Starting a vegetable garden at home is an easy way to save money and its easier than you think! It can be fun and a great way to spend time with the children, have a break from being inside and spend time outdoors in the fresh air and sun. It also gives you the pleasure and satisfaction of growing and eating delicious food straight from your garden and usually the flavour far exceeds what you would buy from the shops.
• WHERE • The first thing you need to do when building your vege garden is to decide where to put it! As you can see from the photo at the start of this segment you don’t need alot of space to begin a vegetable garden, you don’t even need a yard! Raising your veges off the ground (as shown in the photo below) makes it harder for pests to reach! A deck, balcony, raised wooden sleepers or polystyrene boxes work well.You will need an area that gets lots of sunshine, most vegetables need at least 6-8 hours of sun per day, if they don’t get enough light they won’t bear as much and they’ll be more susceptible to attack from insects or diseases. Also an area that does not have to compete with the root systems of large trees and shrubs for nutrients. The area should have at least 6 hours of sun per day. Windy areas should be avoided as this dries the plants out and can break delicate stems.
• SOIL • If using containers make sure they are clean and add good quality Potting Mix. If in the ground, dig over and loosen the soil with a trowel or fork, then add compost ( mushroom compost is good) and animal manure working them into the earth to ensure the soil is rich in nutrients. After the initial digging in of organic matte,r redo once or twice during the growing season. Organic matter helps to soak up and release water easier. If your soil is very sandy you can add slow release granular food and soil improver to give the area a good boost. Then water thoroughly and allow the bed to settle for several days before you plant. If soil is water repellent, add some liquid, crystals or granular soil wetter regularly. Once veges are planted a mulch is a good idea, to protect small plants as they grow. Mulch suppresses weeds, cools plants roots, conserves water and allows a more even soil temperature. Don’t mulch right up against stems or plants, allow clear soil around base so water can penetrate through. Sugar cane mulch is fairly new to WA but it has proved popular in other states. Its light, fluffy, easy to spread, breaks down nicely and holds moisture in.
• COMPANION PLANTING • Some plants produce oils that disguise the plants that pests are looking for, so try having strong scented plants like Lavender, Thyme and Scented Geraniums around the bed. Herbs like Tansy and Wormwood produce a taste that is unpleasant and may drive pests away. Some contain natural benefits like Fennel, Chamomile or Pyrethrum. Plant decoys that will attract insects like slugs and snails that will chew your veges by planting flowers like Calendulas. Add strong smelling herbs like Borage and Bergamot to attract beneficial insects into the area. Adding these around will make your vege garden balanced and beautiful to see and smell. Marigold flowers are often seen in vegetable gardens, as well as brightening up the bed their strong smell repels insects, see picture below where marigolds have been used in the same bed as capsicum. It emits a hormone into the soil which protects it and nearby plants from nematodes attaching to roots. Nasturtium are useful in large garden beds as they keep insects away, good near cucumbers, zucchini and squash. Basil is said to repel flies and mosquitoes, plant near tomatoes, asparagus and beans. Thyme attracts bees which are needed for pollination. Spring Onions, Garlic, Chives and Onions help to repel sap sucking pests such as aphids. Catnip is good for controlling beetles and fleas.
• WEED CONTROL • Weeds compete with your vegetables for water and nutrients and potentially crowd your plants, so its important to keep them under control. Use a hoe or hand fork to lightly sift the top inch of soil regularly to discourage weeds. Before planting out an area for growing veges in, if you have a lot of weeds, cover the area with clear plastic or newspaper and secure down edges. Leave for weeks to cook the weeds to kill them off. Using Salt and Vinegar is effective too. Add a cup of common salt to a litre of vinegar, dissolve and brush it directly onto weeds. Be careful if using chemical sprays on your vege garden as they could be poisonous and you don’t want them over sprayed onto edible crops.
• STAKING • A lot of vegetables need staking to keep them off the ground from insects, from falling over with heavy crops, or from the wind breaking them. Small crops like cherry tomatoes can be strengthened by tying with bamboo stakes. You can also use Pine or Jarrah stakes, even sticks found around your yard or shed for larger crops. You can buy twist ties, rubber ties, old rags or just use old panty hose, to secure your plants gently. Be careful not to tie to tightly and dig into the flesh of the stems.
