In these uncertain times, with food flying off the supermarket shelves faster than it can be restocked, growing our own food at home has never been more important. We’re seeing an unprecedented surge in interest in home gardening in Australia, with nurseries around the country selling out of seedlings as people take their nutrition into their own hands by planting gardens, many for the first time.

The Melbourne Food Hub believes in a fair food system for all, and part of cultivating a secure and ethical food supply is raising awareness around the importance of local, urban food  production. By learning the skills necessary to grow vegetables sustainably year-round to share, you’re helping your community become more resilient in the face of unforeseen shocks and challenges, whether it be global pandemics, changing weather patterns or extreme weather events (hello climate change!). So, let’s get started! 

In this article, we’ll be covering the absolute basics necessary to start growing at home. We’ll look at planting seeds, looking after seedlings and transplanting (planting seedlings into the garden or larger pots). We’ll also talk about which veggies you can grow now to have a harvest within 4-6 weeks, as well as which slower growing veggies can be planted now to keep you fed all through Winter and Spring.

It doesn’t matter whether you have a huge backyard, a balcony or just a windowsill; there are ways you can grow food regardless of how much space you have. The only things you’ll need are:

  1. A sunny spot
  2. Access to water
  3. Soil (or potting mix if growing in pots)
  4. Seeds or seedlings!
Growing From Scratch: Planting Seeds

Growing from seed is the cheapest and most sustainable way to grow your own food, as a seed packet is generally the same price or cheaper than a punnet of seedlings but can grow 100-500 plants from one packet, compared to the 6-8 plants you get in a punnet! Plus, once you get the hang of it and start harvesting your own veggies, you can save the seeds from your best produce to grow again next year, building up a high quality seed supply to plant and share. It’s a little bit more fiddly but surprisingly easy, and incredibly satisfying to watch. However, if you’re in a rush to get some food growing asap, we recommend planting some seedlings now to get a head start while your seeds are still growing.

Steps:

1.) Find some seedling trays, punnets or pots. You can also use old egg cartons, styrofoam boxes or basically any other container you can get your hands on. No need to buy new!

2.) Fill the seed tray/container with seed raising mix (you can buy this from nurseries or make your own with sifted compost, coarse sand, and coco peat). If these options are cost prohibitive or you don’t have access to these materials, soil from your backyard will do (though it’s less ideal) Just remove any large pieces of wood or rock, loosen up and fill your pot, adding some finished compost if you have some on hand.

3.) Moisten the surface of the soil with a watering can, spray hose or mister.

4.) For larger seeds, use your finger to make a hole in the soil to the depth recommended on the seed packet and plant one or two seeds in each hole. For smaller seeds, sprinkle on top of the soil (leaving a couple centimetres of space between seeds or you can come back and thin out seedlings later, leaving only the strongest and largest ones). Lightly cover smaller seeds with a fine layer of soil. 

5.) Moisten soil again.

6.) Place the seed tray in a warm place, eg. the bathroom, laundry or a sunny windowsill. They don’t need sun at this stage, but they do need to be kept moist consistently.

7.) Depending on the seeds you planted, you’ll start seeing the plants pop their little heads above the soil in as little as a few days to two weeks. As soon as the seedlings have germinated, they need to be moved to a sunny spot if they’re not in one already. 

8.) Keep moist! It’s important to keep the soil moist but not overly wet. A light misting or spray once or twice a day should do it.

9.) If you’ve used poor quality seed raising mix or soil from your backyard, your plants will benefit from a gentle feeding every couple of weeks using diluted Season or worm juice (while the seeds have enough nutrients to feed the plant in the germination phase, once they have emerged from the soil they’re dependent on their surrounding soil for nutrients).

10.) Once your plants are around 2 inches tall (in 4-6 weeks), they’re ready to be transplanted to your garden or to bigger pots if you’re gardening in containers (woohoo!)

Tip 1:

Water gently with a watering can, hose with spray gun or even an old milk bottle with holes poked in the lid. Water enough to make the soil nice and damp but not so much that water pools on top of the surface, as this can wash away or dislodge your seeds.

 

Tip 2:

Growing seedlings in pots before transplanting them to the garden means that you can look after them more easily while they’re young and vulnerable, while making the best use of the garden by not wasting space waiting for seeds to grow while you could have something else planted there in the meantime. However, some plants don’t like being uprooted and re-planted and do better planted directly where they are to grow, including beans, peas and carrots.

Troubleshooting

While planting seeds is fairly straightforward, there are some issues which may show up from time to time. Keep at eye out for:

Yellow or weak looking seedlings

Unless you have fed your seedlings with too strong of a fertiliser (which can burn them or make them yellow from an overload of nitrogen), it’s most likely that your seedlings are requiring some extra nutrients, or to be moved into a bigger pot. Check the bottom of the pot or tray they’re in-can you see lots of roots popping out of the bottom? If so, it’s time to relocate to a bigger growing area and to give them a feed with some Seasol, worm juice or diluted organic fertiliser.

