Top tips for your vegetable garden

3 March 2014
Hanno digging the garden over yesterday.

We're back in our garden again so we can grow fresh food. For the past couple of weeks, I've been sowing seeds and tending them in the gentle protection of our bush house. While I was doing that, Hanno was digging the beds over, adding manure, compost, lime, blood and bone and worm castings. Adding all those nutrients to the soil before we start and aerating it by turning it over to spade depth is what gives us a healthy garden every year. Gardening is a mixture of a little bit of hard work and a fair bit of easy work, you have to put the effort in to get the rewards. This ritual that starts our growing season, is the hard bit, after the plants are in and growing, it's just observation, tying the plants to stakes, fertilising, watering and the all important pay-off - harvesting. Then replanting our succession crops.

Along with all of that there is a mix of tasks that increase the likelihood of success and keep the soil alive and healthy. New comers to gardening often read about the planting and harvesting but there's not a lot said about the side tasks; the work that increases your chance of success. So I thought it would be a good idea to tell you what we do here. Hopefully it will help you get good crops every year while maintaining healthy soil - which is truly sustainable gardening.

Last year's garlic.
Growing garlic
Now is the time for planting garlic in many parts of Australia (and other parts of the world). If you've been growing garlic for a while, you'll have a healthy collection of good quality bulbs that you separated out from last year's crop. These should have been the biggest, most healthy looking specimens you could find. If you want to cultivate good garlic, you have to start off with good genes. Work out how many garlic heads you want to grow, you'll need one clove per head, and put that number of cloves into a brown paper bag. Fold it over and put the bag of garlic into the crisper of the fridge. Leave for a couple of weeks and then plant out. This will fool the cloves into sprouting when they come out into your warm earth. They need at least a couple of weeks, so work your timing out and refrigerate your garlic accordingly.

Potatoes will be planted when they start sending out shoots. I'll probably cut some of these larger spuds.

Growing potatoes
It's also potato planting time!  We have a couple of kilos of organic potatoes sitting on the back verandah table waiting for shoots to form.  When they do, we'll plant them in trenches and cover them. If you want to plant potatoes in a month or so, buy them now so they can develop shoots before they are planted. Potatoes are quite an easy crop if the weather is kind but watch out if there is a lot of rain. The tubers can rot in the ground. Make sure you plant into rich soil to which a lot of organic matter and manure has been added, water well and wait for the green tops to appear. You can hill soil up around the green tops to increase your yield. Give an extra feed of comfrey tea when the flowers appear. When the green tops die down, they're ready for picking, although you can steal into the side of the plant after flowering and take out the small new potatoes. Cook them straight away and serve with butter, fresh parsley, salt and pepper and you'll know then why potatoes are usually on the list for most home gardeners.

Watch out for night time pests
These will be different in various areas. We don't have a lot of wandering marsupials here but I think we currently have a bandicoot that is digging in the newly dug garden, searching for worms and seeds. I remember my sister had possums that used to eat her French roses as well as raid the vegetable patch. The solution to the problem will depend on what pest is visiting your garden at night. Here, we're decided to put in a set of solar light in the garden. We hope that by providing a small amount of light, that will keep the wandering night creatures down on the creek where I want them to stay. Whatever pest you have, think carefully about how you can deter it without harming it.

The Barnevelder sisters.

Don't be afraid to move plants - organise your garden to suit each season
We've just removed a big clump of pineapple sage. Some will go into the garden a bit further over where it suits our planting this year, other pieces of the clump will be potted up and stored in the bush house and probably replanted out the front as flowering plants. I'm also going to strip all the chillis off the bush, cut it back and plant it in a pot to sit in the bush house for a few months. In spring, we'll replant it in the garden. Capsicums and chillis keep growing here over winter but they never produce fruit, so as long as we can keep the plant healthy over the colder months, it will serve us again in spring. I'll probably do the same thing with the capsicums/peppers. The last of our garden plants on the move are the strawberries. I dug them up yesterday afternoon and will wrap them in moist hessian until they can be planted out again for winter berries.
Warning: some plants cannot be moved. Parsley, for instance, generally dies when its roots are disturbed. Make sure you check out the requirements for any plant you want to move.

