It has been many months since I posted on my blog. Ellie and I have been busy catching up on all the things that we were unable to get done during Melbourne’s endless lockdowns last year. Since my last post, in late July Ellie broke her leg and required emergency surgery, so life became really complicated for a time. Further plans for fixing up our garden were put on hold until she had fully recovered. After so much disruption from health problems and the pandemic, over the last six months we have finally been getting our garden in order and have recently started to grow more of our own food.
The 2022 floods in New South Wales and Queensland have caused a shortage of fruit and vegetables that, together with the plummeting value of the Australian dollar, has seen an increase in the cost of living in Melbourne. At local supermarkets leafy green veggies have increased in price, with some varieties difficult to find, which means a salad is now an expensive item on the menu. More than ever in Australia it is a great time to get into food gardening to save money and always have fresh food on hand.
Unlike many people who managed to create vegetable gardens during lockdown, this was not an option for us after Ellie’s accident. However our garden was not completely unproductive. We have always had a lemon and a walnut tree and herbs and chives growing in beds and in pots. Early last year we bought a blueberry bush for a large, ceramic pot and now it is covered with flowers and our Monsteria Deliciosa or Fruit Salad plants have produced enormous fruit this year. Finally, over the last month, we have been able to create a system for growing vegetables that works for us and might provide helpful ideas for others with similar issues.
Several times in the past we have grown organic summer vegetables, in either garden beds or containers and made many mistakes, which made the process difficult. We knew a change of method was required to grow vegetables in our garden all year round with good results. Firstly the system needed to be moveable to make optimal use of the limited winter sun available in our back garden. Secondly the method must reduce bending over and stressing our backs and legs so high planters were preferable. Thirdly and crucially, the vegetables must be protected from hungry possums; bugs; slugs and snails; vermin and birds. All these creatures can do considerable damage and reduce the productivity of a garden. Worst of all, our two dogs, like their predecessors, love eating lettuces and other leafy greens and will climb into large pots, as well as trample anything small in garden beds. Luckily they are not interested in herbs or chives and these are left alone.
We did not want to get rid of our lawn to plant vegetables because the dogs love to run around this space and play ball. We also did not want to remove any of our established garden foliage, which provides a wonderful microclimate that mitigates the heat of summer and provides shelter and food for many birds and small creatures. Gardens are an endangered species with all the over development in our area and need to be preserved. This left the concrete drive as the sunniest area in the garden which benefits from the northerly sun during the colder months. It is good to green this environmentally unfriendly space. Last February we had a row of clumping bamboo planted along the fence line to screen the neighbours new two-story, monster house and this has reduced the blinding reflections from their windows and made the drive more hospitable. We could not have a fixed, raised bed in this area because our car needs to be parked in this space and the only suitable spot near the house is shaded in winter.
Luckily Ellie found a wonderful solution in the Australian designed Vegepod (we are not sponsored by this or any company, just love the products, which can be purchased in many countries https://vegepod.com.au). We bought two 1 m x 1 m Vegepods, plus the waist high stands with wheels. The hinged hoods protect the vegetables from bugs, critters and the weather, with three types of removable covers available: white mesh, clear plastic and shade cloth. There is a built in watering sprinkler system in the covers frame and the bases use a wicking system to draw up water for the vegetables. The Vegepods came flat packed and there are easy assembly videos available on Youtube. These were a considerable investment, but solved all of our problems, so it was worth the money.
We filled them with potting mix from our local nursery combined with the Vegepod perlite brand to aerate the mixture. Initially we got some mixed lettuces, two types of spinach, silver beet (Swiss chard) and rocket seedlings from the nursery to put in the pods so that we had something to grow immediately. We have decided to only grow vegetables we like and concentrate on those that are expensive to buy, are best picked fresh from the garden or have a short shelf life.
It is cheaper to grow vegetables from seeds and Ellie joined the Digger’s Club, based at Heronswood on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria (again not sponsored). They produce seeds from heritage vegetables and give discounts with membership, which includes a quarterly magazine. Seeds and gardening products are available from their online store (https://www.diggers.com.au). I’m sure that most countries have similar seed saving services for you to get started.
