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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.

prep soil to grow foods

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.


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.


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?

Choose the Right Vegetables for Your Garden in 5 Easy Steps

Whether you are a beginner or advanced gardener this step by step guide will help you grow a well-rounded vegetable garden. Your family will love the variety and you can feel confident that you picked the best vegetables for your garden.

As I write this there is about two feet of snow on the ground and we are hibernating by the fire. We have had night time temps below zero and day time temps below freezing. It would seem that gardening would be the farthest thing from my mind. In reality, it is the best time to start planning the garden and getting prepared for growing season.

Gather ideas

I start by making a dream list of all of the yummy things I want to grow. Don’t get ahead of yourself and be logical at this point, just jot down all of your ideas. It is very easy to get bogged down in the details of timing, spacing, and companions and not get things planned. Don’t worry, the list will narrow down as we continue to plan.


Now, mark the items on your list that are non-negotiable. These are foods that your family loves to eat. You don’t want to get swept away by all of the colors and rare foods in the seed catalogs and end up with a harvest your family doesn’t enjoy.

A couple years ago we planted blue potatoes – a whole row of blue potatoes. We didn’t try eating them first; we just planted. They grew really well but we struggled to eat them and ended up wasting a bunch. We have blue volunteer potato plants that come back every year, all on their own. It is the gift that keeps giving.

Homegrown potatoes

Now that you have marked your favorites, go back through your list and mark the foods that you could save a lot of money on, by growing yourself. Cucumbers are a great example. They often cost $2 for a single organic cucumber. A typical cucumber plant will produce approximately 5 pounds of cucumbers.

Narrow down the list

It is time to pull out the seed catalogs. We will look up each item that you have marked. Maybe tomatoes are something you eat a lot of and you want to can some as well. Start by looking at the days to maturation – how long it takes for the plant to grow, fruit and the fruit to ripen.

Our growing season is typically 90 days but that can include a freeze or two near the beginning or the end of the season. I try to only grow 55-75 day vegetables. That gives me enough time to harvest more than just the first fruit.

Our short growing season makes tomatoes very hard to grow, especially if I want something substantial enough to can. So I will weigh that information against the space I have in my garden. Is the space that tomatoes would occupy worth the risk of having a non-productive crop?

green beans, yellow wax beans

Green beans, on the other hand, thrive here and will produce enough for us to enjoy through the summer and freeze for eating in the winter. Until I have a greenhouse they will get higher priority than tomatoes.

But not too narrow

If you are new to gardening don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. It is so easy to get dreamy when you are planning your garden. You start thinking about canning and dehydrating and all of the money you will save. Your priority for the first couple years should be to keep your plants alive and enjoy some fresh veggies during the summer. Which is easier than you think when you set yourself up for success. As you become a more seasoned gardener you can expand your garden and plan for a big enough crop to preserve.

Our garden two years ago overflowed with cucumbers. We literally carried in bucket after bucket. However, last year we grew about three. It was a very cool summer and we just couldn’t get the plants to come up. It is so important to have enough diversity that you are not banking on one crop. Not to mention that it is easier to keep disease and pests at bay with lots of diversity.


Fill in the missing pieces

Use your list to choose at least one variety for each type of vegetable (as garden space permits). Don’t be limited by my suggestions. Choose what your family will enjoy eating!

sage herb

  • Leafy greens – Spinach and butter lettuce are favorites at our house.
  • Root veggies – We love how potatoes and carrots are so versatile and delicious.
  • Salad veggies – Cucumbers and sweet peas are so refreshing in the heat of summer. It is easy to find us munching these down while in the garden.
  • Stir fry veggies – Green beans, summer squash, and broccoli are the staples of our summer menu and can be frozen for winter meals as well.
  • Winter storage – Butternut squash and sweet potatoes are filling, add a lot of variety, and store long into the winter.
  • Herbs – Basil and sage are very prolific and add a punch to your meals.
  • Now choose one experimental, just-for-the-fun-of-it plant. Every garden needs a wild card!

By methodically working through your list, you will have a great variety of vegetables that will ripen during your growing season.

Your Turn!

  • What is your favorite vegetable to eat straight out of the garden?
  • Have you grown a vegetable your family didn’t want to eat?

What is Homesteading?

The image that usually comes to mind is a self-sufficient farm, full of animals, jars of home-canned food on the shelf, and a loaf of homemade bread in the oven. While all of that can certainly fall under the umbrella of homesteading there are many other interpretations of the homesteading lifestyle as well.

The origin of homesteading comes from the homestead act of 1862 where land was given to families in an effort to encourage western migration. Those families had to stay and work the land for five years before it was given to them. It sounds like a dream but it was often very difficult for the families settling the west.

