Posts Tagged Sustainable

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?

 

Setting Up Your Land To Start A Homestead

When you’re just starting out and setting up your homestead there are a lot of things that you need to think about.  We all have big aspirations of what we want to do on our land, but there is a lot of work that needs to go into it all before we can really do anything.

land to homestead

In some cases we are coming into a piece of property, or our property that we already live on has certain elements, layouts or assets that we need to work with or around.  While I am always looking to capitalize on what I already have in place, I’m also not afraid to make changes or remove something if it doesn’t work in the way I need it to.

Get A Plan In Place

When it comes to setting up your land, I always ask myself a few key questions:

  • What is the land telling me?
  • What are the very specific things I want to do on the land?
  • What are the workflows that are going to happen on the land?
  • How can I reduce effort, improve ergonomics, and make it more efficient?
  • How can I design it to be flexible?

These are some really important questions to ask yourself because if we are just starting out, we can nail these few considerations and make our lives easier, our design will work for us, we will have less frustrations, and we can prevent burnout or injuries.

What Is The Land Telling Me?

take time to listen to the landWhen it comes to setting up land or starting on a new piece of property we need to make some observations before we begin.  If you have the chance, try to live on the land for a year before committing a lot of time or money.  It also gives us time to take a bunch of soil samples and get them analyzed.  That isn’t always possible, but if you can manage it, it’s well worth your time.

By taking the time to see how each season works with the land you’ll understand it’s character.  You’ll learn where the warm sunny spots are and where cold air settles in low spots. You’ll learn where water pools in the rainy season, where it soaks into the ground well and other areas that it just seems to sit on the surface for a long time.  All these things tell you how the land naturally behaves and it’s our job to work with that, not against it.

Two things I’ll do on a new property is in the cooler months, go walking in shorts despite the cold.  This let’s me sense with my legs what parts are warmer or colder than others.  If it starts to rain a whole lot, I’ll put on a rain jacket and go out walking; looking for how the water flows on the land, where it pools, where it gets boggy.  All these things are helpful in your planning.

What Are You Going To Do On The Land?

writing in notebookBefore we even begin to plan what our homestead is going to be like, we need to know what we are going to do on that land.  We can’t figure out a direction to walk if we don’t even know where we are going!  Take the time to be honest about you and your life.  If you’re going to homestead and work a full time job, what can you honestly dedicate to your farmstead when you’re pulling 40 or 50 hours a week?

Plan for your worst day, not your best day.  When you’re tired from work, it’s raining out and very cold in January, what do you want your life on that land to be like on that day where you want to do nothing?  If you plan for that, every other day will be a pleasure and it will make it viable for the long term.

When I was planning my future homestead I realized that a lot of what I thought I wanted to do just didn’t fit with my lifestyle.  I wanted to travel some, not have to wake up at the crack of dawn, and have a place that I could easily keep up so I could relax sometimes.  This meant certain things were ruled out and other things became more realistic.  What life do you want to lead on that land?

What Are The Workflows?

If we are planning to homestead, we are the kinds of people that don’t shy away from hard work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be smart about our work either.  I started out with a list of everything I wanted to do on my homestead and then broke each one down into that activities and actions that needed to take place for those things to happen.

feeding chickens

We want to be super efficient and be smart about everything we do, because there is never enough time in the day and a little planning up front will pay off big on the back end.  So come up with your list and then start to envision in your mind how you’re going to do everything.  What are you doing, what do you need to do those things, where are you lifting, moving, pulling, pushing.  Play out these things in your mind to figure out how you’re going to do work on your stead.

Reduce Effort, Improve Ergonomics, and Make it More Efficient

We want to be smart about how we get things done on the farm. A really great primer to this way of thinking is 2 second lean principles, which we did a post on.  On our farm, we want to always be looking for ways to be better, work smart and reduce possibility of injury.

