How to grow potatoes…

chitted potato

A chitted potato ready for planting

As a Dutch-born Australian my diet while growing up featured a lot of potato meals: curly kale mashed with potatoes, beetroot mashed with potatoes, carrots and onions mashed with potatoes, sauerkraut mashed with potatoes…you get the picture! As an adult I still love potatoes (and I still serve them up mashed with other vegetables from the garden) but now they taste even better as I grow them myself.

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A colourful variety of heirloom potatoes

There are many more varieties of potato available to home gardeners than the small selection of commercially grown ones you’ll find at the supermarket. Heirloom potatoes come in many different shapes and colours and  you may want to try some of these great heirloom varieties: Bintje, Burgundy Blush, Brownell, Kipfler, Pink Fir Apple, Purple Congo, Red Norland, Russian Banana, Salad Rose and Sapphire to name a few. To get started purchase certified disease-free seed potatoes (google heirloom seed potatoes in your country or state to find a retailer), this way you won’t risk introducing soil born pests and diseases of potatoes into your garden. These pests and diseases can also be prevented by not planting any vegetables in the Solanaceae family (potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, chillies, eggplant and tomatillos) in the same garden bed each year, but have them on at least a 2-3 year rotation instead.

potato bed ready to plant

Potato bed ready for planting

It is time to plant potatoes once there is no more risk of frost in your garden. I plant in late August here (as my garden is protected from frost) and by the time the potato shoots emerge above the soil, spring has arrived. You can sow successive crops of potatoes throughout the warmer months here in Melbourne by choosing a cooler part of the vegetable garden to plant them in during summer, that way they won’t get heat stressed. Make sure though that the last sowing has at least three months to mature before the first frosts arrive in late autumn. The instructions below are for growing potatoes in the ground or a raised bed but you can also grow potatoes in cylinders made from chicken wire, in hessian sacks or in a no-dig garden.

potatoes laid out

It’s best to plant your potatoes 30cm apart in rows about 50 cm apart

Potatoes prefer a soil that is rich and free draining with plenty of organic matter, such as compost, added and some pelleted organic fertiliser. To plant your potatoes dig a trench about 20 cm deep and plant your seed potatoes 30 cm apart in rows of 50cm apart. Fill the trench with soil and hill soil up around the potato plants as they grow and emerge from the soil. Keep your potatoes well watered especially during the warmer months. When the plants get even bigger, spread straw thickly around the potato plants to exclude any light from getting to any potatoes that may be developing just under the surface of the soil. Potatoes exposed to sunlight will develop a green colour, which is chlorophyll and enables the potato to photosynthesise and sprout. At this stage it also develops a poisonous chemical called solanine which makes the potato taste bitter so animals are discouraged from eating it. You should therefore never eat potatoes that have developed green patches on their skins.

potato trench

Your seed potatoes should be planted about 20 cm deep as most of your potato crop will develop above the original seed potato.

Potatoes are usually ready to harvest in around 12 weeks after they’ve flowered and start to die back. If you have trouble waiting that long, you can harvest a few early potatoes by carefully digging around the base of your potato plant with your hands after about 8-10 weeks, but you’ll get a bigger harvest of larger potatoes if you’re prepared to wait! Once harvested, let the soil on your potatoes dry so you can brush most of it off and store your potatoes in a cool, dry and dark place. Don’t wash your potatoes before storing as this will make them more prone to developing rot during storage, the aim is to keep them as dry as possible. To store, you can put your potatoes in a hessian sack or in a cardboard box underneath a few layers of newspaper to exclude them from any light but still allow good air circulation. Any potatoes whose skins were cut or damaged during harvest should be eaten first and not stored with the rest of the potatoes. Regularly check your stored potatoes and discard any that develop rot. Stored properly your potatoes should stay good for at least 2-3 months.

Reconnecting with nature…no Wi-Fi required

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Nature can be breathtaking…don’t forget to look up!

