Setting up your garden - the first plants

9 April 2018
April, week 2 in The Simple Home

For all our new gardeners, there are two things I want you to decide on this week - what you're going to grow and where you'll grow it.  I hope you've found some big containers, if not, you'll need to get on to that this week too.  If you're not sure what to plant, grow what you eat, not what's in fashion or what you want to taste for the first time. Your garden should be full of what you eat and that will probably be the common vegetables like tomatoes, pumpkins, onions, beans, cabbages etc. I'll write about two commonly grown back yard vegetables - potatoes and tomatoes.  Planting larger plants first will give your container garden a feeling of being anchored and then you can fill in with your smaller vegies and herbs. If you don't want to grow potatoes or tomatoes, it could be anything that needs a trellis, such as cucumbers, peas or beans, or a couple of fruit trees in large pots.

Hanno and I were going to plant up our two potato containers yesterday but we were both exhausted after planting and fertilising the rest of the garden so we came inside early and rested. I chose the location for the potatoes last week but yesterday morning, sitting on the verandah listening to the radio, I realised the orange tree would shade them most of the morning, so I moved the empty containers to a sunnier space on the other side of the garden.

Growing potatoes
Potatoes are easy to grow in the home garden and as the commercial crops are generally sprayed with herbicide just before harvesting (to kill of the green tops), it’s worth the time to do it. They need a sunny position, rich soil, good drainage, not too much water. 

The container you need here is large and tall and often pots aren’t like that. Grow bags are available at garden shops and Green Harvest but if you have a sewing machine, you could easily sew your own bags using weed mat. The bags need to be strong and free-draining so weed mat is the ideal material. It allows water and air through but it’s stong enough to contain the weight of the soil and potatoes. Here is a YouTube tutorial on how to make grow bags.

It will take quite a bit of potting mix to fill a large bag so try to bulk out the potting mix by adding compost, sand, manure, straw and a small amount of garden soil. You'll start off with a thick layer of growing mix in the bottom of the container, then add to it over the weeks when you see shoots growing.

How to grow potatoes in a grow bag
  1. Place the bag in the location the potatoes will grow. Once the bag is full it will be too heavy to move it. 
  2. Prepare the base: place old manure or compost, or a mixture of both over the bottom of the bag. You'll need about 100mm/4 inches covering the entire floor of the bag. 
  3. Cover the manure/compost with about 50mm/2inches of good quality potting mix (not garden soil) and place three or four potatoes on top of the mix. If there are sprouts on the potatoes, be careful they don’t break off when you plant them. 
  4. Cover the potatoes with potting mix, making sure they’re completely covered. 
  5. Water the potatoes in with a weak solution of seaweed tea. 
  6. After a couple of weeks, you’ll see new shoots appearing. Allow them to grow a couple of inches, then carefully cover the tops with a mix of potting mix, compost and straw.
  7. It will take at least three months for potatoes to grow but depending on the variety and your climate, they could take up to six months.  You'll know when they're ready for harvest because the green tops will go brown and die back.

Growing tomatoes
Homegrown tomatoes are one of life’s richest pleasures. If you have a climate, not too hot, not too cold, growing tomatoes should be on your ‘to do’ list. Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colours, tastes and types. As you’re going to be growing in a container, buy seeds for a medium size (determinate) tomato, a roma or a cherry or cherry-pear tomato. A determinate type tomato is generally a bushy medium sized tomato bush and therefore suitable for a container.  The taller non-deternminate types, such as Brandywine, Grosse Lisse, Mortgage Lifter, Gardener’s Delight and Green Zebra, and many others, can be grown in containers but they’ll need to be up against a wall where you can attach a tall trellis. These larger types can grow to 4 metres/12 feet.

We used to grow large heirlooms and smaller tomatoes in the past but we've chosen Tommy Toe and a cocktail tomato for our garden this year. Just the two small varieties. We had problems with the large varieties - a moth devoured them from the inside and wilt generally took out the plants after a month or two in the ground. We'll grow four small tomatoes this year which should keep us in tomatoes for cooking and salads with enough left over to give away.

It's important to give support to tomatoes so gently tie the plants to a stake or trellis as they grow taller.  If you don't do this, the tomatoes might snap off in the wind or under the weight of the fruit as they grow.

How to grow tomatoes in a container
If you're planting seeds, plant according to the instructions on the packet and when the time comes, transplant the seedlings being very careful with the roots. If you buy seedlings, plant them deeper than normal - bury the stem up to the first set of leaves.  This will allow roots to grow along that stem and that will usually give you a stronger plant and more tomatoes. Water in with weak seaweed solution. A weak solution is half the amount suggested on the bottle but applied twice as often.  

What's the best location?
Most vegetables and herbs grow well in full sun. There are a few leafy green plants that enjoy life in the partial shade but most need sun for a few hours every day. That’s one of the advantages of container gardening, you can move the containers around to where the sun or shade is and you can bring them in under shelter if it’s windy or raining heavily.
Before you put out your first pots, take notice of the sun and shade in the area you want to locate the containers. If that area has sun most of the day, with some partial shade, that’s ideal. Don’t forget that if you locate your containers against a brick wall, that wall will provide heat to the plants. That will be good in winter, but probably not so good during a hot summer.
Check for wind. There will be days when it’s windy everywhere but some locations around flats and houses create tunnels that wind rushes through, even when it’s not a windy day. Plants won’t grow well in wind, so either keep looking if your favourite spot is windy or look for ways to block the wind at one end. Be flexible. Be prepared to move your plants around if they need more or less sun or if they’re just not growing well in their original position.
Make sure the area you want to establish your garden in is capable of holding the extra weight. This won’t apply if your placing your containers on solid ground but if you want to set up on a patio, deck or balcony, be careful not to add too much weight. We can partially address this problem by adding perlite to the potting mix, which will make the pots lighter, but you have to be aware that pots will add a lot of extra weight and the area must remain a safe place for you and your family.

A few words of advice for our new gardeners
  • Some people think gardening will be easy, some think it will be really difficult, but the truth is in-between those two extremes.  Once you get into it you'll discover that whatever hard work you put in, you'll get back ten-fold in fresh produce and satisfaction.  
  • Make sure you have enough time to develop your garden and don't rush into it just because you want a garden NOW.
  • Remember that plants don't grow outside their season - no matter how much you want them to. 
  • You have to plant into good potting mix (or enriched garden soil if you're planting into the ground). No amount of added fertiliser later on will make up for well prepared soil. 
  • Plants need water and you'll be the person to supply it. 
  • You must give time to garden housekeeping - watch out for bugs, clip off old or damaged leaves, provide supports and ties for plants that need it and fertilise gently. 
  • My rule of thumb is to fertilise frequently with a weak fertiliser. If the instructions tell you to use two caps of fertiliser in 10 litres of water and fertile monthly, use one cap in 20 litres of water and use it weekly.  The plants respond better to constant weak feeding.
One thing you'll need to do if you're starting out as a new gardener is to commit to learning as much as you can.  Gardening changes in different climates and you'll have to learn as much as you can about your local climate and the micro-climate in your garden. Of course you can ask a friend, neighbour or me how to do certain things, but in the long run, it's all up to you. The more you learn the better you'll be at it. So know this before you begin and be prepared to learn as you go. You'll learn a lot, about yourself and your garden, and if you develop into an experienced backyard gardener, you'll probably wonder why you waited so long to start.