Tall, ‘leggy’ or sidewards bending seedlings

This is caused by a lack of light. The seedlings are growing tall and skinny and bending towards the nearest light source, so move them to a sunnier spot. When it comes time to transplanting, you can plant these a little bit deeper than you normally would to support the stem.

Seeds not germinating

If you’ve been patiently waiting for weeks and there’s still no sign of any growth, there are a few things that may have gone wrong.

-Not enough moisture: Did you let the seeds dry out at some point since planting? Most seeds require a fairly consistent level of moisture throughout the germination process to grow successfully. Even missing a day or two of watering can be enough to prevent seeds from germinating.

-Planted seeds too deep: Always follow the instructions on the seed packet for planting depth. Seeds that are planted too deep will run out of energy to grow before they reach the soil surface.

-Old or expired seeds: Seeds are only viable for a certain amount of time and storage conditions can cause otherwise healthy seeds to expire early. Make sure to use fresh seeds, check the expiry on the packet and store in a cool, dry place.

Seedlings becoming stunted

-If your seeds were growing well for a couple weeks and then seemed to just stop, they may have either run out of growing space or nutrients. Check the bottom of the pot: if there are roots growing out of the bottom and starting to look like a tangled mess, it’s time to repot the seedlings into a larger growing area. If you can’t see many roots then perhaps the seedlings just need some extra nutrients. Give them a feed with diluted organic fertiliser, worm juice or seaweed extract.

 

Hardening off

Once your seedlings are around 2 inches tall (after around 4-6 weeks), they’re ready to be planted outside or in bigger pots. If you’ve been raising your seedlings inside, in a greenhouse or in another sheltered, warmer-than-outside spot, you need them to ‘harden-off’ before planting outside. 

Hardening off is the process of getting pampered seedlings adjusted to outside conditions over the course of a week or so before plonking them straight in the garden where the more extreme weather (eg. scorching sun, cold nights or strong winds) can lead to transplant shock, a common cause of stunted or dead seedlings.

Start by taking your seedlings outside during the day, but keeping them in a sheltered spot where they get a bit of morning sun but are shaded in the afternoon, bringing them inside again at night. After a few days you can leave them outside for longer and longer periods, making sure to not let them dry out for too long. 

A couple of days before planting, leave them outside all day and night so they get fully conditioned to outside temperatures.

So, now that we know how to plant seeds, the question is: what to plant?! 

For quick harvests in as little as 4-8 weeks*, you can plant:

Rocket: Can start cutting baby leaves for salads in 3-4 weeks, leaving the rest of the plant to keep growing

Radishes: Depending on the variety, will be ready to harvest in around 4 weeks!

Asian greens (mizuna, mibuna, bok choy): Can start harvesting baby leaves in 4 weeks

Lettuce: Baby leaves can be harvested in 4 weeks, heads in 6-8 weeks depending on variety

Coriander: Can start harvesting in 3-4 weeks

Turnips: Can start harvesting 4-6 weeks

Kale: Can start harvesting in around 6 weeks

Silverbeet: Will be fully mature in around 8 weeks, but can harvest young leaves at around 6 weeks

For slightly longer crops that you can eat from 8-12 weeks*:

Carrots: Baby carrots can be harvested in around 8 weeks, with bigger carrots ready in around 10 weeks but can store well in the ground for some time before picking (particularly during cooler weather)

Beetroot: Baby beets can be harvested in 6 weeks, becoming fully mature in around 8 weeks but can can store well in the ground for some time before picking

Broccoli: Will mature in around 12-14 weeks, with many consecutive harvests of side shoots after harvesting the main broccoli head (if you grow a sprouting variety)

Cauliflower: Will mature in around 10-14 weeks

Cabbage: Will mature in around 12-15 weeks depending on the variety

Swedes: Ready to harvest in around 12 weeks, but can store well in the ground for some time before picking 

Broad beans: Start producing beans in around 16 weeks and will keep producing for a long period (keep picking regularly to ensure continued production!)

Garlic: Will mature in 7-9 months depending on the variety, but baby garlic (ie. ‘spring garlic’ or ‘green garlic’ can be picked earlier and eaten fresh (yum!) but will not store well

Leeks: Mature in 15-18 weeks

Peas: Will start producing in around 10 weeks and continue producing peas over a long period. Picking regularly will encourage the plant to produce more!

Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, where we’ll cover different options for soil preparation for backyards and containers, transplanting and caring for veggies once they’re in the garden, companion planting for pest management and successional planting to make sure there are veggies ready to eat all year round.

Happy gardening!