Working With Nature To Grow a Healthy Vegetable Garden

, written by Jane Griffiths za flag

Jane Griffiths in her garden

Fifteen years ago, when I first planted vegetables in my Johannesburg garden, I didn’t realise it was to be the beginning of a cherished relationship. It all started innocently enough. I wasn’t really interested in the growing process - I just wanted to grow some interesting chillies for my kitchen. So, holding hopeful green thumbs, I dug up some lawn, threw in compost and that summer I had about 20 varieties of chillies growing.

I suppose it was fitting that my vegetable affair began with hot and spicy chillies - but they left me wanting more and as I dug up further lawn and began experimenting with other vegetables, my fling turned into a relationship. For those just starting your first vegetable garden – whether it is a fling or a fully-fledged relationship – here are a few tips...

Compost in hands
Compost is a great way to enrich the soil and protect plants' health

Good Soil is Key to a Successful Garden

Just as a healthy body is more resistant to infections, so healthy soil builds up plants’ resistance to attacks from disease and insects. Healthy soil is full of humus, broken down organic matter, which is the ‘life-force’ of the soil. It provides homes for billions of organisms, such as fungi, bacteria, algae, insects and worms. In one teaspoon of healthy soil there are more than six billion microscopic organisms, all interacting with one another, the soil and our plants.

Two simple steps to creating healthy soil are:

  1. Make your own compost: This is all about common sense and letting nature do its thing. There is something magical about taking a pile of waste and turning it into black gold – because this is what composting does: it transforms discarded organic matter into nutrient-rich compost.
  2. No-Dig Gardening: In many gardens it is a tradition to dig up the beds and turn the soil over. This is done to break up and aerate compacted soil. Well you can say goodbye to all that digging, as it is more harmful than beneficial:
  • It causes weed seeds to germinate.
  • Digging upsets the soil balance and causes nutrient and moisture loss.
  • The billions of organisms living in the soil hate being disturbed.
Jane Griffiths harvesting squash

Intensive vegetable gardening works best in rich, fertile soil. The first time you prepare your beds, it is worth digging and enriching them with manure and compost. After you have prepared your beds, you never need to dig again. However, as we harvest our vegetables, we remove nutrients the plants have absorbed and these need to be replenished. Nature is designed to incorporate material that falls on the surface, down into the bottom layers. So, to maintain fertile, healthy soil we need to add organic matter to the surface of the beds. In a few short months it will be converted into humus for the plants’ roots.

Here are some No-Dig Gardening rules to help keep your soil healthy:

  • Avoid standing on the vegetable beds – its one of the main causes of compacted soil.
  • Make beds wide enough to reach the middle comfortably from the path - typically around 3 - 4 feet (90 - 120cm) wide.
  • Creating raised beds or adding edging helps to retain soil inside the beds.
  • Create permanent paths.
Intensive planting
Intensively planted raised beds mixing flowers and vegetables

Gardening in Balance With Nature

Organic gardening is about creating a biologically balanced ecosystem. When we create a balanced environment, we invite nature into our gardens to do what she does best and this means having a garden full of diversity and variety which self-regulates. The following tips can help maintain that balance:

  • Attract beneficial insects by letting herbs and vegetables flower.
  • Interplant herbs, edible flowers and companion plants amongst your vegetables.
  • Avoid monoculture (large areas of a single plant) - even on a small scale it’s an open invitation for pests and diseases. Plant as much variety in one bed as possible without overcrowding.
  • With good soil and sun such as we have in South Africa we can pack plants close together. When they grow to full size their leaves just touch one another, maximising the amount of ground available, keeping the soil moist and crowding out weeds.
  • There are endless relationships that plants have with one another and the organisms sharing the soil and air with them. By companion planting we invite nature do our gardening for us without using pesticides and chemicals

Know Your Garden

Part of becoming an awake, aware organic gardener is gaining knowledge about our garden and plants. If something is eating your plants, find out what it is. Dig around in the soil, look under leaves and go out at night with a torch. The best person to get to know your garden – is YOU.

Chilli peppers growing in Jane's delicious garden
Chilli peppers growing in Jane's delicious garden

In our twenty first century world of convenience and consumerism, we have become disconnected from nature. We somehow believe that we can live separately from nature, taking as much as we want, without giving anything back. And that is not how a successful relationship works. We are a part of and not apart from nature. If we continue to live as if we are a privileged and separate species, we risk losing everything.

If I have learnt anything from my relationship with my garden, it is this: by giving nature the respect she deserves, by placing her at the centre of things and by observing and learning from her every move, I have not only become a more successful gardener, but a far more contented person.

By Jane Griffiths. Photographs by Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton.

South African Jane Griffiths is the author of the best selling book: Jane’s Delicious Garden, and the newly released Jane’s Delicious Kitchen (published by Sunbird Publishers, a division of Jonathan Ball Publishers.)

