How to guide for a backyard vegetable patch
A hearty minestrone soup filled with broccoli and beans sourced solely from a backyard vegetable patch may be a rather alluring prospect. It’s a more economical way of feeding your family than purchasing fresh produce from supermarkets.
Being home grown, a vegetable patch enables you to control the amount and type of pesticide and fertiliser used on your produce. It is also an excellent way to engage family members in an outdoors communal hobby. Indeed, vegetable gardens provide many benefits. But for many, the process of setting up a patch may be an unfamiliar and somewhat overwhelming process.
Inevitably, questions of where to start, which type of soil to use, which vegetables to grow, and where to position a vegetable patch in your backyard, will arise.
Follow this guide on how to make a backyard vegetable garden, and your home made minestrone soup brimming with locally sourced produce will soon be on its way to your dinner plate.
To begin, let’s take a look at the tools a gardener might need to create their vegetable patch:
- Tiller: A tiller is used to break up and loosen soil, giving plants more room to grow. It also gathers broken sod and fallen leaves – organic waste matter which can then be worked into your vegetable patch.
- Spade: Turning soil, digging up weeds, and transferring soil and compost to the garden, can all easily be done with the assistance of a sturdy spade.
- Wheelbarrow: An essential garden item for transporting soil, compost and waste from or to your vegetable patch. The stability and ease with which you can balance a wheelbarrow depends on the number of wheels – wheelbarrows with more wheels are easier to move and balance.
- Rake: After tilling the patch, a rake helps to break up chunks of soil and creates an even plain for planting your crops.
- Composters: A recycled plastic bin holds organic waste matter and prevents odour normally found in wheelie bins.
- Hoe: Used to chop weeds, shuffle soil over to create a hill needed by some plants, and dig trenches for planting, a hoe is a useful tool for establishing and maintaining your vegetable patch.
- Trellis: Beans, peas and some other vegetables need something to climb as they grow. They require support in the form of a trellis, so that they grow upward rather than outward into other plants or patch space. In addition, beans and peas will be more susceptible to disease pests, and consequently may rot on the ground if left unsupported.
- Irrigation System: How you water your vegetable patch will depend on the size of the space. A watering can will do just fine for small plots, but a hose with a sprinkler or nozzle will be more efficient and effective for larger vegetable patches.
- Pruners: can be used to harvest herbs and vegetables, deadhead plants, and cut back growth.
- Baskets: Once you see the fruits of your labour, you may require a basket to carry fresh produce from your backyard into your home.
If you are building a raised or ‘sunken’ raised garden bed (see step 2: Decide on the number and type of garden bed), you will need additional construction tools such as a power drill, saw, untreated hardwood or pine sleepers, 12-18 screws and a hammer. The type of pine sleepers you use, or other material, to construct the external walls for your vegetable patch will depend on the type of tools available in your local hardware shop – they may also sell alternative options.
Now that you’re armed with the right tools, let’s take a look at the specific steps to take when creating a vegetable patch…
Step 1: selecting the right spot
Vegetables love sunshine: A patch requires at least five hours of sunlight per day, so pick a spot for your patch that receives ample amounts of natural light. Direct sunlight helps to create disease-resistant plants and sweeter flavoured carrots, tomatoes, chillies and onions. Some produce, such as strawberries or salad leaves require shade, but that’s easy to accommodate in a sunny spot – just create some shade with netting or a wattle fence.
The amount of sunlight your vegetables receive will also be determined by the direction of your patch. Your plants should ideally run along a North-South axis to maximise sunlight exposure and ensure good air circulation. In the Southern Hemisphere, the sun angles to the north, so try to put your taller plants on the south side of the garden so they don’t cast a shadow over the rest of your crops.
Your patch should be flat: This ensures that plants receive equal water and sunlight distribution. However, having sloped land should not be a hindrance to growing a vegetable patch – slopes can be levelled out by lining the bases of the beds with flat rocks, wood slabs or boards.
Pick an area that isn’t too windy: If that’s not possible, erect a fence as a wind barrier to protect your plants.
Isolate your patch: It is best to keep your vegetable plot away from other plants. Ideally, patches should be planted around 3m from the drip line of trees. Otherwise, neighbouring bushes can absorb water and soil nutrients, depriving your vegetable patch of essential ingredients. There is also the risk of the roots of nearby trees growing into your patch and harming your vegetables. If growing a patch away from trees is not possible, consider digging a trench around your plot. The trench should be deeper than existing roots, or be dug until you reach hard clay. Then place heavy material which roots cannot penetrate, on the edge of the trench. Fill the trench with the barrier material. A barrier helps to prevent roots from making their way into your patch.
