Be the plant-parent your parsnips deserve with these tried and tested tips! Our guest blogger Alice Glare will show you how in this two-part vegie gardening series.

So you’re into food, you follow foodies on the ‘gram, cook up a storm regularly and know your broccoli from you broccolini but you keep hearing the same thing: growing food is great, and if you’re not doing it then what kind of food-obsessed person are you anyway?

Reducing food miles, learning about seasonality, free exercise, not paying ridiculous $$$ for a bunch of parsley… you know the drill. Food growing = good.

With a ton of great reasons to be growing stuff, if you haven’t already planted your summer pumpkins, I’m guessing it’s less about not wanting to and more about not knowing how – like, how on earth do you nurture a plant until it can feed you?!

So for all the brown thumbs out there, the almost-green thumbs and the thumbs who’ve never tried gardening but want to: this is for you. Buckle up, let’s get you the info you need to grow some killer tomatoes.

Tomatoes in basket

Three Things

Plants (and keeping them alive) can seem daunting so for the sake of this article, let’s focus on three things. Over several years helping friends and family start food gardens I know that if you can nail these, then you’re on the way to making home-grown ratatouille.

Veg in a bowl

1. Find the (good) dirt

I get it, you want to get stuck into planting things and living the green thumbed life. Going to a nursery and adopting all the tiny seedlings seems like the obvious place to start.  But before you do, what kind of home are these little green sticks being launched into?

Plants get the nutrients and water they need from the soil and a lot of the time food plants need high amount of nutrients to grow into something tasty. If you want to grow great produce, dirt comes first!

Seedlings in garden

It’s always, always better to invest more in soil than on plants. Cheap, small plants or seeds planted in cracking healthy soil + a lil’ bit of TLC will turn into a bountiful harvest, but all the care and classical music in the world will probably not prevent expensive plants in poor soil from coming to a sad end.

Before we talk about how to get good dirt, it’s worth figuring out where you’ll be planting things.

Backyard owners/ renters

Lucky you!  If you’ve already got garden beds, improve soil quality by adding organic matter – things like compost (buy or make your own) and manure are awesome. If you need to make a garden but digging isn’t your thing, a no-dig garden could be the answer.

If you rent, obviously check with your landlord before you change the garden… or plant in pots (also handy if you need to move mid-harvest!)

Dirt in garden

But compost and manure are soooo expensive and I need lots!

Right!? And so much plastic! See if you can get it from somewhere other than the hardware store that sells sausages on weekends. Consider getting a load of compost delivered by a landscaping company (it’s much cheaper in bulk), find a friend with a ute and pick up a load from a composting site, or go for a  road trip to one of those “sheep poo for sale” stalls and bankroll a country kid’s budding business.

No backyard?

No worries! 😊

Balcony from inside MID Photo credit: Alice Glare   Alice Glare - Balcony from outside

Lack of ground-level dirt isn’t reason to let your green-thumbed dreams wither.  Amazing gardens can be made from pots on the tiniest of balconies/patios.

Soil is doubly important in pots, and you will need good quality potting mix.  Luckily, there’s Australian Standard designed to help you.

Help! Too many kinds of potting mix. What do I choose?

Australian Standards Certified Product AS 3743 - Image credit: Standards Australia

For veg, your best bet is the bag with a line of Australian Standard red ticks: this is premium potting mix with fertiliser and wetting agent added (stops the mix becoming water repellent, V. handy)

A line of black ticks signifies more basic potting mix with no fertiliser – still a good option if you add some controlled release fertiliser yourself.

Steer clear of potting mixes that don’t have any ticks. Sure, they’re cheap, but that’s cos they’re are mostly bark and will probably make your plants (and by extension you) sad.

Can’t I just use soil from someone’s backyard?

Unless their backyard is made of quality potting mix, no.

Garden soil doesn’t behave well in pots, sometimes ends up like concrete and concrete + plants = death! (It’s more complex than this obvs, but that’s what a google sesh / chat with a soil scientist is for)

Small garden on concrete

I have great dirt but no plants… What now?

You can find cheap or even free plants in many places! Food markets, from friends or family, food/plant swaps, seed banks or cheekily swiped as cuttings from a plant sticking through a fence. There are online seed companies that sell seeds for as little as $1 a packet and some plants, like sweet potatoes, garlic and mint, can even be grown from tubers/bulbs/stems from your greengrocer.

Now you’ve got the know-how to start,  we’re going to leave you to work on your dirt. Next time we’ll check out a couple more plant-truths all budding green-thumbs should heed. Until then, happy digging!

Happy Eggplants - Image credit: Alice Glare

Alice Glare