Roots, Shoots and Leaves

Running late this morning, I headed out to the back garden rather than the park. Seated on a log with my cup of chai I was almost hidden by a small forest of leafy greens – rocket, pak choi, curly lettuce, silverbeet and broccoli. The Italian parsley has rebounded well since I cut it back and my tongue waters at the thought of pesto.  After ten minutes exchanging oxygen with my garden, I calmly head inside with a bouquet of leaves for lunch.

Arranging my colourful salad, I am reminded of a comment a visitor made recently, that they couldn’t afford a vegie patch. While surprised, the idea that it’s cheaper to buy than grow your own is not uncommon.

Perhaps if you’re picturing custom-made raised garden beds filled with store bought bags of compost, wrought iron trellises and a pharmacy of pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers then yes, I agree.

However a thriving veggie patch can be started and maintained with little or zero money, or, for that matter, time.

Here’s some tips for vegie gardening on a shoesting.

Let’s start from the ground up.

As I said in a recent column, before growing plants you need to grow the soil. To garden immediately it’s worth investing in high quality garden soil and organic compost such as chook or cow poo.

If you have a little more time, you can make your own. Learn how to make compost or feed worms with your kitchen scraps, grass clippings and garden prunings. A well-managed worm farm or compost heap won’t smell or attract flies and will reward you with free, high-quality fertiliser.

To make bulk, ask neighbours or cafes for their vegie scraps, and convert roadside weeds into rich humus.

Use logs, branches or timber offcuts to make raised garden beds, and enjoy the shabby chic look of your DIY efforts.

Rather than buy seedlings, start from seed. If you source heirloom varieties and save the seed you’ll never have to buy seed again. Your local seed savers network is an amazing resource of seed stock and will happily gift them, in the hope you return with some to share at the end of your first successful yield.

To feed and nourish your plants, make a liquid ‘tea’ from your compost, cow manure or seaweed rather than buying bottles.

Water early in the morning or evening to avoid evaporation losses and mulch with dry leaves or grasses.

When starting out, instead of trying to grow a perfect carrot, go for high yielding varieties of hardy vegetables that are already favourites in the kitchen, such as silverbeet, cherry tomatoes, kale, zucchini, beetroot, climbing beans, parsley, radish, and snow peas. I personally love sprouting broccoli that will give you a continuous harvest of shoots for several months.

Think ‘less is more’. One thriving tomato will yield more than a dozen stressed and overcrowded tomatoes. Sow a few extra in case of casualties – you can thin out or give away these seedlings if not needed.

As for pests and disease, if you want to grow organic (and low cost) vegies then learn to share, and embrace imperfection – it’s often better to accept a little damage rather than bother taking action. Having said that, if the soil is vital, chances are you’ll have little problem with either.

Costs aside, I would struggle to put a dollar value on the satisfaction and nourishment I derive from harvesting a salad bowl full of shoots, herbs and leaves from my garden. It’s both ageless, and priceless.