Last summer holidays I read a book called Just Vegetating by the influential British author Joy Larkcom. In 1976, Joy and her family set off in a caravan and travelled through Europe to discover how vegetables were being grown and to collect seeds of rare varieties. When she returned to England, she spent four decades writing about what she had observed, and introduced gardeners to new methods of growing vegetables (particularly salad vegies) and new varieties. Her idea of growing small patches of salad vegetables here and there in the garden, which could be harvested and then will regrow for later cuttings, was the one concept that stayed with me after I had finished the book.
In recent years, I have been trying to grow more vegetables but haven't yet taken the step of dedicating a whole area as a proper vegetable garden, as I am still too fond of my ornamental plants. Initially, I grew all my vegies in large tubs: lettuces, perennial spinach (actually a dwarf variety of silver beet but a great plant to grow for a constant supply of spinach-like leaves), basil, kale, coriander and parsley. As long as you can find a sunny spot, growing in containers is successful. The plants do need regular watering and fertilising. It is wonderful to be able to wander outside and grab enough salad greens for a meal, and to have fresh herbs on hand to add flavour to meals.
But I have now taken to growing patches of short-lived crops, such as rocket, mizuna and coriander, directly in my garden beds where there are spaces. In spring, my borders are very bare, as most plants are cut back very hard. They take a month or so to really fill in and the sight of all that bare earth is rather discomforting. My temporary crops have filled the gap rapidly and we have never had such robust coriander in our lives! I'll be rather sorry when they have to be pulled out as the perennials and shrubs start to take over!
I have tucked perennial herbs such as chives, parsley and rosemary into borders as more permanent residents, and I like the contrast of their foliage with nearby ornamental plants. I am also planning to grow beans on a teepee in one of my borders this year, hoping this will be a 'feature' (?) as well as a source of food! I've also added rhubarb to one of the beds, where its ruby stems echo the nearby planting of Iresine herbstii 'Brilliantissima'. It's almost a shame to harvest the rhubarb!
I have raised from seed some of the colourful 'rainbow' silver beet that I so admired in the public parks in Paris earlier this year, with their brilliant red, yellow or pink stems, and I am planning to tuck these into borders nearby like-coloured flowers.
One important key is to prepare the soil before planting, with plenty of organic matter, such as compost and well-decayed animal manure. Use of a seaweed extract helps the young vegies establish. This is now available in a powdered form. Regular watering is a must for vegetables and many herbs, and mulching helps to conserve moisture. Fertilising is also necessary to keep the vegies growing well. Recently, I have been using a 'tea' made of soaking sheep manure in water for a while.
As I do not like using chemical sprays in the garden, growing vegetables brings challenges. It is heartening that there are organic alternatives to the toxic chemicals that were once sprayed on crops to control pests and diseases. Eco-oil deters most pests (and is also said to attract beneficial predator insects) and Eco-fungicide is now available to tackle fungal problems such as powdery mildew and rust. Vigilance is also essential - checking crops regularly will allow you to pick off and squash caterpillars and nasty little flea beetles before too much damage is done, and is quite satisfying! Hunting for snails is something I did as a child and it really is effective if done regularly. There are non-toxic snail baits around these days too, and beer baits are also worth considering if you don't want to actually squash the snails yourself.
I doubt I will ever be self-sufficient in vegetables, but I have found it really rewarding to gradually introduce more edibles into my garden!
Creative pest control
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There are lots of ways to outwit garden pests!
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Although my garden is semi-tropical in nature now, I still have some vestiges from my cottage garden days!
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Consider training a shrub into a small tree.
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October is iris time in Sydney gardens: the best are the tall bearded irises and Louisiana irises.
One crowded hour
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Much can be achieved in regular short stints in the garden.