Growing your own food, from putting seeds or seedlings in the dirt, to seeing them grow, then harvesting and eating your home grown fresh produce, is a wonderful thing. The rewards can be as simple as the fresh herbs you use to enhance your meals, or the tomatoes that actually have flavour! It can also be about a lot more, like having access to affordable, healthy, nutrient-dense foods, and living a more mindful, purposeful, low-tox lifestyle.
The benefits for every day folk who are starting to grow some of their own food, can include:
- Good health from getting out in the fresh air, connecting with nature, doing some exercise, and eating better
- Education and awareness for yourself and your kids, about nature, lifecycles, the food industry, as well as skills like gardening, composting, cooking, preserving and reducing kitchen/ food waste
- A great way to get involved with your neighbours and in your community, helping to build resilience and adapt in place
- Satisfaction and having fun creating, growing, trouble shooting, connecting, being productive
- There can be environmental benefits from less carbon emissions, less reliance on fossil fuels, less pollution and less waste
- You can nurture the land, animals and communities around you, be a part of the solution!
- Being able to feed your family and loved ones in times of rising food & energy costs, food unavailability, unemployment, environmental breakdown etc.
There can be challenges, including lack of time, money, space, skills or knowledge, lack of support or interest from partner and family. Sometimes you have none of those obstacles, it is just knowing where, or how to start! Check out my Beginners Guide to Urban Homesteading for some solutions, or sign up to get my FREE Guide to Urban Homesteading (see the form below), which can really help you tackle the obstacles you might face!
Whether you want a few pots of fresh herbs, a couple of raised beds with seasonal goodies, or a complete urban homestead, the essentials of growing remain the same. What you need is:
- Healthy soil (dark, loose and moist, rich in humus and nutrients/ essential elements)
- Sunlight (on average, full sun for 6 hours each day, some varieties like leafy greens can handle getting just 4 hours, others like tomatoes, chillies, capsicums and eggplant need up to 8 hours to grow and produce well)
- Rain (or water)
- Seeds (or seedlings, which are young plants raised from seeds)
- Good Bugs & Pollinators (insects, like bees, & the wind)
Your garden will also need a TLC, that is, time, love, and consideration. It does take some time to set up the infrastructure, learn the skills, and then maintain your garden. You need to enjoy the challenges, be willing to connect with nature, not just expect to skip straight to the part where you pick your own food. You may also need to troubleshoot, and think about solutions to issues that pop up.
PLANNING + CREATING
Although your edible garden will be influenced by the time, budget and space you have, any challenges you might face, as well as your growing climate/ zone, the basic steps to plan and create your edible garden, include:
- Decide what kind of garden beds, or containers you will build or buy, and where to locate them on your patio/ backyard/ side yard/ rooftop
- Make a plan of what and how much you want to grow, based around what is suitable for your space, time and family preferences/ requirements
- Make a list of the equipment and materials you need to source, and gather them
- Plan a day, or weekend, to build or put it together
- Set up or build your garden beds, and add the soil (or condition/ improve the existing soil)
- Plant your seeds or seedlings, gently water
- Cover with a loose topping of mulch
- Ongoing maintenance and troubleshooting, leading up to harvest
I highly recommend that you sign up to my email list to receive your FREE Guide to Urban Homesteading (PDFs emailed to your Inbox) to help you with your planning, and access the Assessment and Design Tool. Forms can be found on the bottom of this page.
Whilst there are a diverse range of growing methods and systems used around the world, the commonly used backyard edible gardens include some kind of garden bed or container, which holds sufficient soil to support the plants to grow (as little as 30 to 40cm deep), is located where there is enough sunlight (but not too much heat), and either catches the rain or can be easily watered.