• FEEDING • Vegetables are heavy feeders so fertilising your crops is critical to improve yields. Consider applying a packaged granular vegetable fertiliser once plants are growing as it will continue feeding all season long. A fortnightly watering with a liquid fertiliser is needed too, remember to wet your plants before applying the liquid food. Preparation of the beds before planting is crucial using compost, manure and blood and bone. Every time a crop finishes restore organic matter to your soil again.
• CROP ROTATION • Its important in a vegetable garden to move your crops to different places every year so diseases don’t gain an upper hand. This prevents a build up of pathogens (Bacteria, Fungus, living organisms that cause disease) Repetition of the same crop gives diseases a chance to build up strength.
• WATERING • A soaker hose is ideal for vege gardens as water leaks out of the hose into the soil leaving the foliage dry. Constantly watering the foliage can encourage diseases. Water the plants deeply as roots that try to grow toward the surface where soil is hotter will wilt and watering deeply draws the roots down to cooler soil where the roots can attach and grow stronger. If using a sprinkler or drip system its best to water in the morning so foliage can dry out before nightfall and you lose less water through evaporation. Keep the water up for the first few weeks until the plants have established themselves and then go to a schedule of giving them a deep soak a couple of times a week rather than superficial surface spraying. Here in Perth in the Summer they will probably show you they need daily watering.
• HARVESTING • Picking your produce, the most exciting part of vege gardening, going out to the garden and selecting fresh ingredients to eat that you have tendered. A few examples are : Lettuces can be picked as young as you like, snip some leaves and it will continue to produce. Zucchini and Cucumber can be picked when the fruit is just a few inches long, or it can be allowed to grow to full size. Beetroot is ready any time after you see the beet shoulders start to protrude out of the soil. Brussel Sprouts will mature from the bottom up, harvest by twisting or cutting the sprout from the stem. Corn is ready about 3 weeks after the protective silk covering forms and then it will dry and brown. Most root vegetables are ready when the flowers or leaves have died down or when the foliage starts to turn yellow. Some root veges are very good when still immature like carrots, beetroot and turnips. Keep potatoes tubers covered as even a little light will cause potatoes to turn green and become unedible. They have been known to cause food poisoning and gastroenteritis. With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.
• PESTS AND DISEASES • These will always be ongoing for most gardeners. If plants fall prey to disease, remove promptly and throw out in the rubbish. Don’t put in the compost bin. Common diseases are Rust, Powdery Mildew, Damping off, Wilt, Rot, Leaf spot and Nematodes. If your veges are in shade, watered at night, don’t have adequate air flow around them, are not healthy, not in good soil or watered too much and are sitting in soggy ground these things lead to fungal attacks. Insects such as Caterpillars, Bugs, Beetles, Aphids, Snails and Slugs, Weevils, Locusts, Leafhoppers, Moths and Mites could find their way into your garden. They can hide under things, come out at night or in rain and can be hard to eradicate. Building mesh coverings over the top of the vege patch (as photo below shows) helps deter insects and animals from enjoying your juicy crops before you get to! It is not necessarily something you have done wrong to attract insects, they live everywhere in the environment and some are good to have in the garden. They also may be seasonal or attack only certain vegetables. You can hand pick caterpillars if in small quantaties or buy products from the Garden Centre. Some products are made from plant extracts and are mild and environmental friendly. If these don’t work and the infestation is heavy a more chemical based spray may be needed. Read the instructions carefully as there may be a withholding period for edible crops. Try to spray before the heat of the day, not on a windy day and not on a watering day. The Agricultural Department website has a comprehensive section on garden pests.
• TOOL CARE • Control disease and pests spread by keeping your tools clean and sharp. Basic equipment you should keep are Secateurs, Rake, Fork, Spade, Trowel and Saw. Clean dirt and cuttings from tools after use and wipe over blades with an oily rag to prevent rusting. Sharpen with a sharpening stone along the blade edge or some Hardware Stores or Key cutting Kiosks also sharpen blades. Wipe secateurs with warm soapy water after using. Keep saw edges clean by brushing with a nailbrush. Dip all tools in a mix of household bleach and water to sterilise.
• SEASONAL PLANTING GUIDE • If you buy seedlings already in a punnet at the Garden Centre then it is the correct time to plant them, they have been sown weeks or months earlier so they are at perfect readiness for you to plant if you don’t have the time or inclination to wait! If you are sowing from seed Yates have a planting guide available on their site. Generally cooler weather crops are plants like Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cauliflower, Beans, Leek and Cabbage. Intermediate seasons, plants like Beetroot, Celery, Potato, Radish, Onions and Carrots are suitable. Summer crops include Capsicum, Cucumber, Lettuces, Silverbeet, Sweet Corn, Zuchinni, Eggplant and Tomatoes.