Bugs, Beneficial Insects and Plant Diseases

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Show Comments


"It was 2 years ago, while visiting my lovely sister who lives in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, that I first heard of Jane. When I got home to Arizona I bought her book .... and have never looked back! Last year I completed an already-started but not very productive veggie garden, and went with the mixed and wild look and style of Jane's, and we had so much fun and produce throughout the year. I can't wait for this year! Fiona Reid"
Fiona Reid on Friday 4 March 2011
"I've just moved to Zambia from the U.S.A. Everything is upside down -- the planting cycles, northern exposure vs. southern, etc. Do you have any articles on when to plant what here? thanks."
KXJ on Tuesday 8 March 2011
"It's where I grew up! But, typical of an army brat, I spent most of my time making forts in trees etc, and my mother and the wonderful gardener did the growing. See if you can find a copy of Jane's Delicious Garden it is written for those in the southern hemisphere, so it will all be the right way up for you! For me - I had to reverse it. Ain't life wonderful!"
Fiona Reid on Wednesday 9 March 2011
"Hi KXJ, For an immediate solution have a look at my website: and go to the "month by month" tab. As Fiona (I'm glad my book is being useful for you Fiona!)said, my book will be helpful for you in Zambia. It is available from various online sources - a good one based in South Africa would be: and they deliver internationally. It will be quite an adjustment for you, especially as far as the climate differences, but Zambia generally has very fertile soil. There are also very avid vegetable gardeners there so try and connect with a gardening group - nothing like learning from those with the experience. Happy growing! "
Jane Griffiths on Wednesday 9 March 2011
" BREAKING THE ‘MANURE / COMPOST’ MYTH The question of the rate of application of compost per hectare is one that is frequently asked. More recently, another has come up: Can we use too much? It will never be too much. In fact, in most cases it will not be enough, because compost is not plant food but adds 'humus' or 'organic material' to your soils. (One of the essentials for 'breaking up clay soils.') If you have to buy compost, manure or fertilizers made from organic wastes, buy with reason and with knowledge, not at random and not for plant feeding. (Always ask David.) Do not be misled by wives tales such as 'compost is food' or, compost is 'organic fertiliser,' or 'compost and lime kill weeds.' These are simply untrue and you are being egregiously misled. The term compost as used in this writer's paper includes well-rotted manure – not fresh manure. Maximum applications of 150 tons per hectare have been seen, but on the average 5 to 20 tons per hectare are more usual, of dehydrated, skillfully manufactured and concentrated composts. The range is wide so common sense and some basic knowledge are necessary. The South African gardener must know the N.P.K and lime requirements of her garden. If you do know this – then less will always be more. Know all the facts. Do not just 'buy and plant from garden centers.' You should also carefully consider your garden's calcium – magnesium ratios and a long list of minor elements that are absolutely necessary for assimilation of nutrition. South African laws prescribe the use of formulas on fertilizers with regard to soluble inorganic nitrogen such as sulphate or nitrate of ammonium, and organic nitrogen (i.e. urea,); available phosphates (such as superphosphates) as against total or unavailable phosphates (rock phosphates, for example); water soluble potash or available potash,(inter alia N. P. K). Lime is used in accordance with the degree of acidity (calcitic) or calcium deficiency (dolomitic) or in heavy clays – gypsum (Ca C03) – clay buster. Rarely, if ever, does the gardener ask: Do these fertilizers remain available in the soil? Are they efficiently used or wasted. Of utmost importance is that fertiliser elements can be tied down in a soil. In certain soils available phosphates can become unavailable almost immediately after application. In alkaline soils they may become altogether unavailable right away, and in acid soils only a fraction of the phosphate may remain useful for the immediate plant stock. The bulk of the phosphate fertilizer is tied down and has become unavailable. The term 'water soluble potash' (potassium) on the fertilizer bag, is especially deceptive. Water soluble means what it says. It is that part of potash which leaches out of the root zone with (rain or irrigation). It is also most easily absorbed by plants, too easily, in fact, and then leads to luxury consumption causing disturbances in the metabolism of the plants. Besides this there are also the problems of the inter-relationship of minor element availability or unavailability and the other fertilizer elements. One example is the adverse relationship between boron and lime. Composts all behave differently (from bag to bag) and cannot be judged entirely by their NPK formula. Nitrogen in compost is mostly organic nitrogen. Much less nitrates are present and very little ammonia is. Phosphates and potassium are also present, but in forms which do not show up through the prescribed analytical procedures for determining availability or water solubility. At best, following customary analytical methods one can determine the total amount of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. But these methods do not take into account the fact that – due to the microbial in the soil and in the compost – these compounds are only very slowly, gradually made available in soil when compost is applied. Experience has shown that low nitrogen formulas (1 to 2%) in compost produced as good results as the