The Blue House Garden
Moving into our house close to the centre of Geelong provided a small, semi-circular garden bed underneath our kitchen window. It had one plant (an impossible-to-kill rosemary), sandy soil and screamed "veggie garden" immediately with its full sun position. Within weeks the plot became exactly that - albeit a bit too soon without proper soil preparation - producing an enormous crop of cherry tomatoes over three months, many beautiful basil plants and the biggest kale bunches! I soon added many autumn and winter veg to the raised bed that houses our apricot tree (from which we harvested the most amazing fruit over a short few weeks in summer). Soon, planters and pots appeared left, right and centre - these have allowed us to increase production without landscaping our rental backyard. Slowly but surely, I've taken over every available bed of soil on the property. A large new vegetable patch is proudly popping out a lush herb border surrounding broad beans and new season tomatoes. Advice from Mum, books, websites, experiments and community courses have allowed the Blue House Garden to grow and thrive, where we have now happily harvested: beetroot, kale, spring onion, bok choy, tomatoes, lettuce, borage, basil, mint, sage, chives, chillies, kaffir lime, broad beans, giant climbing beans, sunflowers, fennel, apricots, olives, silverbeet, lemons, carrots, cabbages, peas, kohlrabi, marjoram, sorrel, rhubarb, spinach, broccoli, wombok, wheatgrass and many microgreens and edible flowers.
By committing time and effort to the garden, be it indoors or outdoors, big or small, it is definitely possible to grown your own organic food! With simple techniques such as picking up cheap local animal manure, growing plants from seed, and mulching to reduce watering needs, homegrown food can be cheaper than the stuff you buy at the supermarket. Best of all, you can literally eat it fresh out of the soil when needed - it's well known that the nutrient content of plants is highest when first harvested. The value of this for your health and satisfaction cannot be equalled. Keep an eye on seedblog for regular growing tips, DIY projects and money-saving ideas to get your own garden started!
Soil and organic matter
Soil is the giver of life - everything we know comes from it or is destined to be within it. You cannot expect to grow a healthy, thriving, varied garden with poor soil. Dirt is soil without life - healthy soil is full of living organisms and structures that form a 'web' that interconnects to establish an optimal growing environment for most things. If one major aspect of the web is disrupted, all other facets are weakened and so is the production potential. The image below provides a very basic overview of the foundations - read more here too at the Soil Food Web.
To start off, most people recommend a soil pH test and soil type test to understand your baseline and find out whether it will need pre-treatment. You are looking for good drainage, high content of organic matter, and good water-holding capacity first and foremost. If you already have worms, bonus!
Water and drainage
All plants require water for survival, and some more than others. Anyone who's ever had an indoor plant is probably well aware that you can over-water plants just as you can under-water them. Seedlings have tiny root systems that can't reach far so they need regular watering. Most fast-growing vegetables, particularly leafy greens due to their high water content, need fairly regular watering too when more established. Established trees and shrubs should, if healthy, have extensive root systems and need less water depending on their environment. Succulents are a well-known example of water wise plants - they store moisture in their waxy leaves and are fairly happy in dry conditions.
Whilst watering or monitoring rainfall is very important, the efficacy of your methods depends heavily on the soil drainage. To use the overwatered indoor plant as an example, water doesn't tend to evaporate as quickly. If the pot has a drainage hole and saucer (as indoor plants should), water can still build up in the bottom and cause the roots to rot off in the constant moisture. Plants that are potted into container without drainage, such as into glass jars, can be even more susceptible to this. In the outdoor garden, slope, soil type and sunlight levels can all impact on the drainage of the beds. Sandy soils usually drain very well and for some plants this may mean a suboptimal environment. Clay soils tend to restrict drainage and therefore can become boggy. For plants that prefer extremely good drainage, mounding is an effective way to enhance this (see here), as is building raised beds. It's ultimately important to know the needs of your plants to ensure healthy growth. A simple method to decide whether you need to water your plant is to stick a finger about 1-2 inches into the soil - if it's dry, water it. If not, leave it alone for a bit longer.
We are lucky here in Australia that we tend to get a lot of sunshine across the continent. Plants photosynthesise to grow and therefore need light - the amount of light needed varies widely depending on what you're growing. When buying plants at a nursery, it's important to read the label as it will always state its sunlight needs. Full sun, part shade, dappled light and full shade are the main classifications. Full sun means good sunlight over the majority of the daytime. Part shade means either morning or afternoon sun, but not both. Dappled light is self explanatory and is often provided by the shade of larger trees and shrubs, while full shade means no direct sunlight during the day.
Commonly grown vegetables and fruits generally like full sun and will grow fastest in this setting, therefore a north-facing bed is often the best location to obtain morning and afternoon sun. Some vegetables will grow happily in part shade also but this depends on the plant.
The best thing you can do before planting or arranging pots is to analyse your property and determine which side will get what hours of sunlight. Man-made or natural structures such as trees, buildings and fences can often limit sun exposure at different times of the day, so carefully consider this in your planning.