• STARTING FROM SEEDS • You can purchase packets of seeds at the nursery and sow them yourself at home. We have seedling trays you can purchase that are ideal, they have draining holes in the bottom. Buy a bag of seed raising mix (this mix is specially formulated to reduce the risk of fungal problems and contains no fertilisers which can burn small developing roots) and sow seeds thinly and evenly. Large seeds should be spaced apart in rows. Place a piece of glass or clear polythene over the top to keep moist and at the correct temperature for germination. Uncover as soon as seeds shoot and keep in good light but shaded from direct sun. Water when surface feels dry. When shoots appear begin applying a soluble plant food regularly. If sowing into the ground you can dig Blood and Bone into the soil evenly. The back of the seed packets also have directions you can follow.
WHY DO MY TOMATOES SPLIT?
Usually tomatoes split because of water fluctuations. If its been very dry, then suddenly you get lots of rain the insides of the tomatoes grow faster than the outer skin and the tomatoes outer skin opens. This is noticeable just as they are about to ripen because the outer skin becomes more fragile the closer it gets to ripening. Water regularly and deeply at ground level to stop this from happening. Do not water foliage which can sometimes cause fungus if the weather is humid and the leaves stay wet overnight. The fruit is probably still edible if picked quickly but they won’t store for long. Also keep mulch around the tomatoes to keep moisture from evaporating too quickly.
WHY DO CARROTS GROW TWISTED?
Carrots can sometimes end up deformed, forked, bumpy or mis-shapen for many different reasons! The first thing to look at is the soil, it needs to be well worked in soil with good organic mix and plenty of water while crop is growing. If they have to force their way up from under the ground which is rocky or compacted they will split and become deformed. Heavy, crusted or overheated soil prevents successful growth. Clumps or clods of dirt will cause developing carrot roots to split and distort as they have to grow and find a way around these obstacles. They can also become stunted if planted too close together and become overcrowded. Thin them out well, ensuring there are no weeds also competing for space in that area by tidying up around the crop regularly. Root node nematodes (nearly invisible soil organisms) could also be a cause, so check under the soil or around the garden for insects like leafhoppers. If planting seedlings out from a punnet, separate carefully, don’t firm them in vigorously as that can bend the roots sideways. Some people prefer to grow carrots from seed to avoid transplant shock and damage to the roots when moving them. Add peat to the soil and growing them up high in a raised garden bed can help too, so the roots can penetrate deeply into the soil. Cover the carrot shoulders so they are not exposed to the sun. Vigorous growth or heavy rain can wash soil away and the vegetable will then be out in the heat. If the soil is not moist enough the main root develops many small feeder roots so it can soak up any moisture effectively. Use mulch to protect veges from the elements and keep moisture in. Hopefully some of these tips will help you identify the problem in your patch.
WHY DO I GET NO FRUIT?
This is a common question! The main reason is not enough sun! If plants get less than 7 hours of sunlight each day, lack of light could be the answer. Also the answer may lie with fertiliser, Incorrect or Overfertilising! Stop fertilising for a few weeks or change the type of fertiliser you are using. Buy specialised Fruit and Vegetable fertilisers, liquid or granular. Lastly you could try adding Potash but always use according to the instructions on the container.
Bolting is the term applied to vegetable crops when they prematurely go to seed. They become tall, spindly, tough and woody and leaves will become tasteless or bitter and makes them unedible. The colour will change and the vege leaves go pale light green. Annual vegetables such as Lettuce, Spinach, Onions, Silverbeet, Asian vegetables, Leeks, Broccoli, Basil and some Cabbage varieties seem to be affected mostly and it usually occurs on crops which are close to maturity. The main causes seem to be triggered by sudden cold or hot spells, stress, or by changes in the day length through the seasons. When the ground temperature goes above a certain temperature goes above a certain temperature the plant decides to produce flowers and seed very quickly and to abandon l leave growing. Bolting is a survival mechanism for plants as when the weather gets to above where the plant can survive it will try to produce the next generation of seeds as quickly as possible. Dry soil can also aid bolting, particularly with Cauliflower, Rocket and Spinach. Careful watering and soil enhancement can alleviate this. Mulching helps to keep soil temperature even. Also check that you are planting at the correct season.