Showing posts sorted by relevance for query berms. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query berms. Sort by date Show all posts

Apr 9, 2010

The Saga of My Vegetable Plot

When we moved to this suburban house about 9 years ago, one of the things I loved about it was its mature trees. Unfortunately, those trees have also been a bit of a headache. For the first several years, we had a vegetable garden, but it never received a full 6 hours of sun. Still, it did fine.

Then our first baby came along. She was born 3 1/2 months early, and by the time life calmed down enough to think about having another vegetable garden...Well, that was about 5 years ago, and now baby #2 is over a year old!

Even then, I faced several challenges in my desire to reinstate a veggie plot.

First, our largest maple tree was shading the area almost entirely. Not having thousands to hire a pro, my husband eventually convince a friend (a former arborist) to trim the tree - and then we had to wait for him to have time to do so.

Then the area had to be cleaned of limbs, which meant waiting for my husband to have time on the weekends to chip smaller pieces and cut apart large logs. Finally, I had to wait for my hubby to have time to till the soil.

Unfortunately, for years my husband used the space to cut and chip wood. This meant the now sunny soil was totally depleted of nitrogen and phosphorus* My gardening friends told me I could either skip having a garden this year and spend the summer and fall adding organic matter to the area, or I could fertilize chemically. But if I fertilized chemically, they said, then added organic matter in the fall, I might end up with another imbalance come spring 2011.

Therefore, I chose to do something I've never done before: I purchased garden soil.

This actually worked out pretty well, I think, because I wanted raised beds for the first time ever, but my husband wanted to be able to still use that area for cutting wood in the winter. (We have wood heat in our home.) Because he didn't want permanent raised beds (and because we weren't sure we wanted to spend money on materials to build permanent beds), I thought I'd try raised beds without frames - that is, berms.

I talked to a number of gardeners about this because I was concerned the soil would erode too much. All the gardeners I knew who'd tried this method assured me I was wrong. I also remembered that berms were, in fact, the original raised beds, used frequently during Colonial times - and, as far as I know, even before.

So this is why, although
I've had winter sown, cool season veggies ready to plant for well over a month, I didn't plant them until a couple of days ago. Ta da! Finally, there are peas, carrots, beets, Brussel
spouts, parsnips, spinach, cabbage, collards, and Swiss chard in the beds. I have left overs, and I completely forgot about my broccoli, but I'll intersperse them with the ornamentals in the front yard.

The berms were a little work, but I'm pleased with the look - and my toddler is less likely to smash my seedlings than if I planted them in a flat bed. If you'd like to try berms for your next garden, here are some tips:

* Measure out the beds and use ordinary spray paint to mark their location on the soil. Remember that since you won't be using frames around the raised beds, the sides will slope. Therefore, make the beds a bit bigger than you would otherwise, or you'll end up with berms that are narrower than you'd like. Make sure the berms are no wider than you can easily reach across; part of the bonus of berms and raised beds is you never walk on the soil - which is better for plants.

* Dampen the soil before working with it. It shouldn't be muddy, but if it's moist, it will shape into berms
a lot more easily.

* Pile the soil in place with a shovel. Use a hoe to level it out and to firm the sides. Add more soil until you have the height and size you desire. Walk around the sides of the berms to firm them a bit more, or use your hands to pat them down. Remember, you only want to firm the sides, not the the tops.

* If you won't be buying soil, you'll have to till your garden space first, then dig a trench along one side of the berm. Place the soil you're digging out onto the berm until it's the size you desire.

* If possible, use mulch for the walkways. I used wood chips, since I had them in abundance, but straw or bark mulch are also good choices. If the mulch is organic, it will improve your soil over time.

* Several readers have emailed me to ask who I used to test my soil. The answer is, nobody! I bought a $14 kit at a gardening center and did it myself. Trust me, it's easy.

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Sep 6, 2013

How to Plan a Small Vegetable Garden - How I Do It

Do you have trouble planning your garden - especially your small vegetable garden? Reader Kelly Teater of Knit Together asked me for a layout of my garden. And while I've tried to show lots of photos of my garden, I agree it may be easier to see how I do things if I share some drawings. I hope this will help you plan your own garden beds.

Main garden bed.
Let's begin with what my main garden bed. It's in the back yard, near the fence. When we first moved here, it was nice and sunny. Now, due to neighbors' trees, it's part shade. That's why this year I chose to plant it only with things that don't mind shade. The bed was quite prolific this year, offering us more than enough greens (and we love our greens!), plus other goodies. It measures 12 x 14 ft., including wide pathways that my husband tills (so I don't have to hoe or hand weed them).

