Robin Gale-Baker, with some assistance from Marina Bistrin, discusses no cost veggie gardening. This is one of a series of articles she has written about growing techniques (see right hand sidebar). She has also written a number of articles about growing various vegetables, herbs and fruit trees.
All veggie gardeners will be aware that setting up a veggie patch can be an expensive business. As more and more people strive to produce their own fresh produce in their home gardens, or on apartment balconies, finding ways of doing this economically are vital, especially if one of the purposes is to save money.
This article discusses possible types of place that the various inputs can be obtained free, with links to relevant lists and with examples from around Banyule (where I live).
Various nurseries, including Bulleen Art and Garden, have a recycle bin for used pots that they are more than happy for you to raid. To kill any soil borne pathogens, wash used pots thoroughly and then soak in a mix of water and vinegar for an hour at a ratio of 9 parts water to 1 part vinegar or spray the inside thoroughly with vinegar.
Free seeds are available through some seed libraries and veggie swaps. In Banyule, for example, there are seed libraries in the Heidelberg, Ivanhoe, Rosanna and Watsonia and there are veggie swaps in Heidelberg, Macleod, Montmorency and Rosanna. For the seed libraries, leave some of your healthiest plants to go to seed and then return saved seed at the end of the season. For the veggie swaps, take something to contribute.
These are often available for free from veggie swaps.
Soil and compost
Your veggie growing success will be dependent on growing in good quality soil. This is generally the most expensive aspect of establishing a veggie patch. Rarely will digging over an area of the backyard, or filling a pot with garden soil, be sufficient to grow healthy vegetables. Soil needs to be aerated and well draining as well as nutrient rich and garden soil is too compacted for this. This means producing your own compost.
To learn how to make compost, consult the internet or go to a workshop. You will need what is known as ‘brown’ and ‘green’ materials:
- Brown is anything dried – dry leaves, straw from stable litter, dry manure, coffee husks, dried material from your garden, shredded newspaper or cardboard, etc.
- Green is anything living – fresh lawn clippings, vegetables scraps, coffee grounds, fresh manure, etc.
Here is a discussion of possible free sources of these various inputs, again with links to relevant lists and with examples from around Banyule (where I live).
- Horse manure: Pony clubs often deposits stable litter containing horse manure outside their gates for the public to take. In Banyule, for example, we have such pony clubs in both East Ivanhoe and Viewbank. It is ideal if you have access to a trailer but large tubs that fit into the boot of a car are often used. One potential problem is that availability can be a bit unpredictable so it is best to call beforehand. The litter and manure constitute both ‘brown’ (the straw) and ‘green’ (the manure).
- Coffee grounds: Many local cafes are keen to get rid of their spent coffee grounds so approach them and ask. If they offer you a regular pickup, it is important to them that you pick up on time so they don’t have to store them in their limited space. This is ‘green’ material.
Coffee grounds are also available in bulk from Reground Coffee. This is a good way to get a truckload of coffee grounds in wheelie bins, and coffee husks in bags, but you may need to wait a while for delivery and need to be there for drop off and to help the driver to wash out the wheelie bins (which is quite a physical process).
- Coffee husks: These are good brown material for the compost. Break up any clumps in them and spread in thin layers to avoid matting. Coffee husks are available from many coffee roasters, including Beraldo Coffee in Heidelberg West, Knight Mattingly Coffee Roasters in Coburg North and Quists Coffee in Research. Ring in advance to arrange an appointment.
- Hessian bags: Hessian bags are often available from the same coffee roasters as give away coffee husks. Hessian sacks are useful to put round young or frost sensitive plants. Put in 3 stakes in a triangle shape and attach the hessian to form a windbreak.
- Leaves: Dried leaves in autumn are a good source of ‘brown’.
- Grass clippings: Grass clippings from your garden, the local mower person or anywhere you can reasonably mow (a neighbour may be delighted if you ask to mow their nature strip) are a good source of green and also heat up the compost pile, thus making it break down into compost more quickly.
- Mushroom straw: Some of the mushroom growers at the Melbourne Food Hub in Alphington sometimes have spent mushroom straw from growing packs that they give away or ask you to do some cleaning up of buckets in exchange for it.
- Wood shavings: Some furniture companies, such as F Fallshaw & Sons in Heidelberg West and Yard Furniture in Preston give wood shavings away. Ring beforehand to arrange collection.
- Wood mulch: Available from some community gardens. For example, the Sustainable Macleod Community Garden makes some wood mulch available which it takes from local tree lopers to prevent it going to landfill but with no guarantee about what is in it.
To make a speedy compost, mow all material so it is small and turn your compost weekly to aerate it. Make sure that you layer grass clippings in the heap and on top as these will become very hot and speed up the process. Oxygen and moisture are vital for speeding up the process also. Make sure each layer is moist because it will not break down if dry. Build a 1 cubic metre heap in one go as it needs this size to work well. In about 6 weeks you should have useable compost. If you have enough, dig it into your garden bed; if not, dig holes deeper and wider than your seedlings need and fill these pockets with compost. Then plant seedlings into these compost pockets. If you are growing in pots, you will need to add some soil to the compost. When well mixed, the compost element should provide sufficient aeration.