Starting a garden doesn't have to be daunting, here are our top tips to planning and starting your garden which should see you successfully growing your own in no time!
1. Location & Size of Your Plot
- Select a site that receives a minimum of 6 hours sunlight a day. Your seed packet will tell you what location the variety is suited to, be it full-sun or part-shade.
- The size of your garden should be determined by how much space you have, the time you have available to tend to it and how much fresh produce you require. If you are short on space, fear not, you can still have a productive garden by using compact/dwarf varieties or climbing plants that can grow up, not out. There are many vegetable and flower varieties perfect for containers and small planters.
2. Soil Preparation
- The soil must be well prepared prior to planting. Seeds need a soil that is easy to break through to aid in germination. Thoroughly dig the soil and remove any weeds and rocks in the process. Add organic matter in the form of compost or manure to provide nutrients, improve soil structure and ensure good drainage. Rake the bed smooth and level to make sowing your seeds easier and finally water the bed thoroughly before sowing/planting out.
- If starting a garden in a raised bed or container be sure to use good quality soil mix combined with extra compost or rotted manure. Adding peat is also a good option to ensure good water holding capacity in smaller pots/planters which can commonly dry out quite quickly.
- If you notice your soil doesn't absorb water but rather repels it then you may need to do some more work to improve your soil prior to planting. Check out our article on hydrophobic soil for more details on how to fix this common issue.
- There are 3 seasonal vegetable categories: Spring sown, Autumn sown and All year round. As the names suggest, they relate to a general sowing time for best performance. Although they use seasons in their name, this does not mean that sowing on the first day of the season is advised. Most warm season seeds require warm soil to germinate and cool season seeds may require a Winter chill to start producing fruit so you need to sow accordingly to the actual temperatures in your area not purely based on seasons. More on that later.
- The ideal sowing depth is about twice the seed diameter. So if a seed is 2mm wide then sow it 4mm deep. Very fine seeds should not be covered, but more just pressed lightly into the soil. Refer to the back of your seed pack for specific sowing depths.
- Sow seed at the recommended spacing and cover lightly.
- Refer to the back of seed packet for specific sowing details.
- Did you know the bigger the seed, generally the easier it is to grow as the seed provides all the nutrients the plant needs to germinate. We suggest beginners start off with Vegetable seeds such as Beans, Corn, Radish and Pumpkin, and Flower seeds such as Sunflowers, Nasturtium, Marigold and Alyssum.
- If you see F1/F2 in the seed name, this means it is a hybrid variety, this means it is bred to have certain desirable features such as disease resistance, greater yield or extra flavour. Learn more here. Hybrids are not the same as genetically modified seeds. None of Mr Fothergill's seeds are genetically modified.
- The back of the seed pack will outline when best to sow the specific seed variety in your climate/region. This is a guide based on growing outdoors in the garden. It is possible to grow seeds out of season using a greenhouse and heat pads, this is usually to start Spring/Summer varieties in the cooler months.
- Planting dates - some gardeners base their planting times off exact dates from last season’s crops; this is not always reliable in our ever changing climate so take current weather conditions into consideration when sowing your seeds.
- Soil temperature is very important for seed germination. Seeds require consistent day/night soil temperatures to germinate and thrive. Without this you may end up with low or no germination or seedlings that die. Soil temperature is even more critical for heat loving plants such as chilli and capsicums so be sure to start them when weather conditions are consistently warm.
- Transplanting - Once your seedlings are around 5cm tall and have their 2nd leaves, they are usually big enough to transplant into the garden. If you started your seeds in reusable pots, be sure to remove the seedling from the pot by holding a leaf, avoid gripping the stem as it is easy to crush it. If your seedling is in a biodegradable Jiffy pot, simply plant the pot-and-all into the garden. Always water in well after transplanting.
4. Care & Maintenance of Your Vegetable Garden
A consistent approach is required. Too much can cause disease, too little can result in stunted growth or even plant death. A good soak every few days is recommended (may need to be more frequent in very hot conditions). This encourages deep root systems and greater tolerance to dry weather. Water early in the morning or in the evening to reduce evaporation and focus the water on the roots and avoid watering foliage. Larger water droplets water better than a fine mist so look for a nozzle with a rain/shower option.
Mulch is spread over the garden surface to retain moisture in the soil, suppress weeds and keep the soil warm/cool. It also helps improve soil structure and quality as it decomposes. Sugarcane, woodchip/bark or lawn clippings all make good organic mulch. Thoroughly soak the ground before adding your mulch. Now lay the mulch so it’s at least 2cm thick around your plants. Fine mulch should be used around small seedlings and small/fine plants, whilst chunkier mulch can be used around larger shrubs/trees. If sowing seeds direct into the garden, avoid mulching until after germination as the mulch will inhibit germination.
Fertilising your plants during the growing season and improving the soil between crops can be done with either concentrated chemical fertilisers, or with organic manures or compost. The organic options include farmyard manure, household or garden compost, ready compost mixes and green manure. Green manures are fast growing plants (often legumes) that are sown between seasons. Dig them into the soil when mature to provide nitrogen and organic matter as they rot. To learn more about what nutrients your soil and plants may need, check out our fertiliser article.
