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your first encounter with love. There will be some regrets, a few awkward moments but you will always remember your first vegetable patch with some happily wistful memories. Thankfully, just as with love, gardening is not an exact science and it’s usually best to just go with your feelings. To a novice the rhythm of the garden seems to be slow, with almost imperceptible changes from day to day but once you are plugged into the cycle of plants you will feel the force of nature and realise that if you are after a garden that will be productive all year round, it’s a case of year-round action - allegro non adagio. All great gardens [large and small] have been created by those who have understood the temporary nature of our short visit to this planet, but a person who can leave behind a garden knows that another will probably carry on, and their vision may endure. But enough of this romantic bullshit, and on with the real cow manure. If you are gardening in confined spaces begin with small pots or boxes. Container gardens do well combined with small worm farms and mini-composting systems. Communal gardens on the roof of high-rise buildings are growing more and more popular. Community gardens provide a good place to meet fellow gardeners and begin to plug into a local network. Each season in the garden is as busy as any other and good preparation is the key to success. Planning a successful, largely selfsustaining garden needs consideration and foresight. Try to visualise your garden in a year’s time and set realistic goals but also be prepared to make a few mistakes. I have redone the watering system here at Sunnybrae at least four times in twenty years. Many plants that I hoped would thrive no longer do well, while others that we thought would never get established have succeeded. To a true gardener the time spent in the garden is as much of a reward in its self as the fruits of your labour of love. Be prepared for unseasonal disasters– hail, frost and wind are all part of the game. But a good frost in winter is essential for some plants to thrive. Where to start? Plant your trees first. It can be as simple as a bay tree, a multi-grafted fruit tree, a couple of olive trees and a few citrus, all in tubs, perhaps on the veranda if you are short of space. You can plant a herb and salad garden underneath them, trail a couple of tomato plants over the balcony, and you’re on your way. One of the most common regrets [and I’ve had a few] that gardeners face is “why the hell didn’t I plant those fruit trees earlier?” Most fruit trees will bear after only two or three years, olives will give you fruit in about three years, nuts take about five years until the first harvest, and truffles take seven years under oaks; so the earlier they all go in the better. You can always take them with you if you move to that elusive piece of dirt of your own. I know that the young gardeners amongst you will see waiting two years as waiting forever, but believe me, the seasons will flash by in no time and you will be rightly pleased with yourself for having the foresight to plant the trees early. Water conservation and supply is the most serious variable that you will encounter, but sensible plant selection, mulching and capturing all available rainwater will maximise what you can grow. To understand which plants are suited to your area one of the best places to attend is a local farmers’ market. Here you will meet growers and makers who will be only too happy to let you know what’s in season now, but more importantly, what’s coming up. I’m going to suggest a few plants along the way; they are fruits and vegetables that are particularly suited to where I live here at Birregurra in south-west Victoria. Each district will be different, of course. The web will also give you plenty of practical interactive garden design and plant selection opportunities but there is no substitute for local knowledge. Seed catalogues will start to become required reading. When purchasing plants or seeds beware of high-gloss brochures with exquisite close-up colour photos of perfect plants. Shop around – there are many seed companies offering heritage and flavourful vegetables, and
prices vary enormously. Cuttings are also a very simple and reliable way of propagating many plants. Grapes, succulents, woody herbs like rosemary, olives and many others are easily propagated by cuttings. Many plants benefit from thinning and relocation. Dividing clumps of perennial food plants adds an exponential expansion to your collection. Rhubarb, artichokes, lovage, sage, chives and many other plants are all easily divisible. Artichokes will yield about three to five new plants each year so three plants in three years will deliver between 81 and 125 new plants. The basis of a new garden can be sourced very easily from fellow gardeners who will be only too happy to give you a few plants as they renew and re-pot their patch. You will, of course, return the favour when you are able. Once you embark on this journey you will begin to see plants in a different way. If you are lucky enough to have a keen vegetable gardener as a neighbour, let them know that you have started to grow your own and don’t be shy in asking for advice. Getting the soil right early will save you a lot of work later. If you spend the first year planning the beds or containers, ordering seeds and trees, setting up drainage and watering systems, thinking about hardware, soil structure and recycling, you will have spent a very productive year. If there are a few beds ready