- What is it? using plastic, ceramic or terracotta pots, or grow bags/ potato grow bags, or buckets/ boxes or other items with drainage holes added to the bottom, filled with soil & mulch
- Benefits are good for small areas or renting, affordable and portable, easy and low maintenance way to start; you can grow pretty much any herbs in a pot, as well as carrots, chillies, silverbeet/ chard, cherry tomatoes, radishes, lettuce, spring onions, garlic, blueberries, strawberries, kale, Asian greens, and even some climbing or spreading veges, like scaloppini squash, dwarf beans, bush cucumbers
- Challenges are not able to grow a lot, and some types of produce/ varieties may not grow well in containers; can dry out/ get overheated, and nutrients can be depleted quickly
- Equipment/ materials required may include containers (consider large ‘self-watering’ wicking types, or maybe you can find second hand or DIY) that allow for soil of 30 to 40cm depth, soil, mulch, stake or mini trellis, labels
- Optional extras consider putting your containers on pot plant trolley bases before you fill them with soil and plants, as these allow the pots, which are heavy once filled and growing, to be moved to a better spot at different times of the year, and to assist with airflow and drainage; and you may require a liquid fertiliser as the soil gets depleted in containers quite quickly; more information here
NO-DIG GARDEN BEDS
- What is it? a garden is formed directly on top of lawn/ dirt/ ground, using layers of growing mediums
- Benefits less equipment/ materials need; more affordable, ability to add trellis/ support structures
- Challenges may include more chance of weeds and pests, more bending over/ kneeling; may need topping up with compost/ soil more frequently
- Options look into ‘lasagna’ or no-dig methods
- Equipment/ materials required vege compost/ good quality soil, mulch, newspaper or cardboard (maybe weed matt/ geotextile to stop grass growing up through), organic fertiliser
- Optional extras consider hugelkultur, which involves using layers of pruned branches, leaf mulch, and other organic matter, which then breaks down to make the growing area and feed the plants
RAISED GARDEN BEDS
- What is it? a structure/ container is placed on top of the ground and filled up
- Benefits include more space to grow, able to add good quality soil, more back-friendly & less bending over/ kneeling down, and ability to add trellis/ support structures
- Challenges include buying or making the structures; more surface area, may mean more chance of weeds and pests, requires more water, not easily relocated once in place
- Options include pre-made garden beds (like Vege Pods or Vege Crates) or DIY kits (like Birdies raised colourbond garden beds), or make your own from pallets/ sleepers/ concrete etc
- Equipment/ materials required may include the beds/ containers (or equipment/ materials to make them), soil, mulch, stakes or trellis, covers for shade/ pests
- Optional extras shade and support structures; watering system or consider making them into wicking garden beds, with a reservoir of sand or river pebble in the bottom, a layer of geotextile and then the growing medium/ soil on top, a thin layer of mulch, and piping to distribute water and drainage holes to prevent overflow
- What is it? a hole is dug in the ground, and existing soil turned over, or removed for soil to be added
- Benefits less equipment/ materials needed, and more affordable; ability to add trellis/ support structures
- Challenges include digging up soil/ ground; more chance of weeds and issues with pests/ pets; more bending over/ kneeling to do the gardening
- Options dig out an existing decorative garden bed, or create a new one by removing lawn/ weeds, then digging down, removing dirt and replacing with better quality soil, or conditioning existing soil
- Equipment/ materials required may include digging equipment, compost or manure to condition the soil, mulch, stakes or trellis, covers for shade/ pests
- Optional extras edging (to stop grass and weeds invading the garden bed), watering system, shade system
A NOTE ON SOIL & MULCH
You may have decent soil available already, which is dark, friable and ready to plant in, or you may be able to condition, and improve the existing soil with compost/ humus, worm castings, added organic fertilisers etc. Or you may have to buy organic ‘vege mix’ from a nursery or hardware store by the 25 to 30 litre bag full, or from a wholesale landscape supplies for a trailer or truck load.
Mulch for vege beds is generally a light, loose material, such as sugar cane mulch, pea straw or lucerne, which covers the top of the soil, and then sits around the base of the plants as they grow, keeping in moisture and nutrients, and reducing weeds from growing. You can buy it by the bag or ‘block’ at nurseries or hardware stores, or even by the bale from stockfeed stores or bulk nurseries.
Sometimes the hardest part is choosing from all the wonderful options of what you can grow! This will depend on the space you have, the climate or zone you are in, what season it is or what you are heading towards, and what you eat.
In many areas people plant and grow ‘by the season’, that is the cool season, or the warm season. (Other places can grow year round, or have wet and dry seasons instead). This is because some vegetables, herbs and fruit do not tolerate cold or frosty weather (they are ‘frost sensitive’ or ‘frost intolerant’, like tomatoes, basil, green beans and zucchini) just as some do not handle very hot weather (they shrivel or won’t produce flowers/ fruit, like peas and snow peas, or they can ‘bolt’ or ‘go to seed’, like coriander or broccoli).
I highly recommend checking out Gardenate (they also have an app) to work out what climate/ growing zone you are in for your country, and the guidelines for what is recommend for you to plant in what season/ month. You can make a garden plan a month or so in advance of the ‘next season’, including chores or maintenance that needs doing for your edible garden, and what you want to grow.
