This Victorian couple prove you can grow abundant produce in small spaces — and without years of gardening know how
A re you one of those people who always dream about starting a garden but lack the confidence to do it? Maybe your parents never grew vegetables so you never experienced growing, picking and eating straight from the garden and you have no clue how to start. If, however, you haven’t got started because you think you don’t have enough space, all I can say is you’re wrong. There’s no excuse in today’s world not to be growing edibles. There are so many plants to choose from — large, small, fat, skinny, dwarf and even multi-grafted — and so many more varieties these days. You can grow them in pots, up a wall, in tankbeds on top of pavers … space is just not the issue you may think it is.
But let’s say you lack confidence. Well, meet Mark and Megan Russell from Mornington in Victoria, both in their mid 30s with two children, teenage daughter Britney and son Daniel 21. Yep, they started their family very early, but only joined the gardening family quite recently. When the Russells bought their home two years ago, virtually the first thing they did was plant vegies. Sadly for Mark, who was hot to trot, Megan didn’t want vegies taking over the entire backyard, so Mark had to accept defeat and start small with a few raised beds. An electrical meter reader by profession, he put his amateur skills into action and built three raised timber beds, filled them with composted organic soil and paved the pathways leading to them. They’re now up to their second crop in these beds, the first crop being all things green — lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, silverbeet and more.
In his excitement over having his first-ever vegie garden, Mark bought a few hens, thinking it would be a great idea to let them roam the garden to clean up all the pests that damage the plants. To his surprise, the biggest pests were his chooks — they ate all his lettuce seedlings before he had a chance to enjoy a single salad. Even the Collingwood scarecrow couldn’t scare them away. Obviously, his organic methods were good if his chickens ate the greens and it didn’t actually worry him that much because it meant more organic freerange eggs for the family to enjoy. To avoid losing any more of his wonderful crop, though, he built the girls a pen and a run with wheels attached to one side — a chicken tractor — so he can manoeuvre it around the garden as needed.
At first, Megan wasn’t at all impressed with the chookpen. I think her vision was to have a manicured garden with lush green lawns, but she and the chickens became quite fond of each other, so she accepted the loss of a little lawn here and there. After all, judging by Mark’s determination, I don’t think rolling lawns ever really stood much chance in the long run. While Megan is fast becoming fond of all things edible in the garden, her favourite plant is still the weeping cherry tree that has pride of place in the middle of the front lawn. Recently, it was looking like it was on its way out and professional advice suggested the recent heavy rains could be the reason: the tree may be holding too much water. So they dug a trench around it to help dry it out but what they found was quite the opposite: the soil was hard and crusted with absolutely no moisture.
I asked Megan what were the signs that indicated the tree was on its way out. “All the leaves had dried and fallen off and the weeping branches had started to pull inwards towards the trunk, almost like they were shrinking,” she told me. These are typical signs of a tree dying — but not from excessive moisture. If excessive moisture had been the problem, the leaves would have been turning yellow then falling off fresh; the branching would not have been shrinking but rather discolouring and becoming increasingly soft with the tips slowly drying. In any event, they were able to save the tree.
Mark has really taken to the recycling/ hoarding lifestyle. A quick look around reveals little signs everywhere: old concrete mesh and chicken wire rolled up in one corner, timber and bamboo stakes in another, the compost bin taking up a comfy spot against the back fence … then there are new raised beds Mark has built between the conifers along the side fence. Because conifers have strong, fibrous root systems, it’s almost impossible to plant anything beneath and have it survive, so rather than plant in the ground, Mark raised the garden beds, topping them up with fresh composted soil, and planted directly into the bed. This gets a two-forthe- price-of-one result. Feed and water the vegies and the conifers will benefit, too.
Megan is adamant about retaining the lawn area, though something tells me a lot of that lawn is destined to become compost. For the time being, Mark has planted everything in pots and planters. There are three along the side of the house holding corn, potatoes ready for picking and freshly sown carrots, leeks and lettuce. But he still needs to have his tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini to make his famous tomato, zucchini and basil quiche which, by the way, is delicious. The only place for them was at the back of the house, which faces north, making it the hottest spot in the garden — great for summer-growing varieties but having a brick wall as a backdrop can cause the plants to heat up too quickly and dry out if they’re not monitored regularly and kept moist.
So if you think space is an issue for you, take a leaf out of Mark’s book. Imagine this: two 1m x 30cm timber planters across the back wall of the house, each jam-packed with vegies: one with one zucchini plant, seven corn plants and two cucumber vines; the other with eight tomato plants — all rewarding effort with loads of produce. It’s the art of pruning — thinning out unwanted leaders and side shoots —that has helped Mark establish so many plants in so little space.
All around the garden, no matter where you look, there’s life and transformation: the timber planters with zucchini and beans growing out of them, pots lining the back retaining wall filled with freshly sown carrots, leeks and onions. Even the patio area was showing signs of being turned into a propagating and transplanting area, with seedling trays waiting for germination and pots sprouting a miniature tomato forest.
What started out as a plan to grow vegies in a few pots here and there is gradually turning into a full-blown productive garden, and Mark has Megan’s blessing. “It’s like a virus — a good one, that is,” he says. “You just put your seeds in the soil and before you know it they’re growing. At first we thought to only do a few pots but the vegies are so good to eat we can’t stop now. In a year and a half, we’ve grown so many varieties that I never ever thought possible, but it is. “You will never appreciate it if you don’t grow some yourself and you really don’t need a lot of space, either.” Hear hear, we say.