Fifteen years ago, when I first planted vegetables in my Johannesburg garden, I didn’t realise it was to be the beginning of a cherished relationship. It all started innocently enough. I wasn’t really interested in the growing process - I just wanted to grow some interesting chillies for my kitchen. So, holding hopeful green thumbs, I dug up some lawn, threw in compost and that summer I had about 20 varieties of chillies growing.
I suppose it was fitting that my vegetable affair began with hot and spicy chillies - but they left me wanting more and as I dug up further lawn and began experimenting with other vegetables, my fling turned into a relationship. For those just starting your first vegetable garden – whether it is a fling or a fully-fledged relationship – here are a few tips...
A Good Relationship Starts With a Good Foundation - the Soil
Just as a healthy body is more resistant to infections, so healthy soil builds up plants’ resistance to attacks from disease and insects. Healthy soil is full of humus, broken down organic matter, which is the ‘life-force’ of the soil. It provides homes for billions of organisms, such as fungi, bacteria, algae, insects and worms. In one teaspoon of healthy soil there are more than six billion microscopic organisms, all interacting with one another, the soil and our plants.
Two simple steps to creating healthy soil are:
- Make your own compost: This is all about common sense and letting nature do its thing. There is something magical about taking a pile of waste and turning it into black gold – because this is what composting does: it transforms discarded organic matter into nutrient-rich compost.
- No-Dig Gardening: In many gardens it is a tradition to dig up the beds and turn the soil over. This is done to break up and aerate compacted soil. Well you can say goodbye to all that digging, as it is more harmful than beneficial:
- It causes weed seeds to germinate.
- Digging upsets the soil balance and causes nutrient and moisture loss.
- The billions of organisms living in the soil hate being disturbed.
Intensive vegetable gardening works best in rich, fertile soil. The first time you prepare your beds, it is worth digging and enriching them with manure and compost. After you have prepared your beds, you never need to dig again. However, as we harvest our vegetables, we remove nutrients the plants have absorbed and these need to be replenished. Nature is designed to incorporate material that falls on the surface, down into the bottom layers. So, to maintain fertile, healthy soil we need to add organic matter to the surface of the beds. In a few short months it will be converted into humus for the plants’ roots.
Here are some No-Dig Gardening rules to help keep your soil healthy:
- Avoid standing on the vegetable beds – its one of the main causes of compacted soil.
- Make beds wide enough to reach the middle comfortably from the path - typically around 3 - 4 feet (90 - 120cm) wide.
- Creating raised beds or adding edging helps to retain soil inside the beds.
- Create permanent paths.
Gardening in Balance With Nature
Organic gardening is about creating a biologically balanced ecosystem. When we create a balanced environment, we invite nature into our gardens to do what she does best and this means having a garden full of diversity and variety which self-regulates. The following tips can help maintain that balance:
- Attract beneficial insects by letting herbs and vegetables flower.
- Interplant herbs, edible flowers and companion plants amongst your vegetables.
- Avoid monoculture (large areas of a single plant) - even on a small scale it’s an open invitation for pests and diseases. Plant as much variety in one bed as possible without overcrowding.
- With good soil and sun such as we have in South Africa we can pack plants close together. When they grow to full size their leaves just touch one another, maximising the amount of ground available, keeping the soil moist and crowding out weeds.
- There are endless relationships that plants have with one another and the organisms sharing the soil and air with them. By companion planting we invite nature do our gardening for us without using pesticides and chemicals
Know Your Garden
Part of becoming an awake, aware organic gardener is gaining knowledge about our garden and plants. If something is eating your plants, find out what it is. Dig around in the soil, look under leaves and go out at night with a torch. The best person to get to know your garden – is YOU.
In our twenty first century world of convenience and consumerism, we have become disconnected from nature. We somehow believe that we can live separately from nature, taking as much as we want, without giving anything back. And that is not how a successful relationship works. We are a part of and not apart from nature. If we continue to live as if we are a privileged and separate species, we risk losing everything.
If I have learnt anything from my relationship with my garden, it is this: by giving nature the respect she deserves, by placing her at the centre of things and by observing and learning from her every move, I have not only become a more successful gardener, but a far more contented person.
By Jane Griffiths. Photographs by Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton.
South African Jane Griffiths is the author of the best selling book: Jane’s Delicious Garden, and the newly released Jane’s Delicious Kitchen (published by Sunbird Publishers, a division of Jonathan Ball Publishers.)