Seeds or seedlings
All vegies can be grown from seed and it’s an economical way to go, but if you are growing vegies for the first time, the best way to get a start is with established seedlings purchased from your local garden centre. All of the work and attention required to germinate the seeds and get them up to planting stage has already been done for you. If you are ready to try your hand at sowing seed, then start with ones that germinate easily like radishes, bok choy and tomatoes. Most vegies can be raised in pots and punnets and planted out later, but others, particularly root vegetables like carrots and beetroot don’t transplant as well as seedlings so are best sown directly in the soil.
Look for quality. If the plants look ragged, dry, wilting, pale or generally unhealthy, don’t buy them. It’s never a good start to buy stressed plants. More is not necessarily better either. Overcrowding means that the punnet could be packed with roots so the plants will be seriously competing for moisture and nutrients. A good buy is a punnet of seedlings where the individual plants look happy and healthy and nicely spaced so they are easy to separate.
Multi-cell packs make planting out easy, because each cell contains the complete root system of an individual plant. All it takes is a little squeeze at the base of the cell to release a seedling ready for planting. Single cell punnets require greater care because all the roots of the different plants will be intertwined. To release the individual seedlings, tip the whole lot out of the punnet and gently pull the seedlings apart trying to keep as much of the roots intact as possible.
It’s always a good idea to soak any punnet of seedlings in water for 10 minutes or so before removing the plants. This ensures that the mix is moistened throughout and that the plants are fully hydrated. Adding a little 'liquid seaweed’ to the water will help to strengthen the plants and reduce transplant shock. You can get seaweed extracts from any garden centre.
When you plant your seedlings, set them in the soil at the same level they were in the punnets. Make sure the roots are completely covered with soil, but be careful not to bury your plants too deep. Check the label too and follow the directions for spacing your particular crop. Once planted, water them in well, using a solution of liquid seaweed for best results.
The first rule for planting seeds is to check the use by date on the pack. Seed loses its viability over time, so always go with fresh stock.
The next thing is planting depth. This can vary depending on the type and size of seed and it’s important to get it right. When you plant too deep, seeds may rot – plant too shallow and they’ll dry out quickly and never germinate. Seed packets give you a guide to sowing depth, but as a general rule, plant your seed at a depth that is 2-3 times the width of the seed.
If you want to raise your seeds in pots or punnets, don’t fill them with garden soil or potting mix. Instead, use a special seed-raising mixture. This has a blend of materials that helps to hold moisture and air in the mix, providing the best conditions for seeds to get a start.
It’s important to keep the medium evenly moist until the seeds germinate. There are exceptions to this; bigger seeds such as peas, beans, corn and zucchini can rot very easily when the medium is continually damp. You’ll get best results with these by sowing them directly in the soil, watering them in well and not watering again until they germinate.
Seedlings need regular close attention, particularly in the first two weeks or so. Watering is a priority. Give them a little drink every day for the first few days to keep the soil around their roots evenly moist. Once they settle in and start to grow, reduce the regularity and increase the depth of watering. If the sun is particularly hot, protect the seedlings by covering the bed with shade cloth. Place a few upturned plastic nursery pots across the bed to help elevate the cloth and keep it off the seedlings. Look out for snails and slugs. They love eating seedlings and can devour a bunch of seedlings in one sitting.
Vegies love to be pampered and they deserve it! When you think about it, these plants have a lot of growing to do in a relatively short time, so they need all the help and encouragement you can give them. Regular deep watering is vital. Never let your vegies dry out, not for too long anyway. Diet is important too. Vegies need regular feeding with nutritionally balanced organic fertilisers. That’s the secret to growing strong healthy vegetables with the sweetest flavour. If you’ve ever eaten a bitter lettuce before, it was probably under-fed or under-watered.
If you followed one of the processes of setting up your patch in week 1, you would have added some organic fertiliser to the soil before planting your seeds or seedlings. This will slowly release essential nutrients to the plants over the first four to six weeks or so, but after that, you will need to top that up with another application to keep your plants happy and healthy. Because vegetables are so hungry, they also benefit from regular applications of liquid fertiliser, particularly in their early establishment phase.
Liquid fertilisers are commonly sold as liquid or granular concentrates. These can be measured (according to manufacturer’s directions) and diluted with water in a watering can. The great benefit of using liquid fertilisers is that the diluted nutrients are in a form that can be easily absorbed by the plants, so you can see the benefits within hours of application.
There are lots of different liquid products available. Some have an organic nutritional base that can include fish emulsion, liquid compost and liquid blood and bone. Others provide nutrients in a purely synthetic form. Synthetic forms tend to have a more complete range of nutrients and in higher concentrates. Pure organic forms provide additional food for the soil microorganisms that help keep the soil in good health.
