Natural Home

How To Begin a Sustainable Veggie Garden

Once of the most satisfying things I’ve found about growing my own veggies is being able to pick them fresh, straight from the garden, and knowing that as you’ve cared and nourished these plants throughout their lifetime, they are now nourishing you back.

gardening pic 8I’d just picked our cabbage that was 9 months in the making (I was so stoked – as you can see 😉 )

I grew up learning a little bit about gardening from my dad, who would sometimes grow strawberries, squash, and tomatoes in our backyard. But it wasn’t until last year that I built and planted one of my own veggie patches (a proper garden, not just a few plants here and there, which is what it used to be). My dad and I were determined to do it right from the word go, but understood that we would be facing massive learning curves along the way, as this was the first time we’d be growing veggies organically (without the use of sprays & chemical fertilisers). So, as we started planting the veggies and herbs we would be growing that year, I brought out my laptop and spent hours and hours researching natural pest controls for snails & slugs, mice, rats, butterflies, moths, aphids, natural solutions to stop mildew, as well as how to ensure that a garden will thrive (what’s needed).

To the right: These were the first plants I bought for the garden. To the left: Our first planter box up and ready with our new plants inside.

I’m still very new to this gardening thing, so these tips I found from Ethically Kate on things to keep in mind when beginning your sustainable vegetable garden were really helpful for me, and I thought I’d share them with you all (as well as some of my own I picked up along the way) in case you were thinking of starting your own veggie patch (or mini farm) too!

gardening pic 121 month after we’d planted our veggie crops!

How We Started

When starting out my dad and I first chose a spot in our backyard where we would be able to grow our little kitchen garden in the limited space we had. We built (to be honest, this is where my dad takes the credit!) a large planter box from scratch, using some wooden planks and metal stakes. From there, we bought some veggie plants from our local nursery; spinach, kale, squash, bok choy, carrots, coriander, beetroot, capsicum, cucumber, sweet potato, eggplant, lettuce, tomatoes (pretty much every vegetable you can think of – we may have gone a little overboard in our excitement haha). We filled our planter box up with fresh soil we also purchased from the nursery, popped some of our home-brewed compost on top (as a fertiliser and soil nourishment), then got to the fun part of planting each veggie seedling into the soil. Just a side note: the total cost of our garden build (including soil, wood, equipment and plants) was approximately $900AUD.

gardening pic 11Our planter box jam-packed with veggie plants (maybe a little too many for one small area).

We arranged our plants quite close together (as we had more plants than space) and planted them quite randomly in the soil, but strategic crop rotation and companion plants can be used too (as better options) – though I’m still learning how to do that.

Like all gardens, the first year tends to be an experiment. It’s very much a trial and error/learn as you go type deal (at least that was how it went for me anyway). I’ve been watching what grows best where, whether they like the summer or winter weather better (note: bok choy, lettuce, rocket & dill tend to bolt (a.k.a when plants grow quickly, stop flowering and start to seed) in really warm conditions, and our Summer was quite warm this year so we had a lot of bolting, which meant that our leafy greens didn’t have many leaves to pick from as they mainly just flowered. So it may be a good idea to grow these mid-winter to spring if you live somewhere really warm and sunny also), what fails, and how many plants are far too much for one planter box (my bad).

gardening pic 33-4 months after we’d planted our veggie crops (they’re going strong!).

It can be a good idea to follow gardening accounts on Facebook and Instagram, get creative, and see what works for you, as what I did may not be your cup of tea, and you may want a little more structure to your gardening (trust me, I’m planning on adding a more structured plan for this year’s crops, as well as applying crop rotation to prevent soil depletion). One thing I do recommend is to only plant what you are actually going to eat.

gardening pic 4Some of our crops were bolting (as you can see the bok choy in the middle had yellow flowers sprouting at the top).

As the months went on our garden grew from one planter box to three! (the other two were about half the size though). Some new additions were cabbage, green beans, radish, more kale, lettuce and carrots. Plus we also started a herb garden! So now we have sage, dill, viola, rocket (not a herb, I know, but it’s been promoted to our herb garden due to lack of space in the other two), parsley, oregano, mint and thyme.

gardening pic 13Our small herb garden out the front (I just loved the brick-lay look of using bricks instead of wood for boundary walls).

To make the other two planter boxes we reused old bricks we had lying around our yard as a way to reduce waste, and it turned out really well! I quite like the brick-lay-look. What do you think?

Edible Flowers

This is a tip I learnt from Ethically Kate. Edible flowers are everywhere (once you know what to look for)! Who knew, right?! While I pottered around in my garden I’d nibble on the flowers of coriander, viola, and mint.
Mint and coriander flowers = my new favourite things.

Just remember to always check first if a flower is edible, but I strongly encourage you to use edible flowers in your meals and dishes as a great way to liven them up and get even more creative! Thanks for the tip Kate!!

