How to get started growing vegetables…fast

At the start of the year, I started a project to transform my front-and-back lawn into a productive food garden. I got the compost cranking early on, and four chicken ladies moved in to help with pest control, weed suppression and providing manure (oh, and eggs). I’ve been slowly working on a garden plan, and my next steps were sorting out reticulation (to water the garden) and planting trees.

However, then life as we know it turned upside down, and priorities shifted.

In light of the continuing food shortages in the stores and impending isolation, not to mention that a lot of food sold here on the west coast is reliant on trucks arriving from the east coast (which feels fragile with all this uncertainty), I decided that growing vegetables was my new priority.

It seems that growing vegetables is everybody’s new priority, as veggie seedlings and packets of seeds have become the new toilet roll – selling out everywhere.

If you’ve decided you want to start growing food – whether you’re not sure where (or how) to start, or you just panic bought a heaps of seeds or seedlings and you’re not quite sure what to do with them, I thought I’d talk you through the process.

How to set up a vegetable garden…fast

One thing I want to be clear about is setting up a vegetable garden fast is not the cheapest way to do it. Fast will cost you more. As just one example, seedlings cost more than packets of seeds, and packets of seeds from a store cost more than swapping saved seeds with a neighbour.

As another example, making compost is cheaper than buying a bag from the store…. but if you don’t have a compost bin set up, you’re looking for at least 8 weeks before it’s ready. And that’s assuming you have enough stuff to fill it straightaway.

We are in unusual times, and what we might do in “normal” circumstances isn’t necessarily what we are doing now.

Fast costs more. But if your priority is securing a food supply for you, your family and your neighbours, or avoiding the stores as much as possible, the cost might be worth it.

Planting your veggie garden – containers or in-ground?

There are pros and cons to every option, and some plants will do better in one or the other.

In-ground beds

This is the cheapest option by far, and in-ground beds are less likely to dry out or become waterlogged than containers. Plus, worms and other good guys are free to come and go. In a hot, dry climate like Perth, these work well because they lose less water than growing plants in containers.

On the downside, they aren’t great if you have mobility issues, and your dog, other pets or young children may not understand the difference between lawn and vegetable beds.

With in-ground beds, you do need to know how good your soil is. When I lived in the UK and had an allotment, I could put anything into the ground, add nothing to the soil, and get a great crop. If I plant out seeds or seedlings straight into the ground in Perth, they’d shrivel and die (or at least, not get very big). There are various amendments I’d need to add to my beds – compost, clay (I live on a sandpit), rock minerals, and potentially other things too.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, and you’re keen to get your veggie garden started fast, I’d suggest going with containers or raised beds and buying soil. If you have a little more time, I’d suggest finding some local gardeners to chat to (either garden groups on Facebook, or even the staff at the local garden centre) about what they’d recommend for where you live.

Raised garden beds

The cost of these can vary substantially. Brand new beds made from colourbond steel or wood, or made by a tradesperson are at the top end; second-hand beds can be sourced for less (they are usually easy to track down on online classified sites like Gumtree), and at the bottom end, people make their own with salvaged materials and offcuts.

One advantage of the metal ones is they are lightweight and easy to move – so if you find you’ve put them in the wrong spot, or decide down the track you no longer need them and want to sell them, this is fairly straightforward. Wooden beds are more difficult to move once in place, as are brick/slab beds.

In colder climates, raised garden beds can work well for crops that like warm summers (aubergines, tomatoes, peppers etc). In hot climates like Perth, they tend to dry out, particularly metal ones, that get hot (we’d be better with sunken beds, really) and aren’t ideal for the climate. They might be a good option if you struggle with bending and kneeling, or you suspect in-ground beds will be trampled by dogs and children.

Raised garden beds also need to be filled with soil: the bigger the bed, the more soil, which is another expense. There are ways to save on the cost of soil, if you go down this route:

  • Rather than buying bags of soil, find a local soil yard where you can buy bulk soil. you may be able to bring a trailer and load up, or you may be able to order a soil delivery. It is much more cost-effective than buying bags (plus, no waste).
  • Buy soil suitable for growing vegetables, and buy the best quality you can afford. When it comes to soil, you get what you pay for.
  • Vegetables only have roots that are 25-30cm deep, so only buy good soil that will fill your beds 25-30cm deep. If you have deeper beds, fill the base with something else. I’ve seen people use empty milk bottles (because they have square sides they work pretty well), or you could fill with street tree mulch. If you have to buy soil, buy the cheapest soil for the bottom, and put the good stuff on the last 20-30cm only.
  • If you live in Perth, you can find bulk soil at Green Life Soil Co or Carlisle soil yard. Search for ‘landscaping supplies’ or ‘soil yard’ to find options near you. You can order street tree mulch Australia-wide from mulchnet.com.

