A productive vegetable garden starts with good planning and preparation. That means finding the most suitable placement for your garden, choosing an appropriate construction method and creating a fertile soil so that your edible plants will thrive. Get these things right from the start and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying a bounty of home-grown produce.
Phil Dudman

5 Jul 2017 - 5:56 PM  UPDATED 6 Jul 2017 - 12:12 PM


Choosing your site

Sunshine It’s vital for growing good vegies. Find a spot that gets at least 6 hours of direct sun a day. Morning sun is best, with a little protection from afternoon sun. If you need to, you can protect crops from the midday and afternoon sun using shade cloth draped over a frame. It’s easy to do.

Protection from wind Strong winds can do a lot of physical damage to vegie plants and will quickly dry out the soil. Your plants will grow better in a spot that’s protected by a fence, hedge or building. Otherwise, you can make your own windbreak or plant a hedge of hardy shrubs.

Good drainage Waterlogged vegies never do well. They need air around their roots, or else they’ll rot and die. Avoid compacted and boggy areas in the garden and if your drainage needs improving, follow the steps below for preparing your soil.

Avoid competition Keep your patch away from big trees. Not only will they shade out your plants, their roots will quickly move in and rob your vegies of valuable moisture and nutrients.

Proximity to kitchen Don’t hide your vegie patch behind the shed where it will get neglected. Position it as close to the kitchen as possible, where you can keep an eye on plants that need attention and be inspired by the produce.


Designing your growing area

The size of your growing area depends on the available space you have and how much food you want to grow.

An area 15m x 5m will provide a family of four with a good supply of fresh vegetables throughout the year.

If you’ve never grown anything before, you might like to start small with a bed as little as 1.5m square and expand as you develop your skills.

The ideal width for individual growing beds is 1.2 - 1.5m. This allows comfortable access to the middle of the beds from both sides.

Pathways between beds should be wide enough to allow comfortable access with a wheelbarrow – a minimum of 80cm wide, or more if space allows.


Building your vegetable beds

There are two ways you can go – and both have their advantages:

The 'no dig’ method is easiest on the back, because it doesn’t require any digging. The process simply involves building up layers of organic materials on top of the soil surface – much like making a lasagne. The result is an incredibly rich medium for growing vegies. It’s a great way to go if you have a hard or impoverished soil and it drains better too, because it’s built above the natural soil level.

The 'digging’ method’ requires more energy, but fewer materials to get started. This usually makes it the most economical choice, but you still need to incorporate compost, manures and organic fertilisers to help create a rich soil for vegies.


How to build a no-dig garden

Step 1. Collect your materials
Some of the materials you’ll need may already be around the home - newspaper, cardboard, grass clippings, sappy green prunings, dried leaves, and kitchen scraps. Other things you may need to buy - straw, lucerne, animal manures, organic fertilisers like blood and bone, and compost.

Step 2. Prepare the area
Mow the area then measure and mark out the layout of your beds using sand, line-marking paint or a mattock.

Step 3. Install garden edges
It’s not completely necessary, but if your time and finances allow, install a solid edge for your garden beds. This will hold the growing medium in place and help to keep the surrounding turf out. If you’re handy with the tools, there are lots of different materials you can use to make your edges: recycled timber, old bricks, rocks or even sheets of unpainted corrugated iron. For something more instant, look into some of the easy-to-assemble modular kits and prefab corrugated iron beds available.

Step 4. Smother the grass
Soak the ground with water and then cover the area within the garden beds with sheets of newspaper, 6-7 sheets thick. Wet the newspaper in a big bucket of water first so it doesn’t blow away. Make sure you overlap the joins in the newspaper, so that there are no gaps for the grass to get through.

Step 5. Build your layers
Start bedding down your different materials in layers – lucerne, compost, grass clippings, kitchen scraps etc. wet each layer thoroughly, and every few layers, sprinkle a little blood and bone. Add as many layers as you like, in any combination and with whatever materials you have available. Build the bed up to at least knee high. Don’t worry if it’s above the level of your garden edge, it will settle down in time as the materials break down.

Step 6. Final layer
Once you’re done, cover the whole lot with a 15cm layer of straw, then leave it settle for two weeks or so before planting.

Step 7. Planting
Water the garden bed again, and create planting pockets in the mulch with your hands, pulling the mulch apart. Fill the pockets with compost and plant your seeds or seedlings into that.


