Developing an organic vegetable garden need not cost a fortune, nor should it be something that you think you need to pay an expert to do. If you live in an urban environment I would definitely recommend a raised vegetable garden. The reason for this is you do not often know the history of your piece of turf. You patch may have a history of horticulture, heavy industry or just be full of building rubble just under the topsoil. You can build a raised garden out of easily found or recycled materials and make your own compost. By doing this you are creating toxic free soil to grow your new vegetables in.
The best place for your patch
• Most vegetables require at least 6 hours of sunlight every day during their growing season.
• North facing site is best.
• If sloped, you could create terracing to develop more usable space.
• Overhanging trees will shade area so avoid these areas or trim trees. Remember if you are looking at these trees in winter they could be in leaf in summer.
• Near a tap for watering.
• Close to the house.
• Vegetables need to be protected from wind to do well. You could plant an edible hedge of feijoa or hazelnuts, plant rows of corn, artichokes or sunflowers or use wind screening material such as lattice.
• Start small - make the garden only as large as you can cope with (you can always expand it later).
• Make garden beds long and narrow so you can reach plants without having to stand on the soil
I build all my gardens using the sandwich gardening technique. Sandwich gardening is a layering system for creating healthy and fertile gardens which requires no digging and no weeding. It is an organic process which is neat and efficient, using locally found materials.
A step-by-step guide
Step one: create an edge
An edge defines the garden and makes things look neater.
Materials that you can use to create an edge include:-
• River stones or limestone
• Untreated timber.
• Railway sleepers
• Large blocks of firewood
• Concrete blocks
• Wine bottles - filled with water with caps on and placed into soil necks down. The water warms up in the sun, acts as a heat sink and creates a micro-climate.
• 'urbanite' - broken pieces of concrete paths (about the size of a large dinner plate) stacked on top of each other.
• Large pieces of driftwood collected from the beach, could be built up as an edge and garden art in one structure!
Step two: create natural weed matting
Put down thick layers of wet newspaper. The layers need to be at least eight pages thick. Use normal newspaper; avoid glossy coloured paper as these have too many harmful chemicals in them. Cardboard, flattened boxes, old woolen blankets or natural fibre carpet can also be used.
This layer works as a natural weed matting to kill any grass or weeds. As they become wet the fibres of the paper knit together creating a thick barrier. These wet layers are usually eaten by fungi, bacteria and worms within a few months, this is long enough for any weeds and grass to be killed.
Step three: create layers
The next step is to add layers of organic material to build up the garden to the required height. Add green material to give nitrogen to the soil and brown material for carbon. These are the two main elements required in healthy soil - Green Matter (Nitrogen Rich) and Brown Matter (Carbon Rich).
Hedge clippings -cut into 10cm pieces Pea straw
Coffee grounds- I know they are brown but they are high in nitrogen. Collect from your local cafe Lucerne hay or straw
Weeds from the garden but avoid anything with seed heads or bulbs Fallen leaves
Wool Dags Pine needles
Wilted comfrey leaves. Make sure you let the cut comfrey leaves lay in the sun for a few hours to really wilt it or else you may get comfrey growing amongst your veges. Human and pet hair (best to avoid chemically treated hair so don't ask for mine!)
Lawn clippings Small twigs and sticks
Seaweed Nut shells i.e. pistachio and peanut shells
Animal manure Shredded newspaper
Mushroom compost Untreated sawdust ( use sparingly)
Kitchen vegetable scraps feathers
Step four: final compost layer
A final layer of about 10cm of weed free, well rotted compost provides an instant growing medium for your plants
Now you have created this lush, fertile, friable, chemical free soil it is time to grow some nutritious organic vegetables in it for your family.
I prefer to grow organic open pollinated seeds. These seeds are often the old fashioned heirloom varieties which taste great but may not look like the supermodel vegetables found in the supermarket! Remember in an organic garden it is not about looks but rather nutrition. Organic vegetables can also be encouraged to set seed at the end of the growing season so you can collect seeds for next year's growing.
Other tips for growing your own organic vegetables:
Cover newly planted crops with netting to protect the tender plants from wild birds.
Use coffee grounds to help deter slugs and snails.
Only use organic sprays and even then only use sparingly.
Plant flowering plants which attract all those good bugs which will feast off the bad bugs.
Flowers in amongst your vegetables make the place colorful and vibrant.
Lay some soaker hoses along the soil around your plants. This is the most economical way to water over the hot summers. The water oozes out of the soaker hoses right at the root zone where it is needed.
Plant little and often to avoid gluts of one particularly vegetable. A glut is the fastest way to turn your family off a vegetable. Speaking from experience - my husband still can't stand the sight of bok choy!
Cover the soil with a mulch to conserve water and keep weeds down.
Get the kids involved by giving them a piece of their own garden and let them plant quick growing plants such as peas, beans or sunflowers.
During winter when you may have some bare soil plant mustard, oats, lupins or pacelia as a green manure crops. These plants can be dug into the soil come spring and they will actually revitalise your soil ready for a new season of growing healthy delicious food.
When you have a garden, water becomes an expensive, must-have resource. With the cost of water it pays to get sneaky about water recycling. If you have a downpipe close to the garden consider installing a water barrel to collect rainwater. Plants actually prefer rainwater to town supply, which often has many extra chemicals added. If your laundry is close by consider unhooking your waste hose from your washing machine and extending it into your garden during a wash cycle. Of course this will force you to only use planet-friendly washing soap which is just another benefit for your family.
Share excess produce from your garden with your neighbours, Productive gardening is a wonderful way to build community. Together you may decide to grow a particular crop which grows well in your soil and your neighbour another crop. At harvest these crops can be divided and shared across the fence. Believe it or not this was not so strange in our grandparents' day!
Janet Luke is a regular contributor to Organic NZ magazine. Get a year's subscription to this iconic magazine from shopgreen.co.nz for just $45.