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.


  1. Once again we are trying to grow potatoes this year.
    30 years of trying hasn't produced a bucketful yet but we live in hope.
    Maybe this year will be our year.

    1. Potatoes are generally very easy to grow. Are they getting sun? Do you use a good compost mixed in with whatever soil you may have? When first planting, make sure the "eyes" are pointing up,and cover them no deeper than about four inches. Water once, and then let them go until you see them peep through about about another four inches. Then cover them with earth again. They will repeat this and you can hill them (usually twice)again. This is to make sure they that they do not turn green, which is dangerous to eat. They require not too much water, as they are prone to rot. I always mix in a good bit of natural food when first planting them to their soil as well. It gets them off to a good start. I have grown potatoes for years, and love them. There are some good sources to learn to grow them online; some potato suppliers offer good advice. You can do it!

  2. We grew some potatoes about 5 years ago but haven't done so since. I bought some seed potatoes from Green Harvest. Just one question about Point 6 above *** 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. *** do you cover the whole leaves so that everything is under the soil or leave some leaves above. I'm never 100% sure about that step. Regards Kathy, Brisbane.

    1. Kathy, you carefully cover all the greenery that grows above the soil. If you keep adding soil to cover the leaves as they grow, that gives the plant more growing medium to produce potatoes. Potatoes grow along the plant stem and the higher you can get it to grow, the more potatoes you'll get. When it's at the top of the bag, you just stop adding and let the greenery grow. You'll see flowers come and go and that shows you that the potatoes are growing. Good luck.

  3. Lana here.

    We grow grape tomatoes, green onions and herbs here. We do not a have full sun anywhere on our property except right out by the road where all the dogs in the neighborhood do their business. We set up a row of large pots on the sunny end of our deck and they serve us very well and are easy to get to right out the back door. Last year we did 6 tomato plants and could hardly keep up with eating them but it was wonderful to have such an abundance and so we will do the same this year. You have me thinking about the potatoes now and if it could be done here.

  4. Hubby and I start to think about what to plant in our garden. One thing I know we want to cut the size back a bit. Since it hubby and I.
    Coffee is on

  5. I’m finding that that where I live in Sydney that I’m able to grow things like tomatoes, beans and eggplant outside of their growing season. Last year we had volunteer tomatoes thriving through our winter. I’ve recently planted snake beans and eggplant that are now producing. Perhaps it’s climate change?
    My husband of 40 years whose domain was the vege patch passed away in January so now it’s up to me to continue. I’d like to Thankyou Rhonda for all the advice you have shared over the years through your blog. It has given me the confidence in taking over his patch and am grateful for the connection I feel to him when I’m working there.

    1. I'm sorry to hear of your sad loss, Lynn.

      It could be climate change but it's more likely to be the micro-climate in your backyard. If you're growing snake beans, tomatoes and eggplant in winter, I'm guessing you have a sheltered area that gets sun. Good luck with your garden this season. xx

  6. I grew potatoes in two grow bags (seed potatoes and bags from Green Harvest) last year and they were the best potatoes I've ever had. Because that "experiment" was successful, I bought two more grow bags this year and planted seed potatoes last weekend. I hope they do well again. Once the potatoes are finished, I wash out the grow bags, dry them and reuse them to grow other edibles. My advice would be try something, see if it grows well and expand on that if it's successful. Meg:)

  7. I had a beautiful established garden in the tropics. I built this garden over a 20 year period. It was so hard starting again at this sub tropical property. Even as an experienced gardener, I had to relearn so much for this climatic zone. I have had some major fails over the past 4 years. One thing I am still learning about is growing garlic. I have had four seasons and four fails. I got onto a local gardening website and I have found another variety of garlic that does well here. We shall see,
    A garden is an ever changing space. It changes with every season and never becomes boring.

    1. Hi Jane. We are in the sub-tropics and we grow Glen Large garlic here. It's suitable for this climate and we bought ours at Green Harvest. We planted ours last week and this morning I saw the first shoots coming through.

