When we began dreaming of moving out of our suburban lifestyle to a piece of God’s great country “out there” where we could plant our roots and start living a self-sustaining lifestyle, we had a lot of wants and wishes, but very little know-how! We knew we wanted to be homesteaders, but what does that really mean? Through our rose-colored glasses we could see beautiful rows of growing organic vegetables and fruits, and pastures filled with grass-fed, free-range poultry and animals. But if you had asked us then, “What is the first thing you need to do to make homesteading a reality?”, we would not have been able to answer that question.
So I understand all too well the paralyzing doubts and fears of really being able to make that happen. If you are dreaming of having a garden filled with organic, nutritious fresh vegetables, but don’t know how or where to start, I want to give you three steps to starting your your first veggie garden to build your confidence that you can do it. All you need is a little piece of land (or some containers sitting on your patio) and a bit of helpful start-up information. It’s really not that difficult to get started. Let’s look at the basic steps you need to take to go from dreaming to doing.
- Determine how much land—either actual land or soil in pots—you have available for your garden, and prepare it appropriately for your plants.
- Start small—choose three to five veggies or fruits you most want to grow yourself—and get them ready to plant in your garden.
- Be consistent in caring for your plants—which includes watering, weeding, feeding, and keeping out the garden pests.
Those are three pretty simple steps to take, but you need a little bit of know-how before you will be successful with any of those steps. So let’s look a little closer at each step.
1. Preparing your land
There are some important things to consider about the land you have. It’s important to know that almost all vegetables need about six hours of full sun each day. Be sure the land where you want to plant your garden receives as much sun as that. You also need to know what type of soil you have. You can take a sample of your soil to your county extension office, and they will tell you what your soil lacks and how to amend it. Or you can test your own soil with a Mason Jar Soil test. You can find complete directions for this self-soil-test here. You can also grab a Rapitest Soil Tester from your local garden store or purchase it online here.
If you do not have the perfect combination of clay, silt, and sand—which is pretty rare—you will need to amend your soil with some organic materials. These materials may include yard trimmings, compost, crop residues, and manures. This handy guide you can download will be helpful to you.
One of the easiest and most helpful tools you can have for successful gardening is your own organic compost material. Compost is the single most important supplement you can give your garden soil. There are many guides available online to help you get started with your own compost bin, including this one. Your first year of gardening, you will need to purchase compost through your garden store or online.
This year we decided to try out raised row gardening. It’s super easy and requires some straw, soil amendments, and compost. It requires you planting your seeds or transplants in straw rows. Old World Garden has a great blog post series on raised row gardening that you can read here.
You will want to add 2-3 inches of soil amendments to your soil. In most cases this will involve loosening the dirt and mixing the organic soil amendments into the dirt. Be sure you are working with moist soil. If your soil is either too wet or too dry you will not get the best mixture of soil for growing your plants.
You will also want to plan your garden. You will want to make the best use of the land you have available. For example, you should place plants with similar water, fertilizer, and sun exposure requirements together. You will also want to be sure you are leaving enough room between your rows (approximately 2 feet) to allow you to walk between, to lay your hose for watering, and to push a small wheelbarrow for weeding waste. You can find a lot of great tips online, including a free “Vegetable Garden Planner” software program here.
2. Choosing your garden plants
Choosing your garden plants doesn’t have to mean growing the same vegetables your grandmother…or your neighbor…or the gardener with the perfect garden…grows. Plan the design with the types of food your family likes to eat! My family loves tomatoes, so this year we planted 21 tomato plants! Remember that gardening is a matter of trial and error, so choose the plants that are easiest to grow when you are just beginning. Some of the easiest vegetables to grow are lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Some plants, like lettuce and sunflowers, are easy to grow from seeds, but an easier method for the beginner gardener is buying young plants, or transplants, and plant them in your prepared soil. Transplants are available in your garden store!
You may decide to grow the vegetables you need for a simple salad. Lettuces grow quickly, and are easy to harvest. They take up very little space. Tomatoes are probably the most popular vegetable for beginners, and can be supported with a stake or cage as they grow. Try the smaller varieties of tomatoes, such as cherry and grape tomatoes. Plant some basil next to your tomato plants to naturally repel tomato pests. Cucumbers grow almost like weeds, and also are easily staked for support. Just remember to purchase tomato, pepper and cucumber stakes early and insert them into the ground to support your plants BEFORE the roots get too big. You don’t want to stake them too late or you risk damaging the roots.
