Growing your own vegetables is a hugely rewarding pastime. But how do you get started? Here are our top five ingredients for growing a successful vegetable garden.
These same tips apply to gardens of all shapes and sizes. Whether you are cultivating a large back garden, a small urban backyard, container gardening on your balcony or patio, or starting with a few plants on your windowsill.
1. Pick your site
Choosing your site is the first important decision in starting a vegetable garden. One that is tricky (but not impossible) to change once you’ve started growing.
- Choose the sunniest spot in your garden. Sunshine grows strong, healthy, disease-resistant plants with sweeter produce. Most fruits and vegetables need at least 6 hours of full sun per day. Some vegetables, such as salad leaves, prefer a bit of shade in the middle of summer. However, it is fairly easy to increase shade using netting or tall plants. It is much harder to increase sunshine on a shaded, dull vegetable site.
- If you are new to gardening, start with a small area so that you don’t get overwhelmed. You’ll get much more produce and satisfaction from a well maintained plot of 2 to 3 m square than a large weed infested plot.
- Choose a level area that is close enough to a hose, faucet or rain barrel to allow easy and frequent watering.
Healthy, high quality soil is crucial for a successful garden. Poor soil grows lackluster, disease prone plants with low yields. So, before you start growing make sure that your soil is well draining, has plenty of organic matter and there are lots of visible bugs and worms.
Here are a few quick, simple soil tests to check that your soil is ready for growing:
Dig out some soil and crumble it between your fingers. Is your soil sandy, sticky, or powdery? Ideally, the soil should be made up of different sized crumbs that hold their shape under slight pressure. If your soil is sticky (high clay content), or too dry and sandy then mix in plenty of compost and organic matter to improve the soil structure.
Your soil’s compaction can be judged by simply digging in your soil. Ideally you want soil that is easy to dig and at least a foot deep. If your soil is compacted and hard to work, then the plant roots will struggle to develop. Again, digging in good quality compost (and lots of it) is the solution for compacted, hard soils.
A thriving population of diverse bacteria, fungi, bugs and insects is an easy, visible sign of healthy soil. The more life you have under the ground, the less opportunity for pests and disease to take hold. The life in your soil help to break down organic matter and make the nutrients and minerals available for plants. In addition, earthworms are natures’ tillers. They aerate the soil, and their casts add vital enzymes, bacteria, nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
To study your soil’s ecosystem, simply dig a hole around 6 inches deep and take a look. Count the number of organisms, such as beetles, centipedes, and spiders. Ideally you will see at least 10 organisms in 3 to 4 minutes.
To study your earthworm population, simply dig out a shovelful of soil. Then count the number of earthworms on your shovel. Three worms is good, but five (or more) is better.
If your soil is lacking in worms and other bugs, it’s likely because there is not enough food for them. Once again, compost is the answer. Bokashi compost is one of the best ways of getting lots of high-quality organic matter into your soil. The fermented food waste is in a form that is readily available to the soil biota and plants in your garden. Add bokashi compost to your soil and the beneficial worms and bugs will come!
You’ve selected your site. You’ve made sure that the soil is ready for growing vegetables. Now, you can think about what you want to grow.
Start with what you like to eat
If you don’t like shop-bought spinach, chances are you won’t be super excited by homegrown spinach either. Also think about fruits and vegetables that are expensive or hard to get in store.
To grow from seed or not?
Don’t feel a failure if you buy plants, rather than growing from seed. Sure, there is a huge sense of achievement when you grow your own food from a teeny tiny seed, but there are many times when getting nursery grown plants is best. Maybe you are just starting out with gardening and don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Similarly, if you only need one or two plants or you would require special equipment, such as heated propagator, growing from seed may not be worth the time commitment.
If you do grow from seed, follow the advice on the seed packets. Sowing too early means that seedlings get off to a slow start and struggle to recover. Typically, it is better to be patient and sow slightly later when seedlings will more readily germinate and grow.
Choose varieties that work for your space
Dwarf and compact varieties are great for smaller spaces. Early-harvest varieties work well for climates with shorter growing seasons. If you have space, try a couple of different varieties so you can find the ones that work best for you and your garden.
4. Garden tools
Despite what advertisements may have you believe, you need very few tools to get a garden started. These are our recommended essentials:
- a shovel and garden fork for digging,
- a trowel for planting,
- a hoe for weeding,
- a rake for leveling and breaking up the soil, and
- a garden hose, handheld sprinkler and watering can.
If possible, invest in high quality tools that feel comfortable to hold, are well balanced and are built to last.
However much time you spend in your garden, some plants will die and some crops will perform badly. Varieties that give abundant crops one year may struggle the next. No-one can control everything in their garden. But, most importantly, remember to celebrate every success and enjoy everything that your garden has to offer!
Happy gardening 🙂