How to grow delicious salads on your kitchen bench…


While doing some research in my local library for an article on growing your own sprouts, I happened to stumble upon a book by Peter Burke with the title ‘Year-round indoor salad gardening’. The book describes Burke’s technique for growing, as the title suggests, year-round salad leaves on your kitchen bench, in a simple and easy way, without the need for any specialised equipment. I immediately thought that this technique is a great solution for people who want to have the benefits of eating nutritious home-grown salads, but either don’t have space for a vegetable garden, don’t have the time to tend a vegetable garden or have physical limitations due to health issues. So before writing about Burke’s technique and putting my article on sprouting seeds on the back burner, the scientist in me thought it best to try it for myself first, just to check it really was that easy. Here’s how it went…

Burke’s technique combines part sprouting in jars and part soil sprouting, to produce edible salad leaves in the form of microgreens. Microgreens are vegetables or herbs that are eaten at a seedling stage, at which point they taste like the mature vegetable but contain a much higher concentration of nutrients. Using conventional methods to produce microgreens can take 2-4 weeks but by using this technique you can harvest in only 7-10 days.

The equipment that you will need for this indoor salad garden includes; glass jars, organic seeds, aluminium foil trays (about 15cmx22cmx5cm in size), newspaper or paper towel, a small strainer, water in a small spray bottle, seed raising mix and a little compost, worm castings or some organic fertiliser.


Step 1 Soak the seeds in a jar of warm water for 6 hours (or overnight). You can use any organic vegetable or herb seed which has edible leaves, but seeds in the Brassica family (kale, broccoli, cabbage, canola, kohlrabi) are particularly nutritious and beetroot, red amaranth, buckwheat and purple basil add great colour to your salad. I used adzuki beans, snow peas, mung beans, fenugreek and lentils for my experiment as I already had these seeds available. For the smaller seeds you need to soak about a heaped tablespoon per tray and for the larger seeds, such as the peas, you need about 80 seeds.


Step 2 Using one foil tray per seed variety, add a 1 cm layer of seed raising mix, with a couple of tablespoons of compost/worm casting or a small sprinkle of organic fertiliser spread over the top. Fill the rest of the trays with more seed raising mix until they are filled about 1/2 cm from the top of the tray. Level the mix but don’t pat it down. If your mix feels dry, squirt it with some water from a spray bottle (your mix should be moist but not wet as there are no drainage holes in your tray).


Step 3 Fold a sheet of newspaper or paper towel to fit the top of your tray (a few layers thick) and soak the folded paper in a shallow tray of warm water. In the meantime strain the water off the seeds by pouring them into a small strainer and rinse them with some fresh water. Spread the seeds evenly on top of the seed raising mix, then cover with the folded newspaper/paper towel and gently press the paper down to ensure that the seeds underneath make good contact with the soil.

Step 4 Place the trays in a warm (18-21ºC), dark cupboard for 4 days, keeping the newspapers wet if they dry by squirting with some water. The sprouts should be 2-3cm high and have pushed the newspaper up by the end of this time. If temperatures were a bit too cold this step may take an extra day or two. I found this to be the case with the larger seeds of my snow peas, mung beans and adzuki beans which I left in the cupboard for an extra day.


Step 5 You now need to green your sprouts by taking off the newspaper covers and placing the trays on a sunny bench near a window, they don’t need direct sunlight. I placed mine on a workbench in my garden shed which is under a north facing window, but a kitchen bench would work well too and you don’t necessarily need a window that faces north. Over the next three days water the soil in the trays everyday with about 2-4 tablespoons of water and rotate the trays each day so that the sprouts grow straight and not towards the light.


Step 6 After only 7-10 days from when you first soaked your seeds, your salad is ready to harvest. It really is that quick and easy! To harvest simply cut your greens about half a centimetre above the soil level with a pair of scissors. Give them a very gentle rinse under some cold water to remove any soil particles and seed husks and they are ready to eat.


You may want to grate some carrot or beetroot through your sprouts, or add a handful of chickpeas or finely chopped tomatoes. Your sprouts are also great as a garnish on top of a lentil Dahl or in rice paper rolls. If you sow a new couple of trays every few days you could have a continuous supply of sprouted salad greens.


This indoor salad only took 8 days to grow!



How to make a garlic plait


It took seven months to grow but only three minutes to plait this garlic…I wonder how long it will take to eat it all?

