Start your own veggie garden and grow to share

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There’s no time like the present Covid-19 crisis to start a victory garden – reminiscent of those planted during the two world wars – both for your own use and for those who may be in need. An expert tells us how...

Photographs Francois Oberholster and Karen McEwan


David and Karen McEwan and their kids Lisa (7) and Andrew (5)

WHERE Fairfield Farm, Middelburg, Eastern Cape



Karen McEwan wasn’t daunted by her lack of knowledge or experience in growing vegetables when she started her food garden on their farm in Middelburg in the Eastern Cape.

“We got married in 2009, after which I moved to the farm. As a trained chef, I initially offered cooking classes and food demos and also did catering in the surrounding towns. After my eldest was born, I started my veggie garden – largely to feed my family with organic produce,” says Karen.

“In the first year, the harvest was incredible. I couldn’t believe what grew in that dry Karoo soil! The bug really bit me and I began to expand my veggie garden. It then developed into a small business and today all the fresh produce for my cooking classes comes from my own garden. It is paired with delicious Karoo lamb or venison from the farm.”

At the end of 2019, Karen held her first fresh produce farm market and these days she also offers talks on how to grow veggies organically.

And you can do the same! Now is the ideal time to plant a summer vegetable garden. Start small and expand your food garden as you gain more experience. Keep the climate in your area in mind as it plays a big role in what you plant. Also seek advice from your local nursery. Before you know it, you’ll be harvesting your own fresh produce and will have more than enough to share with others.

The Level 5 restrictions enforced at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in many people growing their own veggies. This time of crisis, just like during the two world wars, made people more self-sufficient. The gardens that were laid out during those wars came to be known as victory gardens. They were born out of the necessity to feed people in times of scarcity and disruption. This need also became evident during the Covid-19 pandemic.

1 Planting site

A 10m² vegetable garden will enable you to grow more than enough produce to feed a family of four. Grow a variety, and plant those vegetables your family likes eating. A smaller space shouldn’t be a hindrance; even if you only plant tomatoes and lettuce, it’s a good start.

Choose a spot in your garden that gets about six to eight hours of sun a day, says Karen. “It should preferably be level, or make it as level as possible. Vegetables like well-drained, compost-rich soil. Place a thick layer of compost on top of the soil, but don’t dig it in – let the natural organisms do the work. I mulch the soil every four months with a layer of homemade compost.”

A vegetable garden can be in any shape, whether it be a circle, rectangle or square. Even just a corner in the garden will work. “The most important factor is that the beds are not so wide that you have to stand in them to get to the veggies,” she explains. “If you constantly walk on the soil, you’ll trample the micro-organisms and compact the air cavities in which they live. Any seed that is germinating will also be squashed. 

“Also make sure there is sufficient space to get close to your vegetable garden with a wheelbarrow. This makes it much easier to add loads of compost.”

Karen also plants her own peanuts but she says they are slow growers, so they will only be ready to harvest after about four months.

2 Vegetable selection

If your garden is small, start with tomatoes, spinach, parsley, basil, carrots, lettuce and beetroot. Then expand later with potatoes, chillies, beans, peas and butternut or any small pumpkin such as ‘Jack Be Little’. Be clever by utilising vertical space and train tomatoes, beans, peas, butternut and small pumpkins up a framework. This will give you more space at surface level to grow root vegetables and herbs. If you have plenty of space, sow mealies and plant baby marrows, sweet potatoes and spanspek.

A bed of thriving plants: unripe cherry tomatoes, nasturtiums, wild garlic, chives, pumpkin – and a cabbage underneath the foliage of a gooseberry.

3 Seeds or seedlings?

You can sow seeds or plant seedlings. Choose organic seeds and avoid genetically modified seeds. There are numerous distributors of organic seeds in South Africa who sell their products online, such as The Gravel Garden and African Marmalade.

Karen recommends that you also harvest your own seeds at the end of the season. “They will already be adapted to your local climate,” she explains. “In addition, vegetables eventually build up immunity to the pests in your area.” For the same reason, preferably buy seeds from local suppliers. 

