I’ve noticed lately that more and more people are leaning towards a more self-sufficient life. I don’t blame them. With the costs of food in the stores today it becomes hard to stay away from the cheap over processed food or eating out and people find they are not happy with the unhealthy food they are feeding their family. I can honestly say that I was one of those people 4 years ago, where it was just easier to go to McDonald’s or pop a TV dinner in the microwave. But once I had my children I knew I wanted them to eat better. However, with the prices of the food at the grocery stores and how much things like fresh produce or eggs cost I wondered how I could give them better healthier food without breaking the bank. That was when my roots kicked in and I started to remember all the gardening lessons my mother taught me and it was then I decided I would utilize what yard I had to dedicate to growing food for my family and less time mowing and weeding the yard.
With more people wanting to start doing this same thing I have found myself being asked more and more questions on gardening and how to get started feeding their families healthy food without going broke. I ran into a friend the other day at the store and we got talking. They had said they wanted to learn to garden more and remembering my posts last year of my garden progress they started picking my brain on how I do my garden and planning, so I thought that this would make a great post.
The first thing you want to think about when you start planning your garden is how much space you have to work with. Do you own lots of land where you can have as large as a garden you want and able to plant multiple types of produce in rows or do you live in an urban setting where yard space varies dramatically? Or perhaps you live in an apartment where you may only have a small patio or balcony? If you live in an urban setting how much of that yard space in in full sun? In shade? Is flat or hilly? Those that live on a large amount of land have more flexibility when it comes to planning their gardens. I have not lived on large land for a very long time so in this post I will focus on an urban setting which is what I have the experience with. I will mainly focus on small yard gardening but much of what I will talk about can also be utilized if living in an apartment.
So once you have your answer to the above questions and know how much space you have to work with then the next thing to decides is do you want to dig in the ground to make a garden? Or would you rather garden in a raised bed or two and some containers? I find that if you rent the best choice is the raised beds or containers because for 1) you will not need to get permission from your landlord and 2) you are not tearing up their yard. I chose the raised bed and container option so that when we move I just have to move the dirt and can take my containers and bed with me to my new place.
Next you want to purchase your seeds. I would recommend going with heirloom varieties for they are non GMO and you can save the seeds from the plants which means that the plants your family likes you will never have to buy the seeds again because you can save them every year. There are many companies that sell heirloom seeds like Baker Creek Seeds, Seed Saver Exchange, Burgess and you can even find heirloom seeds on Etsy. If you have already tried planting a few plants, then you only need to buy the seeds you don’t have.
Once I know the space I have to work with I then take a piece of graph paper and I draw out my garden space. I use a larger type of graph paper and found some real great ones in a garden planner from Frugal Living. Take your graph paper and trace out your garden space. If you have a raised bed, then use one square for one foot. Also draw in any planters, buckets, or containers you are wanting to grow in so that you know how many containers you will need to either buy or build to fit your garden idea and start acquiring those containers now for you will need to drill drainage holes in most of them.
Now that the bare garden is drawn out on the graph paper sit down and make a list of all the plants you want to grow. Look though the seed catalogs from the companies listed above and “star” the plants you would love to grow. *Note: If you plan to square foot garden you may want to research that a bit for some plants do better at square foot gardening then others. Also take into consideration your location. How long is your growing season? How cold are your winters? Look into finding your first frost date and last frost date for those dates are important and will give you an idea how long your growing season is so you can plan better and make sure you do not plant something that will bolt or die before it produces. Victory Seeds is a great site to find your frost dates Once you have your plants picked out from the catalogs, then it’s time to actually plan the garden. Pick the plants that you starred in your catalog, and read its description. Pay attention to how many days it takes before you can harvest, and if it requires certain light or growing conditions. Write down a list of all the plants that fit these criteria on a piece of paper. Now look at your graph and write in the name of the plant into which container it will do best in. I also practice companion planting which is planting the plants next to their “buddies” not “enemies” so that they will thrive more from being in good company (yeah sounds silly but it does work). Don’t worry if your graph looks sloppy, you will most likely change it up a few times.
Once you have your final hand drawn plan you can go make a nicer one using a gardening planner found on many of the gardening sites. I use both the planner at Gardener’s Supply as well as the one on the Old Farmer’s Almanac site.
Some great plants to be planted in containers are tomatoes, peppers, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, herbs, potatoes, heck really from what I am finding out that there is a good chance anything can grow in a container as long as the container fits its root length and wide enough to hold the mature plant. Last year my large containers held peppers, carrots, dill, strawberries and my raised bed had zucchini, yellow squash, onions, carrots, beans, peas and tons of leaf type plants.
Set your plan aside for the day and go back to it tomorrow to see if you are pleased with it. Start small your first year gardening so that you do not get overwhelmed. Plant vegetables that are easy to grow like tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots.
Once you are comfortable with how your garden plan is go ahead and order your seeds so that you can start the seeds in seed starter right away (another blog post to come).
If you still have snow on the ground set up a seed starting station in your house preferably in front of a south facing window but if like me, you do not have a front facing window then consider getting either a starting station or build one with a shelving unit and some florescent lights. We purchase a three shelf started kit from Gardener’s Supply found here. Once the snow is melted but chance of frost is still there go ahead and start prepping your containers by either building the frame of your raised bed (perhaps another blog post), or by drilling drainage holes in your containers and start buying your soil you will be using. That way your garden area is almost ready to go when your seedlings are big enough.
Some other tips or suggestions that I myself do are;
I add compost to my beds and containers to help the plants out and give them nutrients.
I add large rocks to the containers so that the water can drain out without the soil compacting down.
Another note is keep a binder with the layout of your garden each year and a journal on how well your garden did or didn’t this will help you plan for the following years by either changing the type of plant, pest control, bigger containers or a different way to grow the plant and also helps by allowing you to remember what was planted where so you can practice succession planting by rotating the types of plants into different plots or containers. Frugal Living mentioned above has an excellent garden planner that I use.