12 August 2007

Growing your own food

Nothing is better than crunching on snow peas while you work in the winter garden.

Growing your own food, or even some of it, is an important part of simple living. It gives you a good supply of fresh, organic food, it saves you money, it provides valuable exercise and it helps reconnect you with the earth. As a society we've moved away from viewing the earth as the source of our food. We've become reliant on whatever is presented for sale at the supermarket and while it's appealing to have that convenience, those supermarket vegetables do not contain the nutrients that will be ever present in your own back yard produce.

Not everyone can grow,
or will want to grow, a vegetable garden but for those of you who do, you’ll find it to be a great way to unite with nature and the seasons. If you have some space that will be suitable for growing food, I encourage you to set out on a journey of discovery, abundant harvests, and fully flavoured natural food. If you live in your own home a vegetable garden and a few fruit trees is a wonderful investment in your future health and will enable you to reduce the amount you spend on fresh food. If you live in rented accommodation, growing herbs, vegetables and fruit in containers is an activity that will provide a source of cheap organic food that can be a rewarding and enlightening pastime.

Planted up yesterday - four Richmond Green Apple cucumbers. These are a delicious cucumber that used to be very popular in Australia in the 1950s, sadly it's hardly grown at all now. I think it's got a better taste than the Lebanese cucs.

Organic growing is back to basics gardening the old fashioned way. If you decide to grow organically, the food you produce will be healthy with no synthetic chemicals or poisons added, and it will be fresh. I often wonder how old those supermarket vegetables are and where they’re from, but something tells me I don’t want to know the answer. One thing is certain, the fresher the food when you eat it, freeze it or preserve it, the better it is for you.

What is better than fresh English spinach with a few new potatoes, all freshly picked and served with a little butter, salt and pepper.

I kept chickens and dabbled in vegetable production long before I worked consciously towards my simple life. We had our first chickens when our sons were very young and I don't remember a time when I wasn't growing something. I don’t know how I’d get on now without my vegetable garden and chooks. At the moment, our garden supplies about eighty percent of our fresh food. We are working towards year round food production but this is the aspect of food gardening that I've found the most difficult to work out - the continual supply of vegetables and fruit. We'll get there one day.

Work out what you are capable of growing. If you have a small backyard or a unit, you’ll be looking to smaller crops, vegetables that will grow well in containers, sprouting and mushrooms. If you have a reasonable sized backyard with a sunny area for a vegie patch, you could plant almost anything that is suited to your climate. So, work out what you like to eat and grow the vegetables that are expensive to buy or the ones that are best fresh – like corn, lettuce, celery and potatoes.

A garden is a great place to recycle many commonly discarded items like egg cartons, milk bottles and newspapers. Here you can see the recycled reinforcing steel we found which mades an idea trellis for cucumbers.

Go out into the yard and check where the sun rises. You will need a sunny position with full sun if you live south of Brisbane, but if you’re in a sub-tropical or tropical area, you’ll need some afternoon shade. Vegetables need about eight hours of full sun to grow to maturity. The further north you live, the greater the need for shade in the afternoon.

You also need to locate the patch close to a hose or a tap so you can water the garden when it doesn’t rain. If you have a water tank, your vegetables will benefit from the rainwater, so make sure the tank hose can reach the vegetable garden. If you don't have a tank, look into what rebates you're offered in your part of the country and take advantage of them. It is quite an easy exercise to harvest the rain from your roof to be used later on your vegetables and fruit. It is the ultimate in recycling.

Instead of repeating the very good advice of a follow blogger, I'll refer you on to scarecrow's garden. Scarecrow has an excellent section on her blog on how to start your vegetable garden - Food gardening for beginners, which you'll find here.

If you have any specific questions, please email me and I'd be happy to help.

You can grow a wide range of vegetables in containers. Try to pick up some polystyrene boxes from the greengrocer or supermarket. You could also use plastic garbage containers or buckets, as well as conventional plant pots. Make sure whatever you use has adequate drainage holes, if they don’t, poke or drill some in. Fill the container with good quality potting mix, if you have compost, use about a third compost to two thirds potting mix. Don’t be tempted to save money by using garden soil as it won’t drain properly and your vegetables won’t grow.

I was given the seeds for these pigeon peas by Elizabeth Fekonia over at the permaculture garden at Yandina. It's a fine garden Elizabeth and her volunteers have going over there. If you have a chance, drop in for a look. I'm growing these pigeon peas for soup - they are the lentils you buy as split peas.

When you think about it, a seed is an amazing thing. Given the right conditions, it contains everything necessary to grow into whatever species it happens to be. It’s a dried up hard packet of potential life. How good is that! Usually, the most thrifty way to grow vegetables is to grow from seeds. The most frugal seeds are those you save from last year’s harvest or swap with someone in your neighbourhood. You could also swap seeds online. There are a couple of Australian online seed swap sites, this is one I am a member of. You have to join, but it’s free and there are many other resources on this site that will help you in your quest for simple living. http://www.aussieslivingsimply.com.au/news.php

To get yourself started, buy some organic vegetable seeds. You can buy these seeds from:
Or, you might find some at your local hardware store or plant nursery. Make sure the seeds you buy are open pollinated varieties of vegetables or herbs, and they should be fresh (check the use by date). Here are two excellent online resources with photos and information about heirloom open pollinated tomatoes:
Do some research on what tomatoes will suit you and then buy them from a place close to you.

