Edible gardening dates back to the dawn of time. Think back on your childhood and you will likely remember your mother, aunty or granny growing a few lettuces or tomatoes. Passion fruit vines, olive trees and stone fruit litter the garden of many a childhood memory - we are born to grow food. Our planet is the perfect growing medium for everything we eat.
Rice has been consumed since 13000BC in Korea. Going back to 9300, figs were cultivated in Jordan, and modern maize cultivars were experimented with as far back as 5000BC.
It’s incredibly fulfilling and worthwhile to grow one’s own food- not alone for the pleasure of watching one’s harvest mature, but for the health benefits that come with knowing what has gone into the soil…
How do I grow my own food?
The first step is to plan what you would like to grow. Start by deciding if you want to feed your family from the edible garden, or if you want to simply be able to snip some fresh herbs from your balcony once in a while. This will determine the scale of your project.
Next; research what crops grow well in your area. Johannesburgers will get a very small and pitiful banana yield should we decide to plant bananas here in the Lowveld- whereas we will do very well with citrus and stone fruit.
The next steps involve thinking about access to your garden, and its design. Will you plant veggies in containers, or design a bed or raised beds suited to growing your crops? A big factor is sunlight- any edibles need good sunlight to grow properly. The rule is that Roots and Fruits need full sun, whereas Leafy greens need shade. Simple right?
The age-old question - seed or seedling?
Root crops such as beetroots, carrots, kohlrabi and parsnips need to be sown via seed. Most green leafy vegetables and salad leaves are fast-growing and can be sown from seed. Direct sow for beans and peas and various squashes too.
Potatoes are best grown from seed potatoes, whilst garlic benefits from sown from properly prepared garlic cloves.
Other vegetables (peppers, chillis, tomatoes, corn, brassicas, melons, etc) are better sown as seedlings.
Herbs can be found as seeds or seedlings and the choice depends on whether you prefer instant gratification in the form of ready to pick, ready to use seedlings or rather to watch the growth process from start to finish and choose to sow seeds - which are available in mixed packets or individually by the varietals that you prefer to eat and cook with.
How do I prepare my soil?
Amending soil is key to growing the best plants possible; and when one is growing food, this becomes even more crucial. Bud development, nutrients being carried to all parts of the plant, vigorous growth, and a host of other factors all stem from the nutrient quality in the soil.
The simplest and best thing to do to any soil is first to check it’s structure.
If it is loose and sandy it won’t retain nutrients and water - and it needs to have decomposed manure, well-rotted compost and other organic materials added to it to make it more loam-like.
Soil that is clay-like will form a dense ball when a handful of it is squeezed. This soil will retain water, but too much of it, and it is not aerated enough to allow excess to flow through it.
Plants need a healthy medium between clay and sand - this ideal is called loam and is the best medium for plants.
Next; soil needs to have nutrients added to it to boost its 3 main micronutrients - potassium, phosphorous and nitrogen. Nitrogen promotes healthy vigorous leaf growth in plants. If your plants are stunted or stop growing leaves they need nitrogen. Phosphorous ensures root growth, as well as the development of flowers, buds and fruits. If you experience bud drop, poor fruit growth (small, insignificant fruits) or the lack of bud development, your plant is lacking phosphorous. Potassium is responsible for string growth, cell development and disease resistance in plants. Weak plants may be lacking potassium.
Add good quality fertilisers to your soil ahead of planting, work them in and allow them to integrate with the soil. Especially with organic additives, allow them to rot properly before adding plants. Fertilising is an ongoing way of ensuring that plants get the nutrients they need, so it will need to be done on a continuous basis to ensure good crops.
What is Foodscaping?
The term was coined to include the use of edibles in borders and traditional landscapes; instead of flowers, hedges and other more traditional components of landscaping, edibles are used in these garden spaces.
If you are thinking of growing your food, consider this because simple foodscaping opens many doors…
Meadow style flower-and-grass beds can be inter-planted with fennels, and asparagus, which looks like a mini-forest when it grows.
Low-lying lettuces, radishes, herbs and cabbages become ornamental as well as functional when inter-planted amongst flowers.
Edible borders are easily conjured using berry bushes and artichokes. Think of this method of planting when planning your edible garden. It may inspire you to plant in a completely different way to what you may have originally intended.
