DOWN TO EARTH SIMPLE LIVING FORUMS

DOWN TO EARTH SIMPLE LIVING FORUMS
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14 October 2014

A simple guide to thrifty vegetable gardening


There is no doubt you can save money if you have the space, time and energy to produce organic vegetables and fruit in your backyard. Hanno and I have been doing that on and off for almost forty years but it can be a balancing act because if you're not careful, gardening can become a very expensive exercise. During those years we've worked out how to work a garden, produce food and do it with an eye on the costs too. So I thought I'd spend some time today and tomorrow bringing those ideas together in two posts with the hope of sharing how to save money and showing that a productive garden can be a thrifty one too.

Before we start on frugal gardening though I'm going to address other issues that will effect how some of you garden. It's not the main reason for the post on this topic but unless I address these issues, some new gardeners will waste a lot of time wondering why they can't produce the fresh food they hope for.



I'm directing this post mainly, but not exclusively, at the new gardeners, so, let's talk a bit about our similarities and our differences. Now we have the benefit of blogs and can see what ordinary folk grow, and not just the idealised gardens featured in magazines, that ability to look into each other's backyards can sometimes create problems. I've lost count of the number of times I've blogged about preparing soil before you start, but every time I do my library talks and in frequent emails, people ask me what they're doing wrong. Their problem is that their garden doesn't look like our garden. When I ask how they prepared their soil for planting,  usually the answer is: huh!?

The black kale plant above is one of several we grew about five years ago. They looked like a mini forest because they all grew to about six feet tall.

The health of your plants and abundance of your harvests depends on building up your soil before you start planting. Plants need nutrients in the soil to give the best results and if the soil is depleted or has never been productive, your plants might survive, but they won't thrive. You'll do the same amount of work week by week, but you won't get the great results you will get if you take the time to enrich your soil before you plant. If you don't add organic matter - compost, manures, green manure crops etc into your soil, no amount of fertiliser added later will make up for it. Please prepare your soil well and keep on enriching it between crops. Every time you plant something new, get into the habit of adding manure or compost to the soil. As they grow, plants use the organic matter in the soil to help them grow. This must be replenished frequently.  It is for that reason that you should start composting before you start planting. Here is one of my composting posts about how to start a compost heap. You can buy compost but making your own will make your garden sustainable and it will help you manage your household waste. It's also much cheaper.


There are a lot of differences in gardens world-wide, soil and climate differ but the actual planting methods are generally the same everywhere. If you're a new gardener, or you've just moved to a new location, try to find a local planting guide to help you decide how to start. You might also ask gardening neighbours or join a community garden to find out what and when to plant, and all the things you need to know in your area.


Backyard vegetable production varies a lot depending on what climate you live in. Here in Australia we have a fairly warm climate but it varies a lot from north to south. Our country goes from the hot tropics right down to the cooler regions of Tasmania, which gets the winds right off Antarctica. Overall, but with a few exceptions, we can grow food all year long here. Naturally it's the salad type crops in summer and things like cabbages, cauliflowers, potatoes, parsnips etc in winter.  And because we can grow fresh food all year, in Australia we usually grow small amounts over a long period and preserve whatever excesses we have along the way.

In the colder countries such as Canada, USA, UK, Ireland and many parts of Europe, the growing period is shorter but there are much larger amounts grown. This allows cold climate gardeners to eat the vegetables fresh during the summer and autumn and then to preserve the excess in various ways, seeing them through the winter months when snow covers the ground and gardening is impossible. No matter where you live though, please start slow, planting the vegetables you like to eat or are hard to find. You'll need a couple of years to build up soil fertility, work out what and how to grow and what will work best in your garden. Gardening can be hard work. The last thing I want to do is for you to stop after the first year because it's too difficult. Start small and slow and with the easier vegetables and after you develop your skills you can expand your garden and grow more.

Plant flowers in the garden to encourage pollinators and put some herbs into pots on the side of the garden to add interest and save space.

