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Getting Ready For Winter On The Homestead

Getting Ready For Winter On The Homestead

It’s the start of Fall now, even though it’s still hot here in North Carolina, so it’s time to start getting ready for winter on the homestead.  Winter is a slow time for most homesteaders, with the garden being cleared out and animals taking it easy, it’s time for you to do the same!

getting ready for the winter on the homestead

I love settling in for winter, its a quiet time to spend with family, the holidays keep us busy and while there is always something to do on a farm, it’s a great time to relax and get ahead.  Here is a list of some things to make sure you get ready for the winter on the homestead.

1. Clear Out The Garden

Clearing out the garden in the fall

Get a good start on next year’s garden by clearing out everything that you don’t want.  I always pull my plants in my garden and then let the chickens loose in the fenced in area for a few weeks.  They find all the things you missed, they scratch at the soil, find weed seeds and bugs, plus fertilize as they go along.  It’s a great way to really clean up things.  Don’t forget that just because it’s cooling off, you still can garden in the fall and early winter.

2. Mulch All Your Garden Beds

mulching garden bed

After you’ve cleaned up your gardens, make sure they stay weed free! First I’ll turn my beds a little bit, then top dress the bed with compost.  From there I’ll add my mulch layer, putting it on really thick. Whatever your mulching material of choice is, get a really good layer of it on all your beds.  This will keep the weeds at bay when spring comes back, giving you time to plant without much hassle.

3. Get Your Compost Piles In Order

Clean up your compost bins

At the end of the season you have a lot of organic matter you can put onto your pile.  Get your piles built up the right way, making sure you have the proper mix of carbon and nitrogen in the pile to get things cooking.  You want to make sure your piles start off right so they can build up heat and kill unwanted critters, weed seeds, and fungus.  I’ll often add a microbial inoculate right after the heat of the pile starts to taper off to make sure we have a great microbe profile in my soils for later years.

4. Fix Irrigation And Drain Water Lines

fixing broken irrigation in the garden

Over the season things break and irrigation lines are sometimes hard to keep up with when they’re covered in a mess of plants.  I try to take this time to figure out what worked and what didn’t and make repairs for the next year.  Since water can freeze in the line I also make sure all my water lines are totally drained and then blow them out with an air compressor.  Hoses I bring inside, but since we have pretty mild I leave most of the infrastructure in place.

5. Clean Up Your Perennials

cleaning up your perennials in the garden

You most likely have some perennials in your garden, for me I always keep a basic set of herbs and blueberry bushes.  Mint is one of those things that can get out of hand, so I make sure to cut it back some.  I’ll also trim up other things that have gotten unruly.  You don’t want to do too heavy of a pruning because the stress of a major trim plus the onset of cold can kill a plant, but tidying is totally worth it.

6. Fix What Bothered You On Your Homestead

Fixing things on the farm

A homestead is an ever-changing machine.  We try new things: how to better grow a vegetable, a new way to water our chickens, a way to handle post-harvest produce if we sell at market.  The experiments we run never end and we are always looking to improve things.  Think about things that you love about your homestead, then think about what things you don’t like.  How could you make those things better?  What little things bother you on a daily basis during the busy season?  What things are a total pain, constantly breaking, or just don’t work?

When you think about these problems on your homestead, how can you fix them?  Now’s the time to get them on your to-do list and get them done.

7. Improve Your Workflows On The Farm

Improve workflows on the farm

One thing that I see too often is people not considering their workflows on the farm or homestead.  What are the paths in and out of your farmstead?  You bring in a dump truck of compost to add to garden beds, diesel fuel for your tractor gets trucked in, and you buy lumber to build things.  Once on your land, you have to do various things: you spread mulch, fuel up the tractor, and you work on things in your shop, etc.  From there you grow things and harvest them which requires an area to do post harvest cleaning and packaging.  You might bring them to a farmers market, you might can them for your own pantry, or you store things in your root cellar.  Think about all these flows!

All of these things take up time, occupy space in storage sheds, and you have to lift and move materials here and there.  Think about how you can make work easier, how you can reduce the number of times you move something or the ergonomics of lifting things etc.  This will let you get things done faster, it lets people who might not be “farm strong” help you since it’s optimized and you spend less time laid up because of less risk of injury.

8. Fix Your Fences

fixing fences on the homestead

An old farmer once told me the easiest way to collect firewood is to put up a fence and watch all the trees that fall down on it.  It’s funny, but also seems to be some unwritten law of the universe, trees seem to always fall on my fencing or across my driveway.  All. The. Time.

