The key to having a successful food garden lies in being realistic about what you hope to achieve, given the resources you have available.
These are some things to think about that will help ensure success.
All food gardens require regular attention in the form of weeding, watering and other small tasks that ensure the crops grow well. The amount of attention a food garden requires depends what you grow, the quantity required, how much space your food garden takes up, and the methods used to grow it.
One can easily grow some of one’s own food as a hobby, in a small area, with as little as an hour or two of work a week. This time need not be all given at once, but could be broken down into, for instance, 15 minutes a day devoted to your food garden.
Becoming food self-sufficient is another story altogether and needs a substantial amount of time, commitment, space and serious planning.
If you are new to food gardening, begin with a small, simple, easily managed project, and expand as you gain more confidence and knowledge.
Where should I site my food garden?
To grow common annual vegetables, your food garden needs to be in a sunny place (most food plants require at least 6 hours of full sun a day to do well), should have easy access to a water source for watering, and be sheltered from damaging winds. If you live in a very hot climate though, many common vegetables will appreciate some shade during the heat of the day.
A light shade cloth or light overhead trellising constructed over the food garden will help reduce heat stress. Try and site your food garden within easy reach of your kitchen. This makes it easy to pick as you need, and means you can keep a watchful eye on your crops. One does not want a food garden to be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
Most annual food plants also need nutrient dense soil. If your soil is poor, build up the soil’s humus and nutrient levels by adding plenty of good compost or mulch before you plant.
How much space do I need?
Again, this depends entirely on how much food you want to grow, what you grow, and how much time and effort you are prepared to spend gardening. A well composted, well managed patch of ground of 1 metre x 2 metres can grow a variety of easy to cultivate, compact plants such as spinach, carrots, lettuce, radish, cauliflower, beans, spinach – enough to supplement feed a family of four with regular fresh produce.
To garden in a small space, choose quick maturing, compact varieties to ensure a fast ‘turn around’ time between planting and picking. Grow up, rather than out, by making use of vertical space and layering. Vertical supports such as trellising can support climbing varieties. Layering involves planting lower growing crops in between rows of taller growing crops, or slower growing varieties between faster growing varieties.
Do I need a dedicated vegetable garden?
To give your food plants special attention, you might prefer to group them together in a suitable part of the garden. One does not necessarily need a separate vegetable garden or fruit orchard to grow some of your own food though. If the idea of having a separate food garden is not for you, many edible plants are easily grown in amongst flower beds or fruit trees, or in decorative pots, and can be highly decorative.
Food plants can be grown up walls, in pots on a sunny balcony or windowsill, on a flat rooftop, amongst the other plants in a flower garden, or in any abandoned or unused piece of land.
Have you got some pot plants in your office or at home? Then add a few more pots growing food plants, such as herbs or compact salad greens to add flavour and nutrients to your dishes. Got a patch of lawn, why not dig it up and grow edible plants instead?
If the effort of growing annual vegetables seems like too much work, search out more unusual, low maintenance, perennial food plants to include in your garden. Globe artichokes, for instance, have striking grey leaves and large purple, protea like flowers that make a striking accent in the garden. Both leaves and flowers are edible, although one has to pick the prickly hair-like ‘chokes’ off the flower before you get to the delicious, buttery taste of the heart.
The broad, fan like leaves of rhubarb also make a striking addition to the garden. Vitamin rich rhubarb stems can be boiled with sugar or honey and eaten with yoghurt, or made into jam. The leaves, though, are poisonous. Fruit and nut trees can be a decorative, as well as practical, addition to a garden and can be trellised or espaliered up a wall if space is in short supply.
Many indigenous plants also have edible parts and are easily grown with very little attention, provided you choose varieties that suit your garden soil and micro-climate. Before you eat wild plants, make sure you have identified them correctly to avoid poisoning.
What should I grow?
Before you begin, do some research and find a food gardening method that suits your particular requirements. Get to know your local climate and soil conditions, choose plant varieties that suit your garden micro-climate, soil and space requirements, and your family’s tastes, and cultivate plants in the appropriate season.
By Valerie Payn
Valerie is the author of the e-book, An Ecological Gardeners Handbook (available from Amazon and other e-book sites). Val also blogs regularly about sustainable landscape design and ecological gardening.