Ok so it’s your first garden, whether that is outside in the yard or in your apartment. The point is you’re ready to begin raising your plant nursery.
The question is, where to start?
Well starting a garden, particularly an apartment garden is relatively easy if you know the basics and science can go a long way. Indigenous science can go even further.
The first thing you need to consider is the reason you want a garden.
Is this for food or decorative landscaping? What plants are best for the season you’re growing? How do you juggle each plant’s needs without too much work or effort?
What will the new garden look like? How organised and modern is it going to look, maybe even a little fancy with the landscaping?
While I’d love to have the garden of @urbanveggiepatch or @ggthegardengirl, I don’t have a backyard but that’s not going to stop me.
My first garden was when I was a child and my grandparents had a massive backyard where they grew everything from figs, mulberries, tomatoes and coffee. My first attempt was a watermelon and one thing to know about watermelons is that they’re tricky if you’re a five-year-old with no gardening knowledge.
The main reason I grow my garden is to have a sustainable food source all year round without relying on the big food companies. In doing this it’s a great investment, saves a lot of money in the long run, the quality of your meals improves dramatically and the sense of accomplishment of bolstering your own survival is unmatched.
The first thing you need to know, however, is that you are going to fail!
This is what you do when you learn. You may get half a good crop then stunted plants for the rest of the season. This is totally normal and while it may feel like a waste, it’s not! Every garden is unpredictable because plants are living things with their own versions of personality. Helping the plants grow rather than expecting to control their growth is the best way to mentally engage with the process.
One thing to remember is, as beings on this planet, we need food to survive. We eat a variety of foods to make sure the quality of nutrients is at it’s best. We live in a time where food is accessible from all over the globe and yet most of us in Western societies have no idea how it grows or how it gets to us. This is one of the saddest detriments to our species and our planet.
Without this knowledge and engagement, we have become complacent, dumping 40% of the worlds food surplus into landfill, using famine as a weapon of war and depleting our water resources for waste to be accumulated on an industrial level.
The engagement in a garden is one of the fundamental ways you become a global citizen as well as a biological achievement.
So you’ve made the decision, you’re going to paint your thumb green.
But what plants?
If you’re a novice you may want to start out with an easy plant to get your confidence up.
My first apartment plant was lettuce. I bought seedlings from my local hardware store (with the necessary snag for a gold coin donation) and a couple of plastic pots with some fancy-sounding soil mixture.
This was very exciting.
After two weeks the pots were overrun! I picked the lettuce and had three massive meals.
Unfortunately, they never grew back.
Winter came and the frost killed them off.
So that was my second failure at having a sustainable food source.
A good first plant would be a herb like basil or mint. These plants produce a lot of yields, grow quickly and need little attention. The more you pick, the more they grow!
A few many sources will tell you that tomatoes or zucchinis are also a good place to start. This is a lie!
Tomatoes and Zucchinis are picky.
Zucchinis may grow quickly but they need to be pollinated in order to fruit, which is difficult if you don’t get bees often. They also need just the right circumstances. Tomatoes are the same. Both are prone to pests and if you’re starting out, there’s just too much to think about without enjoying the early stages of garden life.
Basil is a plant that regenerates and clones. This means that the more you pick the more it yields and instead of dying out and needing to be re-sewn like tomatoes do, basil almost never goes away. Tomato plants, on the other hand, have a life span, meaning that after harvest, it’s time to start over again. So if you want quick gratification, go with the herbs. Basil also only takes 8-14 days to yield whereas tomatoes can take up to two and a half months to fruit.
For a decorative plant; bamboo will grow faster than you can prune and needs very little attention other than your inevitable admiration.
These are a great starting point; grab some pots and some decent potting mix.
I go for Bunnings Tomato and Vegetable Growing mix mainly because of its price and that it comes with blood and bone, a great fertiliser. This averages out at $4 AUD a bag.
For pots, I like to keep away from plastic as they don’t last in your garden but last forever in our oceans. Try and get ceramic pots, they are great temperature regulators for your soil and they don’t crack and fade easily like the plastic ones will.
What are the choices this Season?
So when thinking about your garden nursery you need to consider seasons.
Coming from Australia, our climate is different in all different parts of the
continent. For 60,000 years Indigenous Australians cultivated, shaped and worked with the land and the climate, yielding one of the most impressive and comprehensive agricultural systems on the planet. To ignore this knowledge will only be a detriment to yourself.
To find out what your specific climate is in your area of Australia check out the Bureau of Meteorology’s interactive page here to see where you sit:
My home is in the Banbai region and there are six seasons here.
This means I don’t get eh typical 4 seasons we see in the movies and to be honest, you probably aren’t either.
As I write this it’s late April so the weather is changing from dry to cool. I live in a semi-tropical climate so cool never really gets proper cold. The plants that are fruiting in my garden right now are tomatoes. While my potatoes, limes and strawberries are flowering (possibly because I planted a bit late this season) my blueberries have dried their leaves and turned pink.
The key is to find out what plants grow best in what temperatures. Check out the seasons according to your indigenous calendar and plan ahead.
Some plants will grow all year regardless of the season. These are a good staple to have in the garden as you always get satisfaction through your efforts even if everything else is growing quietly under the soil.
