It's been a hot, dry summer this year. But, in spite of this (and perhaps because of it) we've recorded our biggest ever two-month harvest - almost 140kg. The freezer is bursting and we already have a year's supply of tomato passata! Read on to learn the 5 key lessons we've learned in growing vegetables productively in a regular Canberra suburban garden with the usual uninspiring clay to begin with...
- Red tomatoes: 55kg
- Green tomatoes: 9kg
- Zucchini: 34kg
- Tomatillos: 22kg
- Potatoes: 10kg
- Runner beans: 3kg
- Spaghetti squash: 2kg
- Purple climbing beans: 1kg
- Onion: 1kg
I wanted to share with you the 5 key things that I believe have contributed to our success.
1. Water water water!
Even with some thunderstorms this summer, because temperatures have been higher than average, we've seen a lot more evaporation, which means that supplementary watering has been necessary. We have used a combination of sunken vegetable beds in the main garden (meaning that water collects there when it rains or when it gets watered, rather than running off) and wicking beds in our front garden (which have allowed us to grow crops near a gum tree, where we wouldn't otherwise be able to grow vegetables). The next step for us is to divert greywater and put in some rainwater tanks, to reduce our reliance on using tap water for irrigation.
2. Building up the soil
There's a phrase that goes something like: don't feed your plants, feed the soil. When we started 18 months ago in our back garden, we had very little soil in our sunken beds. To make them, we had used an excavator to dig down to make each sunken bed, so we exposed the clay layer and what little top soil we had was moved to the raised berms surrounding the two sunken beds. So - we used our compost, used leaf litter and made mulch from prunings, added some organic fertiliser, and grew green manures. Within 18 months we now have a layer of good, dark organic matter in the beds - it could certainly be bigger and better, but it's good to see that the soil layer is growing already and the plants have grown well, suggesting that there are sufficient nutrients for them.
3. Planting and sowing seed at the right time
Getting ready early enough pays off. We started our tomatoes from seed at the end of August, planting the seeds in trays indoors and growing them on our window sills. We took a risk and planted them out at the end of October (the general advice is to wait until after the Melbourne Cup in early November, to avoid the last frost). But 2018 was warmer than average and there were no frosts in November - so our gamble paid off and we had a very successful harvest of tomatoes this year.
Permaculture is all about working with natural processes. Working with nature involves observation of what is happening in your garden and making small interventions where necessary. While this topic could be a whole essay of its own, a couple of examples here will help to illustrate the point. First up, diversity is key to success. Nature doesn't normally plant monocultures, so neither do we! While plants do compete with one another for light and food, they can also form symbiotic relationships with one another that provide benefits to all. A commonly cited example is the co-planting of corn, squash and beans, where the corn provides a structure for beans to climb up, and the squash get shade from the taller plants, and the gardener gets 3 crops in the space of one!
Diversity is also an important element in making your garden resilient - in any given year not all plantings will do equally well. Having a range of crops means you will always harvest something even if some fail.
Secondly, we also make sure that we have a lot of perennial and flowering plants strategically placed around the vegetable garden as these plants provide food and habitat for beneficial insects and other species. We have used no pesticides and have not had much of an issue with pest insects this year. We do have a lot of cute little skinks and lizards running around, so they may be helping to keep any plagues at bay!
5. Making time to garden and enjoy being outdoors
It might seem obvious, but it's worth noting that having a productive garden does require work. I wish I could say it was super easy, but there is hard physical work at times, and you need to be available to sow, plant and harvest at the right times. On the plus side, we have got ourselves outdoors a lot more, and I am pleased to report that improving health, fitness and weight loss have all been other consequences of working in the garden! I know not everyone has the time to be able to do as much gardening as we do (though we too have to juggle the competing priorities of work, study, looking after the family and running a small business) but even growing a few pots of herbs by the back door can make a significant difference to your life, and your wallet - given how expensive shop-bought herbs are these days!