A few months ago, there was a running joke in Rebecca Purvis’s family that she couldn’t even keep a hardy yucca plant alive.

Now the 43-year-old has a flourishing vegetable garden in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

“It doesn’t have to be expensive, is what I’ve learned. And you don’t have to be a good gardener,” says Rebecca, an occupational therapist and business owner.

She’s one of many Australians using their time at home to grow vegetables — some for the very first time.

We asked Rebecca and Leo Honek, from Queensland, how they’ve started growing their own produce — and what they’ve learned along the way.

Choosing what to plant

For Leo, from the small town of Byfield in Central Queensland, growing herbs was an obvious choice. He wanted to be able to use his homegrown produce in everyday cooking.

“We’ve got basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, all that stuff,” the 31-year-old event promoter says.

While Leo had occasionally dabbled in veggie gardening, spending more time at home has allowed him to kick his gardening game up a few notches.

“Once COVID started and the initial lockdown happened, first thing we did was put raised garden beds all around our courtyard and filled that with leafy greens and herbs,” he says.

“Then we trenched up a big areas of the yard and planted about 15 rows full of food.”

Leo’s growing a variety of easy-to-cook vegetables and serving them up to his three young kids.

“We just had about a hundred of swedes grow up massive,” he says.

“I heard you can use swedes to replace potatoes in some recipes, so we tried making mashed swedes the other night.”

Leo Honek and his partner in Queensland next to their vegetable gardens
Leo, his partner and their three children have been growing everything from beans and corn to zucchini and herbs in their Central Queensland property.(Supplied: Leo Honek)

With little gardening experience, Rebecca relied on the advice of nursery staff at a hardware store to learn what can be planted each month.

“I’ve also been doing a lot of research online” and learning through trial and error, she says.

Rebecca’s efforts have paid off. In just four months of nurturing a garden, she’s growing beetroot as well as greens like broccoli, rocket and kale — all crops she chose for their ability to thrive in Melbourne over the cooler months.

To check what plants will grow best where you live, check out Gardening Australia’s month-by-month planting guide.

Learning about sun, water and other basics

Rebecca Purvis sitting with her dog in front of her vegetable garden
A well-lit space, regular watering and some quality potting mix are some of the only things you need to get started, Rebecca says.(Supplied: Rebecca Purvis)

Once you’ve decided what to plant, there are some basics to consider:

  • Edible plants like lots of sunlight, so if you can’t access natural light by planting your seeds or seedlings directly into your garden soil, try a raised garden bed. Or do as Leo did — and try both at once.
  • Don’t be afraid of growing from seeds: they’re significantly cheaper than seedlings, and only take a week or two to germinate.
  • If you’re working with very limited space, you can use pots to grow crops including loose-leaf lettuce varieties, herbs, capsicums, chillies, and even root vegetables such as carrots.
  • No matter where you’re growing your crops, you may want to test (and adjust) your soil quality by buying a pH tester, as Leo did.
  • If you’re planting directly into the soil, consider raising the soil level in the bed by adding compost and manure; this improves drainage.
  • Your veggie garden will need regular watering. Particularly if you’re growing from seeds, the soil needs to be kept moist.
  • Once your seeds have grown into crops, consider also introducing a fortnightly feed of liquid fertiliser, as Rebecca does.

The benefits of growing your own food

Rebecca and Leo are both in Facebook groups dedicated to growing produce.

“The people I’ve been meeting along the way in the Facebook group have been really helpful,” says Rebecca.

For Leo, gardening has also become a shared weekend activity with his three children.

“The kids love being outside so they can still run around while you’re doing it,” he says.

“Our oldest is six and she definitely helps plant the seeds,” he adds.

“Probably once they’re four or five they can really get involved.”

There’s another benefit of growing your own produce: saving money.

“We’re definitely saving on our grocery bills, because we’re literally eating out of the backyard,” says Rebecca.

It’s also helped her reduce trips to the supermarket (a priority for her, since she works with at-risk elderly patients).

“There was a good week or so there where we were getting everything we ate from the garden,” adds Leo.

Both add that growing their own vegetables hasn’t been as hard as it sometimes looks.

“At the end of the day, if I can do it, anyone can do it,” Rebecca says.

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Growing your first veggie garden during the pandemic

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