Vegetable gardens - a few thoughts

30 January 2009

Teaming up to scour the backyard for insects - Kylie, Heather and Ann Shirley.

I often write about the natural world that lays waiting for me outside our back door. However, the part I focus on most often is that most unnatural part of our backyard - the vegetable garden. That, my friend, even with the natural bounty it delivers to us, even though it's organic and healthy and a green oasis for birds and reptiles, it's a fake rearrangement of natural elements. Those vegie out there would never grow in this area of their own accord; they are only there because they've been planted. Another instance of humans fashioning nature to suit ourselves.

The potatoes planted on January 18 have sprouted and poked their heads up through the mulch.

And I make no apologies for that, I am happy to have a productive garden. The trick in making the natural environment work to suit us is to make sure we do no harm doing it. We don't use artificial fertilisers on our garden, we don't spray insecticides around, we don't kill snakes or lizards; we manipulate our environment knowing that we must be careful doing it.

One of those gentle manipulations is this water collection system Hanno rigged up. It's simply a 200 litre open trough that collects rain water from a down pipe attached to the roof of the chook shed. Those 200 litres are used fairly quickly, always in the space of a week, before any mosquito larvae have a chance to hatch, but it's 200 litres less that we have to take from our water tanks.

Red paw paw (papaya) growing next to the chook shed iron wall which radiates heat and helps the plant to grow.

It's a similar thing on our roof. We have solar panels there which use the sun's rays to heat our water, and skylights which direct sunlight into our house to light two rooms inside without the use of electricity. I am hoping that we will buy more solar panels in the next year and not have to use any electricity from the grid, in fact, our solar generated electricity could very well go back into the grid. A very small collection point in that vast network.

Bok choi.

If you have a vegie patch, one of the things you could easily do to become part of the natural system is to grow comfrey and keep chooks. They will provide most of your fertilisers. Comfrey is richer in nitrogen than chook poo and is easily made into a nitrogen-rich tea, although, be warned, it stinks to high heaven. If you can't do that but still want to garden organically, buy fertilisers like blood and bone (bone meal) and seaweed concentrate. Seaweed is a wonderful boost for plants and provides them with the potassium required to flower well. More flowers, more fruit and vegetables.

It's fallen over on its side because it's so heavy. It's time to pick.

We're getting ready for our main planting which happens here in March. There are seeds growing in the green house and THE pineapple will soon be picked so Hanno can prepare that bed with chook poo, compost, worm castings and blood and bone. We do that every year, and in between each planting so we always have rich soil for our vegetables. I know many of our northern hemisphere friends will be planning their gardens now. Don't forget to treat the soil in your garden with respect, because unless it's healthy and teaming with microbes, your garden will be a disappointment to you.

Gardening is a wonderful use of human energy. It will provide you with nutritious food that is much fresher than anything you can buy. It does cost money to set up a garden, but once that initial investment is made, and if you buy or barter for heirloom seeds, you will continue gardening for years without having a huge amount of expense. We have budgeted $30 a month for our garden (and many months don't use that much), and that allows us to buy straw mulch, the occasional bags of cow manure, fencing wire and the like. It's a wise investment.

So who is planning a vegetable garden this year, and how many of you are first time gardeners?


  1. I'm in the planning stage - focusing my energy on vermicomposting right now and working to get more bins of worms going. I've bought my seeds and am working out where I am going to plant what. Long-time gardener.

  2. Not a first time grower but I have spent a happy afternoon with the seed catologues planning what we will grow this year. Only about another six weeks and we can get started. All the bulbs I put in in November are growing so hopefully we'll soon have some colour. Margaret.

  3. The pineapple is ripe! Yea!!! :-) I have been living vicariously watching your pineapple grow. You will have to show us the dish it ends up in. Would the pineapple plant grow another fruit if you left it?

  4. I'm a second year container gardener so I would still consider myself new. We are going to try a variety of vegetables and herbs.

  5. like my post name indicates I am in training, I recently bought some veg seeds and been doing alot of research on gardening...thx to your blog I have learned many things and have been inspired to take action (I now have my own blog)please continue to are an inspiration in many areas

  6. I'm growing a garden this year- for the first time on my own. I've helped mom in years past, but I'm in a different climate and soil type now.