We still had small plastic pots, seed trays, with and without cells, from our previous vegetable growing attempts, but small plastic yoghurt containers and egg cartons would be a cheap alternative. To save more money we used plastic meat trays we have collected and clear storage containers to create small indoor hot houses for the seeds. Clear meat trays can be clamped on as lids. As the number of these started to mount up we repurposed a metal Ikea TV stand to hold the containers and placed this near the family room glass doors for more light. When the seedlings become large enough the leafy vegetables will be replanted in the Vegepods. Our seeds include winter varieties of broccoli; cos and oak leafed lettuces; Japanese Tatsoi; silver beet/chard; spring onions/scallions; dwarf snow peas; spinach and rocket. We also bought some cucumber seeds and Ford hook spinach for the spring, as well as the flowering companion plants, calendula and nasturtiums.
Because garlic costs an arm and a leg at the moment, we ordered some organic garlic from Diggers. We originally planned to put these in our herb garden bed because the dogs don’t go for members of the onion family, but realised that this spot does not get enough hours of winter sun. The sunny drive is more suitable. Also the extra silver beet and snow peas will take up a lot of room in the Vegepods, so more growing space would be desirable. Most of our large pots have been filled with other perennials and herbs, so we needed another portable solution.
The Mother’s Day sales provided us with an answer, as we found discounted large, woven grow bags with handles from aussiegardener.com.au (not sponsored) for the garlic, as well as for the spring onions. The round, enclosed Vegebags made by Vegepod were also on sale and we bought three. These use the same growing system and protect leafy veggies from bad weather. Any large pot or container covered with netting would work equally well, but the advantage of grow bags is that you can fold them up when not in use to save storage space.
The garlic and silver beet are now planted in these bags. Nothing can get into Vegebags and the silver beet, nestled in pea straw, is looking good. The dogs don’t like the onion family but to stop them getting into the open grow bags we put bamboo stakes around the the edges, tied with white plastic packaging tape that came with a delivery. As for the self-pollinating snow peas, these were planted in a woven grow bag fitted with arches made from old plastic drainage pipe placed over bamboo poles. This was covered with white bird netting, pegged and tied on to keep out possums, dogs and other pests. Plastic trellis attached to bamboo stakes inside the structure will be a climbing frame for the peas. The spring onions are still tiny seedlings, but as soon as they become large enough, we will plant them in woven grow bags, like the garlic.
All of our vegetables are in portable containers that are easily moved into the sun and are accessible for harvesting of the crops. We are already enjoying the lettuces and the spinach, both baby and perpetual. The silver beet is growing fast and the garlic is beginning to shoot. Our other small seedlings are also coming along so we will have fresh greens this winter and look forward to the garlic harvest in spring, when we will plant the cucumbers, and other spring vegetables in the bags.
Sometimes it does pay to spend some money in order to save money in the future and it is wise to buy discounted items whenever possible. We would not be able to effectively grow a decent number of vegetables with our existing garden layout without implementing these changes. Now we have established a system that we can use for years, will save us money and give us a continuous supply of healthy food to eat.
In todays’s world of uncertain food security due to climate change (there are still floods in Queensland) we need to use urban areas for food production. If you have a garden, access to a community garden, a sunny balcony, courtyard or rooftop, it makes sense to grow some fruit or vegetables. Even a concrete drive like ours can be used. There are all kinds of growing methods to try, whether you do it yourself or buy easy to assemble kits. You just need to find the method that suits your situation and like us, you may need to use more than one. Just think creatively.
Happy planting, Kat.
For excellent advice on growing fruit and vegetables in your home environment visit:
Aussie Youtube channel Self Sufficient Me (https://www.youtube.com/c/Selfsufficientme). Mark is so helpful and very entertaining.
View the extensive information from the team at Gardening Australia (https://www.abc.net.au/everyday/how-to-eat-from-your-garden-vegetable-patch-all-year/11096242.)