Step 2: decide on the type of garden beds
You can either create one long garden bed, or plant several beds in your backyard. The latter is generally recommended if you have a bigger yard, so that plants with similar requirements can be grown together, and then rotated to different beds on an annual basis. Continually growing the same type of vegetable in the same spot of your patch can encourage a build up of soil diseases. This issue can normally be prevented from arising by employing the technique of crop rotation.
If you have a spare garden bed designed to hold your plants in the next season, look after it in the preceding season. A ‘green manure’ cover crop helps to build soil tilth, adds nutrients to the soil and keeps it weed-free.
Then there is the question of whether to create an in-ground, raised or ‘sunken’ raised garden bed. If you are unsure of the difference, refer to the images below.
In-ground beds are preferable in warm climates, as they require less watering than raised beds. They are also easier to construct, as they don’t need wood slabs or lumber, unlike raised beds. However, a gardener will need to reach further down to reach the plants, and pets and children can easily walk over the garden beds.
Raised Garden Beds
Raised garden beds are preferable in colder climates, since the soil warms faster in spring and drains more efficiently, enabling you to begin planting sooner. The lumber sides serve as a barrier to weeds and pests, such as slugs and snails, from entering your vegetable patch. They also provide the best drainage of the three beds.
‘Sunken’ Raised Garden Beds
‘Sunken’ raised garden beds carry the same benefits as raised garden beds, however they do not drain quite as well. This type of bed incorporates the soil, so there is no need to import soil.
Because raised garden beds provide the best drainage, provide a boost to crops in shaded areas so that they receive sun exposure, suppress weed growth, and are easier on the back and legs with minimal bending required, this ‘how to guide’ will focus on the process of constructing a raised garden bed. But don’t be put off creating an in-ground bed if that is your preference, for it too has its advantages.
Raised Garden Beds Installation (Source)
To construct a raised garden bed, first, rid your selected spot of turf and weeds. You will require hardwood or sleepers to create the external structure for the bed. Your local hardware store may have alternative options. Work out how much wood you require based on the size of your vegetable patch. You will need enough wood to make the boards, as well as corner posts to attach the boards together. A 1.2m wide, 2.5m long and 400mm high garden bed will work well in most gardens of varying sizes.
Sleeper Installation (Source)
In this example, use planks that are 20cm wide and 5cm thick, and corner posts to fit. An additional post can also be placed along the sides of the planks for extra support. Two or three screws per sleeper will be required to secure the sleeper to the corner post. Mark and drill your screw holes, then attach the corner posts using screws.
Mat Installation (Source)
Next, attach the weed-suppressing fabric to each of the four sides of the sleepers. As you roll out the mat, ensure that it is pressed firmly on the ground and tightly against the corners. Use a staple to secure the mat in place. If you’re planting several beds, ensure that there is enough room between the beds for walking and rolling a wheelbarrow through.
Step 3: create fertile soil
Untouched soil that hasn’t been gardened before is ideal for your vegetable patch during the first year. This type of soil contains untapped nutrients and minerals that your vegetables will thrive on. But beyond the first year, you will have to work harder to ensure your soil is rich and fertile and in tiptop shape for a thriving vegetable patch.
Determine soil pH (the level of acidity or alkalinity in the soil): A soil pH level of 6.0 or 7.0 is ideal for most vegetables. You can check the pH level of the soil before planting, by using a soil test kit available at Bunnings or other hardware stores. A low pH indicates acidic soil and can be sweetened by adding lime. A high pH level in soil can be lowered with the addition of sulfur and rich organic matter.
Dry Not Damp: Before planting, ensure your soil is relatively dry by breaking up any clumps with a tiller, then going over the soil patch with a rake. Soil should be crumbly, not clumpy. You can also dig a trench around your garden bed for better drainage, or construct a raised vegetable patch instead of an in-ground one.
Black Gold: Gardeners refer to compost as black gold, because organic waste matter helps to create rich, nutrient-filled soil. Compost should be added once your soil is clump-free and crumbly after turning. The organic matter should be spread across the top 1-2m of the vegetable patch, to ensure that the roots of young plants reap the benefits of exposure to organic materials. Bags of soil conditioner or rotted manure can be added to your soil as alternatives.
