Kitchen gardens can take a huge variety of forms, and generally what your kitchen garden looks like and how it works is limited only by your imagination. I have seen productive gardens in the balconies of high rise apartment blocks, and gardens that fit the traditional image of regular rectangular blocks of beds in the backyard of a family home. You can shoehorn vegetables into your flower garden (this can work very well), or you can keep your kitchen garden entirely separate. You can grow in containers and you can grow up walls (or in my case along the wrought iron work of verandas). In this series of articles I am going to assume a fairly traditional layout, but you can alter this to suit your own circumstances.
Vegetables and fruit generally need four things:
1. Good light – between 6-8 hours of sun a day.
2. Good soil – soil rich in organic matter and minerals.
3. Good water – enough water to keep the vegetables and fruits growing happily.
4. Enough warmth to germinate seeds and to keep the plant growing on well. The amount of warmth needed will vary from plant to plant.
You can affect all four of these requirements to varying degrees.
First – how to start?
Select your area to grow vegetables. If you are growing primarily in containers, then use broad mouthed and reasonably deep containers (about 50 cm deep, or 18 inches, is a good place to start). You do not have to use regular flower pots – grow bags (or hydroponic bags) are one good alternative, or old plastic bins with drainage holes drilled in them. Even an old bathtub – anything so long as it did not once contain poisons and it has enough depth for roots to spread out, and so long as it has some form of drainage.
If you have a block of land to play with, then select a patch that will get good sunlight and is reasonably flat and well-drained: vegetables do not grow well in bogs, and flat is going to be easier on you.
If you can do this easily, think about having at least 3 – 4 vegetable beds which will give you space to grow a variety of food, as well rotate your crops to avoid fungal diseases taking up house in the soil (I’ll have more to say about this later).
Second: take a long hard look at your soil.
In our dreams we will all wake up one day and find that overnight the back yard will have been magically transformed into regular beds of fine, fertile soil.
Generally, however, it doesn’t work quite that easily and we will have do to some work to improve the soil.
If you are growing in containers, then you can use regular commercially available potting mix, but I would add a fair bit of organic compost as well – maybe one third compost and two thirds potting mix. I’d also be tempted to toss in some animal manure, but then I’m that kind of a girl! A few handfuls of chicken or sheep or cow manure mixed into each large pot will make the world of difference.
If you are working a regular garden bed, then mark out the area you want to use as your vegetable bed, then dig it over to remove all weeds and weed roots, then dig in plentiful organic compost and yes, some animal manure.
*A note re animal manures in the garden. Generally anything from herbivore animals is fine, so long as it is well rotted (don’t use fresh chicken manure, for instance, as it may burn the roots of your plants). Manure from carnivores should not be used – no cat or dog faeces in the food garden, please (it can contain dangerous pathogens, plus it doesn’t have much in the way of goodness to add to the soil, anyway). Use of humanure is a topic for another day (it can be done, but is a long process).
If your soil is heavy clay, then it may not drain well, so you might need to correct this by adding in some sand to improve drainage, or lots of compost. My soil at Nonsuch is very heavy clay, and my favourite way of opening up the clay soil and improving it is to add compost, pea straw (or lucerne – alfalfa – hay), and as much recycled paper kitty litter as I can find (used litter, but with the faeces removed. The old urine will be great for the garden).
If your soil is sandy, then compost and straw or hay will also add much needed organic matter to stop water draining away too fast.
Ideally, all this will be finished some six weeks before you want to start planting to give everything time to settle down and rot in well, and time to give the worms space to do their magic.
You can have a virtually instant food garden by installing raised beds. These are brilliant if the underfoot soil is poor, or rocky, or full of weeds and perennial weed roots. There are a huge variety of materials you can build a raised bed from – hay bales, bricks, wood, corrugated iron – but make sure that you either put down a root guard first (to stop weeds growing up from the existing soil, or to stop nearby trees from stealing all the goodness from the vegetable bed soil), or lay a few layers of cardboard or many layers of newspaper over the existing soil to stop weeds growing up through the soil. When filling with soil, make sure that you add lots of organic compost as noted above and, yes, some animal manure.
OK, so now you have a space prepared for your food garden. It will be full of fertile soil, and will catch at east 6 hours of sunlight a day. It doesn’t matter much if that is morning sun or afternoon sun, just so long as it is at least 6 hours of it.
Before we move on to planting, I want you to stop and think a little about your climate, as that is going to affect what you plant, and when.