Thursday, August 9, 2012

Get the foundation right...

The other day I recieved an email from a woman who is battling to grow vegetables on her Northern Transvaal farm. She has a host of factors working against her but we identified that perhaps the foundation is not well enough prepared.
2010 a wasteland waiting to be converted to productive space

The foundation of any vegetable garden is the soil. You can plant and plant and plant but if your soil is not healthy you are setting yourself up to fail. There is nothing more disheartening as a veggie gardener when you have sown and nutured seeds only to find that the soil cannot support the plant to harvest time.

When we converted our last part of the garden at the end of 2010 we knew that the soil was dead. It had been sucked dry of all it's nutrients by grass and big trees. Knowing that this area would become our main growing space we had to do some drastic soil improvement.

Once the raised beds were in and the stone chips down for pathways we dug in loads and loads of compost and manure. We then planted lucerne as a green manure and when that had nice shoots we dug in into the bed.
Compost heap in process

Each season since then we have added more manure and more compost. This could have been a costly affair it is were not for our two large compost heaps that we have. They more or less provide us will compost for the garden twice a year.

In the compost goes all our kitchen green waste like eggs shells, peels, past fruit and veg, coffee grounds. We also add shredded newspaper, empty toilet rolls, cardboard boxes and other paper packaging. All the leaves that fall from our stinkwood in Autumn go into the compost as well as our neighbours weekly lawn mowings. Lastly I add spent borage plants and the sweepings from the chicken coop to speed up the decomposition process.

Happy chickens eating crubs in newly sifted compost
In winter we have enough rain to keep the heap nice and moist which also aids the breakdown of the heap, but in summer I put the sprinkler (using borehole water) on it once a week. We also cover the heap with old sacks or cardboard boxes to allow the heat to build up and the critters that are busy working away breaking down the stuff like to have a roof over their heads.

4years ago I would gladly have climbed into the compost heap at the beginning of each season to turn and sift it, but my back, now that it is better, will not stand any abuse. So a young man, Kayeni, comes each season to do the job for me now.

Today he emptied one heap and sifted out all the larger undecomposed bits. The chickens came to see what they could find to nosh on...

Then he cleaned out the "deep litter" from the coops and started to layer back the top layers of the heaps so that they will be ready for next Autumn.

Clean hen house
The chickens were pleased with their clean coops which we do every 3 months. We sprinkle a later of Diatomaceous Earth on the shavings for mites.

So now we have this wonderful heap of compost which should see us through our summer plantings. This is the foundation of any successful veggie garden - feed the soil.

I have seen over and over again how people get understandably enthusiastic about growing their own veg, only to give up when the plants don't meet the expectations. Truly, it is better to spend a while building up the soil with good compost and manure before you plant a thing.

Empty area to start new heap
If you are on a budget then rather choose to make a deep trench bed, by digging up a doorsized plot then digging it knee deep. Into this pit through your kitchen peelings, grass and manure (cheap from stables) and a layer of sand repeating until it is full. Top it off with a bag of bought compost and then plant just this one patch while you start the next trench bed.

I must just say that I do add another ingredient at planting time and that is volcanic rock dust. I just sprinkle it onto the sifted compost and then it moves to the beds as it comes. Superman thinks its a sales gimmick and that I would buy bat guano if I could :) but either way I do add it even though it is a little costly.

Over a few months you can work yourself up to a good few plots this way an almost no cost to you. The money you will save on failed plants is so worth the wait and rather invest that money into the soil.

Our heaps now filled with undecomposed stuff for next season.


Laur said...


Please could you help?i have tried numerous times to access the simple green living 7 month e course unfortunately to no avail It keeps saying I have entered the incorrect word!

Apologies, I can't send email either as it keeps saying incorrect word entered!

I also wanted to find out more about your canning, you can email me on

Thanks so much look forward to hearing from you.
Kind regards Lauren

Jane said...

Wendy, do you have rats visiting your compost heap, and if so, what do you do about them? My problem is that they reduce my compost by eating the kitchen peelings.

Urban Homestead South Africa said...

Hi Lauren
I will email you about the course. Sorry that you are having troubles!

Jane, we have had rats in the past and we set traps for them. I never did the rattex baits as that goes down the food chain and we have loads of cats and birds of prey here that would be effected by poison.

We are going to get two kittens in October under the guise of being working cats :) for the rats should they return but they are in fact just to have cats!