Starting our veggie garden

When we moved in, part of the back garden had been separated off and was paved with bricks. I think it was used as a basketball area and also had the washing line in. Whilst this was probably useful if you have family members who like to shoot hoops or like to have a dedicated area to hang your washing, I felt that the view of a bland brick area from the living room window was a bit boring and the large brick area got very hot in the Melbourne sun. I figured we could put that space to much better use, and being fairly level and fenced off from the local rabbit population made it perfect for our new veggie garden.

Our original paved garden area

Our original paved garden area

So one Sunday afternoon I was feeling particularly optimistic in my abilities to get things done on the tail end of the weekend, and decided to take up the bricks. Armed with our trusty crowbar and a masonry chisel thing (apparently it’s called a “cold chisel”) I started trying to prise up the bricks. Thankfully, the bricks were just bedded down on a layer of sand and once I had made a gap it was easy to pull up adjacent bricks. Soon I had cleared an area big enough to install a raised bed 1.8 x 1m and felt very pleased with my achievements.

When choosing a material to make the beds out of, we had a few things to consider. First off, we’re in a high termite area and so the material really had to be termite resistant. Secondly, our location on the urban fringe of Melbourne and backing onto grassland with powerlines means that we’re also in a higher fire risk area, and although our risk isn’t as high as those properties fully buried in the bush, we wanted to minimise the amount of flammable timber near the house. And finally, we wanted to use a material that was as eco-friendly as possible.

After some research we settled on eWood planks (www.ewood.com.au), which ticked a lot of our boxes. They are made in Australia, from recycled plastics including printer cartridges, computers, TVs and car parts. They are termite resistant, need no painting or sealing and are UV stabilised to withstand the harsh Australian climate. Best of all, they were available from our local Mitre10 who delivered them really quickly, almost before we had got home from the shop!

We ordered enough planks to make a few beds, and cut them to size – be warned, like many “composite” or plastic woods, they are hard to cut and will blunt tools!

We ordered some soil from a local supplier to top up the beds, and chose a blend of soils designed for veggie beds. Ideally I would prefer to work with the soil we have and aim to improve it through digging in compost etc. but the soil is so heavy and hard to deal with that we wouldn’t have been able to grow much in it so we decided to short-cut a bit by mixing in some better soil with more organic matter to get things started, then we will continue to improve it over the coming seasons through composting and mulching.

Hard at work digging our heavy clay soil!

Hard at work digging our heavy clay soil!

As soon as the first beds were finished, I started planting, putting in some potatoes (pink fir apple, pink eye and purple congo) broad beans and sweetcorn plants. We have since added in more beds, and have planted shallots, tomatoes, chillies, swiss chard (silverbeet) and courgettes (sorry… zucchini!). 

Obviously the jungle crew had to venture into the new veggie area to check it out – they wasted no time in jumping in amongst the silverbeet and munching away!

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Overall I’m pleased with what we’ve achieved in our first year of having a proper veggie garden in Australia. We haven’t managed to grow as much as we would have liked to, the broad beans and snow peas didn’t take off and in fact the broad beans succumbed to a leaf curl virus and had to be discarded. The sweetcorn has produced 2 tiny cobs but each plant has stopped at about 40-50cm tall so I don’t they’ve not done as well I had hoped. But the courgettes, potatoes and swiss chard/silverbeet have been great. The chillies haven’t cropped all that heavily, the had some hurdles to overcome in the fact that the chickens stripped all the leaves they could reach off each plant! Still, they have recovered reasonably well and continued to flower, so we’re still getting some chillies, which is good.

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I’m still learning about the need to water – I think I‘m watering enough but seem to constantly underestimate the heat from the sun here and I think this has affected some of our yields. Luckily the previous owners installed an irrigation system connected to the rainwater tanks, so we’ve modified this to re-route the pipes around the veggie beds, now each bed is irrigated with a dripper hose that seeps water into the soil. After we installed our beds I read about wicking beds and how much water they can save – typical that I found it after we had already planted ours! We still have a couple more beds to put in, so I might try to make some wicking beds for those, we’ll see how that goes.

All in all, I’m pretty pleased– now I’m planning my autumn plantings to try to get some things growing over winter. It’s been great watching things grow over summer, and has been very satisfying to cook and share meals that we’ve made from our own produce – and eggs of course!

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