    I'm happy because that means I'll get to grow things like tomatoes outside, and I might actually get a crop of sweet corn.

    I've started some tomatoes and broccoli indoors, and have peas and spinach sown outdoors.

  7. Me...Me...Me...I would love a vegie patch and with our newly aquired 6 acres I will be having one...Yes Please.

  8. Good day!
    The idea of the little water collection off the hen house ????I am not sure how to incorporate it. I am still praying my Mr will get on board. Today I planted a strawberry pot. My onions will go in once the Blood meal is added. The soil had sand peat moss and compost added. My two compost barrels are now beginning to break sown well. My checken poo is added to the compost bin. Are you adding right into the soil?
    Peas are still giving from last season.
    Planted now are the bush beans, Copenhagen cabbage, Chinese cabbage, radish.
    The soil will need a good tending on the other side of the path in the garden bed. I have not decided if I should wait to put the straw on the beds. Last season it seemed to suffocate several of the plants.
    I would LOVE to barder a few seeds. Do you ever ware jewelry. I enjoy that skill. We both sew and you knit. Would love a few dish cloths.
    I found an old towel that was my mothers. It has holes in it and I saw your little coverlet. I think I will make a few of those with beaded weights . I love the red stitching on it.
    Want to barter some seed of the Brandy wine tomatoes?
    How do you plant potatoes? Do you just use a potato?
    I read about planting sweet potatoes in a wine barrel and growing as a vine plant then pulling up the sweets at seasons end. With the limited land I thought if I could find an old barrel I might do so.

    Good Day to you.

  9. I'm planning a veggie garden. I've never done anything beyond basil in a pot myself, but grew up with my mother's huge garden. I'm hoping to follow in her footsteps. I don't have a lot of room, but I think I can manage it. I just got my heirloom seed catalog today! I'm blogging about it, along with other green and frugal things. But for now, until the feet of snow go away (I'm in northern Ohio in the US), I'm just dreaming and planning.

  10. I have made my list of seeds to order from an organic seed company. I can't wait to get out into the garden and get my hands dirty! I planted some lettuce seeds in a galvanized steel bucket yesterday and have it sitting in the southern window of my living room. I read in a magazine that you can grow your own greens inside -- even when it's 20 degrees outside! Can't wait to see what happens!


  11. I am planning to grow a nice garden soon. I have looked after 50 or so blueberry bushes for my father before but other then that I have no growing/planting experience.

  12. Last year was my first year gardening on my own.
    This year, we're going to be moving into our first house, having a baby, and hopefully getting some chickens, pigs and a goat, as well as gardening!! So I'm not sure just how much I'll be able to do, or what the soil will be like (there were no previous gardens there)...but we shall see, and do the best we can!!

    My daughter (20 months) loved your chicken picture in this post, and we looked at it for 5 minutes before she'd let me read further!


  13. I planted potatoes recently too! They're great for breaking up the soil in new garden beds.

    Did you grow your red paw paws from seed? I've got a bunch of both red and yellow that I grew from seed, now I'm trying to find space around the garden for them all.

    How long did your paw paws take to fruit?

  14. As much as I would like to start a container garden,I have yet to start. I would like to start, with something that is very easy to grow in a container; as I have never had a garden and I don't know how green a thumb I have.

    Also what kind of seeds are the best to get?

  15. I'm a very good garden organiser Rhonda, lol! Tony gardens well so I'm happy to leave it to him, he has such green fingers. We have had some success with radishes, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, parsley and beetroot this summer.

    Do you keep a diary or log of what you plant? I was thinking it might be a good idea if we did. Rose

  16. Good Morning Rhonda

    Last year I took on an allotment and this is the first full season. I have been busy planning over the last few weeks and choosing seeds. Water gathering is my main problem as I only have one small shed to collect from. Do you have any ideas?

    Pippa xx

  17. It will be our second season this year in the vegie patch and perhaps a little better planned and planted earlier. I have ordered some seeds and have some other things I want to try, thanks to blog-reading.
    I'm not going to think about it today- we're getting 40 degrees again and its too depressing watching everything and being unable to water until tomorrow's designated hour.
    But when the hot spell is over, I will get my motivation back and start preparing for the months ahead.