Take time this winter to get your fencing back into tip-top shape and consider upgrading or expanding if you need to.  In some places, the ground will be too hard to use a post hole digger, but in many places, you can do this most any time during the winter.  I also like to take this time to cut back the vegetation near my fences so that I can run a bush hog along my fences easily.  I’ll help dying trees fall away from my fence and prune branches.

While many don’t like to spray, the fence is one area I’ll use a spray at the base of it to clear the ground totally right where the fence meets the ground.  This let’s me easily see areas where predators might be be crawling under your fence, where water route out a ditch that life stock can slip through, or weaken a post’s purchase.

9. Winter Homesteading Activities And Crafts

homtest crafts and hobbies

Making soap for the coming year and gifts during the holiday.  Melting down wax for salves, wood finishes and candle making is the perfect time for this.  Mending clothing, knitting a sweater or scarf, or other needle crafting.  Whatever you love doing, take this time of year to get them done and enjoy your time.  Explore other great hobbies you can do, even in a small space!

10. Split And Stack Your Firewood… For Next Year

stacking and splitting firewood

It can be tough to keep up with all the wood you need if you have a wood stove or fireplace, but if you really want to be on the ball, you need to be splitting and stacking wood for 2 years away. Living off the grid isn’t easy and a solid plan for heating is really important.  Firewood needs to dry out and become “seasoned” so that it burns better in your wood stove, burns hotter, and doesn’t build up as much creosote.  You should always split your wood and then allow it to dry out at least one year before you burn it.  A hydraulic wood splitter is a great investment for this task on your homestead.

If you buy your wood, go ahead and buy a double order this year so that you can have one pile sit for a year and dry out.  I’ve seen too many people get told that the wood is dry and come to find its basically green and freshly cut.  If you bite the bullet this year, you’ll never have to worry about it.

11. Take A Vacation From Your Homestead!

during the winter take a vacation from the homestead

This is the perfect time to take a vacation.  You can enjoy the winter weather or escape to somewhere sunny.  With things winding down you can take a week or two away from the farm or have someone watch your homestead when things aren’t as complicated.  You’ve worked hard all year long, so take this time to recoup, relax and enjoy time with your family.

Read Also:

Your Turn!

  • What would you add to my list?
  • What’s your favorite part of fall and winter on the homestead?

fall on the homestead pinterest

The Basics of Homestead Gardens (For Non-Gardeners)

Some of us were born with a natural green thumb. Others of us…well, we aren’t so lucky. That said, one of the draws of homesteading and tiny house living is learning to live off the land. To grow your own food supply, it’s necessary to first learn the basic requirements of planting homestead gardens.

The Basics of Homestead Gardens | a patch of vegetables in a garden

As with most suggestions on this blog, I’m a big advocate of baby steps. Learn to cultivate a small garden the first year, don’t stress too much about it and see what happens. Then the next year you might want to tackle a bigger project. Don’t expect to live off your garden right away, especially if you’re a novice, even experienced gardeners have bad years.

Lean the basics of planning a garden, setting up your plot and growing a few veggies. Research what plants work best in your area. Understand the soil you’re working with and which plants compliment each other (as I’ll explain).

So, if you’re interested in starting to grow your own food this year, here are the basics of homestead gardening for beginners.

1. Research the Requirements of Homestead Gardens

There are several factors to consider when you plan your garden set up and it goes beyond which vegetables you like to eat. Most of us know plants require the basics:

  • Water
  • Oxygen
  • Sunlight
  • Nutrients

It sounds rudimentary, but many first-time gardeners make mistakes by forgetting these simple four requirements. I’ve seen new gardeners attempt to grow plants in the wrong climate or in a shady spot, so plants don’t get their preferred amount of hot/cold or sunlight. Or first-time gardeners don’t know that plants require good soil, assuming they can plant in any patch of dirt. Planting seeds too close together can cause plants to fight for enough sun. There are also plants with competing nutrient requirements that steal from each other if planted together in a smaller space or container (more on companion planting under #4).

Raised garden bed with plants and herbs in soil.

If all this sounds complex, yes, it can be. Ask any farmer and chances are he or she will tell you hours are spent planning for their gardens. To yield enough food for even one person’s needs requires a lot of foresight and effort. Hobby gardeners generally plant their favorite crops to enjoy and for the pleasure of gardening itself, rather than survival. Homestead gardens that serve as a food supply, will require more learning and effort. Again, start small and remember: this is a journey, not a destination. You want to start by planning a garden you can keep up with.