There are a million things I could tell you about gardening but I've highlighted these paragraphs above because sometimes young gardeners write to me upset that their gardens are failing. The message here is, if you can, connect with local gardeners so you know how to enrich your soil, what the best plants are for your region, when to plant them and what pests to look out for.

I didn't expect that to take up so much space - gardening is a multifaceted topic and it's easy to spill out the words. Tomorrow I'll write all about the thrift aspect of gardening - how you can save as much money as possible while producing fresh organic vegetables for your family.



20 comments:

  1. Hi Rhonda, when I see all your open unprotected garden beds I'm just so envious. Here in suburban Melbourne the possums and rats make our gardening life a misery. All our vegetable beds are caged but still the animals get in. We have to grow dwarf varieties of everything although the cages are head high and I still haven't found a dwarf variety of corn! Sue

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  2. This is a really important point to raise with gardeners, first time or otherwise. My first reaction when I secured an allotment was to dig a hole and put in a seedling. However, somebody wiser than me at the allotment suggested that as I was about to go overseas for a month why not dig in some compost and leave it until I got back to start planting.
    I have continued to feed the soil for the last three years and my vegetables have improved over time. I still tend to be impatient but I think I'm learning. This week I've cleared out my winter veggies and I'm adding manure, used coffee grinds, blood and bone and worm casts to the ground with the idea of resting most of the allotment during the hot Brisbane summer so I can hope for a bumper crop next season.

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  3. Good morning Rhonda, Having just moved from Boonah to the southern Darling Downs, I did just that on the weekend - met up with local gardeners at a great workshop. It was great to hear about the local climate and to connect with like-minded folks to learn more. One statement stayed with me "Feed the soil, not the plant and you will have success" - bears out what you are saying here.
    Barb

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  4. It was a bit of a revelation to me when, a couple of years ago, I decided to do everything I was told about growing vegies. I prepared the soil first, then planted. And during the growing phase, I dutifully watered with a seaweed solution as a tonic each fortnight, and the weeks in between, I watered with watered-down worm wee.

    A miracle! For the first time EVER, my vegies did what they were supposed to do, and they were yummy!

    As I said, a bit of a revelation - those wise owls know what they are talking about. There I was thinking it can't make that much of a difference, but how wrong was I. Now I listen to those wise owls (by the way, Rhonda, you are one of those wise owls).

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  5. We are indeed fortunate here in Australia to be able to grow our own vegetables and some fruit year round. Our gardens are unprotected too here on the Darling Downs but I believe there is now a problem with rabbits in the region so that might be a new challenge in the future They mustn't have heard of the rabbit proof fence! LOL! Hubby has put hundreds of ute loads of manure into our soil over the 35+ years we have been here so it is great for growing veggies as a result and the storm which passed through last night will also benefit the new seedlings we have just put in.

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  6. I know you are always super busy and at the moment you are talking about gardening but could ask a quick question which I'm sure you will know the answer to . Why do the dark items come out of the washing machine covered in white marks and how do I fix it -I'm wasting so much water re rinsing everything - I use a cold water liquid -I don't overfill the machine- I keep the machine clean inside . ?

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    1. It sounds like your washing liquid isn't dissolving properly and that is what the white marks are. Do you use powder or liquid? If you're using powder, you might think about crossing over to liquid. If you are using liquid and it's the homemade kind, you might need to mix it more. If you've got a stick blender, use that. It's great at emulsifying the laundry liquid I make and the liquid is as smooth as. If you've already tried all these measures, the last thing I can think of it to reduce the amount of liquid you add to your machine.

      Good luck, Gail and let me now how you go with it. xx

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  7. Well my kale plants are embarrassing compared to yours but as you say at least it is better to try & grow our own food even if it is not perfect.
    Also I think it is important that growing food should be fun as when it becomes a chore it loses its appeal.