Containers

If you’re short on space or have a tight budget, containers are a good option. They can be anything from purpose-made plant pots to old wine barrels, to repurposed olive oil drums or plastic tubs. They need less soil than a garden bed.

However, some plants are challenging to grow in containers, and whatever you do plant will need more looking after – watering more often and feeding the soil.

If you’re planning to grow in containers, check how big the plants will get and ensure you’ve chosen a big enough container – or you won’t get a crop. Lettuce, radish and spring onions won’t take up much space; cauliflower, broccoli and courgette/zucchini get huge, and you’ll need a big pot for just one plant.

Grow food in the right location

Vegetables need a certain number of hours of sunlight to grow. Summer vegetables like tomatoes, capsicums, squash, courgettes and cucumbers need full sun and lots of it. Kale, lettuce and spinach will still grow well with less sun.

When planning on where to put your containers or beds, you need to choose a spot that’s best for them rather than best for you. Full sun is ideal in winter (when daylight hours are less), afternoon shade is good in summer. The sun is also a lot lower in the sky in winter, meaning shadows from buildings and trees are cast a lot lower.

In an ideal world, planning a garden, you’d map out the sun patterns for spring, summer, autumn and winter (so 4 times a year) in morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon. It’s easy to figure out where the sun is tracking in the sky, but how far the fence shadow or the neighbour’s tree reaches on the shortest day is harder to figure out. There are suntracking apps, but I prefer the slow approach. Usually.

Examples of shadow differences at the same time of day, three months apart (summer and autumn):

If you head outside today, in March, and make a note of where the shadows are, that’s a helpful start. Shadows will get shorter in summer and longer in winter. If you’re heading into winter and notice the shadows are already covering the site where you want to plant, it might not be ideal. If you’re heading into summer, there will be less shadow as the sun gets higher.

It’s an important consideration with in-ground beds, but matters less with containers, as you can move them. If you have the option, orient garden beds directly north (in the southern hemisphere) or directly south (in the northern hemisphere).

Choosing plants (seeds versus seedlings)

If you’re wanting to start a veggie garden quickly, you’ll want to choose plants that grow quickly and can be eaten quickly.

Vegetables that grow quickly and can be planted now (in spring in the northern hemisphere and autumn in the southern hemisphere) include:

  • Carrots
  • Salad leaves – so many different varieties to choose from
  • Greens – kale, Swiss chard, spinach
  • Lettuce (which are really salad leaves left to grow into full-size lettuce)
  • Beans (bush or dwarf beans grow faster than other types)
  • Spring onions
  • Beetroot
  • Radishes (one of the fastest growing vegetables)

Generally speaking, the fast-growing varieties I’ve mentioned above are easy to grow from seed, and much more affordable this way. It’s better to avoid root vegetables as seedlings as transplanting can damage the roots. Plus, one root vegetable seedling will give you one root vegetable (so one carrot seedling will give you one carrot, compared to something like a bean plant, where one plant will give many pods).

Seedlings are more established plants, so you’ve got a headstart on the growing process. You might like to buy lettuce or spring onion seedlings, or slower growing vegetables (pepper/capsicum seedlings will save you a few weeks of growing time). If there are multiple plants in each cell, you’ll need to thin them out or they will suffocate one another and not grow well.

If you can’t get seeds or seedlings at the garden centre, online gardening groups are a great place to swap seeds. Even if you can’t go out, members will often post seeds to you if you cover the postage (I’ve done this in the past).

You can even plant seeds you find in your pantry – such as coriander, mustard, amaranth or parsley seeds.

Whatever you choose, ensure you plant according to the instructions (and if there are no instructions on the packet, check online). Some plants – like broccoli or cauliflower – need a large space to grow, even though the seeds are tiny.

Start small, and learn as you go

You’ll learn much faster once you’ve started, so don’t try to read everything beforehand. Start, but start small.

