How to really grow food in your backyard

For more than fifteen years, I have grown food.  For most of that time I’ve had limited success, and have been pretty baffled as to how an ordinary backyard can really produce enough food to feed a family.  Over a three year period, however, I made changes to what I was doing, and learnt how to produce 80% of my family’s vegies and roughly half the fruit from a normal suburban block.  Here, I share with you what I’ve learnt, in the hope that it can help you feed your family from your garden too.

How much work is it to really grow food?  I maintain ten square metres of raised vegetable garden beds, and several other permanent beds that don’t need that much attention.  I’m guessing I spend an average of half an hour a day out there, plus a 4 hour burst once a week.  In summer it can be a bit more, and in winter a bit less.

Here’s a summary of the key things that I think have made the difference for me.  Explanations and more detail to follow.  After that I’ll tell you what I plant when, and when I eat it.

  •  Keep a garden notebook, use it to plan, make observations and record results.
  •  Have a soil test done and give the soil exactly what it needs to balance it.
  •  Dig the soil to the depth of twice your garden fork.
  •  Make your own compost and feed an inch or two before every crop.
  •  Add some worm castings to give the soil the right micro organisms.
  •  Raise your plants from seed yourself, and only buy seed from a reputable seed company.  Packets from the garden shop just aren’t reliable.
  •  Water most days – about a nine litre bucket per square metre.
  •  Go into your garden most days, be in it and look at everything so you can nip problems in the bud.

Here’s a photo tour of my garden, if you’d like a peek.

Notebook

My gardening notebook has helped me to improve what I’m doing.  Linda Woodrow, in My Permaculture Home Garden, suggests naming everything so that you can refer to them in your notebook.  I’ve named each of my garden beds with silly names that are easy for me to remember, and each area of my garden has its own name too.  In my notebook I write:

–                 The date with list of plants that I have sown, their varieties, and where the seed came from.

–                 The date and a list of plants I’ve transplanted, referring back to the date that I sowed them, so for each plant I can track its journey.  I write which garden bed a plant has gone into.

–                 What I’m harvesting each month – generally I give the start and end date for harvest of a particular crop, and any relevent observations, such as whether the crop enough or too much for our needs.

–                 General observations about what’s doing well and what’s not.  I regularly do taste tests to see which varieties work best, or at what stage of development I should pick the produce.

Here are some examples from my notebook:

–                 25 January sowed:

o      Nantes carrot from New Gipps seed

o      Beans from seed Andy gave me

o      Sugarloaf cabbage from New Gipps seed.

–                 16 Feb transplanted seedlings from 25th Jan into second flat, and transplanted beans into south end of Double Bed 2.

–                 October – we’ve been eating spinach (sown 18th July) most days since the start of the month. Winter Bloomsdale variety is by far the most productive.  The spinach I planted earlier has not done well.  Next year I’ll plant heaps of WB in July and forget the earlier crops.

–                 November – spinach went to seed early this month.

–                 April – did taste test on tomato varieties.  Yellow was the best, followed by Kelstar.  Kelstar was FAR more prolific than yellow, but yellow didn’t have any of the good positions in the garden.  Next year plant mostly Kelstar but try a few yellow in prime positions.  I won’t bother with the other varieties.

–                 June – the Nantes carrots were crap.  Hard and tasteless.  I’ve put the seed in with my seed for animal forage.

I regularly read back through my notebook, and adjust my planting plans for the upcoming year based on my observations.  If a crop did well I trace it back to when I planted it, what seed I used, and make a note to do the same thing the following year.

I create for myself a calender of what to plant when, and I think ahead to which garden bed each crop will go in, attempting to rotate crops as much as possible.  It can be a bit of a brain teaser working it all out, but once I’ve got it clear, I simply make a note on the relevent date in my diary of what I need to do.  And if I’m planting out a garden bed on the 10 Sept, I write a note for the week before to prepare the bed – dig, compost, water, mulch etc.  If I’m sowing seeds on a certain date, I make a note to prepare the flat (seed tray) the week before so that on the day it’s easy.  For me it works best to have a short list of garden jobs to do on various days throughout the week, rather than a humungous and daunting list to do all at once.  That way it’s easier to squeeze it around work and other life commitments.

