Getting Started Growing Veggies

There are a few basic requirements for plants. Location, water and healthy soil. Get these right and you'll be set up to have a productive veggie garden that's a pleasure to work in. Check out these start-up notes.

Course Notes
© Very Edible Gardens Pty Ltd  www.veryediblegardens.com

Intro

The most significant issues for getting started growing veggies are:
  • a good location for the veggie patch
  • good soil
  • good water
We'll cover these briefly and also talk about no-dig gardening and where and when to plant each plant.

Where should the veggie patch go?

A good garden starts with a good design. Put your veggies in the wrong spot and you may lose morale and give up.  Veggies should be placed where:

  • they get full sun in winter
  • they get some afternoon summer sun protection (however some veggies can handle full sun, see below)
  • they get protection from strong winds
  • they are easy to access and harvest, so are close to where you spend time in the garden!
  • nearby plant roots will not compete for nutrients and moisture
  • on sloping ground, beds should run along the contour and be terraced if steep so mulch and rain do not run off.

What Size Should the Veggie Patch Be?

You can get a handful of daily salad greens for much of the year out of about a six square metre patch. However if you want to produce enough to cook regularly, you'll need more. 150 square metres (or more counting sprawling vegetables like pumpkins) might be about enough to keep a family self sufficient in veggies, depending on how much they eat. So think somewhere between those two extremes.

The actual shape of the veggie beds are important. You don't want to walk on the soil. A good maximum width is 1.2m-1.5m if the bed is able to be accessed from both sides, half that if not. 

Soil and Compost

Veggies evolved to be spoilt in rich, highly-organic soil. So to grow veggies, unless you happen to live on naturally rich river flats, you'll almost certainly need to improve the soil.

Get your soil right, and you'll have healthier plants with less disease and pest problems, they'll require less watering, they'll uptake less heavy metals.

There are several strategies to better soil in the veggie patch, including:

  • Growing cover crops and 'green manuring'
  • Adding amendments addressing mineral imbalances such as adding lime or gypsum to heavy clay soils
  • Physically breaking up and aerating heavy soils with garden forks or tap rooted vegetables
  • Protecting the soil from the elements and feeding it with mulch
  • Composting
The final two are perhaps the most significant and of relevance to the home gardener, so lets home in on composting.

What is Compost?  Compost is a natural soil improver made from broken-down organic matter. It contains three things of vital importance to gardeners:
  • nutrients
  • humus (a form of dark spongy carbon which creates great garden soil)
  • microscopic lifeforms which create a healthy soil ecosystem.
Healthy soil creates healthy plants, which creates healthy humans. And to this end, composting is our most important tool. It is the cornerstone of organic gardening. Some of the benefits of compost are:

  • it improves drainage and nutrient availability in clay soils
  • it improves water and nutrient holding in sandy soils
  • it moderates pH – whether too acidic or too alkaline, compost helps!
  • toxins in city soils are broken down or become locked up and less available to plants when compost is added
It's hard to buy good compost, but you can make good compost at home, using nothing but free waste products. Since up to two thirds of household waste is compostable, it's a great way to divert waste that otherwise creates methane in landfill.

Not any pile of rotting vegetables is 'compost'. Compost should smell great, like a rainforest, and that's how you'll get the best product for your garden too. To get there, there are some simple rules to follow.

Both your soil and your compost pile are alive! And like us, they need a balanced diet, water, air, and shelter. We'll explain how to make great compost using these principles. There are many different ways to make good compost, and these include:

  • Hot compost: If you pile organic left-overs and garden clippings into a big pile – at least 1m high by 1m square – at the base, the pile will usually generate enough heat to kill weed seeds and many diseases in the middle of the pile. Hot composts are “batch processes” – ie. you need to gather all your ingredients at the beginning and start it all at once. You need to turn hot composts to make sure the outside of the pile is cycled through the hot middle. They needs to get to 55°C for three days to kill weed seeds, but usually they will get even hotter. It's the fastest way of making compost! It's often possible to get lawn mowing companies to deliver clippings to you for free, or you might weed a large garden and end up with a large pile of materials. These are situations where you might build a hot compost pile. We'll focus on the other strategies but you can Google the 'Berkley Method' if you'd like to learn more.
  • Cold compost: Most people don't hot compost, rather they placing kitchen scraps and garden weeds, a bit at a time, often in a black, plastic compost bin. It takes longer than a hot compost and doesn't kill weed seeds, but you don't need to start it all at once and can add to it gradually. You need two bins so that one rests once it is full. This is a perfectly fine way of making compost, however you do need to follow our advice below to make a good product.
  • Chicken compost: Chickens love to scratch and eat food scraps and bugs. If you put chickens on top of a thick layer of straw and throw in food scraps, they'll do the work for you in creating great compost (and the straw absorbs the smell of the chook poo!) We don't cover this method in this course, but there's some info on the www.VeryEdibleGardens.com website.
  • Worm farms: Worms are great for most kitchen scraps but not woody garden materials. We'll deal with worms separately below.