The way I learned to garden was sticking some seeds and plants in my allotment, and seeing what happened. Then, as I noticed issues (seeds not germinating, or yellow leaves, or plants being munched by birds) I’d look up solutions. Some seeds can take weeks to germinate (others are fast, so you may have a dodgy packet of seeds), yellow leaves can indicate a nutrient is missing from the soil, or perhaps there is too much watering, and netting or cut up plastic bottles can protect seeds from birds (in the UK, birds would always eat my beans – but here in Perth the birds aren’t interested).

If you really don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do too much too soon. Plant a few things one week, and a few things the next, and so on. Better this than spending a fortune buying a raised garden bed and planting hundreds of dollars worth of plants, only to realise down the track you put the bed in completely the wrong spot, and discover all the plants you chose are frost-sensitive after they are wiped out overnight.

There is so much information out there. Books, YouTube videos, blog posts, social media pages and groups. Where possible, try to find information that’s local to where you live. The people growing food where you live will know what pests are common, which varieties grow best, the weather patterns, what to plant right now, what you might need to add to the soil… and where to find what you need.

Growing food is fun, a useful skill to have, and infinitely rewarding. It’s easy to forget the problems of the day when you’ve got your hands deep in soil. And there is nothing (nothing!) that tastes better than a homegrown carrot. Not even chocolate. Promise.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you starting to try growing food for the first time? Are you stuck or have any questions? Have you been growing food for a while and have any tips for newbie growers? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

How to grow a pineapple from scratch (from a pineapple)

This year, I’m working hard to transform my little patch of lawn into a productive food forest – or the beginnings of one, anyways. (They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I’m pretty sure they say a forest doesn’t grow in a year – but the foundations can be laid, for sure!)

If I was to buy a heap of plants to fill the space, I’d be bankrupt pretty quickly. Where possible, I’m trying to fill the space with plants I’ve grown from nothing – or rather, from cuttings, seeds, roots and runners.

It’s not possible with every plant I’d like to have, but there are lots of options.

I love the idea of using ‘waste’ to create something new. And I love watching nature do its thing. One of my favourite things to grow right now is pineapples. They are magical.

I thought I’d talk you through the how.

Pineapples are a tropical plant, but they will grow successfully and fruit in Perth (where I live). They’re also quite a fun plant, so they look good regardless of whether they fruit or not – but having plants that could potentially also feed me in the future is a winner.

If you’re not in a Mediterranean or tropical climate, you can still grow pineapples, but they’ll need to be kept indoors during the cooler months. I’ve read that it’s possible to get them to fruit, but I imagine it’s a lot more work.

Nevertheless, they make a fun indoor plant if you’re in colder climes. A cool experiment. A good conversation starter. An excellent gift.

Here’s how you grow one.

Step-by-step guide to growing a pineapple

You’ll need a pineapple with its green spiky head attached. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a pineapple with a more than one head, or possibly a main head and side sprouts. For every head, you’ll be able to grow a plant, so the more the merrier.

This pineapple has a main head, and a little side shoot to the side. Two future pineapple plants for the price of one pineapple.

Next, chop off its head – or rather separate the fruity part from the green spiky part. You want to try and cut between the fleshy pineapple part and the head so that there is no fruit attached to the green head part. (The fruit will rot which won’t be good for the plant.)

Pull off some of the bottom outer leaves. You may see roots when you do this, or you may just see little stumps that will grow into roots. Pull off enough that there’s a small ‘stem’.

Sit the pineapple on top of a jar filled with water, ensuring the stumpy root part is submerged. The leaves can help prop the plant up on top of the jar.

Suspending the pineapple rather than sitting in a saucer ensures the roots have space to grow downwards.

Wait.

The pineapple may sprout roots straightaway, or nothing may happen for ages. (I’ve tried two varieties: one sprouts straightaway and the other takes forever.)

Ensure the water is topped up so the root part stays submerged. I haven’t found it necessary to change the water.

Eventually, roots appear.

I wait until the roots reach the bottom of the jar (we are talking a few weeks at least), and then I repot in some well draining soil. Eventually I plan to put mine in the ground, but they can be grown in containers.

You have a pineapple plant!

More things to know about growing pineapples

Pineapples do not grow or fruit quickly. Growing a pineapple this way will take 24 months to fruit, and another 6 months for the fruit to develop. Plus one plant grows one pineapple, so you won’t be inundated in pineapples.