Soil Test

John Jeavons, in his book, How To Grow More Vegetables, says that if you do a soil test, then ultimately you save money on fertilisers, because you give the ground only what it needs and no more.  If you’re guessing, you have to pile on some of everything, and in the process you could end up destroying the balance.  Pat Colby, in her book, Natural Farming, says that Australian soils tend to be very low in minerals compared to England, where she came from.  Her crops and animals did appallingly, where in England they had grown easily, until she remineralised the soil using dolomite, lime and gypsum.  After reading Pat Colby’s book I was convinced I had to do a soil test and remineralise.  I think this may have contributed to my overall success in recent years.

The soil test company I used is Swep.   I chose them because they are proponents of organic, natural farming, and they do soil tests for Pat Colby.  Some companies will recommend boosting with artificial fertilisers, whereas this one focuses on more natural ingredients.

Dig

I have tried no dig garden beds for years.  When I started digging, my plants started growing better.  In some beds, the ground is so hard I’ve only been able to dig to one fork depth, not two, and the crops in those beds yield noticeably less.  I’ve heard that digging destroys the soil and micro-organisms, but I have to say that when I’ve dug, the plants have grown more food for me.

Here’s how to “double dig”:

  • Dig a trench one spade width wide, one spade depth deep, the whole width of your garden bed.  Put the soil in a wheelbarrow.
  • Use a fork to loosen the soil at the bottom of the bed.  This can be easier after a big rain when the ground is wet.  Or you can water very deeply the day before.
  • Now transfer the soil next to the trench into the trench, so that the trench has moved one spade width along your garden bed.  Use the fork to loosen the soil below this new trench.
  • Continue until the entire garden bed is done.  If you like, tip the soil from the wheelbarrow back over the garden bed, or else keep it to use for raising seedlings and adding to compost piles.

I have read that in some parts of the world, farmers get terrific results by triple digging.  I’ve never done that but it could be worth a try.

Once you’ve dug, spread an inch or two of your homemade compost on the bed.

Never, ever walk on your garden bed once it’s been dug.  If absolutely need, you could place down a plank of wood, so that your weight is evenly distributed over a wider part of the bed.  But I think it’s better to dig out paths so that you can reach every part of your garden bed from the path.

Compost

When I’ve bought compost from the garden shop and spread it on a garden bed, I’ve had no noticeable improvement in my crops.  When I started making my own compost, the results were stunning and very noticeable.  I suspect now that some shop composts are made from rotted sawdust or woodchips, which don’t make very nutritious compost.  I have once bought shop compost that I thought was great: Surecrop by Fultons.

It’s much better for the environment to make your own compost, because when you bring in fertility from somewhere else, you are stripping that place of its fertility.

Here’s my recipe for quick compost.

First collect your materials:

  • Scavenge grass clippings – I spot these around the neighbourhood on nature strips and go and fill some large animal feed bags with them.  I ask mowing companies to drop off bags of clippings when they are in my area.
  • Scavenge autumn leaves – in autumn I go out several times and collect oak leaves from the roadside.  I store a huge pile of them in my garden, ready to use as mulch and compost materials when I need them.
  • Scavenge seaweed – when I go to the beach I fill bags with seaweed.  When I get home I wash the salt off them, so the salt doesn’t contaminate my garden.  Then I let them dry in the sun for a few days, and store them till I need them.
  • Find a source of manure – I have chooks and a rabbit which now yield enough manure.  Before that I used to buy it, from a garden shop if need, but preferably from a roadside stall in the country.  Every now and then I’d be on a farm surrounded by cowpats or horse manure and would politely ask if I could take home a bag of it.  You can also get manure from police horse stables in the city.
  • If you have comfrey or nettles or azolla (waterweed), these can really help to activate the pile.

