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Penny Swift: 5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Successful Vegetable Garden To Grow Your Own…

Penny Swift: 5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Successful Vegetable Garden To Grow Your Own Food

An Interview With Martita Mestey

You need to accept that the condition of your soil really does matter. After all, you don’t just want your vegetable plants and herbs to survive, you want them to thrive so that you can harvest them for the pot and/or table.

As we all know, inflation has really increased the price of food. Many people have turned to home gardening to grow their own food. Many have tried this and have been really successful. But others struggle to produce food in their own garden. What do you need to know to create a successful vegetable garden to grow your own food? In this interview series, called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Successful Vegetable Garden To Grow Your Own Food” we are talking to experts in vegetable gardening who can share stories and insights from their experiences.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Penny Swift.

Penny Swift is a home improvement expert who has grown vegetables and herbs at home for many years. She has written and had more than 40 non-fiction titles published, some internationally, including a 207-page coffee table book, Outdoor Style. This title covers garden planning and design. She has also written three landscaping courses for long-distance learners and currently writes for several gardening websites. As a freelancer, she ghost-writes for several web sites, but also has her own home and garden blog, Own the Backyard.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

Sure. I began post school life as a wanna-be social worker but got involved in our university newspaper and soon became news editor. After graduating with a nebulous degree, I spent a decade working for hard-hitting daily and Sunday newspapers. Then I migrated to magazines, where I started writing about a wide range of topics, including homes, gardens, and crafts.

I am married to a photographer who got a break from a local publisher to illustrate non-fiction books. That opened the door for me to write books about homes, many of which tell people how to do things to improve their living environments. Some have been published internationally. I have written eight basic, construction-related textbooks, three study guides about landscaping, and another about water features for patios and gardens. Nowadays, I write for an international, mostly US market, and have a handful of long-term remote clients. Topics vary, but include gardening, homesteading, and home improvements in general. For the past year I have also written a great deal of content for a legal firm based in Connecticut.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I could tell hundreds of stories, but sticking to the theme of growing food, farming basil for a local company specializing in the production of pesto stands out. We were living on a farm because my daughter was a champion showjumper and event rider, and we wanted to have her horses at home. Because my husband and I aren’t riders, we decided to branch out and try our hand at growing more than our usual small-scale vegetable crops.

We decided that basil might be a good idea because it’s quick-growing and doesn’t need much maintenance. We bought a couple of polytunnels, prepared the ground, and started planting. We had one farm helper who lived in the area, but when it came to picking, my husband, two sons, and I did most of the work. It was a lot of fun, but the challenge was to pack our crop into large plastic bags and get them through to our customers before it started to wilt. The journey from the farm to Cape Town’s southern suburbs, where the pasta was produced, was about 50 miles away. All we had was a Ford Ranger truck with air conditioning. But it worked!

Sadly, after growing basil successfully for nearly two years, it got fungal infections and we were advised to let the land lie fallow for at least five years. We didn’t own the farm, so decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

By then, my daughter had stopped riding competitively, and we opted to move back to the suburbs.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

An appetite for learning, persistence, and good communication skills.

I have always been keen to learn and this has made me an excellent researcher. This, in turn, enables me to write convincingly and authoritatively about anything that interests me. I have written more than 40 published books, including textbooks for students in the construction industry as well as three landscaping guides. I learned as much doing these as I hope the students have learned.

Persistence enabled me to get my first job on a newspaper when I was 21 years old. My father was an assistant editor, which made it more difficult rather than easier. While I had a university degree in social science, it didn’t qualify me for anything specific. I had taken a typing course, which helped in the days before computers. What I did was to keep calling the news editor asking if he had a vacancy yet. Eventually he gave me a job! Long term, this persistence has paid off in other ways — including the fact that many years later, after the new editor retired, he hired me as a freelance writer for a magazine he had started about events, conferences, and so on.

Good communication skills are vital for everyone. I am lucky enough to enjoy and be good at, communicating verbally and via my writing.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Your thoughts are powerful, make them positive.

If you aren’t positive you aren’t going to be happy, let alone successful. I’ve experienced all sorts of pain and misery, from illness (including polio as a child and seizures as an adult) and fairly serious injury (in the form of a fractured spine), to the unbearable grief of losing parents and very close friends. While it’s very difficult to be positive when bad things happen, focusing on good things really does help.

Similarly, I haven’t succeeded in everything I have done, but by being positive, and learning from my mistakes, I have been able to grow and overcome failure.

