How to Begin a Sustainable Veggie Garden

There are few things more satisfying than growing your own vegetables. Today, I share the HOLY GRAIL of hacks on how to start your own sustainable veggie garden!

Having the opportunity to pick homegrown veggies fresh, straight from the garden, and knowing you’ve cared and nourished these plants for their lifetime, is so fulfilling.

I grew up learning about gardening from my dad, who would sometimes grow strawberries, squash, and tomatoes in our backyard. 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). My dad and I were determined to do it right, 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.

As we started planting the veggies and herbs we would be growing that year, I brought out my laptop and spent hours researching natural pest controls, and what’s needed to ensure that a garden will thrive.

The Problem with Our Current Farming Practices

Mass food production is having its own impact on the planet; from pesticides to transportation of the produce, and it’s getting to a point where it’s no longer sustainable. The world produces more than 1 1/2 times the amount of food needed to feed everyone on the planet, but what we’re seeing is tremendous amounts of food wastage, a lot of which is unnecessary and preventable.

Monoculture, where one crop is grown in a certain area, is a common practice among farmer’s around the world. Yet, continually planting the same crop in the same place year in, year out, degrades the soil and depletes nutrients which plants rely on, eventually leading to barren soil that’s unusable.

Why Growing Our Own Food can Help

Growing some (not even all) of our own food can help reduce mass agricultural production, which is responsible for 25% of greenhouse gases. What’s more, we can decide what goes on the plants as well as in the soil, eliminating toxic chemicals like glyphosate polluting the environment and waterways.

Fruit and veg can be left to fully ripen, as there’s no need to factor in transportation, meaning more nutrient-goodness for us! Plus, having everyone grow some of their own food means there’s opportunity to trade amongst each other. For example, if I were to grow lemons, and my next-door neighbour grew oranges, I could trade some of my lemons for his oranges, which can be a great money saver.

gardening pic 8
This cabbage was 9 months in the making…

Beginning

When starting out, we first had to pick a spot where we could grow our little mini-farm in the limited space available. From there, we built a large planter box from scratch, using some wooden planks and metal stakes.

Next, we visited our local nursery to collect some veggies to plant; things like spinach, kale, squash, bok choy, carrots, coriander, beetroot, capsicum, cucumber, sweet potato, eggplant, lettuce, tomatoes… the lot. It’s a good idea to research what foods to grow at what times of year, so your veggies have the best chance at thriving. Alternatively, you can collect seeds from friends who are growing the type of veggies you want already.

Once home, we filled our planter box with fresh soil we collected from the nursery, too, but if you have enough compost, you can use that as fresh, nutrient-rich soil instead. From there, we topped up the soil with some of our home-brewed compost (as a fertiliser and soil nourishment), then started on the planting.

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Our planter box; jam-packed with veggie sprouts.

Keep a note of what plants you planted where, as crop rotation still plays an important role – even in small gardens like this – at ensuring soil health is maintained. You can draw up a diagram in a journal, and make a note of where each plant was placed, so the following year no double-ups happen.

Like all gardens, the first year tends to be an experiment. It’s very much a trial and learn as you go. I’ve been watching what grows best where, whether they like the summer or winter weather better, what fails, how many plants are far too much for one planter box… exhibit-a.

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3-4 months after planting our veggie crops.

It can be a good idea to follow gardening accounts on Facebook and Instagram, as you may want more advice on tips for bug control, why some plants might not be growing, fertiliser advice, and more. One thing I do recommend is to only plant what you are actually going to eat.

As the months went on, our garden grew from one planter box to three! Some new additions included cabbage, green beans, radish, more kale, lettuce and carrots. Plus we also started a herb garden! So now we have sage, dill, viola, parsley, oregano, mint and thyme.

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Our small herb garden; brick-lay work instead of wood for boundary walls this time.

Edible Flowers

Edible flowers are everywhere (once you know what you’re looking for). While I potter around my garden, I like to nibble on the flowers of coriander, viola, and mint.

Just remember to always check first if a flower is edible.

DIY Potting Mix

Now, the potting mix I bought last year to start off my garden was a simple mix that came in one of those giant, thick plastic bags… not something I particularly liked. Even though we buy the organic stuff, the plastic was something I really didn’t want, so I started looking into how to make my own! This DIY potting mix is super easy and works wonderfully.