An example would be chickens.  Let’s say you want 5 birds in a chicken tractor, in my mind I’d play out a day in the life of taking care of them. I wake up at my normal time and get ready.  I walk out to the tractor, it’s raining outside so the ground is wet. I go to a bin in the garage to get their feed and fill their feeder which is clogged so I have to climb into the tractor, and I drag the hose across the yard to top of the waterer.  I reach into the nesting boxes to get any eggs and I move the tractor a few feet to fresh grass.

improvement on the land

So from this example I’d analyze what work happened and how I might make it better.  Starting out with it’s raining and the grass is wet (remember plan for your worst day) it would be really good if I had some farm boots to wear out to the coop so I don’t get my professional job shoes dirty and wet.  I needed to get some feed, where did that feed come from? Is there a way that I could back my truck right up to where I need to unload it?  Do I have to bend or lift things, is there a way I could reduce it or prevent injuries/strains?

Is there a way to locate the feed and water closer to the chickens?  I might consider if a mobile coop is worth it, or would a fixed coop allow me to run a water line to it and have a little storage area right there to keep feed in and back my truck bed right up to it?  If I have to get in the coop, maybe it’s better to make it 6 feet tall so I don’t have to stoop inside, and how can I set it up so I don’t have to go inside often and cleaning is a breeze?

golden comet chicken

Think through all these things, look for places where a tweak can save your from extra work, walking back and forth, repetitive tasks, or not having things right where you need them.  If we are starting from scratch, let’s make our lives easier!

A Flexible Design

When we are starting, out we are operating under a lot of assumptions and even with careful planning and experience, we may find that our plans need to change.  Being flexible is a huge part of being able to solve problems and as homesteaders at our core, we are good problem solvers.

If I’m spending time to build something, paying money to install something or other big decisions, I ask myself what if I had to move this, change it or expand it? If we ask these things we can think about the future and bring flexibility into our design.

be flexible with your plans

A real good example is running water lines for spigots.  When I ran mine I had the trencher rented for a day. That meant I could keep trenching to add more hydrants.  At that point adding 100 feet more of water line and putting in three more hydrants was very easy and pretty cheap.  Hydrants are $70 each and I can buy a 100 foot roll of pex for $40.  So I ran my water lines where I needed them, then added one in the back corner, one near where I could build another garden bed in the future, and one next to my driveway to wash my car.

Think about if you had to change things, move things and what happens if my plans don’t work.

Access Is Key

There are a few things I always look for when considering land and access is critical. The first step to getting the land to the point where you can live on it is simply being able to access it. This comes in the form of roads, driveways, turnarounds and parking pads.

Before you even think about laying down the road, you must first clear the way, remove trees, level the dirt and make your path to your new home. You have a couple of options: gravel, cement, and asphalt. Gravel is the most economical and I’ve found if you know how to build a gravel drive properly it can last for a long time.

road access to land is important

Always go bigger than you think you need. You want to make sure that you can easily fit a dump truck, cement truck or trailer and have good places to park and turn around for the bigger vehicles and trailers.  I would also clear 4 to 5 feet on either side of the driveway and grade it somewhat. When you open up the woods you’ll find that trees start to push into the opening as they make a bid for sunlight, this will give you a buffer so you don’t instantly need to start cutting it back.  I give myself this buffer so I can just run a bush hog down either side and make quick work of it.

If you can get your water, sewer, internet, phone and power installed before you put down your final grade of gravel, you’ll save yourself a lot of work in many cases.  I’ve had it where the power company came in and said they would put in the line for free, but they needed to trench right down the middle of the drive.  If you allow 4-5 feet on either side, you can give yourself room to trench utilities into the property without tearing up your road and make it easier when repairs are needed.  I always try to put my sewer on one side of the road and drinking water on the other. For power lines if buried, I try to put power on one side of the road and data/phone on the other so there is no EM interference.

Here is a video of the installation of my road, turnaround and parking pad. Note I had a much easier time because there used to be an old dirt road in this location, so it was simply a matter of cleaning it up and leveling it out. The whole process took about 6 hours of hard work.

Infrastructure

There are a few things that are critical to actually making a piece of land or a home viable, this all comes down to installing critical infrastructure right off the bat and doing it the right way.  This is one of those things that doing it half measured is not going to cut it.  The saying is “buy one, cry once” and when it comes to getting your infrastructure in, this couldn’t be truer.

