By Deryn Thorpe
Few activities in the garden are as satisfying as growing food in your own back yard.
Creating and maintaining a vegetable patch is an activity that feeds the body as well as the soul as you can follow your own philosophy about the use of fertilisers and pesticides. Picking garden fresh vegetables and eating them soon after maximises their nutrients and it is very fulfilling to be able to share your excess produce with family and friends.
When you decide that you want to create your own veggie garden the first important decision is where to site it.
Usually vegetable gardens are created in a full sun position in the back yard, however, there is no reason that a well-designed patch cannot be an attractive feature in the front garden. The chosen site should get five or more hours of sunlight each day, though in hotter parts of WA a little afternoon shade in warmer months is welcomed by the plants.
I am seeing more Perth vegetable gardens planted in areas with a retractable shade so that crops can be given some protection from the sun in summer. Thought should also be given to protecting the crop from drying winds which can retard development and make vegetables dry and bitter. If your site is windy plant some shrubs to screen it and while they grow erect a fence made from shade cloth.
How big to dig is usually determined more by the available space and enthusiasm of the gardener than by the amount of mouths the garden will eventually feed. A ten square metre patch will feed a family of four, expect to spend two to four hours a week keeping it in top condition, depending on the season. One of the simplest ways to start a patch is to buy a raised corrugated iron planter, though you will need at least four if you are serious about growing all the vegetables for your family. A 40sqm vegetable patch of garden will feed a family of four.
Traditional gardens are usually laid in a grid pattern so that the gardener has space to walk around the edge of a small patch with paths arranged beside each bed or intersecting the middle vegetable garden in bigger plots.
If you don’t have space for fruit trees you can grow in containers, use them as small feature trees in the flower garden or as espalier. All citrus can be grown in pots and there are also many dwarf fruit trees.
Consider espaliering fruit trees against a wall or growing some as a hedge.
Pomegranates are one of the toughest fruit trees, feijoas make great hedges and cumquats and blueberries are popular pot specimens.
Regular watering is also essential for successful fruit and vegetable crops. Install an irrigation system and consider the benefits of a rainwater tank and a greywater system. Greywater is only suitable to water fruit trees as the edible portion of the fruit or vegetable should not come in direct contact with the greywater. A layer of pea straw or lucerne hay mulch will retain soil moisture, protect plant roots from the sun, return organic matter to the soil and reduce weed competition. Provide a complete fertiliser with the full range of trace elements and feed seedlings regularly with seaweed tonic and liquid fertiliser.
Even in winter, rainfall alone rarely provides enough water to produce a successful vegetable crop. If crops are left to dry out, especially on sandy soils for a day or two it reduces yield and plant growth.
Good soil is critical to success in the garden. With the autumn rains in May clay soils, which bake hard over summer, will become soft enough to work.
Both clay soils and sandy soils need to be improved dramatically with organic matter. Add legume hay (lucerne or pea straw) well-rotted animal manures, blood and bone and lots of home-made or bought compost and dig in well. Organic matter provides nutrients for plants as it is broken down by soil micro-organisms, eventually forming part of the humus layer in the soil. If the soil is clay consider raising the beds to aid drainage. Sandy soils should be improved with clay to helps retain water and fertiliser.
I do not use any poisons or sprays on edible crops. There are many organic controls to beat insects including: Caterpillar killers with the ingredient Dipel (a naturally occurring bacteria), soap sprays for mites, aphids, thrips, mealybug and whitefly, garlic and chili sprays for aphids. While all gardeners should use fruit fly baits to reduce numbers, netting the crop is the best solution.
Many insects can just be picked off the crop and a few caterpillar holes does not stop the crop being edible.
Remember that even organic sprays will kill beneficial insects so use judiciously.