Starting a vegetable garden

29 July 2008

Gardening is one of those things that is very difficult to write a one size fits all formula for. What works for me, might not work for you because of our different climates, soil and level of experience. But what I hope to do today is to write a general guide to starting a garden and hope it encourages you enough to give it a go and in doing so develop your own skills in this important subject. I also hope to answer some of the questions asked after yesterday's post.

Hanno and I live in the sub-tropics, and although our temperatures in summer are always in the 30s C (86 - 100 F) with high humidity, we experience that only from late November till February. In winter - June - August our general temperature range is 5C (at night) to the mid 20s during the day (41 - 77F). So for six months of the year we have what I would call extreme temperatures and the remaining six months the weather is perfect - low humidity, with temperatures ranging from 15 - 25 (59 - 77F) day and night.

Here is our home - the yellow area is where we have our vegetable garden, the pink is the chook run, blue is the screen Hanno built last week and the light dots are fruit trees and vines. (Clicking on photos will enlarge them.)

Those temperatures allow us to grow food all year round, although what we grow and how we grow changes according to the season. We have one acre of land and our home is about in the centre of it. There is a little one lane, dead end track leading to our place, we have an old abandoned timber mill across the road that we can't see due to a planting of pine trees, there are neighbours on both sides and a permanent creek and remnant rainforest at back. We are at the edge of a pine forest and about 15 kms from the Pacific Ocean. Our creek at the back runs into the ocean.

I have been a vegetable gardener for many years and have grown vegetables and kept chickens for the past 25 years. Over that time we have never deviated from the one true guide to what we grow. We grow what we eat. So I guess my first piece of advice to you if you're just starting out with a garden, is to make a list of the fruits and vegetables you eat regularly, then start cutting that list back. Strike out anything you know you can't grow. For instance, if you're in northern Canada or Scotland and eat pineapples and bananas, strike them off your list because I doubt you'd be able to grow them. And if you could, it would be such a trial it wouldn't be worth it. This is a guide to practical vegetable gardening, not in forcing food to grow against all odds. If you live in sunny and hot northern Australia or Hawaii, you probably won't be able to grow cabbages, cauliflowers or swedes.

Where I live we never grow onions. We have Welsh (green) onions, but never the bulbous red, brown or white onions that both Hanno and I love. We tried them for two years and the harvest of them was so poor, and they took up so much room, we decided that onions where one of the vegetables we would have to always buy. Ditto for garlic. We grew some but much of it rotted in the ground, so now we buy organic garlic from the market.

Do you see where I'm going with this? You'll finally have a list of food you like to eat that you can easily grow, once you have developed your skills and have the time it takes to do it. You will also have some things you can't grow, or will take too much room or effort to make it worthwhile. Remember, vegetable gardening is not something you'll dabble with when you feel like it. Once you've made the commitment to it, you will be working hard on producing your food and that will require time and effort. Don't go down that path unless you will give it the necessary time and effort.

Get yourself a good book on gardening in your climate and read all about the vegetables and fruit you want to grow. If you're in Australia, I recommend Lyn Bagnall's Easy Organic Gardening and Moon Planting. It is, by far, the best book on gardening in Australian conditions that I've read. Plant up everything you want and be guided by your book for the care of your plants. I would recommend you start with seedlings and when you have a bit more experience, start growing from seed and save your own seeds each year. This will cut down on your costs but also give you seeds ideally suited to your climate and soil conditions. Each year your seeds with get better and be more inline with your own conditions. When you have some experience, push the boundaries imposed by your climate and, if there is something you really want to grow, try it and see what happens.

It is commonly held to be true in my region that you plant one crop of potatoes in Autumn to be harvested in early Spring. We did that for a few years, then wondered if we could push our boundaries to another later crop - it worked. Then we tried for an earlier crop as well, that worked too. Now we plant potatoes all year through and generally have good crops that make it well worth our time and effort. You probably know already that home grown tomatoes taste far better than anything you'll get from a supermarket, the same applies to potatoes. They have a much better taste if you grow them in your own backyard and one taste of a new potato, cooked to perfection and dressed with butter, parsley, salt and pepper will convince you, far better than my words can, they are a valuable back yard crop.

