Last week we discussed winter vegetables. If you missed it CLICK HERE.
This week we take a look at ‘where to place your veggie garden’ for best results. You may have no choice about where to locate your veggie patch, but if you do, here’s a bunch of considerations. More than likely, it will be a matter of using what you have, and being aware of the pitfalls. Don’t overthink it, the placement is unlikely to be perfect!
Want to be self sufficient in veggies?
The common plans for the Victory Gardens of the second world war were 200m² for families of 5 with excess for neighbours and people doing it tough.
An old garden planning rule of thumb is 30m² per person.
According to research by the Diggers Club Australia, if you use only high yielding varieties and plant intensively (and know what you’re doing), a family of 3 can be fed in 42m² (3 x 1.4m x 10m beds).
100m² to feed an adult all year round leaves no excuses!
You probably don’t want to start off that large. When in doubt, start (much!) smaller rather than larger and grow easy things you really like eating. The success will be encouraging. Take on too much and it’s all likely to fail. You can always expand the garden later when you have some experience.
Vegetables will not grow in the shade. Just in case that needs to be pointed out. They need direct sun for at least 6 – 8 hours a day. That’s easier to achieve in summer than winter, when the days are longer. My garden doesn’t get that amount of direct sunlight in winter as it’s shaded in the afternoon by the house. So in summer I can grow anything I want but in winter I can only grow the leafy vegetables which need just 3 – 4 hours of direct sunlight a day.
The ideal placement for growing is on a gentle slope that faces north to maximise the sun on every plant. But you probably have trees and your house throwing shadows throughout the day. Where these shadows land will vary between summer and winter. Take the time to observe the patches of sun and shade at different times of the day.
Hot tip: plant stacking can be your friend. Just like taking a class photo so everyone can be seen, place the smallest plants to the north (sun side) and the taller ones to the south so everyone can see the sun. This is really useful if you want to grow bushes (blueberries) and fruit trees as well as a vege garden in the same small space.
If you have nutgrass, I am so sorry.
The way to deal with nutgrass is to move house.
You don’t really want to be placing your vege garden in the ground in the middle of persistent competitive weeds. Oxalis, wandering jew, and couch grass are a pain in the behind. You can get rid of them, and others, but you probably have more important things to be doing with your life.
Proximity to house
Having to take a walk all the way to the back fence probably won’t happen as often as it should. Make life easy, keep the productive garden close to where you have to go past every day. It really helps.
Access to water
How will you water your garden? Can you easily get water to it? Manual watering is time consuming and gets tedious pretty quickly.
There aren’t many vegetables that like wet feet, the gardening term for soil that stays wet because it doesn’t drain. They just end up rotting. In our climate where we get flooding rains, your vege garden needs to allow excess water to drain away. Where does the water pool; where are the boggy areas in your yard? Avoid these. A slight slope is your friend, or raised vege beds. FYI, the mint family, lemongrass & citronella, and a frog pond are a good use for bogs.
All I am going to say is that pushing a laden wheelbarrow uphill gets old REALLY quickly. Your knees will hate you and rebel. Maybe it will be your ankles or your lower back. Don’t inflict this on yourself. It’s not worth it.
A small amount of slope in your garden is actually good! Especially in this climate. Stagnant air is just as unhealthy as stagnant water. We are all too familiar with Bellingen’s intense humidity in summer. A little bit of air movement (colder air slides downhill, warm air rises) or a little bit of wind is good to move the humidity which causes funguses and moulds which kill plants.
While some air movement and wind is good, no one likes being blown to bits. The change of season winds at Autumn and Spring can be ferocious. They will knock flowers off plants that are needed for fruiting, break leaves and stems and generally put your plants through a few too many rounds of the boxing ring. They will need plant hospital and ICU afterwards. If this is your garden, make a windbreak. Plant a hedge or put up a shadecloth fence to give some protection. The wind needs to be able to flow though, you are only trying to slow it down. Stopping it with a hard barrier creates a turbulence that can be even worse. Wind break rule of thumb; distance protected equals height of wind break x 10. It doesn’t have to be right up against the plants you are trying to protect.
Frost & mist
Cold air. Do you know where it travels and collect in your garden? Where does the mist line hang (it’s elevated)? Where is the frost line in your area (down in gullies)? Being attentive to the microclimates on your property means you can successfully grow, for example, bananas in Dorrigo that should be impossible. It means that you know where to put the plants that must be frost free or they will die, and the plants that like cold air.
