Grow your own food

Grow your own food
Would you like to eat fresh food that's good for you and the planet? Get into gardening in your own backyard.

Much of the food we eat has travelled hundreds, even thousands of kilometres to reach us. The carbon emissions from transport and refrigerated storage are a significant contributor to climate change.

Creating a food garden at home or in your local community is a simple and effective way to reduce your impact on the environment. It will also give you the experience of pleasure that comes from growing your own food - there's nothing like raiding your veggie patch for the night's dinner. You'll also enjoy the taste of pesticide-free and truly fresh food.

Growing your own food is good for you and great for the planet - and it can save you cash!

How to do it now!

Limited to balcony space? Or just have a small courtyard?Container gardening is the solution for you. Take a look at Gardening Australia’s Pots and Small Gardens Factsheets.

If you’ve got a bit of garden space, give these tips a go:

Select a sunny site in your own garden. Vegetables and fruit generally like six hours of sunshine a day, so you need to situate your produce area in a sunny spot. Some shade from the hot westerly sun is preferable. Remember that conditions change over the seasons (particularly the amount of shade cast by buildings and trees), so make sure you're aware of the conditions that prevail throughout the year.

Consider a border for your garden. This isn't always necessary, but it is required for a no-dig garden, where you have to build up the soil. Borders can be simply made with bricks, pavers, palings, sleepers, stones, branches or similar materials.

Add lots of organic material to your garden beds. Produce gardens are hungry gardens and require additional organic matter. Common materials include your home-grown compost or worm castings (See our Recycle organic waste action), chicken poo (that has been left to mature for several months), cow manure and mushroom compost. Add plenty of this material to the garden and leave it to settle for a few weeks before planting.

Set up your irrigation system. Watering your veggie patch or fruit trees is most efficiently done using drip systems that deliver water to the garden as single drops. Ideally this system would be fed from your water tank (See our Harvest and use your rainwater action), although using mains water to produce food is hardly a waste of water. Drip systems (and 'shrubblers') reduce evaporation because the water doesn't just mist into the air. Once the water enters the soil it soaks in both horizontally and vertically.

Select your seeds and companion plants. You can buy seeds at all local nurseries, but for the best quality go for organic and heirloom varieties. They ensure that the planet is looked after too. Some of the best seed suppliers are:

All of these suppliers also have calendars to tell you when to sow your vegetables and fruits, as the seasons are different in each different climate area.

When buying your seeds remember that diversity is the key to a healthy garden (and planet). Try planting several vegetable and fruit crops, and interplanting them with lots of beneficial herbs and flowering plants. The following sites have more information on companion planting:

Sow your seeds. You can often sow seeds directly into your garden - just follow the instructions on the back of the packet. However, it can be smarter to sow seeds in a seed bed first. You don't need much space at all; a polystyrene box picked up from a fruit-and-veg shop is ideal. Place some seed-raising mix in the container and level it off. Water well, then scatter the seeds finely, press down and follow with a light application of seed-raising mix. Some people like to use a strainer for this, as it's important to cover the seed by only twice its diameter size.

Keep the tray in a warm (but not too sunny) spot. In winter you might like to cover it with some plastic for warmth; alternatively, in summer, some shade cloth will offer protection from the sun. Remember to keep a note of what you planted.

Transplant. It's amazing how many seeds can germinate and they can quickly become over crowded. After the second pair of leaves emerge, transplant the healthiest looking ones. At this stage the roots are very small and transplanting is relatively simple. Just remember always to hold the plant by the leaves, and not the roots. Place seedlings in small pots filled with nutrient-rich soil (sand and compost is a good mixture) as the plants will have used up their nutrients. Old toilet rolls or plastic milk containers (cut in half with both ends cut off) work really well as pots. Place the pots in a warm and sunny spot and leave them until they're around 15cm high. They are then ready to be planted directly into their growing beds.

Transplanting at this stage is also easy if you've followed our method. You can place the plants directly in the garden, still in their pots. Simply dig a hole twice as wide and as deep as the container and place it in the garden. If you have used the plastic milk containers you can slide them off easily. It's best to slide it up a bit and leave it as a guard for a few days. The toilet roll can stay in place, as it will soon decompose in the garden.

Give the plants a good soak and an application of Seasol, or another fish emulsion. These emulsions are excellent for building strength in roots and can limit any transplant shock.

Mulch your Patch. Pea straw and lucerne are good choices for the fruit and vegetable patch.

Maintenance. Check out your garden regularly. Look for signs of insect damage or disease and apply some natural home-made remedies.

  • Regular application of composts, manures and tea. In a produce garden it's important to feed your soil regularly; after all, it's feeding your plants. You can do this by topping up with compost and manures at the end of a growing season. In winter, liquid fertilisers are often preferable, as they allow the plants to take up the nutrients more quickly. Liquid fertilisers are easy to make using your own compost tea or weed tea. To make a brew, put a couple of handfuls of compost in a bucket, and let settle for while. Then strain the liquid into a bucket or watering can. Dilute the liquid with one part of your mix to four parts of water. Pour it over the leafy green vegetables and the soil and watch them grow!
  • Pest control. In an organic garden the way to manage pests is not to reach for the nearest bottle of chemicals, but instead to ensure we provide the right conditions for raising healthy plants that are disease resistant. The following steps listed here should assist this. Lots of organic matter, moisture and diversity are the keys to a healthy garden. However, if you do find that you have trouble with pests, try this recipe for an all-purpose organic pesticide: In a jar, combine 1 teaspoon dishwashing liquid and 1 cup vegetable oil. Shake vigorously. In an empty spray bottle, combine 2 teaspoons of this mixture and 1 cup water. Use at 10-day intervals (or more often if needed) to rid plants of whiteflies, mites, aphids, scales and other pests.
  • Companion planting. This is a way of working with nature to promote beneficial conditions for your plants. Some plants repel 'bad bugs' and some attract good bugs to eat. See the Sustainable Gardening Australia website for lots of great ideas about companion planting.
  • Biological control. Control of pests is also assisted by attracting birds, lizards, spiders and frogs to your garden. Chemical sprays actually harm these creatures, leaving your garden more likely to be attacked by the insects you were trying to get rid of in the first place.

Join a gardening group for advice, tips and companionship. There are lots of other people interested in promoting organic gardening, permaculture and biodynamic methods. It's always great to have someone to talk to, learn from and teach, so hook up with like-minded gardeners to swap tips.

No garden? Try the community. You don't have space in your own backyard? Link up with other like-minded people and grow your own food in your local community garden. For your nearest garden check out the Australian Community Foods site.

There isn't a local one? Why not think about starting your own. Click below for a commentary on starting a neighbourhood garden from the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network.

Why is this action important?

By planting your own veggie garden - especially an organic one - you will help to reduce the demands put on our land by commercial agriculture. You will also reduce the energy used to put food on your plate (currently, 25-30 per cent of all greenhouse gases produced are the result of agricultural production), help keep our waterways healthy and clean by reducing the demand for water to irrigate and reducing the chemical load entering our waterways from fertilisers and pesticides. As well you will help keep our soil healthy by minimising biomass depletion. We need to reconsider what we eat and how it is produced. We need alternatives, and creating a produce garden is a great way to minimise your impact on the planet.