Of course, it’s certainly possible to plant a big garden that will give you many vegetables to enjoy. Start with vegetables recommended for your particular region. Take into consideration the days to maturity and compare it to your growing season. There are many growth charts, like this one from Iowa State University to show you the length of time required for each plant.  Also look up your local “extension” which is a government office that helps people start gardens or farms. They can assist you with troubleshooting issues, conducting soil tests and understanding some common challenges in your area. Extension offices are in each state, in most mid-to-large sized cities and their services are often free to the public.

Compare the growing dates to the plant hardiness zone maps and heat zone maps for your homestead. This will tell you exactly what you should expect in terms of the growing season and which plants will thrive. It will also help you know when to plant each variety of vegetables you hope to grow.

seeds for the garden

It’s hard to say how many plants you should plan for. Generally, beginning gardeners may want to experiment with a variety of seeds and seedlings to see what flourishes and what struggles in your garden plot. As you identify which plants do well, focus on growing those in the future (although it may vary from year to year).  Check out my post on the top 5 vegetables for beginning gardeners, for great ideas to start.

2. Move Beyond Container Gardening (If Possible)

Container gardening seems to go hand-in-hand with small spaces, but from my experience container gardening is challenging because the plants end up pot-bound and their growth is limited. Of course, if container gardening is your only option, it’s better than nothing. But my recommendation is to plant in the ground or raised bed whenever possible.

aquaponics small space gardening

There are many alternatives to container gardening like vertical gardens and hydroponic setups that still work in a small space or if you don’t have much planting space on your land, but I find these to be more trouble than they’re worth. My best recommendation for people with limited space is to join a community garden. These shared-spaces give people a chance to contribute to a garden even if they don’t have room on their property, you get the benefit of more space as well as advice and help from experienced gardeners. Best of all, community gardens are often very affordable.

Transplanting plants from container to ground with seeds.

New gardeners may want to start with seedlings rather than seeds. Eventually, if you prefer to use heirloom varietals you can start saving up your own seeds, but when you’re beginning it helps to have a head start. Seedlings are easily transferred from peat pots right into the ground (or your larger container). If you wish to start your own seeds indoors, you need to harden off the sprouts first before planting them. This gives them a chance to get used to life outdoors, no matter what type of container (or plot) they ultimately end up in.  My suggestion is to wait at least a few years before you add in trying to start your own plants indoors as seedlings. Growing from seed is an art form; keep it simple at first and buy seedlings.

3. Set Up Your Soil for Success

A big factor in the success of your homestead garden is the soil. No matter how large the container, raised bed, or piece of land, the mix of soil is critical for your plants. In short, your soil should have three components: vermiculite, compost, and peat moss. These items are easily purchased at a big box store or in truckloads from a local supplier.

in bed composting

Additionally, you may wish to add in compost from your own food and yard scraps. If you own a composter, you may be surprised at how quickly organic matter breaks down as compost. This nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium-rich compound feeds your plants and helps them grow. I also suggest you include a fertilizer such as bone meal or blood meal. If you prefer to avoid animal sourced fertilizer, use seaweed meal.

If you start with good soil, a soil test isn’t always necessary, but it’s always best practice. After the first year or two, if you feel your plants are lacking in size or failing to thrive in the soil combination you’ve selected, get the soil tested. Soil tests are usually obtained through your state university’s cooperation extension service (CSREES) and are typically inexpensive. You can also purchase a soil testing kit at a home improvement store, but the CSREES test is more comprehensive.

4. Use Companion Planting to Your Advantage

Companion planting is an age-old practice of planting certain vegetables together that support and complement each other. Larger plants might provide shade for shorter plants, which prefer partial sun. Tall plants can be used a trellis for vining plants. Low groundcover plants will block weeds from coming in. Some plants even draw nutrients from deep in the soil to make them available to other plants with shallow roots. These companion plants may attract beneficial insects, add nitrogen to the soil and even give off scents to detract predators.

hornworms on tomatoes in garden

Tomatoes, for example, don’t play well with brassica vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli. They also attract pests who love eggplants and peppers, so avoid planting those nightshades together. Surrounding your tomato plants with marigolds, garlic or basil repels parasitic nematodes and hornworms.

Companion planting is somewhat nuanced, but there are many companion vegetable chats and guides available to help you understand crop rotation and learn which plants complement each other. As you’re planning your garden, take advantage of companion planting to really help your plants flourish.

5. Choose High-Yield Plants

Select plants that give a high-yield crop. I’ve found herbs and lettuce are continuously harvested all season and offer a lot of bang for your buck. On the other hand, if you have a small space, one pea plant probably won’t give you more than a serving of peas (if that).

