Gardening Gone Right! First Steps

There will be an on-going series of blog posts on this thread, so stay tuned as our garden grows!

February 2017: Today, we’re talking about how to start, starting a garden! Before you actually start your garden, you have to invest time in solid planning. 

Starting a garden always seems like a daunting task, at least for us. Since buying our home and property in June 2016, just 8 months ago, we’ve had our hands full with clearing land, trimming up the overgrown landscape, removing trees, chopping firewood, and other property and house clean up. However, something obviously important for living off-grid is food sources! So, we’ve decided to take a break in our homestead cleanup chores to plan our garden for success. While we get all of our meat from hunting and fishing, we need fruits, veggies, legumes, and grains too!!!

Jen has always loved to grow plants and has been relatively successful in doing so. However, the largest garden she’s ever grown was a 1-acre student garden parcel at her high school Future Farmers of America grounds (and it’s been a while since she was in high school, shhhh!). Other than that, she’s mostly container gardened in the city. Once she made her entire roof top a garden full of veggies and herbs all planted in containers and she crawled our of her tiny second story window to get to it each day! Though she may have had a hard time explaining it to her landlord at the time, she did it anyway even without his approval. What a renegade! While we don’t recommend anarchist gardening if it’ll land you with a huge bill for breaking rental rules or local laws, we do encourage you to take over empty spaces that you have access to and can plant on! Many towns and cities are even willing to let you garden the little landscaping between the sidewalks and the street if you ask. Check out what Los Angeles, California is doing!

Since we are not in the city and don’t need landlord approval anymore, we are planning an epic garden of mass proportion this year! Though, we encourage all new gardeners to start small (we should probably follow our own advice…but what fun would that be?).

We have this pretty large space (110 feet x 14 feet) in the front of our property that appears like it used to be some sort of English garden at one point in its existence–well over a decade ago. It’s very unkept and who knows what the soil quality is at this point but, nonetheless, it will be the new home of our first-year raised bed garden. Eventually, we’ll be moving our gardening to a larger space in the ground with well-amended soil. But first, we have to clear the ground and do a lot of clean up around the area that will one day be our permanent garden site and compost, compost, compost! In the meantime, we will use raised beds with good soil and compost from our local municipality until we can make enough of our own. You can check your local city or county green waste facility to see if they sell or give away compost! Also, Starbucks and other local coffee shops will often give away their used coffee grounds to gardeners as well (free is fabulous!). Anyway, enough about soil and compost…we’ll talk about that in a future post.

So, how does one plan a garden for success?

Here’s what we did to start ours:

Get or make a garden planning tool of some sort. This could be a piece of graph paper and colored pencils along with a good garden book or a more fancy app that can be downloaded on your electronic device. We chose to try out the GrowVeg.com app this year. They give you a free trial, the ability to print out plans, make a shopping list, and even order from online vendors on the spot. What we like most about this program is that it keeps track of what plants will need to be replanted (annuals) or what plants will be in your garden next year (perennials), crop companions that will grow well next to each other, crop rotation recommendations for next year’s garden, and plant spacing requirements for both row crops and Square Foot Gardening. The app even gives you a user manual to walk you through any questions you may have in learning how to use it. We LOVE that feature! Though we found the program easy to use, it’s good to have options.

Pick out seeds. Based on our USDA growing zone (also called “Plant Hardiness Zone”) and our likes/dislikes, we decided what we would grow and how much of it we would need for our family. You can look up your USDA zone by visiting the USDA Agriculture Research Service. We organize our seeds alphabetically and keep them in this little container. Though, we should warn you, if you plan to save seeds for future use, you want to do so in an airtight container that can be kept at about 40 degrees (i.e. the refrigerator).img_0598

Start planning! We took measurements of the area we plan to turn into out garden. We measured the fence line, where we want our containers and raised bed placed, where existing trees already live, where existing irrigation hookups exist, and anything else that shapes the landscape that we’d have to consider in our plan. We then imported this information into the GrowVeg app. We added our crops based on our seed selections above and moved things around according to companion gardening principals outlined in the app. If you’re not using the app, you can always use a companion gardening book or good ol’ fashioned Google to look up friends and foes of various plants. You definitely don’t want to plant enemies next to each other if you want a good yield. Companion gardening allows for the most healthy, symbiotic relationship possible in your garden.

