You’ve made the big decision to cut bait and leave the rat race behind and move to a happier place. You’ve purchased the land, built or purchased housing, and perhaps you’ve already weathered a winter or two. Now you know how to quickly build a fire in the stove, safely cut firewood, do some home repairs, and shop while thinking ahead since the nearest grocery store is more than a few blocks away. The natural progression calls for becoming more self-sufficient, and the first step is usually learning to grow your own food.
Maybe you’ve already had a garden, perhaps a corner of the backyard, or a few containers sitting on the deck. The act of vegetable gardening is much the same wherever you do it, but the steps of developing a brand new garden can take some forethought and consideration before you fire up the tiller or pick up the hoe.
Hopefully, if gardening was a major part of your plan for relocating to the country, then the soil quality and lay of the land weighed into your decision when shopping for your homestead. If your intent is to simply find a suitable spot on the property to grow a few vegetables for your own table, to share with friends, or sell at the Farmer’s Market, then it’s likely you’re just now thinking about where to locate your vegetable patch. Either way, the key to a successful garden spot is location, location, location. You want to consider the soil, drainage, sunlight, and access to a water source.
Where you grow will be decided in part by what you intend to grow. Some plants need as much sunlight as possible, while others will flourish in the shade. Most garden-variety plants fall somewhere in between. Also take into consideration the number of plants you intend to put in, what and how much space you have available and, likely to a lesser degree, how the garden will affect the overall aesthetics of your homestead.
There are two schools of thought on vegetable gardening. One group, of which my wife is a member, prefers to grow plants in rows or small raised beds surrounded by wide paths. The purpose is to allow space to walk through the garden without harming the plants, but more importantly to allow enough room to run the tiller between the rows without damaging the roots of the plants. While my wife loves to grow her own vegetables, she really hates to pull weeds. In fact, a hatred for pulling weeds is one of the few things she and I agree on completely.
The second group adheres to a practice growing in popularity that involves vegetable gardening in a small space with plants placed as close together as possible. The thought behind this is that if you’re maintaining a smaller space then they’ll be fewer weeds and it should be much easier to keep them plucked. There are books available about growing enough vegetables for a small family in a matter of nine square feet or less. When you’re only dealing with a square yard of space you can easily reach across the area and pull weeds as soon as they appear.
In our case, we have enough acreage available to spread our garden out a bit. Over the years we’ve built a stone wall across one end of the space, and planted grapevines along one side. We really enjoy looking out the kitchen door and seeing a wide expanse of tomato plants growing in their cages, peppers of different colors, bushy carrot tops, onion greens reaching for the sun, and… well, you get the picture. A well-kept flourishing vegetable garden is a thing of beauty.
Here’s a good place to start. Pick out where you might want your vegetable garden to be, then mark the corners with a flag, spray paint, piece of board or anything else you can use to remind yourself of where the edge should be. Now watch it throughout the day and note when it has sun and when it’s shaded. Remember you don’t have to have a shade tree 10 feet away to create a concern. In the morning our vegetable garden is shaded by huge trees in the property fence line 80 yards away. After about 4 p.m. in the summertime, it’s shaded from the other side by a metal outbuilding and row of pine trees in a fence line 50 feet away. If you’re scouting for a new vegetable garden spot during any other season but summer, keep in mind that as the summer progresses the sun will be slightly higher in the southern sky (if you live in the northern hemisphere).
Last year my wife and son decided to expand our normal garden spot to make room for some additional bean varieties and relocate the squash. What we hadn’t considered was that a maple tree some 30 feet away would shade that little 20-by-10 foot section more than the rest of the garden. It was a one-year experiment that failed, and this spring we’re reverting that area back to grass.
Next consider the lay of the land and available water. Most gardens are essentially flat. If you’re trying to garden on a hillside you need to review the Oriental methods of using tiered growing beds with water bars to slow flow and keep topsoil in place. In the early- to mid-1900s there was a push to bring tiered landscaping to the Midwest. If you drive through the more steep portions of the Ozarks you can still see hillsides of fields with contoured berms to slow erosion and keep surface water where it needs to be long enough to soak in the soil.
If you’re making a garden on the side of a hill consider locating it on the south side. Keep in mind if you live north of the equator, the south sides of hills get more direct sunlight. Remember the old Boy Scout trick for finding your way if you get lost of looking for moss growing on the north sides of the trees and then orienting yourself accordingly. The moss grows on the north side because it never gets direct sunlight. The same happens to my house except its mold that has to be power washed a couple times a year. Planting on the correct side of the hill is especially important if you intend to plant an orchard, or even a few fruit trees near your vegetable garden.