The plants that will grow all year round are:
Onions, garlic, potatoes and beans.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean you just leave them out in the elements and they’ll grow regardless. This just means it’s possible to keep them yielding all year round with the right amount of TLC.
How much Sunlight?
So we all remember year 7 biology I’m sure, plants need sunlight to convert into energy through a process of photosynthesis and they get their nutrients from the water they absorb from their roots and body, depending on the plant.
But how do you know when enough sun is enough and you don’t end up with sad and defeated cucumber plants?
No, they didn’t last but I’ve learned a lot for next season.
The traditional rule of thumb is that plants that need full sunlight need six to eight hours of sun a day, the partial sun would need three or four hours direct sunlight and of course, the shady plants need a good disguise. Just kidding, they’d only need two hours of sunlight maximum.
This works if you have a typical lovely late summer day that’s not too cold and not too hot or cloudy or humid that lasts all year round. Which is obviously unrealistic.
If you live in more tropical climates it can be very hard to judge what the temperature will be like throughout the day. Most plants have mechanisms to combat and control the amount of sunlight they need such as cucumber plants having very large leaves that are covered in white hairs (cilia) that reflect sun rays. Some plants will shift entirely to shield themselves from too much sun.
If you live in a place that does have too much sun at times, or where the sun burns harsher like my own, it’s a good idea to invest in a shade cloth.
If a plant isn’t getting enough light the new leaves may come out yellow as well as overall poor growth. This also happens if there’s too much sun so it can be tricky to figure out.
Just remember what we said before, you’re helping it to grow, not controlling its growth. Have a look and see what the plant is doing, try a couple of things, if they’re potted plants move them to a new location and see how they react. While there is science involved it’s not exact and even if you’ve been born with a green thumb, it’s impossible to predict.
How much and how to drainage?
Drainage… drainage…. Drainage!
So in my second garden, we bought a whole bunch of seeds and seedlings and set them up in pots with the proper mixture and great sunlight and watered them regularly and got our first batch of chillies!
Then things just stopped growing.
At first, I thought it was the pests that were starting to take up the rent. But then once we almost killed everything, we renovated our garden.
We got rid of the table, we re-potted everything and gave them some yummy fertiliser.
Then we nicely put them on pegs so they had…… DRAINAGE!
If you give something some water, that water has to go somewhere.
This one doesn’t need much explanation. Make sure your plants have drainage!
(I’m looking at you pot planters)
First things first.
A pesticide is a chemical that kills weeds, insects, fungus and some plants.
An insecticide is a pesticide that kills insects specifically.
A herbicide is a pesticide that targets unwanted plants or weeds.
So with your new garden, you want to make sure your yields are fresh and your plants are healthy.
My first mistake was thinking that this could happen naturally. I was naïve in thinking that my perfect plants could defend themselves and I really wanted my plants to be chemical free.
So when the White Flies, slime mould, aphids and spider mites moved on in they wiped everything out!
This is slime mould- they don’t affect the plants very much but the soil was saturated in the slime threads, blocking the nutrients for the plant.
So in keeping with the chemical-free approach, I tried my mum’s old school remedy of vinegar and water solution.
This killed whatever was left of my plants.
So this learning curve led me to do my research and find the best natural insecticide I can get without poisoning my plants or our food.
The best thing you can get for your plants is Neem. Neem is a tree native to Nepal, India, Bangladesh and the Maldives and is part of the Mahogany family. While the plant is used for many medicinal properties like anti-inflammatories and antibacterials, Neem is also a great insecticide.
Neem targets aphids, White Flies, cockroaches, mosquitos, snails and nematodes.
What it doesn’t target are birds, mammals, bees and plants.
This is essential because you want the good bugs but not the bad bugs. You also don’t want to kill ALL the bad bugs. This is because what might be bad bugs for our plants are great bugs for our compost or against other predatory plants.
For this reason, I chose Neem. Neem only kills insects that are eating your plants, not the ones that are visiting.
If you choose a pesticide that doesn’t moderate its kill-shots then you may end up with no fruits or flowers at all. Without the bugs that visit or pollinate, you won’t get any cucumbers, tomatoes or any pretty flowers.
Lastly, I chose Neem because of how it breaks down. Its half-life in water is between 48 minutes and 4 days. It’s easily broken down in the soil as well as by the plants themselves. In doing so the runoff and ongoing effects beyond your garden are absolutely minimal and effective.
For more information please do your own research but the University of Oregon is a good place to start, http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/neemgen.html.
I picked up my Neem from my local hardware store for just over $20 AUD and 100ml can be diluted to 50 Litres so it’s also very economical.
So to wrap it all up, you need to decide what type of garden you want and how it needs to be set up, whether that’s in a yard or pot plants in your apartment or balcony.
Great plants to start with would be high yield little maintenance plants like basil and bamboo.
Understand the seasons of where you live, use the indigenous knowledge of the land respectfully and figure out what sun and climate are best for your garden and each plant.
Don’t forget to provide drainage!
Do your insecticide research, find one that has the least amount of impact and best results. I’ve found Neem was the best for my garden and my environmental impact.
All in all, the take-home message is to give it a try. Gardening is a life skill you’ll never forget even if it’s not a predictable success, the successes you do get will greatly outweigh the obstacles.
What were your first garden blunders?
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Here are the sources I used for this article if you want to learn more and fact check my advice.