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Dabbling in the ‘dark’ art of veggie gardening

Garth Johnstone
By Garth Johnstone

Take my word for it, if you’re going to dabble in veggie gardening, get advice from the locals who have done it all before. They’ll save you time, money and calluses, and you’ll get the satisfaction of actually growing something much, much quicker.

My veggie garden mission a bit of a laugh, a mixed bag of successes and epic fails.

But back to the beginning. Of course, it all starts with a dream… “I’m going to live on a smallholding and grow my own food and nah, nah, nah, nah.”


I used to joke with people at work that I was going to live in a yurt. Well the yurt never materialised, but the veggie garden sort-of has.

For us, Nottingham Road became the “smallholding”/country living/veggie gardening HQ in which to play.

So the great escape, it’s a lovely idea, but have you done your planning properly? When it comes to the garden, what’s the soil like; is the ground level; which way does the wind blow, and the rain; acid v alkaline; companion planting; what’s the best compost? The questions keep coming, so it’s best that before you jump in and start breaking your back with digging, get it all squared away. Draw up a plan.

If you’re dealing with soil that’s rich in clay, you’d better be prepared for some hard graft. Pics by Nerissa Card and Garth Johnstone

Living in Notties, my biggest challenge has been soil. Soil, soil and more bloody soil. Here the stuff is hard clay. If you want to get any depth, you’ve got to get your hoe (no, not that one) and a spade and be prepared to graft. Or you could hire the neighbour’s Bobcat, but that would be perverting the natural process, which is part of the quest.

Daylight hours

Fortunately, we chose a pretty good position for our garden and subsequent tunnel. It gets enough daylight hours and sun, and catches plenty of rain. We have a JoJo tank to keep the stuff well watered.

The biggest learning curve, and one that was hard to accept, was that the soil was always going to be a bit of a nightmare. I have tried digging it up, turning it and mixing in compost and organic matter. I tried again, with different “good stuff”, always with modest results. Some things just would not grow. Yes, squash, beetroot, nasturtiums, spinach and potatoes have been great. Other stuff, not so much.

Good old beetroot. They never give me a hard time.

Dig In: How to grow your own grub

So upon some advice from neighbour Tammy Price, my wife Nerissa helped me build some raised beds and, voila, some of the stuff that was reluctant to grow took off. Greens, lettuce, peas, beans, spring onions etc. It’s a lot better. I still have to pay attention to the soil, but now it seems more fun, rather than just a mind-numbing slog. (Just a side note, in case you are a beginner in the Midlands, most of this stuff likes to grow at a specific time of the year. Peas are a good example. They like the cooler weather and, if you plant in about June, you will get excellent results. Frost in winter is a factor for many plants, as is extreme heat in spring and summer.)

I still can’t grow tomatoes (they get that annoying silvery look on the leaves and start to wilt), some herbs bolt and rush to seed, carrots take forever and are stunted anyway, probably because there’s not enough drainage and loose soil in which to grow.

The spuds are doing us proud. Vincent Mgwaba’s tip to pile up the soil around the roots – and a simple way to do it- saved time and helped produce healthy plants. Seed potatoes were bought at Forge in Bulwer while on a delivery run.

But that simple tip about raised beds has paid dividends. We don’t succeed with everything, not by a long shot, but we are getting some decent returns. I liken myself to a slightly tipsy sailor, stumbling about in the dark with some success and a lot of failures.

Aphids and other bugs and snails have been a nuisance at times, and we have used various organic sprays and home-made concoctions (garlic and chilli spray, for example) to tackle them, with pretty good results. My cabbages have always grown beautifully to a point and then been troubled by what looks like damp and little nunus between the leaves. Adios cabbages.

Mpophomeni agri-business trailblazer Spha Mabaso

We also had some good advice from local experts Kim Wiggett and Vincent Mgwaba, and I regularly haul out Jane’s Delicious Garden for the excellent monthly planner at the back that includes the Midlands.

Next on my list is to get one of those thingos to test the soil for acidity, and I want to get a worm wee set-up so I can give the old veggies a serious boost.

Always something new to learn

Moaning aside, this is the beauty of the whole process – there’s always something more, a new technique to learn, a new product/plant, a new investment. The basic stuff is not too pricey, and so for fairly little spend, you can have your fun and get some tasty, healthy returns on that investment.

If you’ve ever wondered whether you’ve got green fingers, there’s only one way to find out. Go and try it out… and make it something you CAN EAT!

Veggies and herbs for small spaces

PS: If you’re into local, fresh produce of the highest quality, see the Facebook group Reko Notties Local producers advertise their products, and where they are produced/sourced, and meet once a week to sell fresh veggies, meat, dairy, baked products, etc to the public. All orders are placed through Facebook. There are also groups for Howick and Hilton areas.

Paul Duncan: The original food hero

Food hero Fana Sithole


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