Getting started with growing your own - Linda Woodrow
by Liz Beavis
As part of the series of interviews I started last week, today I have asked Linda Woodrow to tell me about how she gardens and the advice she gives to someone who wants to get started with growing their own. Linda blogs over at The Witches Kitchen. She says "out of the witches kitchen should come food that is healthy, tasty, local, seasonal, ethical, green, and sustainable", although she also acknowledges that this is almost impossible to achieve, but absolutely worth trying! Linda writes from decades of experience with food gardening and food preparation and has also published a book called "The Permaculture Home Garden", which I reviewed recently, and highly recommend to anyone thinking about starting or already started with food growing, it has some excellent advice for all levels of gardeners and all sizes of garden.
Farmer Liz: Tell me about your garden and climate.
Linda Woodrow: My garden these days is small and very intensively fenced against bandicoots, padimelons, wallabies, brush turkeys, bush rats, bobuck possums, rosellas, king parrots, cockatoos, bower birds.... the list goes on. It wasn't always so. For about 15 years I had a great big open unfenced garden. At one level I'm really pleased and proud that our habitat restoration has been so successful, but it has brought up all sorts of interesting philosophical questions about human and wildlife relations.
So, what's special about it these days is that it is very intensive and uses a lot of vertical space. I figure since I've got the fences, I might as well use them. I only have about 80 square metres of ground area, but another 80 square metres of vertical space in my 7 beds. At any one time the chooks will be in one bed, so that leaves 6 beds of nearly 12 square metres each producing food. Here in northern NSW, we have a year round growing season, so that's enough area to produce pretty well all the vegetables we need, plus giveaways, plus some to preserve and bottle and dry.
My shadehouse is an important part of the system too. It's about 12 square metres and it's the only part of the system that gets daily watering. I have no automatic watering - I need to be more frugal with water and have more control over it than that. So I just water with a hose in the shadehouse, and move a sprinkler round the garden only when it has been dry for a fortnight or more.
Linda's garden in winter
FL: When and why did you start growing your own?
LW: I've been growing my own for over 30 years now. I started as a young hippy intent on bringing peace, love and mung beans to the world, and that still seems to me like a good goal in life. I was a very hard-working hippy in the early days. I think many people became disillusioned with just how hard and skilled the work of primary production is. Learning about permaculture was a revelation moment. I went from a garden to a system, and these days it's a system that needs only a few hours a week to keep it happening.
FL: From your experience, what’s the best way to start growing your own?
LW: The key insight of permaculture is "protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour:" Starting a garden without a design will end in tears as surely as starting a renovation project without a plan. The design should answer questions about sun and shade, wildlife, proximity and access, water, organic matter and nutrient cycling, local seasons, crops, and weather. The answers will be different in every situation but the principles are the same.
A seedling soon to be transplanted
FL: What are your top 5 favourite easy and productive plants for beginners to grow?
LW: I guess the answer follows on from the last question - it will be different in every climate, microclimate, soil type, ecology, season. And I don't know that there's any set of 5 plants that will make up a nice stable productive system.
"If you have only a tiny area (or a tiny window of time) for gardening, every one of the first dozen plants I’d go for would be herbs. In pots or courtyard, herb spiral or window boxes, balcony garden or flower bed, these are the 12 plants I’d plant first. In no particular order (choosing just a dozen was hard enough!):
1. Parsley – a super high vitamin, hardy, prolific green. Just a sprig or a sprinkle takes almost any dish to another level. Also allows you to create a salad when there’s virtually no fresh food in the house.
2. Regular mint – If you have parsley and mint the whole of the eastern Mediterranean cuisine opens up.
3. Garlic chives – perennial, bunching, and easier to grow than regular chives. If you have these, lack of an onion won’t stop you.
4. Oregano – perennial, very hardy and can turn tomato sauce out of the bottle into Italian cuisine.
5. Greek basil – the perennial small leaf kind, and you have pesto in the repertoire, which means you have gourmet pasta anytime.
6. Lemon thyme – If I have to choose between regular and lemon thyme, I’m a sucker for citrus flavours. If I was allowed number 13, I’d go for lemon basil too, or maybe verbena, or lemon myrtle or…
7. Culantro (or Mexican coriander) – perennial and hardier than the familiar annual coriander. A completely different plant but the same flavour, and it holds it’s flavour better when cooked.
8. Dill – a self seeding annual, so hardy it’s just about a weed. An egg or two or a can of fish… 9. Vietnamese mint – a few vegetables and some rice paper, or some miso and noodles …
10. Rosemary – the hardiest of the lot, and just a few leaves makes all the difference.
11. Sage – for sage burnt butter, which will make a packet of spaghetti look better than going out for takeaway.
12. Chillies – ok, they’re not quite a herb, but a perennial chili plant works the same way as herbs, with small quantities there when you need them, taking almost no space or time and opening a whole lot of kitchen doors."
The combination of being perennial, and a small amount making a huge difference, and being plants that are well adapted for semi-wild growing makes herbs a good choice.
FL: Any suggestions for improving soil fertility without resorting to manmade chemicals?
LW: The quality of your soil makes a huge difference, and even if you start with the best soil in the world it won't stay that way if you just keep planting in it and taking nutrients out of it. So taking the time to figure out how you are going to get a good organic matter cycling system going for minimal effort is a really good long term investment. Chooks are brilliant at it. Worms are good. Compost can do the trick if you have the right ingredients and a good system. If your soil is good enough, you just whack seeds in and they grow. My big tip is that you get a lot more produce from a small area intensively and intelligently gardened than a big area laboriously dug up. I've seen some fantastic pot plant gardens with great yields.
FL: What’s your favourite thing about growing your own?
LW: Eating it!
But then the second favourite is the art and creativity in it.
Then the third favourite is the sense of doing my bit, as best I can, for the health of the planet,
And the fourth favourite is the sense of security from it.
And the fifth favourite is being able to introduce kids to eating peas straight from the vine, or send visitors away with bags of treats.
And the sixth favourite is the frugality of it.
And the seventh favourite is being able to avoid the tedious task of supermarket shopping.
And I could go on!
Food from Linda's garden, no wonder she loves eating it!
Linda, thanks so much for sharing your answers with me and my readers, I know they will be very valuable to any new gardener who is wondering where to start. For more information, check our Linda's blog (The Witches Kitchen) and book.
Now we want to hear from you, comments are open over on Linda's blog, so go and tell us what tips you would give to beginner gardeners. What have you done to save labour and generate an impressive yield? Next week I'll interview Gavin from the Greening of Gavin. The rest of the interviews