Zucchini and summer squash are two types of squash to grow in a garden

Zucchini and summer squash are two notoriously high-yield plants great for beginning homestead gardeners who want enough vegetables to harvest and enjoy for the season. Lettuce and leafy greens are also great starters. Tomatoes and pepper plants may result in a high yield too, depending on your area.

Other plants called perennials come back year after year, like berry bushes and asparagus, take time to establish and may not yield much if anything for the first few years. If you want these plants as part of your garden in the long-term, plan ahead and plant a few each year, but give yourself plenty of payoff plants to help you stay motivated. Find out what plants really thrive in your particular region and focus your efforts there.

6. Plan Your Watering and Irrigation System

Watering and irrigation is a high concern in certain areas. I always try to have a setup because life gets busy, so having your system on a timer keep plants alive and makes life easier. Even small container gardens dry out quickly during dry spells. Fortunately, plants do quite well with recycled grey water (as long as it doesn’t contain soap). Save your extra water from showering and household use, to keep your garden hydrated.

Rain barrel with plants and a hose attachment.

Investing in or making a rain barrel will give you a nice supply of water if a water hook up and a hose isn’t possible. Pour your extra household greywater in your barrel as well if the water gets low. Many rain barrels feature a hose attachment, making it simple to water your garden. Some water municipalities even offer rain barrels at a discounted rate to promote water conservation.

No matter what, be frugal in your water usage—soaker hoses or drip tape help you target only the plants (and not the surrounding dirt). Remember you only need to water the roots of your plants. Water on the leaves of plants will even damage younger plants and cause them to become susceptible to fungus and mildew. Keep the water at the root.

Mulching is key when it comes to maintaining a garden with less water. Mulch holds moisture in the soil and helps keep the water from evaporating. You can create inexpensive (or free) mulch from wood chips, hay, grass clippings and leaves.

7. Weed & Maintain Your Garden Regularly

Homestead gardens require plenty of maintenance, just like any other type of garden. Regular weeding is important. Weeds will steal nutrients from your vegetables, stunt growth, crowd them out and create shade. So, while you may feel there’s no aesthetic reason to pull weeds, it still needs to be done.

If you choose to garden organically, it means avoiding pesticides and other chemicals. Use natural remedies and hand removal of slugs, bugs, and pests. Plucking them off into soapy water is one method. Beer traps and eggshells also work well for slugs and worms.

Chickens roaming in garden and tall grasses.

Of course, some organic gardeners choose to rely on bigger predators to control smaller pests. Chickens, ducks and even garter snakes will help you control the slug and worm population. Attracting beneficial insects such as hoverflies, ladybeetles and praying mantis help control aphids and pests. Certain beneficial insects are also available for order and through garden suppliers.

As for larger pests, fencing and even chicken wire will keep digging, burrowing and stealing to a minimum. Keep brush, stone and wood piles cleaned up so their natural habitat is nowhere to be found. Rabbits and voles are also averse to garlic and hot pepper, so spraying plants with these organic deterrents may also help.

8. Note What Grew (and What Didn’t)

When your garden is finished for the season, it’s important to note what took off and what didn’t. Homestead gardens require careful planning over the course of several years. There’s a lot of trial and error involved, so keeping notes will help you remember what to change from one year to the next.

There are certain crops that succeed in a specific garden patch one year and then fail the next. Often this is because they drain the soil of nutrients (broccoli is a common offender), so changing the planting location and rows in your garden will help you avoid issues down the road. Draw a map of where each item was planted and keep any other notes like pests you saw, drainage or sunlight issues, mildew or disease.

take notes about what worked in your garden

Once you’ve got a year or two of gardening under your belt, you’ll feel more and more confident to plant new plants and expand. If there’s a crop you love to grow, or one that does particularly well on your land, that veggie may even become a source of side income or trade.

Talk to other gardeners in your area and farmers. Learn what common problems they face with crops, what disease and concerns are prevalent in your area and what treatment they recommend. As you become more comfortable with maintaining your homestead garden, you may even wish to volunteer at a local organic farm. This will give you a chance to learn from agricultural experts and see how to garden on a larger scale.

I must admit, gardening becomes addictive. Once you experience success with your first harvest you’ll be well on your way to an entire farm. Take steps today to start your own homestead garden and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Your turn:

  • What are your favorite tips for gardening success?
  • What are you going to grow this year?

