By Kari Collard
Why Grow Your Own?
The benefits of green fingers are plentiful. First up, you’ll make Mother Nature proud by reducing your carbon footprint. You’ll make fewer trips to the shops, saving petrol, and, because you’re growing your own, less produce will need to be shipped in from the country, saving diesel fuel. Your home-grown veggies will taste better than the store-bought stuff, and they’ll have more nutrients, because you’ll be eating them when they’re fresher. By picking your veggies ‘one leaf at a time’, you’ll find they’ll also last longer.
Importantly, you’ll know exactly what has gone into your greens—no pesticides, no chemicals, no pollutants—just your love and care. Above all, you’ll find something very satisfying about making things grow … and getting your hands dirty.
You don’t need to be a gifted gardener or have an acre of land to grow your own. All you need are a few basic gardening items, a little patience, and the desire to branch out into trying something you’ve never done before. After a few trials and errors, you’ll be well on your way to budding bliss.
Think Outside the Box
Choose a sunny spot to grow your vegetables. To feed a family of four with vegetables for a whole year, all you need is just eight square metres, about the area of a parking bay at the supermarket. And you don’t even need a dedicated vegetable patch; you can also grow veggies between the plants in your garden. If you don’t like bending, there is the option of a veggie box that allows you to grow vegetables at waist height. You can even create a mini box for your balcony or patio. These blessed boxes can be bought from nurseries and are easy to assemble. Alternatively, you can build your own. You’ll need to line the box with thick plastic pierced with a few holes and filled with a layer of small stones to create the correct drainage, and then fill it with potting soil and compost.
Don’t Skimp on the Soil
Tasty veggies grow from good-quality, well-drained soil. If you don’t have the right soil at your disposal, speak to your local nursery about the best options for the type of veggies you want to grow. Clay-heavy soils produce great lettuces, cabbages and runner beans, whereas sandy soils are better for most root crops, such as carrots, beetroots and potatoes.
The Sharpest Tool in the Shed
You don’t need to spend a fortune when buying the right tools for your garden. All you really need are gardening gloves, a hand fork, a hand spade and a watering can. To keep things tidy, you may want to buy labels and bamboo canes, so your seedlings stay on the straight and narrow.
A good investment, too, is a book on growing vegetables, such as JG Simpson’s Food from your Garden: A Southern African Guide to Growing Your Own Fruit, Vegetables and Herbs.
While you’re doing your bit for the environment, you don’t want to pollute your patch with harmful pesticides. Just keep an eye on your mini-crop and look for signs of insects tucking in. Proper spacing between rows, weeding and fertilising are good ways to prevent disease and insect infestation, without resorting to harmful insecticides. There are also certain plants you can grow next to your existing plants to help keep bugs at bay.
Chat to your neighbourhood nursery about what vegetables best suit your local climate and garden soil. Then follow the advice on seed packets, along with the following guidelines that will get you growing in no time.
The Big Four
Root crops: Carrots, beetroot, turnips, onions and leeks are light feeders that have small, short root systems. Avoid adding compost before planting this group of veggies, as they tend to develop too much top growth at the expense of the roots.
Fruit crops: Tomatoes, brinjals, potatoes, peppers, chillis, pumpkin, squash, marrow, melons, sweet corn and mealies flourish in warmer seasons. This group doesn’t require as much feeding as the leaf family, but will benefit from additional compost applied to the soil before planting. When planting tomatoes or potatoes, a substantial covering of leaves is necessary for a good harvest.
Legumes: Peas, beans, broad beans and lucerne are fairly easy to grow, and this is a great group to improve the overall quality of your soil. The trick is to dig the plant back into the soil once you have plucked the edible bits.
Leaf crops: Spinach, lettuce, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts prefer cooler climates and also have fairly shallow root systems. They are heavy feeders and can therefore drain the soil of nutrients. For lavish and leafy crops, add a substantial amount of compost to the soil before planting.
The Secrets to a Blooming Veggie Patch
1. Seedlings may go into ‘transplant shock’ when they perish after being planted. In order to avoid this, soak your seedlings in a bucket of water or—even better—diluted seaweed solution, before sinking them into the soil.
2. Rotation, rotation, rotation. If you’re using the same patch of ground, alter your produce each year. Different plant groups have roots that reach alternating depths, so by mixing it up you’ll get the maximum out of your soil’s nutrients and prevent pests and fungus from accumulating.
3. Deal with pests without poison by crushing ten cloves of garlic with a quarter cup of household soap and soak in one litre of boiling water. Once it’s cool, decant it into a spray bottle and squirt directly onto plants, repeating once a week.
4. Rule of thumb: seeds should be sown at a depth of three times their size. Seedlings that are placed too close to the surface will dry out, and if they are positioned too deeply in the soil, they will struggle to grow.
5. Mulch up. If you want your vegetables to prosper, use plant waste, as it slowly breaks down and feeds the soil, improving its structure. Mulch keeps the soil damp, slows down weed growth, and encourages earthworms. FYI, these wrigglers should be welcome in your veggie patch as they help to fertilise the soil by bringing air to the roots and improving drainage.