Have you recently caught yourself steering conversations in the direction of vegetable gardening? Guilty!
Perhaps found yourself binge watching a Netflix series starring an older, but undeniably handsome, English gardener named Monty Don? Guilty again!
But that’s enough about me and my weird new obsession, which has really only gone so far as buying 10 lettuce seedlings from Bunnings – still alive after three weeks, yessss – plus a lime and lemon tree combo deal from Aldi.
There’s something addictive about watching your little creations grow, and then adding them direct to your salad. I suppose this must be why people have children (minus the eating part).
Of course the pleasures of veggie gardening are certainly nothing new, says Justin Calverley, author of The Urban Farmer.
“Us horticulturalists have known our whole lives how good it is, and how much fun it is,” says Calverley, who also teaches gardening workshops.
“I think it’s being driven by economics and also food insecurity and chemical use, that people want organic more. It’s also very, very therapeutic.”
But if you haven’t grown anything edible since a carrot, or that potato with hair in primary school, where do you start?
Well, to begin with, you don’t need heaps of space, says Calverley. “The smallest veggie garden I’ve ever seen was a baked bean tin and they grew a lettuce.”
If you’re in an apartment with a balcony, even better. “On a one metre by four metre balcony, between veggies and herbs you could have something out of that garden everyday.”
But before you jump in and start planting, survey the conditions in your outdoor space, suggests Calverley. Where’s the sun coming from, and at what time of day? How about the wind? Where are the cold and hot spots?
Generally something with a northeast orientation is your best bet. In summer, you’ll want to maximise the morning sun on your veggies, but shield them from the afternoon sun. In winter, too much sun is never enough, says Calverley.
Next thing is to consider what you’re going to plant these veggies in. Will it be the ground, a raised garden bed, a polystyrene container, a pot – an old wheelbarrow?
“Veggies, they literally have the requirements of air, light, water, nutrients and obviously a medium to grow in,” says Calverley. “Outside of that it makes no difference, they don’t know if they’re in a baked bean tin or if they’re in a whiz-bang raised garden bed.”
Of course quality soil is a big deal when it comes to growing vegetables.
Ideally, Calverley says this will friable soil. For the rookies, that’s soil with a crumbly texture – light and fluffy and easily broken up with your hand. “Compost, compost, compost – you can never add too much compost.”
So let’s get planting. In the early days, it’s best to pick vegetables that are easy and quick to grow.
“At this time of year, the easiest vegetable I get people to start with is silverbeet or the chard family, the rainbow chards,” says Calverley. “They’re very forgiving, they actually produce a great yield – you can just take a leaf off at the time if you want or you could harvest the whole thing.”
They’re also useful in the kitchen, for making dishes such as a stirfry, spanakopita, pies, stews and slices, he says.
Asian greens such as bok choy are also easy to grow in winter, and lettuce is a great year-round option.
To speed things up, Calverley says seedlings are generally safer, except when it comes to root vegetables such as carrots, radishes or parsnips, which are best sown directly as a seed.
If you’re also growing herbs, Calverley says mixing them throughout your vegetable garden will help ward off unwanted creatures. “It’s the scent of herbs which confuse the pests. If all they can smell is rosemary in the garden, then that sort of deters them a little bit – they can’t find the lettuce, or the broccoli, to lay their eggs on.”
Mint is renowned for taking over gardens, but Calverley says it’s actually helpful because it acts like mulch.
“If you need a little pocket to plant a veggie in, you can just pull out a little section of mint, chop that up and give it to a friend,” he says. “I think it gets a bad wrap, old mint; it’s a lot more useful than what people think.”
Now all you have to do is remember to water regularly, and watch your bank balance grow as the savings pour in.
Calverley says a “full bore” vegetable garden could save you a couple of thousand dollars a year. “Even if you were to provide yourself with all your lettuces … over a 12-month period that could save you a few hundred dollars.”