Seaweed extracts will also help your plants to thrive. They are relatively low in nutrients so they are not considered fertilisers. They are more like a plant tonic and contain organic compounds that encourage root development and strengthening of cell walls. This helps plants to become more resistant to extremes of heat and cold and can help them fight off pest and diseases.
Most liquid fertiliser products recommend an application once a fortnight. Plants at seedling stage will benefit from weekly applications of liquid fertiliser mixed at half the recommended rate – a little bit often is the trick. Start this routine after your seedlings have been in for a week or so. Pour the dilution gently on the soil and over the plants as well –some of the nutrients will be absorbed through the leaves. The best time to do this is in the morning, before the sun gets too hot. Mark regular days for liquid fertilising on your calender. It’ll pay off, because your plants will always have the nutrients they need so they will grow with incredible health and vigour.
Be aware! There may be other critters out there that love your seedlings as much you do, so keep an eye out for them.
The main enemies of seedlings are leaf eating snails and slugs. You may not see them through the day because they do most of their damage in the night, often devouring an entire planting of seedlings in one sitting. One of the most reliable methods of protecting your seedlings is with commercial pelletised snail baits. Be careful - some products can be harmful to pets and other animals, so be sure to only use products that are clearly labelled "pet safe". These are based on iron, which eventually breaks down to provide an additional source of nutrition for your plants.
If you live in a rural area or suburb close to bushland, you may have to contend with hungry animals like wallabies, possums and rabbits. The best way to keep these marauding invaders at bay is with a physical barrier. A simple fence around your patch made of a few tomato stakes and chicken wire may be enough to do the trick in the short term, but if the local wildlife poses an ongoing problem, then it’s worth considering something more substantial like a solid chain wire fence.
Vegetables have higher water needs than most plants. That’s because they are short lived and need to do a lot of growing in a short space of time. If vegies are not given the regular moisture they need, they don’t perform well and their flavour and texture will be poor. Similarly, most fruit trees need regular moisture, especially while fruit is forming, otherwise fruit may fall prematurely, fail to form properly or simply lack flavour and juice.
Water is precious, so it’s important that we take measures to use our water resources wisely in the garden, so that there’ll plenty about when times get dry. Here are a few water saving measures to keep in mind:
Install a water tank
Rainwater tanks make good sense. When you harvest rainwater from your roof, it reduces your reliance on town water and helps to secure an adequate personal supply for gardening in times of council water restrictions.
Many local, state and federal authorities offer generous rebates for installing water tanks, and when you add up the dollars, it can make installing a tank a reasonable and worthwhile investment.
When and how to water
The best times to water your plants are early morning or late afternoon. These cool times of the day allow the moisture to soak deep into the soil before the suns heat causes evaporation of moisture from the soil surface.
It’s important whenever you water, to keep the moisture off the foliage of plants to avoid potential sunburn and foliage disease.
Fine water spray from hose nozzles can easily be lost to the atmosphere, which is wasteful. It’s better to use a fitting that delivers a gentle flow of heavier droplets that won’t drift away in a breeze, and keep the nozzle close to the ground to direct the water to the roots where it’s needed.
Always give the soil a deep soaking. Shallow watering creates a shallow root system that’s susceptible to drying out quickly. Deep watering encourages deeper roots giving them the ability to access valuable moisture deep below the surface.
Mulching is essential in the water wise garden. A good cover of mulch over the soil surface can reduce evaporation by up to 70%, which means you save water and time and your plants are happier and healthier.
There are lots of different types of mulches to choose from. The best mulches for vegie gardens are straw, lucerne and sugar cane mulch. These types are light and easy to work and break down quickly adding addition humus to feed the soil and plants. Fruit trees benefit from these fast-to-break-down mulches too, but you can also use woodier mulches, which can be purchased in bulk to save money.
A drip irrigation system is the most efficient way to water your plants. This type of system delivers a gentle flow of water via a series of drippers and pipes, reduces the risk of wasting water through surface runoff and evaporation. It also allows you to give your plants a measured amount of water directly where you want it to go, and if you include an automatic timer in the system, the watering gets done whether you are there or not. Simple irrigation systems can be connected to a tap from the mains or your water tank. You don’t need to be a professional to install a drip irrigation system, because most components click together or connect with a simple joiner and clamp. Designing the system is where the real skill is needed. Draw a simple diagram of your garden, include some dimensions and take it to your local irrigation specialist. They should be happy to design a system for you and provide you with all the components you need.
Gardenate has a full month-by-month planting guide that covers all Australian climatic zones.