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.