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The simple answer is – not much?

Food plants in my garden December 2018

I live on a small suburban block of 780m2 and, on a recent walk around the garden with my grandsons, we counted 78 edible and useful plants – these includes trees, shrubs, ground-covers, herbs – annuals and perennials.

How much food do these plants produce in a year?  Well, after a quick tally we realised that it is probably around the 500 kilo mark   That is 500 kilos of healthy homegrown food that we know is organic and has come out of soil that we have fed and nurtured – and it is right outside the backdoor – and that means very little waste.  What is left over simply goes back into the soil to complete the cycle of life – compost, soil, seed, plant, fruit, compost – bingo!

My Mullumbimby garden with food plants scattered amongst the flowers, shrubs and trees.

What are the questions I am asked the most about having a garden that feeds you?

  • How much space do I need?
  • How do I deal with wildlife, pests and pets?
  • Can I have trees in a small garden and what should I chose?
  • What vegetables can I grow?
Fresh food from the garden

What about the wildlife eating or destroying everything before you can pick it? I’m fortunate not to have too much of a problem with this so I can integrate the food plants throughout the whole garden. 

Bandicoots give me a bit of grief.  They like do dig holes in the soil looking for earthworms and insects so, of course, what they are most attracted to is beautiful, rich, damp soil where you have just planted your lettuces!!  There’s nothing more disheartening than to go out in the morning and find a whole bed of seedlings lying dead on top of the soil – the ones you planted yesterday! What do I do? Bandicoots are small creatures and can’t climb very high so I just put some mesh around any new bed – about 50cm high – until the plants are established.

Birds.  I have realised that any ripening fruit will be targeted by birds – particularly the magpies and parrots in my garden – so pick it early (tomatoes) or cover with some netting (figs).

TOP TIP: A big advantage to having your food plants around the house is that you can keep an eye on them and get to any problems straight away. As well as having everything handy for picking – need a handful of parsley – right there!

Possums, Wallabies and Rabbits.  I don’t have a problem with these, but my friends who do resort to completely encasing their vegetable garden in a wire cage.  This solves the problem, but it means that the food garden cannot be integrated into the landscape. Needs must!

Cats – other peoples. Night roaming cats cause heartbreaking carnage to the wildlife in my garden (the blue baby tongue lizard lost a leg to next doors ginger moggy!) and they also scratch up seedlings and leave their smelly s… behind.  What do I do? Appeal to the owner (if I can find them) and remind them that a condition on being allowed to keep a cat in the Byron Shire is that they be kept it indoors between dusk and sunrise.  Last Resort – get a trap from the Council.  The Ranger picks it up and deals with the cat and recalcitrant owner.

Pests and Diseases.  Working with Nature is a much better idea than waging war on it – don’t you think – so reaching for the spray can should be the last resort because NONE of that stuff is good for us.  In an integrated garden like mine – with lots of flowers, bird baths, water dishes, and low shrubbery for the small birds, pollinators, beneficial insects and lizards to hide in – I really don”t have much of a problem.  As my friend says – it’s just a big restaurant out there and things take care of themselves – Nature’s way. 

Amaranth bi-colour  Leaf Amaranth – summer spinach alternative with the fantastic sub-tropical snake beans.

TOP TIP: Climate.  This is what I can’t control so I have learned to love a whole range of vegetables and fruit that are new to me and left the old ones behind – because it’s just too much of a struggle to try and grow them.  Here’s one example.  We have hot humid summers and most greens (lettuce,spinach,chard,kale) don’t survive the wet and the heat so what I have learned to love is Amaranth (the leafy red and green kind) as a spinach substitute – revered in many hot countries but not here yet (known as vliti in Greece and bayam in Indonesia).  Other sub-tropical greens for summer are: Purslane, Ceylon spinach, Ethiopian cabbage, Kang-kung.

What plants can’t I do without?  I call these my CORNERSTONE plants – the ones that just keep going and feed me all the year.  Of course, they also have to be easy to grow, relatively pest free and adapted to my climate and soil conditions.  I would put bananas, papaya and citrus is this group.  I eat bananas and citrus every day and my papaya provides me with year round fruit – mostly green – for making green papaya salads, so I always have something I can pick and eat.

