Food from the garden

Backyard food production is a hot conversation topic these days. What could be fresher than a few veggies or herbs harvested from the kitchen garden and popped straight in the pot or tossed into a green salad. Some of us may be hesitant to attempt growing our own produce but, really, it’s a lot easier than you might think.

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Edible gardening is a truly rewarding pastime that even busy corporate executives or first-time gardening enthusiasts can fit successfully into their lifestyles. Start small to build your confidence, or set about it as a family learning experience to share with your kids.

Quick and stylish

Wise gardeners appreciate the value of bedding plants as quick and colourful pick-me-ups for the garden. Some of these flowering favourites are not only easy on the eye but make an exciting addition to the dinner table too.

Pansies and violas can be eaten whole, plain or crystallised in sugar, as a sweet garnish for fruit salads and ice-cream. Nasturtiums are the easiest of plants to grow. The leaves are delicious, and the bold yellow, orange and red flowers add a peppery and visual zing to salads. Use the flowers of chives, garlic, fennel, coriander and rocket as edible garnishes that pack an unexpected flavour punch – these dainty white flowers all taste the same as the leaves of their herb.

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Keeping it simple

Most vegetables can easily be grown from seed, and there’s an unlimited range to suit every palate. Some such as peas, beans, and squashes have large seeds that germinate and grow particularly fast, and reward young gardeners with noticeable results.

Good garden centres also stock trays of strong, healthy seedlings that have been given the best possible start in life. These little plants will be right for the time of year and the varieties selected to perform best in the soil and climate types of that part of the country. Planting positions, feeding and other growing advice is right at hand too!

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Try a selection of crinkled or frilly lettuce seedlings in shades of red and green and plant them up in a formal design and watch the pattern fill out and come into its own in just a few weeks. These butter type lettuces can be harvested a few leaves at a time so you’ll be able to enjoy your creation as you eat from it over a good few months.

Gardeners can also make weekly purchases of just a few veggie seedlings at a time to both ensure a longer period of harvest and to keep careful control over how much time and care they’re able to devote to the veggie patch once it starts growing at full speed.

Focus with containers

Container gardens are easy to keep tabs on if you place them in a sunny spot near the kitchen or front door where you’ll pass them often. Mini-sized designer varieties of vegetables lend themselves to the confines of a container, and so do the fast-growing pick-and-come-again asian greens like pak choi and tatsoi.

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Surprisingly, potatoes are well-suited to container planting too. A fairly deep pot planted up with a good soil mix and healthy seed potatoes from a reliable supplier should yield a crop of the tastiest new potatoes within a couple of months. All they’ll ask is regular watering and a dose of liquid fertiliser every fortnight or so.

Hanging vegetable gardens command so much interest they’re almost an edible gardening hobby on their own. Tomatoes and other vining plants like string beans and peppers will create a cascade of edibles hanging from the ceiling and bring the joys of home harvesting to those who live in apartments.

Find the right height

Raised beds eliminate much of the digging part of kitchen gardening. They require some forward planning and an initial cost outlay, but the rewards are worthwhile in the long-term. Raised beds are also a great solution for too-sandy or stony soils and to manage landscaping challenges such as awkward dips and slopes.

Practically every type of vegetable and herb will flourish in this type of garden, and enthusiasts build up the quality of the soil in them to such a high standard that abundant harvests are gleaned from relatively small areas. Strong trellises are employed to train trailing crops like cucumbers and squashes up, rather than out, over a large surface area which saves on space, and makes things more difficult for the snails.

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Raised beds can be installed at many different heights and make the joy of tending and harvesting vegetables and trailing fruits more accessible to elderly or wheelchair-bound members of the family. A drip-irrigation system and water timer connected to the bedding system makes the everyday maintenance of these gardens more manageable too.

Share the work (and the harvest)

Community vegetable gardens fulfill a number of different needs besides the obvious one of spreading the cost and maintenance work. Groups of occupants in a home or office complex who are able to appropriate a portion of the common ground to grow a few vegetables together will generate a greater sense of community between themselves. The project will surely generate curiosity and interest in others too, and may inspire more such gardens and, perhaps, some healthy veggie competition.

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School gardens teach students, parents and teachers many important life-lessons ranging from team work, through biology, marketing and project management to how to fill an empty stomach. The skills learned in the gardens can translate into post-matric self-employment, small-business and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Think long-term

Trees and other perennials don’t yield produce as quickly as vegetable and herb plants do, but they’re well worth the investment in time and garden space. South Africa is made up of a wide range of climate zones and there are at least a few fruit or nut trees that will thrive in each one. An accredited nursery will stock the best varieties for the area and offer advice on the care of just one tree or an entire orchard.

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Fruiting shrubs like pomegranate, the various berry bushes, and small olive trees with their designer fruits fit easily into smaller gardens and judicious pruning will tame many larger fruit and nut trees into a manageable size. Grape vines double-up as summer shade for the pergola and a bed of asparagus, once established, will continue to produce its delicate shoots every spring for decades to come.

Go funky

Awaken and maintain an interest in edible gardening with fun and funky growing methods. Sweet basil, butter lettuces, and strawberries all lend themselves to vertical gardening in plant towers or in entire walls of edibles. Apples and many citrus trees, especially the kumquat, make beautiful bonsai that look particularly stunning (and delicious) when in full fruit. Time, perhaps, to connect with your inner farmer?

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Strawberries

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