Beginners’ gardening: how to start a vegetable garden (for the red thumbed)
So if there is an opposite to being ‘green thumbed’ that’s me. I think that makes me red thumbed, which is better than red handed but still makes me useless in the garden.
I have never lived in a home with a garden. Growing up above a British pub, the closest I got to a veggie plot was an endless supply of potato chips (and yes you could tell by my shape). But these times they are a changing and like many people I am growing all the more conscious about what I eat, what I waste and what I want my veggies to taste like (and that by the way is veggies).
Since I’m an apartment dweller, having my own garden might still be a little way off but I am really lucky to have wrangled a couple of neighbours into starting a communal patch at their place. But I’ll be frank, despite trying to read some highly recommended gardening books, I’m still none the wiser about how to get going and produce a good crop of food. I know people say ‘it’s easy’ but I’m a townie and I need basic answers. So I turned to a pro to ask a few questions.
Val Norton is a master gardener who knows her manure. She can be found answering questions at Seedy Saturday and local garden centres in and around Victoria. (Val is also a hypnotherapist which I only found out about at the very end of our interview – here’s her website: www.rainforesthypnotherapy.com)
So here’s what I learned from Val – thanks Val!
Starting a basic veggie garden – what tools do I need to get started?
Val suggested a fork, a spade, and a hoe, “you don’t really need the hoe but it’s a good idea. You want a trowel for weeding and you might like a wheelbarrow to move heavy loads of soil. You don’t need to bother with a rake, maybe in fall for leaves but not much else.”
Val also recommended you think about how you are going to water your garden and advised against those overhead sprinklers that spray backwards and forwards because they waste water (no manure!), don’t get the roots nice and wet and can allow the plants’ leaves to burn if it’s really hot weather. She recommended a drip irrigation system i.e a hose with little holes in it which will get the water deep down into the soil. I found this drip irrigation system tutorial website that will help you make your own, www.irrigationtutorials.com
Anything special I need to do to the soil?
Ideally, Val says, you want your soil easy to work with and not too heavy. In the best of worlds you want to get your soil started in fall, turning it over and putting down compost. Soil that is too heavy or clay-like won’t grow much.
Val also recommended using raised beds and getting your plot nicely turned over. “Using a spade, get rid of all the grass and get some organic matter in there. If you compost, great, if not, buy some organic compost from your local supermarket or garden centre, it`s not expensive.” Apparently, if you are all set to get your plot ready in the fall, head down to the beach and gather kelp and seaweed and put that on the soil, it makes great compost.
Also, if you can get your hands on some, add aged manure 3 – 4 weeks before planting.
Do I need to pick a particular spot in the garden?
You want a plot that is level and not on a hill, not under a tree and not too windy. At least 8 hours of sun a day is ideal, so not right next to a house. If you can avoid a busy road, all the better.
Val says: “Make sure that tall plants – ie beans and peas or anything trellised are on the north side of your plot. If on the south, they will shade the other plants.“
What veggies grow the easiest in Victoria, what will it be hardest for me to kill?
“Grow what you like first of all,” says Val. “What will not do well are things like eggplant, corn, anything that needs a lot of sun or a hot climate. As for peppers, plant these in a pot on your patio or a really sunny hot deck.”
“Cool weather crops always do great in Victoria so lettuce, kale, brussel sprouts (better bought as little plants rather than seeds), spinach, bok choy, they like it cool so you can plant any of these right now.”
When should I plant my seeds?
See above, cool weather plants can be planted right about now.
Hot weather plants you plant at the end of May, usually May 24th weekend is the perfect planting time
Top tip: “If you grow peas or bean, soak them in a cup of warm water over night – lukewarm. Leave them for 24 – 48 hours and they will germinate much quicker.”
Any good suggestions for buying seeds locally?
Val pointed out that all the garden centres and nurseries here in Victoria are worth buying from and at most of them you will find master gardeners and experts ready to help you out and answer your questions.
There’s also Seedy Saturday, Victoria’s annual seed swap and sale which usually takes place in February.
Is there anything I can grow on a balcony or windowsill?
You can grow any vegetables in pots – lettuce is great, beans and peas not so much unless you have trellasses. Peppers, herbs, tomatoes, lettuce, beets carrots, lettuce all of it!
Can you give me your three top gardening tips?
- Sunny location
- Good compost to amend soil. Don’t overly work soil and mess up composition, just give it a turn and smash it down, not big clods, don’t plant after a heavy rain – not squishy and too wet
- Water efficiently
Well I hope this helps you as much as it helps me. It took talking to Val to realise that planting a veggie plot might be easier that I thought. Hopefully in a few months’ time I’ll be showing off the fruits of my labour, time will only tell. If you’re looking to garden further east, take a look at our blog post about starting seeds indoors to get a head start.