1 May 2020
1 May 2020
Since lockdown measures started, online nursery The Little Veggie Patch Co has been inundated with orders from those wanting to establish their own home vegetable gardens.
Founder Mat Pember isn’t surprised gardening has become everyone’s new favourite hobby. Not only is it a perfect slow-burn activity that lets people stretch their muscles and enjoy some much-needed mental stimulation, but it’s also an ideal winter task.
“A lot of people discount winter as a bit of a nothing season,” he says, “but in most parts of Australia, it’s actually a perfect time to grow things that would be considered spring or summer vegetables in the northern hemisphere.”
The key, he emphasises, is to “start small.”
Choose your vegetables wisely
Pember, who established The Little Veggie Patch Co back in 2008, is a self-taught gardener who has published six books on kitchen gardens, including the immensely popular Root and Bloom, which educates readers about the lesser-known but edible parts of a plant.
When starting out, he suggests focusing on things that are easy to grow. "Try lettuce and leafy greens, herbs, root vegetables, peas and beans,” he says. “But stay away from broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages, because they require a lot of feeding throughout the season and they take up a lot of space per plant."
A big backyard isn’t necessary, either. Most of The Little Veggie Patch Co’s customers are city dwellers who want to set up small courtyard or balcony gardens. It's all about choosing a spot that is accessible and light. "Don't get overly concerned about copious amounts of sunlight, because light can bounce off walls to make up for it," Pember says. "But make sure the garden is somewhere visible so you're going to interact with it."
Invest in the right tools
While your hands will do most of the work and it’s easy to keep tools to a minimum, it's a good idea to invest in a good quality potting mix when visiting your local nursery. It might not seem so, but there is a significant difference between a $15 potting mix and a $5 one.
It's also important to select the right sized pots. "The general rule is, the smaller the pot, the more maintenance that's required to look after the plant, because they dry out more quickly and there's less room for the roots to grow,” Pember explains.
Mulch with an organic material, such as pea straw or bark, at the beginning of the season, because this will insulate the soil so that it holds moisture. “The roots will then grow in a much calmer environment,” Pember says. Then feed your plants with a seaweed extract fertiliser about once a month to boost their growing power.
Don’t neglect the maintenance
Most people water their gardens at night, after a day hard at work, but the best gardeners complete their watering in the early morning. Watering too late in the day can damage growing vegetables because the moisture will linger overnight, causing mildew.
Pests such as caterpillars, snails and slugs are also attracted to moisture. To avoid an infestation, protect your plants with a fine layer of netting.
Patience is a virtue
Your vegetables won't be ready to harvest right away, especially if you start with seedlings. However, leafy greens will be ready to eat within a month, because there's no need to wait for the whole lettuce to develop. Once these reach a certain size, you can start picking off the more mature leaves. "Make sure you consistently harvest them leaf by leaf," Pember says. "That way you get more out of the plant throughout the season. If you don't harvest the lettuce in time, it gets stressed and this makes the plant extremely bitter and not very nice to eat."
Remember that gardening should be a slow, leisurely project that will provide immense satisfaction once you start to see results. “Don’t be afraid to learn through experience,” says Pember, “and the successes and failures you have along the way.”
By Emily Tatti