Turning your home-grown garlic into a beautiful plait to hang in your kitchen or to give as a present to friends or family is very satisfying and not that difficult once you know how.

When your garlic is ready (see Knowing when to harvest your garlic) and it’s out of the ground, it’s best to let it dry somewhere for a couple of weeks in a spot out of the weather with good airflow to prevent your garlic going mouldy (which can happen if you plait it while the leaves are still fresh and green); a covered veranda or carport is ideal. Once it’s fairly dry, but not so brittle that the leaves break off, it’s time to clean it before plaiting.


A cleaned bulb on the left

To clean my garlic I cut the roots off with some scissors and with a soft brush remove any dry soil that may be on the garlic. With some varieties of garlic it is sometimes possible to gently rub the outermost papery layer off with your fingers, however make sure you don’t peel off more than one layer as the dry skin surrounding your garlic bulbs help them store for longer.

Now you are ready to plait…in the video below I show how easy it is to do it!



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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

How to make compost


These compost bays were one of the first things we made when we moved into our house. They have removable timber slats on the front which make accessing the compost and turning the heap easier.

About 42% of all Australian household waste that ends up in landfill sites is food or garden waste. There it is buried with all the other rubbish and decomposes anaerobically, resulting in the production of methane (adding to global warming at 25 times the rate of carbon dioxide) and leachates that have the potential to contaminate groundwater and pollute waterways if not contained.

Most of this food and garden waste is valuable organic matter that instead of going to landfill can be composted at home and used to improve your soil and grow amazing vegetables. Recycling your own organic waste into compost is great for the planet and easy to do. Every home should have a compost bin; so here is some advice on how to make compost…

Firstly it helps to have something to make your compost in and contain it. There are countless compost bins and tumblers available on the market that can all make great compost if used correctly. As we have a lot of organic waste to process with all the food we grow, I prefer to use homemade composting bays made from timber and corrugated iron offcuts. We have two bays at home, but you can have three or four for a large household; at work we have twelve bays to process all the organic waste from the kitchen and garden.

So what can you put in a compost heap? Basically any organic material can be used to make compost. That said it is best not to add meat or dairy products to the compost as they can attract vermin. The best things to compost are; weeds (not with bulbs or runners), grass clippings, non-woody garden clippings, kitchen scraps, leaves, animal manures (sheep, cow, goat, chook, horse, but not dog or cat), shredded newspaper, hay, straw and even hair, vacuum cleaner dust and old cotton clothing. Other things you may want to add in small amounts are lime, blood and bone and rock dust.

A good mix of ingredients will have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1, but what does this mean? I like to think of this ratio as equal parts in volume of dry (usually brown) things to fresh (usually green) things.


Nitrogen rich ingredients


Carbon rich ingredients







Nitrogen rich ingredients include; fresh grass clippings, vegetable scraps, fresh animal manure, lucerne hay, weeds, garden clippings etc. While carbon rich ingredients include; shredded paper, dry grass, straw, autumn leaves, sawdust, shredded cardboard etc. As all the nitrogen rich ingredients also contain carbon, adding the ingredients from the two boxes in the photos above in in equal volumes, will give you a pretty good carbon to nitrogen ratio for making compost.

Hundreds of different types of microorganisms (mainly bacteria and fungi) go to work in your compost heap to break down your organic waste if the conditions are to their liking.   You don’t have to add them to the heap as their spores are everywhere. Their main requirements are the right C:N ratio, oxygen and water. If you have a compost heap of at least one cubic meter, the microbes will thrive and you will notice your heap getting warmer from the heat generated by the microorganisms as they feed. Ideally your heap will reach 60ºC at which point many weed seeds and plant pathogens die. You may need to turn your heap as it cools to kick start the microbial process again if your ingredients are not composted yet. You will also notice the volume of your compost heap decreasing by as much as 30-60% which is caused by the microorganisms consuming much of the carbon in the heap. If your compost heap gets too dry, add more wet ingredients or water your heap (particularly during summer). If your compost heap gets too wet (and it smells), mix through some dry ingredients and get the air back into the heap, it may also help to cover the compost heap with a tarp to keep the rain off.

