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There's such a sense of satisfaction in cooking and eating the freshest seasonal fruits and vegetables, knowing you've grown them yourself. You’ll be amazed at how much home-grown produce you can harvest from the tiniest backyard plot, and even if you don’t have room for a vegetable garden, it's fun to grow herbs, salad greens and cherry tomatoes in planters, wine barrels or troughs. Click on the topics below to find out more about how to get growing.
When you start with fresh seasonal produce from your own garden and orchard it's easy to make good food. By building your meals around what's freshest in your own garden or even at the farmers' market you not only save yourself money, but also benefit from the nutrient boost of freshly picked produce. But in a world where we are offered flawless supermarket tomatoes all year around, it's easy to lose track of nature's cycles and what's truly in season at any time of the year.
For seasonal harvesting charts that show when different fruits and vegetables will be at their peak throughout the year, see my blog. To download the seasonal fruit chart in pdf form (289MB) click here. To download the seasonal vegetable chart in pdf form (380MB) click here.
Crop rotation is not just for farmers. In home gardens it is also important to vary the plants you grow each year to improve your soil, reduce pests and avoid plant diseases. A three-yearly cycle works well and is not difficult to achieve.
To plan your crop rotation, write a list of all the plants you want to grow this year, categorised into types: potatoes; legumes and cucurbits (peas and beans and their companions zucchini, cucumbers, pumpkin and corn); brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts); miscellaneous mixed crops (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, salad greens); roots and bulb (beetroot, carrots, parsnips). The only firm rule is that you must not grow plants from the same family in the same spot two years in a row.
Now draw a diagram of your vegetable garden and divide it into four areas, then add arrows for the direction of the crop rotation, so you don’t forget your plan from year to year. When it comes time for spring planting, plant potatoes in one bed, legumes and cucurbits in the second bed (closely followed in the winter season by brassicas), miscellaneous mixed crops in the third bed, and roots and bulbs in the fourth bed. Then when you go to plant next spring, move your potatoes to the spot where the root crops were the previous year, your legumes to the space previously filled with potatoes, your mixed crops to the section just vacated by the legumes, and your root crops to the bed where the mixed crops were last year. The following spring everything takes another step in the same direction, and so on. Simple!
Your garden will look more interesting and be more rewarding if you include a variety of plants that bear fruit in different seasons. Planning ahead will allow you to maintain a consistent stream of produce, even over the winter months in most areas.
You know winter is on its way out when spring-flowering bulbs make their appearance through the soil, bringing with them the promise of warmer temperatures, colour in the garden and the fragrance of daffodils, jonquils and freesias. But to enjoy these beautiful blooms in spring you need to get busy planting bulbs once the soil temperature has dropped in the autumn.
Here’s my quick and simple guide:
Companion planting is an old gardening practice that is winning new followers because it can help you avoid using chemicals to ward off voracious bugs and can also improve your yield.
The idea is that some plants naturally work well together and that you can protect your vegetables by growing them with plants that repel pests or attract beneficial bugs. Also, some plants add nutrients to the soil that are beneficial to others. For example, peas fix nitrogen in the soil, which makes them a perfect companion to nitrogen-hungry corn.
Nasturtiums are wonderful around tomatoes, cabbages, cucumbers and radishes as they deter aphids, white flies and other nasties – as well as brightening up your garden with bursts of glorious orange colour. Planting chamomile and summer savoury with onions improves their flavour. Planting onions and leeks among your carrots deters carrot and onion flies.
If you would like to know more, please visit my blog on companion planting. Happy gardening!
With a few simple tricks you can draw birds into your garden so you can enjoy their company and their song all year round.
I like to hang birdfeeders in some non-fruiting trees to distract birds from the crops I don’t want them to be plundering. Check out your local garden centre for a variety of birdseed dispensers, or make your own from pinecones rolled in peanut butter then birdseed. Just remember to hang them out of reach of the neighbourhood cats. Or consider making or buying a birdhouse to encourage birds to nest in your garden.
The winter garden provides slim pickings for hungry birds, but planting trees and bushes that provide nectar and fruit during the colder months will help encourage birds to winter over in your garden, as will a good late autumn or early winter mulch to attract insects for birds to feed on. If it’s native birds you wish to encourage then plant native trees.
In summer, a birdbath or shallow dish with water will be much appreciated for cleaning, cooling down and drinking.
