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How to grow vegetables in your backyard or balcony

Nothing tastes better than fresh vegetables picked straight from your garden. Even better, homegrown veg is better for your health, the environment and your hip pocket. And here’s the best bit: learning how to grow vegetables is nowhere near as difficult as you might imagine. All it takes is a little time, planning and a visit to your local nursery.

‘I grew up with Italian heritage and my family grew fruit and vegetables in large quantities, sharing excess with neighbours, family and friends,’ says Dr Sonia Nuttman from Deakin University’s Faculty of Health. ‘Growing your own vegetables is win-win for your health and that of the planet.’

Why grow your own food?

Even if you can sustain a diet of only UberEats meals, there are so many reasons to get into veggie gardening. Seriously – so many! First up, home grown veg is fresher, higher in nutrition and more delicious than the produce lining the shelves of most supermarkets and used by your local takeaway joint.

‘Vegetables from your garden are a powerhouse of nutrients, vitamins and minerals,’ Dr Nuttman says. ‘They surpass vegetables that have been stored in refrigerated conditions for months, not only nutritionally but also in taste.’

And because home grown veg taste better, you’re likely to eat more of them – and spend less money on vitamin supplements. This is a big deal because research shows just 7.5% of Australian adults eat the recommended amount of vegetables each day. ‘Growing your own leads to more healthful eating patterns,’ Dr Nuttman says.

Learning how to grow vegetables at home also offers a heap of environmental benefits. You’ll reduce food waste because it’s easy to pick only enough for each meal. You’ll save water because home grown food uses less water relative to the amount of food harvested. You’ll reduce packaging because you can use a reusable bag or basket to carry your freshly picked veg to the kitchen.

‘You can also choose which methods to use to grow your food,’ Dr Nuttman says. ‘Most people choose organic methods or permaculture which leads to reduced chemical use – or eliminates chemicals altogether. Pesticides are known to deplete soil biodiversity, kill beneficial insects like bees and pollute waterways.’

What’s more, you’ll save money, especially if you plant cost-effective vegetables that grow quickly, produce multiple crops and don’t need a lot of water. And all that digging in the garden helps to reduce stress and help you move more.

'Vegetables from your garden are a powerhouse of nutrients, vitamins and minerals, They surpass vegetables that have been stored in refrigerated conditions for months, not only nutritionally but also in taste.'

Dr Sonia Nuttman,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Which vegetables to plant

What you grow depends on lots of things – what you like to eat, where you live, what season you’re planting in and whether you live in a house or apartment. This interactive guide by Gardening Australia provides tips on what to grow and when across the country.

If you’re a total beginner, Dr Nuttman says zucchinis are a great choice. ‘They’re a very resilient vegetable, not prone to pests and quite tolerant of hot weather,’ she says. ‘Plus, they produce prolifically, so you only need one or two plants.’

She says other fool-proof options include tomatoes, pumpkins and potatoes, as well as all types of herbs, which can be particularly expensive to buy if you only need a sprig or two at a time. ‘Try these first of all if you’re new to growing and add some other veg like sweet corn or eggplant the following year to extend on your offering,’ Dr Nuttman says.

Short on space or don’t own your own home? Not to worry. ‘It doesn’t matter whether you live on a large suburban block, are renting or have a balcony as there is always something you can grow,’ Dr Nuttman says.

‘You can use pots for growing herbs and salad greens on balconies, and tomatoes don’t need much space. Pumpkins and cucumbers can crawl vertically, so you can train them to grow up a wall if space is limited. They also make great shade in summer, so if you’re exposed to lots of sun and find your balcony gets hot during summer, here’s an edible solution.’

How to plant a garden perfect for vegetables

Healthy soil produces nutritious food, so spend some time preparing your soil correctly before you get started on the planting. Sustainability Victoria recommends mixing animal manure into the soil before adding organic compost. Next, lightly sprinkle the soil with blood and bone fertiliser and water in well.

Most vegetables and herbs can be grown from seeds or seedlings, but seedlings will start producing vegetables much sooner. A sunny spot will help your vegetables grow faster. Follow the planting instructions and spread mulch around the plants to keep the soil cool in summer and warm in winter.

And when it comes to watering, always water the roots rather than the leaves. If your plants look droopy, a good watering should help to rejuvenate them. But beware the trap of overwatering – check the planting instructions as different vegetables have different water needs.

‘Make sure you learn how often you need to water and how much as plants can die simply from thirst or too much water,’ Dr Nuttman says. ‘Pay attention to the weather – if it’s going to rain the next day, avoid watering the night before.’

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Dr Sonia Nuttman
Dr Sonia Nuttman

Associate Lecturer, Health, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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