Imagine a medicine that was not only free, but also had no adverse side effects, was available to anyone, anytime, anywhere, and which was guaranteed to improve your health and wellbeing within minutes. Surely we’d all take such a medicine everyday. Unfortunately many of us, absorbed in the day to day chaos of our technologically driven modern lives are forgetting to take our medicine…the restorative powers of the natural world.

My personal journey through life has been closely connected to the natural world. After many years of studying our animal, plant and marine environments at university, I am grateful to have been able to spend the last twenty years in occupations that have enabled me to work outdoors. Getting my hands in the soil and observing the many wonders of nature always revives me after time spent indoors or behind a computer. Nature has been my medicine many times in life. While completing studies in Horticultural Therapy last year, the broad application of nature as a tool to promote wellness and aid recovery from illness, was reaffirmed through the many scientific articles I read. Horticultural Therapy uses plants and gardening based activities and settings to help promote the social, emotional and physical well-being of people. It is practised today in many hospitals, rehabilitation centres, aged care facilities, disability services, prisons and in a range of community settings, including schools, community gardens and private backyards.

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Teaching the benefits of growing your own vegetables using the no-dig garden method.

The health benefits of simply spending time or actively engaging with our natural environment are well documented and go back many decades. A landmark study by Roger S. Ulrich published back in 1984 concluded “All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer post-surgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall.” Another study by Katcher and Beck in 1987 found “Too much artificial stimulation and an existence spent in purely human environments may cause exhaustion and produce a loss of vitality and health”. It all sounds pretty obvious to me but in case you are still in doubt, consider reading Richard Louv’s inspiring book “The Nature Principle, Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age” published more recently in 2012. This book is full of ground breaking research into the restorative powers of the natural world on our physical, psychological and spiritual health. Louv also stresses “The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”

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Two cheeky blue tongue lizards which have set up home in an abandoned rabbit burrow in the garden at my work.

So why does nature have such a positive effect on our wellbeing? Psychoevolutionary Theory maintains that the positive reactions humans experience in nature are programmed evolutionarily. This evolutionary biophilia is embedded in our psyche and genes through our close interaction with nature and our reliance on the natural world for our food, shelter and medicine throughout our existence. We are attracted to things which have supported our survival and we become anxious when we are around things that may put us at risk or harm. We need and are in fact a part of the natural world, something that is easy to forget in a world full of prepackaged food, bottled water and cities full of air-conditioned and centrally heated buildings.

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A quiet place to sit and enjoy my garden

So how can we apply the benefits of nature into our daily lives? Although nothing beats the real thing, if you are stuck in an office all day, simply looking at a poster of nature on your wall or an image of nature on your computer screen will have a positive affect. Even better, take a break and go for a walk in a garden or nearby park. When the weather is fine, do your daily meditation outside. If you have a lot of reading to do, again take it outside. Start a vegetable garden at home and visit it daily for fresh vegetables and herbs. Make a cup of herbal tea (from your own herbs of course) and drink it outside and just sit and take in the natural world around you. You’ll be amazed at the activities of the many insects and birds you begin to notice when you sit still. If you don’t have a garden, get involved in a community garden or a friends group that looks after a local nature reserve and make your reconnection… no Wi-Fi required!

References:

Katcher, A. and Beck, A. (1987) Health and caring for living things. Anthrozoos, 1, 175–183.

Kellert, S.R. & Wilson, E.O. (Ed s). (1993) The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington DC.

Louv, R. (2012) The Nature Principle, Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. Algonquin Books, New York.

Ulrich, R. S. (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420–421.

 

What to sow in August (Cool-Temperate climate)

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Late winter in my garden…

One more month of winter and relative calm in the garden to finish of some winter projects like my new garden/potting shed, the recycled wash station for my vegetables and yes, I’ve found another spot I can squeeze in and build one more raised vegetable bed. Once the warmer weather of Spring arrives there’ll be no more time for such projects as everything (including the lawn and the weeds) starts growing at a breakneck speed.