Your efforts will be rewarded with the sound of birdsong – and your feathered friends will also help you keep insects, pests, slugs and snails under control.
I get such pleasure from hearing the quiet humming of bees hard at work in my garden on a warm summer’s day.
I love having my own beehives, but even if you don’t there’s a lot you can do to create a bee-friendly garden. Bees will fly up to 6km to visit a healthy garden, particularly if it’s full of colourful flowers laden with enticing nectar and pollen.
Around the world, bee populations are at risk from pests and diseases. But they are responsible for the pollination of one third of everything we eat, so we need to do everything we can to help them.
When planning your vegetable and herb gardens and flowerbeds, choose varieties that provide long or successive flowering cycles to draw bees to your garden all year round. Bees are particularly attracted to blue, purple, violet, white and yellow flowers, so choose those if you can. Wildflowers are a great option, and it’s also a good idea to let some of your herbs flower at the end of the season to encourage bees to keep returning.
Be considerate when choosing pesticides and herbicides to use in your garden and wherever possible choose organic options that won’t endanger the health of visiting bees. Bees also need fresh water so will welcome a birdbath or a shallow dish filled with fresh water.
Be kind to the bees and they will return the favour by pollinating your fruit and vegetable plants and – if you are lucky enough to have a beehive – producing luscious honey for you to enjoy.
For more tips on creating a bee-friendly garden see my blog.
For bumper fruit and vegetable harvests, make sure you supply the necessary nutrients to maintain soil health and grow strong, healthy plants.
To do this you can use either plant and animal-based fertilisers (known as incomplete fertilisers) or manufactured fertilisers (known as complete fertilisers), or a combination of both. If you’re using only organic fertilisers made from plant or animal products, such as sheep pellets and blood and bone, you’ll need a lot more bulk to give the same amount of nutrients.
The three major nutrients most plants need in order to thrive are collectively known as NPK – nitrogen for healthy leaf growth, phosphorous for strong root development and potassium to stimulate flowering and fruiting. Different types of fruit and vegetable plants and trees require a different balance of NPK nutrients and differing smaller amounts of trace elements such calcium, sulphur, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper, boron and manganese to keep them strong, healthy and producing well.
If you’re using complete fertilisers, choose one formulated to suit the type of plant you’re feeding. This ensures that the plant gets the correct balance of nutrients and trace elements to help establish strong roots, robust foliage and healthy fruit and flowers.
Complete fertilisers come in different forms, including liquids and granules. Remember to wear gloves if handling powder or granular fertilisers and read the manufacturer’s instructions before applying to make sure you don’t overfeed your plants.
Maintaining soil health is also important, so prior to planting dig in compost or sheep pellets to boost nutrient content, improve soil structure, assist moisture retention and give your plants a healthy start. It’s also a good idea to mulch around your plants in existing beds in the spring.
If your plants are healthy they’ll not only reward you with bigger, more abundant fruit and vegetables – as a bonus they’ll also be less susceptible to bugs and diseases.
There is no question that chemical pesticides are effective and work quickly to rid your garden of bugs and disease, but there are good natural alternatives that are cheaper and healthier for your family, your pets, and the environment which you may want to consider. Something as simple as vinegar can make a big difference in your garden; sprayed directly on young weeds, it will brown the foliage within 24 hours. Sometimes it can take a few applications to kill weeds, but patience works wonders.
Without a doubt the best thing you can do to avoid bugs and other nasties in the garden is to prepare your beds properly in the first place. Healthy beds reap healthy, strong plants which are less likely to fall victim to pests. Pull out any weak plants that will attract insects. Make sure your soil is clear of weeds and debris that are breeding grounds for aphids, mites and other pests. Rotate crops and plant different varieties together.
Scatter plants that attract beneficial bugs throughout your garden. Carrots, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace attract brachonid wasps that kill leaf-eating caterpillars. Ladybugs, which like to live amongst daisies, tansy and yarrow, eat aphids, mites and whiteflies. Lacewings, which are partial to goldenrod, black-eyed Susans and asters, greedily gobble aphids.
If you find yourself in need of some instant insect-fighting help or a pep-up for sick plants, try some of these simple home remedies.
* To smother aphids, mites and mealybugs, make an oil solution to spray onto plants. Combine one tablespoon of cooking oil, a few drops of dishwashing liquid and four cups of water. Shake well and pour into a spray bottle.