After we got our measurements in for our raised beds and crops, we added our irrigation lines we plan to install and any structures we will include like bean trellises, plant wigwams, etc.

This is what half of our plan looks like so far:

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Plant seeds. Your area and climate will decide for you when the best time to plant various seeds will be. The seed packs will tell you recommended growing times and processes and so will the GrowVeg app, if you’re using it. However, always refer to your USDA plant zone for gardening timelines above all else. As it stands right now, we will be starting seeds in February, March, July, and October based on what we’ve chosen to grow and our hardiness zone of 9. In order to keep track of when to start seeds, we create plant markers with Popsicle sticks or something similar, write the plant name on it and divide them into baggies with the month listed on the outside of them. That way we can grab the baggie each month and we already know what seeds we are planting without having to go back and figure it out. The GrowVeg app also gives you a printable list of when to plant seeds, direct sow, and harvest according to what you’ve placed in your garden during your planning phase.

To plant your seeds, you have lots of options! You can buy cell packs that can be filled with sterile seed starter mix, peat moss (not eco-sustainable, FYI) or coconut coir disks that expand with water and can be planted straight into the ground, up-cycled and repurposed materials like the center of toilet paper/paper towel rolls, egg cartons, yogurt cups (poke holes in the bottom), or any other smallish container filled with seed starting mix. Or, you can direct sow into the ground when your last frost passes. It’s up to you what you choose, but we chose to do a combination. We are using cell packs filled with seed starter soil, coconut coir disks, and direct sow for varieties that don’t transplant well (which should be listed on the seed envelope).

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You can choose to buy the peat or coir pots and use them with the little greenhouses that are sold to accommodate them (left) or just use a container you already have (right) and lightly cover it with plastic wrap or another, larger container for the greenhouse effect.

We’ll be planting more seeds over the next couple of days and once the seeds sprout, we’ll place them in a sunny window or under a T-12 fluorescent light to watch them grow into strong, healthy seedlings. In the meantime, we’ll be preparing our new garden site over the next 4-6 weeks while the seeds germinate and grow into seedlings.

Stay tuned for updates to this project….

Happy Gardening!

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Updates:

Early June 2017: our garden is in full swing and starting to bloom and produce!

It’s now June and while we didn’t get our front garden in because it was taken over by poison oak, we did manage to build some garden boxes in the meantime. We repurposed our homemade chick brooder box for a raised bed garden box and built a few more. Not exactly what we were planning but part of living on a homestead is learning to adapt to situations. I’ll pull the poison oak this winter when it’s dormant and try to address the front garden area in time for next spring.

Here’s what we have growing in the garden boxes from the seeds we started indoors earlier in the season and from a few transplants gifted to us from some friends:

The boxes and containers above contain ground cherries, 3 types of peas, summer squash, zucchini, lemon cucumbers, black and yellow wax beans, Chinese noodle beans, okra, swiss chard, butter leaf lettuce, radishes, Japanese eggplant, celery, artichokes, cardoon, red raspberries, carrots, habanero peppers, bell peppers, 6 types of tomatoes, cilantro, pineapple sage, peppermint, sweet mint, aloe, purple basil, Italian basil, nasturtium, and thyme. Around the rest of our property, we have lavender, rosemary, lemon tree, two types of grapes, a fig tree, two peach trees, two apple trees, a pear tree, a few plum trees, a pluot tree, and we have another citrus tree that we can’t identify at this point.

Our beautiful Japanese eggplant plant is starting to flower:

We are starting to trellis our squash plants to keep them off the soil to prevent rotting, disease and to help with airflow. Using a trellis also helps to keep space in raised beds for other crops. A trellis can be made from anything you happen to have on hand–you don’t have to buy one. We used an old hanging plant stand that we found on the property when we bought it. You can make one from scrap wood, chicken wire or hog paneling fencing, old tomato cages, etc.

So far, so good! I’ll keep you posted on what happens throughout the season if you check back!

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