The bed is made up of five berms, each a couple of feet wide. I chose to make berms because our soil is heavy clay. Bringing in garden soil and turning it into berms or raised beds was the cheapest, simplest option. (If I'd wanted to amend our soil, it would have taken much more garden soil, plus tons of organic matter, and still might not be satisfactory.) Berms or raised beds make for slightly warmer beds, too, meaning an easy jump in the spring and a slightly longer growing period in the fall. Many people ask if I have a problem with the berms eroding. I do not. In the spring, before I plant, I dig compost into each berm and reshape them a bit.

The downside to berms or raised beds is they require more watering than gardens planted directly in the soil.

As you can see from the illustration above, I planted this bed pretty intensively this year. This did not deter production, but it did require more fertilization and water. (For an idea of how close I planted things, the general recommendation for kale, according to Mother Earth News, is single plants, 1' 4" each way (minimum); rows, 1' 2" with 1' 6" row gap (minimum). My plants are only about 4 inches apart. In another example, I planted my loose leaf lettuce just 1 inch apart; Mother Earth News recommends single plants, 0' 4" each way (minimum); rows: 0' 4" with 0' 6" row gap (minimum).)

First Berm: This is primarily a kale bed. I planted a couple of varieties. In the early spring, I also interplanted radishes - twice. Also interplanted are carrots.

Second Berm: This is primarily the collards bed. To one side, I also planted some parsnips and cabbage. Again, carrots are interspersed throughout.

Third Berm: The pea bed. In early spring, I planted just a few spinach plants in this bed; for the first time, I had success with spinach - I believe because the peas helped shade this cool-weather plant. Next year, I'll plant far more spinach, planted close together. And again, there are carrots here, too.

Left Hand Berms: One has tightly spaced beets and loose leaf lettuce. (I always recommend loose leaf because if you leave three leaves behind when you harvest, leaves will just keep coming. If you plant head lettuce, you really only get one harvest.) The other held leeks (planted in late fall and overwintered), and now has winter carrots.

On the sunnier side of the bed (the right), I have pots of herbs and one grow bag of potatoes. (This year, some sort of disease got these potatoes, but last year, I had an abundant crop from this grow bag, despite the fact that it's not in full sun. And I always recommend growing herbs in pots because #1, they make take over the garden if they are planted directly into the soil and #2, it allows you to move them around into bare spots in the garden.) In the very back of the bed, against the fence, are some honeyberries (only their second year; they didn't produce this year) and thornless blackberries. Really, blackberries like sun and well drained soil, but this year those vines actually produced some really delicious, huge berries.

Also in the backyard, and not part of this drawing, are the kiwi vine (quite ornamental, too, and growing on an arch), Jerusalem artichokes (in a grow bag), ground nuts (in a pot), and all along the back of the house, strawberries.

Front garden bed.
In the front yard, right in front of the house, I have one long front garden bed. It was there when we purchased the house, but was narrow and full of heavy clay soil. This year, my husband widened it and I amended it with chicken manure and compost. (This winter, I'll add more of both, and cover it with cardboard to discourage weeds.) This is not a berm garden; everything is planted either in pots/grow bags, or directly into the level soil.

The graphic here really doesn't do the bed justice; I have both summer and winter squash in this bed, and (as you know if you've ever grown either) a single plant fills in a lot of space very quickly. So try to imagine the entire bed covered in big, beautiful squash leaves. General advice is to plant squash about 4 feet apart. I did just a bit less than this, but you'll want to be careful not to get squash too close, or you'll have problems with air circulation and sunlight, which will reduce production. As my squash gets quite large now (in September), I am training them forward, onto the lawn, to save space.

In the back of this bed, near the house, I have two columnar apple trees and three blueberry bushes in pots. There is also a brick planter that's original to the house; it contains a few cabbages, lots of wild onions, plus my vigorous ornamental and medicinal passion vine. In the left hand corner of the bed, near the front, is a rhubarb plant. (This was it's first year, so I won't get a harvest from it until next year.) Next to it is a single zucchini plant - more than enough to keep us constantly in zukes!

I also have two pattypan squash plants and two large, vining, prolific butternut squash. The two pattypans have us giving away an awful lot of food, since we don't like this summer squash once it's preserved; next year, I'll probably only plant one - which will give me more room for some other plant. I also had one buttercup squash just behind these squash; it didn't do very well. I believe it just wasn't getting enough sun because it was closer to the house. This bed also had two grow bags of potatoes, many pots of herbs, some chives planted directly into the soil, and all those volunteer tomato plants. (Which are producing some fruit - though not as much as the plants I purchased.)

Side garden.
I have another tiny bed to the side of our house that holds six tomato plants, only about a foot or so apart, some onions, a handful of strawberry plants, and some wonderberries that scatter themselves throughout the bed each year. Here, everything is directly planted into the ground - which is some of the best soil in our yard. (The total of the long front bed and this small one is about 33 x 3 feet.)

