How to start a vegetable garden…advice for first time vegetable growers

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If you’ve always wanted to grow your own vegetables but have never got around to it because you are waiting until you have more time, or until you have a bigger garden, or until the kids move out, or until you retire, then stop procrastinating…the best time to start a vegetable garden and reap the health benefits is now!

So now that there are no more excuses and you’re actually committed to starting a vegetable garden, here are some of my tips to making your vegetable garden a success.

Start small-It’s easy to get carried away when you’ve finally decided to grow your own vegetables, but limit yourself to one or two beds that you will have time to weed, water and learn from and if after a year you are going well and want to add more beds…go for it!

Raised beds, in the ground, in pots or join a community garden?-This is the next decision; if you have great garden soil and don’t mind some initial hard work to dig the soil and a bit of bending to tend to your vegetables, then one of the cheapest options is to make your vegetable beds directly in the ground. Many people however, decide to use some type of raised garden bed as these are at an easier height to work with and if your garden soil is no good, you can fill a raised bed with more suitable soil. Better still, you could start a No-dig Garden in one. There are many prefabricated raised garden beds available these days or you can make your own. Just remember to use a non-treated timber sleeper such as white cypress and stay clear of recycled railway sleepers which may have chemical residues left on them.

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Building the part-raised beds in the slope of the home-vegetable garden at the Gawler Cancer Foundation

Another option is to have a potted vegetable or herb garden and this is a great option for people who may not be able to make a permanent vegetable bed somewhere because they either don’t have the space, are renting, live in an apartment or only have a balcony to garden on. Many vegetables and herbs will thrive in pots and they can be moved around from season to season to follow the sun in your garden. Alternatively you may have a community garden in your area which you can join and either tend your own garden plot or share a growing space with others. Community gardens are also a great place to get to know other people from your community and there is usually always someone around who’ll be happy to share their gardening knowledge with new gardeners.

Where is the sun?-Vegetables like a bit of sun, preferably 6 hours, but don’t be dismayed if your garden, like mine, gets less than this. As you can see from my blog there is lots you can still grow if your garden gets filtered or only part sun for most of the day, you just need to learn where your micro climates are. As a rule morning sun is more beneficial to your vegetables than afternoon sun, so keep this in mind when deciding where to make your vegetable garden. Many vegetables, especially leafy greens, grow better when shaded from the hot afternoon sun in summer. I find that silverbeet, rhubarb, carrots, spinach, kale, lettuce and peas grow fine in my vegetable beds that only get 4 hours of sun. Other vegetables like tomatoes, capsicum and eggplant really need the heat and so it’s best to plant them in the warmest spot in the garden, in pots, or in a small greenhouse (if you have one).

How to water?-Our summers can be hot and dry and as a result watering your vegetables can become a bit of a time consuming chore; forgetting to water vegetables is a common reason they fail to thrive. So my advice, if you are going to have a sizeable vegetable garden, is to invest in putting in a drip irrigation system with an automatic timer. I have this set up at work and it saves a lot of time as well as being one of the most efficient ways to water a vegetable garden. At home I’m still hand watering and using hoses and sprinklers from our water tanks, but an irrigation system is definitely on the wish list.

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Drip irrigation is an efficient way to water

If you’re only starting off small you can hand water in your first season and see how you go, but I do advice that you invest in a rainwater tank so that you can harvest your roof water for the garden. Having a water source close to your vegetable garden will also make watering easier. Regardless of what you use to water your vegetable garden, watering deeply (to encourage deep, strong roots) a few times a week when the weather is dry, is better than a little bit of water every day as this will encourage weak, shallow rooted vegetables.