These are perennial plants – they just keep on going, year after year.  These trees form the bones of the garden – they are what you plant first if you are starting from scratch because their position has to be chosen carefully – do they have enough light, room to spread, easy to pick when the fruit is ripe, enough airflow to prevent fungal disease.

  • Bananas
  • Cumquat
  • Lime
  • Blood Orange
  • Tamarillo
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple Guava
  • Mandarin
  • Finger Lime
  • Feijoa
  • Jaboticaba
  • Rose Apple
  • Calamondin (citrus for marmalade and preserves)
  • Pomegranate
  • Lemon
  • Lemonade
  • Mulberry
  • Makrut Lime (Kaffir)
  • Hibiscus (red) (for making cool drinks)
  • Lemon Myrtle
  • Curry Leaf
  • Other fruit – strawberries, pineapple, passionfruit, rhubarb and loganberry
Homegrown citrus – kissed by the sun and so juicy

What vegetables am I growing? Obviously what I have growing in December (early summer) is going to be different to my autumn garden (see April in the garden) and for you, will entirely depend on where you live.  This list is for the subtropics, and bear in mind that our main vegetable growing season is from autumn to early summer, so this list looks a bit sparse at the moment.  

  • Lettuce (on the cool, shadier side of the house)
  • Snake Beams
  • Cucumber
  • Tomatoes
  • Spring Onions
  • Okra
  • Eggplant
  • Potatoes
  • Fennel
  • Bush Beans
  • Amaranth (leaf)
  • Chilli
  • Sorrel
  • Golden Zucchini
  • Trombone Zucchini
  • Luffa
  • Kale
  • Purple Beans
  • Wild rocket
The aptly named trombone zucchini – one of the plants I have learned to love.  Why – because it is easy to grow through the hot humid months – when other zucchinis go mouldy – and tastes fantastic.

What herbs are growing? There are some herbs I just cant do without because I use them just about every day.  I have some plants of these in pots, undercover, outside my kitchen during the summer – so I can protect them from extreme weather and they are handy for picking.  My can’t do without herbs are parsley, chives, marjoram and basil.  You can see that I love a recycled oil can – perfect for herbs.

  • Parsley
  • Chives
  • Sage
  • Lemon Verbena
  • Italian Basil
  • Bush Basil
  • French Tarragon
  • Dill
  • Mint
  • Marjoram
  • Bay
  • Rosemary
  • Golden Oregano
  • Greek Oregano
  • Lemon Oregano
  • Za’atar Oregano
  • Nasturtium
  • Rose Geranium
  • Comfrey
  • Yarrow
  • Vietnamese Mint
  • Heartsease viola
  • Sambac Jasmine (jasmine tea is made from the dried flowers)

The Spice Garden.  For a cook, one of the best things about where I live is being able to grow most things in the garden that I need for all those delicious Indian and Asian curries and spice pastes.  There’s an added bonus that they also make fantastic landscaping plants.

Stir fries and curry pastes straight from the garden
  • Galangal
  • Turmeric
  • Ginger
  • Lemon Grass
  • Coriander
  • Vietnamese Mint
  • Betel Leaf
  • Thai Basil

Roses.  Im not sure how, but after years of putting in native gardens for other people – when I was a landscaper – my garden has morphed into a Cottage Garden style and I love my roses.  This is probably a lot to do with nostalgia and remembrance of things past?  Not all roses are suited to the sub-tropics however, but there are some beauties that I love to use in cooking which do very well in my garden without getting the dreaded black spot (fungal disease) – rhubarb and rose petal jam anyone?  These roses are all fragrant and stunningly beautiful.

Vale local gardener extraordinaire – Judy McDonald who died last week.  Instigator and driving force behind the Mullumbimby Farmers Market; annual supplier to me of Seville oranges for making the best marmalade ever and keeper of knowledge about local heritage roses. You are sorely missed.  RIP Judy.

Edna Walling – climber
Cecile Bruner – climber
Papa Meilland – hybrid tea rose
Jude the Obscure – shrub
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