From such a small amount of space, I think I get a pretty decent amount of food. (Click here to see our totals as of August.) The keys are:

* to give the plants the correct amount of sunlight
* to plant pretty closely
* to provide the correct amount of water and fertilizer.
* To grab space wherever there is some. (I'm not afraid to plant edibles among ornamentals, as long as the location is right for the plant.)
* To plant early and late season crops that don't mind some cool weather. (Examples include kale, radishes, and peas.)

I'm also careful to plant flowers nearby, to attract pollinators. My favorites are borage and nasturtiums; both self sow each year and are edible.

Could I get even more from my beds? I do think I have room to grow pole beans (or something similar) up a tepee, just behind the squash. They will get less sun, so I need to be sure to choose a plant that doesn't mind a bit of shade. And I could shrink the pathways in my main garden bed so I'd have more room for plants. But that means hubby couldn't use his tiller...and I would never hear the end of that!

All the layouts in this post were created using Mother Earth News' free vegetable garden planner.

This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.

Feb 13, 2015

Gardening From Scratch, Part III: Preparing the Garden Bed

Once you've chosen your garden site, the next step is to get that location ready for planting. There are about a gazillion ways to do this, but today I'll type about some of the most practical ones.

But first, you should decide what sort of garden you want. For example, do you want a traditional, flat in the ground garden? Or a raised bed garden? Or berms? To help you decide, check out my post "Which Gardening Method to Choose?," which lists the pros and cons of each of these methods.

Preparing a Site That's Never Been Gardened Before

If you've chosen a site that's never had a garden, chances are it's covered with weeds and grass. (If there's nothing or very little growing there, your work is increased because you'll need to amend the soil more heavily; more on that in a moment.)

There are two main methods for reclaiming this sort of location. One is to cut away the grass; the other is to cover it.

Before you cut away the grass, mow it - then mark out your beds. If you're not using a traditional row method, remember that you'll want to be able to reach at least halfway across each bed; this ensures you don't have to step into the garden beds in order to weed or harvest, which is important for soil health. To mark the area, use stakes or a little sprinkled flour.

Remove the grass by using a spade or sod cutter. You don't need to dig deep - just deep enough to get all the grass roots out of the soil. (If you leave roots behind, pretty soon the area will be grassy again. No fun!) The sod you remove can go face down in your compost pile, or anywhere else in the yard. (Got an area that isn't grassy and you wish it was? Lay the sod where you want it, grassy side facing up, then water it in.) If you're going to plant directly into the soil, you'll now need to add some topsoil or compost to the area, to fill in the space the sod used to take up.
Lasagna beds. Over time, the organic layers will decompose and the beds will become lower.

You could also cover the area to create a garden bed (especially recommended if the area is weedy, not grassy). The easiest way to do this is with a method called "lasagna gardening" (a.k.a., "sheet mulching). Once the grass is mowed and the beds marked, place cardboard where you want the beds to be. Corrugated cardboard works best. Just flatten some cardboard boxes out and lay them on the ground, overlapping so that sunlight can't peek through to the soil. Some people like to add a few layers of black and white newspaper, too. The idea here is to kill any weed seeds by depriving them of light. As the cardboard and newspaper decay, they will also attract tons of worms, who will do a great deal to make the soil much better for gardening. Once the cardboard and (if desired) newspaper is down, water it well.

Now add layers of organic material over the cardboard/newspaper. Good choices include peat moss, a little wood ash, thin layers of grass clippings or dead leaves, and compost. If you have quite a bit of uncomposted organic matter (like fruit and vegetable scraps), you can even add a layer of those; just be sure they are well buried by other things, or critters like raccoons will come along and make a mess. The more layers you add to the bed, the better the soil will become.

The lasagna method works best if you create the bed early - in the late fall or early winter before you want to plant. But you can create lasagna beds in late winter or early spring, too. Just be sure that your last layer is topsoil or compost - soil to plant your seeds in.

Also note that if you want raised beds with wooden or stone sides, you'll need to construct those first, then use the lasagna method to fill them up.

Amending the Soil

When you considered where to locate your garden, I recommended testing your soil with an inexpensive soil test kit available at gardening centers. If you haven't done this yet, do it now. Supposedly, spring and fall are not the best times to test soil, but if you want a garden bed for this year, it's impractical to test in the summer. So go ahead and do the test, and amend the soil according to the test's instructions, adding whatever organic matter is recommended. In the long run, this will save you a lot of time, money, and heart ache. There's nothing worse than planting something only to find your plants aren't growing because they lack certain nutrients. Ugh!

