Do you have a planter box you’ve lost enthusiasm for? Perhaps you only have a small space to grow herbs and vegetables and want to maximise its productivity, but aren’t sure what that actually looks like.
We’ve put together a plan to make sure your planter box isn’t sitting empty and you have something to harvest all year round.
To help get you started, we’ve pulled together information on:
- Drainage and nutrients
- Selecting your veggies
- When to start planting
- How to start planting
- Plants that are slow growing or take up a lot of space
- Plants that grow well in small spaces
- Great edging plants
- Suggested plant combinations
- The best time of year to plant things
The best place to start
The very first thing is to decide what you want to grow. This is as simple as thinking about the herbs and vegetables you like to eat and use often.
If you want to be pulling things to eat out of your garden all year, keep in mind that you’ll need to follow the schedule of when each herb or veggie will need planting, and what can follow in its place.
And if you’ve got limited space, you’ll need to be fairly brutal about sticking to those schedules. This can mean pulling out a crop when it hasn’t quite finished to make room for the next crop.
Other elements that will help you succeed are choosing fast-growing veggie varieties, and staggering your planting so that your crops overlap (we’ll get to that).
The main options for places to plant are in garden beds, raised freestanding beds or pots.
If you’re digging directly into the soil, raise the soil level in the bed by adding compost and manure. This will not only help provide nutrients, it will also improve drainage. You can either mound it up in the bed, or build a frame of timber sleepers and fill that up.
Compost vs manure
It’s worth noting here the difference between compost and manure.
While both are termed “organic matter”, compost is generally decomposed plant-based material (made from your garden and kitchen waste) and is great for “conditioning” soil: it makes clay soil less dense so it drains better, and adds body to sandy soil, allowing it to retain more nutrients and water. It also stimulates soil microbes into action (that’s a good thing).
While it contains nutrients, the levels are usually far less intense than in manure.
Manure is generally decomposed animal waste; it might contain a mix of faeces, urine, spilt food and bedding (for example, hay from horse stables). It is a great source of nutrients for plants, being very high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Of course, the exact levels vary depending on the animal it comes from and other additives.
Some shop-bought manure is bulked out with a lot of vegetable matter, and going the other way, some people add manure to their compost. Just don’t add cat and dog poo, as these can contain parasites that won’t break down as easily. Dog and cat poo can be buried and will break down, but you don’t want it anywhere near your veggie bed.
The veggies versus meat distinction extends to liquid garden products. Seaweed-based solutions are great soil conditioners but not strictly fertilisers, whereas fish-based ones are very high in nutrients and are potent fertilisers.
Drainage and nutrients
If you’re using a free-standing raised bed or containers, then your drainage is already sorted.
Just remember that nutrients will leach out over time and will need to be replaced. Topping up with compost as you replant is a great way to keep soil levels high and nutrients restocked in any garden type.
Adding manure is a good idea when planting “hungry” plants such as brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbages, kale and their cousins), but don’t just spread it everywhere — many root crops (onions and carrots especially) prefer less-fertile soil. There’s no getting around it, you’ll need to do some research. Sorry.
If you only have room for pots on a balcony, then buy two or three of the biggest pots you can manage (about 60 centimetres across the top is ideal — you might want to consider wheels underneath to make them mobile).
Fill them with the best potting mix you can afford (never garden soil, which will compact and won’t drain well), then put them in the sunniest but most wind-sheltered spot you have.
What veggies should I grow at home?
The list is endless. But as we’ve said, there’s no point growing stuff you and your family don’t like.
Work out a list of the types of vegetables you tend to buy then see how they fit in with our suggestions below. You can choose crops by when to plant them or follow some suggested plant combinations.
As well as simply thinking about what you like eating, here are some other points to consider:
- Pick veggies that are expensive or hard to find in the shops. Herbs are a great example. Brown onions are cheap but shallots can cost a lot, so try them. Same goes for cherry-sized tomatoes, which cost heaps more than regular ones. Another thought-starter: fresh peas are hard to find in shops but really easy and fun to grow.
- What conditions you’re working with. Most veggies like 6-8 hours of sun a day, but large-leafed plants such as silverbeet, lettuce and some herbs are plants that will cope with a shadier spot.
- How much space you have. Some plants are slow growing or take up a lot of space, so they’re less practical to grow in a small space — unless you can find a dwarf variety. Instead, focus on the plants that take up less space, are easier to grow and that you can turn over quickly.
- “Cut-and-come again” varieties are useful. Rather than producing just one head of lettuce or broccoli, these types keep producing side shoots or leaves for several weeks so you can harvest them for longer. For broccoli, go to a nursery and look for ones with “sprouting” in the name. For lettuce, choose the loose-leaf types.