Once you are satisfied with the quality of your soil, add it into your raised garden bed. Fill the garden bed with well-drained garden soil and compost, while leaving a 30mm gap at the top.
Step 4: allow plants to breathe
Plants need space to grow and flourish into fully-grown healthy vegetables. A well-tended 3m x 3m vegetable patch will be enough space for most garden beds. It is recommended to leave about 20cm around a row of salad leaves, 35cm around a row of carrots, and 45cm around a row of beans. Eggplants require more space – about 75cm–1m per plant. Install a stake if you’re growing beans, as they need something to climb.
Step 5: pick the right produce for your patch
It’s important to consider climate when creating a vegetable patch. Certain vegetables will thrive in warmer weather, but may be disease-prone and difficult to cultivate in colder climates. Cauliflower, onions and peas do best in temperatures between 10-20 degrees Celsius or lower, whereas capsicum, potato, tomato and eggplant need temperatures about 20 degrees Celsius for optimum growth.
You can also decide when to plant crops based on their climate requirements. The vegetables that require high temperatures will need to be planted and given time to grow in the warmer months of the year. Picking the right produce also involves consideration of pest control. Pests can often be warded off naturally by employing the technique of companion planting. This type of planting involves growing complementary plants close together.
For example, onions and carrots should be grown close to one another, as the pungent smell of onions is supposed to confuse pests drawn to carrots. The strong scent of basil also repels aphids that are often drawn to tomatoes and other produce.
Step 6: plan your planting
You might have carved out enough space for a small vegetable plot to begin with, but it’s also worth considering any long-term ideas for your backyard space. Plans to plant trees, or additional plants, may interfere with your patch. For example, if you plan on branching out into fruit trees down the track, set aside a 6 metre root spread, and consider the shading effect of a tree on other vegetable plants.
Step 7: the plot thickens
Now that you have created your vegetable patch, filled it with rich soil and selected suitable produce for your patch, it’s time to begin planting. The overall layout and configuration of plants in your vegetable plot is another element to consider. There are two primary approaches to plant vegetables – row cropping and intensive cropping. The latter is generally recommended for smaller patches, as it enables you to compact more vegetables into a smaller space.
Row Crops v. Intensive Crops
However, the closer spacing of plants means you usually have to weed by hand, a more time-intensive process than using a tiller between plants with the row cropping approach. Intensive cropping tends to be more visually interesting, as you can create your own pattern and display of crops. Incorporating decorations, such as garden gnomes is another way to create a unique and interesting visual effect.
Step 8: caring for your crops
Once you have set up your vegetable patch and planted the seeds, you’ll need to continually tend to your crops.
Mulching: Adding mulch to your patch will help your garden to retain moisture during a hot summer, suppress weeds, and prevent soil crusting. Mulch should be placed on the ground surrounding each plant, and will gradually work its own way into the soil. Mulch reduces the need for weeding and helps to conserve water by reducing evaporation through the surface of the patch. Examples of mulch include barley or pea straw (easily incorporated into the soil by worms), alfalfa hay, fresh seaweed that brings minerals to the soil and deters slugs. If you use seaweed as mulch, ensure you place a generous amount on the soil as it dries and shrinks easily.
Most patches will need to be mulched on a yearly basis, but if you are using finer mulch you may need to provide a top up more frequently.
Watering: Plants like to be watered frequently – at least every day for the first few days. After that, slightly reduce the amount and frequency with which you water your plants. This reduction will encourage the roots of plants to grow deeper in search of water, and ultimately help your crops to grow into stronger, healthier plants.
Pest Control: If you rotate your crops annually, mulch fairly regularly, and have a healthy vegetable patch rich in organic soil, pests are much less likely to be drawn to your vegetable plot.
But sometimes pests will persist. Homemade natural pesticides like garlic, chili or coffee mixed with soapy water can be used in these situations. Using seaweed fertiliser in mulch or spray form also helps to prevent disease in plants.
A sustainable and thriving vegetable patch requires consideration of a variety of elements. Creating rich soil is perhaps the most important element to bear in mind. Rich matter helps to establish a fertile environment in which vegetables can flourish, so cultivating quality soil is well worth your toil.
Written by Sophie Deutsch