When I first moved out of home a few people asked why didn’t I start a vegie garden because I had “plenty of space”. Meaning they were politely hinting that I should really do something with the half-dead, bare-naked scrub that was my backyard. I was a bit meh about the idea. I didn’t think it would be worth the time or effort.
Fast forward two years and I decided to try growing my own veggies after I found myself wincing every time I cleaned the fridge and threw out expensive veggies that had gone so mouldy I felt frightened.
I had also guilty realised that as a freelance journalist who writes a lot about health and nutrition, I spent more time telling the public to eat fresh leafy greens than actually eating fresh leafy greens myself.
Who knew that all these years inside of me was an old Italian lady, screaming to get out. We now have three big raised vegetable beds, a potato patch and five wine barrels brimming with veggies, fruit and herbs and I just wish I’d started earlier. We eat from the garden every day, have enough to share with our families and I love being able to make a fresh meal without having to put on a bra and go to the shops. Plus I am already noticing the monetary difference at the checkout.
The best thing is, now that it’s built and planted out, it takes very little work. You have to put in the time, sweat and uh, sheep poop at the start, but once it’s done, your time and upkeep can be minimal.
I chatted to Bunnings national greenlife buyer David Hardie, who says growing your own veggies is a great way to improve your health while reducing your weekly grocery bill. “The real beauty of growing your own fresh organic produce is it tastes great and you know the conditions under which it was grown,” he says. “You can use what you need when it is in season and there will be some produce you can grow and use all year-round. These days people are becoming more interested in where their food comes from and whether it has been organically grown.”
While you’ll have to front up for the initial costs of starting a veggie garden, it will eventually pay itself off in what you’ll save going to the shops and buying overpriced veg. David says to identify a spot in your garden that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight per day and you’ll need good quality soil. Where I live, the soil is nasty, so we bought a truckload of good-quality soil and sheep manure. It was about $70 per square metre.
Buying raised garden bed kits might seem like an unnecessary expense when you can plant straight in the ground. But I am a huge fan of raised beds because you can fill them with good soil right from the start rather than trying to enrich crap soil, they make it easy to prevent weeds and keeps snails and slugs out, and it keeps the plants safe from our dog Nala, who likes eating lettuce, spinach and blueberries and rolling around on new lettuce seedlings.
We bought three Birdies Paperbark Corrugated Steel Raised Garden Kits (pictured above) from Bunnings at $199 each. If you’re inventive though, you don’t have to spend a lot. We made our potato patch from old wooden boards, my mum plants vegies in Styrofoam boxes and old cane baskets and you can even grow veggies in those green jute bags from Coles.
You can get free shit – woohoo! Use services like Gumtree to find racing stables that will fill your trailer with horse manure for free - they’re glad to get rid of it. I lined the bottoms of our raised beds with black plastic and newspaper to stop weeds getting through, then filled them up with layers of old lawn clippings, dead leaves, manure and special veggie soil, put in seedlings and with a few exceptions most things have done really nicely.
To learn about how to kick my veggie garden off on the right foot, I read a stack of Good Gardening magazines. (Yes I am aware most 20-something females are reading 50 Shades of Grey). Good Gardening is written by this very happy-looking Greek guy called Vasili Kanidiadis who talks to all sorts of people about their veggie gardens. Vasili is always in the photos giving a big thumbs-up. He looks like the happiest, healthiest man in the world. It makes me laugh – it’s a nice feel-good magazine. And the stories are motivating. Pick up a copy and you will be itching to plant something and give a big thumbs-up by the time you put it down.
Because I’m lazy I wanted plants that were hardy, that would keep growing for much of the year, that we could pick from when we needed it. David says a few of the best pick-and-come-again edibles are spinach, beetroot, potato, celery, onions, garlic and rosemary. “Spinach and onions are two of the easiest vegetables to grow and will grow back every year as long as you let some of them go to seed. Garlic is an easy and versatile herb to plant.”
I'm no gardening expert (I planted lots of different things in my garden just to see what would grow) but these are what I really recommend:
I’d never even eaten silverbeet before I tried to grow it and now I use it a few times every week. It’s super easy to grow, hardy, a good source of vitamins A, C and K and iron. I made a spinach and ricotta pie (hooray!) using silverbeet and spinach in our garden and Mr House Nerd and I agreed it was the best one ever. The leaves are great chucked into the end of a stew - this Greek bean and silverbeet stew recipe is a winner.
