Grow your own and rule the roost
With inflation at an all time high and food prices still on the rise, it’s a great time to plant your own edible garden.
We’re all keen to do what we can to help the planet, right? We’re more likely now to use less plastic, minimise our food waste and opt for locally sourced produce when we can. Good news…you can do all three by planting your own edible garden. Throw in a few chooks and a good compositing system and you’ll have yourself a perfect little self-sufficient enterprise.
Growing your own food can be incredibly satisfying, especially if you’ve never been known for your green thumb. Watching tiny leaves sprout from bare earth and mature into something you’ve only ever seen wrapped in plastic on the supermarket shelves has the potential to change the way you think about shopping and eating forever.
There will probably be hits and misses, a few pest control issues and a lesson or two learned along the way, but you’ll be rewarded with beautiful fresh food at a fraction of the going price – all raised by your very own hand. Here’s some tips and tricks to get you on the path to market gardener.
Before you start
At the risk of oversimplifying things, gardeners generally fall into one of two main types: 1) the plotter and planner or 2) the chuck-it-in-and-see-what-grows variety.
For what it’s worth, we think both approaches have their merit…and their limitations. Doing some research on plants and the ideal growing conditions including site selection, soil type, temperature and humidity, rainfall and watering, the amount of sun and shade, suitable companion plants, maintenance requirements and pest resilience might give you the best chance of success, but it also seems like…a lot. Too much information can easily lead to analysis paralysis and end the project before it even begins.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can ignore all the advice, choose the plants you are most likely to eat, chuck the seeds in and hope for the best. It’s nice in theory but might also be an exercise in wasted time and effort.
As a new gardener, you can probably safely aim in the middle. Identify a few suitable plants – some are just inherently easier to grow and less susceptible to pests – make a few basic decisions and take it from there. Starting with one, two or three simple crops will let you enjoy some success and gain a little confidence rather than aiming for a full market garden on day one.
We’ll talk about some easy starting crops a little later, but you will need to think about the following before you get going:
Soil – make sure you’ve got a good organic mix suitable for growing veggies. This is as technical as it gets, but you will need to measure pH levels using an electronic pH meter. There’s a million to choose from but you can pick up a basic version at a hardware store for under $20.
The pH level determines suitability for specific fruit and vegetable types.
Over 7.0 is considered alkaline, which is favorable for plants like cabbage, Brussels sprouts and leeks. It also means that the soil is likely low in nutrients including iron and phosphorous. You don’t really need to worry about that too much just yet.
A pH value under 7.0 is considered acidic soil. This can be problematic as it may be low in calcium, potassium and copper, among other nutrients. It’s got some other issues with solubility, but it’s also not a bad environment for growing broccoli, potatoes, beans, peas, lettuce blueberries.
Sun – most vegetables like lots of sun, so don’t expect a shady spot to yield a big crop. Some plants will tolerate a bit of shade, but you should aim for as much exposure as possible.
Nutrients – plants need food to maintain growth, so you’ll need a good fertiliser. There are obviously a multitude of commercially available alternatives, or you can make your own if you’ve decided to go down the compost route.
Water – Every plant has different watering requirements, which also change according to season and which part of the growth cycle they are in. Once established, they’ll probably be okay with a drink every second day or more often in hot weather. Check the label for specific watering advice when planting seeds or seedlings.
Pots…or free range – Where you choose to plant can be the difference between success and an overgrown mess. Some herbs (including mint and oregano) and veggies (looking at you pumpkin) will take over the garden before you know it and may be best confined to pots, whereas others (like lettuce) are equally at home in either environment. That said, some plants will quickly outgrow their container home, requiring constant repotting.
If you do go for the garden bed or large yard space, you’ll really need to consider companion planting. Some plants work well together because they deter pests, attract beneficial insects and fix soil nutrient imbalances. Some plants should never be planted together for the exact reverse reasons. Thankfully, the internet abounds with plenty of quick-reference charts that will tell you at a glance which plants will live in harmony.
If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, raised gardening beds (like vegepod.com.au) offer a controlled self-watering environment that keeps plants off the ground and away from pests, while providing a generous soil depth.
Herbs are a great starting point, especially if you’re working with containers. They are great bang for buck because they grow quickly, can be harvested almost immediately, are useful in all types of cooking and will give you a sense of satisfaction in the short term. Concentrate on those you are most likely to use – there’s no point in growing a bushel of rosemary if only ever eat mint – but also keep in mind that some (like coriander) are more difficult to cultivate than others.
When it comes to high-yield vegetables, go for things like zucchini and cucumbers (both will benefit from a trellis), carrots, radishes, peas, snowpeas, beans and leafy greens like lettuce, kale, spinach, rocket and silver beet. They’ll deliver results quickly and get you inspired for more.
While everyone loves a tomato, they are notorious for attracting pests. Save yourself the heartbreak – at least initially – and concentrate on some of the other hardier options. If fruits take your fancy, you can’t go wrong with strawberries or blueberries as a starting point.
Why stop at fruit and veg in your quest for self-sufficiency? Urban chickens have really hit their stride in recent years. A 2019 survey reported over 400,000 Aussie families kept chooks, which made them the most popular domestic pet after dogs, cats and fish. While they are no doubt considered beloved family members in many Australian homes, they are also great contributors: as a bottomless repository for (most) food scraps and a dependable supplier of fresh eggs.
Most Australian councils allow you to keep chickens (for obvious reasons, this does not include roosters) provided you have installed an escape-proof chicken coop. If you plan to let chooks have a bit of free-range time, the backyard must be chook-secure as well. Check with your council prior to purchasing any birds or commencing construction, as there may be specific limitations on the number of hens you can keep.
Poultry Australia (poultryaustralia.com.au) is a great source of information on suitable breeds and their sizes, the space you’ll need for the coop – and for each bird inside it – along with details on waterproofing and shelter, protection from predators, pest deterrents and suitable nesting materials.
The site helpfully covers other aspects of chicken ownership including dietary needs, egg production estimates and factors that can impact happy egg laying, along with poultry healthcare and even how the pecking order is established when new birds are introduced.
According to Poultry Australia, a happy and healthy bird will lay anywhere between 120 and 300 eggs in their first production year, depending on the breed. She will stop laying somewhere between three and six years but can live to the ripe old age of 15 in some cases. While these clucky ladies may not necessarily contribute eggs for the duration of their lifetime, they’ll definitely contribute to a nice little closed-loop system:
The chooks produce manure which can be combined with other uneaten kitchen scraps and added to the compost bin. This, in turn, produces material that is mixed back into the soil and provides nutrients to insects, plants and weeds which are eaten by the chickens…and so the cycle continues. They are the gift that keeps on giving.
The home-grown advantage
We’re only two years in to the 2020s and it’s been non-stop surprises so far. For many people that has meant thinking about the state of the world, our place within it and the responsibility we all bear to ensure its survival. Not surprisingly, it’s shone a light on sustainability, self-sufficiency and made us all appreciate the importance of quality time spent with family and friends.
With dramatic weather patterns and financial instability predicted to hang around for a little while yet, the days of the $10 iceberg lettuce may live on. There’s never been a better time to get into the garden, get your hands dirty and enjoy the home-grown advantage.