Planting the seed

Ben Elms with some of his own raised beds fitted with hoops. Photo: Si Williams.
Ben Elms with some of his own raised beds fitted with hoops. Photo: Si Williams.
As another growing season beckons, Ben Elms, aka Dr Compost, fields another question from an aspiring horticulturist.

Q How do I wrangle my messy, weedy backyard into a pretty, edible oasis?- Wannabee gardener

Dear Wannabee gardener,

Well, where do we start? Maybe with a bulldozer? No, seriously it really depends on how big a mess your garden is. Don't be afraid of using some machinery if it gets you from A to Oasis in a hurry. Or rent a crowd of friends with the promise of a continuous supply of home-baked muffins and cookies.

Take a pause before the crowd turns up and ask yourself some questions. Is your garden on the flat or on a slope? Where's the sun hitting all day? What kind of soil do I have? What tenacious weeds need taming? Where's the prevailing wind coming from? How many vege beds do I want? These are some of the questions that need to be addressed when designing or redesigning your vege garden zone.

Think, where can I sneak edible plants in? There are no rules: a fence line could become a row of fruit trees, an area that needs ground cover could be planted in strawberries; berries and fruit trees can be sprinkled in among formal gardens. If you have north to west facing fences or walls, you can use them to save space by espaliering fruit trees. Fruit trees that have been put on rootstocks that restrict the size of the final tree are also perfect for a small backyard.

Start sketching some ideas on paper. You don't need to be a Picasso (I definitely am not). Visit the backyards of friends and neighbours, people you know who grow great veges. Pop along to the local community gardens and see what people are doing. The biggest inspiration we can get as gardeners is visiting other gardens and getting new ideas. Don't get overwhelmed - gardens happen in stages. You might start with two beds this spring, two next and so on. A tunnel or glass house might happen next year.

- Dr Compost


•Vege beds don't need to be any wider than 120cm. We never want to stand on and compact the soil. It's great being able to reach the other side of the bed when kneeling on one side for sowing seeds, planting, weeding and so on. The first two raised beds in my garden were 2m wide and 4m long. There was a huge no-go zone in the middle of the bed, which was very hard to access. For years I attempted to put perennial herbs and flowers in the centre: it just didn't work. Eventually, the too-thin timber warped and rotted. In came five new beds all 90cm wide.

•Macrocarpa is a great timber for raised beds. Use a minimum thickness of 5cm. A raised bed can be 10cm to 90cm high, depending on how deep your pockets are. Mine are 20cm high.

•Make pathways bigger than you think. Do you need wheelbarrow access? How are you going to stop weeds growing in your paths? Carpet, cardboard, woodchips and pavers all work well.

•Extend the growing season with hoops, cold frames or a tunnel house or glass houses. These will really ramp up production in your backyard.

•Pretty comes from your design layout. It doesn't have to be all straight lines. Check out permaculture keyhole vege beds for inspiration. I like to have a bed just for edible and companion flowers, or keep a space at the end of every bed for herbs and flowers. I also fling flower seeds randomly around the veggie garden. Sometimes they come up in the wrong place and they just get chopped and dropped where they are. Others are left to do their thing.

•Invite the good bugs in for biodiversity. Build yourself an insect hotel, or gather pruned branches, tie them together and tuck them away in the bushes. Little boutique insect hotels right there, thank you very much.

•Consider a central point of the vege garden - it could be a fruit tree, a sculpture or a bench to sit, observe and ponder.

Happy gardening.


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