The Balanced Diet: Carbon to Nitrogen ratios.

Carbon to Nitrogen – that sounds complex, but it's not really. Your compost needs a balance of carbon-rich materials and nitrogen-rich materials. In general, carbon-rich materials tend to be brownish, often dry, and don't rot easily. High nitrogen materials rot (and stink) easily. Any green foliage is high nitrogen. Sawdust is very carbon-rich, fish guts very nitrogen-rich. Mixing the two gets the right balance.

 
High-carbon materials take a long time to break down and don't produce strong smells:

High-nitrogen materials rot quickly and produce foul smells if not composted properly:




Using about 2 parts Carbon-rich materials to 1 part Nitrogen-rich material from the table below will be about right. For example, you could mix two buckets of straw to one bucket of kitchen scraps. Or two buckets of autumn leaves to one cup of chicken manure. If you're really keen you can google 'compost calculator' to help you get it right, but it gets to be fairly intuitive and you can also use our troubleshooting guide.


 Carbon-rich materials (1 part = 1 bucket)  Nitrogen-rich materials (1 part = 1 bucket)
Straw
Shredded newspaper
Cardboard
Autumn leaves
Sawdust 
Kitchen scraps
Green lawn clippings & weeds
Manure (eg cow, horse, sheep)
Wool, feathers, hair
Lucerne

Extremely nitrogen-rich (1 part = 1 cup)
Blood and bone
Chicken manure
Meat scraps


Neither of these are essential, but whichever method you use, you can improve the process by:

  • cutting any overly large kitchen and garden scraps (e.g., corn stalks) into smaller pieces. The smaller the particle size, the faster it decomposes.
  • including a diversity of materials for a better end product

What shouldn't I and shouldn't I put in the compost?

  • large amounts of citrus or onions aren't good for worms and can slow down other composting processes
  • large amounts of meat or dairy – don't add unless you have a healthy quickly breaking down system
  • dog and cat poo can be worm composted or hot composted, but kept in separate systems and shouldn't be used on vegie beds. Some cat parasites can survive worm composting, although hot composting should kill everything.
  • some plant diseases and weed seeds may survive cold composting so avoid diseased plant matter and weeds gone to seed.
  • eucalyptus leaves and pine needles should be stored separately for a few months until they lose their strong smell
  • wood ash – a bit is ok, but never burn treated pine!
  • some twigs and branches are great to help aerate the pile
  • coffee grounds and tea bags are excellent ingredients – go for it!
  • cardboard, newspapers, pizza boxes – for sure! Wet and rip them up first, avoid glued bits in boxes
  • glossy coloured magazine paper is a bit suspect, probably avoid it
  • eggshells – will eventually break down in soil if not compost.

Activators

Some plants are 'dynamic accumulators' – they are full of nutrients and help 'activate' and speed up the compost process. They aren't essential but it can help to add the leaves of yarrow, tansy, comfrey, nettles or chamomile to your compost pile.

Water 

It is important to keep the pile moist. Soak cardboard or straw before adding and/or water each layer. But don't saturate the pile. It should be 50% moisture – you know it's right moisture level when you squeeze a handful between your fingers and a drop or two comes out between your fingers, but no more.

Air 

You can aerate your compost by either:

  • For hot composts: turning it from one place to another, and moving what was on theoutside to the inside of the pile. A pitchfork is the best tool for doing this with.
  • For compost bins: If your plastic compost bin has no aeration, you need to drill holes into it. A great tool for mixing and aerating your compost is a 'compost screw'

Turning

If you turn twice a week, you will have beautiful rich compost in 3 weeks to 2 months for a hot compost, or more like 3-5 months for a cold compost, depending on the weather.