When you have enough materials, build a compost pile that’s at least one cubic metre.  Layer materials as follows:

  • A layer of fresh grass clippings.  I don’t make my pile until I have a few big sacks of these.  Finding them is usually the thing that tells me, right, today is compost-making day.
  • A layer of dry materials.  This could be autumn leaves from last autumn, or it could be dry grass clippings.  Sometimes I collect them dry by raking them off the nature strip, or if I’ve collected fresh grass clippings, I spread them in the chook pen for a few days to dry out.  You can also use shredded paper or straw for this.  Don’t use sawdust or wood shavings as they’ll take too long to break down.  Don’t use anything big or woody – use small pieces so the compost breaks down quickly.
  • Spread over it a tiny bit of seaweed.  You don’t need much.  This adds essential minerals to the pile.
  • Spread a layer of manure.  Again, you don’t need heaps, though more is better.  This adds micro-organisms which help the compost pile break down quickly.  If you don’t have manure you could add comfrey, or nettles, which can help activate the pile.
  • Sprinkle with water from a hose – the whole pile needs to be as damp as a wring out sponge.  Then add another layer of fresh grass clippings, and so on, until you’ve run out of materials or the pile is at least one cubic metre.

After one week, use a fork to turn the pile into the space next to it.  As you go, break up any biggish clods, and sprinkle with water if it seems dry.  Try to work the outside materials into the middle of the pile.  There should be whiteish veins running through the centre of the pile and it should be warm, too.  This tells you the micro-organisms are doing their thing and all is going well.  If absolutely nothing has happened, your pile is dead and something is wrong.  Maybe not enough fresh materials?  Not moist enough?  No micro-organisms?  Pull the pile apart and rebuild, adding what you think it might need.

After this, turn the pile once a week till it’s been turned three times.  Then wait a week and it’s ready to use.

Compost sounds tricky and difficult, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy.  Finding materials is the hardest bit – if need, you can make it with only grass clippings – as long as you layer dry clippings and fresh clippings, but your compost will be much more nutritious if you can add the other ingredients.  It takes me an hour to build a pile, and about 15 minutes to turn it.  Add an hour for scavenging, and that’s a total of 3 hours for a very decent amount of top quality compost.

The other way you can make compost is to start a big pile that will take a whole year to break down.  You don’t need to turn this, so it’s less work.  But if it takes a year to build your pile, then it takes another year to break down, so your first yield is two years away.  In the meantime, you’ll need quick compost.  If you do the big pile method, you’ll still need to scavenge materials, or you won’t end up with enough compost.  The advantage of the big pile method is that you can use bigger, coarser pieces, and you can include all your kitchen scraps.  Do a layer of coarse materials such as prunings from bushes, plants you’ve pulled up from the vegie garden etc.  Then tip in your kitchen scraps.  Ideally now cover with a layer of fresh grass clippings, and then a layer of dried grass clippings or autumn leaves.  If you do that once a week, after a year you’ll have a fantastic compost pile.  The great benefit of this method is that you can include human manure along with the kitchen scraps.  As long as it’s well covered it won’t stink.  And then you can really get to a closed system of fertility.  I have separate notes about how to do a composting toilet this way.

Worms

If your soil is full of worms, you have great soil.  If it’s not, you need to make some changes.  Worms like moist soil, so keep yours moist.  They also like soil that has plenty of compost or manure in it.  Worms help to deliver nutrients to your plants, and the micro-organisms that they generate in their poo (castings) are the superheroes of the soil world.  Plants need these micro-organisms in order to access nutrients that are in the soil.