Plant comfrey
Comfrey is such a useful herb. It's used as a compost activator, fertiliser tea, mulch for tomatoes and potatoes and if you grow enough comfrey, you'll never have to buy fertiliser from the nursery. Yarrow is another good herb for fertilising and it gives you a beautiful flower as well.

Sprouting broccoli and brown onion seedlings, to be planted out next week.

Making fertiliser
Get into the habit of doing this because it will save you a few dollars each year and will allow you to made weeds, chook poo, comfrey, yarrow or worm castings into nutrient-rich fertiliser.  Basically, any kind of fertiliser tea is made by adding the main ingredient - be that manure, plants, weeds and adding water to it. You allow it to steep for a few days, then dilute the resulting tea down with more water and pour it on. Fertiliser tea is excellent as a spray over the entire plant because the leaves will take the nutrients in, but you can water it in around the plant roots too. My favourite fertiliser is comfrey tea. Plant a couple of comfrey plants near your compost heap and use it frequently to make tea. It's great for green leaves as well as flowering plants because it's high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and many trace elements. How to make comfrey fertiliser here.

Staking plants
It's always better to stake taller plants. Fruiting plants such as tomatoes, will bend and snap under the weight of their fruit if they're not staked. Make use of old stockings or cotton rags cut in strips for your ties, don't use string because it will cut into the tomato stalks. I know it seems like a pain to go around each tomato plant to tie it, but you'll be rewarded for your work.

Three of the eight blueberry cuttings I took.
Don't forget to propagate as you go through the growing season.  I've taken eight cuttings from the blueberry bushes and I have them in the bush house, in moist potting mix. I'll keep them moist and hopefully, be rewarded with a few new blueberry bushes, free. Gardening can be a costly exercise so if you can cut down on your expenses by propagating from what you already have, you should do it. This can include saving seeds at the end of the season. Of course, if you do want to save seeds for next year, you'll need to start off with open pollinated/heirloom seeds.

If you've got a vegetable garden going, I hope you've thought about harvesting rainwater from your roof to water your plants. The cost of water is increasing and you should include the cost of water in your garden expenses calculations. If you want to garden sustainably, think about collecting water for the garden.

Harvesting at the right time
This sounds so obvious, it seems like an insult to put it in, but harvesting at the right time is a skill to be developed just like all the others. You'll find every garden book will tell you to ripen your tomatoes on the vine. However, if we do that here, we get tomato grub and no tomatoes. Observe your garden, trust your instincts and go with what you think you should do. Learn from your mistakes and over the years, you'll build up the skills that will help you garden well in your climate. Tomatoes don't need sunlight to ripen. They need warmth and they will ripen very nicely in your kitchen. So learn about when to harvest according to the conditions in your garden. Peas and beans are best harvested younger rather than older, as are a lot of things. Lemons can be harvested when they're ripe and can sit around in a bucket for a couple of weeks - you'll increase the amount of juice you get if you do that.

Soaking your seedlings in a weak seaweed liquid for a few hours before planting will help a lot with transplant shock.

Succession planting
Have the next crop ready to go in when the preceding crop is harvested.  Often you can just take a few leaves off a plants and let the plant keep growing but when you pick the entire plant, soon you'll be left with a bare patch. Look on your seed packets, or online, to see how long your plants take from seed to germination to harvest and using that information, plant more seeds to follow up when that first crop is due to be harvested.

If I could only give you two pieces of information about gardening they'd be these two: 
  1. Always prepare your soil well and plant into rich soil.
  2. Look at your garden and work out what's happening - with the watering, insects, pollination, fertilising, pruning, spacing. Be actively involved in learning about the plants you've chosen to grow and trust yourself if you think you should change what you're doing.
I wish you all a very successful growing season. I know how important it is for many people, it is for us too because we can't afford to buy a lot of organic food. If we can grow our own, it gives us the freshest possible vegetables and fruit, we know how it's been grown, there are no food miles attached and it makes us feel like we're doing something worthwhile.  Happy gardening everyone.