But I digress, we are still at the planning stage. You will always have some foods you can't grow, that's just a fact of life. Don't be upset by that, just accept it and get on with what you can grow. Once you have a list of possible contenders, if you're a novice gardener work out what it is you eat the most of, or what is the most expensive to buy, and start with that. Don't take on too much in the first year. I know you'll be excited and optimistic, but this is a new skill, just like sewing and knitting. Start off with a dishcloth or apron, instead of a cable jumper or ball gown. Each year add new things or grow more but in those early stages, be prudent and concentrate on a small but well grown garden.

The best bit of advice I can give you is to improve your soil before you start gardening. Unless you live on an old volcano your soil will be like mine and will need improving. If you plant into virgin soil, your plants will grow but you'll most likely have small crops or small vegetables. Remember too, that the bugs attack stressed plants much more than healthy ones. Gardening takes a lot of time and effort so make sure you maximise the potential of your crop and give your plants every chance. Improve the soil before you start. That may mean that you work on your garden soil for a while before you start. If you have clay soil, you'll improve it by adding compost. If you have sandy soil, you'll improve it by adding compost. (I'll write about compost tomorrow.)

If you have clay soil and are prepared to add compost to it, you'll end up with the best rich soil you can imagine. Clay holds a lot of nutrients but as it's so sticky and dense, the plant roots cannot breathe and they die. Adding compost to clay lightens up the soil, providing air spaces for roots and worms, and it frees up the nutrients already there so they're available for your plants. Clay also holds the water and often plants drown if they're planted into unimproved soil.

Sandy soils are at the other end of the range. They don't hold water or nutrients and you'll have to water much too often if you don't improve the soil by adding compost. Planting in sandy soils will give you grief because your plants will fail to thrive and probably die without fruiting.

If you take the time to improve the soil you will grow plants quite easily. They'll be fed by the nutrients in the soil, they'll benefit from the moisture holding capacity of your soil and not go constantly from dry to wet, or sit with their roots in water that can't drain away. Don't be tempted to buy in garden soil either. Unless you can get a tested organic blend, you'll be importing more trouble in the form of weed seeds that might take you ten years to get rid of. And remember, garden soil and the mix you put in pots, are two different things. Garden soil is the topsoil from the earth. Potting mix is manufactured soil made by combining compost, sand, peat etc that is free draining and won't go hard in a pot when you add water.

I hope by now I've convinced you to improve your soil before you start anything. You should start building your list of foods to grow and look around for good quality seedlings. The first step though is to build some compost, we'll start that tomorrow.

ADDITION: Rosie is unchanged. Hanno will try to get her to the vet today.


  1. Great post today Rhonda I am sure it will help a lot of people.
    How is dear Rosie What did the vet say????

    The Other Rhonda

  2. Thankyou for this Rhonda. It's just what I needed to get back into the garden. I have had a few starts and recently have been trying to decide how and where to put in more garden beds.
    With reference to an older post about dishwashers. We bought an Asko about 5 years ago for the water efficency and how well it washes. It uses 18L per normal wash. I believe the newer ones now use around 12L. I can't beat either of those water amounts for washing by hand. DH and I have five young children and LOTS of dishes as you can imagine. I cook alot to keep them fed, this is a skill that I have learnt over the past few years, when we were first married dh did most of the cooking.
    Thankyou for the insights into your life, such an inspiration to many I am sure. I am content to be at home and to make a home, it is so nice to realise that there are others out there too.
    Bec xxx

  3. Hi Rhonda- Your post today is dead on. In this part of Texas, we have clay soil, not much rain, and high (100+) temps with higher winds (30 to 50+mph). Beginning my first garden was a right angle learning curve. But I didn't kill everything and we are slowly gathering our first small crop. I'm absolutely thrilled every time I pick dinner. So thanks for your work and I'm looking forward to compost lessons. Thx, Judie

  4. Hi Rhonda,

    Thanks for the great Post, very informative as I'm still learning about growing our own food, snow peas was the on thing that didn't grow too well for us this year but grew great at the inlaws 5 minutes away, who knows, we will try again next year in a different spot.

    How is Rosie? I hope all is well.

    Tracie xx

  5. Very timely Rhonda. We just planted our first vegie garden on the weekend. As you advised, we've opted for directly sown varieties to maximise our success at these early stages. I must check our library for the book you recommended. I look forward to reading about compost tomorrow, as it's something that completely baffles us!