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I’m chitting my potatoes in egg cartons before planting them out

Late August in Melbourne is a great time to plant your first potato crop of the year (you can plant more potatoes right through to the end of December for successive crops). It’s also time to plant Jerusalem and Globe artichokes, shallots, onion seedlings, asparagus and rhubarb crowns.  You can sow into punnets for planting out in late September the seeds of; broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, silverbeet, rainbow chard, kale, celery, leeks, lettuce, mizuna, mibuna, spinach, bok choy, pak choy, wombok cabbage and any other Asian greens. August is also time to sow directly into the garden the seeds of; delicious sugar snap peas, snow peas, broad beans, turnips and swedes.

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Broad beans…I love them!

If you have a very warm spot, such as a greenhouse, and are impatient for spring to arrive, you could start sowing into punnets the seeds of tomatoes, capsicum, cucumber, pumpkin and eggplant for planting out mid Spring. They will need to be planted out into your warmest spot in the garden or they’ll just sit there until the soil warms up in late Spring. If you’re in a colder area wait until next month with these seeds.

If you have asparagus growing in your garden, keep a close eye on them…your first asparagus spears for the season should be popping up soon…Enjoy!

August seed sowing

Soiled soils…heavy metal contamination in garden soils

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Healthy soil bursting with life

The health benefits of growing your own vegetables are well researched and many people dig up their lawns in favour of a backyard vegetable garden. There is nothing nicer than doing your vegetable shopping in your own backyard and nothing beats the taste of vegetables picked moments before you eat them…but have you ever wondered about the health of the soil you are growing them in?

The soil in your backyard has a long history and you don’t always know how it was used and cared for before you become its custodian. Many soils, particularly those in older urban and industrial areas and those close to main roads, are contaminated with chemical residues from past activities on that land or from pollutants from the surrounding area. Of particular concern to backyard vegetable growers and gardeners are high levels of heavy metals in your soil. The heavy metals and metalloids which pose the greatest risk to human health when found in soil are Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Copper, Manganese, Nickel, Lead and Zinc. These heavy metals when ingested have been linked to cancers, kidney, bone and nerve damage. As gardeners, our exposure to heavy metals comes less from eating the vegetables we grow and more from the accidental ingestion and inhalation of soil and dust while gardening or from soil dust brought into our houses on gardening clothes and shoes.

Digging in the garden

In urban areas, the heavy metal of most concern is lead, which may have accumulated in the soil due to the past use of lead-based paints on old houses, sheds and fences and from the emissions of cars run on leaded petrol before it was phased out. Soil naturally contains small amounts of lead in the range of 15-40 parts of lead to one million parts soil (ppm). In some urban areas however, lead levels in the soil may be as high as 500-10,000 ppm which is way above the level of 300ppm which is considered safe in Australia.

The good news however is that here is no need to stop growing vegetables in your backyard. If you are concerned about the health of your soil, there are two things you can do. The first is to have your soil tested for heavy metals and the second, is not to test it but assume it could be contaminated and take the relevant precautions. Since 2013 Macquarie University has been offering free soil testing for vegetable gardeners in Australia via their VegeSafe program, although they welcome donations to be able to continue to offer this service. For further information on how to get your soil tested for free go to the VegeSafe web link at the end of this article.

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Grow your vegetables in raised beds with new soil if you are unsure of your soils health

If you find your soil is contaminated you can still grow vegetables by using a raised garden bed with soil brought in from a clean source. Make your raised beds from white cypress and not from treated pine or recycled railway sleepers which can both leach chemicals into your soil. When growing vegetables, root crops are the most likely to contain high levels of lead as they grow in the soil and soil can get trapped in their skin. Peeling and washing these vegetables before consuming is recommended to reduce lead ingestion. Leafy vegetables may also contain higher levels of lead, but mostly due to soil particles on their leaves, so it is advisable to also wash leafy vegetables thoroughly. Fruiting vegetables have a very low uptake of lead making tomatoes, capsicums, peas and beans the safest to eat if you are unsure of the soil they are grown in.