Easy to Grow Cool Season vegetables & herbs
Plant in Autumn to early Winter
- Kale (Red Russian, Dwarf Blue, Curly, and Purple Scotch kale are mild kales)
- Asian greens (Pak Choi, Bok Choy)
- Peas (bush peas, or climbing peas)
- Sugar Snap Peas & Snow Peas (bush, or climbing)
- Broad Beans (need some support)
- Kohlrabi and Fennel
- Onion/ Leeks/ Spring Onions
- Note: Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, English Spinach, Swedes and Turnips take a little more attention, but you can give them a try
Easy to Grow Warm Season Vegetables & Herbs
Plant in Spring to early Summer
- Zucchini – dark green, but also look for golden scallopini/ button squash, golden zucchini, cocozelle (striped green) or Lebanese zucchini (pale green); they do spread out and the plant can get quite big
- Tomatoes – cherry or grape tomatoes (we like yellow pear cherry tomatoes), ‘determinate’ varieties are bush like, whereas ‘indeterminate’ will need support as they are climbing or spreading
- ‘Green’ Beans – or have fun with coloured beans, like yellow Roc d’Or beans which are dwarf/ bush beans, or a climbing variety like Purple King beans, or Royal Burgundy (which need a trellis)
- Cucumber – mini white, cucumber muncher or Lebanese cucumber; bush or climbing
- Pumpkin – small like Golden Nugget, Jack be Little, Red kuri (quicker to grow and harvest, but they still need room to spread their vines out)
- Squash – squash delicata or spaghetti vege (need room to spread and grow)
- Sunflowers – look for edible varieties & avoid hybrids which won’t produce seeds
- Basil – sweet Genovese is good for making pesto or putting on pizza
- Chillies – I like jalapenos and cayenne
- Capsicum – look for mini ones that grow quicker, and varieties like yellow or ‘chocolate’
- Note: Pumpkin, Melons, Globe Artichoke, Eggplant, Okra, Sweet Potato, Potato or Corn (sweet corn, or pop corn) and full sized tomatoes require a little more attention, but you can certainly give them a go
Easy To Grow Year Round + Perennial vegetables & herbs
- Herbs (thyme, rosemary, dill, parsley, coriander, chives, sage, tarragon, oregano, mint – except basil, which is frost sensitive)
- Beetroot (chioggia, golden, red)
- Radish (French breakfast, red)
- Silverbeet (AKA Swiss chard, can get a rainbow of colours)
- Carrots (carrots must be grown from seed, and can be a little tricky to germinate and grow, but I’ve included them here, as they are such fun to harvest, and everyone loves carrots)
- Note: Asparagus, Rhubarb, Jerusalem Artichokes require a bit more thought, but worth considering
OK, now that you have made your plans (using the free Assessment and Design tool), set up your garden beds, and filled them with soil, and you have decided what to grow, let’s get ready to plant!
You can plant seeds direct in to your garden beds, or plant seedlings (young plants), which you have either bought, or have started your self from seed in little pots or seed starting trays. For more information on growing your own seedlings, please refer to the Beginners Guide to Raising Seedlings.
Some veges or herbs prefer to be planted as seed, directly into the garden bed where they will grow (as they do not transplant very well into the garden bed after germination occurs). These include carrots, beetroot, radishes, swede, turnip, beans, peas, silverbeet/ chard, spinach, corn, kohlrabi, coriander, parsley, dill.
Gather your equipment, including seeds or seedlings, trowel or small shovel, gardening gloves, watering can or hose with adjustable spout, labels and pen (or garden map).
PLANTING SEED DIRECT INTO GARDEN BED
- Consider the conditions required (full sun/ part shade)
- Make a small hole for each seed (with your finger/ pen) or shallow trench (using your hands or a trowel shovel), to the depth and spacing required
- Place the seeds in the hole or the spot in the trench
- Cover up with the soil you pushed aside or dug out, without dislodging the seeds!
- Apply a loose covering of mulch over the top of the area, and label (or write on your garden map)
- Gently water each day or every second day, until the soil is moistened, not saturated
- Depending on the variety, they could germinate (start to grow and pop up above the soil and mulch) in as little as 2 days, up to 2 weeks.
- After the seeds have germinated, they will have little ‘seed leaves’ which help feed and nourish the plant, then they form their ‘true leaves’ after that, at which point you can start to use a diluted liquid fertiliser (worm tea/ juice) once a week
PLANTING seedlings (that you have started from seed, or bought as seedlings)
- Consider the conditions required (full sun/ part shade)
- Make a hole or trench, with your hands or a trowel, to the depth of the seedlings roots, and for the spacing required
- Carefully remove the seedling from it’s pot/ punnet (gently massage/ loosen the roots if they have been ‘pot bound’). Place the seedling into the hole, or the spot in the trench, roots down.