Potting Mix

Now, the potting mix I bought last year to start off my garden(s) were the ones that came in those giant, thick plastic bags (yuck!), not something I particularly liked. Even though we buy the organic stuff, the plastic was something I really didn’t appreciate (I’m really working on living more of a zero waste lifestyle – so far, it’s only zero waste(ish)). But again, we all start somewhere, and for me I’ve really learnt ALOT over the past year that I can improve on for this coming year! One of the big tips I learnt (again from Kate – thank you!!), is that you can actually make your own potting mix! (no more hideous thick plastic bags! Wooooo!) All you need is:

  • Coconut coir
  • Compost
  • Worm castings
  • Degraded leaf mulch
  • Pumice

This works great for growing seedlings too.

gardening pic 2I’d just transplanted this cabbage from the pan of water I’d been growing it in inside to this patch of soil outside.

Composting

Our family has always been composters. From as far back as I can remember, we’ve always had two giant compost bins out the back in our yard, behind the shed. But something I’ve picked up recently with composting is that it’s super important to turn your compost regularly (I now do it around 3 times a week). Kate even recommends using a compost turner/twister which can make it easier to turn and aerate your compost (I just use a shovel and gently turn it that way). Don’t turn your compost every day though, as this isn’t great for it. It’s also a good idea to regularly put little compost piles around the bases of your plants to give them extra nutrients.

gardening pic 14One of our compost bins ready to be turned.

Growing Plants from Seeds

Over the past year we’ve been growing our plants either from seeds or tiny seedlings. I’ve watched as some of our plants have thrived and reached full maturity, where they’ve produced delicious fruit for us to enjoy, or had the other end of the spectrum where we’ve cared for them to the upmost degree, then had to watch them die due to extreme heat, pests, or disease (which is quite heart-breaking and frustrating). One thing I’ve found challenging is that each time a plant ‘goes to seed’ and dies (the natural cycle of plant life), I do admittedly get a little frustrated that I then have to go out and get more seeds or seedlings, and watch the plant die without being able to do anything about it.

gardening pic (1)Some of our seedlings we’d grown from tiny seeds.

However, Kate taught me how to let your plants go to seed, then capture the seeds and plant the seedlings. Great tip, huh?! “This is all part of being self-sufficient and sustainable,” she says.

Now, depending on the plant, it’s important to wait until the plant has completely gone to seed and the seeds have become quite dry. Take them off the plant and dry them in the sun for a while, or plant them straight into your seed raising mix in a separate pot under shelter. I’m still very much learning how to do this for each plant variety, and have found that sometimes it works and sometimes not. With some plants sometimes it’s not possible, but one of my goals for this year is to get better at it so I become more consistent with raising the seeds, and eventually become completely self-sufficient with this method.

How to Deal with Pests and Bugs

I’ve been researching this topic as the problems arise. We started out with a snail and slug problem, but I managed to deter them with a few natural controls that I mention here. The next pests we came in contact with were aphids, then caterpillars and moths, and finally mice & rats, which I’ll be writing posts about in the near future sharing natural control methods we used for each of them. Stay tuned!

Those grey little bugs you see in these photos are aphids. They often all clump together in one spot.

Here are a few of the tips Kate shared that I’ve also found quite useful in deterring pests and bugs away:

  • Roaming chickens are great bug controls
  • Welcome wild birds (they also eat the bugs off your plants and keep bug populations down in your area)
  • Biodynamic gardening (for Q & A and networking, join Auckland Biodynamics or sign up to the Blue Borage Gardening Group for instructional videos and help!)
  • Allow nature to balance things: healthy soil grows resilient plants, so over time pests become less and cause less of a problem
  • Planting herbs, flowers, and vegetables together helps to reduce bugs, increase soil quality, and promote a thriving garden
  • Stinging nettle, yarrow, dandelion, comfrey, borage are all examples of herbs that improve soil health and some can help repel mosquitos and flies too
  • Loads of flowering companion plants will attract bees & many other pollinators
  • Avoiding growing brassicas in summer can reduce white butterflies
  • Coriander likes consistent moisture and not too much sun
  • Greens will often bolt when they feel they need to start making their seeds & reproducing. You can keep them young and fresh during the really warm times of year by keeping them shaded for longer during the day (maybe build a maneuverable shelter), and keeping them well watered. Otherwise, succession sowing (planting different crops at different times) is the way to go; scatter a few more seeds each week, and just keep picking the baby leaves

I hope you found this helpful in some way, and if you have any organic, sustainable gardening tips yourself, please share them with us all in the comments below! We’d all (especially me) love to hear them!!

To the left: The first eggplant I picked from our garden. To the right: The first onion of the season.

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Lots of love,

🖤 Vanessa

 

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