Growing your own has never been sexier — getting the earth to bare its shoulders, draping it with a mantle of green, offsetting it with a nice rope of ripe red tomatoes. For many, that’s the romantic image of gardening.
Then the problems set in: sudden influxes of seed-hungry birds; unidentified garden-eating caterpillars; sooty mould on the cucumbers; plants set on shrivelling and dying (God knows why) and no tomatoes, but a choker chain of unwanted plants more commonly known as weeds. Where do you start, what do you need and how do you repeat a first-time success?
Be clear about what you want to achieve
Do you want to enliven your cooking with a few herbs and spices or is your goal to provide all your own fruit and vegies? How do you want it to look? Do you have in mind an English-style garden of straight-rowed perfection, the kind most commonly seen in children’s books, the ones hardest to achieve? Could you handle a garden where plants may sprawl across paths as they set seed, and volunteer tomatoes spring up in unexpected places, making a mess of your beautiful, colour-co-ordinated lettuces?
Will you invest a lot of money in buying everything new and ready made, or are you willing to get into a bit of DIY with the timber your neighbour’s throwing out? How much area do you need? Even if it’s a big goal, start small; get the hang of it before going the whole hog.
You don’t need to be a scientist to garden, but it’s good to think about the practicalities of your site.
- Aspect — is it facing the right direction? In temperate climes, you’re going to want as much northerly sun as your soil can get its microbes on, while in hotter areas you might need a shaded spot to protect plants from cooking before they get to your pot. Walk around the area and take note of what sun you have and what winter dose, when the sun is low, your site is likely to receive.
- Slope — in high rainfall areas, a slope could be a bonus, as plants and trees won’t stand around with wet feet long enough to get something fungal such as phytophthora or root rot between their toes. But if the slope is the type to suggest crampons and guide ropes, you may need to think seriously about terracing an area so your soil is not washed down the hill every time it rains. Also, carting your bumper pumpkin crop from the bottom of the garden to the top in a wheelbarrow could see you nominated for a masochist award. I’m a previous winner.
- Location — like real estate, gardens are all about location. Find out your garden’s pluses and minuses and then decide how best to organise it so that it results in less work, not more. Plant the ingredients most commonly used in cooking, like herbs and vegetables, close to the house, and less frequented crops such as fruit/nut trees on the outer limits.
- Soil type — no matter how bad it is, soil is the one ingredient in your garden recipe that can most easily be improved, but it’s time to get down on your knees and have a look at it. It’ll be the same stuff you’ll be scraping out from under your fingernails in days to come. Is it sand, silt, clay, loam? Does it have stones, rocks, boulders? Do you know if it’s been a dumping ground in the past for chemicals that you wouldn’t want to end up in your sandwich?
- Soil pH — is it acidic or alkaline? Lots of plants will only thrive within quite narrow pH levels. Australian soil is generally more acidic than alkaline; a dose of lime or dolomite will resolve that, but you’ll need to know if it’s necessary first. A pH testing kit will cost around $20 at your local nursery. If your soil barely rates the term, you can build on top of it with layers of organic material that will break down over time and create a workable medium for plant growth.