Cold air will sit on hilltops and also slide downhill, roll around large obstacles like a house, and settle in depressions in the land. Immediately downhill of a house will be protected from cold air because the cold air doesn’t navigate around things really tightly. It flows like thick honey.
Frost only settles on open ground, and not the ground under trees or shadecloth covers or immediately downhill of a large obstacle like a house. Put your frost tender plants in these areas.
A brick wall up against your vege patch may radiate lovely warmth in winter and deadly frying heat in summer.
Out on property, kangaroos & possums will massacre any new growth you have nurtured. They’re hungry, it’s easy pickings. You may well have to cage the entire food garden, including a roof. The walk-in polytunnel idea works well, with chicken wire instead of plastic. Or a really high fence that kangaroos can’t bound over, with a floppy top so possums are put off climbing.
Or you may just need something to keep the garden plants safe from pets & kids running and digging inappropriately.
And chickens. Whatever you do, keep the chickens out of your food garden. They are destructive little bleeeeps. They can decimate a garden in ten minutes flat.
Some of the protections your garden needs are from other plants not animals. No, not just weeds. Gumtrees and bamboo. Both of these are thirsty plants and have massive root systems that will thoroughly enjoy the reliable water and fertiliser intended for your food plants. They will outcompete the veges who almost all have very shallow and few roots in comparison. To give you an idea, the feeding roots of gums and bamboo will extend the same distance as if the height of the plant were laid down on the ground. Maybe a bit less, but you get the point. If you cannot get away from these, a raised bed instead of an in-ground bed will be the way to go if you want to grow veg.
This usually isn’t a big concern for a backyard vege patch. For professional farmers, spray drift from neighbouring properties or the previous use of the land may be things to consider. The main point for a home food garden is that placing it right next to a well trafficked road is not ideal due to the toxins in vehicle exhaust that land on the veg and soil.
Bellingen actually has decent soil. Generally speaking, it’s classed as ‘moderately fertile’. It’s better than Coffs Harbour but nowhere as good as some of the soils up on the plateau. Some of the lovely soil from up there has washed off the mountain so you can smile if you’re directly underneath the escarpment (Thora valley or Promised Land).
How good it is on your property will vary. On ridge tops the soil tends to be washed off and what’s left is thin. The mid slopes are ok and the gullies catch it all (as well as stinking humidity).
Have a dig and see how far down you have to go until the soil changes. The topsoil layer should be at least the depth of vegetable plant roots. That’s only 6 – 8 inches or 15 – 20cm. Any less than this isn’t deep enough.
Soil can always be built up or improved with time and effort. To start, get a garden fork in the ground. All the way in. Don’t turn the soil over, just wiggle it around for aeration. If this is impossible, you have a problem!
In-ground or Install-a-gardenTM
The quickest cheapest way to get started is to -shock horror- have your food garden in the ground with the soil you have. Rip off the grass, fork the beds and you’re off. Any extra compost or manure is a welcome bonus.
The expensive way to go because everything has to be bought in, is to Install-a-garden™ a-la Gardening Australia. In its defence, raised container beds do have notable advantages.
- They are usually a good size for beginners to start with
- They can be plonked on top of most weeds (with a thick layer of newspaper inbetween) and are good to go. Except if you have nutgrass. That stuff will grow through pool liners so coming up through your soft raised bed soil is a doddle.
- You don’t need to worry about keeping encroaching grass at bay
- They have excellent water drainage
- They can be quite easy to secure against animals
- Being raised means that thirsty gumtrees and bamboo aren’t a problem
- You can buy excellent soil and get going.
Just a note of caution though. If you are buying in soil, make sure it is free of nutgrass, ok? I’ve seen way too many beds ruined with bought in soil or cold compost that ends up infested and unusable. Hot compost is good, as all weeds are killed.
While we’re on the topic of terrible weeds. If you have a super-pain-in-the-bum weed that you’ve dug out, especially those ones that grow by runners or bulbs, please, RED BIN. The green bin gets used to make mulch that is spread all over the shire. Spare us all!
Regardless of your choice, you will need to be able to move around your food garden… with a wheelbarrow. Leave enough space in between beds to wheel your barrow about easily.
Make your beds narrow enough that all parts can be reached without stepping on the soil and compacting it. When I say reach, I don’t mean with stretching and bracing but reaching comfortably with a trowel in one hand and a plant in the other, or reaching to pick off pests from every plant from every angle.
You are almost guaranteed to not have the perfect positioning for your food garden, but don’t let that stop you. Knowing the downsides of your garden is important to work with.