  18. This is going to be my first year gardening. I've got my compost going and a rough sketch for some raised beds. Our home sits on a little over 1/2 acre, so we don't have lots of room.

    The most exciting part so far has been when the seed catalogs arrived. My boys (8 and 10) are enjoying thumbing through the pages and picking out a few things that they want to help grow!

    Thank you so much for your inspiration and guidance!!!

  19. Hello everyone! Thanks for letting in on your gardening plans. I find it very interesting.

    Janet, it will be eaten as is. No cooking, fluffing, crimping or adding. The plant itself has already sent up another shoot from which another pineapple will grow. But Hanno has been eagerly waiting on me to harvest this pineapple so he can have "his" garden back. : - |
    I'll plant the top of this one, plus a few more I've been saving, in the front garden along with the pumpkins.

    G'day Donetta. We don't use fresh chicken poo. It's either added to the compost, or we have a little area off the chicken house (where they sleep) that is fenced in. We throw lawn clippings in there and the occasional vegetables containing seeds and they spend a lot of time there turning it over for us. The result is good fast compost - that's what we put on the garden beds, along with the regular compost.
    I do wear jewellery, but generally only a my wedding ring, and sometimes earrings and an antique silver sovereign holder Hanno have me many years ago when I'm at work. My tastes are pretty plain and I feel uncomfortable with too much sparkle. We can't accept seeds from overseas, we have VERY strict quarantine laws. The potatoes are just the small potatoes from the last crop - after we make sure there are no signs of disease.

    Melanie, thank you for telling me about your daughter. That's so cute. Virgin soil usually needs to be built up quite a bit. Most soil can keep plants alive, but if you're aiming for prolific harvests and healthy food, it needs help.

    Darren, our tree was bought as a bisexual seedling. You should get fruit in your first year, they need a lot of manure and mulch.

    Suzen, you best seeds will be any open pollinated or heirloom seeds. Buying those closer to where you live will give you seeds better suited to your conditions. Generally lettuce are very easy to grow, so are radishes and cucumbers, and all can be grown in containers as long as you have a fence for your cucumber to climb up. Start of slow and increase your numbers each year.

    Rose, I keep records in my home management journal. I record what I plant, not what I harvest. If we don't have enough to eat in a particular season, I know to plant more the next.

    Pippa, could you rig up a small plastic tarp or sheet - something solar proof, that could funnel the rain water from the little roof to a water barrel on the ground? Otherwise, add a small length of guttering to the roof on the down side and attach it to a downpipe sitting in a rain barrel. Good luck. Are you home again now?

    Dana, it's great that your boys are helping and learning as they go. Excellent! Your block is big enough for a good family sized garden. Good luck.

  20. We got out garden going over the past 6 months and it's just incredible! We are still feeling our way along, but even our failures have been such great learning experiences that it's all good.

  21. Hi Rhonda
    I did some vegetable gardening last year, I hope to do much better this year. The ground I had to work with last year was pretty poor. I composted all our veg trimmings, coffee grounds, leaves, etc last summer and fall into 2 piles that are now under 2 feet of snow, but will become my new beds in the spring. I set up 2 water barrels last summer and that helps a lot when we get dry spells! I would really like 2 more barrels. I eagerly look at pictures of other bloggers gardens to get ideas, including yours. I wish I could grow a pineapple! But in my area I will have to settle for beans and peas and stuff like that.

  22. I'm in the "go through catalogs and circle everything I want" phase. I will then have to make a reasonable list of a fraction of those items that I'll actually purchase and grow. My "garden eyes" are definitely larger than my "garden plate".

    I gardened seriously last year (as in digging up a huge part of the lawn and putting in all sorts of stuff, peas, squash, beans, tomatoes, etc). I've tinkered with gardening before, but hadn't gotten serious about it.

    I think it is immensely important, and I'll be removing some more lawn this year and hopefully planting some berry bushes. (I'm seriously thinking about asparagus and rhubarb too... YUM.)

