Updated: Feb 4, 2021
By Katie Traill
Growing your own food has SO many benefits, not least of all being a reduction in your grocery bill. Personal health, plastic-free produce, engaging kids outdoors and mental health are some other beautiful benefits. The cost of starting a brand new plot can be off-putting though – if you haven’t done your research, that is. It’s true that the longer you have your garden bed, the more value you’ll get out of it, and this can be annoying for those of us that rent, move around lots or have future travel plans. If you’re clever about your initial set-up and create something to fit your lifestyle, this shouldn’t be a problem. There are endless set-ups you can try, a few of which will be explained in more detail.
Follow these steps to develop your own productive, delicious veggie garden – I promise you’ll never regret trying it and, when it succeeds, you’ll never stop growing!
1. Decide what you want - What edibles do you want to grow? How much would you ideally like to produce? How much time per week can you dedicate to your plot? How much are you budgeting for it? Do you want your garden bed to be mobile, or permanent?
2. Compare what you want with what you can realistically have
- What grows well in your climate? What season will it be when your plants are growing? How much sun is available in the location your patch will be? How long are you willing to wait to harvest? If using a pre-existing bed, are you willing to improve the soil if required? How much do you have to spend on growing spaces?
3. Get the basics right
- To do this, read up on your veggies. Pick a location that will provide enough sunlight (generally, full sun is best) and veggies that will grow in your climate and in the current season. For example, tomatoes grow best in full Summer sun and, in temperate climates, will not grow at all in the cold months (except in well-controlled greenhouses). Radishes and beetroot, on the other hand, are not as fussy about seasons so long as they have healthy soil and decent sunlight hours.
Next, prepare your soil. This is SO important – just as animals will fail to thrive and develop health problems without the right nutrients, so too will plants. Most vegetables are annuals, meaning they complete their lifecycle in under a year, and so use much more energy at a faster rate than perennials and slower-growing plants. Compost – broken down organic (living) matter – is essential to veggie gardens as it provides the right nutrients, holds in moisture and provides a perfect environment for essential soil organisms.
Fertilisers are also important as they provide high concentrations of elements that veggies use up quickly. A word of warning – fertilisers are not all one in the same, and vegetable requirements vary depending on the family they come from. A basic guide on the N-P-K essentials is as follows: N (nitrogen) = leafy growth; P (phosphorous) = flower/fruit production; K (potassium) = cell wall strength. Why is this important? Well, if you feed your tomatoes high nitrogen feed, you’ll get plenty of leaves and not much fruit. Similarly, if you want your kale to grow big and luscious, don’t skimp on the nitrogen.
Finally, water. Yes, you can overwater your plants (if they have poor drainage). As a general rule, never let your plants dry out completely as this can stress them and cause them to bolt (flower) early or die. Keep them moist and, if they’re a vegetable of a very high water content (e.g. lettuce) or sensitive to high temperatures, give them a little extra. Ensure your soil drains well to avoid root rot and unwanted critters, but that is holds moisture for a time (here’s where the compost shines) and mulch all beds to keep water in. Mulch can be anything from bales of pea straw, to living mulch (weeds and low-growing plants), to free organic matter such as fallen leaves from the yard. Remember, water costs money and is a precious resource and should be used wisely.
4. Pick your patch
- DIY planter, or existing garden bed? Bathtub with drainage holes, or designer corrugated iron bed? Vertical space-saving pallet garden, or newly landscaped yard?
Once you know what you are going to plant and what your veg will require to produce a killer crop, choose your set-up. For those on a tight budget, check your pre-existing beds first. Do they already have decent soil? If so, you’ve saved yourself a huge step and potentially many dollars. YouTube or ask your local nursery staff how to test soil for veggie beds. If not, can you obtain a suitably sized second-hand container, or get your hands on some old timber and knock up a raised bed one Sunday arvo? This is my preferred method as we have access to old vineyard pallets – these work a treat. Pots are of course another easy option for most. You can get many large pots for free or heavily discounted at local nurseries, transfer stations, garage sales and second hand stores. In fact, I have found it so easy to get pots I wouldn’t even bother buying one new ever again, unless I was after a nice ceramic or fibreglass option for aesthetics. Pots need a bit more attention to ensure water and organic matter are replenished, as they create confined, separate environments. They are easily moved too, providing they’re not too big, which I love.
If your budget is less of an issue, there are many pre-fab and flat-pack raised beds available now from heaps of different companies – see here for a beautiful example. Many of these can be delivered to you too (handy for those without a ute!). Building brand new garden beds takes a lot of work to do properly, often made much easier with landscaping machinery and therefore are more costly, but I strongly recommend investigating local companies if you are really keen on permanent beds as they’ll repay you over and over in years to come.
5. Grow stuff!
- When you’re soil is compost-rich and ready to go, put your plants in. The cheapest way to start is from seed, so propagate on a well-lit windowsill, cold frame or makeshift greenhouse a few weeks before planting out. Here it is important to note that some plants will happily germinate directly where they are to grow and will not so happily transplant (e.g. carrots), whereas others do better grown as seedlings in punnets before being planted into beds (e.g. tomatoes). As I said before, read up on your veggies so you know what you need to do and don’t end up wasting time, money, water and seeds with failed plants. Most veg will benefit from a feed every few weeks to maximise growth speed and size. IF you’re prepared to spend more and want to save time, buy seedlings from your local nursery. Finally, have a look at the Sustainable Gardening Australia Companion Planting Guide to make sure your veggies will make friends, not enemies! (I have made this mistake a few times already).
Check on your seedlings regularly to keep an eye on pests, monitor growth and revel in the unequivocal excitement that is growing your own food! Take plenty of photos too ;)
Remember, there are very few rules with gardening once you’ve established the basics, so get creative and change your plot to suit you!
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My very first veggie patch, Geelong