Veggie garden in raised beds using compost

5 Things For a A Successful Vegetable Garden

An Interview With Martita Mestey for Authority Magazine

  Hope it is not too trite, but it’s gotta be: “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. It inspired our guiding principles which are based on Permaculture: Earth care, people care, fair share.

21 June 2022

Copied here for Speedibin readers. Read it on Authority Magazine here.

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 Joyce McMenamon.

As a food garden and compost enthusiast, as well as an Organic Master Gardener, Joyce McMenamon has proved that you can grow a lot of your own food in your backyard — the 100-foot diet. She surpassed her goal of growing 20% of their food, and frequently serves weeds with dinner. In 2012, she founded Fresh Earth Products which produces Speedibins, the all-metal backyard composters, which make home composting easier, and, mercifully, rat free!

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”?

Thanks Martita! Pleasure to be here. Actually, my first career wasn’t horticulture at all but was in aquaculture and my degree is in Marine Ecology. But I’ve always grown some food and made compost. I grew up in Victoria, Canada, and we always had a veggie garden. As kids, we hated taking out the compost as it was an open pile and always housed rats, creeping us out. However, my Dad was a bit of an inventor and an idealist and in 1989 he worked on building a backyard composter that would keep out rats. He designed an all-metal bin that worked well, and he sold some. However, it didn’t compete well against the plastic bins that were flooding the market at that time, so he stopped the business. Then after hubby and I took early retirement to Vancouver Island, City Farmer in Vancouver asked if we would make these metal bins again because of the rat problem there. My Dad had long passed but we found his old Speedibin drawings and started tweaking the design. Now we are having a lot of fun and some success by helping people make compost in a safe way. I find there is a surprising overlap in skills between managing a fish hatchery, managing a composter business, and managing a food garden. Between the business and growing some food, life is very gratifying.

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

Sure, here’s a fun one. Recently we hired a couple of ducks for a morning. It was the coolest thing. Aretha and Willow strutted around the vegetable beds eagerly gobbling up slugs. Ok, it was a bit gross seeing the goo hanging off their bills. But they sure did a number on the slug population in our garden. Their handler gently shepherded them around the beds with a long pole. Ducks don’t make saliva, so they need to wash down their snacks regularly. They would waddle back to their pool, wash off their bills, and then strut out again for more slug treats, chattering and chortling contently the whole time. They knocked back our biggest pest, and fertilized the garden at the same time. And they were so cute! They had us giggling all morning.

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?

  1. You need to be open to new ideas, be curious, always thinking of a better way of operating. For example, I was eager to use a green cover crop to keep the vegetable beds from being bare. I tried many plants with varying degrees of success — crimson clover, buckwheat, rye, vetch. Then a friend told us about miner’s lettuce (Claytonia), which is native to the Pacific Northwest here. It spreads fast, covers the ground in the late winter, is delicious, and is easy to pull when it is time to plant other veggies. For the bonus, is self-seeds. Maybe I’ll find something else in the future, but it was a prized find. Better ideas are all around if you pay attention.
  2. You need to be persistent. For example, we had a customer in California who received her compost bin with damaged corners. We replaced it and she was happy, but I knew that we needed to beef up our packaging. We were also adamant that all the packaging material be compostable. We even use kraft tape instead of the usual polymer tape. Some of us use cardboard for weed suppression in the garden and we’d be picking up those pieces of polymer tape for years after the cardboard had decomposed. So, we found a company in California that makes protective corners out of mushrooms. It is too cool. They are made of mycelium and hemp hurds, the stuff left over from extracting hemp fibre. And it’s very compostable, of course. But it turns out mushroom corners were not strong enough to protect our 45 lb bins. So back to the drawing board again. This time we worked with the engineers at the box company and came up with a design that UPS can drop kick and the bins will arrive intact, and is still entirely compostable. You need to keep persistently tweaking.
  3. You need to make the world better in your own way. If you are not doing something that makes life better for your customers as well as our planet, you shouldn’t be doing it. Money is a means not the goal. Certainly, backyard composting has been a feel-good project for us. We are keeping organics out of the landfill where they make methane and we’re enabling people to compost at home without rats chewing in. As well as having a worthwhile project, you need to operate honorably. Treat people the way you would want to be treated. That goes for customers, suppliers, delivery people, even yourself. Everyone needs to be treated fairly. So do something to make the world even a tiny bit better.
  4. And here’s a bonus fourth trait: you need to be an optimist. You can’t run a business or be a gardener unless you know that next year will be better.