Like silverbeet, I’d never even tried this leafy green Asian vegetable until I grew it – now I love it. Wilted in a wok and tossed in a sesame and soy sauce, it’s a perfect side dish to fish, chicken and rice dishes. It’s beautiful too, with huge, flower-like rosettes of shiny, dark leaves that you can just snap off when you need them.
Native to Australia, this is a tough pick-and-come again plant that grows like a weed. Spinach is a good source of iron and I love eating it with a little avocado, some nice ricotta, goat’s cheese and olive oil all sandwiched in a wrap and toasted in my Spongebob Squarepants sandwich maker. What they don’t tell you on the punnet label is that warrigal spinach contains oxates that are toxic in large quantities, so you must blanch it in hot water for three minutes before eating it (oops!) Our spinach grows in one spot that gets no direct sunlight and also in a bed that gets sun eight hours a day.
Who knew garlic was the easiest thing in the world to grow? Just stick cloves in the ground with the pointy tip of the clove about 6cm below the soil surface. In about eight months it will have grown into a nice new bunch and in the meantime it would have helped deter aphids and some other insects – they don’t like things that smell strongly. I planted cloves all around my veggie garden and have been fairly lucky with bugs, although they still get their nibble in sometimes. I don't use any sprays for the bugs because I am lazy anti-pesticide. Although to be perfectly honest, I am not too fussed when some bugs decide to take their lunch break in my veggie patch. I just cut around the munched bits.
This is so easy and you can just pick leaves from it as you need – plant two punnets of the stuff and you’ll have enough for salads for months. I often see cos lettuce for $20 a kilo at the shops but it’s so cheap to grow (and effortless if you can keep the slugs away) and ours tastes amazing – really crisp and sweet. We give bags to our families and friends all the time. We’ve had really good luck with other varieties too, like Romaine and Butterhead and land cress – lettuce on the whole is pretty easy to grow.
It grows all year-round and grows better the more you pick at it! I love it sprinkled over fresh linguine or with kidney beans pan-fried with chorizo, a bit of tomato paste and a fried egg for a breakfast.
Blueberry bushes grow really well in pots and grow fast. They need slightly acidic soil so look for soil designed for roses and azaleas. We would have had stacks of fruit this year but there’s this shitty little bird who eats them. I can see him from my study window, languorously helping himself. When I bang on the window and yell “oy” he starts and wildly catches my eye. Then he quickly scoffs berries furiously, knowing I’m about to run outside and shoo him away. But you can put bird-proof netting over the top of yours. I’m just too lazy.
No matter how black your thumbs you will succeed with kale! A member of the cabbage family, it’s super hardy and thrives almost anywhere. But I have to admit until I started writing this story I’d had it growing for months in my garden and had never been game enough to eat it.
It’s so huge and green and I'd heard it tasted like really strong cabbage so it kind of freaked me out, although my German mother greedily tears it up every time she comes over. The Germans are crazy about their kale. They even have kale festivals and “Kohlfahrten” (kale tours) where people go on long walks together then eat kale-rich dinners with sausages and schnapps at local restaurants at the end. My mum and my youngest sister did a kale tour last year. Everyone walked around the countryside with a cart filled with beer, drinking and eating sausages. Mum says halfway through the walking tour they ran out of beer. So my uncle Tiny Heini called his niece to drive out and meet them with two more crates.
Kale is super-good for you – rich in iron, beta-carotene, fibre, folate, magnesium, and vitamins A, K, B1 and B2. So the last time my mother asked me sadly, “Maya, why do you not cook your kale?” I decided to get over my kohlfear and made kale chips; chopped-up leaves drizzled with a little olive oil and sea salt and roasted in the oven at 180 degrees until crispy. They looked pretty gross but were surprisingly kind of tasty and not at all cabbage-y. So grow it for no other reason than you would like guilt-free chips-in-waiting growing in your garden. Or you would like to start doing Kohlfahrten in Australia.
I'll soon put up Part Two of super easy veggie gardening with tips on growing veggies if you only have a small garden or balcony and how you can grow veggies from kitchen scraps. In the meantime, good luck if you decide to make a start! If you use good soil and plant hardy things you could be eating from your garden or balcony in a matter of weeks. If you've had success with particular veggies I'd love to hear about it!