If This Dummy Can Grow Tomatoes ... So Can You!

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

Earlier this year, we moved to a house with a yard and I decided to create a veggie patch.


I didn’t really know much about gardening, so I expected it to be a simple exercise: plant some veggies, watch them grow… How hard could it be, right?


Well, it turns out gardening is a little bit more complicated than that!


What I expected to be a pretty straightforward experience, instead turned out to be quite the adventure. Let’s just say some mistakes were made…


There were the highs and the lows, disappointments, a lot of failures, some pleasant surprises and a result that I really never would have expected…


Have a look:


[Before]

[During]

[After]

Those tomato and cucumber plants are about 2 meters high at the moment, and still growing.


But let me backtrack a little into how I got here, because it definitely wasn’t a straightforward exercise, and along the way I’ll share some gardening basics and lessons I learned so that you don’t repeat my mistakes.


Location, Location, Location!


Ok, so I really wish I had asked about this before starting, because it turns out location is one of the first and most important decisions you’ll make when it comes to gardening.


Not knowing this, I simply chose a patch in the corner of our yard that was flat, measured out a space roughly 3x4m, and started digging.


So. Much. Digging.


[Two varieties of cucumber: Bush (top) & Lebanese (bottom)]


Plants need sun to grow, and you need to choose a location that gets enough sun for the plants that you’re growing. Most of the plants I chose, and most that I’ve seen since, need full sun. That generally means at least six hours of sun per day.


Seems simple enough, right?


But there are a few things to consider.


Firstly, the position of the sun changes throughout the year. This means that, just because your garden is getting sun in one season, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get sun all year round.


In my case, I didn’t even think to check the position of the garden in relation to the sun before digging. Only on the final day of preparing the soil (which took about 2 months!) did I learn about the importance of the sun, and so spent the next few days watching the sun cruelly draw an outline of my patch, touching every part of the garden except the patch I had poured sweat and tears into…


I won’t lie, I was devastated … but still determined.


It turns out that our neighbour’s garage was casting a long shadow over the entire veggie patch, blocking any sun that would otherwise reach it. I had to decide at this point whether to continue with the garden or cut my losses.


[Neighbour's garage having less of an impact as the sun changes position]


Lesson: test for sun before digging.


As it turns out, with the sun rising in the warmer months, so long as there is nothing directly above your patch blocking it, the sun will eventually reach it – just be patient.


My entire patch now gets about 6-8 hours of sun per day.


Pro-tip: check for drainage and other pipes or cables below the ground before digging. Ask your landlord or check for signs; breaking a pipe or cable can be an expensive mistake!


Soil


The next difficult lesson I would learn would be about the crucial importance of soil.


I began digging without doing any testing, and quickly learned that the soil in that area was heavy clay. It was serious work digging it up.


Like the sun situation, most plants need a particular type of soil to grow well. Guess what? Clay is the most difficult type to work with… ouch!


Part way through my gardening adventures, my wife sent me a link to an introductory gardening course offered by TAFE NSW, which turned out to be invaluable (shout out to our amazing teacher, Dany!).


Here I learned that soil is made up of air (25%), water (25%), mineral (45%) and organic matter (5%). I also learned that air and water share the same space, so overwatering your plants (apparently the leading cause of plant death) will drown them!


This means that you have to understand the soil you’re working with to understand how to keep it balanced.


[My clay soil]


There are three types of soil: clay, sand and silt, and the difference between the three is size. Sand is the largest (you can see each individual grain), clay is the smallest (you can’t distinguish any part of it), and silt is somewhere in between.


Each soil type behaves in a different manner. For example, sandy soil drains water very quickly, meaning your plants don’t get waterlogged, but because it doesn’t hold much, it’s generally low in nutrients. Clay soil is dense, heavy and wet, meaning it has high levels of nutrition, but poor drainage. And again, silt is in between the two.


A well-balanced soil is called loam, and is ideal for gardening. But it’s not always what you end up with.


Ultimately, whatever soil you find in your garden is the soil you’ll have to work with, as it’s nearly impossible to change soil texture. What we can do, though, is change the structure; so not how much of each component there is, but how they relate to each other.


For example, mulch and organic compost will help with sandy soil as it helps it hold water better and slows the drying out process. For clay soil, we can aerate it with a shovel or fork so that it drains better, as well as using organic matter, such as compost, worms, castings and manure.


[Bush cucumber climbing a 1.8m stalk]


The pH level of your soil is also an important soil factor, which tells you how acidic or alkaline your soil is. The ideal pH levels for most plants are 6 – 7.5 (neutral to acidic). Don’t stress too much if you, like me, don’t understand the science here. The simple chart below helps you identify different pH levels and you can buy simple test kits to see the pH level of your soil.


Lesson: do a soil test before digging (here’s how).


In the end, despite being heavy clay soil, reworking the soil structure by adding organic cow compost, blood & bone, and adding a worm farm (more on that below) produced a garden where different varieties of herbs, veggies and flowers flourish.


Pro-tip: be very picky with where you buy things like compost, soil and the like, as the quality in some stores is quite poor. ANL has great quality and is well-priced.


[How to test soil texture]

[How to measure pH levels]


Compost


If you want an easy and cheap way to deal with the guilt of throwing away excess food and scraps, welcome to the world of composting!


