Homesteading, Organic Gardening, How to Farm, Preparedness, Self-Reliance
The Happy Homesteader Blog
I remember looking at unbroken land of weeds and rocks and telling myself that one day there would be a bountiful garden there. In the coming years my plans would change and adapt as I learned more and more about gardening. Today, the garden sort of resembles what my first plan was, but has many elements that I've changed as I figured out what our land was like and what I could handle in terms of work. What I learned most emphatically is that there are many ways to have a vegetable garden and people are adamant that their particular way of gardening is the best! In reality, your particular way of gardening is what's best FOR YOU! Each person has their own preferences and needs, so here's a list of a few ways to garden. I suggest picking the things that seem most comfortable to you and putting them together into your own garden plan. You can always change and adapt as I did.
Traditional Plowed Garden -
Many people choose an area of land for their garden and use a tractor with a plow or rototiller attachment to turn the soil over every year. This breaks up the grass and weeds and exposes the dirt to plant in. If you have a smaller area then you can accomplish this with a walk behind rototiller. New land will need a fairly large tiller, and the rear tine tillers will work stronger than the front tine tillers. You will also have to be careful of rocks on new ground. If you continue to garden in the same area for years, then you will pull out a lot of the rocks and the soil should improve and become softer to the point that a smaller tiller may be used. With each tilling, you can add amendments to the soil such as aged manure, compost, etc. and till them in.
After the ground is broken and smoothed a bit, then you can leave it unplanted for a week or two and then till again. Exposing the dirt will also expose seeds to the sun and so in a couple of weeks things will have germinated and you can till them under again. The more you do this, the more seeds will germinate and then be killed so you will have less to grow among your plants. The problem people find with plowing and tilling is that you use heavy equipment that can compact the soil and you are bringing the subsoil to the top and the top soil to the bottom. The top soil is generally the more nutritious soil for your plants.
Just look at how much food you can grow with this method. Farm Dreamer Deanne Driscoll's photo says this was the first year she gardened in this location.
Raised Bed Gardening -
Another way to garden is to use raised beds. This is where the soil is mounded up in order to increase the fluffiness of it. There are many styles of raised beds. One way is to follow the traditional plowing or tilling and then rake the soil into mounds down each planting row. You will take the soil from the walk way between the planting row and pull it up into the planting area so that you mound up the soil into a raised bed. This will take the good top soil from the walk way and add it to your planting row and give a deeper area of soft soil for your plant's roots to grow in. Since there is no framing of the bed, then rain, etc. might cause erosion of your mound to fall back into the walk way. The good thing about no framing though is that at the end of the year you can use big equipment to till it all under again and do things like planting cover crops pretty easily which will help to improve your soil.
Then there are raised beds that are permanently framed in. There are many materials you can use from wood to cinder blocks to bricks to make your frame. You can also choose to use the soil you have or bring in soil. If you are going to use the soil you have then you mound it up as in the example above and then build a frame around it. This would be less expensive. Otherwise, you could build a frame on top of flat ground and then bring in bags or truck loads of soil and fill in the framed areas. This will give instant beautiful soil to plant in, but depending on the size of your garden could be quite an investment. The idea of framed raised beds is that the soil is not worked as hard by tilling each year. Instead, the soil in the beds never even gets walked on and so it won't compact. Each year you cultivate by hand to fluff up the soil in the bed and pull out any weeds. You can also add amendments to the soil in the beds each year more easily because you have less ground to cover since you won't be amending the walk ways. It is more difficult to use cover crops in a raise bed to improve soil because it can be hard to kill the crop back when you are ready to plant. A rototiller can be used sparingly in a framed raised bed, but it is hard to get near the sides and in the corners. A small electric or gas powered cultivator would be easier to use.
Farm Dreamer UrbanFarmer's photo shows framed and unframed raised beds waiting to be planted.
Gardening in rows or making groupings -
In either the traditional or raised bed garden you have the option to plant in rows or to make islands of plantings. Some people find straight rows in the traditional garden easier because you have a clear walk way that you can run a tiller down to weed. Then, in the row garden or raised bed garden you can weed in between the plants in a straight row by hand with a hoe. Each day you will walk down your row of peppers or whatever and scratch the top of the soil in between the plants to up root any weed seeds that have germinated. Straight rows also make it easier to distinguish the seeds that have germinated. If you are new to gardening and aren't sure about the difference between a weed that has germinated or the vegetable you planted, then a row would be easier to see.