Backyard chickens

Homesteading today is a mindset before anything else. It is a can-do attitude. Homesteading starts as a little spark when you look at something you just purchased and realize you could produce it on your own or the realization that our modern, consumer-driven society is not a sustainable model. Next thing you know, you are shopping for seeds and weighing the cost of backyard chickens.

Right now our family is on 1 1/2 acres of rented land, in a small city. We are making our dream come true while we search for our forever home. But this is not where it all started. Our story began in a town in southern Arizona. We were learning about the health benefits of organic food but struggled with the cost. That’s when we got the bug to begin producing our own food.

Chickens for egg production

We started with chickens, the gateway animal, 25 of them filled our little suburban backyard. Next thing you know turkeys and quail were added to the menagerie. I would have put a cow back there too if I could have figured out how to do it!

We quickly realized that we had been bitten by the homesteading bug. That set us on a mission to grow as much of our food as we possibly could. We now have a big garden that feeds us through the summer and into the winter. We have learned to can, dehydrate and freeze any surplus. We are raising our own chicken and beef too.

Homesteading is not a list of boxes that need to be checked off until you become a homesteader. It is the way you look at and interact with the world around you. Our dream is the big land, where we can live off-grid and be as self-sufficient as possible. But we have learned that homesteading can happen anywhere.

Garden produce

Homesteading is a progression. It is something you can do in an urban apartment or on a sprawling farm. It usually starts small. Maybe you buy a couple of herb plants and realize the joy of growing your own food. Something that costs several dollars for a meal or two you can sustainably produce on your windowsill for pennies.

Not only is the cost difference convincing but the fact that it grows and continues to produce is inspiring. Soon you have a tomato plant in a pot on the patio and a couple of lettuces in another pot.

What about all of the food scraps you throw out? Couldn’t those be put to good use too? Now you are deciding between a compost pile, worm bin or a small flock of chickens. I am sure you are seeing the progression.

Farm fresh eggs

It can take you as far as you want to go. You might end up at an off grid farm out in the country where you raise animals for meat and have a market garden. With enough to feed your family, put up food for winter and take the rest to the farmer’s market.

Maybe you are more of an urban homesteader who wants to bring change to the community around you. You have solar power, gray water, and rain catchment systems and are producing more food than most people think possible by utilizing vertical growing and permaculture.

Homesteading is a return to basic skills. As you learn to be more of a producer and less of a consumer you realize the joy that can be found in the simple things. Learning to heat your house with wood, growing your own food, cooking from scratch, herbal remedies, caring for animals, the list goes on and on.

Canning apples

You develop a new way of seeing the world. Instead of being concerned about having the career, the house, the car that society thinks you need, you realize that none of that brings lasting joy. However, when you take a bite out of that sweet, crunchy carrot that is the fruit of your own labor, you experience a joy you can’t find at the grocery store.

It is a joy that only comes from laboring with your hands, being patient, nurturing, and producing something most people take for granted. Learning these skills is liberating as you realize you don’t have to rely on someone else for your most basic needs.

As exciting as it all sounds, it can be daunting. If you are looking to start your homestead journey, here is a guide to starting today in five easy steps.

Your Turn!

  • How did your homestead journey begin?
  • Are you a country, farm homesteader or an urban homesteader?

Subversive Garden

This is an amazing video on the state of food and where we need to go with it.

Starting Seeds

Many of you who have been around a while remember I am into gardening, things are ramping up, so will the garden posts.  So this year I am a bit later than I’d like, but I have been busy, so oh well.  Last night I set my seeds in the pots, got my setup running and here it is.  First off here is what you need.  Starting mix is preferable, so pots, and seeds.  Depending on how far you want to go you can get a heating mat, lights, thermostat control, etc.

Next I filled my pots with the potting soil (I should note that I pre-moistened the soil before I put them in the pots) and got them into them into my tray

Next I put in the seeds.  I put 3-4 seeds per pot because each seed isn’t guaranteed to come up, it will also let me choose the strongest plant and focus on that one.  I will later “thin” with a pair of fine scissors.   I then take soil and gently cover the seeds;  in this case 3 variety of heirloom tomatoes and a variety of cukes ideal for pickling.  The packets often tell you how deep to bury the seeds, but a rule of them is 3 times the length of the seed, so a tomato seed is very shallow, a cuke is slightly deeper.

Next up is to move the tray to my setup. Here I have my grow lights above, a plastic cover to keep the moisture in, below -it is hard to see – there is a heating pad and a piece of foam.  The cable sneeking in from the right is temperature probe that goes into the dirt to measure soil temp.  I have another thermometer to verify the temp and moisture.  Note: the temperature is too low as shown here, I just turned the whole thing on.

Here is the thermostat control, it will turn the heating pad on and off as needed, I set this to 80 F for proper germination to occur.  This unit is where the probe goes to.

Here is the heating mat

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