Composting is a great way to improve the quality of your soil and help your garden thrive.


Composting simply means breaking down the organic matter of anything that was once living, and using that in the garden. That means that most of the leftovers you have from cooking can be used to improve your garden quality, rather than being thrown in the bin. So instead of throwing away that last piece of eggplant that you didn’t use, or that last bite of apple you don’t want to eat, you compost it.


It’s basically recycling food.


While there are a number of different styles and methods for composting (you can Google the different types), each with different pros and cons, I ended up going with one quite unique method that was shared with me in the gardening group (thanks, Carol!)


[Embedded worm farm]


It’s a worm farm, but with a twist!


Worm farms are an efficient and organic way to compost your garden, and the urine that worms produce (known as worm castings) in particular is an excellent source of nutrition for your garden, which also helps prevent plant diseases.


Traditional worm farms stand somewhere in your garden and consist of a number of different trays: for food, worms, and, at the bottom, for the worm urine. It works well, but it means you have to manually move the urine from the bottom tray to your garden.


Not a very clean process..


A unique and clever way to improve your garden bed without the mess, is to embed your worm farm into your garden.


Here’s how to build a worm farm:


· Buy a stormwater pipe from a hardware store (e.g. bunnings).

· Cut this pipe into smaller pieces. Keep in mind that the longer the pipe, the deeper you’ll have to dig to bury it (I cut mine into 33cm pieces).

· Drill a number of holes into each of the pipes, enough for a worm to travel through.

· Bury the pipes in your garden, so that the top is flush with the surface.

· Place lids (which you can also buy from the same store) to cover the top of each pipe.

· Buy worm farm worms (they’re different to common earth worms) to fill into your pipes. Generally, 1000 worms for every household member is all you need. You’ll find heaps of worm stores online, and some councils will offer worms for free.

· Cover the lids of the pipes with mulch or some other organic material to protect the worms from the sun.


That’s it!


[Building a worm farm]


With this method, you’ll have an organic worm farm built directly into your garden, feeding your plants and also aerating your soil.


Lesson: decide on your composting method before digging so you don’t have to dig up your patch again like I did : )


Worm farms are quite easy to look after and really bring your garden to life. Feed them once to twice a week, slowly at first, and they’ll naturally increase their appetite and turn your food waste into ‘black gold’. Generally speaking, you can compost most foods apart from garlic, onion, potato, meat and bones.


Pro-tip: if you end up collecting worm castings via another method, mix them with water till it turns the colour of black tea (thanks, Abdul!) and water your garden with it around once a week.


Companion Planting


Plants are living creatures. And, like the rest of us, they thrive in company.


Also like the rest of us, they don’t like all types of company, but only certain types.


[One of the garden regulars]


Companion planting is about planting certain types of plants that support each other in close company.


Before modern European methods of grid planting became normal, which are primarily about maximum production, companion planting was the norm. For example, an ancient farming practice found in parts of what is today called South America, known as the Three Sisters method, combines corn, bean and pumpkin plants in the one area. The corn provides a strong stalk for the bean plant to climb onto, the bean provides nitrogen to the soil that both the corn and pumpkin need to thrive, while the pumpkin provides ground cover and helps prevent weeds.


Companions, helping one another.


[Three Sisters companion planting]

[My rendition of companion planting]


Companion planting comes in a variety of forms, with different degrees of evidence. For example, many people swear that growing basil near tomato plants gives the tomatoes a basil taste. That’s anecdotal. Comfrey, on the other hand, a type of herb, has deep roots. These roots, which can grow up to 4m down, draw nutrients from deep in the earth that most other plants can’t access, and transfer these nutrients to their leaves, which, when composted and returned to the soil, provide nutrients to other plants. That’s not anecdotal.


But this is the best part.


Certain varieties of flowers, in particular marigold, nasturtium and alyssum, attract certain creatures (birds, bees, butterflies, bugs and similar) which provide an organic pest-management system for your garden.


They also look amazing.


I’ve mixed up my garden and there’s now a regular flow of creatures that call it home and create a buzzing, thriving atmosphere.


[A simple (and incomplete) companion planting spreadsheet that I created for planning a garden]

Garden Design
.xlsx
Download XLSX • 18KB

Lesson: let nature take its course.


In short, companion planting is about creating a balanced eco-system in your garden that balances itself out. Different plants provide the cover, height and nutrients that other plants need to flourish, pollinators are attracted to the flowers, spiders keep certain pests in balance … and so on. Letting nature take its course produces not only a thriving, buzzing garden bed, but one that is a pleasure to look at.


Pro-tip: Give flowers enough space away from plants that take up lots of space, such as tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers.


Getting Started


There’s much to learn and gain from gardening.


It’s a beautiful, grounding experience in itself. It also makes you attentive to your environment, caring for the most tender of creatures, and appreciative of the gifts it offers.


There's obviously a lot more to gardening than the few points I've mentioned here. Pest and weed management, for example, is an important part of it. But while it might seem overwhelming at first, gardening really isn’t as difficult as it appears once you get into it.


As with everything in life, start small and build gradually, and the rest will come.


And then, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour : )







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