I keep a worm farm, which I feed with quick compost or with the same materials that I use for quick compost. I use worm castings for growing seedlings, and when I prepare a garden bed, I sprinkle worm castings (and some worms) as well as compost.  The worms that you buy and keep in a farm won’t live long in a normal garden bed, but their micro-organisms will.

Some gardeners use only a gigantic worm farm to create all their compost.  They scavenge the materials listed for compost, and feed them to their worms instead.  The worms process them quickly, with no need to turn the pile, and at the end you have the best compost in the whole world.  I’m still trying to breed up my worms to large enough numbers to produce the entire volume of compost that I need, so I can’t entirely vouch for this method yet, but it’s my aim.

Seeds

The seeds you buy in garden shops are often duds.  They are the “sweepings from the seedroom floor”, according to Steve Solomon, in his book Gardening When It Counts.  Often they aren’t what they say they are.  I bought celery which turned out to be coriander, and then I had respect for Steve Solomon.  I also noticed how many seeds I bought that never germinated.  When you plant seeds and water them, the should come up within five or so days, and almost all of them should come up.  If only a few are up after a week, chances are you have dud seed.  Dud seed can also grow dud plants.  When you plant good broccoli seed, all the heads should be a good size and they should all be ready at about the same time.  When I plant broccoli seedlings from the garden shop, the heads are often tiny, and then start going to seed before they get to a good size for eating.  Cabbages might go to seed before making a head, or you might end up with plants that simply give a really low yield.

When I put in the work involved to nuture a plant for six months, I don’t want to take the chance that it’s a dud.  The answer to this is to buy good seed and raise it yourself.

Good seed comes from a company that grows seed carefully.  Say you are growing broccoli seed, you need to plant a huge patch of broccoli.  Then, the cheap way, you wait till all the plants go to seed, collect the seed, and you’re done.  But if you do it properly, you monitor the plants as you go, and you pull out any that have small heads or grow weirdly or slowly.  Then only the good plants go to seed, and you end up with top quality seed (but less of it).  You need to buy your seed from a company that does this.  You can ring and ask them.  Steve Solomon canvassed a bunch of companies for his book.  Not all of them responded and received a tick from him, and most of them were North American companies, but there was one listed for Victoria:

New Gipps seed company.  www.newgipps.com.au  I buy my seed from there, and it has done way better than the garden shops.  However, I still think I get about 20% of duds from them.  So keep records, and make a note of which seeds do well and which don’t.  If a packet doesn’t do well, let the company know and ask for a replacement of a different variety.

Diggers is a popular seed company in Victoria, but I’ve had very mixed results from them.  While some seeds have done well, I’m guessing 50-60% have turned out to be duds.  The company has also given me bad service when I’ve raised this issue of dud seeds with them.

If you get a good crop, save some seed!  It’s well worth it.  In all the packets of seed I bought from garden shops, only one has done well, but it is stunning: frederico bean.  Amazingly prolific and delicious and easy to grow.  I’ve kept heaps of seeds and I’m so glad because I’ve never seen it again.  And I’ve tried lots of bean seeds from New Gipps and none of them compare.  If only I could find good pea seed….

Raising Seedlings

I make my own seedling raising mix from 1/3 compost, 1/3 worm castings, and 1/3 ordinary soil.  I make sure the mix is nice and fine.

I have tried many times sowing seed directly in the garden, but for various mysterious reasons, many of these crops fail.  When I raise them in a flat (seed tray), I have much better results.  I have tried over and over again to sow carrots direct, since they are so small and they are the most hassle to transplant, but I’ve never had a successful crop that way.  My transplanted carrots do beautifully, however, even though it’s a fair bit of work.  I do still sow beans and peas direct, unless there’s a reason to sow them in a seed tray, such as because the garden bed is still full with the previous crop.