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Washing leafy and root vegetables well, can minimise heavy metal ingestion

As mentioned before, most ingestion of lead actually comes from ingesting soil dust particles and not from the eating of home grown vegetables themselves. To reduce soil dust from the garden being brought into your house where it can become airborne and easily breathed in, leave your garden shoes outside and wash your hands and vegetables outside before coming inside. Avoid breathing in dust particles from your soil when the weather it is dry and windy by covering bare soil areas with grass or mulch. Having your vegetable garden soil at a pH of 6.5-7 (which is the optimal pH for vegetables anyway) and adding lots of organic matter such as compost (also great for vegetable growing) means that any lead in your soil will be bound to soil particles in a way that it is less likely to be taken up by your vegetables. So its best to be informed and get to know your garden soil. Growing your own organic vegetables in clean soil and harvesting just before eating, is still hard to beat for quality, taste and nutrition.

Winter salad leaves

For information on getting your soil tested visit VegeSafe Soil Testing:

https://research.science.mq.edu.au/vegesafe/how-to-participate/

References:

https://research.science.mq.edu.au/vegesafe/advice-on-soil/

http://www.lead.org.au/fs/fst6.html

http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/soils/lead-in-home-garden/

Urban Gardening, Managing the Risks of Contaminated Soil, Environmental Health Perspectives • volume 121 | number 11-12 | November-December 2013

Upcoming workshop – An introduction to organic vegetable growing

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For those of you in Melbourne a chance to visit Mascha’s Garden;

An Introduction to growing organic vegetables at home.

1st October 2017 1pm-4.30pm

This workshop teaches you what you will need to know to successfully grow organic vegetables in your own garden:

  • Get to know your garden soil by analysing a sample of your own garden soil and learn how to improve it
  • Learn the basics of composting, setting up a wormfarm and green manure crops to improve your soil fertility
  • Make a no-dig garden
  • Learn how to successfully sow seeds in the gound and in punnets
  • Included on the day will be a tour of Mascha’s Garden, a 2 acre permaculture property, which combines fruit and vegetable growing with chicken, goat and bee keeping and native habitat conservation.
  • Finish the day with afternoon tea (provided) and question time

For bookings and ticket information click below:
Eventbrite - Introduction to organic vegetable growing workshop

The big chill…frost protection in the garden.

frost damage on capsicum

Although surviving to mid-winter in the protected environment of the poly tunnel, overnight temperatures of -5ºC were too low for these capsicum plants as they finally succumbed to frost.

We recently experienced three consecutive nights where the temperature dropped below 0ºC, yes winter is here and with it comes frost. While frost is welcomed by some plants in my garden such as kale, broccoli, carrots, parsnips and cabbages, which taste much better after a frost and also by our apple trees and berry plants, which need a period of cold weather to set good fruit the following season. Other plants, such as the last of our warm season vegetables and our more temperate, sub-tropical plants can suffer if not protected from frost.

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Typical blackened, droopy foliage of a frost damaged plant… in this case Arrowroot.

When temperatures drop below 0ºC the water inside a plants cells freezes and expands causing the cell walls to rupture, creating droopy often blackened looking foliage. Young plants and those with large soft leaves are more susceptible to frost damage. Plants which are classified as frost hardy have adapted to cope with frost by having small, tough, leathery or dense foliage which is more resistant to damage from frost; while other plants are protected by being deciduous and dormant during winter.

frost damage on pineapple sage

The foliage on this Pineapple sage planted in a frost pocket had no chance surviving three nights in a row below freezing, but will bounce back from new growth produced in spring.

To minimise the damage frost can do in your garden there are some measures you can take. Frost often settles in low lying areas, so don’t plant frost prone plants at the bottom of a slope or uphill from a thick hedge or wall which can trap cold air coming down the hill and create a frost pocket. Here in Melbourne, a north facing brick or stone wall can act as a thermal mass, radiating warmth for frost sensitive plants planted near it. A large body of water can also act as a thermal mass, so having a large pond or dam can provide some protection for plants nearby.

