Grow Together

Lay the Groundwork

Grow Together is a new column by the expert gardeners at Home Farm. A lush garden starts with the soil, so we kick things off with back-to-basics advice about getting the ground in tip-top condition.

Grow Together is a new column by the expert gardeners at Home Farm.
A lush garden starts with the soil, so we kick things off with back-to-basics advice about getting the ground in tip-top condition.

With the shortest day behind us, the lead up to another long, hot growing season has begun.
Before we know it, everything will start to wake up from its winter slumber and we’ll be excitedly anticipating spring growth. Now is a perfect time to start thinking about our outdoor spaces.
If you’re about to start a garden from scratch, or you just want to improve on soil health, then
this column is for you.

When choosing the location of a growing space, we ideally want somewhere that’s sheltered
from the wind and will receive at least six hours of sun, all year round. Sunlight is the most essential element that’s most out of our control — we can establish shelter, and manage water and fertility
but controlling the sun proves slightly more difficult.

Once you’ve chosen the location of the growing space, remove whatever’s in the way to reach
bare ground — this is our base layer. And this is a good time to establish what a ‘weed’ is. Weeds
are purely subjective. There is no set list of plants that are called weeds. A weed is just a plant
that you personally don’t want growing in a particular space. If you’ve chosen a patch of lawn
that you deem suitable to grow some vegetables, then in this case, the grass would be the weed.

If you have time on your side, then a great way of converting lawn or existing vegetation to bare ground is by removing its access to sunlight. We can achieve this by chopping and dropping
(mowing without a catcher) the existing vegetation, then laying down something heavy and
non-transparent on top (three months is ideal). Otherwise it’s a matter of getting stuck in and removing everything by hand.

The next step is to assess how compact the ground is. Soft and fluffy? Great. Hard and compact?
Try to loosen it as best you can. A Crafty Gatherer ‘Forksta’ does a brilliant job of easily creating space in the ground for the soil to breathe. Always remember that good soil structure contains
50 percent air. This fact is especially worth keeping in mind when moving through a growing space
— walking on the area means that you’re squashing those pockets of air out of the soil, and making
it harder for air, liquids, soil life and the roots of plants to move around underground.

So now you have the base layer of your growing space sorted, it’s time to add the good stuff. This
is where you can really make a difference in the fertility and health of your soil. Have you ever opened a cheap bag of ‘compost’ only to be hit by a nasty stink and to find yourself looking at a bag of bark chips? That stuff has hardly any life in it at all. What you really want is a good, clean compost that’s pleasant on the nostrils and resembles sweet, dark, rich earth brimming with microbiological life! (See Home Farm Recommendations box at the end.)

Lightly fork in a 10cm layer of this good stuff with the base layer, then water. Once you’ve done that, spread another 10cm layer on top and you’re ready to plant. Note that when we disturb the ground
by forking the soil like this, we unearth seeds that have been lying dormant under the surface — most of which will belong to plants you may not want growing in your edible space. This is why it’s key to top the area off with a layer of seed-free, quality compost that you can confidently plant into without unwanted weeds sprouting up. An added bonus is that this nutritious top layer also acts as a plant feed every time it gets watered!

Choose some seeds (see Recommends box at end) to plant into this top layer — these will sprout
to create a ground cover of greens in your vegetable food forest. Sprinkle the seeds over the top
layer and use your hands to gently massage the seeds into the soil, so they are only just covered.
Be careful not to sprinkle too many seeds or bury them too deep — a pinch of salt’s worth over a frying pan area as a general rule.

After you have done this, you can plant out your seedlings. The final step is to cover your growing space in a layer of mulch, such as pea straw, then water it once more. Really soak it. Giving the
space a good long water allows the seeds to soak up the moisture and germinate. The mulch layer helps regulate the moisture of the soil and also helps to stop it from drying out too quickly, especially in the hot summer months.

So there you have it, a weed-free and fertile start to what will soon become a space rife with life. Monthly liquid feeds, such as organic seaweed or liquid vermicast (worm wees), will help keep all your plants growing hard. Next issue, we’ll talk spring planting.

Home Farm Recommends
→ Ground cover seeds: Good choices include leaf lettuce, rocket, spinach, coriander,
parsley, carrots, beetroot.
→ Compost suppliers: To buy in organic bulk, try Chaos Springs, Gardenscape Papamoa, 
and Bay Topsoil. For bagged, there’s Tui Performance Naturals.

The Home Farm team transforms spaces of any size into edible landscapes. For more details, see the ‘Plant the Seeds’ feature on

Story by Home Farm
Photograph: Brandon (left) and Jim from Home Farm, by ilk