 

5 Easiest Vegetables To Grow For Beginner Gardeners

I’ve been there, the seed catalogues come in January and you get all excited about what to grow this year in your garden.  It can be hard to figure out where to start, so I thought I’d share my recommendations on five easy vegetables to grow in your garden in your first year.  The biggest mistake new gardeners make is not starting small:  They have too big of a garden, they try to grow too many things, and in the end they get burnt out.

what to grow for begginers gardening

My advice after teaching people how to start gardening for years is to only start with a few things.  Three to five types of vegetables in a single variety of each.  This will give you a really good foundation to start your gardening journey.

Grow What You Eat

grow the vegies that you like to eat basketA very common this that I see newbie gardeners do is get excited by what they could grow, but they may not really like things or they try new stuff before they find out if they really like them.  If you were to look in your kitchen right now, what vegetables are you purchasing from the store?  Many of those could be good contenders for your first year’s short list.

There will be some things that you buy that aren’t in season or are more complicated to grow, but many of what most people like will be on our list below.  So consider what you eat, choose the easier ones to grow and let’s stack the deck in our favor!

Get Your Garden Prepared

It’s important to not just think about the vegetables that you’re going to grow, but to also think about growing good soil.  Have good soil is really what makes a garden go from okay to amazing, so don’t skimp on this step.  If you have never gardened before, check out our post on how to prepare your soil for a vegetable garden.

From Seeds Or From Seedlings

There are some things that do really well from seeds and some things that starting with a seedling is the way to go for first time gardeners.  Seedlings are simply very young plants that have been started ahead of time indoors, that you later transfer outdoors into your garden.

seedlingsIt can be tempting in your first year or two to in addition of starting a garden to also raising seedlings indoors, but my advice is to avoid this.  Your first few years to learn gardening is a lot, to add learning to start seeds into seedlings is too much and you’ll just burn out.

 

Below I’ll mention which ones I’d start from seed and which ones I’d start from seedlings.

What Plants To Start With?

Here are a few of my favorite plants to start with.  These are pretty easy, widely available and you can find lots of knowledge from local people and online. Start with three to five of these in a single variety.  It will be tempting to choose a bunch of types of vegitables and a few varieties of each, but doing so will bring complexity, stress and a greater chance of failure.  We don’t want that!

Zucchini

zucchnis from gardenThere is an old joke that I like to tell.  In the city people lock their doors so people don’t steal their stuff, in the country they lock their cars so someone doesn’t leave them a bag of zucchini and squash in their front seat.  What is really great about this plant is that it grows really fast, its very simple and it produces a ton of vegetables.

I’d suggest starting out with three plants of zucchini if you have a family.  There will come a point where you can’t eat anymore (trust me), at that point I usually just pull the plants out of my garden and compost them. For your first year I’d start these from seedlings, they’re easy to find, cheap and makes it easy to start.

One piece of advice that I give is I’ve found that there comes a point when I start to see squash bugs on my plants.  When I see more than 2 or 3 of them on a plant, I pull that plant right then and there.  New gardeners will often be hesitant to prune or pull out plants, you can’t be afraid to.  Squash bugs are very difficult to combat, every trick I’ve read online doesn’t do anything for my garden.  So I plant a few extra than I need and then just pull the plants as soon as I see the bugs and am content with whatever squash I got to that point, usually I’m sick of it by then anyways!

Tomatoes

These are a favorite for most people and a garden tomato can’t be beat.  I would absolutely use seedlings for tomatoes.  The two varieties I suggest are “Early Girls” or “Roma”.  If you have short growing season I’d suggest Early Girls because they produce pretty quickly and earlier than most tomatoes.

tomatoes just picked

A few notes about tomatoes:  If you find that you are getting a lot of flowers, but they’re not really translating into tomatoes it’s often because they aren’t pollinating well enough.  This could be because they’re aren’t enough natural pollinators like bees or Humidity is binding up the pollen.  Tomatoes will often stop fruiting when it gets really hot, then start back up when summer temperatures start to wind down.

If you live in a very hot and humid area and Early Girls aren’t working for you, consider the variety “Pink Brandywine”.  They produce great tomatoes that are huge and tend to fair a bit better in higher heat.

Finally know that you will need to support the tomatoes in some manner.  This could be a cage, it could be a be a steak or string.  My favorite way to stake these is get a 6 foot pole that is durable metal coated in plastic and then use the rolls of twist ties you can buy at the store.  I find other options just don’t hold up over the years or are too cumbersome.

Radishes

I’ll be the first to say these aren’t my personal favorite, but they are super easy to grow and they open up the soil some as they grow.  I’ll plant these for the chickens to peck out of the dirt and for friends who like them.  Radishes take between 14 and 21 days to grow full which is very fast and they are a cooler weather crop so early spring or fall is a great time for these.

radishes from garden

These are very easy to grow from seeds and they’re very cheap to buy a lot of seeds.  The seeds are very small, so what I will do is prep my bed nice and even, then just scratch the surface a little bit with the back of a garden rake.  The rule of thumb for seed depth is 3 times the length of the longest dimension of the seed.