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Even the chillies in the poly tunnel got chilly!

Large plants can be protected by covering them with hessian, horticultural fleece, old sheets or weed matting on nights when frosts are likely. Small plants or seedlings can be protected by placing an empty pot plant over them at night, but make sure to remove any covers during the day. If it’s too late and frosts have already damaged your plants don’t be tempted to cut the unsightly and damaged foliage off straight away. The damaged foliage can protect the rest of the leaves and any new growth underneath from further frosts, potentially saving the plant. Prune frost damaged plants once there is no more risk of frosts (which here in Melbourne may not be until mid spring). After a frosty night, wetting the foliage of plants with a hose early in the morning, before the sun is out, can slow the thawing process and therefore minimise frost damage too.

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Ginger Lily damaged by frost.

A seedy business

Seeds

To start with a seed…that you plant into the soil and nurture as you watch it grow into a plant…then to harvest from this plant food to feed yourself and your family and friends… then to save some of the seed to start the cycle again the following season…this would have to be one of the most satisfying, rewarding and empowering experiences you can have.

There is so much to write about seeds so in this post I’m concentrating on highlighting some of the different types of seed you may come across and what some of the terminology on your purchased seed packet means. I’ll follow on from this with a post at a future date which will cover: how to sow seeds successfully and another on how to save your own seed.

Seeds can be classified into Open-pollinated, Heirloom, Hybrid and Genetically Modified.

Open-pollinated seeds are from plants in which pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms. This means that if you want to save your own seed, these seeds will be true to type (produce very similar characteristics as their parent plants), as long as they are not crossed with other similar varieties of the same species. They also produce exceptionally tasty crops that have a staggered maturing time (great for successive harvest in a home vegetable garden). The only down side is that some varieties produce less bountiful crops. However if you save your seed from your strongest plants from each crop, over time you’ll start to get seed that is adapted to your local soil and climate and produce better plants each season.

Heirloom seeds are all open-pollinated but are also seeds that have a history of being passed down within a family or by a community.

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A bright selection of heirloom tomatoes bursting with flavour.

Hybrid seeds are seed that have resulted from cross-pollinating plants. This can happen naturally in nature, but has been taken to the next level in modern agriculture where plants with specific desirable characteristics are cross-pollinated over many generations to produce highly inbred new hybrids. These hybrid seeds are specifically favoured in modern agriculture, mainly for their high and often earlier yield times, disease resistance and general uniformity in harvesting times. The down side is you can’t save seeds from hybrids as the seeds you save will generally not breed true and revert to the parents’ traits. The popularity of hybrids has also meant the loss of many heirloom varieties and a loss in the diversity of food crops for future generations.

Genetically Modified seeds are produced in laboratories by combining the genes from one species with that of another (think chicken genes in wheat and rat genes in soybeans!) to produce seed with herbicide resistance or other desirable traits. These genetically modified seeds would never naturally occur in nature and the health and environmental impacts these seeds pose are enormous. Most GM crops also contain terminator genes which means seeds are sterile and farmers are required to purchase new seed each year from the companies that own the patent rights for them. Luckily GM seeds are not (yet) available to home food growers but their use in major agricultural crops such as wheat, corn, canola, cotton and soybeans and the inconsistency in labelling on food products means we may all have consumed GMO’s at some time without realising it.

Treated seed has to be labelled as such on the packet you buy it in and is usually covered in a bright pink or blue fungicide or pesticide dust or coating. These coatings are restricted to those seeds which are particularly susceptible to attack by soil borne fungus or insect damage in the pre-germination stage. Vegetables that often have treated seeds include corn, beans, peas, pumpkins, squash and cucumbers. Some seeds are treated with neonicotinoids, a group of chemicals which can be absorbed by the whole plant and are potentially carcinogenic and can make the pollen from the plant toxic to bees who forage on the flowers. When the seed packet warns ‘not to eat the seed or feed to animals’, would you even want to plant them in your garden and eat the vegetables grown from them?

corn seed treated with fungicide

Treated corn seeds

Certified Organic seed is produced using organic farming practices and standards allowable by an organic certifying regulator. These seeds are always non GM and untreated. They are the best seeds to buy to ensure you minimise your exposure to harmful chemicals while also supporting farming practises which minimise harm to our natural environment.