Shelter

If your compost is not in a plastic bin, keep your compost pile out of direct summer sun and hot winds so it doesn't dry out. You also want to protect it from too much winter rain so it doesn't get soggy. You can put your compost pile under the canopy of a tree, or if it's not in a compost bin, you can use a tarpaulin (but make sure air can get underneath).

Trouble-shooting

 

Is your compost too stinky? It may be too wet, or too nitrogenous. If it looks too wet and is stinky, mix in dry carbon-rich material, aerating well. If it doesn't look too wet, mix in soaked carbon-rich material. Make sure it is well aerated. Mix in some sticks, drill holes in plastic bins, and so on.
Is your compost not breaking down quickly? It may be too dry or too carbonous. Mix innitrogen-rich material, and water if it looks dry.


Worm Farms


Worms produce perhaps the very best and richest compost for the veggie garden, and worms are especially suited to dealing with kitchen scraps. Worms speed up the composting process, introduce excellent microbiology for your soil, and aerate and mix the compost ingredients for you. Like other forms of compost we need to consider a balanced diet, water, air and shelter.


Compost worms are not the same as garden earthworms – they live closer to the surface, prefer wetter conditions and eat ‘raw’ organic material. Compost worms will only survive in your garden if there's lots and lots of organic material for them. 

How many worms should I start with? We recommend that you start with 1,000 multiplied by the number of people in your house. A well maintained worm farm will increase its population to a comfortable amount for the space and food provided. Worms can double in numbers every two months or so.

Housing

Can-O-Worms worm farms are a great house for a thriving worm farm, except they MUST be kept in a cool spot on hot days such as a garage or worms will die. They come with instructions on how to use the multi-tray system, which is very efficient and allows you to harvest the compost while leaving the worms behind. Extra tips: If some stubborn worms won't leave the bottom tray come harvest time, put that tray on top and keep the lid off for several hours during the day. The light will encourage the remaining worms down into the active tray. Make sure your model doesn't let water stagnate in the bottom (The round ones are well designed and this is not a problem). If it does, drill a hole in the bottom to collect water from, or tilt the worm farm on an angle so the water all drains. 


Polystyrene box: If you’re budget conscious, you can make your own worm farm with three stackable polystyrene boxes that have holes in the bottom. This will need to be standing on a large tray to catch the worm juice, and should be covered with a wet hessian bag or a waterproof cover if your farm is exposed to rain. The insulating properties mean that these survive hot weather better, but they don't keep out mice or flies.


Other systems: Worm farms don't need to have the multiple box system. You can make or buy worm farms made from recycled plastic, wheelie bins or wood which you fill from the top, and harvest from the bottom. You can also keep worms in a bathtub. The more surface area, the more you can feed them.
To start your worm farm, add the following:

  1. A few cm layer of coconut fibre, dry grass clippings or straw or wet cardboard
  2. Your worms mixed with a good amount of compost (which they come with)
  3. Worm food (see below)
  4. Cover with a thick layer of damp newspaper, a wet doormat or hessian

Where should I put my worm farm?

A well maintained worm farm will not smell or attract pests, and worms need a sheltered, shady spot that isn’t too light or hot. It’s best to place it near your kitchen for easy access. (Eg. in the laundry, the shed, on a balcony, or under a tree). Protect them from any direct summer sun, but sun will help in the winter.

Food for worms

Chopped up kitchen scraps, weeds, coffee grounds, crushed eggshells, tea leaves, animal manure (horse and cow poo is favoured). Add wet shredded cardboard or wet straw each time that you feed the worms to keep the worm farm smelling sweet, (adjusting the C:N ratio). To increase the fertility of your worm castings, it is important to give your worms a varied diet. Give your worms a treat. They love pumpkin, coffee grounds, wet cardboard! Worms don't like citrus, onion, too much oil meat or dairy. They don't have teeth, so they can't handle woody material.

Over feeding

Feed your worms only so much as they can eat. They should turn whatever you put in into compost within a week or two, otherwise it's too much food. Start slowly and add more as their numbers build up.

Final product

The final product should look dark and rich (about like 70% cocoa chocolate). You can use it when there are still some not-quite completely broken down bits or completely uniform, but it is almost entirely the dark colour.

Problem solving

Sour smell and lots of tiny vinegar flies: add wet shredded newspaper or straw. Bury new food under existing castings. Ants: something sweet is in the compost, or is too dry. Remove sweets, or add water. It’s normal to have slaters, mites and a few vinegar flies and other creatures in the worm farm. Good books: Organic Growing with Worms by David Murphy

Using the compost!