Most seeds need to be transplanted into a second flat (seed tray) before they are ready to go out into the garden.  Brassicas, spinach, silverbeet, tomatoes, capsicum, and eggplant are all examples of these.  Make sure your first flat is 3 inches deep, and your second flat 6 inches deep.  This is much deeper than ordinary garden trays.  I use old worm farm trays.  Or you can build some out of wood.  Having shallower flats can curb the root zone of your plant, and your plants won’t be as prolific.

Generally once I’ve sown the seed, it takes about a month until the plant has a couple of tiny leaves and is ready to be transplanted to the second flat.  The second flat gives it a fresh supply of compost nutrients, and freshly airated soil, which really helps the plant along.  Then it might be in the second flat for another month, or perhaps just two weeks, depending how fast it’s growing, and then you plant it out into the garden.

For the second flat, you can use plastic two litre milk bottles.  Cut off the top and the bottom, and stand them up in a polystyrene box.  Fill with seedling raising mix, and transplant one plant per milk bottle.  When it’s time to plant them into the garden, dig a hole the size of the milk bottle, place the bottle in the hole, and slide the bottle up around the plant.  It can stay there for a few days to protect the plant from snails, wind and other evils.  Then when the plant looks established, lift the bottle right off and store ready for next time.  When you plant them into the garden, look at the bottom of the pot and check out the roots.  If the roots are protruding or have started to curl in on themselves, the plant has been in the pot a bit long – make a note to plant them out sooner next time, so you don’t curb the growth of the plant.

Some plants don’t need to go into a second flat.  I plant big seeds like beans, peas, zucchinis, cucumbers, melons and corn directly into their own milk bottle.  Onions and carrots I simply grow in one flat, and then plant into the garden when they are big enough to handle.

Don’t plant the seeds too deep – 1.5 times their diameter is about how deep to aim for.   Plant the seeds in rows 1 inch apart.  Carrot, lettuce, and onion I plant much more closely – I simply spread seed over an area of my seed tray and cover with a sprinkling of soil.  Spinach I plant in a row but I put about 5 seeds to the inch, since germination rate is usually so poor.

Label every kind of seed you sow using a permanent marker on icypole sticks or cut up strips of plastic milk bottles.  Include the variety of seed sown.  AND transfer this information into your notebook.

Keep your seed trays in a protected spot that is convenient for daily watering. In summer you want some shade and protection from hot winds and birds.  In winter you want a warm sunny spot protected from winds. A sunny windowsill in the house, or else a greenhouse outside is ideal.  I bought a cheap plastic covered greenhouse from Ebay and the results have been amazing – well worth the investment.

Water every day with a watering can or hose with very fine nozzle.  You just want a gentle rain or mist for the trays.  While you are watering, check for problems such as pest damage and protect your plants from pests if need.

Water

Many gardeners recommend watering deeply only once a week or so.  I realise this approach works for other, very experienced gardeners, but it has never worked for me, despite the lazy appeal.  When I tried the approach recommended by Lolo Houbein in her book, One Magic Square, of watering every day, I started to have much better results.  I aim, loosely, to give each square metre of soil roughly 9 litres of water.  By using a spray hose, and filling up a nine litre bucket, I timed it and found out it takes about a minute.  So when I’m holding my spray hose, I reckon on about a minute per square metre.  I used to time it but these days I can do it by instinct.

More important is to put your fingers down into the soil and see how dry it is.  It should be as moist as a wrung out sponge.  Plants can do ok in dryer soil, but they won’t thrive.  You want your plants to thrive.

I now have a drip irrigation system, and for the orchard I reckon it’s great.  For the vegie beds, if I use it three times a week, I notice after a while the plants aren’t too happy and the soil seems really dry.  These days I have better results by alternating hand-watering with the irrigation system.  Roughly three times a week I go out there with my spray hose and give each bed, especially the beds with small plants a minute per metre.  Three times a week I turn on the watering system.  Of course, if we’ve had a good rain I can often skip the watering, but don’t be foiled by Melbourne’s rain.  Often we have what seems like a good rain, but when I poke my fingers into the soil, it’s dry below the first couple of centimetres.