  6. The first time I ever grew potatoes was by accident - potato peels in the compost pile! I didn't know what the plant was until I dug it up.

    You have such good advice, Rhonda, on starting a garden and figuring out what to plant. I love the idea of all of us planting and nurturing things and depending less and less on the corporate farms. In one of your earlier posts you spoke of expanding the edible garden to your front yard. I've been inspired to move out of just the garden plot since that post. My stepdad always said, "If you can't eat it, it isn't worth growing!" But, I like flowers, too:)

  7. Your blog is very inspirational and I find myself checking in each day. I have a tomato plant, some strawberries and a blueberry bush in a pot - that's it for this year, but my husband and I are planning for a small garden next spring. We'll work on a compost pile though to get ready.
    How's Rosie? I hope all is well.

  8. Hi
    How did you get the Ariel view map??????? I want one too!! It was soo fun to look at. I reakon it's awesome how you are in your 60's and keeping up with technology.

    Thanks for sharing the types of seeds you plant I've kept some in mind for my order from - If you get a chance go look at their 30th Anniversary edition (Picture on their website above). - It reminded me of you - the saying on the quilt is embroidered with
    "Tickle the Earth with a hoe and she laughs a harvest"
    I thought you might like it.

    Love Leanne NZ - whose winter garden only has silverbeet & broad beans. The pukeko's dealt to my garden. My dh is going tocage my next garden to stop these protected NZ pests!

  9. Every area has its own challenges when it comes to vegetable gardening. It has been a slow year for us in Southern Ontario, as we have had a heck of a lot of rain this July. However I am generally happy with what my little patch provides.

    Gill from Canada

  10. Dear Rhonda,

    I've just eaten a chickpea burger, made from your recipe and it was scr-r-r-rumptious!

    We grow mostly perennial flowers now because of my health problems (the veggies were always ready when I wasn't and a lot ended up being composted and cried over). I have been asked for gardening advice and one of the things I always tell people is to check what others are growing in your neighbourhood. This is a good place to start. Try to strike up a conversation with a good gardener in your neighbourhood. Although there are always exceptions, most gardeners are tickled pink to show someone their garden and give advice... and often give seeds and plants, too.

  11. Hi Rhonda,
    Now that is what I call a vege garden!!!! I have lways tended to grow my veges in with my flowers (compaion planting)but I am running out of room in the house yard, and am in the process of fencing of some of the cows paddock next door and turning this in my vege garden.Looking forward to learning about compost as I can never get it right.
    I hope you can get Rosie into the vet today,good luck.

  12. I was lucky enough to move into a house that had previously had a composter in it. You can definately tell by the veges that are growing. Bring on the compost. I have three composting systems going. Regular, worm and chook compost. It means I can compost anything and not worry, just have to sort

  13. {{{hugs}}}} for Rosie - hope she will be okay and that it is nothing serious.
    We are freezing our butts off down in the SE of South Australia, ice on our cars this morning, overcast skies, wind coming off the Southern ocean and I don't think it's much more than 8 degrees!! But I did brave it and go for my 5km walk at 6am with my friend. My husband thinks I'm nuts!! :)
    Brrrrr!!! Mmmm, what sort of casserole can I knock up for dinner?? I must say, I love this time of year when we get those bleak days then a sun shiney day which means Spring is just around the corner. Bring it on!
    Thanks for the gardening post.

    Cheers - Julie, Millicent SA

  14. Rhonda, an excellenty written article!!very good advice.
    enjoyed reading it.
    will have the new issue of Small Town Living available soon..will send you notice..I think I have your email address?
    If not just check the website the first of the month.Would like for you to consider writing an article at some point if you'd be interested.

  15. I am of those friends who do not comment, so I thought I should do so since I have been mentioned in a previous posting. The reason I don't comment is because I am a very fortunate woman and have the inspirational Rhonda as a colleague at my work place, therefore I see Rhonda 3 days a week when she comes into the Centre.We get to share stories, and I get to pick up great ideas for bringing more joy into my life by a living a simple life. So I know that you will all be incredibly envious of me now, knowing that I have this fabulous woman on tap. It's a great blog and what a wonderful gift to all her readers, allowing us into their home and life. Wendy Mc

  16. Hi Rhonda
    We have just taken on an allotment (90ft x 30ft). They are new allotments on old pasture land and have not been cultivated.
    We are in the far SW point of the UK and our temps are mild. Summer 14-22c, winter 5-14c. Rough guide.