Whether you dig your compost into your soil, or place it on the top, it's important to remember that it's bringing even more life to your living soil! Spread it around the garden and keep it moist, out of direct sunlight and covered with plenty of mulch which provides both shelter and food. You now have fluffy living, humus-rich soil. Don't step on it or use artificial chemicals. Organise your garden beds so that you don't need to walk on them to harvest your veggies, and you will have turned waste into healthy living soil, healthy plants and healthy you! Enjoy.

Mulch

Mulch protects the soil from heat, wind and the compacting force of rain, whilst feeding the soil as it breaks down, and holding moisture in the soil. Good mulch for veggie beds are:
  • lucerne
  • sugarcane mulch
  • pea straw
  • and wheat straw

Mulches should be from 2-5cm thick.

Woody mulches are less appropriate for veggies as they can rob the upper layers of the soil of nitrogen, however they are perfect for around fruit trees.



No dig gardening


 

(Image credit: milkwood.net) The no-dig gardening concept was popularised by Sydney gardener Esther Dean in the 1970s as a way of minimising gardening effort while kickstarting a garden with maximum fertility. Any more fertility and you're likely to have triplets. A no-dig garden consists of layers of organic material that are stacked up to form a rich, raised garden area. The no-dig garden can be whatever height you desire. Vegetable seedlings, flowering annuals, herbs, bulbs and strawberries all thrive in a no-gig garden.

Why?

  • This type of garden can be set up anywhere – over a lawn, inside a box frame, or even over concrete.
  • No-dig gardens are quick and easy to make.
  • If your soil is not ideal for veggie growing, a no-dig garden creates a great soil mix to plant into.
  • No-dig gardens are very fertile as the decomposing organic matter quickly becomes rich, black compost and attracts beneficial micro-organisms.
  • It retains moisture well.
  • It discourages the growth of weeds as the soil is not turned over (burying weed seeds in moist soil).

Materials

  • Newspaper
  • Manure – eg. horse, cow, sheep
  • 'Brown organic material’ – eg. pea straw, lucerne hay, autumn leaves, dry grass clippings.
  • Blood-and-Bone organic fertiliser OR chicken manure (if building garden over grass or weeds)
  • Compost (black, rich, broken down organic matter)

How Sheet Mulch and Make a No-dig Garden


  1. Slash the grass or weeds (If over concrete, place a 10cm layer of dry branches onto the concrete to allow air into the bed, and head to step 4).
  2. Over the grassed area, sprinkle with ‘blood and bone’ or dynamic lifter / chicken manure and water it in (this will aid in breaking down the grass and weeds).
  3. Soak your newspaper in water (eg. in a wheelbarrow or large bucket filled with water).
  4. Cover the area with thick layers of the damp newspaper (at least 6 pages thick -- more if any runner gasses are present), overlapping by 10-15 cm. Be thorough!
  5. Soak your “brown organic material” in water (eg. in a wheelbarrow or green bin filled with water).
  6. On top of the newspaper layer, alternate the following -
  • 10cm of the soaked “brown organic material” (eg. autumn leaves or straw)
  • 5cm of Manure – eg. horse, cow, sheep
Water well after each layer is added. Keep adding these layers until you get to your desired height. We recommend building up the garden at least 30-40cm.

NOTE: The no-dig garden will approximately half in height in the first six months as it composts away. Therefore, if for example you want a 30cm high veggie bed, build a 50-60cm no-dig garden.

  1. Make sure that the top layer is the ‘brown organic material’, which acts as a great mulch to suppress weeds, hold water and insulate the soil.
  2. To plant seedlings, pull aside the mulch and add one or two handfuls of finished compost or good garden soil to the hole that you’ve created. Make a hole in the compost and plant the seedling into this compost. Make sure your no-dig garden is in a fairly sunny position. 
This garden usually settles to around half its height over the next six months (one season). In this time the layers that you put down will turn into fertile black compost. After these few months any vegetables should grow very well in the no-dig garden. However, in those first 2-4 months (the first growing season of the bed), the following vegetables will not grow especially well in a no-dig garden, so don’t be disheartened:

  • Some root vegetables – inc. carrots, onions and beetroot
  • Beans or peas.