How to build a veg patch by digging

Step 1. Mark out your growing area
Measure and mark out your entire growing using sand, line-marking paint or a mattock.

Step 2. Check soil moisture
Soil is easiest to dig when it is slightly moist. If yours is hard and dry, give it a soak the night before to make it easier. On the other hand, a saturated clay soils can be hard to dig too, so let it dry a little before you start turning it over.

Step 3. Get digging
Use a mattock to dig over the area to a spades depth (30cm). This can be made easier if you loosen the soil first with a garden fork, or if necessary, a crow bar. If the area is larger than 10m², consider hiring a rotary hoe – it’ll cost you about $100-$150 per day and save you a lot of time, not to mention your back! Some gardeners like to chip off the grass first, but there’s really no need to. Just dig it in and let it rot down in the soil – it’s a valuable source of organic matter.

Step 4. Enrich the soil
No matter what type of soil you have, sand, loam or clay, your vegies will grow better when you add soil improvers such as compost, animal manure (poultry, sheep, cow and horse) and organic fertiliser. You can collect manures from local farmers and make your own compost, or buy these as bagged products from garden centres. When you dig them in, they help the soil to hold moisture (important in sand) and open up clay soil so that it drains better.

Spread a thick layer of manure and compost over your growing area - whatever you can spare. Then sprinkle organic fertilisers such as blood and bone at the rate of one good handful per square metre, along with a tight fistful of sulphate of potash. Mix that all into the soil to a spade’s depth using your garden fork or rotary hoe.

Note: It’s important the any animal manure you use is well aged or it could burn your plants. If it’s fresh, leave it in a heap on the ground for a few weeks to settle.

Step 5. Test and correct your soil pHAt this stage, it’s a worth checking the pH of your soil. Soil pH is a measure of soil acidity or alkalinity and is recorded using a scale of 1-14. A pH value below 7 is acid (sour), anything above is alkaline (sweet). Most vegetables grow best when the pH is between 6 and 7 (neutral to slightly acid).  When the pH is right, plants thrive; when it’s not, they won’t grow as well. Testing your pH is easy. Most garden centres will be happy to do it for you – just take a sample in – or for a reasonable price, you can buy your own pH testing kit. If your pH is below 6, you can raise the level by incorporating ground limestone or dolomite lime (1 handful/m²). If it’s too high, lower the pH by digging in powdered sulphur at the rate of 200g/m².
Note: Correcting pH is an ongoing task, so test and make necessary adjustments annually.

Step 6. Shape beds
Divide the space into workable garden beds (see 'Designing your growing area’). When shaping the beds, mound the soil with a spade at least 20-30cm above the surrounding soil level to improve the drainage. Lay newspaper 6 sheets thick on the pathways between the beds and cover them with a 30-50mm layer of woody mulch such as pine bark. This will stop the grass growing and provide a good surface for pathways.

Step 7. Water and wait
Water the beds deeply and let the whole lot settle for a week or so. Should any bits of turf sprout up, dig them back in to deny them of light.

Step 8. Planting
Water the bed again before planting seeds or seedlings. Surround the young plants with a thin layer of straw or sugarcane mulch to help inhibit weed growth and retain soil moisture.


Potted produce

Container gardening offers a great way to grow your own if you’re short on space or on the move. It’s also a quick and easy way to get started on your growing journey -  just set up a few pots on a sunny deck or courtyard, fill them with growing medium and get growing!

Vegies are vigorous growers so big containers work best. Small plants like lettuce, pak choy and some herbs need something at least 20-25 cm deep, while robust vegies like tomatoes and climbing vegetables demand 30-40cm.

Don’t use regular garden soil for pots – it’s too heavy. Instead, make a 50/50 blend of potting mix and compost and add a few good handfuls of coir peat to help retain moisture. These are all available at your garden centre.

Don’t forget, vegies need regular feeding, especially in pots. A little sprinkle of an all-purpose organic fertiliser every four weeks will keep your potted plants kicking along.  Supplement this with a fortnightly dose of liquid fertiliser like fish emulsion mixed at the recommended rate on the label.

Looking for more space to grow your crops? Got some space you could share with others? Check out www.landshareaustralia.com.au, a website that connects growers with people who have land to share.