  23. Hi Rhonda,

    We've had alot of success with our tomatoes and pumpkins but want to do more work on the soil, as although we have 4 chooks, all the straw and poo has been going into the compost bins with the kitchen scaps so am waiting for a bin to fill so we can use. Am inspired to do more growing from seed so joined the Diggers. May have time to read catalogues as one little one has gone back to preschool.

    thanks for all the great ideas and discussion, Anna from Sydney

  24. This will be my first garden ever this spring. I am so nervous and don't even know where to start.

  25. I'm a long-time gardener and March is when I begin to plant seeds for winter vegies. I don't want to grow comfrey as it tends to become weedy -- how do you contain yours, Rhonda?

  26. I'm a northern gardener still with two feet of snow on the ground. We can't plant until mid to late May outside ... unless we manipulate the garden with row covers, waterbags/bottles to soak up the day's sun to give warmth at night. This will be my second year with a veggie garden. Last year I learn so much about timing the planting of seeds, spacing, etc. All winter long I dream about my garden and what stuff I can recycle (milk jugs, newspaper, etc) to make free garden supplies. We make compost and I'm trying to come up with a good winter compost method. Living in a snow belt, a person has to be very creative. I so love visiting your blog. We're fortunate to live just a few miles from a planet friendly u-pick farm too.

  27. I have gardened casually and semi-seriously for many years. But this will be my second year trying to grow as much of our own food as possible. I learned a lot last year, as I do every year in the garden. Gardening is just one of those things you have to dive in and try in order to learn. Books and advice only take one so far. It's good to remember though that even the professionals have serious failures some years. That's the way it goes.

    I'm getting itchy for soil, cooped up inside by this winter weather.

    Added: Too funny! My verification word is "skint." How very apropos for these times!

  28. Hi Ronda Jean, what tag would I look under to find everything you know about keeping chickens :) I remember seeing that on your blog a time ago but cannot seem to remember where :)



  29. I am dreaming of this year's garden already. I posted about last summer's garden (my first) on my blog today. It is quite modest compared to yours, but you did inspire us to collect water in a rainbarrel for watering our vegetables. We're planning to expand our garden this year, my husband is sold on the idea of growing our own.

  30. Chookie, I think you may have the wrong idea about comfrey. It needs to be planted in an area at the edge of the garden, we have ours beside what used to be our compost bins, just at the back of the chook house. It doesn't run or multiply sideways, but if you want to dig it out it's difficult to get rid of it because just a small piece left behind will start a new plant. You usually just harvest the leaves and leave the roots alone. I have been growing my two clumps of comfrey for 11 years here and they still take up the same amount of space they always did, with no help from me. I'd encourage you to get some, keep it in a container if you're not game to plant it, but it is a most useful herb.

    Ang, the "Biggest Kitchen Table" is probably your best bet, otherwise look through "backyard".

    April, it's good you're collecting water. It's one of the sustainable practices that supports a garden.

  31. Hi Rhonda-I'm growing a few tomato plants for the first time- one has just started to flower.Fingers crossed.
    A couple of my comments have gone astray-I'm not sure if it's my computer or something in transit.Did my previous comment on this post make it to its destination?-I'm not that great with my computer skills but my computer is pretty ancient too.

  32. Hi Rhonda,

    I love your writing and find it very informative and helpful. I had my first go at a veggie garden late last year. I planted cherry tomatoes, broccoli and lettuce. The cherry tomatoes gave me the most yield and pleasure! Unfortunately no broccoli to speak of. I'm going to dig it all out this weekend and build up the soil like you suggest and plant some more in the coming months. Oh I also had some strawberries in a long windowsill type pot and it produced 2 little strawberries. I seem to be having trouble with them - they are in direct sunlight (I live in Sydney). Do you suggest putting them in part shade? I fertalise them once a month with organic fish ash watered down.