My theory now is that a little bit of water often (9 litres per square metre, several times a week), keeps the soil moist, and allows the moisture to gently travel down to the root zone of the plants.  Once the soil becomes dry it seems almost impossible to moisten it again.

In winter, I don’t mulch, because the mulch stops the moisture from getting down into the soil.  In summer, I water the beds extremely deeply before each crop, and then put down a thick, thick layer of mulch.  Combined with the drip irrigation system which sits under the mulch, and a bit of overhead watering so the plants can get water through their leaves, and around their root zone, this is often enough for a crop.

Gardening Routine

For your garden to really produce food, it needs to be part of your daily routine.  I’ve tried a morning routine and a late afternoon routine, and haven’t noticed a difference as to how well the plants do.  Just make sure you do it, and allocate half an hour of your day, five or six days a week.  Here’s what to do.

Go out and be in your garden.  Look at everything.  If something’s been nibbled, work out how to protect it.  Put out organic snail pellets or come back at night with a torch if need.  Just because the problem is small now, don’t ignore it.  You should know all your plants, so when something happens, you know straight away.  Squash any cabbage moth caterpillers you see.  If you see any weeds pull them out, while they are little and it’s easy.  If it’s easier, just lie them on the top of the soil instead of carting them to the compost bin.  Plant or transplant anything that needs doing.  Handwater, if need.  Harvest your dinner.  Take long, slow deep breaths and enjoy the beauty of your gaden.

Once a week or so, you’ll probably need to do more.  Maybe a big planting or transplanting session, a clean up, digging a garden bed, building a compost pile or whatever.  Make an appointment in your diary and honour it.

Harvest

It makes me want to cry when I see someone else’s garden and it’s full of broccoli that’s just about to go to seed.  I want to ask them why they haven’t picked it, and whether I can pick it before it’s completely ruined.  But I bite my lip and try not to say anything.  I used to be the same kind of gardener – I grew all sorts of food and then I simply didn’t pick it, and it was wasted.  Jackie French says nothing it wasted, don’t worry about eating it all, and while I have a vast amount of respect for Jackie French, I think this was the wrong thing to say to me.

Sharon Astyk, in her book Depletion and Abundance, says to harvest something every day, even if it’s just a few silverbeet leaves, and find a way to eat it.  I took her advice, and noticed I could often find more than just a few silverbeet leaves to pick.  We started getting into the swing of incorporating whatever meagre pickings I could bring in from the garden.  Usually it would be in the form of a medley, steamed with butter, salt and pepper.  There might just be one asparagus stalk and four peas along with a few silverbeet leaves – not enough for a meal of each, but when you mix them together, you’ve got a nice side for your dinner.

If I have a patch of carrots in my garden, I don’t wait until I feel like eating carrots, and then go and get some.  If I do that, we don’t end up getting through it.  Instead, I pull a few carrots on a regular basis and deliver them to the kitchen.  Several times a week I go around the garden and take whatever it has to offer – a few celery stalks, an artichoke heart, some spinach leaves, one beetroot etc.  I put these on the kitchen bench, and my partner, Paula, who does most of the cooking, works out a way to use them up.  It’s taken her time to develop this skill, but these days she wastes very little of what I bring in from the garden.  Some plants, mainly herbs, I don’t harvest in advance, because I know Paula will pick them as need.  And sometimes I warn her that we’ve got lots of silverbeet that’ll go to seed soon, and then she’ll plan a pie.  When she gives me the go-ahead, I pick it all.  Mostly though, the best way is to gather whatever the garden has to offer, put it on the kitchen bench, and then do our best not to waste it.

Good Books To Read

My suggestions here are for people who want to grow a serious amount of food.  If you have never gardened before, and feel daunted by everything, maybe start with Lolo Houbein’s book One Magic Square, and work up from there.