Another thing to know about pineapples: they take most of their nutrients through their leaves, not the soil. Feeding with worm castings, soluble seaweed solution or another natural feed is better than synthetic fertilisers which may burn the leaves and damage the plant.

Finally, you might come across information that tells you that you don’t need to bother getting the pineapple head to root before planting, and you can simply stick the freshly cut head straight into a pot or in the ground. Personally, I love watching the magic of roots appearing right before my eyes.

That would be lost if I simply stuck the head in some soil, which is why I prefer this method.

Here’s the beginnings of my pineapple plantation (all grown from pineapple tops)…

Now, doesn’t that just make you want to head to the shops to buy a pineapple?!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you had any success growing plants from scraps? Have you had any fails? Anything on the to-do list for one day soon? Any questions about growing plants from scraps in general? Anything else you’d like to add? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Why I’m Keeping Chickens (for Zero Waste)

I’ve loved the idea of having chickens since my days of renting an upstairs apartment. I was hopeful in my last place that it might be possible, but being a strata (7 units on a single block with 7 owners and opinions – plus tenants in the mix) there needed to be consensus, and alas – there was not.

Since I moved, chickens have been back on the plan, and three weeks ago, they moved in.

Now clearly I’m no chicken expert (!) – although side note, I did read a lot of books on the subject first, more on that in a second – but I thought it might be interesting for you if I explained why I’ve got chickens, how chickens fit with a zero waste lifestyle and what you might like to do if you’re thinking of getting chickens, too.

Why chickens?

Lots of reasons, actually! Chickens have a lot going for them.

Reducing food waste.

Chickens are great munchers of food scraps. They can’t eat everything – they won’t eat rotten or mouldy food (and it is dangerous to feed them this) – but they’ll eat cores and seeds and rinds and stems and bits that might otherwise head to the compost caddy.

Pest control.

Chickens are omnivores and will eat all kinds of insects: grasshoppers, cockroaches and caterpillars, for example. They will actually also kill and eat mice. Because I want to grow food in my back garden, chickens can help keep the bad insects under control.

They are also great for managing fruit fly, which live in the soil for part of their life cycle (the larva and pupa stages) and can wreck fruit crops. Not that I have any fruit trees producing fruit yet, but I will.

Lawn control.

Chickens eat grass. A flock of chickens can easily destroy a lawn – which in my case, is exactly what I want. Much better that it gets eaten than sent to landfill. As well as nibbling the tips they dig around and scratch it up (and poo on it) so it doesn’t stand a chance. Hurrah!

(The bit of lawn I do plan to keep is definite chicken no-go zone. For obvious reasons.)

Chicken manure.

All this eating has to end up somewhere! Chicken poop is high in nitrogen and good for the garden. It needs composting before adding to plants (it can burn young roots).

Chickens make great pets.

I love the idea of having chickens around, rustling around the garden and foraging for insects and eating my weeds. They are much more self-sufficient than dogs or cats.

Eggs.

I left this until last because although it might seem to be the most obvious, there are plenty of other reasons to keep chickens. I’m not particularly fussed about the egg part, as I don’t buy eggs as part of my grocery shop (I occasionally eat eggs from friends with chickens, and sometimes if I order breakfast out).

Most of the eggs I get I intend to give away to family and friends that might otherwise buy eggs. I’ve eaten some too. I’d rather use them than waste them, but I still don’t eat that many.

I know vegans who keep chickens and eat their eggs only (because they know how the chickens are fed and treated ). I also know vegans who keep chickens and leave the eggs for nature (chickens will actually eat their own eggs), but this works better if you’ve got more space. Broken stinky egg in the coop isn’t going to be fun for anyone.

Just to be clear, unless you have a rooster as part of the flock (which isn’t necessary and isn’t allowed in most urban areas), the eggs are infertile. A chicken’s shelled menstruation, as a vegan once told me. So eating eggs doesn’t kill unborn chicks.

Getting started: do some chicken research

Personally, I’m not into ‘winging it’ (no pun intended) when it comes to keeping live animals. I’d rather have a good grasp of the basics and have an idea at least of where to look and where to go if I run into problems. Of course we can’t learn everything beforehand, but having a basic understanding goes a long way.

Read chicken books

I literally borrowed every book in the library to do with keeping chickens (and one of keeping quail) as well as borrow another from a friend. There was lots of stuff in there that was irrelevant for me, such as raising chicks, showing chickens at competitions and – no thanks – how to eat your chicken (I don’t eat meat anyway, but eating your pets seems a little wrong).