These veggies will grow well from the second season onwards.
To maintain the health of the no-dig garden area VEG recommends adding home-made compost at least once a year (the start of spring), but preferably twice a year (the start of spring and the start of autumn).

What and Where?

Annuals

Most common veggies only live for one season, less than a year.

Seasons

There are, roughly speaking, two seasons for annuals, summer (spring planted) and winter (autumn planted). Here's a non-exhaustive list of spring-planted, summer-active veggies. There's a lot more variety, and fruiting plants over the warmer months:
  • tomatoes, eggplants, capsicums, chillies, pumpkin, zucchini, rock melon, cucumber, bush and climbing beans, corn, okra, basil, coriander, dill, parsley, sunflowers, celery

The following are autumn-planted, winter-active veggies, there's less variety here, but growing them is a sinch, since watering is usually largely taken care of by the rains!

  • broad beans, garlic, peas, cauliflower

The following can be planted much more throughout the year (notice all are non-fruiting):

  • Anytime: kale, pak choy, spring onion, radish, rocket, mizuna, red mustard and lettuce.
  • Anytime except late autumn/early winter: broccoli, parsnip, beetroot, carrot, and silverbeet.

Summer veggies that can handle full afternoon sun include:

  • pumpkin family (zucchini, melons, cucumber), eggplants and capsicums

Summer veggies that burn from excessive heat and need afternoon shade protection include:

  • lettuce, beans, cabbage family (including asian greens)

Where to plant each veggie in the bed?

There are a few things to consider here, but don't worry too much:
  • Height stacking: put lower plants on the sun-side, higher ones at the back, to maximise sun exposure. An exception might be hiding lettuce behind more sun-tolerant larger plants like capsicum.
  • Put less accessed plants in less accessed places. For instance you may harvest spring onions constantly (just rip the tops off, don't pull the whole plant out) whereas a cauliflower you may access to harvest only once.
  • Crop rotation. It's a good idea not to grow some families of plants such as the tomato family (inc. capsicums, chillies, eggplant, potatoes) and cabbage family (broccoli, cauliflower, asian greens, brussels sproats etc.) in the same place each year, since plant families can carry specific diseases which can build up in the soil.
  • Companion planting. There are lots of books about companion planting, not all of it evidence based. One thing is for sure, keep onion/garlic family away from the legumes (peas and beans). Some flowers such as marigolds, yarrow and allysum attract beneficial insects and can be planted in and around the veggie patch.
Most important is to not get overwhelmed, and just plant!

Perennial veggies

Although sometimes less well known, perennial veggies (ie. ones that live for more than one year) offer year-round beauty and low maintenance. They include: strawberries, warrigal greens (aka New Zealand spinach), rhubarb, nasturtium, globe artichoke, jerusalem artichoke (being careful to contain it!), asparagus, french sorrel, warrigal greens, perennial silverbeet, 'walking' onions, scarlet runner beans, sweet violets, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, pepinos, arrowroot and many others. If you are particularly interested in these, Eric Toensmeier's book Perennial Vegetables has great detail.  Perennial culinary herbs include rosemary, sage, thyme, perennial basils, lemon verbena, and lemonbalm.

Some useful and attractive companion plants include mountain marigold, alyssum, various perennial daisies, calendula, comfrey, yarrow, wormwood, comfrey and lemonbalm.

Perennials should be kept in separate beds from annuals, as they don't like root disturbance.

You can also include in these beds fruiting shrubs like yellow and strawberry guavas (they would need a warm microclimate in your situation), chilean guavas, blueberries (which prefer quite acidic soil to fruit), currants, goji berries.

Water

Your soil should feel moist at all times. You need to water every day in extremely hot weather, and perhaps only every two weeks on average, or not at all, in winter. Each square metre of veggies uses on average about 6 litres of water per day in summer, assuming mulch and good soil. It's best to water every two or three days on average in summer, and water deeply.


The most efficient form of irrigation is dripline (not to be confused with leaky hose) underneath a layer of mulch. Set up with a timer system, either programmable or manual, it saves you water and time. Watering with a hose is both inefficient and, for most people, it's a chore.


 

Resources

There are lots of information about other home gardening topics including companion planting, no-dig gardening, fruit tree care, working with chickens and more: www.veryediblegardens.com/iveg

We also recommend the Sustainable Gardening Australia website: www.sgaonline.org.au
You can get some hands on experience at a permablitz: www.permablitz.net

Enjoy!