In the second of a three-part series, sustainable design engineer Roman Spur shares more about how his family created a sustainable lifestyle and lived for less when renting a unit in Brisbane.

Many people who want to grow organic and fresh produce on a balcony or small back yard don’t know where to begin. What, where, when to plant and what soil to use – these are common questions that need to be answered.

Like everyone else, my family (we call ourselves SpurTopians) had to learn from scratch when we arrived in Australia eight years ago, as climatic conditions and the way of growing fruit and vegetables is different from Europe. Our small backyard in our unit block in New Farm (take a virtual tour) provided us with over 100 types of veggies, 25 different herbs and 25 varieties of fruit trees, providing 50-75% of our fruit and veggie needs. Any excess we shared with other tenants and neighbours.

Here are ten tips for beginner gardeners, which from our experience were the most important learnings when we started our produce gardening.

Top tips for growing food in small spaces

  1. Start small and simple. Even if it’s just a wicking pot, a self-watering planter box or a recycled bath tub with a few herbs, greens or cherry tomatoes.
  2. Plant easy to grow produce (e.g. red radish, lettuce) which you like to eat every day and can harvest in about 4 weeks. Eat your green radish leaves too.
  3. Use a planting calendar and grow plants appropriate to the season, e.g. don’t plant snow peas in summer.
  4. Grow sprouts. You do not need to have a garden or even soil – you can grow them on a kitchen bench. Sprouts are the world cheapest superfood loaded with nutrients and enzymes, ready to eat on the second day of sprouting.
  5. Buy a good basic gardening book, such as “Organic Vegetable Gardening” by Brisbane expert Annette McFarlane or the “Planting Guide” brochure published by BOGI (Brisbane Organic Growers Incorporated).
  6. Join a local garden club and/or enlist the help of an experienced gardener. BOGI offers a wealth of gardening knowledge and has heaps of friendly gardeners.
  7. Position your vegetable garden/ planter pots to catch sufficient sunshine (most plants like at least 6 hours of sunshine a day).
  8. Source good organic soil to get started. Try hardware stores for a few bags and landscape suppliers for larger quantities, or make your own soil. Always add compost – it’s loaded with nutrients and beneficial bacteria.
  9. Use mulch to retain moisture. Exposed soil gets so hot that you cannot stand on it with bare feet and it dries out quickly. Sugar cane mulch, or even better Lucerne mulch, contains a lot of nutrients.
  10. Take care with watering. Better to do a deep (longer) watering as opposed to a shallow (short) sprinkle. Overwatering can do as much harm as not watering. Use wicking/self-watering pots and garden beds to provide constant supply of moisture to plants while avoiding watering every day. Remember to feed your plants regularly with an organic fertiliser, e.g. worm juice.

Do’s and don’ts

  1. Don’t be discouraged by first failures, seek advice and start again.
  2. Don’t get bogged down by too much detail, e.g. the pH of the soil, varieties of readily available fertilizer or how to run a compost bin. Deal with these details later when you are more experienced.
  3. Do start now – imagine the reward of organic, fresh and healthy food grown by yourself.

If you are keen to learn more about how to start gardening check out these SpurTopia workshops in Brisbane for both kids and adults.

Growing you own fresh organic food makes sense. It saves you money, avoids the damage of commercial gardening. It’s also is a great physical and mental exercise and provides a connection with nature.

Happy gardening!

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Next month in Part 3 of this Live for Less series, Roman focuses on making your own things at home like cleaning products.