But there was lots of useful tips too, and it was helpful (honestly!) to read conflicting opinions on things.

If you’d like to read up on keeping chickens, I found these three books to be the best:

Backyard chickens: how to keep happy hens, by Dave Ingham (Australia)

Chickens: the essential guide to choosing and keeping happy, healthy hens, by Suzie Baldwin (UK)

Keeping chickens: getting the best from your chickens, by Jeremy Hobson (UK)

(All were available at my library.)

Find people in your neighbourhood with chickens

I have lots of friends who keep chickens, so this was easy for me. One in particular (who has been keeping chickens for 5 years, and has a flock of 12) lives two streets away.

It’s handy to have people in your nieghbourhood to ask questions, and also to pop round and look at their setup (they can give you advice about predators, sourcing things like food and advising on good local vets in a way that a book never could).

If you’re not fortunate enough to already know someone with chickens (and even if you are), there are also online communities.

Join an online chicken community

There are heaps of forums dedicated to keeping chickens, and also plenty of Facebook groups so connect with people this way. (If you don’t have local friends with chickens yet, try connecting with local owners here.)

Forums and groups are a great way to ask questions and find knowledge; however it’s not always obvious which advice is right or who to trust. It also depends on the question and the consequence of wrong advice. Particularly with sick chickens, the advice of a vet will be better than trying a homemade remedy from somebody you don’t know whose chickens you’ve never seen.

Talks and workshops

It goes without saying: if you can get to a talk or workshop by a chicken owner, you’ll learn heaps. I went to one by a vet, and it was really helpful – there was a big focus on chicken welfare with lots I hadn’t considered before.

Getting ready for chickens: setting up home

There are a more things few things to consider before actually getting chickens and bringing them home. Including their home!

Rules and regulations

You’ll want to check with your local council whether chickens are allowed, how many you can keep and if there are any other restrictions (such as being a certain distance from the house, or away from fences).

The fences rule might seem arbitrary but actually, a lot of fences in Australia were sprayed with toxic chemicals such as Dieldrin right up to the 1970s. It’s worth getting eggs tested if you intend to eat them to check that your soil isn’t contaminated – whether with Dieldrin or something else. If it is, there are remedial measures (removing and replacing the soil, or building a concrete base for your coop).

Choosing a suitable home

It’s important to choose a home that’s suitable for the climate, and predator proof.

I’m in the fairly unusual situation of living in a suburb that doesn’t have foxes. Fox-proofing my chicken coop isn’t necessary, but for most people, it’s an absolute must. Some people may have to think about snake-proofing, too, and also birds of prey.

The only threat where I live is hawks, and they tend to only take chicks and maybe young ones, but not full-grown hens.

Ideally, chickens need shelter from the elements, a dark space to lay eggs, and somewhere secure and well ventilated to sleep. The need shade, access to dirt for dust bathing and also space in the sun.

I’ve read that chickens can manage on 1m2 per chicken. Manage maybe, but when you factor in all these things, plus the fact they will poop in this space too, more space is really better. Allowing them to graze somewhere else during the day makes for more sanitary conditions and happier chickens.

It’s possible to buy coops or make your own. I was very stressed about this, not having any skills to make my own but really wanting to find something second-hand over buying new. Even with plans, I think a DIY coop would take me months to build.

My prayers were answered when one of my readers (Alison) saw I was reading chicken books, and donated her second-hand but unused coop.

This is Alison’s Retirement Home for Second-Chance Chickens:

Another friend lent me some fencing so that I could create a run for during the day to extend the space. She also lent me a couple of feeders to use, and gave me some crumble (a type of chicken food) to get my flock started.

Honestly, I think she was impatient I was taking so long! I don’t like to rush these things…

Bringing chickens home

The books all write about going to reputable breeders, but I only want to rehome or rescue chickens (I don’t want to add more animals to the world). Factory farmed (battery) rescues aren’t recommended for newbies like me (both the books and an experienced friend told me this) and so I rehomed some chickens from a family who had a change in circumstance and could no longer keep them.

I took my friend with me when I got them (honestly, I’d never have caught them without her!) and she gave them the once over so that if there was anything that needed treating, we could deal with it. I wouldn’t know what to look for. One came with lice and mites, but we’re working on that and she has a clean area to dust bathe (which suffocates them).