  33. This is my second year of veggie gardening after a (too) long break for college and a ten year teaching career.
    My first year home with our daughter, she was a newborn so we only had a few tomatoes out front.
    Last year we did straw bales with tomaotes, squash in the front 'flower' bed and a small pumpkin patch in the back.
    This year I am enlarging the pumpkin patch and putting in two raised beds for cucumbers, squash, radishes, carrots and herbs. I am building two smaller raised beds at the ends of my clothesline for peas and lufas. I will have two long rows of tomatoes with pole beans down the center of our long 'flower' bed out front.
    I am most excited about the fact that this year is the first year I will be planting all heirloom varieties! I can't wait for 'real' tomatoes again!
    ps--thanks for all the general knitting encouragement! I've crocheted since childhood, but taught myself to knit mid-December and have 8 dishcloths, three pair of fingerless gloves, two scarves and two neck cowles finished (with one more on needles) to date!
    Your daily thoughts and encouragement are such a blessing!

  34. Hi Rhonda
    I'm one of those readers that seldom comment but really appreciate your effort and writing. This is the only blog I read every day. Thank you for your inspiration. I have a question. I read in your post about potatoes that there are heavy metals in old tyres. Here in South Africa they use old tyres for worm farms. I wanted to do it myself, but now I was wondering wether the heavy metals will have any influence on the worms or their castings. I don't want the toxins in the rest of my garden - thinking i'm produsing healthy food for my family....
    Is there anyone who can give me advise? Thank you very much!

  35. maryanne, I didn't receive your previous comment. Sorry.

    Chantel, I think you're fertilising your strawberries too much. They need rich and fertile soil but not much else except seaweed concentrate while they're growing. They need full sun unless it's 40*, then I'd move them into semi shade in the afternoon.

    Amber, it's great to read you've taken up the needles. Well done!

    Erica, you should do some research to see if there is cadmium in the tyres in South Africa, if there is, don't use them.

  36. Morning Rhonda,
    I am currently digging up a small patch of my garden to turn into a veg patch this year. It isn't in complete full sun which worries me, but it is all I have got, so I am giving it a try with root veg and brassicas. I am also planning a large bucket of new potatoes and a few planters of Tomatoes on the front drive which is south facing.
    We are also getting ready for three red hens to arrive.
    My attempts are all very small scale, but we have two young children, a dog and a small NE facing garden so I am trying to make the most of what little I have got. Hopefully it works and that might justify me expanding the veg patch abit next year :-)

    I love reading your blog, its been a year now that I have been visiting you and my life is much richer for it. Thank you
    Lv Steph xxx

  37. Ohhhh... I just realised that if you click to preview your post , you have to type in another funny little word verification thingy. At least, I think that's it.Honestly, when my 13 year old isn't home, I think I should just stick to paper and pen!Or my quill or something.

  38. My seed potatoes are in egg boxes chitting at the mo and am preparing mt first raised bed this weekend, and looks like the risk frost might have passed (what do you other Brits think on that??) so I'll get some tomato seeds and other veges on ready for my lovely new patch! Most of the tomatoes and courgettes will be in the greenhouse, and I'll get some early salad leaves going in there too. Need some troughs for that so see what's at the car boot sale on Sunday morning.

    Good luck everybody!

    Thanks again for the wonderful post Rhonda - you inspire me SO much :-)

  39. Beth from Upstate NYJanuary 30, 2009 11:12 pm

    I started gardening last year and hauled in a harvest of 32 heads of garlic - which we ate by December! I've planted enough for 65 heads this year; we'll see how long that lasts us. I have to plant with the deer, rabbits and whistle pigs (groundhogs) in mind as they figure they own the place.

  40. I am in the process of planning a huge garden on our summer farm. We just bought it at the beginning of winter and currently live in an apartment. We plan on spending weekends up there when the winter thaw hits us and then all summer there once the kids get out of school in June.
    I am not a beginning gardener but I am not as well equipped as I would like to be to handle 3 acres of land. Our neighbors are going to graze their goats for us as soon as it is warm enough, so some of the land will be managed in this way.
    What I am having the hardest time with right now is adjusting my mind to the space. I want to grow as much as we can possibly need of course and if I end up with surplus, I am happy to give it to soup kitchens or bring it back to the city for friends. But all of this depends on how successful we are in the first place. Wish us luck!

  41. This is my first year gardening, as it is the first year I am in my own house! I am very excited about the prospect of lovely fresh veggies that I have grown myself. Something I have noticed about all of this sustainable frugal living is the sense of accomplishment and feeling of enpowerment it provides. It is very motivating to continue the process.

