April, it's time to plant

2 April 2018
April, week 1 in The Simple Home

Growing your own food
When you’re starting out on your simple life journey, or if you move to a home with a bit of land attached, some people will recommend you start growing your own fruit and vegetables. It’s a good option for experienced gardeners because a large productive garden will add value and strength to your home and increase the opportunities you have to eat well and store away food that can be eaten later in the year. However, if you've never grown anything before and have to start building garden beds and fences, enrich virgin soil or buy soil, seeds and seedlings, as well as the tools to work the land, often it doesn't make financial sense. You’ll probably know before you start such a big project that you’ll spend much more money on setting up than you could save on vegetables. When you spread the setup costs out over a few years, it makes more sense but if you can’t afford the set up costs of garden beds, what are the alternatives?

This is our main garden with a potted bay tree growing nicely on the corner.

Container gardening
Containers! Why containers? If you have never grown food before, if you're time poor, if you have limited water, if you have no land or room other than a back step, a sunny window sill or a small courtyard, for many reasons, containers will be your simple answer.



Here are some of my pot-grown herbs, below are some blueberries. They've been cut back and are now putting on new grow. 

I think growing your own food is one of life’s best prizes. When you crunch into a pod of peas sweeter than any you’ve ever bought, when you taste your first heirloom tomato, or pluck blueberries from the bush and walk through your garden eating them, well, that feeling is something you’ll never forget. It just makes you feel good because it's empowering and sublimely satisfying. It is something you can’t buy, only working the land yourself will give you that level of fulfilment and pleasure. 

I’m the last person who’ll tell you not to grow vegetables but I will advise you to start small. Vegetable and fruit gardening is one of those things that requires time, hard work and attention. You’ll need a plan and time to implement those plans. So if you’ve never grown anything before, learn how to grow vegetables in containers because it will be easier to learn and manage. And if the worst happens and you lose a few plants, it’s not the same as losing a full kitchen garden.

It makes sense to be prudent in the first years of vegetable gardening. By going slow you’ll build up your skills, collect what you need as you need it, learn a bit each season and keep enjoying life. You won’t be overwhelmed by the work that a large garden needs. And if you choose to grow the vegetables that you eat a lot of, or those you love that are expensive, then you’re still going to be saving money while you learn about this important skill. One of the bonuses of starting small like this is that you learn the fundamentals of gardening, you collect a few tools, you understand the microclimate of your backyard and when you’re ready, you’ll be able to start a big garden if you want to.

A few pots of parsley.
Welsh onions - these are perennial onions. Once you have some of these growing, you'll never buy green onions again.
Ginger - this box was planted a month ago and they are growing so well, I'll have to divide them up so the gingers can grow to their full size.

Start with something simple, like a couple of boxes of green leaves - lettuce, spinach, kale or Swiss chard and a box of herbs - these should be the herbs you usually cook with. That first year will be about observing, learning and working out how to progress the following year. Green leaves and herbs are generally easy to grow, so they're a good beginner's project, and you can grow a variety of different leaves in one box and a selection of herbs in another. If you've got a couple of boxes growing, you'll save money at the supermarket, enjoy the freshest food and you'll be on your way to learning a valuable life skill.

In the Southern and Northern Hemispheres, April is a good time to start planning edible crops. I live in the sub-tropics in a hinterland area. We have hot and humid summers and coolish winters but although the night temperatures can drop to 5C, we never have frost. Down south and in New Zealand, gardeners will be planting traditional winter crops and if you're in the US or UK you'll probably be planning your crops but the weather will determine when you start planting. 

Deciding what to grow
The first questions to ask yourself are: What do we eat? What do we eat a lot of? What is best fresh from the garden? What do we buy regularly that’s expensive? If you don’t know much about gardening, you’ll need a good gardening book suited to your climate. You might find what you need in your local library.

Here are a few suggestions. All these plants will grow in containers in their season but remember, no plant will grow when the conditions or season aren't right:

  • Fruiting vegetables: tomato, capsicum, chilli, zucchini, eggplant
  • Climbing vegetables: climbing beans, peas, cucumber
  • Leaves: silver beet/chard, spinach, lettuce, kale, Asian greens
  • Roots: radish, carrot, turnips, garlic, potato
  • Herbs: parsley, chives, Welsh onions, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme
  • Fruit: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, lemon, orange

Online links for inspiration and more information
Morag's permaculture in pots
Morag's seven tips for tiny space edible gardens
Green Harvest - Queensland, this is where I get most of my supplies
Diggers Club - Victoria
How to grow vegetables in containers - USA
Your patio pots - UK
Container gardening - top tips, YouTube
Get the best from vegetables in pots

What's next?
Over the next couple of weeks we'll discuss where to place your containers, types of plants, potting mix, watering and fertilising as well as practical advice on how to set up and grow in containers. In the meantime, work out the best place to grow your small garden and start collecting your containers.  I use those polystyrene broccoli boxes and large plastic and terracotta pots. The best containers are large ones so see what you can find. Nothing has to be new - we're doing this on a budget, so ask your local green grocer if there are any polystyrene boxes headed for the dump.