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    1. We only had them that size one year. I think it was more to do with the seeds we used rather than our gardening skills. Kale is one of the easiest of all vegies to grow. Just make sure you give them weak liquid fertiliser (homemade of course) every two weeks and they'll thrive. Good luck with your gardening. :- )

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  8. Very good advice, we have just been in our house a couple of years and the garden is doing well but not abundant - that will come with time and effort and it will get better every year like it did at the old house. The other thing I had to learn that seems so silly, just plant what we like to eat! I now have a little space devoted to stuff I like that hubby doesn't and I just grow enough for me!

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  9. Thank you for posting about this, I'm looking forward to tomorrow's post too. My husband and I have moved to a new U.S. state (Texas), and we are about to purchase our first home. It has a big backyard, and although I dabbled with gardening in my teens, I have to say that the extent of my knowledge is from books. In my mind I imagine an amazing garden, full of produce that we eat and preserve for the pantry. It's quite overwhelming to say the least... and I certainly don't want to spend too much money the first year. Maybe at first I'll concentrate on growing easy vegetables, like you mentioned, and also focusing on vegetables that are expensive, like green bell peppers, tomatoes, etc.

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    1. As soon as you move in, start composting so you're ready to enrich your soil when it's time to start gardening there. As a new gardener, it's important that you don't over do it in the first couple of years. Look at those years as time for building your skills and improving the fertility of your land. Of course, you'll still be growing in those first years, but you'll do it at a slower pace because you're learning as you go. When you get through those first two seasons, you'll be full of enthusiasm about adding new varieties and pushing the envelop more. Good luck. I wish you well in your new home. xx

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  10. An interesting read , I am looking forward to the thrift post too xxx

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  11. In spite of not having a veg. garden, I do have a compost bin in which I put all the things you mention, but not in the correct ratio up to now. I add torn up paper occasionally when I think of it but 95% of it is kitchen fruit and veg. peels and other waste, so it is very slimy. I read once that you should add garden lime to a compost heap, so I add a cupful of that now and then. Years ago I must have been doing things properly because the bin was absolutely alive with worms, but one day I threw in the used kitty litter (removed the solids first though), and quickly found out that was a big mistake. The worms vanished and have never returned. Sometimes I ask our gardener (we pay someone to mow the lawns and do other heavy labor) to dig out the bottom of the compost bin and spread it around the garden (such as it is), so the shrubs and bulbs have been getting a good feed I suppose.
    But is there any way I can fix the wet compost now or should we start again from scratch?

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    1. Rhonda? Just wondered if you can provide me with advice for my wet compost that I wrote about here?

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    2. Hi Gina. You should never add any cat or dog litter or poo into your compost but I guess you know that now. Read this guide to making compost http://down---to---earth.blogspot.com.au/2010/02/simple-living-series-making-compost.html it should guide you well. The basic rule is you need much more dry-brown-carbon material to much less wet-green-nitrogen material. Of course you'll want to comport all the kitchen waste you already have so you'll have to find far more dry browns. Things such as shredded paper, cardboard, straw, dried leaves etc. When you think about it, the greens just turn to wet sludge and it needs dry carbon to give substance and structure to soak up all the wetness. That's the only thing you're getting wrong. And you only have to add garden lime when the compost smells but if you make it to the correct ratio, it shouldn't - the smell is coming from too much nitrogen.

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  12. This year we discovered how satisfying it is to harvest your own veg. Yes, it's hard work, but more than worth it. Our plot is tiny, so we went for runner beans (you can't ever buy nice ones because they let them grow too big and stringy!) beetroot (the pigeons got those seedlings - you live and learn) rhubarb and raspberries. The crop was very good and we swapped and gave away excess, receiving tomatos, apples and courgettes (zucchini) in exchange. So even if you have little space, don't be deterred!

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    1. Well done, Charlotte! That is a great first year. I love that you swapped to get other vegetables you did grow this year. Keep up the good work and happy gardening.

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