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

Hope it is not too trite, but it’s gotta be: “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. It inspired our guiding principles which are based on Permaculture: Earth care, people care, fair share. That’s what I want to see in the world. I want our company to be an example of a business that is doing the right things. We even reuse our shipping boxes. When people pick up their bins from us, I usually assemble the bin for them, and they leave the box for me to recycle. So, I take the boxes back to the fabricator and they use them again for bins for local customers. I can’t think of any other company that reuses their boxes. And certainly, our garden is about as organic as you can get. The only material we bring into the garden is manure from plant-eating animals. Do what you want to see in the world.

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

We are developing a composter designed for school gardens — called the “Scholar” of course. We have several of our composters in school gardens locally and sometimes kids jump on them and bend the braces so the lids don’t fit right. We needed to develop a tougher bin and, after some monstrosities, came up with a great design that uses corrugated galvanized metal sides and red and yellow cedar for the corners. No gaps more than ¼ inch so even mice can’t get it. They are tough enough to withstand leaping children. And they can be padlocked, which is useful in public gardens, so people don’t toss in their cigarette butts and dog poop.

We have several of our bins being used in Edible Schoolyards projects in the US and Canada now. It is so heartening to see kids learning to grow food. Some projects even have chickens. It gives me hope for the future. Gardening can teach kids biology, chemistry, nutrition, art, communication, planning, even math and physics.

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?

Yes, so many compelling reasons! My heart aches when I think about the “food deserts” in parts of the country and I wonder, if people just had a little help to start food gardens, we would be in a healthier and safer world. Growing a little food can help budgets, especially growing substantial foods like beans, peas, potatoes, corn, broccoli, squash etc. The nutrients, especially minerals and vitamins, found in fresh food would certainly help with health and dental issues.

There is another health benefit too. Growing food gets you outside, being physical, getting some vitamin D, engaging a different part of your brain than staring at a screen.

To please the wallet, think what would happen if you saved your own seeds! One bean plant can produce a few pounds of beans or about 500 dry bean seeds. What if your investments multiplied by 50,000% over the summer, like beans!

Probably my favorite reason to encourage food production is the good things it does to the soil. If you are growing your own food, you are unlikely to load it up with pesticides and herbicides that harm the soil microbes. Instead, you add compost and mulch that feed the gazillions of soil microbes that feed the plants that feed us. Every healthy piece of soil is a step towards a healthy Earth that sustains us.

Here’s another good reason: soil has an antidepressant in it. The soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae releases serotonin, the “happiness chemical”. So, if you are feeling blue, head to the garden and go get your hands dirty.

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

If there is a seed savers organization in your community, go sit at their feet and listen. There is a lot of information floating around in cyber world but not all of it is based on experience. Find the people with their hands in the soil.

Some of my go-to books include Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway, The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon, and Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. My favorite garden know-how website at the moment is Mother Earth News. They have a brilliant garden planner app that I use to keep me organized year over year. Or Charles Dowding’s videos on no dig gardening are awesome.

I’m a big fan of perennial plants. They are a lot less maintenance. I’m thinking strawberries, small fruit bushes like blueberries and raspberries, fruit and nut tress like apples, plums and pecans. We grow edible chestnuts and northern pecans here in the Pacific Northwest that are hardy down to -17C (1F). Their roots are deeper so they need less watering and they draw nutrients from deep. Certainly, an herb garden is a great place to start. Thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary and chives will all manage themselves, while enhancing your meals. Many plants will self-seed such as kale, parsley, lettuce, dill and my new favorite: miner’s lettuce. They all become weeds in your garden if you let them.

Garlic is a fun and easy to grow: you basically plant individual cloves in October and harvest garlic in July. And potatoes are easy. Same thing: stuff them in the ground in the spring and harvest in the fall. Beans, peas and squash are easy too. I prefer to start them in little pots (actually I use old toilet paper rolls, but maybe that is too much information) and then transplant to the garden when they have a couple of true leaves.

Grow what you like eating. Snow peas are easy to grow and so very delicious right off the vine. We’re not big on zucchini so don’t grow it. There is a local joke, if you go downtown in the summer make sure to lock your car or else when you come back your car will be full of zucchinis. Against my own advice, we grow Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) as they are perennial, contain vitamin K, and grow enthusiastically here but, sadly, we don’t like them. They are substantial, like a potato, so we keep them as a survival food. If the big one hits, we can live off sunchokes and blueberries for a long time, albeit grumpily.

