In light of our sustainability focus this month, we’ve taken inspiration from the abundant home harvests of Lee Sullivan of Urban Veggie Patch. She kindly pens her top tips to grow organic food—and flowers—in your own backyard. And shares her story on how she found peace along the way.
KORA: Let’s talk about organic gardening. What it is exactly?
Lee: To me, organic gardening is gardening the way nature intended, without the addition of any synthetic chemicals or pesticides. It focuses on building and nurturing a thriving ecosystem naturally using elements derived from nature such as compost and manure. Simply put, it is letting nature do its thing with minimal input from us.
KORA: Why inspired you to start growing your own food?
Lee: Shortly after I had my first son and he started solids, I began questioning the quality of the food I was feeding him. I was committed to feeding him fruit and vegetables and making everything from scratch, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still didn’t know what pesticides were used on them or where they came from. After a fair bit of research, I concluded that the only way to truly know this information was to grow it myself.
KORA: What was the motivation to start from scratch?
Lee: I’ll be honest—I procrastinated on it for a while. I knew in my heart that starting a garden was what I needed to do but I felt so overwhelmed at the thought of it. I didn’t even know where to start and I was worried about making mistakes or not doing it perfectly.
One Saturday morning, my husband and I were talking about it and just decided we were doing it that day! We went and bought some raised beds; he called a local place that sold an organic soil mix and we started. Since that day, we haven’t looked back. Did we make mistakes? Absolutely but in my opinion getting started is more important than ever being 100% perfect.
KORA: What are some of the benefits of growing your own food?
Lee: I love growing my own food as it helps to:
Save Money by Cutting Grocery Costs
There are costs involved with growing your own food, but it does save you money in the long run especially when growing things like herbs and lettuce (which is also a great place to start).
A single bunch of herbs at the supermarket can cost you $3 but an organic seedling that costs $3 could supply you for a whole season, if not longer.
Live a Healthier Life
When you grow your own food, you know exactly what you are putting into your body. There is no guess work around how it’s been grown, where it’s been grown and what chemicals could be on it.
Being able to harvest your vegetables when they are ripe and as you need them means they are more nutritionally dense. A lot of fruit and vegetables available in stores are picked when they are underripe, thus losing some of their nutritional value. Eating for the season also has nutritional benefits too.
Grow Plants that aren’t Easily Bought
Having your own garden means being able to grow from seed; giving you access to a vast variety of vegetables that you won’t find in the stores. There are hundreds of heirloom varieties that I didn’t even know existed before I started gardening. It also assists in eating a diverse range of food which is excellent for gut and overall health.
Mental Health Benefits
When I first started gardening, I had no idea how much it would positively affect my mental health. At the time I started, I was experiencing some mild undiagnosed post-natal depression (I usually refer to it now as post-natal depletion because that describes what I was experiencing more accurately). The more I got into my garden, the more I realised how much it was transforming my mental health. As I nurtured my garden, it was nurturing me, and it helped me regain a sense of identity that I felt I had lost when I became a mum.
KORA: How do you know what to grow?
Lee: It is very important to understand your climate and plant what is in season. If you plant out of season you will not get results and it can often be the reason why people give up early on.
Researching what grows well in your climate in different seasons is crucial to success. You can usually locate planting guides via local gardening groups or on the internet for your particular country and region.
KORA: Can you share with us where to begin?
Lee: I would be happy to! Here are my tips to keep it simple, yet productive as well:
1. Observe your Space & Find the Sun
Before starting, it is super important to observe your area and understand the conditions. Things to look out for are where the sun is at each time during the day, if areas end up in shade etc. Your garden needs sun! You want to find the sunniest spot in your yard and set the garden up there.
2. Nutrient Dense Soil
Soil is the lifeblood of your garden. Healthy, nutrient dense soil will produce healthy, nutrient dense plants. It’s important to remember that soil is alive! It is an ecosystem that is crucial to a thriving garden. If you feed your soil, it will feed your plants. Adding things like compost, manure, worm castings and worm tea will all help to feed your soil and result in happy, healthy plants.