What are some other layout ideas?
Rows in the soil: If soil is in good condition, seeds or plants can be sown directly into the soil, straight into the garden beds.
Raised beds: These allow soil to be added in generous quantities to constructed boxes. This method is great for when your local soil is lacking in nutrients or is prone to weeds. Constructed boxes can also be made to fit particular spaces, and have the added benefit of being mobile.
Vertical gardening maximises space, especially with plants that take a lot of space if allowed to grow and expand normally. Vining plants can be trained along fences and strong trellises. Strong branches and bamboo can be used to build tee-pee style growing poles, up which vining plants can be trained. Squashes in particular take up a lot of space - but if trained up trellises the space lost is minimal.
I don’t have a conventional garden… what now?
Container gardening allows most household vessels to be transformed into planters. Old boots, old jars, tins, abandoned baths, old casks, wooden boxes, drums and barrels, troughs and vases can be used to house plants. Groupings of containers make eclectic and visually interesting planters can add a lot of interest to any space. Plus, containers, troughs, pots and planters can be placed on any surface and allow you to plant a garden and grow your own food even if you don’t have “garden” space or soil to plant directly into.
Balconies, rooftops, side alleys, stairways, bookcases - all these spaces can be transformed into place to grow plants. Bear in mind, growing food does require light, and if you do decide to go the indoor route, you will need as much light (artificial or natural) as possible.
The most important thing to remember with container gardening is that smaller vessels dry out quickly and need water retention processes in place and regular, if not daily, watering.
What food can I grow?
- This will hinge on what your family enjoys eating.
- What grows really well in your area?
- How much space do you have?
- How much time do you have to tend to a food garden?
- Do you want to provide simple salad ingredients on the odd occasion?
- Or do you wish to get dinner and most lunches out of your garden on a daily basis?
Make a list of the foods you wish to grow, and when they are in season. Purchase seeds or seedlings for these plants. Doing some research here will save you the headache of expecting tomatoes and eggplant to grow in winter when they are warm-season crops. Once this research is done and you feel organised - its time to head into the garden to get planting.
Getting your head around planting
Once you have wrapped your head around the fact that you are now creating a space for food - it all comes very easily from there. Your soil is perfect, your plants purchased - now all you need to do is consider spacing - and get planting. Don’t fear the process - just know everything is a learning curve.
The golden rule for seed sowing is succession planting. Every two to three weeks, sow another round of seeds. Sow fast-growing crops often (radishes shoot up!) and plant tall-growing plants so that they will shade lower growing plants which may need more sun protection. When the weather cools and growth is slow - it’s not considered cheating to pop in a few seedlings to ensure continuous supply (of your favourite lettuce, baby spinach, herbs - you name it)!
What can I grow going into winter?
Contrary to popular belief; Winter is a time when many cold weather-loving veggies and fruits flourish. Many of our citrus fruits hale from colder weather, as do onions, garlic, peas, various cooler-variety salad leaves, chards, asparagus and beans. The Brassica family is fond of colder days, and your cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, turnips and bok choy are all really at home in cooler soil. Carrots, given a bit of protection, can also be grown in winter, but they are a long term crop and should be sown in autumn to harvest in winter.
Forgive yourself for wanting the showy bright hues of heirloom tomatoes and fanciful eggplants - they are for summer gardens, and a winter/autumn garden can be as exhilarating. Think Bright lights chard, multicoloured carrots, deep blue winter squashes, deep magenta cabbages and watermelon radishes - your harvest is set to be bright indeed!
The range and diversity one can plant and grow doubles in spring and summer, so there really is something to look forward to year-round.
So when is the correct time to harvest edibles?
Edible herbs, flowers, fruit and vegetables all ripen at various, differing times. Lemons go bright yellow when ripe, blueberries become plump and a grey-blue colour, onions will tell you they are ripe when their usually-upright green stalks suddenly flop to the ground. Radishes and carrots pop their heads above the soil to announce their ripeness.
Become acquainted with the information that will serve you best in your garden. There are so many resources- but in general if herbs look good and if fruit feel ripe, they are ready to be used! Harvesting is better done before the heat of the day arrives, so pick produce in the mornings and then again after sunset.