Build A Garden

When I think of a suburban vegetable garden, I immediately think of a rectangle of land in the back yard. In my imagination it is a separate, utilitarian area that sacrifices aesthetics for practicality. It provides a lot of benefits through fresh, healthy food and reducing the family’s carbon footprint, but at the cost of a play space and relaxation area.

It has taken us over a year, but we’ve finally finished building the garden beds for our home. Our block is 632 square metres, and the vegetable garden takes up just over 100 square metres in addition to the fruit trees in the lawn. Instead of being that dedicated rectangle behind the house, our garden has become a key design element, something that enhances the available space.

We’ve been able to spread the vegetable garden out over the block because the house is positioned so that garden beds can wrap around it. There is a deep bed against the front wall in the north, beds along the fence in the east, and a series of beds in the west. On the south side the garden beds run along the fence where they aren’t shaded from the sun.

Our garden is an interesting space to move through. When we started I was worried that we would be removing most of the children’s play area. I always believed that children need large open spaces to run around and ride bikes. It turns out that if we leave the paths wide enough they can still do those things. Thanks to the wildlife attracted to our garden, they can also chase butterflies, hunt caterpillars, or watch bees collect pollen. Adults are also drawn to our garden, and almost everyone who visits for the first time comments on our use of space.

Vegetable garden growing corn and squash in a narrow passageway.The area that I am most pleased with is the narrow strip of land between the house and the eastern fence. In most homes this would be an unusable part of the garden, overgrown and considered too small to do anything with. It gets a lot of shade, and several people told me that it would be impossible to get anything to grow out there. It’s currently planted with corn and squash, all of which are doing well.

By having so much space available for food crops, we can potentially become self sufficient for certain types of vegetables. Growing everything that we need would completely eliminate our food miles for those vegetables. This aspiration is very much a work in progress, but we’re hopeful that we can learn how to make it work.

If you’re playing along at home…

… do you have a space where you could tuck a vegetable garden? Please share in the comments below the best or smallest places at your home that you’ve found for growing your own food.

Germinating In The Greenhouse

In a sunny spot on our deck we have a small greenhouse. It takes up less than two square metres of space and is probably the best investment that we’ve made in our garden so far. We use it to grow most of our vegetables from seed, and the benefits are enormous:Greenhouse with seedlings

  • Food miles were a major area that needed improvement according to our carbon estimate, comprising almost half of our family’s emissions. A packet with hundreds of seeds weighs less than a single seedling in a nursery and considerably less than the final vegetable in the supermarket, so the energy required transporting them is drastically reduced.
  • Seeds planted in our greenhouse germinate much faster than they do in the garden. We recently tried to plant some zucchini outside the greenhouse, and after three weeks I assumed they had failed so I tried again inside the greenhouse. Our greenhouse seedlings were all growing strong before the first of the outside ones appeared.
  • Seedlings started in the greenhouse are protected from many more predators than ones out in the garden. Birds, snails and caterpillars don’t snack on my tender baby plants when they can’t get to them.
  • We can prolong the growing season for our vegetables by germinating them in the greenhouse where they are protected from frosts in early spring and we can keep the soil a bit warmer in early autumn. Last year we were able to get two pumpkin crops with early and late germination, and we didn’t need to buy pumpkins from the supermarket for almost six months.
  • Have you ever tried to grow a new plant, only to realise that you can’t tell the difference between the seedling and weeds? We don’t have a weed problem in the greenhouse, which has saved a lot of our vegetables from untimely deaths.
  • Because seedlings are so small and we are making use of vertical space in the greenhouse, we can literally germinate enough seedlings to completely fill our vegetable garden. We started germinating the lettuce to replace our broad beans before we finished harvesting them. Overlapping growing times like this means that we can sometimes get an additional crop from our garden each year. If we want to start growing something, but there isn’t room in the garden, then we just move it into a bigger pot so that it can keep growing until we’re ready to plant it outside.
  • You can get much more variety when you start with seeds than you can find in a nursery or supermarket. Our seed collection now has over 150 varieties of herbs and vegetables. We’re currently growing red spring onions, purple broccoli and multi-coloured corn.
  • Growing vegetables from seed has mentally completed the life cycle of plants for the children. They can put the seeds in the dirt and watch how they sprout, grow, fruit and then get turned into compost that feeds the next generation of plants.
  • If a packet of 75 seeds costs less than a single seedling, I don’t care much if I accidentally murder half of them.

Despite all of those advantages, the biggest one by far is financial. It doesn’t matter how much a vegetable or herb costs in the supermarket, because if I can pick up a packet of seeds for under $5 and grow kilos of food from them then we’re winning. A packet of seeds can last for years, which reduces the annual cost even further. This year I spent less than $150 on seeds, which will completely fill our garden and leave a lot left over for next year. To put that in perspective, that’s the same as our weekly budget for fresh fruit and vegetables. If we do as well this year as we did last year, we’ll get half of our meals from our garden.

Most of the materials that we use in our greenhouse are reused. I’ve got a large collection of punnets, seed trays and pots that have been donated by other people after they’ve gone shopping for plants. To keep everything moist and cut down on how much I need to water the seedlings, I put my pots and punnets into the plastic trays we get with meat from the supermarket. For the large seed trays, which don’t fit into the meat trays, I put one inside the other and use a plastic bag as a liner to hold the water.

Setting everything up for a season takes me an afternoon with the kids or an hour by myself, plus an hour going through my seeds and deciding what I want to buy for the coming year. Germinating our plants has quickly become quality time for the family, and we get much more out of it than I ever expected when we started.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a sunny, sheltered spot where you could grow a few plants from seed? If you’ve tried this and have a few recommendations, please share them in the comments below.