Tuesday, March 30, 2010

So You Want to Start a Garden

This was intended to be my first audio presentation, but when I figured out that a PC capable digital voice recorder was well over $100, I put the idea on hold for a while. Rather than let this script sit in a file waiting, I'm just gonna use it for a blog post. Sometime down the road I'll get a recorder, but for now I'll just stick with writing. It's an unedited script I wrote on Wordpad, so I tried my best to write it like I was talking. Hopefully it comes out that way. It's intent was for people new to vegetable gardening from my viewpoint and our methods we use here.....enjoy. (i hope lol)


When we moved here 11 years ago this coming May, we decided that we both wanted a small backyard garden. Both of us had watched our parents and others garden over the years, learned from their sucess's and mistakes, and decided that this one would be done our way. My dad always plowed a plot, disced it, and then planted. The grass that was turned under by the plow eventually worked it's way back to the top over the season, and weeding turned into a daily chore. Even years later when my parents got a rototiller, they did the same thing, and we still had the same weed problem. I decided to take a different approach. I marked off the origional 10x10 area with stakes and a string, and pulled the sod by hand with a shovel. At the time I had a small front tine tiller, and I used it to turn the soil for planting. The sod pulled from the area was used to fill low spots in the yard simply by shoveling it out of the trailer or wheelbarrow, and running over it with the lawn tractor. After a few good rains and mowings, the low spots were gone. In later years I made a screen from 1/2 x 1/2 inch wire fencing that mounted on the garden trailer. I simply screened out the soil from the grass, and the grass leftover went to either our compost pile, or to our chickens. Two years ago I just piled the sod in a sunny spot behind the garage, letting it sit for a year. The top grew into a big hump of grass while the heat and mass caused all the grass inside to die. Last spring when I made the first of the 8x8 beds for greens, I pulled the top layer of sod from the pile, and used the soil underneath to fill the bed. It doesn't get much easier than that. With our garden being lower than the rest of the yard, it gets more water and less runoff. Water runs toward our garden naturally now, so we don't have to rely on watering unless it's very hot and dry. With the top layer of grass and weeds completely gone, weeding our garden was very minimal. Now with mulching and the same sod removal, weeds are nearly non existant.
After the first garden area was tilled, we used stakes and string to mark out the rows and also the paths. I always take the size of the plant into consideration when marking new rows. Rather than just figure a two foot spacing between plants, I look at how wide each plant will be when fully grown. Sure, leaf lettuce in a single row may only grow 6-8 inches wide, but tomatos can go to nearly 3 feet wide, and green beans to 2 feet. I start with a 12" minimum space from the yard at the beginning, mark it, then mark the 2nd side of the row, then again mark a path. So....if I start at 12 inches, make a 24 inch row for green beans, I make a 24" path before the next row, giving plenty of room for walking and kneeling along with plant growth. At the time of the first spring planting, our garden appears to have 300 yards of bright yellow masons twine ran through it from end to end, but it works great for us. When plants are all above ground and recognisable, I remove the string and stakes. If you are going in straight rows, plant things together that will grow wider or more narrow in the same rows to save or utilize more space.
That first year we weren't sure what we could grow in our soil. It appeared to be rich, but you can never tell for sure. With that small 10x10 area, we grew tomatos, green beans, squash, and some simple leaf lettuce. We knew the soil was fertile, so we planned on bigger the next year. I am not a beliver in soil testing. . Well taken care of soil with compost added will produce food for you year after year. I have yet to have any tests made, and more than likely never will. We experiment with plants from time to time and see if certain things will grow here or not. For instance, we had horrible luck with brussel sprouts, but year after year get bumper crops of green beans. Our answer to the brussel sprouts dilemma is simple-we don't grow them. We continue to try different plants here, and the sucesses have far outweighted the failures. I refuse to amend my soil to grow one thing, when something else will grow just fine in it's place. The entire garden gets compost and grass clippings all season long. In the fall, the entire area is covered in leaves from the yard that not only continue to break down and feed the soil, but mulch over the entire area to prevent any weed growth after we are finished harvesting. I rake our leaves and get some from next door. I'm sure any neighbor would be more than happy to get rid of that pile of leaves in their yard or at the curb.
Each year since that first garden, it has grown. That first 10x10 garden now sits at 45x65 feet and is getting a 4 foot extension this year, We use the same methods I have already mentioned and have bumper crops of nearly everything we plant each year. Sure, some things may not do as well as they did the previous year, but that's gardening. It simply doesn't always work. We have to plan on crop failures and disease, just as you will. It's frustrating, it's disappointing, but that's just the way it is. Vegetable gardening is a learning experience from year to year. We're still learning after 11 years, and will continue to learn.
