Ever since my first excited post in 2013, I’ve loved pottering around in my vegetable garden. In fact, it’s one of the things that’s making me saddest about leaving our Joburg house. With the help of my friend Chippi, we’ve poured so much love into that little patch of soil, and I’ve learned quite a bit on the way.
As we head into Spring, I thought I’d ask Chippi to give you some tips on gardening in small spaces, although most of these tips could apply to any sort of gardening. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a flat or a small home, as long as there is some outside light and a bit of space for a few pots, you can soon have herbs and other delicious greens on your table that you’ve grown yourself.
Here are Chippi’s top 10 tips:
1. Know your Sun
Any vegetable or herb will need at least six hours of sunlight a day in order to grow. This is not a ‘kind-of-6-hours-lets see-how-they-do’ sort of thing. This is the amount of sun a plant will need for photosynthesis to produce the food that plant will need for growth. So find the sunniest part of your garden and position your plants there.
2. Know your Soil
This is a lesson I’ve learnt time and time again. The biggest issue is knowing your soil types – there are 3 kinds:
Clayey: makes a hard ball in your hand after light manipulation. Normally brown-red in colour and quite heavy. Plants will not thrive in this as the soil can become waterlogged and roots won’t be able to grow freely.
Sandy: slides through hands easily after manipulation. Light brown in colour without signs of leaf mold or composting materials. Again, plants will not thrive. Moisture is lost easily and nutrients aren’t well retained.
Loamy: makes a ball that holds shape but then crumbles, is dark in colour, with visible signs or composting material. This is what you want!
Planting in pots means that plants don’t have access to the greater web of general soil nutrients, so their soil needs to be replenished frequently. A three monthly feed of a Liquid Organic Feed (any Kelp-based supplement) should be perfect.
Every year you will need to take out a plant, trim the roots and re-pot in fresh soil. With veggies, this is easy as they are seldom perennials and you can therefore follow the rule – as one plant is harvested, repot a new plant with a few handfuls of fresh soil.
3. Know your Space
This is very important if you’re in a flat or small home and want to save garden space for children or animals. I would advise against growing a larger variety of plants and rather go for those that will allow you to cross certain things off your shopping list. There is no point in having 1 tomato, 1 brinjal and 1 pepper plant. Rather have a whole crop of tomatoes for example.
Any one recipe may require 3 different herbs (which cost around R20 each from a local supermarket). You may not use all of what you buy, and the next recipe you cook two days later may need 3 totally different herbs. And so the waste continues. Herbs (except basil, parsley, coriander, chervil) are perennial. If you plant them and look after them, you’ll have a continuous stream of rosemary roasted lamb, burnt sage sauce, thyme and tarragon chicken, and dilley trout.
Some vegetables have incredibly slow growth while others can be harvested within 30 days of a seed germinating. A cabbage will take up to 3 months for it’s ‘head’ to mature – is it worth taking up a whole pot of soil for 3 months for 1 dish? Rather plant those that have vigorous, constant growth like salad leaves, kale, baby spinach etc.
4. Know your Water
Water mobilises soil nutrients and makes them available for absorption. A shallow water is fine for plants that have shallow roots, but it will make plants with larger roots ‘lazy’ and the roots will not grow as they should. A deeper water (i.e watering for longer) less frequently is far more beneficial to plant growth than watering little and often.
Bear in mind that some plants are very thirsty (basil/parsley/spinach) while others thrive when left alone for longer (thyme/sage/rosemary). It’s a good idea to know which of your plants require more water than others and group them accordingly.
Again – think about what you use the most often and what you’ll get the most joy out of. The idea of trying out celeriac mash or kohlrabi slaw is lovely – but if you don’t like the taste the whole experience won’t be as enjoyable. Plant chilies and herbs, rocket and watercress, chives and spring onions, and perhaps a few pots of edible flowers that not only attract beneficial bugs but also add some lovely dashes of colour.
6. Know your Root Depth
The size, length and spread of roots vary greatly from one vegetable to another. If you understand which vegetables have a long tap type of root (spinach) and those that have a shallower spread (lettuce), vegetable varieties can happily be planted together without the two roots competing for space and nutrients.
7. Know your Seasons
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a continuous supply of strawberries? Yes it would but plants are seasonal things. If you’re growing your own, you’ll need to adhere to the rules of Mother Nature (it makes cooking far more interesting at the same time!).
8. Know your Pests
Whether it’s a white fly, mildew or a slug infestation, losing a plant to a pest is preventative if the right steps have been taken. Organic gardening operates on prevention and not cure (regular spraying is essential to a healthy crop). There are various commercially produced organic insecticides and fungicides but you can also produce your own! A concoction of garlic, chilli and canola oil works wonders on insects such as aphids. It’s important to treat your crops consistently – even when they are looking their best. A sudden influx of aphids can wipe out an untreated crop of kale in a week if you aren’t careful.
With most veg and herb plants, the more you harvest, the more they will grow. If a spinach plant feels it’s under threat, it will work harder to survive the onslaught. But having said that, it’s important to take care when harvesting so that the main plant isn’t put under too much stress. Do not pull beans and peas from the vine – you may break the stem. And when harvesting any leafy vegetable, cut the leaf right down to the stem.
10. Know your Budget
Plan how much you would like to spend and use the majority of that budget on bigger sized pots, good potting soil, organic fertilizers and organic pest deterrents. It may sound counter-intuitive not to spend your main budget on actual plants, but if you nurture a healthy rosemary plant, you’ll never have to spend another cent on that herb. If you grow big luscious tomatoes, you’ll be able to harvest seeds and never spend another cent on seedlings.
As you can see, the lady knows her stuff! If you live in Joburg and want to start growing your own (but need a little help getting set up), get in touch with Chippi from How Splendid (website under construction). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.