GROWING TIPS: WHY I GROW MY OWN FOOD

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GROWING TIPS: WHY I GROW MY OWN FOOD
27th February, 2018

I first became interested and concerned about the sustainability of the food systems that feed us as a student of Political Science and Environmental Studies at UNSW many years ago.

I learned about the ever-increasing volume of chemicals used in growing, the impacts of monocultures alongside biodiversity loss, the importance of ecosystem services*, the frightening amount of water and energy used in cooling and transporting our food around the country (and the world) and I ripped up my backyard to grow beans and tomatoes, pepinos, salad greens and herbs.

Learning By Doing
Over the years, as I’ve had a number of gardens – in suburban backyards, on roof tops, and farms; and in a diversity of soil and climate types– I have honed my skills through trial and error, and supplemented practice with obsessive reading of seed catalogues, and further studies in organic farming and conservation land management.

Growing your own food can be hugely rewarding and, at times, emotionally devastating. I’ve watched a whole winter’s worth of planting destroyed by hail, lost entire crops of chillies and capsicums to fruit fly, and thrown a year’s worth of garlic into the green bin because it was rotten.

As dramatic as all this sounds, I no longer get demoralised, because I now know (through bitter experience) that every setback is an opportunity to learn: to observe, take stock, and think about how I might do it differently next time.

Where to Start?
There are many approaches to growing food, many different ideas and philosophies, and a bewildering variety of tomatoes, lettuces and chillies! However, some of the basics remain unchanged: food plants require a minimum of six hours of sunlight, as well as water and healthy soils; and most food plants resent competition, so keeping the garden reasonably weed free is a good idea.

Productive gardening is both an indoor and an outdoor activity. Outdoors I build soils, plant seeds, weed, lay down mulch, irrigate and harvest. Indoors I plan, order seeds, research, cook and dream. A notebook and a good library are tools that are as valuable as a hoe or shovel or wheelbarrow. As good as your memory may be, it pays to document what you have planted and when.

Some useful resources are the seed and plant catalogues from places like Greenharvest, Eden Seeds, and Diggers Club. They are chock full of basic and useful information. Instagram can also be a useful source of inspiration and ideas, with gardeners from Katoomba to Kiev posting images and info. A couple that I like are Humans Who Grow Food and Charles Dowding.

What to Plant?
Look at what you eat. If you eat lots of spinach and salads, start by planting them. Many leafy greens and herbs can be grown in pots near the back door or in beds in the veggie garden. Many of them are what we call cut-and-come-again producers – so if you harvest the outer leaves, they will continue growing more. Mesclun mixes, for example, are fantastic because they contain lettuces, roquette, mizunas, tatsoi and lots of other yummy greens.

Start small. It’s far better to plant a small amount regularly than to over extend: start by planting a handful of seeds and/or seedlings every week or two, rather than planting out your entire space in one big planting. This has the additional benefit of giving you breathing space to think about what other jobs you need to do. Following a planting guide goes a long way to giving you a yearlong harvest. As you start growing, you will learn what varieties grow well in the area you live and its microclimate and soil.

Making Friends, Making Compost
One of the biggest difficulties I have, and come across elsewhere, is making enough compost. These days I collect several bucket loads of scraps from a couple of kitchens every week, which I mix with dried grass clippings. Our society still throws away enormous volumes of green waste that can be used to build up your soils – make friends with a grass cutter and get them to bring their clippings to your place, grab coffee grounds from a local café, leave a bucket for scraps at your local café – and make lots and lots of compost. Your garden will love you for it.

Harvesting the Benefits
Growing some of your own food has enormous benefits – to your health, hip pocket and the environment.

Get along to the Blue Mountains Edible Garden Trail on 3 and 4 March to see how others are doing it in backyards and on street verges across the Mountains. You’ll be able to talk to the gardeners about what they grow where and when; how they maintain soil fertility, raise seedlings, and deal with pests and diseases; and discuss any number of approaches to growing food and getting it onto your plate.

My garden in Blackheath will be open. I hope to see you there!

Steve Fleischmann, Community gardener and Co-op member

Steve Fleischmann shares his knowledge of food growing in practical Grow Your Own workshops on the first Friday of the month at the Katoomba Organic Community Gardens. Next workshop, Friday 2 March 9.00 am-12.00 pm. For more info see our Grow Your Own event page.

*Ecosystem services are the benefits people obtain from ecosystems. These include provisioning services such as food and water; regulating services such as flood and disease control; cultural services such as spiritual, recreational, and cultural benefits; and supporting services such as nutrient cycling that maintain the conditions for life on Earth. (Source: www.greenfacts.org/glossary/def/ecosystem-services.htm)

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