Now I know, someone out there is listening and thinking "but this book said to do that", and "that guy at the garden center said to do this" Well.....most modern books I see concentrate more on soil amendments and science than simply producing food. And that guy at the graden center? It's his job to say you need fertilizer X and spray Z, afterall, he sells them, just like the guy at the car dealership says you need that extra option on your new vehicle. He may have your best interest at heart, but he is still selling product, and most of them as with the authors I mentioned, are more prone to turn to modern methods of chemicals to fix your problems, which we avoid at all costs.
My parents grew a succesful, though weedy, garden every year as did my grandparents. They never had their soil tested or added fertilizers or soil additives. A hundred years ago, everyone had a garden of some kind, and they had no idea what pH was. Native Americans grew some of their own food with sucess for hundreds of years, and they never had to run to the local hardware store for herbicides.Neither did our early settlers. Keep it simple folks. Don't over think your garden. Don't over plan it. Don't add this and that if your soil appears to be fertile. If it's too much clay, add some sand and compost. If it's too thin, add some clay or mulch and compost INTO the soil. And one thing to always remember with compost. Add it to your rows or beds only! I have seen far too many people add compost to their entire garden area, adding nutrients to the areas they walk on. You aren't feeding the soil for your shoes, you're feeding the soil for your plants.
For the first 10 years, our garden had no hard border. It was simply a square hole dug 4" in the backyard. My concentration was on production, not aesthetics. Our garden grew HUGE amounts of food, so I didn't really care if it had the pretty border or the painted white picket fence around it. This is where I see way too many people making the same choices. They are so concentrated on how their garden will look, they will spend $400 on picket fence and posts to grow $125 worth of vegetables. I'm not saying to not care at all what it looks like, but don't worry as much about looks as you do what it can yield. In my opinion,even the smallest 10x10 plot in the ground full of vegetables looks more beautiful than a manicured lawn and bed of worthless flowers. Our garden now has a border at ground level made from untreated landscape timbers simply because I had a free supply of them. Otherwise, it still wouldn't. If parts of the yard happened to roll over into the garden, I got out that fancy grass removal tool from the garage that hangs on an area marked SHOVEL and removed it. It was really no hassle.Mission accomplished. I have other areas that are enclosed, and all are done totally with free materials. Our greens beds are bordered with 20+ year old railroad ties that I am confident are long dried of creosote. Lisa's small herb bed is surrounded by concrete parking bumpers from a jobsite. Fancy edging and borders are unnecessary, try your best to avoid using them. Find suitable materials for free or for far less, and use the savings on garden tools, or other seeds and plants.
How much you want to grow depends on the space you have available to set aside for your garden. In our case, we didn't have small kids and had no use for the big open backyard of grass. We have slowly utilized the entire area for growing food, with the lone exception of one area for our clothelines. Within any given space, how much to plant in it is soley up to you. Take into consideration how much you or your family eat in fresh vegetables, and if you plan to somehow preserve produce from your garden. If you have that big open area you can turn totally into a garden, learn to can, freeze,dehydrate, or otherwise store your harvest and use as much as possible. If your family loves green beans, plant plenty and can some every week or two. If you like salsa or pasta sauces, learn to make and can them yourself. Even if you just grow a typical summer garden, preserving can let you enjoy the same beans, corn, and tomato's in the other seasons while saving money on buying the same thing at the grocery store. None of the preservation methods are extremely hard to learn, and they're well worth the effort to do so.
Before I end this, I feel I have to go in one other direction. I have talked to many people over the years about growing their own food. Some get it, some don't. Some try, and some don't. The most frequent answer I hear is "I don't have the time". I know that some people have busy work schedules, and I know some families have both parents jobs and kids to juggle, but here is my point. Anyone making the decision to grow their own food should make it a priority. Not necessarily top priority like we do, but still a priority. If you have taken the time to make a garden area, take the time to take care of it. Don't let those weeds go, or let ripe vegetables sit on the plant while you watch something on tv or go to the mall. Spend some time outside. Look at your plants. Pick and enjoy the harvest. Feel the freedom you have given yourself from the grocery store, even if it's just those 6 tomato's or bowl of fresh lettuce. You don't have to go buy it, you grew it yourself. Growing your own food is rewarding in many ways. Enjoy it, embrace it, and reap the rewards.

1 comment:

frugalgravy said...

Its definately freedom!

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