It’s just as important to think positive thoughts about other people.

Are you working on any interesting or exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Two years ago, my husband and I built a small, timber frame home on stilts in a coastal village that is located in a biosphere in the most southern part of Africa. I am slowly developing the garden, trying to keep it as indigenous as possible, with lots of succulents and aloes, many of which have been gifted from friends’ gardens. I’m loving how the fynbos, which is natural shrubland or heathland vegetation, emerges seemingly from nowhere.

I have never had a garden that doesn’t incorporate vegetables and herbs, so I have an area dedicated to relatively easy-to-grow edible plants, including lettuce, tomatoes, rocket, bell peppers, and chilies. I grow some in pots and some in the ground. I also have a fig tree, though the birds get more fruit than we do! An interesting challenge is not to grow vegetables that will attract the baboons that live in the area.

I think it might encourage people to know that it is possible to create gardens on a shoestring. So far, plants have cost me next to nothing, but I have had to invest in organic matter to ensure that they thrive. Time is another investment, but it’s very worthwhile.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about creating a successful garden to grow your own food. Can you help articulate a few reasons why people should be interested in making their own vegetable garden? For example, how is it better for our health? For the environment? For our wallet?

It stands to reason that homegrown vegetables will be truly fresh. So-called fresh supermarket vegetables simply cannot be as fresh because they are stored, at least for a short while, and then transported to the source of the sale. Farmer’s markets are probably the freshest source of vegetables that aren’t homegrown.

There is no contest that the longer fruit and veg is stored, the more their nutritional value decreases. It’s still better than eating canned or even commercially frozen fruit and veg, but it can’t beat homegrown. Good quality homegrown vegetables also taste better than commercially grown veg.

The other vital issue is that when you grow your own food, you have 100% control over the methods used to kill or minimize pests and diseases. I refuse to use pesticides, and if it means extra time spent hand-washing bugs, like scale and aphids, off leaves, so be it. But there are steps gardeners can take to prevent pests and diseases, and if you follow commonly known guidelines, you too can avoid chemicals and toxic treatments.

So yes, growing your own food at home is a healthy alternative. If you follow the organic route, as I do, it’s better for the environment too.

But in terms of saving money, I’m not so sure. Shop-bought vegetables can be incredibly inexpensive, and all you do is buy the fruits of someone else’s labor. But when you set up your own vegetable garden, you’ll need to make sure soil conditions are right, and that you water and apply fertilizer (if necessary) at the right time. You will also need to carry out routine maintenance, which takes time. Costs can add up pretty quickly.

Also, unless you’re into homesteading and/or small-scale farming, there will inevitably be a lot that is hit and miss. As an example, in the last growing season, not one of the tomato seedlings I planted survived, probably because I planted them too late. But a random indeterminate tomato vine that emerged in the middle of my aloe garden, continued to bear quite tasty fruit for nearly six months.

Where should someone start if they would like to start a garden? Which resources would you recommend? Which plants should they start with?

Start off small, firstly to see how much pleasure you get from growing vegetable gardening. Secondly, to see you successfully you can grow veggies in your home garden environment.

Decide on your focus. Do you want to establish a true kitchen garden, with a wide range of vegetables, or do you want to start with easy-to-grow salad items like lettuce and tomatoes?

I have always found herbs particularly easy to grow, and once created a wonderfully visual chequerboard of herb plants between square precast slabs, rather like a living chessboard. I opted for my favorites, as well as the Simon & Garfunkel musts: parsley (not always successful), sage (I rarely use it for cooking), rosemary (so easy to grow I currently have three big bushes), and thyme (which grows super-well in all my gardens — and there are different sorts.)

I’ve always got space for oregano, marjoram, and rocket, which is prolific. And right now, I’m growing mint and strawberries together, both of which need some control.

If you’re not sure what to start with, be guided by the seedlings that are available from your local nursery or plant supplier. They usually take the local climate into account. Once you gain confidence, you may want to start growing from seed, but then you’re inevitably going to need to expand the size of your home garden.

In terms of resources, my approach to gardening is a lot like my approach to cooking. I read for inspiration and then do my own thing. I love to experiment, though I do follow the advice of experts I have learned to trust.

Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Successful Vegetable Garden To Grow Your Own Food”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t try to beat the odds if they are stacked against you.