I only planned on getting three, but there was a cute little teenager there who I couldn’t resist bringing with me…

She’s called Alison, and she is an araucana. The other three are all different breeds.

One is an ISA brown called Billina, who is the boss of the flock, mostly because she is the bravest. The others run for cover when I come, but not Billina. She trots up to see what’s on offer.

The black chicken is an Australian breed called an Australorp. She is huge with a black beady eye and she is called Dark Emu. Despite her size she is scared of everything. Half the time I think she has escaped because she blends in so well with the shadows.

The chicken with the collar is a welsummer called BossyBoots, mostly because she is bossy even though she is not the boss. She pecks at poor Alison (definite mean streak, this one). She is also extremely loud, announcing when she (or anyone) has laid an egg – and sometimes announcing even when there is no egg. People can hear her on the next street (I wish I was joking).

And that’s the flock! They’ve been here three weeks, and so far so good. It’s amazing to discover all their personalities and I’m very fond of them all already. Looking forward to more chicken adventures as the months unfold…

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have chickens? Tell me more! Are you thinking about getting them? Do you have any questions about keeping chickens, or any advice for newbie chicken keepers like me? Let’s get the conversation started: share your thoughts below!

Zero waste gardening: turning lawn into food, starting with compost

This year, I’m turning my attention to transforming my garden from lawn into (a version of a) food forest. Think fruit trees, veggies, herbs and edible natives. If you’re new here, you might not know that I moved house last October: away from my previous place with its shared community garden, to a new space… and my very own backyard.

(And front yard. And verge. So much potential.)

Any old posts you’ve read will be about that previous place. Now, I’m starting again from scratch. Almost literally, as the new garden is about a blank a canvas as you can get.

Well, if that blank canvas was covered in lawn, perhaps.

There’s a few reasons why I want to spend more time in the garden this year. Yes, gardening is fun, and yes, there is nothing tastier than food you grow yourself. But it’s more than that.

You might have heard people talking about ‘resilience’ in the face of the growing climate crisis: growing food is something that we can do to be more resilient.

Even if it’s a few pot plants on a window sill.

Knowing how to grow food is a useful skill to have, and being able to share with your community is a great way to strengthen it. That’s resilience.

Then there’s the fact that the all of the screen time and the news can be overwhelming. I felt it more and more last year, and I need to find more space to truly switch off. Gardens can be that space.

As for writing about it… Well, I think there is always opportunity to talk about gardening from a zero waste perspective: avoiding plastic packaged products and synthetic chemicals, making do, re-using and repurposing, and the best one of all: sharing.

Plus there is rarely (never?) a single right way to do something. I want to share what I do and why, and generate discussion and no doubt more good ideas!

And as I have a blank canvas, I thought it would be a good opportunity to document my progress over the year. Maybe there will be some examples of ‘setting goals and smashing them’ or more likely it will be about troubleshooting and dealing with things when they don’t go to plan. Ahem. (Which option has your vote?)

Here are the ‘before’ pictures (back yard, and front yard):

And… here’s the plan. By December, I’m hoping going to have most of the lawn removed, some fruit trees in, a native verge and vegetables planted. That’s in twelve month’s time. I think that’s doable ;)

(Don’t worry, I’m not suddenly turning this into a gardening blog! I’m going to post an update once a month throughout the year, talking through the choices I’ve made and showing you – I hope! – some progress. There’s plenty of other things on waste, reducing plastic and sustainability that I still want to talk about. It won’t be all plants!)

Creating an edible garden from scratch:

Month 1: starting with the soil

Soil might sound incredibly boring, but that is where I’m beginning. Not with plants, not even with plans, but with soil.

Of course, what I really want to do is go to a garden centre and buy ALL the plants (because that is the fun part of gardening). But without knowing where they are going to go, and without good soil to plant them in, any plants I plant aren’t going to thrive.

I live in Perth, Western Australia. It’s basically a city built on a giant sandpit. The grey gutless sands of the Swan coastal plain (as they are less-than fondly called) are officially among the worst in the world. Possibly even the worst.

They are also extremely old, meaning they are nutrient poor.

This is what lurks just beneath the lawn:

I learnt to garden in the UK. There, you could pop anything in the ground at the right time of year and it would take off. Sadly, do the same in this soil, and your plants get smaller and smaller until they disappear altogether. (Well, except the local native plants of course – but I want to grow edible Western vegetables like broccoli for the mostpart.)

