Grow Your Own – Week 2

GYO week 2

Notes by Phil Dudman

It’s week two of the Grow Your Own Challenge and hopefully by now, you have chosen and prepared a spot to grow your vegies. This week we’re looking at what you can grow now and how to plant and take special care of your vegies in their early stages.


Vegies love a soil that’s rich in nutrients so they’ll benefit from the addition of a little fertiliser before planting. Blood and Bone is an excellent organic slow release fertiliser that’s perfect for pre-planting. Don’t over do it – too much will burn sensitive young plants. Spread it at around at about one handful per square metre and dig it in well.

What’s in season?

Not all vegies can be grown any time of year. Corn for example is an excellent crop for spring and summer growing, but because it loves the heat it will never do well in the cooler months. Just as English spinach, a favourite for autumn and winter planting simply cannot cope with a northern rivers summer. Whenever you’re planting, make sure the crops you choose are suited to our region and the particular time of year. To help you with your preparation, we’ve put together a list of top ten vegies you can plant in the main growing seasons of autumn/winter and spring/summer. If you’d like a more extensive list, visit and click on Australian subtropical climate zone. This will give you a comprehensive month-by-month planting guide.

Seeds or seedlings

All vegies can be grown from seed and it’s an economical way to go, but my advice to anyone growing vegies for the first time is to buy seedlings. Raising plants from seeds takes a higher level of skill, which you no doubt will acquire over time. Nevertheless, if you want to have a go, some vegies are very easy to grow from seed, even for first timers. Try radishes, Asian greens, rocket and tomatoes. Some plants don’t transplant well as seedlings and are better planted by seed sown directly into the soil. This applies mainly to root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips.

How to choose and plant seedlings

Start by choosing punnets of seedlings that look healthy. Avoid buying seedlings that appear oversized in their punnets with dry or yellowing foliage. It’s never a good start to buy stressed plants.

Multi-cell packs make planting out easy because each cell contains the complete root system of an individual plant. Each plant pops out smoothly with a little squeeze at the base of the cell. Greater care is needed to separate seedlings that are crowded into single cell punnets. In this case, tip the whole lot out of the punnet, and gently pull the seedlings apart trying to keep as much of the roots intact as possible.

It’s always a good idea to soak any punnet of seedlings in water for 10 minutes or so before removing the plants. This is to make sure the mix is moist and the plants are fully hydrated. Adding a little ‘liquid seaweed’ to the water will help to strengthen the plants and reduce transplant shock. You can get seaweed extracts from any garden centre.

When you plant your seedlings, set them in the soil at the same level they were in the punnets. Make sure the roots are completely covered, but be careful not to bury your plants too deep. Check the label too and follow the directions for spacing your particular crop. Once planted, water them in well, again, using a solution of liquid seaweed for best results.

How to plants seeds and get them to germinate

The first rule for planting seeds is to check the use by date on the pack. Planting old seeds is a waste of time – always go with fresh stock.

The next thing is planting depth. This can vary depending on the type and size of seed and it’s important to get it right. When you plant too deep, seeds may rot – too shallow and they’ll dry out easily and never germinate. Seed packets will usually give you a guide to sowing depth, but a general rule for any seed is to plant at a depth that is 2-3 times the width of the seed.

Seeds need to be planted into a moist soil, which is kept evenly moist until the seeds germinate. On the other hand, some of the bigger seeds such as peas, beans, corn and zucchini can rot very easily and should be watered in well and left pretty much alone until they germinate. That’s where acquired skill and experience comes in.

How to care for young seedlings

Nurseries are a cosy place for baby plants where they receive almost constant attention in a safe and protected environment. Planting them out into an open backyard can be quite a shock, so you need to give your babies close attention in the first week or so. Watering is important. Give them a little drink every day for the first few days to keep the soil around their roots evenly moist. Once they settle in and start to grow, reduce the regularity and increase the depth of watering. If the sun is particularly hot in the first week or so, protect the plants by covering the bed with shade cloth. Place a few upturned plastic nursery pots across the bed to help elevate the cloth and keep it off the seedlings and soil surface.

Phil’s Top Tips

1. Choosing crops – Choose crops that are suited to our region and the particular time of year – follow our easy online guide for what to plant when.

2. Seedlings – Seedlings are easier to grow than seeds, especially when you’re new to gardening – multi-cell seedling packs make planting out a simple task and guarantee success

3. Protection – Treat your newly planted seedlings like babies – keep them moist and protect them from the hot sun and damaging winds until they settle in.

