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Getting started with growing your own - a series of interviews

I vaguely remember a time before I had a garden, chickens and so many cattle.  A time when I lived in a rental property in the city and I thought I’d like to grow things, but I seemed to have a knack of killing anything in a pot.  Gardening seemed really hard, and I didn’t really know where to start.  Somehow over the last few years I’ve figured out how to grow things, even how to propagate seeds and make compost, in some ways it seems completely unbelievable given where I started.

I recently had a question from someone just like the old me, she wants to start growing some veges in a rental property, but doesn’t really know what to do.  I started trying to think what advice to give, and it wasn’t easy!  When I started my latest garden, we had lots of cow poo and mulch in the paddock, so we just borrowed a rotatiller and dug up part of the house yard.  My husband welded up a nice frame to support a massive amount of shade cloth that we got at a clearance for $50.  He also set up a recycled water system to water the garden and fenced out the chickens.  From there all I had to do was plant veges and work out which ones would grow in my climate.  Without these free and cheap resources, growing my own would have been so much more difficult, and I don’t really know where I would have, or should have, started. 

Then if occurred to me that I know (in blogland) lots of people who are growing their own in different situations, all over the world, on different sized properties and in different climates.  I wondered what advice they would give a new grower, so then I decided to ask them.  Over the next few weeks I will publish a series of interviews with other bloggers about their advice to a new grower. 

Farmer Liz - interviewing myself first :)
I'm going to share the interviews with other bloggers each Wednesday until I run out of them, but first I'll interview myself :)

Tell me about your garden and climate.
My current garden is about 4m by 10m.  It is fully fenced to keep out the chickens, although they trim anything they can reach through the mesh.  It is covered with shadecloth.  I have four garden beds which I attempt to rotate with annual vegetables.  Since discovering permaculture, I've been trying hard to establish perennial crops around the outside, things like arrowroot, sweet potato and Jerusalem artichoke.  I also grow lots of herbs in pots that I move around the garden so that they can get sun in winter and shade in summer.  Our climate is crazy, I called it a sub-tropical mountainous climate (we are 426 m above sea level here at Eight Acres).  In summer we can get temperatures in the high 30degC during heat waves, which is difficult for all but the tropical species to survive, but in winter we will get frosts that kill all the tropical plants.  Last winter I got a small greenhouse, which helped me keep some ginger and chillies alive through the frosts.

When and why did you start growing your own?
I jumped into growing when I moved in with my husband on 5 acres of land in the Lockyer Valley.  He already had chickens, and we decided to start a garden, and get a little poddy steer.  We didn't know what we were doing!  I was lucky to have picked up a Jackie French organic gardening book at a market, and to have wheel-barrow loads of the neighours' horse's poo in our paddock, but we really didn't take the time to plan the garden.  The first year we had some successes and some major failures, we were planting everything at the wrong time, we hadn't done enough to improve the soil and we were very lucky to put the garden on the north side of the house.

We started the garden because we had an idea that we wanted to be self-sufficient.  At the time petrol prices were at a record high and we were genuinely worried about peak oil and our ability to access food grown elsewhere.  In the meantime, fuel prices have decreased, but there are so many other reasons to be self-sufficient, we have continued to work towards this goal and have learnt an amazing amount.

an early success, but I've never grown such a good eggplant again!
From your experience, what’s the best way to start growing your own?
Do some research!  At the very least you need to work out where to put your garden so it gets plenty of sun.  And you need to have some way to improve your soil, a bokashi bin, compost or a worm farm, if not chickens or a steady supply of manure from cattle or horses.  A source of mulch will also be important, any cheap form of organic matter is perfect, we use old hay and wood chips from our mulcher.

If you're unsure about the time and effort required, you can start with a few pots of herbs that you would normally buy.  If you can keep them alive and use them in your kitchen, then you can start to try other plants, in more pots or in a small raised bed.  Don't be too ambitious to start with, its best to start small and increase as you learn more.
keeping herbs and other plants in pots is an easy way to start small
What are your top 5 favourite useful plants for beginners to grow? 
I wrote a post on this a couple of years ago and not much has changed.  Obviously it depends on your climate.  Everyone says that radishes are easy, but I find them a real challenge!  Try lots of different varieties and unusual veges until you find the ones that you like to eat and that do well in your garden.  My current favourites for my climate are:  silverbeet, spring onions, climbing beans, cherry tomatoes, and cos lettuce.

Any suggestions for keeping your garden cool in summer?
If you have a hot summer like mine, you really need to consider shade, or you won't be able to grow anything through summer.  I find that plants on the edge of my shade cloth cover do not do well when it gets really hot.  You can use temporary shade cloth structures, plant shady plants that will die back in winter (arrowroot is great for this) or keep things in pots that you can move into shade (like my herbs).