If I lived somewhere else, soil might not be my priority. Here in Perth, it has to be.

(Thinking about my long term goal of creating an edible garden, it’s not that soil comes ahead of planning, but soil and compost take time to create. Starting to think about soil now means that there’s composting happening whilst the planning of where the compost – and the plants – will go begins.)

First task, set up the compost bins and fill them up.

The very first thing I did when I moved was dig in the compost bin. Before I’d unpacked much more than the kettle. There was no way any of my food scraps were going in the landfill bin!

(If you’d like tips on getting started, I’ve previously written about how to set up a successful compost bin).

The thing about creating good soil is that you need a lot of compost.

How to create better compost, quickly:

Just putting the food scraps of two people in this bin would take forever to fill. And so, I gathered other ‘waste’ from different places to fill my compost bin.

  • I collected some bags of spent coffee grounds from a local cafe (most cafes do this – either proactively by putting ‘free’ compost by the door, or if you ask);
  • I was connected (via a request that came to a local community garden) with a guy making homebrew who has a 20 litre bucket full of spent grain every few weeks;
  • I’ve been given bags of shredded paper from an office (shredded paper gums up the recycling and isn’t meant to go in our kerbside recycling bins);
  • A friend with chickens has filled up some buckets with chicken manure and straw;
  • I persuaded by next-door neighbour’s lawnmower man to leave the grass clippings on my lawn for me to compost;
  • I rescued some tree prunings awaiting the verge green waste collection and shredded them (I invested in a second-hand shredder, so much fun);
  • I spotted another neighbour raking leaves to throw in the bin and gave him a bucket to fill for my compost;
  • I’ve updated my address on sharewaste.com to receive food scraps from neighbours – no takers yet but I’m sure they will come.

One bin quickly filled up, and I’ve now set up four bins. Two at the back, and two at the front. The two at the front are accessible for the neighbours to pop in their excess waste.

(FYI – I got all my compost bins second-hand, and three of them were free. Two were gifts, one was a score from my local Buy Nothing group and one I purchased via Gumtree.)

What’s so great about compost?

Ah, I’m glad you asked!

Good soil is a mix of organic matter, water, minerals, sand, clay, insects and microorganisms all supporting one another and helping plants to grow. Too much clay and the soil gets waterlogged; too much sand and the water drains away too quickly.

My soil is almost entirely sand. There’s next-to-no clay, and very little organic matter. Adding compost increases the organic matter, improves the soil structure and holds water in the soil, allowing nutrients to dissolve. It creates an environment for insects and microorganisms to thrive, and plants to grow.

If you think about nature, trees and bushes and plants are dropping leaves and small branches all the time. These leaves sit above the roots and break down (compost) in situ. They protect the soil from the sun, and trap moisture when rain falls. Animals come to eat berries and add manure to the tree roots. That’s composting, the way nature does it.

And if you think of most urban gardens, there are very few trees. If any leaves drop, they are usually raked up and not allowed to return to the soil. Lawn might look green – although it takes a lot of water and nutrients to keep it that way – but underneath, there’s not much going on.

Compost bins are replicating and speeding up what happens in nature, and providing that same resource to be added to the soil. With compost that we create ourselves, we get to choose where it goes and how we use it.

Compost does add nutrients to the soil, but it tends not to be nutrient-rich (most bags of compost will have slow-release fertilizer added for this reason). You only get out what you put in – so if your compost is made up of shredded paper, dry leaves and grass clippings, it will be teaming with life (microbes and insects) but won’t be high in nutrients.

This is fine when you’re growing flowers, or plants that don’t need a lot of nutrients, but isn’t so great for ‘hungry’ plants like vegetables – especially if you’d like a good crop.

If you’re composting food scraps, coffee grounds and adding seaweed and manure, it’s going to be better – but with the hungriest crops there may still be a need to add more nutrients (especially in nutrient-poor soils like mine).

For now, I’m not worried about the specifics of the soil. I haven’t planned exactly what I’m planting where, so my compost is for the basics: adding carbon, retaining water, and supporting life.

Up next: planning out the garden (and designing for the climate).

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have compost bins, and how do you use your compost? Do you utilize any interesting ‘waste’ when filling up your bins? Do you live in Perth and struggle with overcoming the sandpit? Anything you’d like to know more about? Please share in the comments below!