Further reading
The surprising healing qualities of dirt


  1. I did not move my parsley but the squirrels got in the pots and dug them up and disturbed the roots so they died. Grrrrr.....I cannot plant it in the ground because voles love the roots and will eat them from the bottom. I continue to try and do have an occasional year when the animals leave them alone.

  2. What a lovely comprehensive guide to vegie gardening.

  3. Morning Rhonda, a great post full of tips and reminders that are so important for successful vegetable gardening. I have trouble with the succession planting, having seedlings ready when plants are harvested, so I've started a month by month journal, here I can make a note.....'start seeds of xyz now".....hopefully it will help me keep the food growing. Some lovely steady rain here this morning, wetting everything nicely.

  4. Hi Rhonda.. A wonderful informative post as always.. So neat about the comfrey .. I make a salve with it that is really great..
    Take care, my friend..

  5. Blueberry cuttings! Thanks for the reminder Rhonda. I really need to do that to try and replace all the plants I lost.

  6. Oh, happy gardening!! I get to start onion seedlings this week (indoors, but still!) and so it begins for us too.

  7. This is an exciting time for us gardeners in Queensland. My soil is looking so good this year, I am anxious to see if I can produce some bumper crops. Thsoe bandicoots can be pretty persistant - I hope yours gets the hint.

  8. Soaking seedling before planting out can also enables planting in hot dry weather. I recently planted out an entire bed during hot days of 40+ Celsius. And they are all thriving by soaking them in a tray of water overnight. Read more here.

  9. While we were in Melbourne we took a trip down to St Kilda and spent a wonderful hour or so walking around, or rather drinking in the abundance and beauty of what is Veg Out. It is quite possibly the best commuity garden I have ever seen (apologies if I have already said that in another post!). I had to travel thousands of miles to visit it, but if you are a bit more local then I cannot recommend it enough as an inspiration to get digging.

  10. I'm so close to you geographically, Rhonda, but don't seem to be able grow small crops let alone bumper ones! I'm getting better. I can get more plants almost to a harvest state before the weather, chickens, or possums get them - although chillies are the one thing I can grow!!! We have four or five rouge bushes that produce over and over without e doing a thing to them... Oh well, you cant win 'em all! - Kara

  11. So many excellent gardening tips! I had no idea about comfrey. I've been trying to find a good gardening blog lately. I would very much like to know more about your chickens and gardening happenings.

  12. O, Thanks! I am planning to start a vegetable garden. But is still winter here in Canada. And I have to ask our landlord to start. He is a farmer but so not likes things. We like to have a house in the bush and live the same way as you do.
    Love ,Wilma

  13. I love comfrey tea for my plants but boy, does it stink!. I must admit to not owning up to the smell whenever the neighbours enquired 'what on earth is that smell?", I would just raise up my shoulders and reply 'must be spraying the fields with pig muck again!"

  14. Your starts look beautiful and health. Our soil is still too wet to turn, so I'm sitting on my hands. Spring is such a season of anticipation. Little baby cows started dotting the hills this past week.
    I use a row cover on my seedlings when I first put them in the ground to protect them from unwanted critters and to keep them moist. Cheers! marian

  15. For years and years I read about gardening and wanted to be the gardener (of flowers initially) that my Mom was; but everything I read seemed to emphasize all the problems with pests - worms, aphids, birds, diseases and more. I figured by the time I fought off all that it wouldn't be worth the trouble. In spite of that I did have a go at gardening in Oklahoma, but I ran into so many creepy crawly things I was afraid of I soon gave up! Tried again in Salt Lake City and I still remember the lush tomatoes that appeared almost by magic - I at them like apples and still had plenty for salads and home canned spaghetti sauce that we saved for Saturday nights it was so special. We do grow runner beans, kale, strawberries and the odd courgette here in Britain, but your post has made me aware that we don't stay on top of 'succession planting'. That would increase our yield substantially. Will have a go at that this year.

