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Starting a vegetable garden

by Pat Featherstone

FILED IN: Green Gardening · Issue 3 · Soil For Life

Statistics published in recent editions of community newspapers make the mind balk at the incredible volumes of waste generated by Capetonians – enough, it was said, to cover four football pitches to a depth of one metre every single day.

Have a good look at what you are throwing into your garbage can everyday. Much of what we throw out is actually either food for the soil, or materials which can generate some income somewhere along the line by them being re-used or recycled.

If you read the previous edition of Biophile, and are serious about the state of your, and your family’s, health, you will surely have developed a heightened awareness of the waste that you generate in your household every day and be doing something about it. There can be no more productive solution than to take your own rubbish and put it to good use in a vegetable garden.

So, having gathered it all together and sorted it into the biodegradables and fashioned some of the rest into simple garden tools and equipment, you’ll be ready to get on with the next important activities.

Choosing a site

• Vegetables need a lot of sun. Choose a sunny spot. If your garden does not get sun all day, make sure that you put the garden where there is morning sun. Trees, hedges and buildings may cast shadows on your garden and so your plants will get less sunlight
• The vegetable garden should be close to your house so that it is easy to look after it. Out of sight, out of mind.
• It should be close to a source of water.
• Choose a place with the best possible soil (even if you have poor soil, it is easy to improve it by working in plenty of organic matter.)
• Once you have chosen the site, remove all grass, bushes, trees and their roots. Keep all this plant material for composting, mulching and filling trench beds.

Laying out the garden

Three points to bear in mind when laying out your garden plot:
1. If your plot is on a slope the length (long axis) of the beds should always be across the slope to prevent the soil from being washed away by rain
2. The long axis of the beds should run from east to west
3. The width of beds should never be more than one metre. All garden work should be done from the pathways so that the soil in the beds is never trampled and compacted
4. Paths between the beds should be about half a metre wide
Mark out the beds using a measuring stick and garden lines. The best size for each bed is one metre wide by two or three metres long. Once your garden is marked out, start preparing the soil in the beds for planting.

Soil preparation – the most important job

Soil must have sufficient air, water and nutrients for the germination of seeds and the healthy growth and development of the small plants. Most soils have been compacted by feet and other traffic and this makes it difficult for the roots to grow down towards the nutrients.
There are many different methods for preparing the soil for planting: However most soils are poor and compacted, and, in South Africa, there is a shortage of water. Trenching is the method we suggest for best results, although other methods will be discussed briefly in future articles. It is good where soils are sandy, or hard and compacted, for clay soils, and in very dry areas. It is hard work at first, but you will reap rich rewards for your efforts.


Digging your first trench

Before you start, collect about twelve black bags of assorted “rubbish” (organic waste) which will provide food for the soil. (Fruit and vegetable waste from home and the supermarket, pot scrapings, egg shells, bones, feathers, cardboard, paper, lawn cuttings, dry leaves, all garden waste, manure, seaweed. In fact, anything that will rot).

Then, having marked out the first bed,
1. Dig out the topsoil (one spade-head, or 30cm, deep). Place it to one side of the bed.
2. Dig out the bottom soil (subsoil), also to one spade-head deep and put this soil on the opposite side of the bed. Remove all large stones and boulders.
3. Loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench with a fork and cover with a layer of cardboard.
4. Put a layer (about 20cm deep) of coarse rubbish at the bottom and cover it with a 10cm layer of subsoil. Water both layers well.
5. Continue with these layers, removing any tins, bottles, plastic, synthetic (man-made) materials and rubber, until the trench is full. Water each layer well as you go.
6. Now replace the topsoil that you removed from the trench. Add some topsoil from the paths to the top of the bed as well. The surface of the bed will be about 15 – 25cm higher than the path when you have finished. The bed will slowly sink as the rubbish decomposes.
7. Spread one bucket of compost (if you have it) over each square metre of bed. Work it in and level the bed using a rake or a flat piece of wood.
8. Use a 50cm stake to mark each corner and remember never to walk or stand on the bed.
9. Cover the bed with a layer of mulch (a protective blanket for the soil and for the delicate roots of your plants). Dry grass, straw, leaves, even newspaper and cardboard can be used as a mulch.

Your first trench bed is now ready for planting. Once you have planted the first bed, dig and prepare the second one which you can then plant a month later.

Four trench beds – each one about the size of a door – will keep your family with a constant supply of fresh vegetables and herbs. You will be surprised at how much you can plant in your door-sized beds.