Seasons and climates
Rainfall, daylight hours, sun angle and temperature all vary greatly between seasons in southern parts of Australia. In northern parts, there is less fluctuation of these variables (except rainfall). Consequently, when planting anything (especially annuals) you need to be very mindful of the best time to do so. Generally, winter slows growth and can often limit seed germination and cutting rooting until spring arrives. Summer can also easily burn or dry out plants, both young and established, unless the plants are adapted to high temperatures and low rainfall. As mentioned above, it is imperative to read the label or research your plant prior to purchase to ensure the best chance of success.
As with seasons, climates are very different across Australia and can either be advantageous or a hindrance to many plants' growth. For perennials in particular, life must be sustained over years rather than months and so the plant needs to be adapted for all seasons with their minimum and maximum temperatures and average rainfalls, among other things. For example, many plants in North-East Victoria need to be frost-tolerant in winter as well as drought-tolerant, and can be exposed to temperatures up to 40 degrees and above in summer. Microclimates, as mentioned above, can be cleverly applied to mitigate these issues and grow plants that aren't necessarily suited to the climate. Protection from frosts can be provided by brick walls for example, while deciduous trees can shade plants from high temperatures (and allow light entry in winter).
Sunlight and water are not enough to have a thriving garden, especially an edible one. Just like humans need vitamins and minerals to sustain life on top of calories for energy, plants need additional nutrients to survive. Essential plant macronutrients are carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, micronutrients are nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, sulphur, calcium and magnesium (Agriculture Victoria). Different plants require varying ratios of nutrients so it is important to consider your garden's needs before buying a general purpose fertiliser to apply to everything. An example of this is high-nitrogen feeds, where application enhances leafy growth. Where geens like kale and silverbeet will benefit from this, others like beetroot and tomatoes will produce more leaves and smaller fruits/roots if you provide too much nitrogen. Ideally, set up your garden bed weeks to months before you plant out with compost, composted animal manure and mulch, then add more fresh compost upon planting - watch your plants carefully as they grow to determine if you need to intervene with additional nutrients.
The faster your plants grow, the higher their nutrient demand and, unless your soil is excellently balanced, the more regular feeding they'll need. Annual veggies are a perfect example of this, as they are trying to grow right through from seed to sexual maturity within 12 months or less. It's important to monitor the growth speed and vigor of your garden as well as the appearance of plants, as there are many telltale signs that can suggest specific deficiencies. Read more on this here. Most importantly, always replace what you take. This means that if you harvest many bowlfuls of produce in a season, you must replace this nutrients for the next season, in the form of compost, manure, legumes and other organic soil additives.
Further information sources:
>> What is permaculture factsheet
>> What is organic gardening factsheet
>> Community gardening factsheet
>> Costa Georgiadis' composting factsheet
>> Video guide to DIY hothouse
>> Rental Property Garden Guide
>> Sustainable Living in a Rental Property Guide
>> Evidence on Gardening and Mental Health
>> Evidence on soil bacteria exposure and stress
Why make things from scratch?
- It is fantastically satisfying
- You know exactly what is in your food/product
- You might be more likely to eat better and consume less calories (JHSPH)
- You can use less ingredients, buy in bulk and therefore save on money and packaging
- Sharing your products and recipes with others creates new ideas and experiments
- You could be less likely to waste things (you might as well use it up after all that effort!)
For one standard size loaf (about 12 slices):
- 3 1/2 cups baker's flour (white, rye or other)
- 1 1/2 cups warm water
- 2 tsp sugar or fructose substitute
- 7g dried baker's yeast
- 1tsp iodised salt
- 1/4 - 1/2 cup seeds of choice (poppy, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower*)
*don't use chia or flax - these coagulate and will make a tough, heavy dough
- Mix warm water, years and sugar. Sit in a warm place for 10min or until frothy on top.
- Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Combine with yeast mixture when ready, adding extra flour/water if needed - dough should come together without sticking to your fingers too much.
- Knead your dough on a floured surface for at least five minutes (preferably 10 - kneading makes a much fluffier bread!) adding flour as necessary until you have a smooth, elastic, non-sticky dough.
- Place ball of dough in a loaf tin or on a flat tray for ~1hr or until doubled in size.
- Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with seeds or oats (optional), bake at 180 degrees Celsius for 35min or until golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped (this is important! if it sounds dense, it needs longer).
- For best results, let cool for five minutes in pan, remove, slice when still hot and serve with dairy-free spread of your choice! Mmmmm.
Body Butter Recipe
- Follow this recipe here that I have successfully used twice now. I use lavender as my essential oil, but there are so many to choose from! Whip as well as you can, as I find the shea butter doesn't break down 100% smoothly. This body butter is only made up of oils so you only need small amounts, meaning it lasts a long time! Don't leave it in a sunny spot or it will melt.