Ingredients:

  • Peat moss or coconut coir
  • Organic compost
  • Worm castings
  • Degraded leaf mulch
  • Pumice

Optional:

  • Organic chicken manure
  • Kelp meal
  • Vermiculite
  • Perlite

To make:

Mix thoroughly, and apply to garden or pour into pots.

This mix works great for growing seedlings, too.

Composting

I’ve always been a composter. From as far back as I can remember, we’ve had two giant compost bins out the back of our yard. But something I’ve picked up recently with composting is that it’s super important to turn your compost regularly, something I now do 3 times a week. Using a compost turner can make it SO much easier to aerate your compost. Do not turn your compost every day, as it doesn’t like it. I regularly put little compost piles around the base of my plants as “fertiliser,” giving them some extra nutrients.

One of our compost bins; ready to be turned.

Growing Plants from Seeds

Over the past year, we’ve grown our plants either from seeds or seedlings. I’ve watched as some of our plants have thrived and reached full maturity, or died due to extreme heat, pests, or disease.

Rather than watching your plant ‘go to seed‘ and die, you can capture the seeds and plant seedlings. Depending on the plant, it’s important to wait until the plant has completely gone to seed, where the seeds have gone dry, and are no longer green. Take them off the plant and dry them in the sun for a while, or plant them straight into your soil mix in a separate pot, and keep it under shelter. With some plants, seed saving may not be possible.

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Some of our seedlings we grew from seeds.

How to Stop Pests

I’ve been addressing each pest as they arise. First, were the snails and slugs, which we deterred using natural controls like diatomaceous earth, egg shells and coffee grounds. Next came the aphids, caterpillars and moths, which neem oil seemed to work well against. Then finally, the mice and rats came along, so we had to reassess what we were using in our compost. A few essential oils proved to be effective against mice; peppermint oil, eucalyptus, clove, and tea tree.

Some other useful methods for dealing with bugs and pests included:

  • Wild birds – they ate the bugs off our plants
  • Planting certain herbs, flowers, and vegetables together – pairing certain plants together can keep bugs away, increase soil quality, and produce a thriving garden
  • Letting nature rebalance our garden – healthy soil grows more resilient plants, and over time pests become less of a problem

Some other tips I’ve read about include Biodynamic gardening, not growing brassicas in summer to keep the white butterflies away, and planting stinging nettle, yarrow, dandelion, comfrey, and borage to improve soil health and repel mosquitos and flies.

As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products. It’s important to check with a doctor before taking this or any new product, especially if taking any other medicine or supplement or if pregnant or nursing. Be sure to check ingredients to make sure there is no risk of an allergic reaction.

What plants do you plan on gardening? Do you have any recommendations on easy veggies to grow that beginners like me can start out with? Share in the comments below.

Lots of love,

🖤 Vanessa

Sources:

Holt-Gimenez, Eric. (December 18, 2014). We Already Grow Enough Food For 10 Billion People — and Still Can’t End Hunger. HuffPost. Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/world-hunger_n_1463429

What Are the Environmental Benefits of Growing Your Own Food?. (April 27, 2017). Triangle Pest Control. Retrieved from https://www.trianglepest.com/blog/what-are-environmental-benefits-growing-your-own-food

Shannon. (May 19, 2010). Why Food Sustainability Matters and 10 Things You Can Do About It. Simple Bites. Retrieved from http://www.simplebites.net/10-tips-for-sustainable-eating/

Monoculture. Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monoculture

Grow Your Own Food. Sustainable Living Guide. Retrieved from https://www.sustainablelivingguide.com.au/growyourownfood

Sweetser, Robin. (February 23, 2021). How to Make Your Own Potting Soil. Almanac. Retrieved from https://www.almanac.com/make-your-own-potting-soil

Vinje, E. The Perfect Potting Mix Recipe. Planet Natural. Retrieved from https://www.planetnatural.com/potting-mix-recipes/

Easy DIY Potting Mix Recipe. The Micro Gardener. Retrieved from https://themicrogardener.com/easy-diy-potting-mix-recipe/

Walliser, Jessica. DIY potting soil: 6 Homemade potting mix recipes for the home and garden. Savvy Gardening. Retrieved from https://savvygardening.com/diy-potting-soil/

Natural Ways to Get Rid of Mice. (Updated: August 19, 2021). Fantastic Services. Retrieved from https://fantasticservicesgroup.com.au/blog/natural-ways-to-get-rid-of-mice/