One thing to note about soil is that it is an investment into the health and wellbeing of your garden and when it comes to buying your soil—you get what you pay for. While it can be tempting to try and buy the cheapest option—try to resist it. If you spend a little more money for a good quality, organic mix, your garden will thank you!
3. Water Consistently
Whether using drip irrigation or hand watering, it is important to understand how much water your plants need and when they are getting too little or too much water. If you are unsure, a good rule of thumb (literally) is to stick your thumb into the soil. If the soil feels dry, then it is a good idea to give your garden some water.
4. Always Start Small
Starting with a small garden and adding on to it as you gain confidence is an excellent way to begin. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and frustrated with a big space. A small space creates the perfect environment to learn and get some experience under your belt before expanding.
5. Grow What you Love to Eat
It might seem obvious, but there is no point growing something that you don’t regularly eat. Choosing vegetables that you and your family regularly enjoy is a great place to start.
6. Grow What’s in Season
Research your climate and understand what grows well in your seasons. Google and YouTube will be your friend when learning.
7. Start From Seedlings
While starting from seed is my preferred method, growing from seed makes the process a little more complicated. Starting from nursery-bought organic seedlings when you first begin is a good way to get growing without too much complication. Most areas will have a nursery that sells good quality, organic seedlings.
8. Plant for Pollinators and Beneficial Insects
Planting flowers and herbs that will attract pollinators and beneficial insects, they help to create a thriving ecosystem and help with pollination in the garden—not to mention add beauty.
9. Don’t Be Scared to Fail
One thing I can guarantee is that you will fail—we all do. Failure in gardening is a huge part of the learning process. So, don’t be discouraged when something doesn’t work, look at it as one step closer to mastering that particular vegetable. I still have vegetables I struggle to get results on years down the track.
10. Enjoy the Journey
Gardening is a lifelong journey of discovery and should be enjoyed! Spend time just being in your garden, enjoying nature and appreciating the little things.
KORA: Any words of inspiration for those starting out?
Lee: My biggest hurdle in gardening was actually starting, so I would encourage anyone who is thinking about it to just start. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect or you feel like you don’t know anything—you will learn along the way. Experience will be your biggest teacher (and there’s always Google).
Growing your own food is one of the most rewarding and beneficial things you can do for yourself and your family but also for the planet and there is no better time to start than right now.
For me, my garden has become my happy place. Somewhere I can go to be still, clear my head and recharge. At first it was something I did for me and now it’s something I do with my sons and has become such a key component of our lifestyle. Seeing my children grow up with such a strong connection and respect for where their food comes from and the knowledge of how to grow it is a great feeling.
KORA: What about gardening in city areas?
Lee: When we started our first garden, we were living in a townhouse with a 40m2 cement courtyard, so I definitely know what it’s like to not have a huge amount of space. I can confidently say that you can grow something no matter how much space you have. Pots on a balcony or windowsill are an excellent option for people who don’t have a yard. If you have a small garden, vertical gardens, trellises or arches are also great as they can help to add more growing area by growing up rather than out.
KORA: Any thoughts on composting?
Lee: I’m currently still working on my permanent compost setup but at the moment we use compost bins that work well. Composting is beneficial on so many levels and is, in my opinion, crucial to a thriving organic garden.
KORA: What is your stance on worm farming?
Lee: Worm farms are another great way to introduce organic matter into your soil. Worm tea and castings can help boost plant growth and can also help with natural pest control.
KORA: We can see you grow flowers organically too!
Lee: As I’ve progressed in my gardening journey, I’ve learned that food is good for the body and flowers are good for your soul. I love growing flowers as much as I love growing food now. My garden has become almost like an artwork for me and I love growing vegetables and flowers side by side and the creative process of putting it all together.
Lee, thank you ever so much!
We could not be more inspired to begin to nourish our body, and our minds.
KORA Organics xxx
Lee Sullivan is a self-taught gardener with an avid interest in health and sustainability. She has grown her own fruit, vegetables and flowers from seed for several years. She’s found her creative outlet in her home organic garden, as well as peace of mind too. Growing her own food has become one of her greatest passions.