* To make an all-purpose insecticide that is particularly effective on caterpillars and flea beetles, chop equal amounts of mint, onion, garlic and lavender. Cover with water and leave for 24 hours. Strain and decant the water into a spray bottle.
* For fungal diseases, try spraying over a solution of two tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in four cups of water.
* Plants struck with powdery mildew can benefit from the application of equal parts of milk and water sprayed on affected areas once a week for three weeks.
Mulching is a tried-and-true gardening technique that prevents moisture loss from plants and helps to control weeds. It can protect vulnerable plants from frostbite through the winter and cushion them from extremes of heat in the summer.
Mulch is composed of organic matter such as wood chips, grass clippings, leaves and pine needles – or manmade barriers such as black landscape fabric or cardboard. The advantage of organic matter is that as it decomposes it adds nutrients to the soil, although this means you have to top up your mulch from time to time. Landscape fabric is a wonderful barrier against weeds, but you must poke holes so water can penetrate and watch that it doesn’t get too hot.
If you mulch correctly, you won’t need to water plants as often but be careful: you must check that enough water is penetrating your mulch barrier. If you’re not sure, dig down and check soil to see how far water has penetrated. Do it again a day later to see how quickly the water seeps away.
Remember that seeds and seedlings need frequent watering but once plants are established you can ease off. Watering plants more deeply but less frequently helps them establish deep roots which makes them more drought resistant.
Some other watering tips:
* Water during the cool of the day to avoid evaporation, and make sure you leave enough time for foliage to dry before nightfall as his helps prevent disease.
* Avoid watering at windy times as this too can lead to water wastage.
* Don’t give in to the temptation to over-water: it will only leach your soil of hard-won nutrients and ultimately weaken your plants.
Children love to get their hands dirty, direct their own projects and reap the rewards of their work, all of which makes gardening an ideal family activity. Not to mention the benefits of all that fresh air and parent-child bonding...
If you have the space, hand over a plot to your children that they can take ownership of. Let them choose the plants they want to raise, teach them plant-care basics but let them take responsibility for following through, and watch in amazement as they willingly try new vegetables they have raised themselves. If space comes at a premium at your house, give them a planter box or a few pots of herbs to manage. The main thing is to make your children responsible for their plants – they will be enormously proud when they can harvest salad veges for the dinner table, and will learn valuable lessons about plant stewardship when they forget to water their lettuces or check the tomatoes for aphids.
To guarantee success, start the young novice gardener out with easy-grow plants such as strawberries, beans, lettuces, tomatoes, sweet peas, carrots and radishes.
Besides being a satisfyingly messy activity that fills the belly, gardening teaches children about natural processes, how to make good food choices, and how their actions can directly impact a living thing.
Use your children’s competitive natures to get them excited about gardening, by seeing who can grow the biggest pumpkin or the most productive tomato plant.
Gardening fun need not be interrupted on rainy days. This is when you can catch up on craft activities such as painting colourful pots for the garden or making labels for all the vegetables, and more prosaic jobs such as setting up a worm farm or compost bin.
These days there is no need for the home gardener to save seeds from one season to the next when there are such reliable packet seeds and baby plants available at the local nursery. But there is much to be said for saving seeds – as a way of producing healthy, vigorous plants that are particularly suited to your garden and as an exercise in sustainability.
If you want to have a go saving seeds, grow more plants than you think you need. That way you can pick and choose from the strongest, lushest and tastiest plants. Make sure that you leave each plant more space to grow than you customarily would, because in order to harvest seeds at the right time you need to let plants reach maturity, well beyond the point when you would normally eat their bounty.
Now comes the fun part. For fleshy plants such as tomatoes and strawberries, scoop out the pulp and smear it thinly on to paper toweling. Put the paper in the hot-water cupboard and when the seeds look dry, scrape them off and store in a paper envelope to further dry them out. Finally, transfer them to an airtight container and plan next year’s garden.
Beans can be left to dry on the plant, then collected and stored. Leave pea pods to dry, twist and begin to pop open before harvesting seeds by hand.
A verdant vegetable garden gives a home a well-loved feel – and can form the foundation of interesting, fresh and nutritious meals as well.
Before you head to the garden centre, sketch a rough plan on paper, taking into consideration existing plants you want to keep, play areas for children, pathways, clotheslines and extra features to add elements of fun to your garden, such as bird baths, fountains and sculptures.