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. Compost. Feed the soil that feeds the plants that feed us. Compost is the ultimate soil amendment. It is what plants crave. It feeds micronutrients to plants as they need it. Compost holds water in dry sandy soil. It breaks up compacted or clayey soil so water can penetrate. And home compost is free. You’ll notice that weeds grow more enthusiastically beside the compost bin. Never have bare soil. Add a couple of inches of compost to your soil if you can. Or use the “chop and drop” system where you chop down the weeds (or cover crop such as buckwheat, vetch or crimson clover) and leave it on the soil as a mulch. But bare soil gets too cold in winter and too hot, dry and cracked in summer and may even blow away. Our compost is pink with worms. Worm poop is rich in nitrogen as well as other micronutrients that plants crave. It’s so much better than buying fertilizer made using fossil fuels.
  2. Grow diversity. I used to think that if you can’t eat it, there’s no point in growing it. Now I realize that it’s not just all about me; I need to encourage the beneficial insects too. So I have flowers in the garden that bees and butterflies love. Of course, it makes the garden more magical too. We drove through Quebec recently and saw fields of corn as far as the eye could see. Apparently, all that corn is primarily for cheese production, via cows of course. But it is risky. All the eggs are in one basket. Whereas if you have a variety of crops, it is like insurance. If you have a freaky year — droughts, floods, snow in June — for sure something will thrive. Learn companion planting. Some plants help each other. Mother Earth News has a tested and thorough list of companion plants. If you jumble up your plants (called interplanting), pests are less likely to decimate a crop as they get confused with the other plants around them.
  3. Grow perennials. As I mentioned, perennials are less work. They take water and nutrients from deeper so can withstand droughts better. They collect nutrients all year long, not just during a short summer. Trees, shrubs, plants that propagate by rhizome, and many herbs: all these plants are low maintenance and more hardy than annual plants.
  4. Eat from your garden every day. This is your reward. Enjoy! Savor the fresh juicy still-warm flavor of a sun ripened tomato or strawberry. Even if you just eat your weeds. Dandelions are super nutritious and easily tossed in a salad, smoothie, or stew.
  5. Experiment. There is no right and wrong way to garden. Certainly, there are better and worse methods but as the climate changes, it is wise to experiment. Start plants earlier. Or later. Or try different varieties of your favorite vegetable. Or try plants that are outside your climate zone. We are in zone 8b but have experimented with melons that should be zone 9. Try the same plants in different microclimates of your property. Try different manures, different companion plantings, various watering systems. If you are smart, you will set up trials and take notes. Get buddies involved so you learn what grows well in different parts of town. Like it or not, our climate is changing, and we need to figure out how that will change food crops.

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?

The biggest mistake I’ve seen is starting too big, getting overwhelmed and then giving up. Start with one bed, have some fun with it, think about how a second bed can be even better and evolve from there. See how much of your time it takes, where the sun hits it, what insects are attracted there, how it makes you feel.

Another big mistake is digging or tilling your garden. It compacts the soil by upsetting all the soil creatures that keep it fluffy. And never stand on your soil. If you are starting a new veggie bed on grass, don’t dig it up but instead mow it, add a layer of compost, cover with cardboard, add some soil, and start planting. This is known as lasagna gardening. By the time the cardboard is decomposed, the grass will be composted too and will add wonderful nutrients to the soil. Saves a ton of work too!

Landscape fabric drives me crazy. It may slow down weeds for a month or so until the landscape photographers have left but, in a year or five, it will be full of weeds that are now rooted in the fabric. Now you have this layer of polypropylene fabric shedding microbeads into your soil and it will be herculean work to remove. Instead, you can use cardboard or six layers of newspaper to suppress weeds.

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

May favorite trick is, of course, to make my own compost. I haven’t bought soil. Ever. Just keep adding compost and the soil becomes richer, more wormy and fluffy over time.

Also, I like to save my own seeds. It’s free. Just let the plants go to seed, collect and dry them, and plant them again in the Spring. You will find that your own seeds perform better than the most expensive store-bought seeds or starts because your own seeds are adapted to your soil. Often, I let plants seed themselves in the garden. I have kale popping up like weeds in the garden, as well as parsley, dill, nasturtiums, and my favorite: miner’s lettuce. For saving seeds, start with the easy ones like peas and beans. Many communities hold a Seedy Saturday in the Spring where gardeners trade seeds or buy from each other. It is an ideal event to learn from the masters there.

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. :-)

Grow a little food and make your own compost. If everyone who could, had a little veggie garden our world would be in a different place. And if everyone who could, made compost at home we would have richer soil and more nutritious food, less trucks on the road, less greenhouse gases from landfills, and healthier happier people. Grow food, make compost, repeat.

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. :-)

Charles Dowding, the No Dig gardener in England. There is a guy who gets it — feed the soil with compost and let the plants take care of themselves. Or Michelle Obama, of course. We’d get wildly animated about composting and growing food in schools.

How can our readers further follow your work online? There is a ton of composting info on our website including our award-winning blog. Check out our video with the Herbal Jedi!

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

An Interview With Martita Mestey for Authority Magazine


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