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My rain water tanks water all our vegetable beds

Great soil is the key to healthy vegetables-If you are planning to plant directly into your garden soil it’s worth spending the time to get your soil right before planting your first vegetables. Firstly learn about checking the pH of your soil and make amendments if needed. Vegetables also like a well structure free draining soil so dig in plenty of organic compost and maybe some gypsum if you have a heavy clay soil. However don’t dig your soil while it is very wet or very dry as you will collapse your soil and destroy its structure instead. Planting a green manure crop (a crop that is grown and then cut before flowering and dug back into the soil), will also greatly improve your soil structure and fertility. Depending on the time of the year, suitable green manure crops include oats, peas, vetch, broad beans, rye corn, lupins or clover.

What to grow-This is an easy one; grow what you buy and eat most. Surprisingly some people get this one wrong and end up growing vegetables their family either won’t eat or know what to do with. If you buy broccoli and carrots every week, then grow broccoli and carrots. If after a few seasons of growing your regular crops, you want to experiment with more unusual vegetables you can’t buy locally, go for it, but remember to have a few recipes in mind that will incorporate these new vegetables. And as for what to do with fussy eaters in your family, the rule in my house is… if I’ve grown it, you eat it…no further discussion.

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Be inspired…the home vegetable garden at the Gawler Cancer Foundation where I work

Crop rotation-In your first year of growing vegetables you don’t have to worry about this one. Once you’ve had your first season of growing it is worth learning though which vegetables belong to the same plant family (I’ll be listing these in a future blog post), so that you can avoid planting related vegetables in the same soil, season after season. Plants in the same family are often susceptible to similar diseases and pests and if planted in the same soil over a long period of time these pests and diseases can build up in the soil and become a problem. It’s therefore best to move vegetables from the same family (eg. potatoes and tomatoes) around to a new garden bed each season with at least a three year rotation.

Start with healthy seedlings-discounted seedlings or ones that have been sitting around a retail nursery for many months, looking leggy and pale, will rarely thrive when planted and often run straight to seed. When buying seedlings look for young healthy seedlings, which have not been allowed to dry out and which don’t show any sign of disease on the leaves. Alternatively you can grow vegetables by sowing from seed directly in your garden beds or into your own punnets for planting out later.

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healthy tomato seedlings

Plant seeds and seedlings at the correct spacing and depth-This is an important point to remember especially when planting out your very first vegetable bed. Don’t try and squish everything you’ve ever wanted to grow into this first bed. Some vegetables need a fair bit of space to grow to full size without competing with other vegetables for light and nutrients. Cabbage for example, requires a 50-60cm spacing between seedlings, so a punnet of eight seedlings takes up a fair bit of space in your vegetable garden. If space is limited it is sometimes better to only plant half the punnet and share the other seedlings with a neighbour (unless you are planning to make sauerkraut, you probably don’t need eight cabbages which are ready to harvest at the same time).

Some vegetables such as peas, beans, parsnip and carrots will do better if sown from seed. Take note of the suggested planting depth on the packet though as burying the seed too deep or too shallow can be the cause of it failing to germinate. Some larger seeds, such as beans and peas, don’t need to be watered again after planting until after they start to emerge or they can rot; whereas some small seed, such as carrots and parsnip, need constant soil moisture to germinate.

Build a compost heap-Every vegetable gardener needs a compost heap-in fact every household regardless of wether they grow vegetables or not should have a compost heap. For more information on composting, I’ve covered how to make a compost heap here in a previous post. When growing vegetables, a compost heap is a great place to recycle all your crop waste (the bits you can’t eat) and turn them into beautiful compost brimming with humus and beneficial microorganisms to add to your vegetable garden soil.

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You can never have too much compost!

Use a mulch in summer-As mentioned earlier, summer can be hot and dry, and covering your vegetable garden soil with an organic mulch of straw, pea straw or sugarcane mulch will help keep the moisture in your soil and keep your vegetables and the beneficial microorganisms and worms in your soil happy.

And lastly…if a crop fails, don’t give up, but try and try again-Even the most experienced vegetable growers will have some season that a particular crop fails for one reason or another. Try and learn from your failures and grow your knowledge along with your garden.

And remember I’m always here happy to answer any of your questions, either through the comment option at the end of each blog post or if you prefer, you can email me via the Contact page.

Happy growing!

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