In the case of radishes this means you barley cover them if at all, just make sure you keep them nice and moist with a fine mist (not a spray).  It can be easy for these to dry out, but since we plant in the cooler parts of the year it’s a little easier.  For spacing I follow the same approach I use with lettuce, so read below to find out how I do it.

Lettuce

There are a million varieties of lettuce so it can get overwhelming.  Ask around locally to see if people have favorites that do well in your area.  I often just get a lettuce seed mix which is several kinds all mixed together.   You loosely broadcast the seeds over a smoothed and prepared bed and lightly water.

leafy greens

Since we are starting from seeds, we need to know how to space them so they’re not so close that they crowd the others, but not too far that we allow for weeds or wasted space.  For lettuce I typically just shake the seeds out over the entire bed as evenly as I can, then when they start to grow up to about 2 inches, I go in and pluck out some of them to make enough space.  I typically go for about four inches apart from other plants, but I also try to choose the strongest ones.  It doesn’t have to be perfect!

Lettuce is grown in cooler weather, so spring or fall, the heat of the summer is often too much for most varieties, but there are some options for those who live in hot climates.  From seeding to harvest is about 3 weeks and you often can cut the leaves right above the soil about an inch and the lettuce will grow back another two times or so.

Beans

green beansThe two main types are “bush” or “pole” beans, the only difference really is that the pole beans need something to climb.  I often just stick with bush beans because it’s less poles and structures I have to deal with. These are a great plant to start out with in your first garden.

Beans are easily started from seed and are a larger seed.  Because we know the rule of thumb: plant three times the longest part of the seed, they typically get buried about an inch or so below the soil.  I usually take my rake and with the handle side make a little divot, drop the seeds about 6 inches apart and then lightly brush the soil of the trough back over the seeds.  Again, we don’t need to get out our ruler here!

So those are my recommendations on how to start a garden the easy way, to stack the deck in your favor and keep it all fun.  In the comments let me know what you’re going to try.

Your Turn!

  • What’s on your list to plant this year?
  • What tips do you have for first time gardeners?

 

How To Prepare Soil For Vegetable Gardens

Having taught people to garden for years, many people want to know how to prepare their soil so they can start a vegetable garden.  If you talk to people who have been growing for years, you’ll notice they spend a lot of time building the soil in their garden beds.

how-to-prepare-soil-vegetable-gardens

 

For first time gardeners I always recommend to start small and because each patch of dirt is different, I recommend starting with a raised beds, which is nothing more than building a bed of soil on top of the ground instead of in it.  You can add sides made out of wood, edging or other materials as a side wall, but it isn’t required, mounded dirt works just as well if you’re on a budget.

Building A Raised Bed Frame

For most people they want to have the tidy look of a wooden frame and it can be done quickly for little money.  Start with three 2×6’s and cut one of them in half.  This will form the four sides of the bed and create a bed that is 4 feet wide by 8 feet long.

raised bed garden

This is an ideal size because it minimizes the number of cuts (pro tip: big box stores will cut it for free for you) and at four feet, you can reach to the middle from either side without having to stretch too much.  A few screws will make a solid frame for you to fill in the dirt with.

Turn The Soil Below

turn soil with pitchforkEven though we are going to build a bed above the ground, we want to break up the soil below it so that our plant’s roots have an easier time of penetrating the ground as they grow.  Ideally you would shovel off the top layer if it is grass, but I’ve done it both ways.  Removing the grass below will help reduce weeds coming up later, so it’s often worth the effort.

If the soil is pretty bare, what I’ll do is rake the top then go buy a gallon jug of white vinegar to douse the little bits of weeds or grass with the vinegar to kill a few days before I build my bed.  White vinegar will work well to kill the weeds in spot treatments, but if you have more than 10% coverage, I’d just scrape the top off completely.

The last part is take a “digging fork” and just break up the top few inches of soil, it can be pretty chunky because we’re going to cover it all with our soil bed mix soon anyway.  Don’t get too tied up in making it perfect, this is a really a rough pass that we do quickly and move on.