- Include some insect-friendly flowers and herbs. These not only look nice but also attract pollinators and predatory bugs (to eat the baddies). You can use many of the flowers in salads and they make good edging plants, as do permanents such as strawberries.
When should I start growing veggies?
The best time to start is as soon as you have prepared your soil.
Crop choices will vary depending on climate but unless your garden is under snow or you’re in the grips of a drought, Australia’s weather is generally mild enough to plant something at any time of the year.
To work out an efficient cycle of crops, think broadly in terms of splitting your space in two. One spring-autumn bed or container, and one summer-winter space.
The spring-autumn bed will be planted in early spring for harvest in summer, then replanted in early autumn for harvest over winter (check out your options below).
The summer-winter space will be planted in early summer for harvest in autumn, then replanted in early winter for harvest in spring.
This way you’ll always have something coming into harvest. Each space could be as small as a single pot, or it could be a much bigger garden bed containing several crops.
How do I start planting?
You’re asking your plants to produce big crops in a short time, so they will need to be pampered a little.
Regular watering is essential (don’t flood them, just make sure your watering is consistent). As they start to produce crops, it helps to add a serve of liquid fertiliser a couple of times a month.
Add more compost when replanting, and add manure before planting heavy croppers, such as corn, brassicas (cauliflower, kale, broccoli, etc.), melons, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes.
Looking for more help?
- Planting seedlings (instead of seeds) of slow-growing plants such as broccoli gives you a head start, but root crops (potatoes, carrots), peas and beans are always better grown from seed; they just don’t like being moved.
- Another trick to maximise space is to squeeze a faster-growing crop around a slower-growing one. For example, a tomato plant will eventually need a square metre of soil and can grow 1.5-2 metres tall — but not overnight. Speedy little lettuce, Asian greens and radishes can be planted, grow, and be harvested before the tomato even knows what’s happening.
- With the point above in mind, don’t be tempted to cram larger plants in too close or the whole row will struggle. Follow the spacing suggested on the pack you bought them in.
- Plant taller crops on the southern or western side of the patch, graded down in height to the smallest ones at the front, so everything gets a share of sun.
- If you have space (and time), allow one or two plants to go to seed — the flowers attract the pollinators for other crops and will provide you with seed for next season.
It can be hard to keep track of what has been growing where but it’s important because the same plants shouldn’t go in the same spot year after year. Get a notebook to jot down what you plant. It will also help you build up a picture of what does well where and when. You can learn more about the best sequences for crop rotation here.
Finally, when your plants do start producing (yay!) make sure you harvest regularly. Your plants are on a mission to reproduce and, as you keep stealing their babies, they’ll be triggered into producing more. This especially applies to cucumbers, zucchini and peas.
Plants that are slow growing or take up a lot of space
- Asparagus (it’s a perennial, so will be in one spot for up to 20 years!)
- Brussels sprouts
- Potatoes (unless you harvest as new potatoes)
Plants that grow well in small spaces
- Spring onions
- Any climbing fruit or veg
- Dwarf crops
Great edging plants
- Alyssum (sow seed in spring for summer flowers)
- Dill (plant in autumn or early spring)
- Basil (spring/summer)
- Coriander (sow seed in autumn)
- Garlic chives
Suggested plant combinations
Spring and autumn bed
Plant in August to harvest in December; replant in January to harvest in May.
- Peas (soak overnight to speed germination); followed with cucumber in warmer climates or spinach in cooler areas.
- Spinach, replaced by onions
- Beetroot, followed by bok choy
- Lettuce, replaced by carrots or radishes
- Chinese cabbage, then replant with peas
- Turnip, replaced with bulb fennel
Summer and winter garden
Plant in September and harvest in Feb; replant in March to harvest July.
- Tomatoes, replant with mizuna (Japanese mustard greens)
- Green beans, replace with kale
- Mustard greens, replant with carrots
- Zucchini, replant with mini turnips
- Swiss chard, follow with mini cauliflower
- Capsicum, replant with oakleaf lettuce
- Cantaloupe (up a trellis), followed by beets
- Cucumbers (grown up a trellis) replant with spinach
- Eggplant, followed by onions
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When to plant what
Autumn-winter sowing plants:
- Lettuce oakleaf
- Mustard greens
- Broad bean
- Broccoli (green sprouting)
- Sugarsnap pea
Spring-summer sowing plants:
- Silverbeet or Swiss chard
- Lettuce (look for slow-bolting types; this is mentioned on seed packets)
- Broccoli (choose a resprouting type)
- Dwarf or climbing beans