  16. The seedlings look very healthy Rhonda. It's so nice to see a garden taking shape at the start of a season. I was wondering, do you grow any rosemary or salvia at all? Do you think they serve a purpose in a small vegetable garden (just a quarter-acre, for example)? I've been trying to look for the permaculture books you recommended in a previous post but I still haven't found them in our libraries.

    1. We have a rosemary plant but it's only been in a few weeks. I'm not a fan of rosemary but Hanno had some rosemary potatoes at someone's home and he loved them. Salvia is one of my favourites. We have a few different salivas out in the front garden but only one - sage, in the vegie patch.

      Here are the details of Linda's book. They should be able to order it in for you:
      The Permaculture Home Garden
      Author Linda Woodrow
      Edition illustrated, reprint
      Publisher Viking, 1996
      ISBN 0670865990

    2. Thank you Rhonda. I have just found the book in another library close by and have reserved it. I asked about the rosemary and salvia because i have been growing rosemary in a pot for a few years now but not sure if i should plant it in the ground when we move into a house with a garden. I have been watching a rosemary plant at a train station near us and it has grown to about 1.5 metres in just over a year -- I am concerned it may take over a small garden if left in the ground

    3. Okay, the rosemary - they hate wet feet so make sure wherever you plant is has perfect drainage. You can improve drainage by throwing in half a bucket of gravel and sand and mixing that into the bottom of the planting hole. There is nothing wrong with leaving it in a pot. If you do plant it out and it grows, just clip it back to the size that you want it to be. Use the clippings in the kitchen or give to friends

  17. Hi Rhonda, thank you for another great inspiring post, all that hard won information will kick start a lot of us to get going with this years work.
    My tumbler composter produces moist thick BLACK stuff, just like worm castings, do I need to add more dry fibre, paper, dry grass clippings etc. ?

    1. Margaret, we produce dense black compost like that if we leave a compost heap, heavy with grass clipping, to sit and decompose for a year or two. In a tumbler your compost should be crumbly - add more dry materials such as shredded paper, cardboard, straw, cotton fabric, not grass clippings.

    2. thank you , I do add a lot of shredded paper, but obviously need to add more at a time and some other fibre. My Comfrey plant is big and 3 feet away from the composter, so some of that goes in too. If I make a tea from some of this "black gold" compost the plants go berserk. I also accidently got this same black stuff from a forgotten bag of sugarcane mulch, left behind the shed for 2 years...awesome stuff.

  18. Rhonda, thank you so much for your post. We have just bought our own house after renting, and we are just starting to plant some of our veggie and herb garden.

  19. Great tips, really interesting post.

  20. Would you please do a post specifically on how to do the blueberry cuttings and how to get them started in pots? I have never heard of this before and would love to try this with my plants later this gardening season here in the USA. Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Debbie, this is the first time I've done blueberry cuttings so I don't feel comfortable writing about it. There are a few sites online that you can google. That's what I did, and just used common sense. It's certainly worthwhile doing and I encourage you to have a go at it. Let me know if you're successful.

  21. Hi Rhonda, loved your post! I do have a question: Last year I had my first veggie garden (in raised beds). I put good soil and manure in the beds, covered the soil with paper, planted, covered the bed with sugarcane mulch, harvested and then removed most plants at the end of Nov. Now I'm ready to plant again. Do I need to remove all the paper and mulch or do I just leave it in and re-plant as I did last year? Sorry if this is a dumb question, this is the first time I'm doing this and I cannot find any info on this. Thanks!

  22. Frances, why did you cover the soil with paper? Was it newspaper to suppress weeds? Your mulch would have done that. Anyhow, if it's newspaper and it's starting to break down, dig that and the mulch into the soil. If it's not newspaper and not breaking down, remove it. That will help you build up a rich soil over the years. Add more manure because the plants from last year would have used up most of the nutrients from last year's manure. By doing that, every year you'll have better soil and increasing harvests.

    1. Thanks Rhonda! Yes, it was newspaper to surpress any weeds. So you don't think I need that when I have the mulch? No worries, I will dig it all in along with some manure and off I go again. Can't wait!

    2. Frances, if the mulch is thick enough, it will stop the weeds. Good luck with your garden.



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