Mixing The Perfect Soil To Grow In

First off, there are many different options here and if you ask 100 people you’ll get 101 recommendations.  So understand that if someone uses something different, that’s fine.  For most people just starting out I try to make it really simple and we can get into more of the nuances later.  So use this mix to start and in a few years, start to try different things.  We want to get you to gardening as quickly as we can and if you get caught up in what mix is the best, you’ll never actually start gardening.

raised bed soil mixture for good growing a garden

So I use a mix of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Typically I buy for a single 4 foot by 8 foot bed that’s around 6 inches deep the following:

  • 10 bags of compost (one cubic foot size bags)
  • 1 bale of compressed peat moss (three cubic feet size)
  • 1 bag of vermiculite (4 cubic foot sized bags).
  • 1 small bag of Bone Meal
  • 1 small bag of Blood Meal

If you don’t know what these are, just print this post off and bring it with you to any big box store, they’ll know exactly what you need from this list.  If the employee doesn’t know these items, it’s best to find someone else because these are gardening 101 supplies.

Compost

mushroom compsting mixFor compost you’ll find a lot of different options, my favorite is “mushroom compost” which you can find bags at any big box hardware store.  A close second is “Black Kow” compost.  I’ll often grab a few of each to make up my 10 bags for my bed.

If you can’t find these specific ones, it really isn’t a big deal, use whatever compost you can find at your local store or garden center.  Compost provides a lot of nutrients to your plants and serves as the base for seeds to root into.

Vermiculite

bag of vermiculiteVermiculite is essentially rock dust crushed up, it provides a lot of minerals for your plants, but it’s main function is to act like a sponge for water.  Be sure not to get confused with perlite, it’s not the same.  This one might take some calling around to find, if there is a local gardening group they might have some good leads.

I will also add a note here that if you start searching around about vermiculite, you’ll inevitably run into an old timer that will make the point about asbestos in vermiculite.  This is something that we had to worry about 40 years ago, but today there is no source allowed in the USA or Canada that doesn’t carefully screen and test for this.  The myth still persists today, but you should have zero concerns because the industry has long made changes to prevent this.

Often garden centers or seed/farm supply places carry it.  I’ve even seen it in small bags at your big box hardware stores.  If you can’t find it consider purchasing a few bags off of Amazon, while it’s a bit more expensive locally, you can buy a few of these bags of vermiculite and be good for a 4×8 bed.

Peat Moss

package of peat moss or spagnum mossThe last part of the soil mix.  This fluffs up the soil, allows for good oxygen infiltration and also acts like a sponge to hold in moisture until plants need it.  This can be found anywhere and they type or brand doesn’t matter.  The only thing I’ll suggest is make sure you get it from the soils section where you’d find your bags of compost or near the bags of mulch section.  Sometimes they sell small bags that are meant for growing orchids, these are often expensive, but the ones in the bagged compost section is usually sold “compressed” for very cheap ($10-$20 for 3 cubic feet compressed).

A common question that comes up around peat moss are concerns about if peat moss is sustainable.  It is true that 10 years ago peat moss was harvested from natural wet lands, but today it is done in a manner that is regenerative.  If you are still concerned, consider sourcing coconut coir which is a material similar to peat moss but made from the waste product of coconut husks.  In the end, I suggest you don’t get too caught up in your first year or so, just get your first year under your belt and then work on improving in later years.

Bone And Blood Meal

I prefer to use bone meal and blood meal, but there are many options.  Obviously from their names, they are a animal sourced product.  Those wanting a non-animal source can try seaweed meal or fertilize, you can buy seaweed fertilizer here.  Bone and blood meal are organic sources of the major nutrient (NPK: Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium).

bone meal and blood meal in bags

Since we are starting out with such good ingredients, we don’t need much of these.  If we were starting with the soil in ground, there may be need for more as directed from a soil test, but since we are building our own soil we don’t need a soil test for our first year or two.  I start out with one large handful of each, mixed evenly across the whole 4×8 raised bed.

Mixing It All Together

Some people will use a tarp to mix the soil together, I just skip that and dump everything in a pile in the framed bed, then mix with my hands or a shovel.  If you choose compost that is moist, but not sopping wet it will mix easier.  Sometimes this means pulling off the top few bags at the garden supply place so you get to a lower layer of bags that haven’t soaked up any recent rain.

