Vegie gardening for beginners

Want to start growing your own food but don’t know where to start? Read about the basics including soil and plant nutrition, pest control, traditional and no-dig veggie patches, and easy herbs and veggies to ensure first time success.

Imagine wandering around your garden rather than supermarket aisles, carrying a harvest basket instead of lugging shopping bags and spending a few minutes of your time each day rather than a fortune on organic produce. With very little money, time and effort, you could soon be harvesting free, fresh and nutritious food, while enjoying gentle exercise and minimising your environmental impact. If this sounds good but you don't know where to start, read on!

Designing your garden

Place your garden in a spot that you will see in the course of your daily routines, and as close to your kitchen as possible. To grow in Winter your garden will need full sun, but your vegies only need the intense Summer sun for about 5-6 hours per day. Use deciduous trees and dense shrubs to create a windbreak and afternoon Summer shade around your vegie patch. Also make sure that you have a nearby water supply.

If you've never grown vegies before, start small. One bed about 1.2 x 3m, or even a square metre or a few containers will give you plenty of produce. The secret to success is careful observation and timely action, so make your garden a size that you can monitor and manage easily. You can add extra beds as your skill and interest grows.

Garden beds can be dug from existing soil, but in urban areas check for lead contamination before planting. Alternatively, create raised beds with imported soil in any non-toxic edging (avoid CCA treated pine). A maximum bed width that allows easy access from each side is 1.2m. If your garden is sloped, terrace beds to ensure water, mulch and nutrients stay put!

Planters can be made out of old bathtubs, plastic tubs or polystyrene boxes. Although some leafy greens and herbs will grow in only 15cm soil depth, these containers will dry out very quickly in Summer and the restricted root space means plants are more vulnerable. For stronger, healthier vegies in pots aim for 30cm soil depth. Make sure there are drainage holes, use a light, sandy soil, and add plenty of compost.

Improving your soil

Healthy soil looks like a dark, crumbly, spongy chocolate cake with the smell of a forest floor and the population of a megacity! While 90% of soil is minerals (sand, silt and clay), air, and water, it’s the 5-10% ‘organic matter’ from decomposed leaves, branches, manure as well as living microorganisms that most dramatically influences soil health. Organic matter sustains more than 1 billion microorganisms in a single teaspoon of healthy soil that are essential for creating soil structure, feeding and protecting plants from disease.

  • Don't give away your garden's fertility by sending organic matter to green waste or landfill! Learn how to make compost or feed worms with your kitchen scraps, grass clippings and garden prunings. A well-managed worm farm or compost heap won't smell or attract flies, and will reward you with free, high quality fertiliser. Work at least 1 - 2 inches of compost into the top few inches of your soil before every crop. Mushroom compost is a good substitute if you don’t have enough homemade compost.
  • Beneficial microorganisms in worm castings and compost will keep multiplying and improving the soil in your vegie patch but only if they have moisture and shade. Always add these fertilisers to moist soil and mulch well in Summer.
  • Your soil may be sandy, clayey or somewhere in between. Sandy soils have good drainage and aeration but poor nutrient and water holding capacity. Clay soils hold onto water and nutrients but can have poor drainage and aeration. Regardless of your soil type, regular additions of organic matter rich in beneficial microorganisms will improve your soil structure, fertility and health.
  • If your soil is extremely sandy and water repellent, investigate adding bentonite clay to bring your soil into balance. If your soil is extremely clayey and compacted even after adding organic matter and aerating, investigate adding gypsum to bring your soil into balance.
  • Use a pH test kit to check that your soil is between pH 6.5 – 7.5. Use elemental sulphur to lower or lime/dolomite to increase pH – application rates will depend on soil type. If soil is slightly outside this range compost will bring it towards neutral.

Which plants to grow?

When starting out, look for high-yielding varieties of hardy vegetables that are already favourites in your kitchen. Also check out perennial vegetables like warrigal greens, perennial leeks and wild rocket that require less work.

The easiest vegies for beginners to grow are:

Plant Description  Planting time
Silverbeet  A hardy and beautiful plant that provides greens for a whole year if planted in Spring. Autumn - Spring
Tomatoes  Home grown tomatoes can't be beaten for flavour! Cherry varieties are best for beginners. Indeterminate varieties will need a structure as they can grow to 2m tall. Spring – early Summer
Zucchini  If well cared for you'll only need one plant per person! Spring – early Summer
Climbing beans Plant more as the last group flowers for consistent supply. Will need a stake to climb up as they can grow to 2m tall. Spring - Summer
Sprouting broccoli A few plants will give a continuous harvest of shoots for several months as long as you cut them before flowers appear. Spring - Autumn
Kale  Gorgeous, easy to grow and oh so good for you.  Autumn - Spring
Rocket and lettuce Easy to grow and ready to pick in 2 months.  Autumn - Spring

Planting time

Work out how many of each plant you need and can fit in your garden bed. Remember that a single well fed and watered tomato will yield more than a patch of stressed and overcrowded tomatoes. Place plants that need to be picked often (eg. zucchini, cucumbers, beans, basil, sprouting broccoli) at the edge of beds, and plants which will be harvested less frequently (eg. potatoes, pumpkins) in the middle or back sections. Put tall plants on the South side of your bed to avoid shading other sun-loving plants.