Water

No matter what you’re going to do or how you’re doing it, you need to have a very reliable, high quality water source that brings it right to where you need it.  I have seen people who tried to save a few bucks, had a water truck deliver water to them, do water catchment, try something alternative or temporary and it never works out.  If you can get tied into a municipal water line or have a good well dug for you, I’d save up for it or skip that land.  Water is life and you can’t compromise on it, you’ll just end up frustrated, broke, and doing it the right way like you should have the first time.

water connection

For water I am connected to the city water. The meter and installation cost me $2,200 (city sets price), but that is only from the water main to the closest edge of your property. You then need to connect it from there to your house, which, for me, was $700 for materials, $800 for ditch witch rental, and $1500 for a plumber to do all the connections, fittings and other tasks.  For running water lines; once you have your main connections you can do most of the work yourself and it isn’t too difficult if you’re willing to work hard.  I used PEX water line and ring crimps, buried below the frost line and frost proof hydrants for hose connections.

While you have your trencher, go ahead and future proof your system, put in a few extra connections, make sure you bury everything below the frost line and I’d recommend not using PVC or Poly Tube; go with PEX, it’s much more durable and cheap too!

Power

Having power is another major consideration you need to make.  In some cases getting tied into grid power can be expensive. Other times they will run the power line for free.  This is one of those things that I’d save up for and do it right the first time.  I currently live off the grid with my power, getting it only from my solar panels, but there are times where a grid connection would be nice.

tiny house solar panels

Heating (air, stove/oven, water heater)  and cooling take around 60%-80% of a home’s power consumption, the rest is all pretty easy.  If you’re going more off grid, starting out smaller is better and making sure your system can scale.  Check out my post on how I set up solar for my home here.

Since we are on a homestead consider if you need certain special hook ups like a 220 volt outlet for a welder, a 50 amp plug for a tiny house or camper, or running power to different parts of the yard where you need it.  Again, when you’re trenching it’s often just a little extra work and a few hundred dollars to add extra hook ups.  When I trench for power I try to put it on the edges and go a little deeper so I don’t have to worry about hitting the line with a tiller.

Places to consider to run power are: to your outbuildings or workshops for tools, finding things in storage or for those late nights of work.  I’ll also make sure I have lighting to illuminate areas I have animals really well; in case a predator is lurking I can flip on some really bright lights to spot them quickly.  In some cases it’s good to have power near the pens and paddocks so you can power a waterer to stop from freezing, a power washer for cleaning or corded tools for repairs.

I’ll also light areas for my infrastructure: a well, septic pumps, driveways, and other areas that if something breaks down I can flip on a good light to see what I’m doing while I fix it. Additionally consider some motion detection lights so that if someone wanders on to your property it will light them up and keep thieves at bay.

All these things can be done more easily ahead of time with some planning and for a cheaper cost since you already have trenchers or trades people on site.

Sewage

There are a few ways to handle this, it mainly depends on your local laws, so be sure to check with your township on what the rules are.  For many it will either be a septic or city connection.  In some cases you may be using a composting toilet or even an outhouse; these are often subject to local laws so make sure you know what you can and cannot do.

Internet/Phone

internet on the homesteadWhile this may not be at the top of musts for most people I like to include it here because often when you’re setting up everything else, it’s a good time to get this setup as well.  Having a connection to the outside world will allow you to set up security cameras to keep an eye on things while you’re away, or may allow you to work from home or remotely for better job opportunities.  Your homestead may start selling things and online order, customer emails/call and website stuff are easier when you have a connection.  Finally in many rural areas cell phone signal isn’t great, so being able to watch a YouTube video or call for help is a consideration.

Outbuildings, Animal Shelters And Storage

With any property you’ll need a place to put things, store things, or covered areas to work on things that you don’t want inside your house.  For me I have a place to keep all my tools, gardening supplies, lumber and things I need to work the land.  If you have animals, they’ll need housing appropriate to them. You’ll need storage for feed and hay, and other things to raise those animals.