    These posts are going to be so helpfull to us in our new venture. Thankyou so much for all your advice and encouragement.

    Hope Rosie is feeling better.

    Pippa xx

  17. Great post about starting a veg. garden. I agree wholeheartedly -the taste of what you grow yourself, pick fresh and then eat is always so much better than bought veg. We picked the last of the redcurrants yesterday evening -I wonder if you have those in Australia

  18. Oh, I forgot to add to my last comment that I do hope all will be OK for Rosie the airdale

  19. Excellent advice as always Rhonda. My greenhouse is doing well so far. I have tomatoes, courgettes (zucchini) and cucumbers in there, and there are little versions of every one of them growing merrily away!

    Don't forget that if you live in a colder climate and have a greenhouse, you can grow more tropical stuff in the greenhouse than you could grow in the vege patch. You just need to make sure you're growing in pots or the soil in the greenhouse could get diseased, and in any case would quickly be depleted of nutrients.

    I'm looking forward to the composting lesson. I made my own compost bin a few years ago, and all the kitchen waste goes on there. However I've never gotten to using any of it, but the compost at the bottom looks cracking! I shall have to use it on the designated future vege patch area I'm going to prepare for next year's growing season.

    Looking forward to tomorrow :-)

    Love to you all, FiFi

  20. Good morning from Michigan. Do you anchor the cement blocks for your raised gardens? Everything I've read so far on using cement blocks says you need to anchor them. Do you find they hold heat? Do you plant anything in the holes of the blocks?

    Thanks for sharing your life.

  21. Great advice! I think I have to wait until next year to start, but I'm very excited to start planning.

    I hope Rosie is ok!

  22. Hi Rhonda! I've passed an award along to you -

    Thanks for all the wonderful information you are equipping everyone with!

  23. Hi Rhonda

    We live in South Africa and I'm sure our climate is similar to yours. I would really like to buy the book by Lynn Bagnall, but can't find it anywhere, tried Amazon but it's not avaliable. Any suggestions? Thank you so much for your wonderful blog, I try to read it every day!

  24. just sending my good wishes hopes and some positive thoughts for Rosie,I hope she is on the mend Rhonda


  25. Hi Rhonda Jean,
    I have just started our vegie garden and wanted to know, where you get your heritage seeds from?
    I am interested in trying these. They sound very inertesting.
    I hope Rosie is okay,

  26. Leanne, it's a Google Earth photo. Google Earth covers NZ as well, you should check it out and find your place.

    Linda, here is Lyn's blog and a link to buy her book:

    Wendy, my email is rhondahetzel at gmail dot com I am quite busy but could probably manage to rewrite something from a post here.

    Thanks Kim and Rabbit!

    Anon, the blocks aren't cemented in. Hanno set them into the soil and packed it back in tightly to keep them in place. They have been fairly stable so far. Yes, they hold heat and I've planted herbs in some of them.

    Kym, I buy them from Green Harvest - the link is on my side bar but you could also get some from your local seed savers group.

  27. I am paying a lot of attention to your vegetable garden posts. :-)

    I think I mentioned in a previous comment that I really want to start my own - we have some space out back that would do the trick but have yet to build any kind of beds to plant in - I am not sure what type of soil we have, all I know is that it is very hard to dig! I think it is because it has never been worked - its just grass, and always has been.

    Also I am getting myself confused as to what to plant at what time. Its summer (apparently) here in Scotland now - is it too late to be planting anything now? Or is there crops that will do well over a scottish autumn and winter? I am trying to find out all this information and am just getting myself confused. lol.

    One thing I have going for me is that we have compost on the go! I think it may be a little on the wet side though - we have a lot of grass clippings in there. Will have to add some dryer stuff to it I think.

    Will have to get the OH to help me dig the beds, even if I can't plant anything right now - it can't hurt to have the beds ready, right?

    We eat loads of cherry tomatoes and cucumbers - would I need some type of green house to grow these? I imagine I would.

    Nikki (from Scotland)

  28. I have a goal! Thank you so much for the time and effort in sharing your knowledge. Sounds like a have a season of composting and worm raising to accomplish. Could you talk about your worms one post. Thank you.


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