Start me up

The first thing that Lolo Houbein says in her book One Magic Square is that if you want to start a veggie garden you should put her book down immediately and go outside and dig up one square metre of ground. This is good advice particularly for people wanting to start new gardens in Canberra at this time of year.


My last post was a quick caution about the air temperature, but its the ground temperature that is the biggest block to getting a new garden happening now. The ground is just too cold. Many of the plants that you may want to plant just will not go anywhere until the soil gets a bit warmer. As beginner gardeners we fell right into the trap of planting too early. Our plants sulked and were targetted by every pest that came on by. But don’t give up there are some exceptions which I will cover off further down this post. In Canberra October is the month where you can really get your main plantings underway.

So better to harness all those spring urges and get down to the basics of getting your soil ready for your new garden. It really is as simple as getting out with a spade or garden fork and getting stuck in. If you are a complete beginner then Lolo’s advice to just dig up one square metre of soil is excellent advice. You want to keep your enthusiasm going without killing yourself or buggering up your back. Pull out the weeds and grass – these will compete with your plants so out they go – remove any rocks and break the soil up. You may read gardeners carrying on about digging to a fine tilth but frankly I think they should get over it! Unless you are making a bed for carrots, where you need very fine soil to avoid forked or distorted roots, most plants can cope with a few lumpy bits in the soil. If you are growing carrots or other root crops (parsnips, beetroot) you’ll need to dig your ground to about 30cms deep. Other vegetables need a good 20cms depth for their roots.

Now get whatever compost, kitchen scraps, animal manure etc that you can lay your hands on and dig them into your soil. If you don’t have any of these just go down to your nursery or hardware store and buy some. While you are there get some sugarcane mulch or pea straw to put on top of the bed. Before sticking your mulch on give your garden bed a good water. You must be generous with your mulch, put at least 20cm on top of your garden, as you don’t want any weeds to grow through. Now you can leave this to get on by itself while you go and decide what to plant.

Oh and don’t throw those weeds and grass out. Get a bucket or large container with a lid and throw all of your weeds and grass into it. Cover the lot with water and leave it for a month. Strain off the liquid and dilute it with water to the colour of weak tea and then use it as a plant fertiliser. Take the remaining sludgy stuff and stick it in your compost heap or dig it into your garden bed.

Of course you may not want, or be able to dig so the ‘no-dig’ garden may be for you. Here is Gardening Australia’s no-dig garden factsheet on how to go about this.

I’ve stuck a photo in of the three garden books that we refer to time and time again. they are, in no particular order Organic Vegetable Gardening by Annette Macfarlane, Backyard Self-Sufficiency by Jackie French and One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein. All are available through the public library and any one of them would be a great help to a new gardener or someone who’s been away from the game for a while. The other absolute must have is Peter Cundall’s Planting Guide for cold climates which you can find here. You can see that each month is divided into what you can plant – seedlings; and what you can sow – seeds. There are some links at the bottom of the page for seeds suppliers. So here is what Pete is suggesting for September:

Pete’s advice for September

PLANT: Potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, globe artichokes, chives, rhubarb divisions and seedlings of cabbage, cauliflower, celery, broccoli, lettuce, silverbeet, spring long-keeping and salad onion and leeks.

SOW DIRECT: Carrot, beetroot, parsnip, silverbeet, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, onion, kohlrabi, summer spinach, leeks, swede, turnip, peas, Asian brassicas, Japanese turnip, peas. Under glass in containers sow tomatoes, pumpkin, zucchini and sweetcorn.

So what are you waiting for, get digging!