25 comments

  1. Your garden looks so vibrant and healthy. The first year I tried growing vegetables, I didn't succeed with anything. It was depressing because I worked so hard. Once I got my soil nourished with compost, mulch, and worms, everything improved. Where we live, citrus are very easy to grow, so I have several different varieties.

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  2. I am absolutely and happily addicted to growing some of our own food. I love picking something I've grown and eating it, it's the best feeling! Last weekend I planted out some mixed lettuce and some silverbeet/chard and perennial leeks I had divided (free plants). Today, I will be planting out two varieties of potatoes into grow bags. I experimented last year with 2 grow bags I got from Green Harvest and our spuds grew happily in them and were the best potatoes I've ever tasted. Because that was successful, I bought two more grow bags this season so we'll hopefully get even more potatoes. Over the coming weeks, I'll progressively add more seedlings to my veggie patch. I grow blueberries in pots too, Rhonda, and you've reminded me that I need to repot them. Must do that! Meg:)

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  3. It is hard to explain the inner joy and satisfaction of picking your own vegetables. I use old tubs and tanks but hope this year to use the garden. This is an area where my husband and I greatly differ. You see, he has a tractor, 2 actually, and a ripper, disk plough and 3ft rotary hoe. Also a walk behind rotary hoe but tractors are more fun. For several years I have asked for 2 areas , 3m by 2m to be dug. Each year, I get 20m by 30m. Boys with toys! He plants his row of garlic and I get complaints as to why I won't weed the garden. I live in hope that one day I will get 2 beds, 3m by 2m! Erin

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    1. This made me laugh Erin. I hope you get your manageable beds one day!

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  4. We are only able to grow in containers because we only have a small are with enough sun and it is on the end of our deck. We do grape tomatoes and herbs. We are collecting coffee grounds and egg shells to enrich the soil so that we are ready to plant soon. We will also add our homemade compost. That combination does very well for us. It is still quite chilly here and the nights are still cold so we will wait.

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  5. Some of my new seedlings are coming up. So far I have Swiss chard, basil, okra and spinach. I'd like to plant ginger as well. Last year I bought a ginger plant, but it died.
    I have green onions that I started from the root ends of store bought ones. They grow very well and I didn't buy green onions for several months now.

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  6. I am slowly going to get into growing some of our vegetables too this year. We are renting but have a decent area which is a raised bed that I can use. We are looking at buying our own home late this year and then I will get set up. I am on the lookout for a lemon and orange tree that I can start off in a pot and plant when we have our own garden. I have also started to cooking and baking more from scratch, knitting dish cloths and using rags for cleaning and starting up a stockpile.

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  7. Here in Melbourne we still have "hard" rubbish collections where people put their accumulated unwanted goods out on the nature strip (verge) & the local Council’s contractors come and take it away. I have sourced most of my garden pots from this resource (sometime the scrounging is legal sometimes not).
    Have also got old mop handles etc that I use as garden stakes.
    I find it cheaper (& less waste to dispose of) to get half a cubic metre of garden soil in rather than buy bags of potting mix.
    lots of my plants have come from the food swaps I attend and from people in my permaculture group. And I keep a close eye on what is available at the 3 very close together nurseries near me that compete for business. One has Mothers day and Father's Day sales that are really good value.
    Claire in Melbourne

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  8. I'm going to enjoy this set of posts on gardening. Since my success with self-watering containers my success rate on vegetable growing has increased dramatically. I use a modified version of Spurtopia's self watering boxes. Once I am no longer working outside of the home full time I will revert back to gardening for food directly in the ground.

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  9. We normally have a HUGE garden. This year due to a number of reasons, some beyond our control, we will not. The final decision was made yesterday. But, we do have one raised bed and today I will start gathering and collecting anything that can hold a tomato or pepper plant. We are going to do what we can with what we have. We love homemade salsa and homemade tomatoes in our veggie soups so that is going to be our focus.

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  10. I really like this post! Starting small makes so much sense. I have done that myself, and little by little, I start to figure out what to grow, and increase the output. And I love the process :-)
    I'm looking forward to the coming blog posts!
    Greetings from Norway

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  11. My garden is pots, raised beds and in the soil. We have been here four years and the garden has gone from pure auaphobic sand to the start of a nice growing medium. It takes work and dedication, but then anything worth doing does. I have fruit trees in the garden and in large pots. All have flowered and fruited. The pots can be extremely expensive if purchased new. They have to be a good size for the tree to fruit. Hubby is a tip rat and has come home with some wonderful finds. We have old pool filters, large drums and old tanks all working as pots or garden beds.
    Like you Rhonda I have been getting my garden sown and planted as it has cooled down. I am using a lot of saved seed and having success.
    Being able to put food on our table on a daily basis is such a blessing. I love my garden.