Your trellising options will be limited to straight lines of string or fencing in a row garden. Harvesting is easy because you simply walk down the straight line and pick. Some people like groupings of plants because it is easier to pair companion plantings and might look more beautiful or artistic. If you are planting in groups rather than rows then you'll want to be sure that you can reach into the center of the grouping for harvesting and weeding. Usually if you have to reach further than 3 feet to get to the center of the planting island, then you won't be able to reach it without walking into it. In these planting patches you can use attractive trellises and arbors for some things to grow vertically while having companion plants filling in the ground around them. If the area is planted with complimentary plants then your weeding may be significantly reduced as a ground cover plant will shade out any weeds. Pairing complimentary plants into a patch is also a way of saving space if you don't have a large area to garden.
Square Foot Gardening -
This is an idea of planting in a framed raised bed with soil that is brought in. The concept uses 4 ft. X 4 ft. beds with a grid laid on top of the soil. The grid marks out every square foot. The inventors of square foot gardening have many plans of how to plant in the grids in order to maximize production in a small area. For example, in one square foot you will grow 16 carrots, in another square foot you will grow 1 cauliflower, etc. Some people choose to use square foot gardening if they have a small area. Others decide to use this method because they find it easier to maintain since the size of the garden is small and thickly covered with plants so there is little weeding. Proponents say that you can grow all of your families needs in these small beds and they have recommendations as to how many square foot gardening beds you will need for the particular size family you are feeding. However, if you are looking to grow large crops for lots of preserving such as a plot of wheat or 50 tomato plants for jars of sauce, then this won't work.
Farm Dreamer Bob Billings has many Square Foot Gardens for lots of growing space!
Lasagna Gardening -
This is a method of building soil and starting a new garden by basically building a compost pile you will eventually plant in. Lasagna gardening involves layering materials in your garden area months before you plan on planting anything. First, you use a flat shovel to scrape off the sod and flip it upside down. Then you begin layering on materials. For example, you can make a layer of cardboard, leaves, grass clippings, etc. and repeat the layers as many times as you can like building a lasagna. Once this lasagna sits and cooks for a while, then all of these materials will compost together and make beautiful rich fluffy soil for your garden with no digging or tilling required. You can start with unbroken ground and it really doesn't matter what the soil is like because you won't be using much of the soil that is already there. Instead, you will build new soil on top of the ground. Also, the soil you build will be pretty much free of weed seeds and will be soft, fluffy, and full of nutrients. The drawbacks of this method is that you need a lot of material to cover the ground and you must do it months in advance to give it all time to break down.
Double digging -
If your soil is hard and compacted in the area you want to build a garden and you don't have time or materials to build new soil, then you can double dig your garden plot to break up the soil and make it fluffy. Double digging involves a lot of work. You basically start with a small area of land and dig up all of the soil and put it in a wheel barrow to about 10 inches deep. Then you use a spade or pick to loosen the deep soil another 10 inches or so. At this point you can add amendments if you want. Then move behind your dug patch to a contiguous area. Dig up the top 10 inches in the new patch, but dump the soil onto the first dug patch rather than the wheel barrow. This way the top soil stays on the top of the ground, just in another location. Now loosen the next 10 inches in your second patch and then move to the third patch. Continue this way around your whole garden area and when you end up at your last patch of ground you will have the top soil in the wheel barrow from your first patch to add to the last spot. If you double dig your garden and then don't walk in it or use heavy equipment, then your soil will stay loose for a very long time.
Living walkways or bare walkways -
One problem many people have is what to do in the areas between where you plant your veggies. This is the area outside your raised beds or the walk way area between your rows of plantings. You must have some area to walk in, but these areas just become more places to maintain. There are basically two options. Either you leave them bare dirt and constantly till or hoe them to keep the weeds out or you cover the walk ways somehow. You can either have living cover or dead cover. Dead cover would be something like straw or grass clippings to cover the soil and block any seeds from germinating. This can take a lot of material depending on your garden size. Also, you must be sure that what ever you use is weed free otherwise your wheat straw seeds might germinate and grow wheat where you wanted to walk! These dead coverings also make great places for weeds seeds to blow into and latch on and grow. Before you know it, you could have weeds growing in your mulch cover and then it'd be too hard to weed because you can't use any tools. Another dead cover that won't allow weeds seeds to blow in and germinate is plastic. Plastic can be expensive and can make water problems because the rain won't go through it, but rather pool up in places. Living covers would be something like grass or low growing ground covers. These covers can grow in thickly and stop unwanted plants from growing in the walk ways, but they must be mowed or somehow maintained. If you have living cover among framed raised beds then it means lots of weed whacking against the frames. Living cover without a frame to stop it means lots of hoeing to stop the cover from growing into your planted areas.
There are many options to choose from, but don't let it paralyze you. It's best to start simple and then build from there. You'll learn so much your first year of gardening that by the second year you can revisit your garden plan and make changes that you find necessary. The important thing really is to just get out there and try something!
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