Pest & Disease Control
The first line of defence against disease and pests is the use of preventive practices that include:
- Maintaining a weed-free garden with wide, dry aisles
- Pruning leaves off the ground
- Watering the root area and avoiding the foliage
- Considering the layout of your garden to maximise sunlight and air circulation, and to reduce humidity buid-up
- Companion planting - using herbs and flowers to deter pests.
- Rotating crops, which means alternating the varieties of vegetables grown in one place from year to year. It lessens pest and disease problems that are common amongst same family vegetables, and avoids soil being depleted of nutrients used up by a particular type of a vegetable. If these controls are not enough you have a choice of using organic or chemical pest and disease treatments.
If things haven't gone quite to plan with your garden then it is time to troubleshoot what may have gone wrong. Gardening relies heavily on many uncertain elements such as the weather and other environmental factors so let's take a look at some of the most common gardening problems.
I've grown weeds - So you've been nurturing your seeds and watching them grow into seedlings to find out that they are not what you expected and are in fact weeds. The chances are, you weren't sold weed seeds, more likely the reason is dormant weed seeds in your soil. Seeds can remian dormant in soil for many years waiting for the perfect conditions to germinate and grow, so when you prepare your soil for sowing and add goodies like compost and fertiliser and start to water the soil, you are creating that optimal environment for germination, unfortunately not just for your seeds but for any weeds in the soil too. Starting seeds in pots or punnets using a good quality seed raising mix or Jiffy soil pellets will help with germinating your seeds if your garden was previously weedy. Mulching your garden will help suppress weeds but you may need to hand weed too to keep on top of them.
My seeds didn't germinate - Seeds require optimal growing conditions to germinate, here are just some of the many reasons why your seeds may not germinate:
- Soil temperature - whilst the air temperature may be warm outside during the day, soil temperature takes a little longer to warm up and if the nights are still cool, this can affect the consistency of the warmth of your soil. For these reasons it is important to only sow your Spring seeds outdoors when the weather is consistently warm enough to maintain a warm soil temperature (usually between 21 and 26°C). Conversely for cooler season varieties they may require consistently cool soil and cool weather so as to not bolt and go to seed.
- Poor quality soil - Soil that is rocky, weedy, lacking organic matter or nutrients may not be suitable for your seeds to thrive. Refer to point 2 at the beginning of this article for ways to improve your soil before sowing.
- Not enough light/sown too deep - Seeds require light to germinate, without light they cannot start on their growing journey. If your seeds are sown too deep there is a chance they are not getting enough light to germinate or are not strong enough to reach the soil surface.
- Soil too wet, soil too dry - wet soil can cause seeds to rot, too dry and they may dry out and die. Work to maintain a consistent soil moisture level throughout germination for best results.
- Weed competition - If your garden is full of weeds, they will shade your seeds and take away water and nutrients from your seeds.
- Seed coating too hard - Many seeds such as wildflower and tree/bonai seeds have a hard coating which may need scarifying before sowing. The way you scarify your seeds will depend on the variety so be sure to check your seed packet for specific details on the best way of scarifying or treat your seeds before sowing.
- Old seed or poor quality seed - If you bought your seed from a reputable seed supplier, they would have tested the germination rate to ensure that the seed was of a suitable quality to be sold. As like all living things, seeds are perishable meaning they have a finite lifespan, this varies depending on the seed variety so check the seed packet for the sow by date. As seeds age they become less viable meaning you may see a decline in the germination rate, you may need to sow more seeds than what you wish to grow to compensate for the lower strike rate.
- Poor storage of seeds - Seed storage is important for the longevity and viability of your seeds. We recommend storing your seeds in a cool, dry place, ideally out of the light. Sealing in an aitright container is also a good idea. Once your seed packet has been opened, we suggest storing any unused seeds in the sachet/packet they came in, folded over to create a seal. Store as mentioned above.
My plants won't grow/fruit/flower - Your plants have germinated but they seem to be taking forever to grow/fruit/flower, this can be caused by environmental factors such as temperature or lack of pollinators, or more likely it could be a nutrient defficiency in your soil. There are three main nutrients your plants need to grow and fruit, they are Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). Your plants will need different ratios of these nutrients based on what you are wanting them to do. For example if you want vegetation growth then you need Nitrogen as this promotes leaf growth. If you’re wanting to fuel root growth, then Phosphorus is what you’re after. Lastly, to promote good fruit, vegetable and flower growth you will need Potassium. Learn more about NPK in our fertiliser article.
Congratulations you made it to the end of this gardening article! As you have probably gathered by now, gardening is both an art and a science, and does require a little bit of skill to be successful. But there is nothing more enjoyable and rewarding than harvesting your own home grown produce and flowers, so it is more that worth the little bit of effort you have to throw in to get started.
If you find yourself in need of further gardening advice we recommend reaching out to your local garden centre who will be best equipped to help you with growing advice for your specific area. We also have trained professionals on hand to assist with answering your growing questions online, simply hit chat in the bottom left corner of your screen for live advice during business hours. Subscribe to our newsletter for up to date garden advice and be sure to check out our Garden Advice Blog for loads more gardening tips and tricks and some pretty cool projects too!
Happy Gardening from all of us at Mr Fothergill's!