For those of you planning or re-planning your homesteading, a vegetable garden is a must. The food truly tastes better from your own garden, plus it can be cheaper, healthier, a stress relief, and a valuable lesson to your children.
A backyard garden can be as small as a few pots, or large enough to feed your family through the whole year. When you get started in vegetable gardening, it is easy to get carried away with all the details and specifics of each crop, and all the best practices. It is important to remember that at the heart of backyard farming is the simple fact that if you put a seed in the soil, and mix in a little sun and water, you are likely to get something to grow. Of course the more you work and tweak, the better your outcomes, and the more you will get from your garden.
Contrary to what some people believe, a vegetable garden is not an ugly part of your yard that should be hidden in a back corner. Neat rows of vegetables, brightly colored squash and tomatoes, and
flowers placed in between or bordering beds can all add structure and color to your yard. Celebrate the beauty of creating your own food by letting your garden shine.
As simple as it is to plant a seed, there is a lot more you can do to improve your garden well before you start planting. For your first year, start small and plant only a few crops (if you can control yourself). Take the time to record what you plant and visit your garden often so you can observe firsthand what works and what doesn’t.
Choose a spot for your garden that meets the following criteria:
- Choose a spot that receives full sun – at least 6 hours a day. If this doesn’t exist on your property, choose the best spot available, and select crops that require less sun
- Think about the proximity to water and the ability to drive a wheel barrow to your site
- Choose a location that you can see or quickly visit from the house. You are much more likely to work in the garden if it is near where you spend most of your time
- Choose a spot with good drainage - don’t plant where the ground is soggy or the roots will drown. If you have poor drainage, consider raised beds or pots
Planning Your Garden
Every year keep a record of the general location of each crop within the garden. By maintaining a simple rotation, you can cut down on damage from bugs and nutrient depletion. While it is often tempting to squeeze in as many plants as possible, giving plants the recommended space means you will actually get more produce (something I would do well to keep in mind). If you are starting a small garden, consider ways you could expand in the future. If you are taking the time to create your garden, growing only organic foods is easy and worth the commitment. There are many simple ways you can achieve success without the use of pesticides and certain fertilizers. If you are looking for creative and effective ways to organize your garden, check out the series on Garden Design.
Soil is a very important part of your garden. If your site doesn’t have decent soil, enrich it by having soil or compost delivered. It can feel a little ridiculous to spend money on your garden before you even start planting, but this investment will improve the health of your garden for years. If this is too much, you can also start small by getting a few bags of decent soil and adding a bit each year. Adding mulch or compost each year helps contain the weeds and can also amend the soil for new crops. If you are buying manure, make sure it has been aged and is not green or it will kill your plants. Also look into alternative ways to get soil or manure, including a local farm that might be giving away manure.
Buying seeds is one of my favorite activities of the year. We usually spread out a few catalogs, go online and proceed to buy more than we can possibly plant. Before you start ordering seeds, determine what zone you live in and buy seeds that grow well in your zone. If you are looking for some information on specific crop, make sure to stop over to the gardening section and learn more. Here are some ideas to keep in mind when you are buying seeds:
- Choose crops you like to eat
- Grow something you can’t buy, or something that tastes way better grown fresh (like tomatoes!)
- Start with easy crops such as lettuce, beans, cucumbers, squash, or peas
- If you are growing in pots or small container beds, try tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, or peas
Creating a compost system should go hand in hand with starting a garden. Composting decreases the amount of trash you make while creating yummy, healthy soil for your gardens. Create a compost system that is easy to use so you are more likely to stick with it. When done correctly, a compost bin does not have to smell or attract a lot of unwanted animals. If you don’t have much space, consider a worm bin and produce amazing soil with worm castings. When creating a compost system consider the following:
- Keep your compost bin relatively close to your home, or you simply won’t use it
- Add both green and brown material to your bin at a ratio of about 2:1
- To help keep out unwanted animals, only compost plant matter and cover food scraps with grass clippings or leaves to keep away animals
- Keep your compost damp, warm, and aerated
Getting More out of Your Garden
In addition to growing vegetables for consumption, you can also grow plants for medicinal purposes, to dye wool and cloth, or simply for aesthetic reasons. With a little planning you can harvest several crops a year in the same space, and extend your growing season with row covers, cold frames, and indoor seed starting.
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Over the next few months, I will be exploring the opportunities available to the homesteader and offering thoughts on how to set goals and gain a focus on what you want on your homestead. Many of these thoughts are already available in my ebook: The Modern Homestead, but I invite you to follow along here and on my Facebook page for a deeper look into ideas and thoughts on creating your dream homestead.You can also find a wealth of information at the tabs at the top of the blog about gardening, raising animals, and learning new homesteading skills. If you're looking for experience and examples, check out the Homestead Highlight series for first hand accounts from homesteaders.