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Getting started with growing your own - Emma from Craving Fresh

In my ongoing series of interviews with bloggers who grow their own, today we travel outside Australia again, with Emma of blog Craving Fresh. Emma grows fruit and vegetables in a high wind, coastal zone of Wellington, New Zealand.  On Craving Fresh Emma shares her tips and struggles for raising a healthy family on a single income. Most of the vegetables her family eats come from her garden.

Emma cooking dinner :)
Farmer Liz: Tell me about your garden and climate

Emma: Our whole section, including house, is just 360sqm so we don't have a huge amount of land for growing food. The section is also on a slope and the backyard has been split into two terraces to create level areas.

Our property is on the bottom of a hill in a valley so we get morning to afternoon sun in the backyard and then it disappears for the evening. It can get really windy, so I have to be careful to stake things securely or they topple over. Because of the wind, our younger fruit trees don't do too well because a lot of the buds and small fruit get blown off. We do have one old established apple tree which seems to cope pretty well with the wind - it's looking laden down with fruit right now. I can't wait for them to plump up and ripen!

Our climate is temperate, but in summer doesn't often get above 24 degrees celsius.

I don't have any outdoor taps so I let the rain water my garden, or do it by hand with a watering can if things are looking too dry. Not ideal! I'm hoping to get an outdoor tap and rainwater catchment tank in the near future.
FL: When and why did you start growing your own?

Em: I first started gardening when I moved from my home city of Auckland to Hamilton to be closer to my then-boyfriend (now-husband), Paul.  I didn't know many people in Hamilton and I guess I needed to do something to literally put down roots in my new town.

I had moved into a flat where I wasn't able to garden, so I tackled the gardens at Paul's house instead. He was living in a rental property owned by his parents, so I didn't feel like my work there would be wasted. The gardens were a complete mess when I started. I didn't even know where the gardens were through all the weeds, but I just tackled a little bit at a time.

The first garden I put in was a flower bed alongside the driveway. My workmate got really excited when I told her I wanted to start gardening and gave me lots of advice, which was so helpful. Upon her suggestion I invested in gloves, seed trays, seed raising mix, lots of packets of seeds with pictures of pretty flowers on the outside, a spade and trowel, plus lots of bags of compost and one bag of garden lime. While my seeds grew in trays on the sunny deck at Paul's house, I cleared the garden bed of weeds and then dug lots of compost and lime into the soil.

Transplanting the little seedlings I had grown from seed into the garden was one of the most amazing moments of my life. I had the power to make life grow!

The following year Paul and I got married so he kicked his flatmates out of the house and I moved into it with him. That's when I started my first vegetable garden, but I put into use all of the skills I had developed flower gardening.

flowers and strawberries - combining beauty with tastiness

FL: From your experience, what’s the best way to start growing your own? 

Em: My number one tip would be to spend lots of time and investment on your soil. You want your garden soil to be weed-free and teeming with micro-biotic life before you plant anything in it.

Sometimes soil is just rubbish though, so then I recommend building a raised garden on top of it and filling that with good stuff. I have a mixture of raised gardens and flat ones at my place. I'm slowly seeing improvement in my flat gardens, after a couple of years of adding compost to them, whereas the raised gardens have done well right from the outset.

You can get everything you need to fill a raised bed from a garden centre. Most people opt for potting mix/topsoil, compost and pea straw. However, that can get pricey real fast so it's a good idea to scavenge what you can first. 
In my first raised garden I covered the bottom of it with cabbage tree leaves that were falling all over our property. It was a great way to put them to use and my hope was that they would help suppress any weeds coming through. A thick layer of wet newspaper or wool carpet is also good for weed suppression and will break down eventually.

Next I emptied my home compost bin, which was full of some good compost and a lot of stuff still needing to decompose. On top of that I emptied a trailer load of horse manure mixed with straw I got for free from my boss's parents' horse stud. On top of that I tipped a load of bought top soil so that I could plant vegetables straight away. Otherwise I would have had to wait months for the horse manure to rot down enough that it wouldn't burn the roots off my plants.

When filling a raised garden, it's a good idea to layer "green" high-nitrogen materials with "brown" high-carbon materials. They help each other decompose faster and you end up with really good soil.

Good green materials you can make or scavenge yourself include compost, manure, seaweed, worm poo (vermicast), coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable scraps, grass clippings and green leaves.

Good brown materials you can scavenge include twigs, sticks, paper, cardboard, dry leaves, dry grass and hay.