When the microorganisms have done their thing your heap will start to cool and the worms will move in to finish off the process. Once your compost is ready it should have a pleasant earthy smell and you shouldn’t be able to distinguish the original ingredients. It is now ready to add to your garden beds. I love adding compost to my garden…it improves difficult clay soils and dry sandy soils, helps retain moisture and nutrients in your soil, improves soil structure, adds lots of beneficial microorganisms, it can stabilise the pH of your soil, add trace elements and combat harmful pathogens in your soil…what’s not to love!


Spinach plants love a compost rich soil.





No-dig Gardening

What is a no-dig garden and how do you make one?


A no-dig garden is a garden that is created on top of the existing ground. It can be build on top of lawn, gravel, or paving and is great for gardens where the soil is a heavy clay or is full of rocks. You may sometimes hear of the term ‘lasagna gardening’, this is simply another form of creating a no-dig garden. Both methods rely on placing alternating layers of organic matter on top of each other to create the garden. This is similar to making a compost heap but because it has a smaller carbon to nitrogen ratio won’t heat up and can therefore be planted into the same day.

Below is an example of a no-dig garden I made with the participants at the Gawler Cancer Foundation

What you will need:

To make a garden 1.2mx1.5m you will need to use some old newspapers, 1 bale of straw, 1 bale of lucerne, a wheelbarrow of home made compost (bought bagged compost is OK too) and about 7kg of organic chicken manure pellets. Here is how to make it…

Step 1
It is best to have some sort of edging to contain the garden and stop the edges from collapsing as you build the layers. This can be as simple as some stakes hammered into the ground with chickenwire wrapped around them, or if you want to have a more aesthetic look you can use timber, corrugated iron or any of the raised garden bed kits available from most garden centres. The best size to aim for is a garden bed no more than 1.2m wide so that you can comfortably reach into the middle from both sides without stepping into the bed. If the garden bed is only accessible from one side make it no more than 75cm wide. A depth of 20cm- 30cm is sufficient, but if your bed is deeper you’ll just need to add a few more layers of organic matter.


Step 2
If starting on top of a lawn, mow it very short and then place your bed into position. Layer newspaper about 8 pages thick to smother the grass inside your bed. If starting on gravel or paving, position your bed and first place a layer of leaves and small twigs about 10cm deep to aid with drainage, then cover with newspaper.
Step 3
Wet the newspaper and cover with pads of lucerne hay. On top of this sprinkle a light layer of organic chicken manure pellets (or aged cow or horse manure). Water the layers well.

Step 4
Next spread a loose layer of straw all over the bed, about 20cm deep.

Step 5
If you have lots of compost available spread a layer at least 10cm thick on top of the straw. Alternatively make some pockets in the straw down to the manure layer and fill these with compost.

Step 6
Plant your vegetable seedlings or seeds straight in to the compost! Most vegetable or even flower seedlings are suitable, but avoid planting carrots, parsnips and other root vegetables until all the layers have broken down.

Once you have harvested your first crop repeat steps 3-6 until all the layers have composted down again or until they reach the top of your edging. You are now left with a vegetable garden filled with the most amazing organic compost…that you can directly plant into…and you’ve not had to dig!

How to make an insect exclusion tunnel

Unknown-2When growing any vegetable in the Brassica family during the warmer months, there is a risk that they may come under attack from caterpillars of the Cabbage White Butterfly. The easiest way to keep these green little caterpillars from devouring your prized vegetables, or turning up in the florets of your broccoli at the dinner table, is to make an insect exclusion tunnel.


The Brassica Family includes: Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Kale, Chinese Cabbages, Mustard, Brussel Sprouts, Kohlrabi, Turnips, Mizuna and Radishes.

To make a tunnel you will need::

-Veggie netting (2mm mesh size-available from various online suppliers)

-black poly pipe (with a diameter that fits over your stakes)

-timber stakes or star pickets


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Step 1- Hammer your stakes into the soil at regular intervals, opposite each other, around the edge of your vegetable bed.


Step 2- Measure and cut your poly pipe to lengths that will form an arch over the shortest sides of your vegetable bed. Push them over a stake and bend across the bed to the opposite stake.

step 2 vegie net

Step 3- Lay your Veggie net over the arches and secure ends by tying with twine. In windy areas you may need to use wire pegs ( you can make them yourself from old wire coat hangers) or bricks to peg the sides down. White Cabbage Butterflies are very good at finding any gaps!

step 3 vegie net