Planting your food garden

Things to think about when you’re planting
• Plant what you’ll eat, and remember that the bigger the variety the better for your health, and for the health of the soil
• For a healthy harvest, sow seeds in the correct seasons. Choose from the following list for the next two months. Carrot, beetroot, turnip, radish, onions and leeks, spinach, CM kale, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, parsley, kohlrabi, broad beans, peas and Lucerne. If you hurry you may also be able to sow some seeds of New Zealand Spinach for a year-round harvest of dark green leaves. It is also a good time for planting soya beans – delicious when fresh off the bush, and needing very little cooking.

Sowing seeds for a bountiful harvest

• Using your hand or a stick, make partings in the mulch to expose the soil. Do not waste any space. Start right at the edge of the bed. The partings should run across the length of the bed; short rows, not long ones.
• Use a measuring card or your hand to make partings in the mulch. For many vegetables, 20cm between the rows is sufficient. Larger vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower and broad beans need more space. The distance between rows can be between 30 and 50 cm.
• With a stick or your finger make a furrow in the exposed soil. The depth of the furrow depends on the size of the seeds – deeper furrows for larger seeds
• Carefully sow the seeds in the furrows – never too thickly, but always sowing a few more than you need in case some don’t come up. If too many come up, then you can transplant them to another bed, eat them or give them to a friend or neighbour.
• Cover the seeds with soil from either side of the grooves, press them down with the side of your hand so that they are in close contact with the soil, and water them gently with a watering can made from a tin with small holes punched in the bottom. Do not use a hosepipe; the strong jet of water will wash the seeds away
• If the weather is very hot and dry, cover the areas where you planted the seeds with a very fine layer of mulch – so thin that you can still see the soil through it. Remove the mulch covering the seedlings as soon as they come through the soil.
• Check every day, twice a day, to see that the seeds do not dry out.

Never be tempted to plant only one type of vegetable in your bed. With a little thought and careful planning, you will be able to plant nine to ten rows of different vegetables in a two metre long bed.

Take note:

• If you plant only one or two types of vegetables in your garden, you will find that there are long periods when you have nothing to eat from it, and short periods when you have too much! So it is important that you plan what you are going to plant and that you plant a big variety of vegetables at the same time.
• Roots differ in length and feed at different depths. Some plants have big leaves and need room to spread; others are small. Some plants are tall, while others are short.
Planting from seed costs you far less than buying seedlings from a nursery. However many people do not have much success when they first start. Here are a few tips to make it easier for you:
• Use fresh seed. You do not want to waste growing time by planting seed that won’t germinate because it is old and no longer viable.
• Seeds must be sown at a depth of three times their own size. Be careful not to plant too shallow or too deep.
• With very fine seed (carrots and lettuce) mix a teaspoon of seed with a cup of fine, dry sand when sowing. This makes it easier to sow thinly

If you’re worried about the birds eating your carefully planted seeds, or the heavy rain washing them away or compacting the soil, make a net from plastic mesh bags – the type that vegetables are sold in; open them out and stitch them together to make a cover that is big enough to protect your bed.

If you have planted your seeds carefully, said a little prayer for each one, and made sure that they are kept damp you will soon have the excitement of seeing the earth stirring as the baby plants muster the strength to force their way through the soil to the warmth of the sun. Good luck!


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  1. I can support the instructions given in this article because many of them I follow successfully in my own vegetable garden.

    Comment by Rory Short

  2. Instead of using sand to mix with fine seeds, use mealy meal. It works easier, and the meal also holds water right with the seeds - essential for successful germination.

    Comment by Nico

  3. Thank you so much for a very informative site! I live on a farm outside Stellenbosch; in the Western Cape. We’ve made a vegetable garden outside; but after some consideration decided to first plant the seeds in seedtrays; and we’ll plant them out once they’ve germinated. However; we planted the seeds; quite a variety: cauliflower; lettuce; cabbage; cherry tomatoes; carrots; cabbage; money maker tomatoes; radish; pepper; SA cucumbers etc etc; but none of them have germinated! The seedtrays are on the stoep- in full sun for most of the day; but protected from the other elements; and I water them twice a day. Do you have any idea when I can expect them to germinate?


    Marieta Woudstra
    071 3255 382

    Comment by Marieta Woudstra

  4. Stunning instructions and a perfect refresher course.
    If you want to plant into seed trays and then out into the garden why not try using old cardboard tubes like toilet rolls, bend one side in, fill with good soil and compost and let the seeds germinate. Once conditions are correct for planting, just put the whole tube into the ground. The cardboard will rot away into the soil and the roots remain undisturbed.

