Advice For Growing Your Own Veggie Garden, According To The Experts
Growing your own food is so damn satisfying and surprisingly easy. Here’s how anyone can do it – according to one professional and one professional-looking amateur.
The idea of growing your own food is brilliant: you conjure up mental images of lavish dinner party meals topped with the herbs you’ve grown, salads you’ve literally created yourself and desserts scattered with your homemade berries. “What, this old thing?!” you giggle smugly with faux-modesty. “Oh yeah, I just plucked it out of the ground this afternoon, no big deal!”
It’s a dream that – for most of us who can’t even keep a cactus alive – seems unreachable. How can you grow actual food in actual edible quantities (i.e. more than a singular cherry tomato) without giving up any semblance of a life you might have? Well, amigos, turns out it’s easier than you might think. Whether you’ve got acres and acres of land primed for veggies, or the best you can do is a pot on a windowsill that gets a couple of hours of sun in the morning, the road to becoming slightly more self-sustainable is within reach.
We’ve chatted to two keen edible gardeners, one professional and one of the most professional amateurs we’ve ever met.
Mat Pember is from The Little Veggie Patch Co, a Melbourne-based organisation that publishes books, has a Melbourne retail space selling edible landscaping products and runs the Pop Up Patch, a space in Melbourne where people can hire a plot and plant their own veggies regardless of their living arrangement.
Cameron Burgess is just a regular 20-something living in a share house in Sydney. He doesn’t have the biggest gardens ever (in fact, he started gardening on a roof), nor the cash to splash for expensive gardening gear, but he manages to have grown more produce than I’ve ever eaten in my life – and has won multiple awards for having gorgeous gardens.
“I am in love with gardening and wish everyone would do it. Sadly, I don’t know how sexy I can make it seem to young people these days!” Cameron laughs.
Between the two of them, they’ll inspire you to start planting your own lil’ veggie garden faster than you can say ‘aubergine’.
Ok, where do you even start?
“The worst thing you can do is to jump in too deep, throw a whole lot of money and resources at it, and then find that you’re completely overwhelmed.”
“Start small is what we always preach,” says Mat. “We find that people always have this really great enthusiasm for it, but unfortunately don’t have the lifestyle that’s compatible with being a gardener. The worst thing you can do is to jump in too deep, throw a whole lot of money and resources at it, and then find that you’re completely overwhelmed. Then your first experiment is a dismal failure and you don’t end up coming back for seconds,” he says. “If you start with something that’s really manageable and get success from it, that will spur you on to bigger and better things down the track.”
“I moved into a house where the only outdoor space was a concreted rooftop,” says Cameron, who’s self-taught at the whole ‘gardening’ thing. “I planted some herbs in pots to make the space a little nicer and also because I was sick of paying for a bunch of herbs and then only using a quarter of them before they went off. Once I was able to grow some simple things I moved onto vegetables and then citrus trees.
“My grandparents actually own a market garden and I’d done some gardening as a kid so I knew some of the basics. When I decided I wanted to try it for myself I Googled a lot, looked on Pinterest and watched YouTube clips to find out what plants are suited to which conditions etc. I bought a couple of seedlings and packets of seeds and eventually built up a collection of plants!”
But I don’t have the space/money/time for this gardening nonsense!
“You don’t need much space at all to start! I mean, the start of a garden is just a pot, isn’t it?” Mat says.
“There are also lots of opportunities for things like wall gardens, self-watering balcony planters specifically designed for time-poor, knowledge-poor renter-type people. They’re really portable.There are so many solutions these days for people who don’t know what they’re doing – products just keep evolving so fast to cater for these markets.”
Cameron has tried many of these easy, portable and cheap options and had great success.
“I’ve managed to move my garden three times now, it usually takes three or four trips with a ute but it’s definitely worth it! If you don’t have much space it’s good to go vertical – you can buy wall planters or make your own. A really cheap way is to get an old shoe rack and put your pots on that: we collected a few from our council and they’ve been really useful. Another option is to build your own out of pallets. They can look really cool, but just make sure the wood isn’t treated with anything toxic.
“You can actually get really creative! Last year I built a strawberry planter from an old PVC drainpipe and the year before I built a table from pallets which has succulents growing in the middle. If you have no outdoor space. A sunny windowsill like one in the kitchen is great too. If you only want a small herb garden, keep it close to the house so you don’t have to travel far when you’re cooking. You’ll be more likely to use what you’ve grow.”
Alright then, what should I be growing?
“I always recommend planting lots of herbs and salads, because you’re always going to get a lot of value from them. They’re probably easiest to grow in autumn, too, when the weather cools down and maintenance is easy,” Mat says.
“Now’s a great time for lettuces, kale, spinach, things like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, broad beans, beetroots – so much stuff! We’re really lucky here to have such a comparatively balmy climate – so our weather’s considered a springtime kind of climate year-round when you compare it to somewhere like the UK.”
In just four years of gardening, Cameron’s produce repertoire is incredibly impressive – and enviable. “The first things I successfully grew were mint and chives. I planted them in 2012 and they’re still going!
“It goes by season, but generally in a year I’ll have these growing: blood oranges; lemons; limes; passionfruit; cucumbers; tomatoes; chives; herbs; rocket; chilli; spinach – warrigal greens (also called NZ spinach); Nashi pears; strawberries; blueberries; nasturtiums; sweet potatoes; spring onions; leeks; a curry leaf tree; and eggplants.
“We’ve also got aloe vera, succulents and some fragrant flowering plants like lavender, frangipani and jasmine. They’re great for attracting bees as well. You can grow a surprising amount in a relatively small space!”
Cuttings mean savings
“If you have friends who garden you can save by asking them for cuttings – plants like mint, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary and even tomatoes can be grown from cuttings,” says Cameron.
“If you walk past something you like the look of, you could even knock on the door and ask for a cutting. People are generally pretty nice about it and are happy to give you one. If you are going to steal a cutting – and admittedly I’ve been known to carry a pair of secateurs with me when I’m coming home from work – just make sure you only take a small cutting. There’s nothing worse than someone stealing your plants; I planted a communal lavender garden near my local train station and I was gutted when it’d been ripped out!
“Also, I once fell into someone’s backyard trying to get a cutting from a frangipani tree and I couldn’t get back over the fence. You don’t want to wind up in that situation.”
Matilda is a British-Australian-French freelance writer. She has flat-packed IKEA furniture in London and Melbourne, and no idea what’s coming next. She’s written for The Guardian, FasterLouder, mX and Grazia, and really likes hot chocolate.