When deciding where your vegetable garden beds should go, choose a sunny, well-drained area of the garden that’s sheltered from high winds. You’ll want your vegetable beds, and especially your herb garden, close to the house so you can easily nip out and load up your basket for dinner. Fruit trees can be further afield so they don’t block the sun into your home. Also think about how the garden will look from inside the house.
Make sure you leave enough space around your plants – some, such as zucchini and pumpkin, like to stretch out and could choke other plants. Read the instructions that come with plants or seed packets before you commit.
A good starting point for a herb garden would be parsley, thyme, oregano, chives, a rosemary bush and a bay tree (these grow quite large). Add basil in the summer months. Mint should be contained in a pot or planter box lest it take over the garden, but requires next to no input from you and is a fast grower. (Nearly) instant gratification.
When choosing which vegetables to grow, concentrate on those you and your family like to eat. If you’re big salad eaters, you could simply plant a salad garden, which would have you eating crisp rocket, buttercrunch, cos, baby carrots, radish and spring onions most nights though summer and autumn. There’s little point in experimenting with a host of plants if you have simple tastes.
If you’re a first-time gardener, choose easy-to-grow plants such as beans, zucchini, peas, lettuce, spinach and silver beet, radishes and strawberries. Tomatoes are virtually foolproof, they are very productive, most people like them and they have countless delicious uses.
If you have limited space, concentrate on vegetables and fruits that are best eaten straight from the plant, such as peas in the pod, and those that are expensive to buy. You’ll soon learn which work well in your conditions, and you can always try new varieties next year!
You don’t need a huge yard to grow a wonderfully productive garden. Container gardens allow even apartment and townhouse dwellers to enjoy the satisfaction of growing and harvesting their own food – and you’ll be amazed at the variety of plants that enjoy container life, from olives and lemons to strawberries and grapes.
Ceramic pots, railway-sleeper boxes, old tin cans and plastic piping, halved wine barrels or purpose-built wooden containers – all can be attractive, cost-effective homes for plants. But remember, the smaller the container the more nurturing it will require. Small pots and window boxes need daily watering in summer heat. Consider using feet under your pots in winter to allow drainage and saucers in summer to allow water retention.
It’s important to provide container plants with good nutrition, and this means you need to invest in some good planting mix and fertiliser. Soil from the garden doesn’t work well because it doesn’t contain enough minerals and nutrients to support a contained plant.
Easy and productive plants to try in a container garden are tomatoes, capsicums, chillies, garlic and lettuces. All sorts of herbs, including rosemary, thyme, parsley, coriander, basil and chives, are perfect nestled into planter boxes on windowsills. If you’re feeling more adventurous, experiment with carrots, potatoes (they work well in old tyres), pumpkin, beans and kiwifruit.
I love to have planter boxes of microgreens on the go all the time – they make a great garnish and add interest to salads. In the winter I put them in the sun inside a window for a greenhouse effect. Sprinkle organic rocket or mixed salad green seeds en masse into window boxes or planters filled with seed-raising mix. Water gently each day and harvest with scissors as they reach 2-3cm high. They will resprout, so you can cut and come again. Sprouts also work well grown in this way – sprinkle seeds onto moistened paper towels in a shallow tray and put them in the sun to germinate.
You may find that early success inspires you to turn over more of your precious deck space and windowsills to planters!
Most soil is not perfect for planting from the get-go: you need to work at it. Prepare your garden beds by digging them over, aerating the soil and taking a good look at what you have. Soil is made up of sand, silt and organic matter such as old leaves. Test your soil by taking a handful and squeezing it. If the soil compacts tightly, you have a lot of clay and may need to add sand to make it looser and drier. If the soil will not form a ball, you have a high proportion of sand and may need to add clay to make it moister and firmer.
Every garden benefits from the addition of organic matter such as lawn clippings, kitchen compost, manure, ground-up twigs and fertiliser. This organic matter is your golden ticket to a more productive garden and a more rewarding gardening experience. Gypsum from the nursery can be applied to the top of soil and watered in every six months. It is particularly good for aerating heavy, clay-rich soils and supplies calcium and sulphur.
It’s a good idea to remove last season’s dead plants and turn over the soil in autumn or winter, when your garden is less productive. Dig in some manure and other organic matter, aerate the soil and it will be ready for spring planting. You may even wish to grow nitrogen-fixing plants such as lupins∂ or broad beans over winter so you can dig them back into the soil come spring.