If you want more detailed information than what I can provide here, I recommend John Jeavons’ book How To Grow More Vegetables which has heaps of fantastic information.  However, the sowing and harvest times he recommended didn’t work for me, and the moon planting suggestions need to be adjusted for the Southern hemisphere.

If you are about to design your garden and want ideas for fabulous, labour-saving but highly productive food gardens, please read Linda Woodrow’s My Permaculture Home Garden before you start!  The ideas are amazing – I wish I’d read this before I designed my garden. This book also has detailed suggestions for compost, chooks and managing worm farms.  Linda Woodrow believes in no dig, and occasionally walks on her garden beds – and that’s probably the only place I disagree with her.  I’ve had much better results from digging.  From people who have followed her design, I’ve heard that you need to make some adjustments since plants don’t grow quite as fast in Melbourne as suggested in her book.

And if you want to know more about soil, and be convinced that the quality of soil affects everything about the health of plants, and health of animals and people who eat those plants, read Pat Colby’s book Natural Farming.  If you can’t be bothered to read it, have a soil test done, follow the instructions, and you’ll benefit from her wisdom!

What to plant when

I find it helpful if I plant in blocks of one or two square metres, and try to make sure all the plants for that block will be finished at the same time.  That way, I can dig it over, compost it and replant, without needing to wait ages for for one last plant to finish.

In my notebook for the last few years, I’ve recorded what I’ve planted when, and what varieties, and when they were ready to eat.  I used this information to work out groups of plants that will all be ready at the same time.  The following calendar shows what I’m sowing this year, when I transplant them to the garden bed, and when I hope to eat them.

Dec – early Sow brassicas & spinach
Dec – mid Sow brassicas, beet, carrot
Jan – early Into bed . Sow lettuce direct. Sow brassicas, beet, carrot
Jan – mid Into bed . Sow lettuce direct. Sow brassicas, beet, carrot
Feb – early Into bed . Sow lettuce direct. Sow brassicas
Feb – mid Into bed . Sow lettuce direct.
March – early
March – mid Into bed . Sow lettuce direct.
April – early
April – late Eat Sow onions & carrots
May Eat Into bed with garlic Sow cabb
June Eat Sow broc, cauli, beet, baby carrot Sow cabb
July Eat Into bed . Sow lettuce direct. Sow broc, cauli, beet, baby carrot
Aug Eat Into bed . Sow lettuce direct.
Sept Eat
Oct
Nov Eat
Dec Eat Eat

 

Long season calender

Dec – early
Dec – mid Start eating. Start eating. Sow long season carrots
Jan – early
Jan – mid Into bed Start eating.
Feb – early
Feb – mid
March – early Eat pukehoe
March – mid Start eating and pull as need.
April – early
April – late Pull tomatoes Pull crops Pull crops except last of beans.
May Pull crops
June Sow potato onions, pukehoe & carrots tog, Sow tomatoes Sow eggplant, basil, capsicum Sow silverbeet
July Sow broadbeans June, July. Sow spinach, peas, lettuce Eat last of beans.
Aug Sow broadbeans. Into bed Sow zucchini, cucumber, melons, vines. Sow beans
Sept Tomato into bed. Into bed Sow beans Into bed
Oct Eat spin, lettuce, asp, arti, celery, carrots. Into bed Sow beans
Nov Eat broadbeans Eat peas. Sow beans Pull what’s left Pull last year’s silverbeet
Dec Eat potato onions

Eat broadbeans

Sow beans in protected spot.

A few notes

The cabbage and cauliflower planted here are miniature varieties – full sized cabbages and cauliflower would generally need to be in the ground longer.  The carrot is usually a baby carrot – I plant big carrots in one go midsummer.

