to kill any diseases. The bigger and deeper the containers you can source the healthier your plants will be.
It you are lucky like me to have a backyard then raised beds are a great option. Veggies just grow better in raised beds as you are able to set up the perfect soil blend with ideal nutrition, soil microbiology and water retention & drainage properties. If you are setting your beds up on top of earth (and not on top of concrete) they only need to be 300-400mm high but taller beds are really handy for accessibility (as you don’t need to bend over to reach them). It can cost you a fortune to fill raised beds if you buy soil in bags. If you can find a local ‘soil and sand’ business get them to deliver a veggie blend and use a wheelbarrow or large buckets to shift it. This may save you more than ½ the cost. You can also bulk up your beds with a layer of straw on the bottom. This will rot down over time and the level with sink but you can keep topping up your beds over time with compost you are making for free. Don’t forget to add in well rotted/dry cow poo and compost to the top layer when first setting up your garden beds. For a 1m x 1m raised bed, 300mm high, you will need around 1/3 of a cubic metre of soil.
9. Let go of aesthetic expectations
This is not the time to be building an award winning, botanical gardens style garden. Just make do with what you have lying around, borrow, recycle, upcycle and budget buy anything you need to create your own piece of self sufficiency heaven. If you need to get a mental picture in your mind to visualise what I am talking about picture an elderly Italian couple’s backyard in the 1950’s. Get creative and see what you can build out of “nothing”. I promise you will get an immense sense of satisfaction and what you can accomplish.
10. Grow flowers and build a bee hotel or butterfly house
Biodiversity is the key to life itself! Plant as many flowers as you can and no need to be too neat about it. Nature is wild and random and this is ideally how your garden should look. You will need birds, butterflies and bees in your garden to pollinate your plants so make sure you encourage them. There are lots of bee hotels and butterfly houses for sale but it is a really fun project to make one and this can be done with things you can find lying around.
11. Save your seeds
There is widespread shortages of seeds and seedlings at the moment. Don’t be discouraged. It is easy to save your own seeds even from produce that you have purchased. This is a whole blog post in itself so watch this space as I will circle back to this topic soon.
12. Enjoy your produce and share with your community
This is the truly the most rewarding part of growing your own good. Home grown food just tastes better and sharing something you have grown with your neighbours and friends is very special.
You can do this friends! I believe in you! Just start small and give yourself permission to fail and try again.
I would love to hear how your garden set up is going. Please hit me up with any questions you have and I will try my best to answer them or point you in the right direction. Leave your comments below. xox