Shade cloth covers the entire garden.
Any suggestions for helping your garden survive frosts?
I've had to accept that there are some things that I can't grow here (e.g. passionfruit :(), but that the frost also presents opportunities to grow root crops through winter, that would be difficult if my climate stayed too warm.  I also use a greenhouse to get some of my favourites through the winter.

protection from the frost in a small greenhouse
What’s your favourite thing about growing your own?

I like to know that we always have some food out there, even if its just a few herbs and leaves of silverbeet.  During the QLD floods a couple of years ago, it didn't matter that we couldn't get to the supermarket.  And during normal time, we save a lot of money on vegetables.  I don't provide 100% of our needs, but I come close at times.  I also love being able to swap and barter with others to further reduce our reliance on the supermarket.  I could go on and on, but one last thing I wanted to mention is that I find the garden very relaxing and peaceful, with a wonderful sense of achievement when something grows well.

one year I produced kgs of cherry tomatoes, it felt good to have such an abundance

Next week I'll interview Linda Woodrow from The Witches Kitchen.  Well, what do you think?  What's your advice for those who are getting started with growing their own?


  1. Oh this is a wonderful idea! I also would say to new gardeners that some years just don't turn out well and to keep trying! I often wonder about soil tests - I have such a small garden I feel it is not worth doing. I look forward to Linda's interview - she seems able to grow anything!

  2. Really great start to the series Liz! You've certainly come a long way from living in an urban rental :)

  3. Lovely idea! The thing I would say to new gardeners is don't give up when things don't work the first time. Also be prepared to change your garden as the garden and your understanding of gardening evolves.

  4. We had the same thing when we started veggie gardening. Mum kept telling me "just get into it! It will come to you" and she was right. You are NEVER prepared for hurling yourself in at the deep end but you can do some base research regarding the conditions that you find yourself in, what people are doing in your local area and how to grow and that's what brought me to your wonderful blog in the first place :). I have modified my composting technique (if, indeed, it could be called a "technique" ;) ) so that I make circles out of weldmesh (well Steve makes the circles! ;) ) and plonk them down in the vicinity of where I want to eventually plant a tree in our food forest. I then fill my compost hoop up with my compost bucket, a mix of oak leaves and various other dry carboniferous stuff and soil and I then wait till it rots down to about 500ml from the ground and add more soil then plant spuds or pumpkins directly into the soil (no problem with the pumpkins to be honest, they usually just spring up themselves ;) ) and cover with more leaves etc. I then cover the compost hoop and leave it to attract worms, form it's own little ecosystem and just top up the potatoes with more leaves etc. as they grow...when the heap is spent, the spuds are collected and the hoop comes off, I have a nicely "pre-softened", worm laden nutrient rich spot to dig and plant out a tree :). Your chooks sound like our possums :(. I have a "bean cube" a stylish block of bean foliage that is kept neatly trimmed by nocturnal possum visitations and you can tell the possums here on Serendipity Farm...they have no fur on their forearms from pinching our bean leaves! Have you read Jackie French's book "The Wilderness Garden?" She talks about her property that can't be that far away from where you live and how she grows tropical trees alongside temperate climate trees by using grove principals. LOL! I just got to the bit about the Jackie French book but I don't think it is the same one that I am talking about. The Wilderness Garden has me all fired up to create a food forest this autumn with the trees that we have been growing from seed and blogs like yours share ideas and possibilities that I wouldn't have thought about unless I hunted around and found them online :). I loved this self interview! I can't wait to hear Linda's take on gardening for sustainability and I am very excited to read the rest of the series...I LOVE this idea :) We all need to learn about our endemic growing conditions and share this info all over the net. I recently found a wonderful idea that we are going to trial through a blogger who follows your blog. I subscribed to her blog and learned something incredibly valuable to our situation here in Northern Tasmania in the process...and all for free! There is a wealth of information out there, you just have to point yourself in the direction that you want to start from and go lateral :) Love the series and can't wait for the next post! :)

  5. What a great idea Liz. I too used to live in the middle of Brisbane and grow a few veggies. I think the best idea is to get some of the deep foam boxes and plant into those. You can grow pretty much everything in them. The other thing I say to people is grow what is expensive (like herbs), things that you can just pick a leaf or two at a time (silverbeet, lettuce, rocket etc) and things that ramble (like cucumbers).
    Looking forward to the posts to come.

  6. Love the idea Liz, very much looking forward to the next interviews!
    There is so much information gathered by all those likeminded souls in blog land, this is a great way to share.
    Some days when the chooks have made it into the kitchen garden (again!) or everything starts to wilt in a crazy heatwave it's nice to know you're not alone out there. And to pick up new tricks to keep it from happening the next time.

    Also, thanks so much for your very sweet comments on my own blog. Alex is doing great, it was a beautiful birth experience. We didn't suffer any damage in the flood, we got through it very well. But after all the crazy weather, I'm very much looking forward to some quiet time now! ;-)
    Cheers, Marijke


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