If you have equipment like lawn mowers, tractors, generators etc you want to make sure those can be kept out of the elements. These expensive pieces of equipment can be made to last a lot longer if they aren’t subjected to the rain or snow.

Fencing

One major cost that people don’t anticipate is fencing.  If you have a large property a good fence around the perimeter is a large cost even if you do it yourself.  I try to get my fencing setup so I can run a bush hog or mower on either side of it while still being on my property.  This will make maintenance easier, define your property line, and allow you to walk or ride along it regularly to make sure no breaks have happened.

fencing your land

So those are some things you need to consider when it comes to setting up your land for a farm, a homestead, or a tiny house.  Keep our basic tenants of learning from the land, having a solid plan, focusing on work flow and staying flexible and you’ll have a great piece of land that will work for you.

Your Turn!

  • What are you plans for starting a garden, farm, or homestead on some land?
  • What have you learned at tips and trick when setting up your land?

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 Setup A Rainwater Catchment System

Rain catchment, rain harvesting, or rain barrels are a favorite project of many gardeners and homesteaders.  The truth is that water is the basis of all life on our homesteads and gardens, so it makes sense that we look to take advantage of the rain that is already falling on our home.  Catching water to use is a great way to reduce our water bills.

rainwater catchement

For each square foot of catchment we create we capture .6 gallons per inch of rain.  Where I live in North Carolina it rains an average of 42 inches per year, if we consider the average size a home in the US (2,400 square feet) that means that if we were to catch all the rain that fell on that roof in a year, we would capture over 60,000 gallons!  That’s a lot of water!

Parts You Need To Catch Rain Water

Regardless of the size and scale of your system you’ll need a few basic parts to put it all together.  Below this section I dig into some of the details you also want to consider, but at it’s basics you’ll need the following.

Catchment Surface

This can be any flat surface where water lands and is channeled where we want to store it.  In many cases people look to their roofs because it’s a large surface that already has gutters which will collect and channel the water into a few points where we can collect.  This could be any surface so get creative.  It could be the roof of our chicken coop, the roof of a barn, it could even be a parking lot that is graded to drain the water into a settlement pond or swale.

stand alone water catchment surface

The material of this surface can be almost anything, but do consider what that surface introduces into the water.  If for instance you have a shingle roof, there are a lot of chemicals in them which prevent biological growth and hold up in the sun for years.  These can transfer to your water if you’re not careful.  In general the best roof surface is is a metal roof, because it is less likely to impart any bad chemicals into your water and is pretty easy to clean if it gets real dirty.

First Flush Diverter

As with anything outside, things can get dirty.  In the case of roofs and large open surfaces, we find that dust, dirt, and pollen settle onto roofs.  Additionally you’ll have birds pooping on it, bugs dying onto it and other things making your roof a dirty place.  We obviously don’t want any of these things in our water, and while we can’t prevent it, we can use a first flush diverter to try to avoid the bulk of this going into our storage tanks.

A first flush diverter is a mechanical device that lets us wash of the roof with all the gunk in it, then divert the now cleaner water to our tanks.  This can be done a few different ways, a whole bunch of options can be found online both for purchase and DIY.  The video below shows you one way you can do this.

Storage Tank

catchment tanksLater on I’ll go into how to calculate how much storage you need, but suffice to say you’ll need a good bit of storage to really cover your needs.  There are a lot of DIY options out there with 55 gallon drums or 120 gallon totes, but in past experience I’ve found these to be to be a lot of extra hassle and in the end you don’t save as much because you’ll need a bunch of them, each time adding in connections that can fail.  Typically you can find barrels for around $20 a piece, but then you’ll spend $10 or more in PVC parts to interconnect them.

A 500 gallon water tank can be purchased for around $300 if you’re able to go pick it up, shipping is the tough part.  With a tank that size you’re going to want to pour a pad to set it on for stability and safety, so you should factor that into the cost.

Is Rain Water Safe?

Yes and no.  According to Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. of Biomedical Sciences rain water is generally pretty safe to drink or use on your garden.  It’s always recommended to filter and purify if you’re not sure about the source.  When we are talking about ingesting something we need to do our research and consult experts (I’m not one).