If you prefer to plant seedlings, make sure that what you buy suits your climate. In the countryside, seedlings usually come from other regions and must first get accustomed to the climate. “Keep the seedlings in the container in which you bought them for a few weeks before you transplant them,” Karen advises. “In the beginning, place the seedlings under the shelter of a tree or roof for a day or two. Then put them in the sun daily – initially for four hours, then for six hours, and every day for a little longer. The plants will adapt to the new environment within two weeks, more or less. Just be careful – if the nights are still chilly, they may get frost damage.” 

If you want to transplant the seedlings immediately, it is advisable to first protect them with shade cloth or frost cover (depending on the season) or by inverting plastic bottles over them. 

If you have enough space, plant mealies!

Marigolds with their bright yellow flowers deter unwanted bugs. 

4 Irrigation

Sufficient water is important – the right amount will depend on your climate. In certain parts of the country where it is more rainy and humid, irrigation is not necessary. 

“Here in the Karoo, irrigation is essential,” says Karen. “I use drip irrigation because our borehole water has a high lime content and it is not ideal for the water to end up on the leaves and vegetables. With drip irrigation, very little water is lost because it is applied directly to the roots. There is no run-off and it doesn’t get blown away by the wind.” If your veggie garden is small and you have enough time, water it by hand. 

Plan and lay out your irrigation system when you lay out  your veggie garden. “If the bed is circular, lay the drip irrigation in a circle or spiral shape in the bed,” says Karen. “You don’t want any irrigation pipes over the pathway. The same applies to a rectangular or square bed. “Overhead irrigation is an option but this does mean that water ends up on pathways, which is a waste.” 

If you don’t have a borehole, preferably use rainwater that is collected in a tank.

5 Perfect partners

Plan wisely, especially in a small space, which plants you will grow alongside each other. 

• Companion plants not only grow well together, their flavour and colour also complement each other perfectly – such as tomatoes and basil; runner beans and sweet potatoes; potatoes, parsley and thyme; and radishes and lettuce. Strawberries and beetroot do very well with tomatoes and can be planted underneath them if the tomatoes are trained up a structure.

• Edible flowers are a great addition to your veggie garden as well as your food! They are also nutritious. The other benefit of growing flowers between vegetables and herbs is that they attract pollinators such as butterflies, bees and insects. “I plant alyssum, sweet William, hollyhock, snapdragon, pansy, nasturtium, zinnia, marigold and roses in among or near the vegetables,” says Karen. “And even though they are not edible, I also plant cosmos, sweet peas and poppies; bees love them! Sweet peas and poppies are the first to flower after winter and attract bees before the vegetables and fruit trees bloom.” 

6 Nutrients

Karen recommends using only organic fertilisers in your vegetable garden. “There are many organic products available. Vermicompost and worm tea, or guano that can be bought in a tea form, are popular.” She also makes her own potion from coffee beans and banana peels. “Use a 5L ice cream container and pour about 3.5L of water into it. Then add eight to 10 banana peels and coffee beans from four to six medium-sized plungers. Let it draw for 10 days, a little less in summer.” Karen says that if it ferments properly, you’re on the right track.  Use this mixture as is, or make it go further by diluting with half as much water. 

One spinach plant will yield fresh leaves for up to 18 months, provided it gets regular compost and water. – Karen

7 Pests and diseases

Karen keeps unwelcome bugs out of her vegetable garden  in a natural way; here’s how she does it:

• Dry out eggshells, crush them and sprinkle in the veggie garden; snails and cutworms don’t like the texture.

• Sprinkle cinnamon in your seedling trays – this prevents fungal growth. Ants also don’t like cinnamon. (Cinnamon can also be used as a growth hormone for cuttings.)

• In a spray bottle, mix 15ml neem oil with 1L water and add 10ml eco dishwashing liquid. This can be used to control aphids, woolly aphids, thrips, pumpkin flies and fungi.

• Make a tea of 2L water, a handful of chillies, a handful of parsley, a handful of mint, 10 cloves of garlic and 20ml paprika. Pulp everything together and leave overnight; strain and spray on your plants every 10 days to deter aphids, red spider mites, cabbage moths and even mosquitoes – or spray every five days if you have already noticed an infestation.

• Plant wild garlic and marigolds in or near the vegetable garden – they deter unwanted insects. The flowers and  thin strappy leaves of the wild garlic are also edible and look lovely in a salad.