  8. I live in Tassie and over the summer grew the tommy toe variety-we have had literally hundreds of beautiful tomatoes - they look like small balls of jade - smooth and so shiny- once ripe we had to pick every other day to keep on top of them - as well as salad I made soup and used them pasta sauces. will grow them again in the summer.

  9. Hi Rhonda, thanks for the tips and the great idea about DIY grow bags. I did potatoes in bags one year and they did reasonably well. But the bags (which were given to me) perished as they were plastic. I might try making my own - this time I'll plant only one or two tubers per bag and keep the water up a bit more to get a better output.
    I'm in the process of learning a whole new growing climate now we've moved to Canberra. I'm sure there will be a few learning fails as I build my knowledge up. Sadly there will be no tomatoes in winter for me!

  10. Here in Canada's central prairies, we have a short growing season (3-4 months). We live in rural Manitoba. I've just started seedlings indoors, to transplant out to our garden in the 3rd week of May. Seedlings started are tomato, cabbage, broccoli, hot peppers, rosemary, basil, butternut squash, eggplant and head lettuce. We plant potatoes, beans, peas,popcorn, sweet corn, cucumbers, kale, radish, and onions right in the garden. I have 6 raised-bed gardens (each 16-3 feet), and a medium sized flat garden area at ground level. We preserve the harvest for use throughout the winter by dehydration, fermentation, freezing and canning. The varieties we use are heritage plants, so we also save the seeds of the best plants to use for the next year.We also have 4 grape vines, 4 rhubarb plants, lots of mint and chives, some strawberry plants, 4 sour cherry trees, 2 apple trees, and a few Saskatoon bushes, In our harsh winters. It's lots of work, but the taste and quality of the food cannot be equalled by what we get in the store. We are a family of 4. I grew up helping my parents, and grandparents in the garden and kitchen! I'm 51, and can't remember a time where we did not produce food. Even growing one vegetable is worthwhile! (Deb V in Manitoba)

    1. Such variety, Deb! What a great garden. What are Saskatoon bushes?

    2. askatoon berries (Amelanchier alnifolia) look much like blueberries, though they are more closely related to the apple family. Many would describe the taste of saskatoon as having a sweet, nutty almond flavor. They are also high in fiber, protein and antioxidants. Berries ripen in late June or early July. (Deb V)

  11. Once I tried growing potatoes and only got very small ones. Your instructions are very clear Rhonda. Thank you. I'm going to try again. I didn't know about covering leaves as they grow.

    1. If you're getting small potatoes, you're probably putting too many in the container or planting them too close together. In a rubbish bin size tub, you only need three. See how you go with less of them. xx

  12. Hi Rhonda! I haven't grown potatoes in years, and the "bag" idea sounds like fun! How big should the bag be? I'm not sure how much space potatoes need to grow. Also, are you using sprouted potatoes from your home, or are you buying seed potatoes? I have heard of people doing it both ways. Thanks for the instructions!

    1. Debbie, you can use a normal trash can (with drainage holes) or sew or buy a fabric bag. The one I have holds 75 litres of soil and I'll be using 4 potatoes in it. I'm using sprouted potatoes from my kitchen. They're very tasty ones I bought about a month ago so they're got some healthy sprouts on them now.

  13. I’d like to try the grow bags too. After such a hot summer I’m looking forward to planting. I grow lots of lettuce in styrofoam boxes in the shade and I’ve got three big pumpkins not far from being ready. We’ve had a great season for passion fruit and papaya. Soon I’ll plant some rocket and I have quite a few herbs and shallots all year round. I’ve tried corn but I think we rats or mice ate most of it (yuk). I couldn’t imagine life without gardening and am always inspired by yours Rhonda.

  14. Thank you for the information on the grow bags. I will be checking into making some. We have voles in our yard so they eat anything I put in the ground. Grow bags will work perfect for me. I have some cool weather crops going in the green house and will be starting some summer things in the house this week.

  15. I may have to try grow bags next year. I have been working on planting my garden for a couple of months now. Later than I would have liked, but this spring has been extra erratic. Freezes came much later than normal here.

  16. Making grow bags sounds like such a great idea, it is definitely going on my to try list. all your points are great reminders. I also struggle with bacterial wilt so all the solanacea family have to be grown in pots.


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