When planting out the beds, I put cauliflower at the south, then broccoli, then cabbage at the north, since cabbage is lower.  I reserve one end of the bed for a few rows of carrots, and a few rows of beets and a row of lettuce.  I don’t interplant them with the broccoli and cauliflower because the brassicas grow too big and shade them out.  I give the broccoli 40cm of space, the cauli and cabbage 30cm each, the beetroot 7cm, and the carrot 5cm.

Before every crop I dig the bed again to loosen the soil (sometimes I’m lazy and single dig if it was double dug the previous time), add an inch of compost, and give everything a big deep water.

Some people swear by companion planting, but it hasn’t resulted in better yields for me.  However, I’ve done well by combining some crops.  For instance, in August I plant out a bed with vegies that will be finished in November – spinach, peas, baby carrots, and lettuce.  I leave spots for tomato plants and mark these with stakes.  Then in mid September, I put in the tomatoes, along with an extra handful of compost to compensate for the nutrients taken by the other plants.  When the tomatoes are fully grown, they’ll take the whole bed (and lettuces planted under them at that time just die), but in the meantime, I can utilise the space around them with other plants.  Around the time the spinach etc go to seed, I pull them up, add more compost, and mulch thickly, then leave the bed to the tomatoes.  I sometimes use this technique for zucchinis, pumpkins and cucumbers too, depending on when the bed becomes available.

Silverbeet – I sow this midwinter, plant it out in spring, and eat it till the following spring.  Since my raised beds have a much faster turnover than this, I plant silverbeet elsewhere in my garden, among the permanent plants.

I don’t have quite enough garden beds to plant out everything exactly as listed in my calenders.  Some plants inevitably end up squeezed around my permanent plants, and usually don’t do as well.  I also have disasters like this year when there was nothing to eat in August and September because the chooks broke into that garden bed just after I’d planted it out, and demolished the seedlings.  I take a deep breath, shrug, and remind myself that a lot of the time it does work.  (And I put some netting over my beds in case someone leaves the gate open.)

The calenders above are the ones that work for me.  If you like, use them as a starting point, but use your notebook to adjust it each year, so that ultimately you end up with your own calender based on what your family likes to eat, the varieties of seed that you have access to, the speed with which things grow in your garden beds, and the amount of space available.

Other tips to make it easier

The first year I was keeping a garden notebook, I noticed the bulk of my work was in tying up tomatoes.  The next year, we used cages rather than stakes for the tomatoes: four or five stakes per plant, with string tied between them for the branches to rest on.  Suddenly I was freed from tomato-labour.  The next year, with the tomatoes being so little work, I realised the beans were the most exhausting thing.  Trying to pick them and keep up with them was full on.  This year I’m trying out a bean teepee, because apparently when the beans grow on an angle, you can simply walk inside and find all the beans hanging down, nice and easy to spot.  I’m also planting all my beans in one place so I don’t have to visit multiple parts of the garden.

I’ve noticed that if I go to the garden to get spinach, it’s much easier to pick it all from one spot than walk around looking for the individual plants.  Same with strawberries, peas and so on.  Although permaculturists recommend mixing up the plants to deter pests, I’ve frankly found it easier to have patches of one kind of plant.  The only exception is strawberries, which really are plagued with pests, and do seem to do much better hidden amongst other plants.

Work out what groups of plants can grow together in a single bed, and will be ready to harvest at the same time, and give a name to these groupings. Then when my planning, you can write the crop name for that garden bed, rather than listing each individual plant. I also know when the bed will be available for the next crop. For instance, I have:

  • Summer Vines: cucumbers, melons and zucchinis.  They all go in the same bed in October and are pulled up at the end of April.
  • Spring Vegies: cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, baby carrots, beets, spinach and lettuce.  I allocate a single bed to these items, and work out individual sowing times for each plant so that they’ll all be ready at once.

Happy Gardening!

I hope the tips I’ve shared here are helpful for you.  Please do leave me a comment and tell me your gardening experiences – especially what works and what doesn’t.

Best wishes,

Asphyxia.