Buying seedlings is easier for beginners than growing from seed but root vegetables like carrots and large-seeded vegetables like beans and corn are best planted as seed directly in the ground. As a rule of thumb, plant seeds approximately their width deep, keep moist and of course, label well!

Watering

Plants need water to stay cool, hydrated and absorb nutrients. While some plants are more tolerant of dry conditions than others, for lush growth and good vegetable production aim to maintain your soil moisture at a 'damp sponge' level around the root zone. Here are a few tips to save you water and time:

  • Water early in the morning or evening to avoid losses to evaporation.
  • Maintain a thick layer (10cm) of mulch (eg. autumn leaves, shredded paper or cardboard, straw, dried grass or even dead weeds!) over the warmer months.
  • A soil with good levels of organic matter (eg. compost, worm castings) will store more moisture for a longer period.
  • During very hot weather (>35ºC), erecting some temporary shade over your garden with old sheets, shadecloth etc will prevent damage to plants. Designing your garden with windbreaks and deciduous trees to the North and West will also help.
  • If budget permits, consider using drip irrigation under mulch or build wicking beds.

Protecting from pests

An organic garden is all about balance and a low level of pests are necessary to maintain populations of predators that naturally keep them under control. A leaf with a few nibbles is perfectly edible and often it's better to accept a little damage rather than take action. However, if critters are taking more than their fair share, here's a few ideas to keep the most common pests under control:

   
Aphids, whiteflies and scale  Sap-sucking pests build up numbers early in Spring but can often be controlled by lacewings, predatory wasps, hoverflies and ladybirds when warmer weather arrives. Plant small, daisy and umbrella shaped flowers like alyssum, calendula, yarrow and parsley to attract these allies. Control ants as they farm and protect these insects. White oil and homemade sprays of chilli, garlic and soap are also effective. 
Caterpillars Prevent adult butterflies from landing on susceptible crops (eg. broccoli, cabbage, kale) with fine netting. Weekly handpicking will minimise damage. You can also use Bt (sometimes sold as ‘Dipel’) – a bacterial spray that is toxic to caterpillars but totally safe for other creatures.
Slugs and snails Slugs and snails are most active at night after rain or watering. Handpicking over several evenings will minimise damage. Beer traps are highly effective. Protect seedlings with a cloche until they are big enough to survive and outgrow attack – but remove in hot weather.
Possums The most effective method is exclusion. Use good quality small gauge netting or build a wire cage or floppy fence (50mm max hole size). For larger areas with more acute problems a pingg string electric wire is a safe and highly effective option.
Mice and rats Ensure rodents cannot access animal food, compost bin or worm farm. Snap traps are recommended by the RSPCA but must be set carefully and checked regularly. Exclusion with wire mesh (10mm max hole size) is possible but tricky in practice. Domestic cats and dogs are a highly effective deterrent but must be outside at night to be effective – make sure they are not a risk to local wildlife.

Preventing disease

Healthy plants fight back! A vegetable growing in moist, healthy soil will usually have good disease resistance, so if your plants look diseased then check your soil. Add compost or worm castings and keep your plants watered. Spraying with diluted worm juice or seaweed extract can provide a quick tonic to stressed plants.

Disease is sometimes part of the natural cycle of growth and decay. Powdery mildew appears on zucchini, cucumbers and pumpkin in late Summer and Autumn as part of a normal lifecycle. It can be held at bay for some time by removing infected leaves, pruning to improve air circulation, and spraying with diluted milk (1:10) weekly.

Stunted growth, misshaped and discoloured leaves can also indicate that your plants are not getting a balanced diet. Adjust soil moisture, check soil pH is close to 6.5-7, as most vegies cannot absorb nutrients outside this range, and if this is correct check reference books to see if symptoms indicate a nutrient deficiency.

Harvesting

Most vegetables grow for 2-3 months before they are ready to harvest. Many plants such as tomatoes, capsicums, zucchinis, cucumbers and beans are more productive if we pick their ‘fruits’ regularly. Leafy vegetables such as silverbeet, non-hearting lettuces, rocket and kale can be harvested repeatedly over a long period so don’t cut out the whole plant! Start harvesting the outside leaves when the plant reaches about 30cm high and always leave at least 6 large leaves so it can continue growing.

Further learning

Starting a garden diary will help to refine your guesses, record observations and learn from experience in future years.

Houbein, L. “One Magic Square”, Wakefield Press, 2012. Woodrow, L. “The Permaculture Home Garden”, Viking, 1996.
Morrow, R. “Earth User's Guide to Permaculture”, Permanent Publications, 2010. Handrick, K. “Gardening downunder: a guide to healthier soils and plants”, CSIRO, 2001. Bennett, P. “Organic Gardening”, New Holland Publishers, 2006.
Lowenfels, J. and Lewis, W. “Teaming with microbes: the gardener's guide to the soil food web”, Timber Press, 2010.
Marshall, T. “Bug: The ultimate gardener's guide to organic pest control”, ABC Books, 2010.
Marshall, T. “The New Organic Gardener”, ABC Books, 2011.

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Happy Gardening!

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