getting down and dirty with your vegetables

gardenOne of the most popular ways to becoming more independent is to grow your own food. Increasing concern about commercial farming and its impact on the environment and our health has seen us turn more and more towards eating more organically. The problems with buying organic produce is that it can be quite expensive and therefore not an option for the average family. However, by growing your own produce you can reap the benefits of eating organically with minimal outlay of money, time and effort.

Eating organic produce means that:

  • you avoid eating chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
  • you are eating healthier food: organically grown food has been found to contain higher levels of nutrients than their non-organic counterparts
  • you are eating better: organically grown food often tastes better
  • you are reducing your environmental impact. food grown organically is better for the soil, the waterways and animals that inhabit the local ecosystem. This food is often more flood and drought resistant because the soil and the surrounding ecology is healthier.

Finding your green thumb

Some people are sceptical, but having your own garden doesn’t need to be expensive, especially if you grow organically. In fact, once you’ve started, a garden will save you money by reducing your grocery bill.

For hints on how to grow your own vegetables for free, check out part one, two and three of the gardening for free series on the Frugal and Thriving website.

With the weather warming up, it is the perfect time to get outdoors and start a garden. Below are some tips on getting started.

1. Throw out the rule books

Ok, don’t throw your gardening books or web pages out entirely, they can be useful guides. But don’t be afraid to experiment and ‘break the rules’ and learn as you go what grows perfectly in your own backyard and what doesn’t.

Actually there are two books that are really worth a read if you are keen on starting a garden, both by Jackie French. They have changed the way I think about gardening. The first is Backyard Self-sufficiency and the second, The Wilderness Garden. A good example of breaking the rules comes from Jackie French’s The Wilderness Garden:

Unfortunately we inherited our spring planting ideas from Europe – where you need to plant early to get a harvest. We don’t here. We don’t need bare soil between the rows either to maximise sunlight – our plants are better closely planted to maximise leaf cover to keep in moisture and built up carbon dioxide and keep down rampant weeds….It’s time we started working out Australian ways to grow things. Australian gardens needn’t follow the European pattern.

2. Start Small

If gardening is a new endeavour, start small and build your garden as you become more confident and your enthusiasm and expertise grows. This may mean starting out with a few pots of herb, a fruit tree, a pot of lettuce or capsicum or a small metre square vegetable patch.

The key here is to just start. Start. Maintain something small. Grow your garden as you grow.

3. The vital components for plants to grow

Soil, compost, mulch, manure, water.

Once you have the first four in place, all you have to do is water occasionally, a lot less often than you may think if your garden is well mulched.

The health and vitality of plants is dependent on the health of the soil that they are grown in. Work on improving the soil and the plants will look after themselves. That said, the next comment may seem counter-intuitive: don’t buy ‘quality’ garden soil. It isn’t worth the money. It starts out often being too ‘rich’ for growing vegetables and there is often a large quantity of bark and wood products in the mix that soon deplete the soil of nutrients.

Instead, start with the dirt that you have on hand or get some free stuff and improve the soil yourself with compost, manure and mulch. That way, the soil becomes perfect for the unique microcosm that is your own backyard. The natural inclusion of compost will encourage the other essential ingredients in great soil: bugs, worms, beetles, ants, bacteria and fungi. All of these elements provide nutrients for your plants, which in turn provide nutritious meals for your family.

The organisms in the soil work on the organic matter to decompose it, which provides the plants with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the big three minerals important for healthy plants. Bacteria also turns organic matter into humus, dark, fertile soil with a high carbon content that holds nutrients and moisture.

Get the soil right, and the rest will fall into place without too much work or hassle.

Having said that, the ‘no-dig’ garden is growing in popularity and is easy to start and maintain:

Heap up at least 10cm of hay or dry lawn clippings. Then…place small piles of compost or soil or a layer of soil or compost over the top, plant your seedlings, and water well, giving them liquid manure, hen manure or blood and bone until established…The grass under the hay decays quickly with the fertiliser and watering and the heat generated by the decay speeds up the plants growing on top of it. Keep the plants well mulched with more hay or lawn clippings and once they are established, you should never have to weed, dig or fertilise again. Regular mulching will be all it needs. Part the mulch temporarily for seeds like carrots. I rake the hay away and scatter the seeds. No digging is needed. I plant spuds by dropping a spud in the weeds, then adding about 60cm of hay. The spud grows through the hay; the weeds die. Excerpt from Backyard Self-sufficiency by Jackie French

Finding the space

You can grow food to supplement what you buy even in small spaces. Here are some ideas for small spaces:

  • Grow herbs in pots or small vegetables like chillies, capsicum and lettuce.
  • Grow up. As in grow food up trellises, posts, fences, walls, verandas, frames etc. Beans, tomatoes, peas, zucchini can all be trained to grow in vertical spaces.
  • Grow dwarf varieties of fruit and vegetables like dwarf lemons. Even a small sunny veranda can produce a good crop of citrus to supplement your produce buying.
  • Grow vegetables closer together than recommended.
  • Companion plant

Finding the time

You don’t need to break your back or commit your Sunday afternoons in order to grow most of your own food…The more you interfere with nature, the more you have to maintain….The more you weed your garden, the more weeds appear in the bare ground…No one maintains the bush, but it keeps on feeding countless species. In a hundred years it will still be providing food… Of course it is a mess. But it’s a productive mess and beautiful mess. Excerpt from Backyard Self-sufficiency by Jackie French

Low maintenance, high yield is my kind of garden. Reading Jackie French’s books has opened my eyes to the possibility and changed the way I think about how to garden. If you are like me, and wondering where you will find the time, try a low maintenance wilderness approach.

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