Katrina Shields returns this week as our guest writer

Getting down to business – soils, mulch and plants

Understanding what type of soil you have:

A: Soil texture has a lot to do with the average size of the particles.

Sand – large particles, does not hold together in clumps, harder to hold water or fertility

Clay – very fine particles can stop water penetration. Has high mineral content, but water-soluble nutrients are often leached out.

Loam – has a technical meaning, but the common use is a mixture of medium size particles, has reasonable to good water & fertility holding qualities.

B: Soil structure has to do with the ability of the soil to form small clumps.

The air spaces between the tiny clumps allow water and plant roots to move through the soil.

  • Sand has poor structure and water drains through too quickly. Clays can be compacted which doesn’t allow water to penetrate or drain away.
  • A healthy soil with good structure promotes the movement of worms and other microorganisms and holds organic matter.
  • Generally, we have some very good rich soils on the north coast of NSW – some of the volcanic red and black soils, that supported rainforest or other types of forest in the past, are very good. The fertility now depends on the original material it formed from and how it has been treated since clearing the native vegetation.

C: Organic Matter or Humus

As this breaks down or interacts with the living organisms in the soil, it feeds the plants.

  • Organic matter increases the water holding capacity of the soil.
  • The key to successful organic gardening is keeping a high level of organic matter in your garden or container.
  • What the world needs now is a sense of Humus!

You need to decide whether to work with the soil you have, mix it with bought soil or do a no dig garden that involves building up soil with mostly organic matter.

Why you might choose any of these options.

  • Your garden may have pockets of great variability of texture, structure, organic
  • matter and fertility due to disturbance during building, history of the land use. Some
  • parts may be very compacted.
  • The uppermost layer of soil with more organic matter in it (called top soil) is the most alive and fertile. When this layer has been removed during housing development and you are left with poor subsoil, which needs a lot of building up or may not be worth using.

D: pH Levels of Soil

  • pH is the measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the soil.
  • It is measured on a scale from 1-14 with 7 being neutral. Below this is acid, above is alkaline.
  • Each number on the scale represents a 10-fold increase in acidity or alkalinity.
  • Soils from high rainfall and humidity areas or boggy soils are often quite acid. Most of our north coast soils are acid to very acid. It is rare to find alkaline or even neutral soils unless they are near some concrete or a lime pile. Some nutrients are “locked up” and become unavailable if soil is too acid (or alkaline).
  • Different veggies and herbs have slightly different preferences but most plants grow well in slightly acid soil (pH 6 to 6.5).
  • You can “sweeten up” soil i.e. make it less acid with a sprinkling of garden lime or dolomite (available from hardware & garden suppliers in small bags). A rough rule of thumb is a small handful (approximately 100gms) per square metre of soil. Read the bag for more accurate directions.
  • Beans, cucumber and beetroot like a bit of lime or dolomite before sowing.  Someplants such as strawberries and blueberries like acidity so do not lime them.
  • Worms also benefit from a bit of sweetening up the food scraps. Add a light sprinkle to the compost and your worm farm 1-2 times per batch.
  • You can test your pH with a simple kit which costs about $20 – a kit will do about 25 tests. (Note: Let the group know if you will give a demo on the field trip).
  • Don’t be daunted – most backyard gardeners never bother testing – but if your plants are struggling for no obvious cause- get a test done. Often problems are fixed by adjusting pH.

E: Soil Contamination

  • Soil can be contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, farm or household chemicals, deposits from vehicle exhausts, old lead based paint, flood deposits and so on. Some contaminants are no longer used but are very long lasting such as DDT.
  • Reasons for suspicion might be if it formally was the site of old garden/farm shed, an industrial site, next to a very busy road, previous use of lot of poisons by former tenants or old banana growing land.
  • Some contaminants can persist in the soil for decades. You have reason for concern you can use built up beds and use no dig methods or import soil (from a reliable source.).

Be wary about growing right next to a concrete slab or timber house stumps which may have been poisoned. Also be wary of areas near old timber that may have had lead based paint scraped off it. There are test kits available from paint shops for testing for lead in painted walls and you can get soil professionally tested through the Department of Primary Industries.

Fact Sheets

Top 10 Vegies – by Katrina Sheilds

Look after those babies! Next week we’ll be telling you more on how to nurture your darlings so they grow up to be big and strong.