As the sun pushes away the winter clouds, all of the signs of spring arrive: the birds begin to chirp, the flowers bloom and the bees buzz. Inspired by watching life come into bloom, each spring a common mantra rings out around Melbourne’s inner suburbs: “This will be the year I’m going to start a veggie patch.”
But one look at our backyards and we’re more often than not dissuaded. How could we possibly turn our tiny inner city courtyards into lush, productive veggie patches? Not to mention the slew of other things to consider: do we really need potting soil? What about fertiliser? Should we plant from seed or start with a seedling? And what about pests? In search of answers, we spent the morning with CERES’ nursery manager Eve Archbold to get some hands-on advice on starting an urban dweller’s veggie patch.
As we walk through the CERES nursery in Brunswick East, Archbold tells us that size doesn’t matter when it comes to spaces to grow food. “Potted plants can be incredibly productive. Even on a balcony, you can grow and harvest your own veggies all year round.”
As Archbold explains, many vegetables and herbs are well suited for containers and there is a whole suite of materials you can use as planters or pots. “At this time of year, as far as vegetables go, you’ve got all of the summer favourites. There’s capsicum, courgette, eggplant and tomatoes to name a few. Tomatoes are one of the most popular,” she says as she points to the rows of miniature tomato plants. “There are some great small growing varieties that are perfect for pots.” If you’re limited on space, she recommends you go with CERES’ Tiny Tim tomatoes.
And for herbs, basil, parsley, oregano, chives and fresh tarragon are all masters of summer. “One great thing about herbs,” Archbold offers, “is that you can plant multiple herbs in one planter.” Before you know it, you’ve got a seasonal herb box sitting outside your kitchen door, ready for summer picking.
If you’re worried about pests, Archbold recommends alyssum as a companion plant. These petite white, honey-scented flowers attract beneficial insects, like a tiny parasitic wasp that feeds on sap-sucking insects. These wasps get to the pests before they get to your produce.
To combat snails, a common pest for many edible plants, Archbold reveals a surprising trick: “Try putting coffee grounds around the base of your pot. The coffee is mildly toxic to them and they hate the texture.” And for a more organic solution, “Try copper tape used around the tops of planter boxes.”
Thanks to Archbold, we have a gardening recipe (of sorts) to get your herb patch started off on the right foot this season, no matter the size of your patch. Now, let’s get digging!
- 2/3 potting soil
- 1/3 compost
- Pure Gold organic fertiliser
- a bit of sugar cane mulch
Fill container with soil
Fill just under two-thirds of your container with potting soil. And yes, “Potting soil is crucial,” Archbold insists. “It has the structure that you need to promote root development and good drainage.” Then fill the rest of the container with compost, leaving about two to three centimetres to the brim. Mix together thoroughly.
Plant your seedlings
Gently tip the seedling upside down and tap to release, making sure to not pull on the stem. If the roots are tight, gently tease out roots. “This will help encourage the roots to grow outwards instead of being root bound,” says Archbold. Then dig a small hole in your soil and place the seedling inside. Make sure that the seedling’s soil level is flush with your fresh soil.
Plant your alyssum (or any other companion plant) using the same techniques.
Drop a small amount of organic slow-release fertiliser around the base of each herb.
Cover with mulch
Put a layer of mulch on top of your plant bed, leaving a small gap around the stems of your plants, so that they don’t rot. Archbold prefers a fine straw mulch for pots, because it is readily available, sustainable and is incredibly effective. “Mulch helps keep moisture in during the summer time and it also helps to keep the soil temperature stable in potted plants.”
“Don’t be afraid to give plants a good, deep water to settle them in,” she says. “So long as your container has good drainage and you’ve used quality potting soil, your herbs and veggies will be happy.”