Baby steps to vegie growing

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Herb and vegetable seedlings at the Castle Hill Farmers Market

The wonderful season of 'sprinter' is upon us and many people's thoughts must be turning towards their vegie patches, judging by the crowds descending on the herb and vegie stall on Saturday at our local farmers' market. It was a 'big' outing for me to go to the market (as I still can't drive after the operation, any outing is big for me at the moment)! I was enchanted by the stall: all the plants were bursting with health and it was a joy to see so many people lining up to choose from the huge range of varieties available. This particular stall allows shoppers to fill sectioned punnets with whatever seedlings are desired, so you can buy as many or as few seedlings of a particular type that you want. It seems so simple and yet planting a trough of lettuces can be a significant step to living a more sustainable life.

Lemon tree in our Sydney garden

A few months ago, I attended a weekend course in introductory permaculture. It was an interesting experience and opened my eyes to a very different way of seeing the world. I don't feel I really have got my head around the whole philosophy and stategy of permaculture as yet, but the course reinforced my desire to grow more of our own food. In the past few years, I have been trying to add a few more edibles to our garden: nearby to our old yet productive inherited lemon tree, I have added a Tahitian lime and a blood orange tree, which are now establishing well. A recent taste of a delicious lemonade fruit brought by a visiting friend has made me want to plant one of these as well!

Seedlings from the market ready for planting

I have planted everything else in troughs and we have had success for some time with fancy-leaved lettuces, parsley, rocket, chives, basil, kale and a terrific perennial baby spinach. It is a delight to be able to wander outside and pick enough leaves for a salad or a sandwich: leaves that you know are totally fresh and haven't been sprayed with some horrible chemical. There is no waste as there used to be with mouldering half-eaten lettuces or blackening bunches of herbs sitting in glasses of water in the frig. And there is a genuine feeling of satisfaction knowing you have actually produced your own food!

The next hurdle for me is to plant some herbs and vegetables in my actual garden. Obsessed as I have been over the years with ornamental plants and planting combinations, I've had a mental block about finding space for fruit and vegetables in my garden beds up till this point. At the permaculture weekend, I met people who had tiny city courtyards yet still managed to grow vegetables; a humbling experience for me. And I have realised that some vegies can be quite ornamental as well as practical, and I have recently planted some rhubarb crowns nearby a beetroot-red Iresine herbstii - thinking that the rhubarb stems could fit in nicely here! At the market this weekend, I bought some silver beet as I think their architectural leaves can be added into a flowerbed. Will I be able to harvest my produce, thus ruining the display? It remains to be seen!

Thinnings from seed-raised plants can be used as microgreen salads

For those who enjoy growing herbs and vegetables from seed, now is a great time to sow them. There is a huge range available at nurseries and for beginner gardeners, Mr Fothergill's seed tapes make it easy to sow straight rows of vegies! A great idea I read of recently was to use the baby plants you remove when first thinning out your crops for nutritious microgreen salads. The remaining seedlings are allowed to go on to develop to maturity. Suitable plants for such a strategy include beetroot, lettuce, carrots, kale and silver beet or even herbs. It is now possible to buy trays solely to grow microgreens, and mixed packets of seed for this purpose are also available.

Alas, pests lurk everywhere to attack your crops, and one has to think laterally to avoid reaching for pesticides to deter them. In our permaculture course, we learned that mixed plantings of flowers and vegetables can be useful by attracting beneficial insect predators to devour the pests, as well as confusing destructive insects with strong aromas from fragrant leaves, for example. Crop rotation in garden beds is also important to prevent a build-up of pests fond of a particular type of vegetable. In my own garden, white cabbage moths are a particular problem with vegetables from the Brassicaceae family, such as kale and rocket. Some inventive gardeners catch them in butterfly nets, and I have in my mind an idea of covering these plants with some sort of portable frame covered with mosquito netting so that the moths can't get to them. Using good soil (or high-quality potting mix if growing in containers) and incorporating sieved compost so that the plants grow strongly are also helpful. I am going to resurrect my worm farm so that I can have a source of natural fertiliser for my vegetables in future ... When I have learned more about vegetable growing, I plan to add entries about particular vegetables to my plant reference.

I'd love to hear from readers who have had success with growing food at home. I am also hoping more readers will tell us about their gardens on our new Garden Ramble feature!