When you’re beginning a food garden for the first time, the prospect of growing your own vegetables can seem exciting yet daunting. The thrill of having organic produce in your own backyard is a big one, yet there is so much to learn and so much to do before you get to the stage of harvesting anything. As with many things in life, if you start with good basic foundations, the rest will fall into place.
Compost as a finished product is basically a perfect fertiliser for food plants, so is a gardeners best friend. It conditions soil, adds organic material, improves a soils water retention & increases nutrition. The best news is, if you make it yourself, it’s free & easy to do at home.
Making compost is essentially recycling your organic kitchen waste, and there are a few ways you can go about it. If you have enough space you might want to build a sizeable 3-bay system (here’s our how-to guide), but there are plenty of composting options for small gardens too. Cold compost rings or beds, benchtop bokashi bins and worm farms all produce quality compost for the garden and can be made cheaply & easily.
The main thing is to start as soon as possible, because food waste does take time to break down. Burying food scraps directly into garden beds also works very well to add organic material (here’s the detail on how to do it), and is particularly effective when you’re starting out.
Start Small & Simple
You can’t *not* be excited when you first start gardening, and most of us want to grow everything by yesterday. But if you take on too much at once, you can quickly become overwhelmed and it may all go south from there.
Start with a small growing space that is easy to manage and expand from there. When you’ve never gardened before, it’s impossible to know how much time you’ll need and want to devote to your garden. So it’s best to just have a few beds to begin with, so that it’s easy to manage. Don’t over-do it with the plants, either. Start by growing just a few crops that you like to eat. Once you’ve had success with those, your enthusiasm, knowledge and confidence will grow, and you’ll be ready to expand the garden with every season. It’s also worth knowing that green leafy vegetables are the easiest to grow, followed by root crops (e.g. beetroot, carrots, potatoes), then fruiters (e.g. tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums, etc).
Make sure to keep your garden beds fairly well weeded. While weeds won’t kill your plants, they do compete for space and take valuable nutrients & water from the soil that would otherwise be available to your veggies. When you can’t weed your garden properly for whatever reason (because sometimes life simply gets in the way), do make the effort to pull the tops off so that they can’t go to seed. There’s an old saying that goes ‘one years seeding, seven years weeding’, and that’s a good indicator of how much extra work you’ll make for yourself by letting weeds go to seed. To learn more about how to control weeds in the home garden, check out our detailed guide.
But weeds aren’t all bad– they can be useful & save you some money, too. It’s no effort to make a ‘weed tea’, which can be used as light liquid fertiliser throughout the garden. All you need to do is pull out weeds and soak them in water for at least a week. Use a large container like a drum, barrel or cutoff IBC. The resultant liquid provides light nutrition for your vegetables and can be applied fortnightly.
There are a multitude of benefits to keeping a few chickens in your backyard- see our complete rundown here. Obviously, fresh organic eggs are fantastic, but chickens are more than just egg producers. They make friendly pets, they keep a garden weeded, you can feed them lots of kitchen scraps, and their manure is an excellent fertiliser (more money saving!). To use chicken manure as a fertiliser, collect it and set it aside for around 3 months. This is called ‘ageing’, and needs to be done, otherwise the ammonia in it will burn your plants. If you’d like to use it sooner, you can make a liquid fertiliser with it. Add about 4 handfuls to a large bucket of water and stir until all the lumps break up. Leave the mixture sit for at least an hour, then use as required.
Even small backyards are big enough to host a few chickens. Check with your local council for the requirements specific to your area, as they can vary considerably. Once you have a secure pen set up, chickens are really low maintenance- it’s similar to keeping a cat or dog. They need only clean water and daily feeding plus what ever scraps or greens you can provide for them.
Plant with Diversity to Attract Bees
While you should definitely start small and simple, your ultimate food garden should be one that attracts a variety of beneficial insects, but especially bees. With this in mind, consider planting a few flowers and flowering herbs throughout your veggie patch, where space and budget allows for it.
Bees are vital to every food garden because they pollinate plants for us. Pollination means that they carry pollen between plants of different sexes to fertilise them, or even between different parts of the same plant. This pollination is what creates fruit set. Other insects help too, but bees are by far the most important. Fruiting crops like pumpkin, squashes, zucchini, cucumber and swedes are in particular need of bees.
While variety & colour benefits the garden in numerous ways, bees are most attracted to purple and blue-coloured flowers because these have shorter wavelengths, like UV light. While you should certainly plant things that you like and that will fit your space, here are some suggestions for attracting bees. Salvias, lavender, basil (especially holy & perennial), borage, buddleia and daisies are among the many flowers that will attract bees and other beneficials to your vegetable garden.
Know Your Soil
‘Get to know your soil’ is easier said than done. There can be a huge difference from one soil to another, and the natural soil in your area might contain an abundance or a deficiency in some 300 different elements. Soil composition changes over time with use and varying climatic conditions, so any soils nutritional profile can be quite different from one season to the next.
When it comes to vegetable gardening, soil health is by far the most important factor affecting your harvest. I always liken it to human babies: everything a human mother eats and drinks directly affects her unborn child, and soil affects vegetable plants in a similar way. Vegetables do take quite a lot of nutrition from the soil every season, so it’s important to maintain and replenish nutrients as required.
There can be quite a difference between the soil you buy in bulk or bagged form from a landscape supplier and the soil in your backyard. All can benefit from a quick pH check, especially after a seasons’ use. pH testing is very easy to do, and kits can be purchased inexpensively from nurseries and hardware stores worldwide. To learn more about your soil, read our guide, ‘How to Test & Improve Your Garden Soil’.
If you find that your plants need a boost, consider using a product from the plant doctor range. Australian readers can order their organic garden products online, with SSM readers receiving 20% off their first order and 10% off order.
Plant Doctor offer a variety of garden fertilisers, tonics and remedies that are all ethically sourced, environmentally friendly and designed to suit Australian conditions.