Building the Beds

Once the soil is all ready to go, it's time to make your beds. If you're planting directly in flat soil, you can either till the soil with a rototiller, or use the double dig method by hand. If you want to plant berms (raised beds without wooden or stone sides), bring in good garden soil and shape your berms as desired. If you want raised beds with sides, now's the time to build them and fill them with great gardening soil. If you used the lasagna garden method, your berms are already formed.

Incidentally, I've found that most soil touted as gardening soil and sold by the yard (by far the least expensive way to buy it) usually isn't that great. Sometimes killer compost has been added to it - compost that was made with manure or other organic matter that has Round Up in it. (In which case, the soil is going to kill anything you plant in it.) It's a good idea to always ask what's in the soil and whether it's been exposed to chemicals. Unfortunately, there is no test I'm aware of for seeing ahead of time whether the soil has Round Up in it. But even if the soil hasn't been exposed to this chemical, you should expect to add plenty of organic matter to it, to boost it's fertility. That means adding lots of good compost - ideally, your own compost.
Raised bed gardening.
See Also:

Gardening From Scratch, Part I: Do Your Research
Gardening From Scratch, Part II: Choosing a Garden Site

Apr 16, 2011

Reader Question: Which Gardening Method?

A reader who is trying for better self sufficiency but doesn't have much gardening experience recently asked my opinion on which gardening method to use. As I told her, I could write a whole article about that topic. So I am!

There are really only a handful of methods for planting edibles. You may use only one method, or (like me) a variety of them depending upon which location in your yard you’re utilizing. Below I've listed each method, along with their pros (benefits) and cons.

When most people think vegetable gardens, they envision long rows of corn, peas,
and tomatoes. There are many benefits to this style of gardening:

* Weeding may be simplified because unwanted plants are easier to reach than with some other methods. In addition, pathways between rows can be tilled to remove weeds, or thick mulches (like wood chips or straw) can be used on pathways to minimize the need to weed. You can also weed standing up, with a hoe.
* Row gardens are often cheaper, since you don’t need to build raised beds or special soil.
* Row gardens may require less watering. If plants are given plenty of room, their roots will go deeper into the soil for water.
* Row gardens may be healthier, if plants are properly spaced. Plants don’t have to compete for water and nutrients.
* Row planting gives plants plenty of air circulation, which can reduce the rate of diseases.

Cons with row gardening include:
* Row gardens take up quite a bit of space.
* Unless drip irrigation is used, row gardens use water less efficiently, wetting areas that aren’t actually planted.
* Unless you put a barrier around a row garden, it may be difficult for young children to resist running around in the garden, possibly trampling seedlings.
* If your soil is poor for gardening, it will take work and time to amend it so it produces well. Better soil can be purchased and brought in, but that’s an additional expense.

Wide Rows or Berms
Wide row planting is very much like traditional row planting, except that instead of planting in narrow strips, each row is a berm measuring about 1 to 4 feet wide. (Photo Credit: Colorado State University Extension.) Some benefits of this method include:
* All the benefits of traditional row planting, but with higher yields for the allotted space.
* Berms may discourage children from trampling plants, as it’s easier for them to see exactly which areas are off limits.
* The soil is warmer than if flat garden soil is used, which can extend your growing season.
* The soil won’t be stepped on during maintenance, so it doesn’t get compacted, requiring tilling.
* The soil is raised, meaning there may be less bending over while gardening.
* Because plants shade each other, there may be less weeding.
* The soil should drain better than in traditional row planting.

Cons include:
* Soil may erode enough gardeners must hoe it back into place on the berm. (However, it takes extreme amounts of rain for this to happen.)
* Unless drip irrigation is used, row gardens use water less efficiently, wetting areas that aren’t actually planted.
* If your soil is poor for gardening, it will take work and time to amend it so it produces well. Better soil can be purchased and brought in, but again, that’s an additional expense.

Raised Beds

A very popular modern method of gardening is raised beds. There are many benefits to this method, including:
* It’s easier to keep young children and pets out of the garden.
* Current garden soil can be poor. Raised beds are filled with soil that’s brought in – which means the soil is excellent for growing as long as it's well chosen.
* Depending upon the height of the raised bed, there’s no need to bend when gardening. Raised bed gardens are ideal for people in wheelchairs or who have difficulty bending.
* Weeding is easier, assuming the soil that’s used to fill the raised bed is free of weed seeds. The first year, no weeding may be required. Afterward, weeding will not get out of control unless it’s ignored.
* Raised beds tend to be warmer, which may lengthen the growing season of your plants.
* Since nobody will walk on the soil, it doesn’t get compacted or require tilling.
* The soil in raised beds should drain well.

Cons include:
* Raised beds are costly. There’s wood to be purchased – and even if you have wood scraps that are suitable, you must purchase quality garden soil to fill the beds with.