  42. your garden looks so wonderfully lush and healthy! Pineapple and paw paw would be great!

    After years of gardening in a 'real' garden, I am now through necessity a balcony gardener. It's surprisingly productive, and I have quite a few edibles flourishing. I'd like to try growing taties in pots too, but I have to read up some more about it first.

  43. Gardening is a year round thing here. As each bed finishes I am rebuilding them with raised sides which is really helping me to improve the soil quality before the next planting. Each year I'm learning more and having greater success. If only it would rain.

  44. 2008 was my first year and I only started in May so I was behind on the planting schedule. This will be my first full year and I have so many things I want to plant (11 varieties of tomatoes are on my list, yeah I need to cut back!). I have so many plans for the garden and alterations, changes etc to increase veggie bed space. One step at a time though!!!

  45. Wow, your garden looks amazing! <3

  46. We bought our home in October and one of the first things I did was plant tomato plants in the existing vegie patch.

    In fact, the first mail we received here was a package of half a dozen mail-order heritage vegie seeds.

    I've always wanted to grow our own food, and it's been a great family experience for us to share and work on together.

  47. Hi Rhonda,
    I have been gardening for around 6 years. I am a renter though and don't have any permanent set-up. Previously I borrowed the back of my parents' property to garden on but now I rent from some farmers who allow me the use of a small plot.
    I am currently looking through some heirloom seed catalogues to figure out what I want to plant. I'd love to get involved with a seed exchange because I only need a few seeds of each tomato plant, etc but you have to buy a whole packet. I may see if I can drum up interest in a swap on my blog in a few days...
    I am curious about your paw paw plant. It is the only "tropical" type of plant that grows naturally in Michigan, US. We even have a town named "Paw Paw". They say they grow wild here but I haven't come across any. When I get my own property I plan on growing a few. Do you like the fruit? Are they hard to grow? I'd love any info you have on the plant.
    Thanks Rhonda - your blog is fantastic!

  48. We've only done herbs, spring onions and strawberries before - want to add one or two veggies to that this year, don't know what or where just yet!

    We have VERY little room so they will have to be in containers.

  49. This is my first year at this scale. Last year we had a few containers and were amending our soil with sheet mulching in preperation for this year.

    Now we've planted 8 fruit trees using the high-density planting methods, we've just finished our irrigation on what will be our permaculture zones (also blogged) and we've finished our biggest raised bed (still need to build the smaller beds).

    We'll be going from six 2x2 raised beds to over 1500 sq ft of garden space. So I'm considering myself a first-timer!


  50. Hi Steph, it's good to see you're still reading here but most of all that you're gardening and producing some food. Well done!

    Fifi, it sounds like your all set and raring to go. Good luck with your harvests this year.

    Beth, garlic never grows well here. I've tried a few times but it either doesn't develop it's cloves or it rots in the ground. I'm still working on it.

    Shari, our paw paw is a tropical plant and, as far as I'm aware, needs a lot of heat to grow well. I like the taste of it but prefer it in fruit salad. My good friend Kathleen's granddaughter calls her paw paw. :- )

    I'm really please to read about so much gardening going on - with both experiecned and inexperienced gardeners. Gardening it one of the many things that you only get better at by doing it, not reading about it. I wish you all rain and good harvests.

  51. Do you have many snakes there????

    Enjoy & learn much from your blog.

    Dena - in Ohio

  52. Joyce L. in North CarolinaFebruary 01, 2009 10:18 pm

    Our seeds just arrived in the mail yesterday. My 8 yo son was so excited as we looked through them together on the living room floor. Now we're just waiting to get our tax refund, which we'll use to constuct the garden beds. I can't wait!

    Your blog has been such an inspiration to us. I now feel like I can really do this and have been looking for other ways to simplify and be self-sustaining. Thank you, Rhonda Jean.

  53. I am rethinking my whole garden this year - just waiting for cooler weather to start on my plans. I need to put in easier to manage beds and learn new skills to have a productive garden. I've been a hit or miss (mostly miss) gardener and need to go back to basics.


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