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  12. Yes Rhonda, you are quite right re the cost of gardening which can run well over the cost of buying organic F&V.
    My soil & water quality is terrible so the cost to make it all good well exceeds the cost of buying organic at the local fruit shop.
    I grow my own because it is exercise of the kind I would not otherwise get & which I really do need. I bought this acreage property with an established orchard & garden but they took all the infrastructure away so it took me years to work out what the problems were & how to ameliorate both soil & dam water.
    Only now after 10 hard years of trial & expensive error am I in a position to buy extra tanks & pumps for the dam water plus a tiny tractor to build huge compost heaps.
    So it is important to be very careful about the type of soil & water you have when you buy a house or set out to grow a garden as it can cost an absolute fortune just to have some fresh F&V.
    Not to mention the pests, diseases & wild critters such as bats, birds, wallabies, snails, etc that also want all you grow!

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  13. i really miss gardening. We have no garden here by our rental house. we have some tomato plants in a pot and that's it.
    not time to start yet. Just got more snow and will have more this week.
    Love you garden!!
    greetings from Canada!!

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  14. I'll be following along with piqued interest as I'm growing back in pots mostly now that we are renting. So far I've repurposed an old bathtub, large plastic storage tub, milk cartons, an old wicker wash basket (lined) some large tins and the good old broccoli boxes.
    There is no beating the feeling that comes with growing and eating your own fruit and veg.

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  15. I’ve been using containers for herbs and veggies for years now but still feel like it’s a mystery to me to get successes. I just plod away patiently loving and looking after my little pots. Just deciding what I’d like to plant, where and how, so I’m looking forward to future posts.
    Leiani - WA

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  16. Thank you for your post Rhonda. I've just moved house and plan to grow veges in pots and raised garden beds but need help to get started. Will look forward to reading more on the topic.
    Helen from WA

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  17. I have been looking forward to this months topic. At one time I had a huge garden, I taught my children the joy of having a veggie garden. They are now teaching their children the same joy. This year I will be doing a container garden, new to me so I will need all the help I can get.

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  18. We have a good sized garden and a greenhouse and small polytunnel. Over the years we have ebbed and flowed with vegetable gardening, some years we have put in lots of effort but not so much others. We suffer really badly with marauding pigeons and rabbits and it is very disheartening when they get through our careful defences. The most effective use of the garden has been growing soft fruit, tree fruit and herbs/ salad leaves. I also value the ability to cut flowers/ foliage from the garden all year round - although not edible they lift the spirits indoors.
    I agree you have to be careful not to spend a fortune on gardening for not much economic return - it is enjoyable to garden and the exercise is valuable but I try to follow the frugal methods ( not always successfully) of the late great Geoff Hamilton of the Gardeners World TV programme.

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  19. I love this post. We’re container gardening until we get more land, it seems to work well. Oh we do have one productive raised bed too xo

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  20. There is nothing like eating a red current or a gooseberry right off the bush in one’s garden. Potted herbs are so popular now and that is all we can manage. Full gardens are in our past.

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  21. This is such an interesting series of blog posts! We currently have four 12 feet x 4 feet vegetable beds and plan to put in another four over winter to give us more growing room. I'm also really interested this year in trying out potato grow bags and trying to grow some ginger from the market in a broccoli box. I am also going to grow herbs in pots this year as they tend to get lost in my garden and be taken over by bigger plants. I've recently bought a whole heap of open pollinated flower seeds known to be attractive to bees to plant throughout the garden as well. We have two native beehives in our yard and they should enjoy that, plus who doesn't love the beauty of flowers in their garden.

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  22. I have enjoyed your blog for years, but seldom take time to comment. I am grateful that you share all that you share. I have a suggestion for garden tools: garage sales! We purchase almost all of our gardening tools, and far prefer the very old ones which are usually much better quality, and great prices. I want to ask about your ginger: I recently planted some roots that had almost sprouted. The plants are doing great in pots, but when the first one died down, the roots were not what I expected. Do you use the roots or do you use the actual leaves? If you use the leaves, do you boil them? Thanks again for sharing your life!

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    1. Ginger need a lot of space in their pots to grow to a good size and sometimes it will take a year to do that. If you leave them they'll reshoot when the weather is warm again. They need good drainage, rich organic potting mix and they have to be fertilised frequently. Mine are potted in enriched potting mix and I give them weak liquid organic fertiliser every two weeks. I only use the root.

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  23. Thanks Rhonda! This is FABULOUS information. I'm looking forward to reading future posts about container gardening. My hubby takes care of the bigger garden beds and I muck around with smaller "stuff" for now. Also, loving The Simple Home and your tips on getting more organised throughout the year.

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