application of high nitrogen fertilizer formulas (6-16%) with one important difference. Highly soluble fertilizer elements produce a rapid but not lasting effect while composts produce a slower but longer lasting effect. The effects of highly soluble and available fertilizer elements make the best showing during the first three to six weeks after application. The elements in composts last for three to six months with a steady release, and if the soil is rich in organic matter, further beneficial effects can be seen in the second and even in the third year. Not all composts are alike, either in formula or in behavior. Here the greatest mistakes have been made in the past by using composts indiscriminately under the far too general heading 'compost.' The intrinsic processes in living compost and in soils should also be understood in order to arrive at maximum effects. The different types of possible composts must therefore be considered. Different fertilisers will provide different percentages of various nutrients. The quantity added will depend on the content. For example, if you want to add 10g of nitrogen per square metre you would need to add 83g of dried blood (12% nitrogen) or 50g of sulphate of ammonia (20% nitrogen) - but if you wanted to supply that nitrogen from cow manure you would need 1,660g at its average 0.6% supply. It is simply impractical and uneconomical. This should by now, be self-evident. The question of where or not compost is ‘plant food’ has often been asked. In short, it is not, in the quantities used by South African gardeners. N.P.K Values of Common Farm Manures and commercial composts Are variable according to the diet the animals have had and how long it has been decomposed. The following are common averages: N.P.K Values of Animal Manure N Nitrogen % P Phosphorus % K Potassium (Potash) % Cow Manure 0.6 0.4 0.5 Horse Manure 0.7 0.3 0.6 Pig Manure 0.8 0.7 0.5 Chicken Manure 1.1 0.8 0.5 Sheep Manure 0.7 0.3 0.9 Rabbit Manure 2.4 1.4 0.6 N.P.K. VALUE OF HOME-MADE-COMPOST Home- made-compost has N.P.K values are not dissimilar to those of animal manure: NPK Value of Home Made Compost N Nitrogen % P Phosphorus % K Potassium (Potash) % Average Home Made Compost 0.5 0.27 0.81 Unlike artificial fertilisers, the composts and manures dissolve slowly and thereby release their very minimal nutrients slowly. Nitrogen in manure / compost tends be in the form of Urea and therefore is absorbed by the atmosphere very quickly unless heavily watered in. David (PhD) 0824217301 "
DAVID JESSE PhD on Wednesday 13 February 2013
JOHAN on Saturday 28 March 2015
"Hi Jane, we came to your house just before retiring to Greece. Wishing you well, Rose and John"
Rose on Monday 24 April 2017
"Thanks Jane for the article. I too believe in working with nature in my gardening practices. It has benefited me the best overall and been the healthiest for the soil. Using organic gardening methods for 20 years, I became familiar with Ruth Stout's Living Mulch Method several years ago. If you have not heard of her she wrote a book, The Ruth Stout No Work Garden Book, and wrote for Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine many years ago. Her book is great if you want some further knowledge in working with nature. I had the privilege of living off-grid for several years and living off the land for the most part. That experience allowed me the opportunities to spend a lot of time observing the functions of soil, plant, and animals in their natural environment and then doing my best to mimic that in my gardening and agricultural practices. Best to you in your Nature-Intensive Gardening!"
Patricia on Monday 19 June 2017
"I have gardened because I am hungry...good food takes work. and I have time for that...I shovel snow at 71 to strengthen muscles and prepare for gardening after the Wisconsin winter...this year in February we have crisp delicious carrots stored in 59 degree basement room in 5 gallon buckets of sand covered with a unsealed cover I have two sweet hat pepper plants that are producing peppers 5 are getting ready to pick and we had one last week with our breakfast potatoes...we just ran out of potatoes and are buying from the store we freeze tomatoes whole in bags and pull out what we need for chili and sauces as needed...we drink 4oz of tomato juice 6 days a week fasting Sundays we pickle cucumbers with jalapenos they are crisp and yummy...we still have frozen brussel sprouts peas and beans after the kids left home freezing is easier for my wife Dianne (she stuck ...+ )it out with me for 50 years...nature is not kind to us humans no matter how you want it to be different violence and hunger drives the natural world...the soil must be assessed and maintained...weeds are no friend to our skin and the beauty of the robins song is off set by the cowbirds that invade their is naivete indeed to see nature as a friend...we need food, clothing and shelter and protection from the disease that pervades nature...mosquitoes are tiny but kill more of humanity than lions, to think of natural balance is to ignore the responsibility for respecting and preserving habitat that allows for care and oversight of habitability. People survive in 50 below zero and 100 above and create habitable shelters for their famiies, and we learn to appreciate nature for the beauty we make it to be...I have been awakened since my retirement by the robins singing their songs making their case for survival, and most days I sing along with a melody in my heart, but I am not fooled and the labor of my hands provide in the winter a storehouse of gratitude for what the good earth provides...enjoy the portion of life you have been given because the reality of nature catches up with us all, and the truth extends beyond our time..."
bob on Tuesday 13 February 2018

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