Here is my basic approach:

  • Take your peat moss bale and place it in the bed
  • With a shovel stab the plastic in a line to break open the bale
  • Turn it over to dump the peat on the ground and remove the plastic
  • Shake out half your vermiculite on top of the peat moss, set the rest aside
  • Grab one large handful each of bone meal and blood meal, sprinkle across the bed
  • Place a bag of compost in the bed, stab with shovel to dump on the pile
  • Repeat with compost about half your bags
  • Using the shovel and hands, mix it all up until it’s well mixed
  • Add remaining materials and mix it all up
  • smooth out the top and give the soil a brief water

How To Water Your Garden

You want to water it a few days before you plant if you can, this will let all the water to absorb into the peat moss and vermiculite.  Water for a count of five and then stop.  Again, counting to five, if the water fully absorbs into the soil so there is no sheen on the dirt from the water, water again for a count of five. repeat counting to five until the water doesn’t absorb all the way in five seconds.  This is a good indicator that the soil is nicely saturated with moisture, but not soaking.

how to water your garden and vegitables

In the end building your soil will set you up for success for years to come.  Following this formula and starting small, you will have a better drastically easier time because we’re not trying to fix our existing soil or battle weeds.  Start with one 4×8 bed, then next year go a little bigger.  The number one thing I see is new gardeners burning out their first year because they took on too big of a garden.

Your Turn!

  • What are your garden plans this year?
  • What tips have you learned?

Start Growing Perennials in Your Backyard Garden

Perennial plants are a great addition to your backyard garden. They require little maintenance and come back for several years without needing to be replanted. They are often cold hardy and more drought tolerant as well.

raspberry bush

We have been living in our current house for three years now. It is a beautiful property with a lot of unused land that we have slowly reclaimed a little each year. We are renting this property while we work toward our forever homestead. Unfortunately when you are renting you have a very temporary mindset. We didn’t know if we would be here for one year or five when we moved in. For some reason, we thought it was more likely to be one.

planting strawberries

Because of our temporary mindset, we didn’t make an effort to plant any perennials the first summer here. The second summer I put in a few things and even more the third. Had I followed my intuition the first year we would be eating asparagus and lots of raspberries right from the land we are living on. Thankfully the strawberries I planted a couple of years ago are going gang-busters. I can’t wait to eat them on pancakes this summer!

What are perennials?

There are three types of plants, annual, biannual and perennial. Annuals are plants that need to be planted every year. Plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and most garden vegetables are annuals. Biannual plants have a two-year cycle. Carrots and onions are both biannual. Perennials are so great because you plant them once and then reap the benefits year after year. They rarely need to be replanted because they either spread or reseed themselves. Peppermint, asparagus, and strawberries are all perennials.

Benefits of planting perennials

strawberry flowers

They don’t need replanted year after year

Unlike annuals, which need to be planted each year, perennials will come back at least three years before they need to be replanted. Many perennials will last much longer than that. I have heard that a healthy asparagus crown can produce for 20 years. The longevity of their life cycle reduces the amount of work you have to invest to see a good harvest.

Perennials are generally hardy plants

Many perennial plants can survive through the cold of winter. We have the most beautiful sage bushes in our garden. They amaze me the way the come back bigger and better every year. It is important to know your USDA cold hardiness zones so that you buy plants that can survive your growing conditions. See the map below to find out your hardiness zone.

While sage, strawberries, and chives thrive here in Idaho rosemary and thyme just can’t survive the winter. I am always amazed when I see the gigantic blueberry bushes from the south, another plant that doesn’t do very well here. So make sure to grow what is appropriate for your region.

rhubarb harvest

They multiply without intervention

While the life cycle of a perennial plant can sometimes be a short as three years, they rarely need to be replanted because they multiply through their root system or by reseeding themselves. I get so excited every spring when my chives come back bigger and better than ever. I started with a very small plant and now have several large bunches. I recently harvested a pound of the flowers to put in the dehydrator, and that was not even a quarter of what was on the plants!

chive flowers

Perennials require minimal care to produce a harvest

Perennial plants have a more established root system than an annual plant. Over time they continue to spread their roots and adapt to their environment, often translating into less watering without a loss in yield from the plant. Their deep root system means that they are able to access nutrients further down in the soil than annuals can.

Raspberries are a perennial plant that thrive in our area. You plant one bush, and pretty soon you have a whole patch. They don’t need large amounts of water to bear fruit and only need some pruning in the fall to continue to produce and spread.

picking raspberries

They bear fruit earlier than annuals

Most annuals can’t be planted until the danger of frost has passed while perennials will often leaf out and begin growing before the last few touches of frost. They seem to handle cooler temperatures which mean that you will be able to harvest them earlier than the annuals you plant. It is so refreshing when my chives and strawberries begin to grow after a long cold winter.

choke cherries

Whether you have an established garden or are just getting started on your property, make sure that perennials are a major part of your plan. Include fruit trees, herbs and fruit-bearing bushes in your planning. The sooner you get them in the ground, the sooner you will be enjoying the fruits of your labor!

Your Turn!

  • What perennials do your have growing in your garden?
  • Which perennials do you hope to add to your garden?