FL: What are your top 5 favourite easy and productive plants for beginners to grow?

Em: My favourite plants are:

1. Zucchini / Courgettes. One plant is so productive, but I try to plant several so I can grate and freeze the excess zucchinis to use all year round in mince dishes, soups and casseroles. The taste hardly comes through and I like to know our family is getting extra nutrients from my homegrown zucchinis even in winter.

2. Carrots. Go crazy with these. Plant a whole packet or more. Even if they come up close together, you can thin them and eat the little ones while making room for other ones to grow big. We ate the same lot of carrots from summer to summer because I had planted so many and they just kept on coming. They finally all went to seed a month ago so I had to buy my first bag of carrots in a year.

3. Spinach / Silverbeet. These are great plants for shady spots of your garden and are useful raw in salads or green smoothies, or cooked in mince dishes/ cannelloni. I like to cut them really fine when using them in cooked meals, so they're hardly noticeable.

4. Beans. They grow straight up a bamboo stick so don't take up too much space in your garden but can be really productive. Pick beans often and when they're small so they're sweeter and less stringy. The more you pick, the more beans will grow. If you get too many, blanch and freeze them for use during winter.

5. Cherry tomatoes. These did really well for us in Hamilton where it was warmer and less windy. They don't do so well here in Wellington but still better than big tomatoes. They tend to produce earlier and more prolifically than big tomatoes, and they make such a nice addition to salads in summer. They're also great for getting kids excited about gardening.

silverbeet looking very lush
FL: Any suggestions for growing in a small space? 
Em: Try to make use of your vertical areas. Plants that grow up a pole or frame are great because they will take up less physical space in your garden. You can even grow some plants up other ones, like beans up corn. Double whammy! 

With smaller properties you can theoretically give your garden more attention, so keep adding organic material to the soil to fill it with life and grow the healthiest plants you can. You'll get more produce off healthy plants and the food will nourish you more. 

Think about what vegetables you like to eat and try to grow some of them to keep you happy, but also learn to use the vegetables that grow well in small spaces. I used to hate zucchinis, but when I discovered how prolific they were, I learned to make use of them and now as you know, they're one of my top five favourite vegetables to grow. 

Observe your garden to see where the sun spends its time in spring, summer, autumn and winter. Plan your garden accordingly. Leafy vegetables don't need much sunlight, but fruit-bearing vegetable plants need a lot (around 6+ hours of direct sunlight per day). Walls can help bounce back sunlight too and make an area warmer, so put them to use in your garden plan. 

You sometimes have to make tough decisions about what you're going to grow in a small space. Pumpkins take up a lot of space, so I don't usually grow them. That said, this year I've had one self-seed and take off up a climbing frame so I'm letting it be just to see what happens. It's taking over a lot of my other plants and probably going to kill them, but I'm hoping we get some nice pumpkins to make up for that fact. 

Experiment with growing things in pots and other containers to make use of deck and patio areas if you have them. 

Plant things close together. Your plants will have to fight it out but at least they'll be fighting with each other and not weeds. 

Let nature take it's course. Let plants go to seed and sprinkle those seeds though your garden. Self-seeded plants will often turn out better than the ones you deliberately plant from seed packets or garden centre seedlings because they are evolved to your particular garden. 

Mulch around your plants with pea and lucerne straw to prevent weeds, retain moisture and feed nitrogen into your soil. Your plants will thank you for it. 

Try to make it pretty. If you don't have much space and you want to grow as many edibles as possible, intersperse flowers with them or plant colourful varieties of your vegetables to make things look good in your yard. Flowers will also help attract bees to your garden, so your pollination rate will be higher.

Yum!  Fresh from the garden!
 FL: What’s your favourite thing about growing your own?

Em: There's something so satisfying about picking homegrown vegetables. For some reason I always feel more thankful for them than the ones I have to buy. I love how crisp and sweet vegetables are when picked fresh and I love knowing there are no nasty chemicals on them. I love that it doesn't take any petrol to grow, harvest or deliver my own produce to my kitchen.

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experiences with growing your own Emma!

What do you think? Do you need to know more? Head over to Craving Fresh to comment on this post and let us know your advice to new growers. (While your over there, check out all the great info on Emma's blog :))

The other interviews in this series:
Linda of Witch's Kitchen
Gavin of the Greening of Gavin
Ohio Farmgirl from Adventures in the Goodland
Tanya of Lovely Greens
and myself

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