You may also want to try some root vegetables, like carrots, turnips, and radishes. You can plant them early in the spring and leave them until the fall. Green beans and zucchini are also easy to grow. Maybe you have some room to add some bell peppers or jalapenos to flavor your home-grown salad.
3. Give consistent care to your garden.
To have a successful harvest in your garden, you need to add four chores to your gardening schedule: watering, weeding, feeding, and keeping out the garden pests. Let’s consider each of these chores.
You want to be sure your plants—and their roots—stay moist. In order to keep your garden well watered, follow these tips:
- Focus on the root zone. Wetting the foliage is a waste of water and can promote the spread of disease. This is why I prefer a soaker hose for my garden. You can even add a timer to your soaker hose and forget about it!
- Water only when needed. Too much water is just as damaging as too little.
- Water deeply and thoroughly. Your soil should be moist to a depth of 6-12 inches.
- Water in the morning. It’s much more difficult for plant diseases to get a foothold when the foliage is dry.
- Use the right tool. Use a soaker hose or create a drip irrigation system instead of a sprinkler.1
Weeding can seem like the chore that never ends. But there are some simple strategies to maintain a well-groomed garden. If you decide to do the raised row gardening, you will find that you have much less weeds!
- Let sleeping weeds lie. Only the weed seeds in the top 2 inches of your soil will germinate and grow. Dig only when you need to, and cover the freshly dug soil with mulch after you dig.
- Mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulch keeps the soil cool and moist and deprives weeds of light. I wait till my plants are about 6-10 inches tall and then spread straw on the top of the soil and use it as mulch. You don’t need to spend lots of money on expensive mulch. Straw works great!
- Weed when the weeding is good. “Pull when wet, hoe when dry” is wise advice. After a drenching rain, put on your garden gloves and get started. Try using an old fork to twist out weed roots, or an old steak knife to cut the weeds popping up through the mulch. Be sure to chop off weed heads before they go to seed.
- Mind the gaps between plants. Close plant spacing will choke out emerging weeds with shade, but while the plants are growing, be sure to weed between them.
- Water the plants, not the weeds. Keep your soaker hoses close to the plants, and let the nearby weeds go thirsty.
The key to a good garden is a good soil. Just like we need nourishment, so do plants. Understanding just a little bit about feeding your plants can help them grow big and strong and healthy. Organic and natural fertilizers add essential nutrients to the soil where they become available to the plants over time. There are three essential micronutrients your plants need: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
You can make your own organic fertilizer with some of the common items found in your kitchen or around your house. There is much good information online about how to do this, including this great resource, which provides four easy homemade fertilizer recipes. Here is a list of some of these common ingredients:
- Aquarium water
- Blackstrap molasses
- Coffee grounds
- Cooking water
- Egg shells
- Epsom salts
- Fireplace or fire pit ash
- Green Tea
If you lack the confidence for making your own organic fertilizer, be sure that you purchase your organic fertilizers from a company that produces awesome, trustworthy organic fertilizers. Follow the recommendation of an experienced gardener, or a well-researched list of reputable organic fertilizer producers. You can find one good resource here.
Be prepared to do a little warfare against those garden pests that want to take over your veggies and prevent you from ever getting your first good harvest. Be sure to read my earlier post about Natural Remedies for Garden Pests. There are twelve bothersome garden pests to be aware of, and I give you helpful information for dealing with each. These 12 garden pests are:
- Squash bugs
- Imported cabbageworms
- Squash vine borers
- Japanese beetles
- Tomato hornworms
- Cucumber beetles
- Corn earworms
If you are eager to have a healthy, organic garden, you will want to limit your plants’ exposure to unhealthy chemicals. There are ways to deal naturally with garden pests, and you will want to incorporate these methods into your gardening efforts. In addition to the information I share in my earlier blog post, there are good suggestions online, including here.
Once you are prepared with this information, all that’s left for you to do it simply BEGIN! By harvest time you will be surprised by the generous supply of fresh, organic, homegrown vegetables you have produced yourself. You’ve just taken one giant leap into your dream of becoming a modern homesteader, and your family will be able to enjoy the healthy bounty from your garden.