Growing vegetables in the city

There are hundreds of people growing lovely vegetables in their backyard in the city.

Now that cauliflowers hit $10, lettuces $5, and a bunch of spinach $5, maybe it's time to have a go at growing your own. I grow those three with some success.

One of the main benefits is that you can control what fertilisers and pesticides you want to put on them, and get lovely fresh vegetables to eat. If many are ready at the same time, you can be generous and give some away to neighbours or friends.

We are told that some of our staple diet veggies, grown commercially, are loaded with poisons. Potatoes, carrots, onions are often mentioned.

I don’t get too technical. I know certain vegetables prefer acidic soil, while others like it alkaline. I just use compost, animal manure and general fertiliser before planting.

Potatoes like a more acid soil, so I use commercial potato fertiliser on them. Garlic prefers the soil more alkaline, as does spinach, but neither like it too far off neutral, which is ph 7. Most thrive in a slightly acidic to neutral range of 6.0 to 7.0. By all means test your soil if you like, but I find sun versus shade, dry versus moist soil, control of weeds and pests all more important than ph. While garlic was mentioned above, I must report I’m giving up on garlic next season. I’ve had two failed years. Interestingly, I was talking to local home gardener, Greg Moyle, and he, too, is giving up on garlic.

So, if you haven’t tried to grow vegetables before, which would
I recommend?

This depends a lot on which veggies you like. It depends on the time of year too. We are past summer now, and the weather is quite autumnal. Tomatoes and beans are over until the spring.

I’d try lettuce, carrots, spinach, spring onions, beetroot, cauliflower and cabbage. All are good to go in March in Auckland. Then prepare a patch for early potatoes in May.

Before planting, dig the ground over thoroughly and remove all weeds. Give it a coating of compost, at least one bag to every three square metres of garden. Each year you should also give it some general garden fertiliser, or cow, sheep or chicken manure.

Most of the packets or punnets give planting instructions. I consult my trusty old Yates Garden Guide. There is plenty of online help too, including suggestions for companion planting.

Resist planting too close together. You may not have room for many veggies, but it is surprising how much a smallish garden will grow. I didn’t used to grow potatoes, and remembered my father’s huge crops which kept us going all year round. But I have found them a good choice in my backyard, always with a handful of potato fertiliser.

I grow mostly from seedlings, but I do grow from seed too, especially sweet corn, carrots, beans, peas and radish.

The two biggies while the plants are growing are weeds and water. No prizes for guessing which one they like and which one they hate. Raised gardens are a big help when weeding. Watering should be done early morning or late afternoon, never in full sunlight.

I can always grow lettuce, usually carrots, although carrots can be problematic. (I use seed in tape to spread the plants out). I do pretty well with potatoes too. Caulis and cabbage need special care. You must keep the white butterflies away. I use derris dust (I suppose it's poisonous, but we wash them carefully before eating.) I put snail bait around all new lettuce plants or they’ll be gone by morning. Use it for spinach or silverbeet too.

You can cover vegetables while they are growing, with light netting to stop predators if you like.

Next month I’ll talk about composting and mulching.

Meantime there is nothing more satisfying than watching a cauliflower hearting up, especially when they have been $10 in the supermarket.