• Rosemary and artichokes attract flies and blue bottle flies; plant them where they will lure these annoying pests away from the seating nooks in your garden.

I like to share, even if it’s just an armful of sunflowers! – Karen

Karen has hundreds of sunflowers in her garden every year.  Other than looking beautiful, they also provide a windscreen and shade. “The summer sun can be scorching and the sunflowers provide shade for edible flowers and some vegetables and herbs,” she explains. “I also grow runner beans and tomatoes up them. After they’ve flowered and when the heads start to dry out, they provide food for the birds in the garden and this helps to keep them away from my vegetables! When the plants are completely dry, we cut off the stems just above the ground; these are then crushed and added to the compost heap.”

Karen's veggie garden tips

• Decide how much time you have to spare for working in your food garden. If you don’t have much time, rather grow fewer vegetables that you can care for properly, and expand a little each year.

• Make a compost heap before you start. Good compost is the key to a successful organic vegetable garden.

• Wait until you’re sure there won’t be any more frost before planting or sowing out in the open. Start off your seedlings in July on a warm, sunny windowsill.

• Plant the vegetables from north to south – low-growing ones on the northerly side of the bed and taller ones or those on a framework on the southerly side. The taller plants then won’t block the sun from the lower growers. In summer, use the shady side for lettuce and rocket; in winter they need more sun.

• Once the seedlings have been transplanted, sprinkle a mulch of fine hay, wood chips or something similar around the plants. This protects them, restricts weed growth and prevents the soil from drying out.

• Root vegetables such as carrots and beetroot don’t need lots of compost; in poorer soil they produce fewer leaves but bigger tubers. Ensure the soil is friable and free of clods  and stones.

• If you don’t have space for a separate food garden, sow or plant veggies and herbs in your flowerbeds.

• Experiment with a variety of veggies and herbs and take notes so that next season you’ll know what you did when.

• Don’t give up if your first harvest is not a success – try again! Choose plants that are easy to grow and more likely to succeed. And if you have an abundant harvest, preserve, dry, freeze or share! 

Container gardens

There are many vegetables that thrive in pots and containers: tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, carrots, radishes, beans and chillies. Many herbs, such as parsley, basil, thyme, origanum, lavender and rosemary, also do well in pots. “Place the containers in a sunny spot, preferably near your kitchen, where you can easily harvest the plants. Lavender and rosemary need large pots; for other herbs small to medium-sized pots will work. Parsley or rocket can even be grown in a small pot on a windowsill.” Karen says a lemon tree and several other fruit trees are also suitable for a large pot. “A tree will only grow as big as you allow it to,” she says. “Prune it so that it stays small enough for the pot and where the pot is situated.”

Even old tractor tyres can be used as raised beds.

Raised beds

A raised bed is not only more convenient for gardening and harvesting, it is also beneficial if your soil is not very fertile. Wooden boxes are ideal, but Karen simply uses old tractor tyres.

• If your planter is directly on the ground and does not have a base, put a few layers of wet newspaper underneath and then a piece of cardboard. The paper and cardboard suppress weed growth and earthworms like to lay eggs in this layer of paper.

• Sprinkle a coarse layer of well-rotted leaves or hay on top of the cardboard. Fill the box with rich compost.

• If your planter has a base, start with a layer of coarse dry bark, wood chips, sticks or manure. Follow the same method as above. 

Expert advice

Deon de Goede, Home’s DIY guru, tells you  how to build a raised wooden bed: 

Use any sturdy leftover planks for your planter; pallets are ideal. Decide how deep you want to make the planter. If your soil is fertile enough, even just one plank about 10cm high will work.

1 Cut the planks to the desired length and treat them with  Super Laykold or any other waterproof paint to protect them from moisture. 

2 For the long sides, lay the number of planks you need for your desired height next to each other, then glue and screw a single vertical post to each end. For the short sides, glue and screw the planks at a right angle to the long sides to form a frame. 

Tip To make pointed posts that can be pushed into the soil, cut the posts slightly longer and make sharp, angled ends before attaching the posts to the horizontal planks. 


Fairfield Foods


African Marmalade

Living Seeds

Seeds for Africa 

The Gravel Garden 

The Heirloom Bean Company

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April 2023

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