When you decide to establish a new vegetable garden there will be certain things you’ll be stuck with. You’re going to be limited by the space you have and by your local climate. The best advice is to accept the limitations you are faced with and make the best of what you’ve got.

Not every type of veg is likely to grow in your garden, so be selective and choose those that will thrive.

2. Choose your soil carefully.

You need to accept that the condition of your soil really does matter. After all, you don’t just want your vegetable plants and herbs to survive, you want them to thrive so that you can harvest them for the pot and/or table.

While it is true that many plants grow in any type of soil, adding organic matter into your soil will improve its quality. You also need to dig and loosen the soil, especially if you are going to grow root vegetables.

Additionally, organic fertilizers will add nutrients to the soil and manure will improve the composition of your soil. The pH of the soil isn’t usually an issue, but some plants prefer acid soils while others like the soil to be more alkaline. pH test kits are inexpensive and easy to use.

If you can’t improve the quality of your soil easily, consider raised garden beds and pots. This way you can bring in the perfect soils for your needs.

3. Rotate your crops.

There are several reasons for crop rotation. Different vegetables provide nutrients that others need. So, for instance, leafy veggies need nitrogen, while legumes trap nitrogen in nodules on their roots. Also, if you plant root vegetables after leafy veggies, they will use the phosphorus that the leafy veggies don’t need. Vegetables that fruit, including peas, tomatoes, and cucumbers, will utilize potassium left in the soil by the leafy types.

My biggest lesson was the failure of our basil crop! If we’d known about the importance of rotating crops, we might still be producing basil commercially for pesto.

All it takes is a bit of planning.

Another reason is to protect certain vegetables from pests and diseases carried in the soil. If you don’t rotate your crops pests and diseases, including fungal diseases, can build up in the soil with disastrous effects.

4. Consider companion planting — it works.

Vegetables, herbs, and other plans can have an amazing effect on one another. If you do a little research, you’ll find which companion plants do good for others. You will also find out whether there are plants that the veggies you plan to grow dislike.

This concept is linked to crop rotation, because some plants will grow better with others simply because they are getting the benefit of certain nutrients. It’s also a good way to minimize pest problems.

You might know that carrots love tomatoes, but did you know that they also do well with basil, chives, lettuce, onions, and peas? They don’t like broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, dill, fell, and potatoes. They stunt each other’s growth. Apart from carrots, tomatoes grow well with African marigolds, basil, celery, chives, onions, parsley, sage, and stinging nettles. Fennel, kohlrabi, and brassicas like cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli, will stunt the growth of tomato vines. Potatoes tend to compete for the same nutrients, so avoid them too.

5. Plan for year-round harvest.

Unless you have a greenhouse, you are not going to be able to produce a year-round harvest at whim. Stick to supermarket shopping for that. But you can grow vegetables all year round.

Also, by planting seeds and seedlings, you will typically extend the time they grow and therefore the harvest period. Check what seed suppliers recommend and be guided by your local nursery or plant supplier. If they are selling seedlings, it’s likely that the plants will grow at that time of the year.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a garden? What specifically can be done to avoid those errors?

Some start out too big and some start out too small. If you start out trying to accommodate a really big space, it can be overwhelming. If the space is too small, you won’t be able to grow a good selection of vegetables and herbs.

Other typical errors include not preparing the soil adequately and choosing to grow plants that simply won’t thrive in your climate or environment. Sometimes, this may be as simple as siting a vegetable garden under a tree where it doesn’t get enough sun.

What are some of the best ways to keep the costs of gardening down?

Probably the best way to keep costs down is to do all the work yourself. Another way is to make sure you plant what is well suited to your area. Unless you’ve got a greenhouse, your choice will be limited.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I love the idea of community gardens. They aren’t new, but with good organization and support from local authorities, they could improve the nutritional prospects of many underprivileged people.

To work though, a productive community garden will need volunteers and dependable, honest, reliable supervisors (probably also volunteers.)

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Without a doubt, David Attenborough. He’s a living legend whom I have admired and followed forever.

Sadly, Margaret Roberts, who championed organic farming in southern Africa, died more than four years ago. I would love to have had the opportunity to interview her over breakfast or lunch! But I have to be content with reading her books, of which I have many.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Much of what I write online is ghost written for clients. But I have recently launched that that is designed to cover everything from landscaping and kitchen gardens, to walls, fences, and other structures. It’s growing daily!

Thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success and good health.

Penny Swift: 5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Successful Vegetable Garden To Grow Your Own… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.