What to grow in July (Cool-Temperate climate)

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The vegetable garden where I work at the Gawler Cancer Foundation.

The mornings here in the valley hover only just above freezing, but there are still the occasional days that the sun makes an appearance and being outdoors is a joy.

July is onion seedling planting time here in cool/temperate Australia. Onion seedlings can be planted as individuals or in little groups of three or four, if you prepare your soil well the developing onions will still get to full size and you’ll fit many more onions in a small space. It’s also time to plant spring onion seedlings and shallots now.

onions

If you have an established rhubarb patch that’s getting a bit crowded, you can dig up your rhubarb plants and divide them, planting divisions at least 50cm apart. Leftover divisions make great presents for friends or neighbours. If you’re not already growing rhubarb, July is a good time to buy some crowns and plant them out in your garden.

rhubarb

Who doesn’t love freshly harvested asparagus? If you’ve never munched on an asparagus harvested straight from the garden, do yourself a favour and buy some asparagus crowns to plant now. Asparagus crowns are a small investment that, when looked after well, will give you fresh asparagus for the next 20 years!

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Lastly, if you still have some space in the garden for more vegetables you can plant out seedlings of Globe artichokes or tubers of Jerusalem artichokes.

 

 

Winter in the garden

 

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Photo credit: Mieke Florisson

Working outdoors as a gardener I know winter has arrived when… I arrive at work at 8am in so many layers of clothing that I can hardly move my arms…and my colleagues who work in the office complain how cold it is (although they have little blow heaters placed under their desks to warm their feet)…and no one says ‘it must be so nice to work outside all day!’… and I’ve lost all feeling in my nose, toes and fingers by the time I’ve walked up the hill to unlock the garden shed and gather my tools. That said, I love working outdoors and experiencing the changing weather with each season…it helps me feel connected with nature.

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Hammering some clouts around my garden bed edges for securing bird netting

Although things are growing more slowly in the garden now, there is still plenty to do. If you haven’t done so already, you can safely remove your insect exclusion nets from your brassicas as the cabbage white butterflies disappear with the onset of the colder weather. The fine mesh of the insect netting can restrict light and air circulation so is best removed for the winter months. If you have problems with birds or possums attacking your vegetable seedlings you can replace the insect netting with bird netting as I’ve done. The larger mesh size of the bird netting will allow more sunlight to reach your seedlings and improve air circulation which can help prevent disease. Leave your framework of hoops in place and drape the bird netting over them, you can secure the netting by hooking it over some clouts nailed along your garden bed edges. If you keep your netting secured tightly over the hoops and don’t leave any gaps along the bottom of the nets, birds won’t get tangled or trapped.

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Some of the beds in my vegetable garden in the front yard

In winter I also like to remove any thick mulch from around my vegetables. The straw mulch is much needed during the warmer months to help retain moisture in the soil, but during winter the straw not only makes a perfect breeding ground for slugs, it also keeps what little sunshine there is from warming up the soil.

organic snail pellets

 

Although I don’t normally promote or advertise any products on my blog, if slugs and snails are eating your young seedlings, I recommend using Protect-us snail pellets which are the only snail pellets I’ve been able to find that are registered for use in organically certified vegetable crops here in Australia and are safe for wildlife and pets. It uses elemental iron which forms  an iron salt when consumed and causes the snails and slugs to stop feeding and hence leads to their death. Uneaten pellets break down in the soil and add iron nutrients which can be used by the vegetables you grow. You can buy Protect-us pellets online or ask your local garden centre to stock it for you.

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!