- Cover up to the base of the seedling, with the soil you pushed aside or dug out, firming it gently down around the base, to ensure the seedling is secured
- Apply a loose covering of mulch around the base of the seedlings, and the garden bed, and label (or write on your garden map)
- Gently water around the base of the seedling each day, or every second day, until the soil is moistened, not saturated. Consider using a diluted worm tea/ juice or seaweed tonic instead of water to help reduce ‘transplant shock’ over the first couple of days
GROWING + MAINTENANCE
- Check every day to second day, for progress on germination and growth, as well as observing for any issues
- Keep the soil around the plants moistened, watering to the base/ roots area, rather than all over the leaves
- Consider covering with cloches (DIY versions can be made from rinsed large plastic bottles from juice bottles, or milk cartons, cut in half, placed over the seedling gently) to keep the emerging seedlings warm, moist and protected from pests. You can take them off during the day to ‘harden off’. Use the covers until the seedlings become too big for them, or until the weather is too warmf or them.
- Consider using a diluted worm tea/ juice, or liquid fertiliser as a boost, but if your seedlings become ‘leggy’ or long and lanky, which can make them weak, hold off on feeding them, as they may have grown too fast
- Thin any seedlings that are growing too close to each other (as this will inhibit quality growth if left too crowded) by removing every second or third seedling when they are small
- Provide support to climbing varieties, by using stakes, trellis or wire frames, and soft ties, bendable clips or garden wire
See the next section for the basics on troubleshooting
If your vegetable or herb plant isn’t thriving, ask yourself these questions:
- Is it getting enough sunlight & consistent watering?
- When did I plant it? Does it simply need more time?
- Is the soil in good condition? Is the pH right?
- Am I growing it in the right climate & season?
- Does it need plant feed? Is there competition for the nutrients?
- Any pests or diseases? Is it incompatible with another plant?
- Was the seed old? Or the seedling frail?
As a beginner gardener, knowing when to harvest can be tricky. Some thing might be obvious, like a zucchini or cucumber growing on a vine, easy to see and recognise the shape and size you know from buying them. Or tomatoes are ripe when they become red (or their intended colour). Others are harder, like a beetroot, swede or carrot under ground, which you can’t see until you pull it up. Or a pumpkin, which may look ready, but you can’t be sure that it will be ripe on the inside.
In some cases, you can harvest one, or two, and if they are not ready, leave the rest. Here are some basic guidelines for the tricker produce, to know when and how to harvest:
PUMPKINS/ SQUASH DELICATA/ SPAGHETTI VEGETABLE
- Size and shape expected has been achieved, plus tendril closest to the stem turns brow, or the stalk starts to shrivel (other suggestions are a hollow sound when you knock on it, or the first frost arrives and vine dies!)
- Cut the stem, leaving at least 5cm attached to the pumpkin/ squash. This will shrivel and seal itself off, allowing the pumpkins to be cured and stored
ROOT VEGETABLES (Beetroot, carrot, swede, turnip, RADISH)
- The root part is starting to show above the soil level, or you can gently remove a little, and you can see the expected width has been reached
- Loosen the soil around the vegetable, and gently pull it out
- Harvest before they go to ‘flower’ or seed, otherwise they can be woody
- If only harvesting as you need them, harvest every second one, to allow those left in the line to continue growing
- You can harvest some of the green tops to eat too, before harvesting the root, but don’t take too many!
BEANS + PEAS
- Pick beans/ snow peas when tender and slender, and peas when pods are full; Pick often to encourage more flowering/ fruiting (the plants purpose is to reproduce itself, so if pods have fattened up enough to fall off the vine and start growing a new vine, the plant stops producing more flowers/ pods, as it thinks its job is done)
- You should get further crops off the plants, so don’t remove them after the first harvest of beans/ peas seems over. The plant should produce more flowers and more beans/ peas!
- Pick regularly and pinch out the tops to encourage a bushy growth, rather than a tall and straggly plant with less foliage to harvest, and to reduce the chances of the herb flowering and ‘going to seed’
- Pick in bunches and make a herb bouquet, to keep in a glass jar or bottle with some water, on your kitchen windowsill or bench
GARLIC & ONIONS
- Depending on the variety, but about 6 months after planting, or when you notice the green leaves starting to dry and shrivel, gently scrape back the dirt around the bottom of one garlic or onion plant. If you can see the head of garlic has formed bulging cloves/ bulbs, you can harvest. If the onion has fattened up, you can harvest.
- If the head/ bulb looks like it needs longer, cover it back up with the soil, and check again in a couple of weeks.
- The ears have filled out, and the silks are starting to turn brown on the end of the cob
- Test one by peeling back a bit of the husk, press on a kernel with fingernail or knife point, if the juice runs milky, they are likely ready
- Erica from Northwest Edible Life has extensive resources (and humour) on her website, as well as a great book, The Hands On Home
- Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Companion
- The Vegetable Gardeners Guide to Permaculture
- Seed company recommendations on a file in the Growing Home Community
- Little Vegie Patch Co blogs
- ABC Gardening Australia and their climate/ planting guide
- Organic Gardener Magazine (ABC) and their planting guide/ zones
- Gardenate climate zones and planting information
- SBS Harvest series of video tutorials
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