    Comment by Louise

  5. hi and thank you for a very informative article

    we work in disadvantaged communities in the strand, and are working with primary schools and creches in the strand, and wish to promote sustainable gardening practices.

    may you kindly assist us in providing organizations who will sponsor / donate to us with vegetable and fruit seeds

    your kind assistance in this regard will be most appreciated

    Comment by samed bulbulia

  6. Thank you for the information you provide with your article. Your really building tha nation about your article. The community as well as those who visit your article will be helped to learn to know that Gardening is the best way to go as well as the best way to minimise the costs. KEEP IT UP

    Comment by Lesibana

  7. After a season of vegetables, how do you know when to take the seeds to use them for the following season? Must you dry them, pick them fresh and immediately germinate them, or how do you do that?

    Comment by Retha Jacobs

  8. This is quite a coincidence, my name is Maritha, I live on Klein Joostenberg Farm between Stellenbosch and Paarl, and we have a lovely organic veggie garden, likewise Marieta Woudstra who also lives on a farm outside Stellenbosch.

    I don’t know how long ago her comment on the Biophile’s website was maybe she by now has the same wonderful garden as I do.

    This is the most awarding experience for me, being a vegetarian to be able to go outside and get from the mother earth’s abundance to fill your plate.

    What I found, is to sow seeds straight into the beds and just see that you keep the soil moist. Don’t worry too much if they come up they come up and if they don’t they won’t.

    I was lucky to find the garden here when we moved in, but sadly there was nothing growing then, but the soil is lovely. I made raised beds, with some wooden poles around to keep them in tact and worked in grape seeds/pips in the soil (get those from the wine cellars), it works wonders for the soil.

    I have now started to make my own compost, to work in the soil, in just a little corner in the garden using all kitchen left overs.

    We have spinach (I put a few, say 15 seeds in the soil, saw them come up and was amazed like when I was back in Junior school when we put a bean seed between the cotton wool to see how it germinates and grow) this was about 8 months ago, and I still from those few seeds can’t keep up with all the spinach I can harvest.

    The cherry tomatoes is just so generous, even while the plants look as if is going to give up the ghost, they still produce their lovely stuff, for salads and stews and what not.

    I must say I did put some seeds in the soil that did not germinate those were green peppers, but the ones that came up and gave in abundance makes up for it.

    I also had some melons from only two plants that came up from a few seeds, which was lovely.

    The lettuce are sprouting now again from the seeds that it sowed for me from the last harvest.

    I have enough gem squashes to feed a nation, which I just planted seeds from that I dried in the sun a bit, from bought squashes. The only problem that I have with them and this is why I went on to the internet and found the other Marieta also living on a farm outside Stellenbosch’s commenting on your website, was that the gems seems to have mould and the flowers then drop off. As I have an organic garden I wanted to know what to do, and again this is such a giving plant even if half of the stem is looking dry and dead it still grows and grows and produce.

    I would like to have much more in the garden but time is the essence and at the moment there is not enough of that.

    Green greetings

    Comment by Maritha

  9. Good day
    Many thanks for all the guidelines! I have tried it and it works perfectly. I have started my own compost heap and the eartworms are doing their part to give the soil the necessary. There is just nothing that gets to the taste of eating your own veggies! I would encourage everyone to follow these comments and enjoy the feeling of good organic food out of your own garden. If everyone has his/her own patch with veggies we all do our part to create a better future for all. It is so easy and simple. Even my kids joined in to plant what they like and now they are doing it at school as well. Way to go!!!

    Comment by Fanie Booysen

  10. Wow! At last! Veggie gardening made easy! I have always wanted to, but could never find any real answers about soil preparation etc. etc. (Gardeners tend to g(u)ard their secrets well! At last I’ll be growing my own!

    Comment by Louise

  11. i love to see that there are people this enthusiasic about gardening. Please help.

    i recently received a greenhouse as a gift and i’m a bit intimidated as i don’t quite know how to handle growing in pots; i’m used growing in the ground. i used to grow potatoes, patty pans, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach. can i grow all of this in pots? What size pots will i need? will all of these grow well in a greenhouse.

    Thank you

    Comment by Rochelle

  12. Lovely site, great info. I love to ‘grow my own’ and take great delight in eating my ‘just picked lunch’ of tiny tomatoes, fresh basil, a little garlic, salt, black pepper & a splash of olive oil (last 3 ingredients shop bought), - all deliciously warm from the sun. I am of the same mind as Maritha, sow the seeds and if they develop well & good, if they don’t try again. There is a Herb farm/Association north of Johannesburg that does eco-circle growing of veggies and herbs, I went to their open day last year and it was so inspiring. Thanks again for some great articles - I’m motivated to do more. Regards Lesley Morgan

    Comment by Lesley Anne Morgan

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