Guide to create a small garden for your home
HOW TO START A GARDEN
1.Decide what you’d like to grow
Rule #1 – If you won’t eat a crop, don’t grow it in your vegetable garden. (I break this rule for flowers. Edible or not, I like to see at least a few in every garden.) Focus on the fruits, vegetables or herbs that your family enjoys the most.
Make sure your top choices make sense for your area. Figure out your gardening zone and estimated first and last frost dates. If possible, talk to successful gardeners in your area to find out which crops grow well and which don’t.
2. Choose a location
Most fruits and vegetables need full sun, with a minimum of five hours of direct sunlight per day for fruiting. Greens, herbs and root veggies will grow in partial shade. Southern gardens may benefit from late afternoon shade, whereas northern gardens likely need all the sun they can get.
Think about how you will access the garden for picking, watering and caring for your plants. Out of site often equals out of mind – and a neglected garden. Avoid high wind areas and frost pockets (low areas where frost is likely to settle).
3. Plan your garden beds
Once you know where you want your garden, decide on the type and size of garden bed(s). Raised beds are attractive and may make it easier to work in your garden, but they also dry out more quickly. In very dry areas, sunken beds can be used to gather available moisture.
Think about planting your garden in blocks or beds of plants instead of single rows. Beds should be 3 to 4 feet across – narrow enough that you can reach the center from either side. Beds should be roughly 10 feet long or less, so you’re not tempted to step into the bed and compact the ground.
Within the garden beds, place plants in rows or a grid pattern. The goal is minimize walkways and maximize growing space. You only add fertilizer and soil amendments to the planting area, which saves time and money. Work with companion plants to attract beneficial insects and improve yields.
Start small, and make sure to give each plant enough room to grow. The seeds and transplants are tiny, but full grown plants can get huge. Overcrowded plants have difficulty thriving. A small, well-tended garden can produce as much or more than a large, poorly tended garden.
Rectangular or square beds are the most common, but you’re only limited by your imagination and building skills. Most raised bed kits are rectangular, but you can also plant your garden in found items like old livestock water tanks or sections of drain pipe.
4. Invest in basic garden tools
The right tools make working in your garden a pleasure instead of a chore. You don’t use a butter knife to chop up raw carrots, and you shouldn’t use dull or flimsy tools to work in your garden. Basic gardening equipment includes:
- Garden hoe
- Scuffle hoe
- Dirt rake
- Leaf rake
- Garden Shovel or D handle Shovel
- Hand tools
5. Test your soil
Is your soil acidic, alkaline or neutral pH? Do you have sand, clay, silt, rocks, or a mix of all four? Is there a risk of soil contamination from nearby structures, roadways or other sources? Does it have a good amount of basic nutrients?
Some of these characteristics can be determined just from looking at the soil. Others may require home tests or professional lab tests. For instance, lead contamination from old house paint or nearby roadways with heavy traffic is a problem in some areas.
Most garden crops prefer soil with a pH around 7 (neutral), although some like conditions that are slightly acidic (potatoes, for instance) or slightly alkaline (brassicas). Balanced nutrient levels are also important, as is the presence of organic matter.
See “Soil Testing – 5 Easy Tests for Your Yard and Garden” for easy home test options. In the U.S., you can also contact your local cooperative extension office for advice.
6. BUILD YOUR SOIL
If you’re starting with sod, you’ll either need to cut it up in chunks and repurpose it, till it in, or lay down wet newspaper or cardboard to smother it and build a bed on top. Preparing in fall is best, but don’t let that stop you from starting in spring.
Most plants prefer a deep, well-drained, fertile soil rich in organic matter. Plant roots need good garden soil to produce good vegetables and fruit.
Once you start a garden, you’ll gain a new appreciation for healthy soil as it improves year after year. Healthy, vibrant soil = healthy, vibrant plants with built in disease and pest resistance and more nutrition.
7. CHOOSE THE RIGHT SEEDS OR TRANSPLANTS
My favorite seed sources can be found in the article, “10 Heirloom Seed Companies You Don’t Want to Miss“. Dave’s Garden Watch Dog is a great place to check out a company before you order from them.
To learn which plants grow best directly seeded in the garden and which plants are better as transplants, visit the seed starting calendar. If you want to grow specific varieties, especially heirloom varieties, you’ll probably need to grow your own transplants from seed. Starting your own transplants is a great way to save money, too.
You can view my seed starting setup and more detailed information on tomato transplants in Grow Tomatoes from Seed – Save Money, Get More Varieties.
If you’re not ready to tackle growing transplants for your garden, here are some tips to help you spot the best plants at the nursery
8. PLANT WITH CARE
Most seed packets and transplant containers come with basic planting instructions. Once you’ve done the ground work (literally), you just need to jump in and plant. Just give it a try and you can learn the rest as you go.
Rules of thumb for planting in your garden:
- Plant seeds roughly 3 times as deep as the diameter of the seed, unless otherwise directed on the package. Some seeds require light for germination.
- For transplants – most transplants are planted at the same depth they were growing in the pot. The exception is tomatoes, which can be planted deeper or trenched in. See “How to Grow (Lots of) Tomatoes Organically”.
- Wait until danger of frost is past to plant heat loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, etc.
- Young plants are easier to damage than older plants, so they may need protection or hardening off when they are planted outside.
9. NURTURE YOUR GARDEN
There’s an old saying that says, “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” If you’re not prepared to make time in your schedule to tend to your plants, you may be better off hitting the farmer’s market, or sticking with extremely low maintenance items like sprouts or herbs. Depending on the size of your plantings, time requirements may range from a few minutes per day to a full time job.
Nab weeds when they’re small with a scuffle hoe – or use them as groundcover, food or medicine.
A rule of thumb for watering is that plants need around one inch of water per week during the growing season. If rains fail, you’ll need to water your garden.
Over watering is as bad as under-watering, so always check the soil before turning on a tap or hitting the rain barrels. Soil that is too wet can cause seeds and roots to rot. Foliar feeds like compost tea can be added to give plants extra nutrition and a dose of healthy microbes while watering.
Bugs are more attracted to plants that are stressed or in some way deficient. If you have healthy, well-nourished plants, your pest problems should be minimal. If you have a problem, chances are there’s an organic solution. If you’re going through all the effort to grow your own food, why would you want to put toxins on it?
10. ENJOY YOUR HARVEST
As crops mature, make sure to harvest promptly for best quality. Leafy greens like lettuce are typically “cut and come again”, which means you can clip off the leaves and they will regrow for another harvest.
Pick beans and peas every two to three days. Harvest sweet corn when cobs are well filled out and silk is dark. Harvest tomatoes and peppers green, or allow them to ripen to full sweetness and flavor.
Flavor is typically at a peak when the morning dew has cleared, but before the afternoon heat has settled in. Sample and decide what tastes best to you. See How to Grow and Cook Nutrient Dense Foods for harvesting and storing tips.
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