Where I think most people will run into trouble is in the catchment and storage of the water.  The water as it falls from the sky is pretty clean, but once it lands on a surface and is move into a tank, you can run into issues with less than desirable things being introduced.  Even with water from the sky, there may be some pollution, dust or other biological elements in the water.  So always filter and purify.

How Much Water Do You Need?

I found that water catchment is only actually useful if you go big, small rain barrels are a fun project, but gardens require a lot of water and most can’t keep up in any significant way.  A general rule is you need about 0.8 gallons of water per square feet per week for your garden.  This will vary based on your climate, soil and crops, but it’s a good place to start.

So figure out how many square feet of garden you have, times that by 0.8 gallons to figure out your total weekly needs.  Example: 1000 square feet of garden will need 800 gallons per week.  It’s also important to consider the averages for the month in your growing season.  A quick google search for “monthly rainfall in…” will give you a chart, for me I get 3 inches per month or more all year round, so I need to consider that when sizing my system.

If I had a house that was 1,500 square feet of roof times .6 gallons per sq/ft times 3 inches of rain in the month, I can collect a maximum of 2,700 gallons per month.  This would support a maximum of 843 square feet of garden (2700 divided by 4 weeks divided by .8 gallons = max garden size).  So you can see that you need a pretty big area to collect, to store and the infrastructure to move it from one place to another.

Storing Water

Keeping water stored up is no small task, mainly because of the quantity we need and how heavy it is.  At 8.5 lbs per gallon, if we take the above example that means we need support over 11 tons!  The tank would need to be 8 feet across and 9 feet tall, which typically costs $1500-$2500.  These are all very big numbers obviously and even at their scale, it’s only supporting a smallish garden.

water barell

Tanks this size are a lot to transport, to move and to install.  If you’re going to go above 100 gallons I strongly suggest getting a cement footing poured so that you know the surface below can safely handle the weight, plus you’re going to want at least a little elevation so that you can fit a bucket under the bottom drain or have working room for pipe connections.  Because of the size, the weight of the water will provide pressure to push the water out the bottom pretty well.

When you’re storing water in bulk you need to make sure that you prevent foreign bodies from getting introduced, like a mouse climbing in and drowning, or bugs falling in and algae forming. We can do this through various methods using hardware cloth, opaque containers and in some cases chemical controls.

Low Pressure System

One advantage of municipal or well water systems is they are pressurized, typically to around 40 PSI (pounds per square inch).  When we capture water we don’t always have that much pressure so we can do a few things to overcome it.

drip tape irrigation

First is we can get the water into an elevated position.  If you’re able to capture the water in a high spot and put your garden or home in a lower spot, we can use that elevation change to our advantage.  For every foot elevation we can get our water, we will gain about .4 PSI.  So if we are able to raise the water to 100 feet above where we need it, say on top of a hill, we could get 40 psi at our spigot down the hill.

Most people don’t have that drastic of a change in their topography, so instead we can use low pressure irrigation to overcome any limitations.  To meet this need there are now several drip tape solutions that are designed with low pressure in mind.  In some cases you’ll only need around 10 psi  (25 feet of elevation) to get your garden watered.

Filtration & Purification

Depending on your setup and your use you might want to consider filtration and/or purification in line somewhere. The difference between these two processes is important to understand.  Simply put, the main difference lies in the level of protection they provide. Generally speaking, a water filter is designed to remove waterborne protozoa and bacteria, but not viruses. A water purifier is designed to combat all three classes of microbes, including viruses.

dirty water

If you want to go this route, a commercial system can be had for not too much money and there are a lot of good options.  Since we need to remove things measured in microns, our ability to come up with DIY solutions are just not possible here.

So that’s some of the basics of catching water for use in your garden and potentially as water in the home if you’re off grid.  Make sure you read up, do your home work here because there are some finer points to get right.

Your Turn!

  • What are your plans to for water catchment?
  • What tips can you share if you’ve made your own system?

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?