* Because the soil drains better it may become more dry than some other methods, requiring more frequent watering.

Square Foot
This method is a type of raised bed gardening characterized by shallow boxes and plants growing quite close together; each plant is given only one square foot to grow. (Photo Credit: Southwestern Community College.) The benefits to this method include:
* The possibility of higher yields in a smaller space, depending upon what you plant.
* Because plants are grown close together, there will be fewer weeds to pull.
* Because there’s no need to walk in the garden bed, the soil doesn’t get compacted and require tilling.

Cons include:
* When plants grow close together, they compete for water and nutrients. That means to stay healthy, plants must be watered and fertilized more frequently.

* Square Foot gardening is truly not appropriate for some edibles, including tomatoes and corn, which both need more room for their roots.
* Planting vegetables close together reduces air flow, which could lead to more diseased plants.
* The soil mixture that’s recommended for this method can be costly.
* Square Foot gardening is not suitable for fruit bushes or trees.
* Because Square Foot gardens are generally close to the ground, there is more bending down to tend to them and it’s harder to keep kids and pets out of the garden.


Growing vegetables and fruits in containers is nothing new and has many benefits, including:
* Young children and pets will find it difficult to trample plants in most containers.
* If the garden soil is poor, it doesn’t matter. Containers are filled with new potting soil.
* All vegetables can be grown in containers, and so can berry bushes, patio-, and dwarf fruit trees.
* Plants in containers can be moved. This is especially useful if you have tender plants that will need more warmth or shelter in the cold winter months. Remember, however, that large pots may require lots of muscle and a dolly to move.

Cons include:
* It can be expensive to purchase containers and fill them with potting soil.
* Plants grown in containers typically need more watering and fertilizing.

Edible Landscaping

With edible landscaping, edible plants are interspersed among ornamental plants. With the best edible landscaping, onlookers won't - at least at first - recognize that the landscaping includes many edibles. (For great examples of what edible landscaping can look like, check out author Rosalind Creasy's website.) Benefits to this method include:

* Greater beauty, in the eye of many.

* Edibles are less obvious, which is a bonus if the garden is in the front yard and edibles might be stolen.

Cons include:

* Yeilds will probably be lower.

* Garden soil must be in great shape.

There is no one correct planting method; which you choose depends upon how much you want to spend, how good (or bad) your soil is, and your personal preferences. I use a combination of most of these methods. My main vegetable bed is planted in berms or wide rows. I also use containers throughout our yard. I also do some edible landscaping.

What about you? If you've been gardening for a while, tell us which methods you prefer - and why!


Do you have questions about gardening or other topics covered at Proverbs 31 Woman? Feel free to email me !

Jun 2, 2016

Pros and Cons of Rasied Bed and In-the-Ground Vegetable Gardens

I wish I could adequately describe to you how we feel, sitting in a nearly empty house with virtually nothing to do but wish we were on our new homestead. My daughter says (daily): "It feels like we'll never get moved!" She struggles to finish her school work because she's so busy dreaming about the bunnies she's going to raise. My son goes outside into our empty suburban back yard, then comes back inside minutes later. "There's nothing to do. I can't wait until I have the woods to explore!" My husband tries to fill his time with mowing and edging the lawn, but what he really longs to do is get his BBQ set up on our new property and start making accommodations for our next flock of hens. This being in limbo stuff is for the birds, people.

The only way I am surviving is by planning. Even this is a little tricky, since I've only seen our property once. But one of the things I've been pondering a lot is my garden - specifically, will I used raised beds, or not?

Truth is, I love the look of a traditional, in the ground vegetable garden. And given that I want to eventually grow as much of my family's produce as possible (and maybe even enough to sell at a local farmer's market), it's tempting to make an easy-to-expand, old fashioned, in the bed garden. However, there are some good reasons to consider raised beds, too.

Urban raised bed. Courtesy of Carol Norquist.
Pros and Cons of Raised Beds

* Raised beds warm up quicker in the spring and stay warmer in the fall than gardens planted directly into the soil. This is a pro if you live in a cooler area, but may be a con if you live where it's hot.(Too much heat can burn plants and drastically raise the need for watering.)

* Raised beds have good drainage if you purchase soil or build your soil "lasagna" or sheet mulching style. This is a pro if your ground is lousy or you get a lot of rain, but it may also be a con, since raised beds generally require more frequent watering.

* Raised beds, if built quite high, are ideal for those who have trouble bending over to care for a garden. High raised beds may also help keep out critters like small dogs, wild rabbits, and gophers.

* Raised beds may be easier to keep weed free. If you purchase soil, it should not contain weed seeds, and because raised beds are usually planted rather intensively, it will be difficult for weed seeds that blow in to overtake the raised beds.