As for water considerations, you’ll need to be close enough to a hydrant or faucet that you can run a hose unless you intend to carry water in a bucket. A great option if you have a creek on the property is to use a small pump and hydrate your plants with creek water. But if the creek is spring fed keep in mind that very cold water can “shock” the plants, especially if applied later in the day when the plants have been warmed by the sun.
Also remember your new vegetable garden plants will be competing for the available ground moisture with any nearby trees. Some tree root systems can run far beyond what you’d imagine, reaching well past the standard rule of thumb that the root system generally covers the same diameter as the canopy of the tree. Not that you can’t plant a vegetable garden near a tree, but just that you’ll need to take it into consideration if the plants seem to be starving for moisture during a period of normal rainfall. Be prepared to water a little extra.
So, you’ve determined how much available space you need for your style of vegetable gardening. You’ve checked the area for available sunlight. Now comes preparing the soil. If you’re blessed with sandy loam with few rocks and roots this next step will be enjoyable. If not, which is more likely the case, it might be the hardest part of gardening this area that you’ll ever have to deal with.
First, you need to turn over the soil. Unless you’re blessed with naturally loamy or sandy soil, or you’ll be gardening in a spot which was once a garden before—that’s where we were when we made the first garden at our home two decades ago. The property’s owners 100 years before had gardened much of what is now the backyard, and fortunately rocks don’t grow over time, so in our case some folks we’ve never met cleared our garden spot some 60 years before my wife and I were even born—otherwise, you’ll be dealing with removing all the large rocks (say an inch or larger).
If you’ve bought a tractor with a plow then you’re ready to go it on your own. If not, don’t fret. There are a lot of people in the country who own tractors and implements. A few folks rely on doing farm/homestead type chores for others as a part of their annual income. Ask around the local general store, lumber yard or restaurant. Someone will likely know someone who plows gardens for a few dollars. If not, don’t hesitate to find a neighbor with a tractor and see if he/she is willing to plow up your vegetable garden spot for a small fee. Most folks, especially in rural settings, have good hearts and are willing and ready to help a neighbor if asked. If you maintain your vegetable garden spot, this might be the only time you’ll ever have to have it plowed.
Next comes rock picking. There’s no explanation needed. It is what it sounds like. Grab a wheelbarrow or five-gallon bucket and begin making your way through the freshly plowed ground and pick up anything over an inch in size. If you’re real energetic you can pick up smaller rocks, but most stones less than an inch won’t damage a tiller or create a problem for roots.
Gardeners have grown plants since nearly the beginning of time without utilizing the latest science. Still, there’s something to be said for using what’s available. As a young man I participated in a group which did primitive camping, sometimes reenacting a historic rendezvous, and we would camp in canvas tents or teepees, cook in cast iron over an open flame, and entertain ourselves with competitions including throwing tomahawks, throwing knives and starting fires with flint and steel. Die-hard re-enactors would work to appear as period-perfect as possible, but there was a saying among most of the guys about helpful discoveries in more recent years that “if the frontiersmen would have had it they would have used it.”
In that vein, any gardener can benefit from having a soil sample tested to determine the pH. If your soil is obviously of the clay type, you’ll want to add some sand, organic matter, manure (don’t add chicken manure if you’ll be gardening immediately because it will “burn” the tender young plants). Till or otherwise work in the additives. If you’re gardening in a few square feet you can use a hoe or other gardening hand tools. If you’re going larger you’ll likely want to invest in a new or used walk-behind tiller. If you don’t have a tiller, or don’t intend to use one once you’ve established your patch, check with the person you hired to plow your ground. Tractor-mounted 3-point PTO driven tillers have become popular in recent years. Many farmers and large area gardeners have them.
Once your soil is of a good consistency—pick up a handful and squeeze it into a ball, once you open your hand the ball of soil should be ‘loosely’ packed but easy to break up—then contact the University Extension service of Farm Services agency in your county about having a soil test done. The specialist will instruct you on how to collect a suitable sample and submit it for evaluation. They’ll then provide you with a guideline of what you need to do to optimize your soil. You might need to add lime or sulfur.