I count myself fortunate to have grown up in a resourceful household where nothing was wasted. My father Fred, an enthusiastic gardener, made compost long before it became fashionable to look for ways to send less rubbish to the landfill. I inherited his enthusiasm for feeding my garden home-grown nourishment rather than chemical-based fertilisers.
You don’t have to be a keen gardener to make compost. It’s really just a matter of getting the mix of ingredients right – a bit like baking a cake! Here are some tips to get you started:
A ready-made compost container is an easy solution, especially in smaller gardens where you want to tuck your compost out of sight. You’ll find a good range of compost containers to choose from in garden centres and hardware stores. Alternatively, you could knock together your own timber bin – just make sure not to use chemically treated timber as the chemicals will leach into the compost you’re making.
You’ll want to empty your kitchen scraps into your compost bin every few days, so keep this in mind when locating your compost bin in the garden. Ideally it will be within reasonably easy access of the kitchen.
You can add virtually any organic matter to your compost heap, but you need to get the right balance between green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials. Both nitrogen and carbon need to be present for the reproduction of organisms that live on, and break down, the compost.
Anything that started life as a plant can be added to your compost. Collect your kitchen scraps in a container with a lid and empty them into your outdoor compost bin frequently. Egg shells can be composted, but I advise crushing them up first because they won’t decompose further. Don't add meat or dairy products, used cooking oil or peanut butter unless you want to attract vermin to your compost bin. Garden waste such as weeds, grass clippings and prunings from shrubs can also be added. Cut prunings up as small as possible. Too many damp grass clippings can form one big slimy clump, so turn them to aerate and mix in with dried leaves for best results.
Dry, brown leaves from deciduous trees and shrubs, straw and hay, dead or dried plants are all perfect. Make sure you cut everything into small pieces so it decomposes more quickly. Hard prunings chopped into small pieces, wood chips and sawdust can also be added – but don’t use anything from chemically treated timber.
The key to healthy compost is to ensure that it gets sufficient air, moisture, carbon and nitrogen, so you need to turn your compost regularly (at least once a month and more frequently when you are just getting started). This will also help to disperse the heat that builds up in the centre of your bin, as heat is required for the decomposing process. When you turn your heap, look for lots of wriggling worms, as these are your workers in the composting process. If your bin isn’t full of little wrigglers, gather them from other parts of the garden and deposit them in your compost. A healthy compost heap shouldn’t smell, apart from a slightly sweet odour. Your compost should feel damp but not heavy and gluggy. If it’s too wet, add more brown materials. If it’s too dry, add more green materials. Within a few months, you should have fine crumbly, rich, dark compost – black gold!
If you have limited outdoor space, a worm farm is the perfect way to produce an ongoing source of life-giving nutrients for your garden. And it’s relatively cheap, too.
Worms are incredibly efficient little creatures, and can consume their own body weight in food each day. Their castings and ‘worm tea’, a brown liquid that can be diluted with water and sprayed on your garden as fertiliser, are rich in nitrogen, phosporous and potassium, which foster strong plant growth.
You can buy worm farms with clever layers of trays for collecting worm casts and spigots for extracting the worm tea, or you can make your own – search online for instructions.
Once you have your farm situated in a sheltered spot (on a covered deck or in the carport, for example), you need only add some hay or shredded cardboard for bedding, 1000 to 2000 worms (250-500 grams), and a daily dose of scraps – about a quarter of an ice cream container full for 1000 worms. Worms love most vegetables and fruit scraps, shredded paper, crushed eggshells, hair, coffee grounds – even the dust from your vacuum cleaner.
Your worm farm innards should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge. Any wetter and the worms will turn fat and pale and start trying to escape. Any drier and you won’t produce worm tea. To deal with an overly moist worm farm, add dry leaves or shredded paper to the mix. Dry farms need only be moistened with a sprinkling of water. You might need to keep an eye on the moisture level of your worm farm in the depths of the summer heat.
If you notice food rotting in the worm farm and not being consumed, you are overfeeding the worms. Leave them be for a couple of days and resume feeding, but be more restrained with your servings.
Keep your working worms happy and they will soon reproduce, doubling their population every two to three months. After a year you should have enough worms to consume all your household scraps.
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