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Feeding a family from a veggie patch

Tips from the pros on growing the veggies your family needs in your backyard. 

7 June 2016
6 minute read

family veggie patch

Many people are exploring the idea of “urban farming” – a fancy term for having your own vegetable garden at home. The growth in the popularity of the veggie patch has a lot to do with the fact that people are trying to save money on food. At the same time, they are looking for quality fresh vegetables that haven’t been sprayed with pesticides or picked before they are ripe and full of nutrients. But is it possible to get all your family’s vegetables from an urban veggie patch? We spoke to urban farmer Darron Hindman to find out.

“It is possible to produce enough vegetables for a family’s needs from an urban vegetable garden, but it usually takes someone with experience and a budget to produce high-yield crops all year around,” he says.

While you might not have the green fingers or the money to launch a full-scale organic agricultural operation in your back yard, if you use the same processes as an expert like Darron, you’ll certainly be able to grow some of your family’s vegetables at home. And the more time and effort – and money – that you invest in your garden, the more vegetables you’ll manage to produce. These are the processes used by real urban farmers:

Start with your soil Your plants will get their nutrients from the soil that they grow in – so it’s vitally important that you get your soil right before you start. If you have the budget for it, you can send a soil sample away for analysis so that you can find out exactly what additives you need to create a perfect growing bed.

Fertilising is essential, and is an ongoing activity. You can’t just put a bag of compost in your veggie patch and think that you’ve ticked that box forever. Identify a local source of natural or organic compost for the best results. Or you can start an earthworm farm .

If you are in a big city, your soil will probably have absorbed pollutants over the years, so if you don’t want those to make their way into the vegetables you are planning to eat, then create vegetable beds in containers, and buy your soil from a reputable supplier.

Consider the space you’ll be using Does your garden have sufficient sunlight? As a rule, plants that bear fruit or have roots need full sun, whereas plants with edible leaves can tolerate a fair bit of shade. Look for the area that is most suited to the type of vegetable you want to grow and set your beds up there.

If you are serious about feeding your family from your garden, you might want to consider creating a polytunnel, in which polyethelene sheeting is stretched over a frame. This works as a greenhouse, keeping the temperature more constant and warmer and preventing rapid evaporation of water. Vegetables grow much faster in a polytunnel.

If you have limited space and would still like to grow vegetables, consider vertical planting – purchase stackable pots or containers and plant a wall of edible greenery. Remember to check where the sun shines on this structure and to plant the right plants for the environment.

Ensure water consistency You can’t just water vegetables once or twice a week and have them flourish. Depending on the rainfall of the region you are in, you might have to water as often as every second day – and make sure that the soil is always moist. This can be particularly tricky in regions affected by the drought and resulting water restrictions.

Plant consecutively Consecutive planting involves staggering the times that you plant your seedlings so that you don’t have a bumper crop of one type of vegetable ready for harvest at one time. Most vegetables have a four-to-eight week window period in which they can be planted, so planting a few each week will mean that you get a staggered harvest.

Plant in combination By planting a variety of vegetables, you protect your patch from pests that eat only one kind of plant and destroy your whole crop. For the same reason, it’s also a good idea to rotate crops, rather than planting the same vegetables year after year.

There are also plants that help other plants to grow. Marigolds attract beneficial bugs and repel bad bugs – and you can eat the flowers too. Plant them everywhere. Nettles and comfrey are a great addition to your compost because they contain high levels or nutrients, and the sting of nettles can keep small animals away from your crop. Plant spring onions and onions among all your beds, because bugs don’t like them. They form a particularly effective barrier to keep bugs from underground vegetables like carrots or turnips.

Use organic pesticides Lovely fresh vegetables will delight more creatures than just your family. Instead of resorting to chemical pesticides, you can research the best organic products available in your area or use natural products that you prepare yourself. For instance, a canola oil spray is a big deterrent for harmful bugs. Remember that you have to be vigilant and reapply the products repeatedly to keep the bugs at bay.

Accept that you’ll eat seasonally Summer is a time of vegetable abundance, but there are slimmer pickings in winter. If you are trying to eat from your garden all year round, you’ll have to accept that you will eat vegetables like cabbage, onion, spinach and carrots through the winter, and enjoy a wider range of crops in the warmer months.

You can also preserve, freeze or pickle your summer vegetables when you have an over-supply, and use those to introduce some variety to your diet in winter.

Be patient and willing to learn and work hardVegetables take their time, and getting the right mix of water, light and nutrients can be tricky. If a crop didn’t work out the first time, it’s probably not the vegetable’s fault. Try to work out what you can change or improve for the next crop or season. And if you really aren’t having any success or would like to learn more, do a course.

There are also great online resources, including the Old Farmer’s Almanac , Bonnie Plants and The Rodale Institute , that you can visit to learn more about specific vegetables and growing conditions. Obviously, you’ll have to make adjustments for the different seasons in the Northern Hemisphere – but the information is extremely relevant and useful.

How families get their fresh vegetables “I live in a complex so I don’t have much room to grow my own vegetables, but a group of us each grow something in our back garden and swap. One friend grows basil, which I use to make pesto, and then I swap it with another woman who has loads of tomatoes.” – Sarah

“I live in an apartment, so I order a weekly organic vegetable box. Because the contents are so varied and random, it makes planning a little difficult, so I mostly end up making bulk vegetable soups, curries or roasts – otherwise things go to waste.” – Barbara

“I grow some of my own and supplement with a visit to a local farmer’s market once a week – where vegetables are much cheaper than they are in the shops. I buy them on the weekend and then spend Sunday cooking up various dishes for the week, so that I don’t give up when I’m tired after work.” – Abigail

“I always end up with a bumper crop of one thing at a time – more than my family could possibly eat in one setting. So I make sauces and lasagne and pickles and relishes to stock my freezer and pantry for using out of season.” – Brian

“In previous years, I have managed to supply my family’s vegetables mostly from our vegetable garden. But this year with the drought, it’s been hard to get a substantial crop.” – Beth

Get growing!Urban farming is hard work, but if you can get it right, you will be rewarded with delicious, nutrient-rich, homegrown vegetables. Whether you just grow a couple of lettuces and herbs on your apartment balcony or opt for a full-scale agricultural production in your back garden, it’s good for your health – and your soul – to be growing your own food. Happy planting!

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