HAND SOAP RECIPE
- 1 Tbsp liquid castille soap (Dr Bronners or other fairtrade brand)
- 250ml tap water
- 2 tsp coconut or other nut oil, melted
- 10 drops tea-tree oil
Fill a 250ml or larger pump container with 3/4 of the water, add oils and soap, slowly fill with remaining water (the soap will bubble up heaps if you pour too fast!)
You might notice in cold weather the oil solidifies at the top - this looks weird but is normal, just give it a shake before using it. You can leave the oil out if you don't want the added skin moisturising effect.
BODY WASH RECIPE
- 5-6 Tbsp liquid castille soap (Dr Bronners or other fairtrade brand)
- 750ml tap water
- 30 drops essential oil of your choice (e.g. lavender, lemongrass, orange, lemon myrtle, grapefruit, peppermint)
- 1 Tbsp melted coconut or other nut oil
- Optional: vegetable glycerin, vitamin E oil
Fill 1L pump bottle with 500ml water, add soap and oil, slowly fill with remaining water (the soap will bubble up heaps if you pour too fast!)
This wash has no thickening agent which my partner finds annoying - I couldn't care less though. It is up to you whether you add a vegetable-based thickener or make a more concentrated batch.
- 3 Tbsp bicarb soda
- 2 Tbsp arrowroot powder
- 3 Tbsp Coconut oil
- 10 drops tea-tree or other essential oil of choice
Mix ingredients until smooth, pour into small glass jar or reused roll-on container. Store at room temperature, away from heat/sunlight. I have found this to be more effective at odour control than a store-bought "chemical free" roll-on!
(Based on this great recipe)
- 1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
- 2-3 Tbsp bicarb soda
- 1 Tbsp stevia
- 30 drops peppermint essential oil
Combine all ingredients and stir well. Pour into a small glass jar that will be easy to get your toothbrush into (no corners!). Leave to firm up, stirring occasionally as the oil likes to settle on the surface. Store at room temperate if possible - in winter, a sunny window ledge would be ideal as the oil will remain quite hard when cold.
I warn you - do not expect this paste to foam! It also tastes different because of the bicarb soda (hence my addition of stevia). I encourage you to try it for a few days before deciding whether you can adjust to a non-commercial taste and texture.
Adapted from this recipe here
Lemon Vinegar Cleaning Fluid
- Two lemons
- 500ml jar
- 500ml white vinegar
Chop lemons and add to jar with vinegar. Cover with breathable cloth and elastic band as for ferments and leave for one month in a cool spot. After one month, strain out liquid (which will now be pale yellow and smell very lemony!) and keep in a glass jar or spray bottle. Use at full strength on tough surface grime, or use diluted approx. 1:4 with water for general purpose cleaning, such as your table, bathroom or kitchen bench. If you start running out, don't forget to set up a batch to sit before you do so you don't wait a month for it to be ready again!
STAY TUNED FOR more cleaning product RECIPEs IN THE NEAR FUTURE!
AS FOR SHAMPOO AND CONDITIONER, I AM YET TO FIND A RECIPE THAT DOESN'T LEAVE MY HAIR GREASY.
APPLE CIDER VINEGAR DILUTED IN WATER IS NOT A BAD CONDITIONER AND LEAVES AN AMAZING SHINE
(WITH NO SMELL, I PROMISE), BUT FOR NOW I AM STICKING TO A COMMERCIAL PART-ORGANIC BRAND from my local bulk store.
BULK BUYING - CHEAPER AND BETTER
What can I buy in bulk that will last weeks to months?
- any type of flour
- dried beans, peas, grains, seeds and cereals
- dried fruit
- fresh fruit and vegetables (keep cold): potato and any other root vegetable, onion, garlic, pumpkin, apples, citrus
What can I buy in bulk that I can then preserve in some way?
- almost any vegetable can be pickled! see this or that for basic recipes
- summer tomatoes make amazing relish, chutney, pizza sauce, passata or can even be canned simply chopped up. Check SEEDblog for recipes this coming summer
- stone fruit do well preserved in jars or stewed and frozen
- black bananas are perfect to freeze for a rainy banana-cake kind of day
- beans and peas can be canned in brine (just like the store-bought ones) and used months later
Tips to reduce food waste
- Store vegetables and fruit you won't eat straight away in the crisper of the fridge, or in reused plastic containers/bags. This reduces oxidation and prolongs freshness.
- Cook what you know you will eat
- Freeze leftovers for up to two months
- Know the difference between use-by and best-before dates (see here for Australian standards)
- Use a composting system to dispose of scraps and use them! Or find ideas from the guys at Youth Food Movement on how to use your scraps in other ways.
- Ask to take home leftovers when you go out. These days, many places won't let you due to OHS regulations, but you never know if you don't ask
- Avoid ordering multiple dishes when you're absolutely starving; you know you'll regret it afterwards, so just start small and order more later if you still want to!
- CHECK YOUR FRIDGE. The number of things I have found rotting at the back of our shelves is sad! Try and dedicate one night a week for a one-minute rummage around. If you find something that's OK but you know you won't eat it before it goes yucky, freeze it or offer it to someone else to use.