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Top tips for homegrown food

ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot

portait of Carolyn Herriot

• Seed selection: To answer the question “What shall I grow?” ask yourself what you and your family most like to eat. It also makes sense to grow food that costs more to buy, especially when gardening space is an issue. Select varieties that will mature and produce in your garden’s microclimate.

Soil: Most vegetables grow best in full sun in well-drained fertile soil (pH 6-7.5). Any site receiving seven to 11 hours of sun a day would work. Adding organic matter builds humus in the soil, which increases its ability to hold nutrients and moisture.

Practise the four secrets of successful soil building by digging in compost, manure, leaves and seaweed. Make great compost using layers of leaves, weeds (no seeds), herbaceous clippings, manure (can be fresh), grass clippings, spoiled hay, seaweed, sawdust, comfrey, nettles and horsetail.

Fertilizers: Slow-release, natural-source fertilizers nourish the teaming microscopic soil life that makes nutrients available to plants.

Make your own fertilizer blend by mixing:

  • 4 parts by volume organic seed meal (N)
  • 1part dolomite lime (pH)
  • 1 part rock phosphate (P)
  • ½ part kelp meal (K)

Companion planting: Diversity is the key to maintaining health and balance in the garden. Communities of plants work together to keep bugs at bay, attract pollinators and improve plant growth. Plant small fruits and flowers and herbs around your food garden.

Crop rotations: When the same species of plant is grown in the same place year after year, it’s a question of time before problems arise. Moving plants around breaks the life cycle of common pests and diseases because the host plant is no longer present for them to feed on.

Pest prevention: Sticky traps can be used as a monitor or a cure for potential problems in the greenhouse and garden. Tip: To make your own, cover bright yellow squares of cardboard with Tanglefoot. Deer, rabbits, birds and raccoons can play havoc in food gardens – try netting and physical barriers to prevent this; large dogs also work wonders!

Seeding: March/April used to be planting months, but now we often wait until June before conditions settle. If you don’t have a greenhouse, improvise using recycled wood and glass windows as cold frames or construct plastic hoop houses for protection. Container gardening works well in poor summers for many heat-loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers, eggplant and basil.

Weed control: Spring is the best time to weed when the soil is still moist. Set up a regular date with weeds, roaming around the garden and pulling them up, especially invasive, deep-rooted plants such as buttercup and dandelion. Tip: Chickweed is delicious steamed.

Saving seeds: If you want to save seeds, sow open-pollinated varieties that haven’t had their genetic makeup changed by hybridization or genetic modification. Plants adapt to cultural conditions, therefore, organic seeds grow best for organic gardeners and regional seeds have an edge over seeds grown in other climates.

Winter gardening: Why leave beds empty from October to April when there are so many food plants that can be harvested throughout winter? Tip: Purchase winter garden seeds in spring to ensure you have the seeds to sow winter food in summer.

Carolyn Herriot is author of The Zero Mile Diet: A Year-round Guide to Growing Organic Food and a companion book, The Zero-Mile Diet Cookbook: Seasonal Recipes for Delicious Homegrown Food (Harbour). She grows Seeds of Victoria at The Garden Path Centre. Info and online catalogue at

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