* Raised beds aren't the cheapest option, a definite con. Even if you construct berms (border-less raised beds), if you bring in soil, it will still cost a few hundred dollars.

Potager style raised beds. Courtesy of

* Purchased soil may not be that great. Often, it is low in nutrients and may even contain traces of Round Up that can harm (even kill) the plants in the soil.

* It may be harder to keep improving the soil in raised beds. Raised beds (unless in the form of border-less berms) eventually fill up. That means you are limited in the amount of organic matter you can put on or in the soil, because it will, at some point, overflow. Eventually, the soil in raised beds will be depleted and require replacing.

* Typical raised beds aren't suitable for some edibles. For example, you'll need deeper than average raised beds to grow carrots, and tomatoes do best if you give them several feet of space for their roots. Sprawling veggies, like pumpkins, will need space to spread down and out of raised beds.

* If you are gardening in the city or suburbs, raised beds may be considered "neater" looking by your neighbors and city officials. (Although a well maintained traditional garden can look tidy and beautiful, too.)

My garden, two years ago.
Pros and Cons of In-the-Ground Vegetable Gardens

* Traditional in-the-ground gardens don't require store bought soil. Even if your soil is lousy, you can improve it by amending with organic matter and using lasagna or sheet mulching methods. However, it does take time for soil to improve.

* In-the-ground gardens make for weed-free pathways if you're willing to lightly till them. However, you'll need to prepare the garden area by laying down cardboard (watered and weighed down) the fall before you plant, in order to keep the growing areas relatively weed free. (For tips on preparing a garden site, click here.)

* In-the-ground gardens are easier to mulch, and more mulch means less watering and better soil over time.

* You can continually improve the soil of in-the-ground gardens with organic matter (like composted manure, dry leaves, compost, straw, etc.). You will never have to worry that soil will overflow, as with a raised bed.

* In-the-ground gardens generally requires less frequent watering than raised bed gardens.
In-the-ground garden. Courtesy of Jean-noël Lafargue.

* If you live in a hot climate, an in-the-ground garden is less likely to burn plants than a (hotter) raised bed is.

* It's cheap and easy to expand in-the-ground gardens because there's no building materials or soil to purchase. final decision for our new homestead? Because we'll be living in a cooler, wetter climate, I think it's probably best to go with raised beds. But I reserve the right to change my mind!

May 19, 2016

Starting a Vegetable Garden on a Budget

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information.

 Years ago, I remember talking with a friend about growing vegetables. "I read The $64 Tomato and now I'm scared to start a garden!" she said. I'd never heard of this book, so next time I was at the library, I checked it out. Oh my goodness! Now I knew why my friend was afraid to start gardening! The author of The $64 Tomato spent ginormous amounts on his garden, and after figuring out his costs, yes, indeed, his tomatoes cost his $64 a piece. Crazy! But let me assure you, friends, this is not the norm! Most people save money when they grow their own food. For example, the last time I figured how much our vegetable garden produced, I learned we saved a minimum of $1,492.89 over buying our veggies at a grocery store.And I wasn't doing anything extraordinary.

Here's how I recommend starting a garden without breaking the bank

Save on Raised Beds
Raised bed gardens don't have to be expensive. (Courtesy

There are advantages to raised beds - namely, the soil in them gets warmer more quickly in the spring and stays warmer in the fall, which increases yields. They can also be a solution to problems with poor soil - if you fill them with great dirt. But there's no reason you need to spend a fortune buying or making raised beds.

You could go without, just layering organic matter on top of the soil in a method called lasagna gardening. Or you can use old fashioned berms - a method I've used successfully for years, and which is basically raised beds without any structure holding the dirt in place.

Other ideas include building raised beds from found materials (like free pallets - make sure they are the safe kind, rocks found in your yard, excess building materials like bricks, etc.) You can even use logs to create raised beds.

It's easy - and not expensive - to build great garden soil.
Save on Garden Soil

I do understand the desire to start your garden right away. When I began growing food in earnest at our current suburban home, I spent a couple hundred dollars to bring in soil to create berms. Even with that expense, I saved some money on our food bill. But the soil wasn't terrific (which is often the case when you buy garden soil in bulk), and maybe you don't have enough money laying around to purchase soil. (I think I was actually fortunate the soil didn't contain traces of Round Up. That seems to happen fairly often, and makes the soil deadly for any plant.)

So, begin at the beginning. Test your soil first; you can buy inexpensive soil test kits at gardening centers. (I've successfully used Leaf Luster brand's kit.) Follow the kit's instructions on how to amend your soil using organic matter. Or, if your soil seems really terrible and you can't truck in dirt, consider lasagna gardening (also called sheet mulching). As soon as the top layers are composted (rotted through), you can begin planting.