After years to half-heartedly working to improve the soil in our vegetable garden we still find we have too much clay in the mix. We grow tremendous tomatoes, peppers and other above ground vegetables, but have a hard time producing a decent-sized onion, potato or carrot. Since our main focus is growing supplies for my wife’s homemade salsa, with just a few other things such as lettuce and squash thrown in for our own use, we’ve just come to realize our time is better spent focusing on what grows well on our land. The other option would be to have a fair amount of sand and loamy topsoil hauled in to improve what we’re working with. But we’re happy with the outcome as it is.
Most vegetable garden varieties are annuals. They last one season and must be planted again the next year. Some, like onions or tomatoes, will pop up in strange places in subsequent years if some yield is left to rot in the vegetable garden and seeds are inadvertently scattered. But for the most part, new plants are put in each spring.
One of the first steps in establishing a vegetable garden is to determine what you hope to grow, and what the weather in your area will allow. Make a list of vegetables you like to eat, then do some research to decide which varieties do best in your climate zone. Only then should you buy plants or seeds and put them in the ground.
It’s best to research the varieties you’d like to grow in your vegetable garden. You can do that on the internet, by purchasing a good gardening book that details varieties, or by reading the backs of seed packets at the store. The intent for this article is not to get deep into the different plant varieties. I will say, though, that more commercially available seeds and seedlings tend to be heartier and “harder to kill” for the beginning gardener. More traditional varieties, called “heirlooms”, often offer better flavors, colors and textures, but can be a little more persnickety to grow and maintain. But once you have a season or two behind you it’s great fun to start experimenting with heirloom varieties to make your garden, and table, more colorful and diverse.
Gardeners differentiate which plants do well in different climates by dividing the United States up in “zones”. Information provided on seed packets often discusses the appropriate zone for that plant, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow the same plant in a different zone. It simply means history and research has shown that the average temperature, sunlight, and rainfall make a particular zone ideal for that plant variety.
As for when to plant, again rely on the information for the variety. However, it does make sense to create a little master plan for the garden before you start planting. You don’t want to plant very tall plants, for instance, corn, in an area of the vegetable garden which will shade smaller plants that require a lot of sunshine. My wife chooses to plant a few rows of sunflowers near the backside of our garden purely for the beauty they provide, but she’s careful to place those rows where they won’t shade the plants which will produce our bounty of food.
Some plants grow better in wide rows, while others can be laid in relatively close together with other companion plants. Since our soil is too compact to grow good potatoes we’ve turned to a trick a master gardener told us about a few years ago. We plant our potatoes in raised beds to start with. Then when the potato plant reaches about six to eight inches tall we cover the bed with a layer of straw up to the very top of the plant and then sprinkle on a couple shovelfuls of soil, leaving only the very tip of the top exposed. As the potato top continues growing we repeat the process of covering it with straw and soil each time it climbs to a height of about six or eight inches. Once the potato plant starts showing signs of slowing growth and withering away (the time to harvest the potatoes), we simply start raking away the straw and loose soil mixture. There, well above ground level, will be “nests” of new potatoes of all sizes. This method might work well to produce potatoes while you’re still establishing your soil in a new garden.
Because nothing tastes as good as a vegetable you’ve grown in your own vegetable garden.
Once you have the seeds or seedlings in the ground you can take a breather and view the freshly worked rows and beds of soil with pride. While much of the remainder of the process is up to nature, there’s still a fair amount of “nurturing” you can do to see your garden is an asset to the homestead.
Be diligent in keeping the plants sufficiently watered. Watering instructions for each variety can be found on the seed packets. You might want to also factor that in when laying out the master plan for plant locations in the garden. If it’s feasible you can locate water-loving varieties close together to cut down on work and take advantage of sharing a deluge, while more arid plants can benefit from less watering efforts down the line.
Remember the one thing my wife and I agree on completely… we hate weeds. Still, if you’re going to establish a good garden spot it’s imperative you stay on top of keeping weeds pulled, especially the first couple years. And don’t only pull the weeds, but remove them completely from the garden area to avoid seeds from falling back into your soil and taking root the following year.
It won’t be too many weeks until you’ll start harvesting fresh produce from that area of your property that was once yard, overgrowth, or woods. It’s a great feeling to sit down at the table and know exactly where those amazingly tasty vegetables came from. It’s also rewarding to look out on your property and see a flourishing, lush garden growing. All it will take is a little planning and effort.