early, let’s say its spring; I’d start with the nightshades, or solanaceae. Here we have some of the most important plants from the new world that changed the way we taste. Tomatoes, potatoes, chillies or eggplants anyone? There’s already oregano and basil under the bay tree in that barrel, so quite a few tasty dishes are sorted. Next year you can further explore this great group of plants with tomatillo and Cape gooseberry. Spring is also for reaping the artichokes that you planted in autumn, along with the broad beans and asparagus. A well-prepared asparagus bed takes a little patience but after two years it will provide you with tumescent spears annually for over 20 years. First, dig a one metre trench, add about 300mm of sheep or chicken manure, add 100 mm lime and back-fill with good enriched compost to a level of about 500mm. Plant two-year-old crowns over the compost, then mulch occasionally and never look back. Each year all you will have to do is top-dress, mulch, and get ready for far too much asparagus – a perfect barter for eggs or other produce that your neighbours might have in abundance. I love to grow garlic, as home-grown has a glorious pungency that is hard to find commercially. It also keeps a few bugs at bay (along with those annoying vampires!) Plant the best and biggest locally grown cloves you can find in winter, around the shortest day, and be prepared to wait until it’s ready, around Christmas time. A table grape vine will thrive in most areas; it will give you shade and fruit in only a couple of years. Don’t worry about letting things go to seed (agriculturally speaking!) Germinating your own seedlings will save money, give you control of your planting schedule and allow you to save, swap and go hunting for unusual heritage plants. Finding a perfect self-seeded radicchio rosette in the strawberry patch will test which camp of gardeners you really belong to. Some gardeners are complete control freaks, as exemplified in the classic French renaissance garden of Villandry. Here, the vegetable garden, or potager, is laid out in perfect geometric beds with box borders, designed to be appreciated by the aristocracy from the terraces of their chateaux. This garden has done more to sell coffee table books to an urbane, sophisticated and vicarious market of non-gardeners than any other ‘grand design’. I prefer a peasant attitude to gardening – a bit messy, but productive – and picking for ripeness, not geometric perfection. Weeding can become a sort of meditation and natural weed control can be planned early. A good knowledge of dangerous, hard-to-remove weeds is essential if you wish to go down the garden path without using too much [or indeed any] glyphosate, Round Up or other chemicals. Early natural weed control before planting will save you many hours of toil. In this age of seven-minute recipes and minimalist garden design you can find inspiration from many backyard gardens of Asian and European immigrants. I am
always amazed when travelling how many countries fill every available space with a produce garden. Travelling by train in Europe and Asia you can see them extending dangerously close to the railway lines. You can always tell the richness of the culinary tradition of a country by how land is allocated to vegetable gardening. But don’t listen to me – get out there and get a second or third opinion. We all love lists, so here are my Top 10 Hints on Getting Started 1. Make a plan. Remember, most food plants like full sun and wind protection. This does not have to be too serious, do not get a consultant just yet 2. Get into a garden club 3. Go to the library [I know its old fashioned] and start reading 4. Find out which plants are suited to your area 5. Go to your local nurseries and farmers’ markets and start tasting and cooking with seasonal produce 6. Don’t be afraid to begin with commercial seedlings 7. Set up a compost system from all your green waste and find a source of local mulch – pea straw is king 8. Set up a simple watering system suited to your space 9. Buy a pair of really good secateurs and keep them with you at all times for stealing/swapping cuttings 10. Share your produce, save your seeds and learn how to preserve the inevitable seasonal excess Here are my Top 20 personal food plant favourites, based on a “return for effort” scale. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. basil 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. Asparagus; the plant that keeps on keeping on Artichokes; their visual and culinary aesthetic is unsurpassed Rhubarb; sweet and savoury use, superb foliage, also indestructible Cos lettuce; no diseases, self seeds like buggery Italian parsley; remember it’s a biennial Wild Rocket [or ruchetta; lasts forever Mustard greens; when you need a wasabi-like kick – also has great presence Lemon and/or lime tree; needs summer water and shelter Small melons such as Charentais or Ogden; need a bit of space Kale and cavolo nero; excels in winter when the garden is largely dormant Fennel ; good raw and cooked and as a herb Passionfruit; a bit tricky but goes berserk in the right spot Horseradish; hard to get rid of, but why would you want to? Perennial herbs like sage, thyme, French tarragon, Greek oregano, Greek Fruit trees; apple, fig, quince, mulberry Garlic; gives a stinking 12 to 1 return on investment Tomatoes and chillies; don’t plant too early down south and don’t over-water Purslane, rock samphire and aptenia for that neophiliac’s dry garden salad Pumpkins; they will trail anywhere, even up an old Hills hoist Olives; good for the soul as well as the larder