Assuming your soil isn't the depleted clay I was dealing with when I first began homesteading, you can also plant directly in the dirt, amending with good organic matter as you go. Start a compost pile. Use grass clippings as mulch. In the fall, shred fallen leaves and add them to your garden bed. Dig trenches in the soil, near plants, and place vegetable and fruit leavings in them. And if you have livestock like chickens, rabbits, goats, etc., be sure to compost their manure and add it to the garden soil. Pretty soon, you'll have soil so good, money can't buy it.

It's a good idea to start with inexpensive garden tools. (Courtesy of
Save on Gardening Tools

Confession: I have cheap gardening tools. I do want to upgrade to more durable tools, but right now I can't. And if you're just starting out in gardening, I actually recommend you don't buy expensive tools. For one thing, you have no idea what type of tools you need or like best! So don't be afraid to buy less expensive tools right now.

Which brings me to the subject of tillers. Every spring, I see people all over Facebook and Craigslist, desperately seeking someone to till their garden. But you don't need a tiller.

There's a whole gardening philosophy that says tilling is really bad for the soil. It disrupts the good bugs n the dirt, ruins top soil, brings up weed seeds, and just plain makes you - and your plants - work harder. So, you see, there's no need to spend oodles on a tiller.

It's easy - and much cheaper - to start plants from seed. (Courtesy
Save on Plants

Don't buy seedlings; they are too expensive. Plus, the plants will be at least somewhat stunted when you change their environment and plant them in your garden. (And especially don't buy starts at big box stores, since there is no way to know if thwinter sowing, or planting seeds in "mini greenhouses" made from re-purposed plastic containers, like the lidded bins salad greens often come in. For more on seed starting, check out my ebook Starting Seeds, which gives step by step information. (And is only 99 cents!)
ose plants will thrive - or not -  in your garden.) Instead, start plants from seed. You can do it - really. The easiest method for beginners is

If you have a friend who gardens, you might also consider a seed exchange. For example, if you don't use all of the seeds in a seed packet, offer them to your friend - and in turn, she will give you some of her extra seeds.

You might also try cuttings, especially of tomato plants. You can buy one or two tomato plants (or maybe a friend will let you take cuttings), snip off a branch, pop it in the soil, and viola! You'll soon have a new tomato plant.

As your skill increases, you can consider saving your own seed, too.

Above all, though, be realistic about what you can grow. Make sure it will thrive in your gardening zone and in the conditions in your garden. (Don't expect tomatoes to produce abundantly in part shade, for example.) And when you're just starting out, keep your garden small. As your skill increases, you can add extra beds to your garden.

Save by Going Organic

Some methods of watering are more economical than others. (Courtesy of
Buying chemical fertilizers and pesticides is expensive. Plus, it's not great for the soil, the water table, or your health. The happy thing is, growing organic is a lot less expensive because it's mostly about building the soil up so your plants thrive. See "Save on Garden Soil," above, for cheap, easy ways to do this.

Save on Water

Irrigation can seriously increase the cost of your garden, but there are several things you can do to reduce watering costs. First, mulch your garden, to help keep moisture in the soil. (Use an organic mulch, like bark or straw and the mulch does double duty, decomposing and helping to improve your soil.)

Second, water only when necessary. (If you insert a finger into the soil and it feels dry two inches down, it's time to water.)

Third, don't use a sprinkler system, which throws water where it won't help your plants grow; instead, use a soaker hose or hand water at the base of plants.

Nov 17, 2015

Garden Like a Pilgrim

I'm a lover of history. And as I tend my garden, I often find myself wondering what I'd be doing differently if I lived in the Victorian era, or the Revolutionary era, or - especially at this time of year - the colonial era. How would I garden if I were a Pilgrim? Well, despite the fact that early Pilgrims struggled to feed themselves, it turns out a lot of their gardening techniques were excellent - and are quite applicable in the 21st century.

Vintage postcard of Plymouth Plantation.

1. Pilgrims grew what was easy to grow and store. You think you're busy, but Pilgrims spent all day just trying to survive. They didn't have time to while away in the garden. So they chose crops that were filling and easier to grow. This included corn (which they ate as a grain), onions, leeks, carrots, turnips, fava beans (then called "broad beans"), cabbage, winter squash, and kale. All of these foods could easily be stored for the months without refrigerators, freezers, or canning.

2. They grew flowers and herbs among their veggies. The idea of edible landscaping really isn't new. Unless they were wealthy, Pilgrims couldn't spend a lot of time on separate garden or herb beds. They grew them among their vegetables. Not only did this save labor and time, but it attracted pollinators - and looked pretty, too.