Use some of the seeds you buy to plant in your own garden and swap the rest to get the other vegetables you need. You’ll be able to build up a big bank of seeds doing this and your new seeds will only cost you a stamp and a trip to the post office.

I believe the best seeds to choose are open pollinated types. In the old days all seeds were open pollinated but as a result of pressure to produce standardised fruit and vegetables several decades ago, some seed companies started to hybridise. In effect what they did was to breed vegetables for specific purposes and size. In the case of tomatoes, old-fashioned tomatoes were mainly the big beef steak types, these were no good for supermarkets. They had delicate skin that didn’t travel or store well and when trying to weigh a pound of tomatoes, two tomatoes where often well over a pound. So seed companies developed tomatoes with tougher skin (for transport) that were smaller and generally would weigh up as four to a pound. The problem was that when they were reinventing the tomato wheel, they forget to include the taste factor. When you taste a home grown open pollinated tomato it will taste like tomatoes used to taste like, it’s a hundred times better than a supermarket tomato. Aside from the superior taste, open pollinated vegetables are capable of passing on exactly the same characteristics to each generation. If you use seeds from hybrid vegies, sometimes the seeds will be sterile and sometimes they’ll not grow to type. You might be expecting a medium sized sweet tomato and you’ll get a small bitter one. Hybrid vegies can throw back to any of the types used to create it. So in essence, every year you will need to buy new seeds instead of being able to save the seeds from open pollinated vegies.

Another advantage to growing open pollinated seeds is that they will modify themselves
to suit your growing conditions. According to the Seed Savers website: “Food plants, grown organically, that have adapted themselves to your garden over generations of seed saving, will perform noticeably better in your kitchen than generalized hybrid plants, grown by chemical methods far away from your region, and subject to transportation and storage.”

I hope this has convinced you to start off with heirloom or open pollinated seeds. Don’t worry if you go the other road but in the future, when you can afford it or when you want to eat food like your grandma had, go the open pollinated route.

When you start, don’t be over ambitious in your first few years of gardening. There will be a lot to learn and there is a lot work involved in bringing your crops to harvest. Vegetable gardening is not for wimps. Go slow to start and add a couple of new vegies every year until you’ve reach your vegetable growing goal.

If you don’t have any idea about what you want to grow but like the idea of gardening, growing your own food, or living organically, then make a list of the vegetables you enjoy eating. Don’t grow what you won’t eat.

I think the most important piece of information
I can give you about gardening is that you feed the soil, not the plant. If you dig a garden plot and plant vegetable seedlings in it, without enriching the soil in any way, you'll get vegetables, but they'll be small and miserly. You must - I repeat, you must build up your soil with organic matter before you start plating. The more organic matter you have in your garden beds, the more abundant your harvests will be.

Yesterday H and I did a fair bit of work in our vegie garden. We pulled out a lot of old vegetables and fed them to the chooks. We're clearing an entire garden bed for potatoes we'll plant when we return from our trip. The next two months is our main planting time so as we plant, I'll take photos and show you what we're doing. So if you want to be ready for Spring, start planning now, start reading Scarecrow's guides, start enriching your soil, and soon we'll start our planting.

H and I ate this entire basket of silverbeet last night for dinner along with carrots, pumpkin, shallots, turnips and kipfler potatoes - all grown in our backyard.

I planted up some more capsicums (peppers) in the aquaponics garden yesterday. The fish are starting to become quite active again and the plants have responded to the current warm weather, so when we come back from our trip, I'll write more about the aquaponics system.


  1. Gee Rhonda your garden looks so lush. This year I'm struggling to grow anything! I'm not sure what I've done wrong as I've had success in the past. I wish my garden looked more like yours!

  2. Your garden looks great :) I am definitely going to try growing some of my own veggies this year. The snow peas look great and we all love eating them. They will definitely be on my list of things to try growing this year. My bok choy are nearly ready for harvest too :)

  3. Well so far I've succeeded in growing lettuce but very little else. This is my first attempt at vegie gardening. At least something grew so I'm encouraged to keep trying.

    We just bought in a load of compost for our second vegie garden plot so fingers crossed this one will do a bit better.

    Winter probably wasn't the best time to make my first attempt to grow something. :-)

    I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying it though - in the past I've always thought gardening was a bit too boring and overwhelming. Helps that I'm not going out as much as I used to so I have more time to potter in the garden.

    I look forward to reading more about what's happening in your garden.

  4. OH I am so envious of your mild winter!!!!! how wonderful! to even think about cucumbers in August!!!! Here we have an abundance of leeks, taties, stored pumpkins onions and garlic, spinnach, silver beets, kales, broccoli, nettles and rocket. IN the glass house- lettuce, tatsoi and baby spinnach, but TOMATOES!!! it is incredible! Everyting is GROWING, rather than just sitting waiting for sping. YOur garden looks so lovely Rhonda!

  5. Dear Rhonda,
    Just discovered your aquaponic system. We have one in the making at home and filled the beds with a con- gravel mix. Also applied for one through a grant for the Yandina permaculture gardens. Would appreciate shaing some of your own experience so we can learn from you how and avoid pitfalls. Thanks,
    Elisabeth Fekonia


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