3. They used raised beds and berms. Berms - or rows of dirt hoed at least several inches above the soil line - kept the garden warmer and made tending crops easier. So did raised beds, which measured 4 feet wide - an ideal width to be able to reach to the middle from either side. Most of the Pilgrim's raised beds were 12 feet long.

4. They sometimes used hotbeds and cold frames. To get a jump start on the spring garden, wealthy Pilgrims used hotbeds. This time honored technique involves putting fresh (not composted) horse manure in a pile, then covering it with a tarp (in those days, made of cloth) until it reaches approximately 160 degrees F. Then the manure is shoveled into a pit about 2 feet deep. A cold frame (a bottomless wooden box) is placed on top and about 4 inches of good garden soil shoveled over the manure. When the soil is about 70 degrees F., seeds are planted in it and straw is used as mulch. The resulting hot bed stays warm about 3 - 4 weeks. Cold frames were also used without manure. They were whitewashed so they'd reflect the sun's heat better, and a glass top was set on top to warm the frames even further.

5. They used garden tunnels. We tend to think of low garden tunnels as a modern invention, but they aren't! Pilgrims made their hoops out of cypress limbs and glued linseed oil-covered paper to them. These hoops were used mostly by the wealthy to grow coveted melons.

6. They used floating row covers. Seedlings were often covered with cheesecloth to protect them from bugs, but still let the sunshine in.

7. They used organic methods. Though the Victorians were quick to put all manner of chemicals on their food, the Pilgrims didn't. Of course, many of the pests we have today weren't yet in the New World. They had cucumber beets, cabbage loopers, and squash-vine borers, but cabbage worms, snails, slugs, potato beetles, and flea beetles had yet to be brought over on ships.

8. They made compost. Animal manure was placed in a pile to age and make garden beds fantastic growing mediums. Leaves and other garden clippings were composted, too. And what plant-based food not given to livestock like pigs and chickens was also thrown in the compost heap.


Other Fun Facts:

* Gardening was mostly a female affair. Men grew the grains, but women tended the herbs, vegetables, and flowers.

* The Pilgrims grew some easy veggies we are no longer familiar with, like skirrets and scorzoners. They might be fun for us to try!

* Not all Pilgrims kept a garden. Raising pigs, for example, required a lot less time and energy, so they might be chosen over vegetables. In those days, meat was considered the most important part of the diet. Plus, eating lots of meat was a sign of freedom, since only the rich ate that way in Europe. (The rich had land to hunt on. It was illegal for the poor to hunt the land, and so they ate mostly vegetables.)

* The corn the Pilgrims ate was different than the sweet corn we eat today. It was native to the New World, and the Pilgrims called it "Indian corn." It was red, yellow, white, and black, all on the same ear. It was dried, then pounded into flour. This was the main source of nutrition in the Pilgrim diet and was eaten at nearly every meal.

* The Pilgrims originally tried to keep a community garden of sorts. They thought it would be best to have one garden that everyone contributed to. This idea failed so badly, the Pilgrims nearly starved. After this experiment, the Pilgrims kept their own gardens and each family was responsible for it's own food. This lead to far better times for the Pilgrims.

* While doing research for this post, I bumped into the book Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th-Century Methods for Today's Organic Gardeners. It looks fascinating; check it out!

May 7, 2014

Top 10 Tips for New Vegetable Gardeners

There is a growing movement in the United States - and a good one, too. More and more people are interested in growing their own food. But if you've never gardened before, growing food can seem like a HUGE undertaking. It's really tough to know where to start. If that's you, here are my top 10 best tips for starting your first garden:

1. Start small. I know you're excited and dreaming of an enormous garden, but if you're new to gardening, a small garden allows you to experiment - and fail - without big losses. Plus, a huge garden can be completely overwhelming to take care of if you're a newbie. Keep it small and sweet and you'll enjoy learning to garden far more.

2. Consider using containers. Container gardens require more water (because the soil dries out much more quickly), and can be costly once you buy proper potting soil and planters. To trim costs, you can use recycled containers. Just make sure they are actually big enough for whatever you are growing. Always err on the side of a pot that's too big, or you run the risk of a plant that is sickly or dies. The tricky thing here is that different plants require more or less "leg" room. Tomatoes, for example, have roots that reach way, way down - as much as 24 inches or more. Give them at least a 24 inch pot or 5 gallon bucket. Lettuce, on the other hand, doesn't send it's roots very far at all, so a 14 inch pot or Tupperware container only 4 inches deep will work fine. For more specific advice on what sized container to use for special plants, Google "what size pot for [plant name here]." For more valuable tips on growing food in containers, click here.

3. Test it. If you'll be planting directly into your yard's soil, it's very important to test your garden soil. Buy an inexpensive soil testing kit and follow the instructions that come with it. Read more about soil types here.

4. If your soil isn't good, you can buy garden soil and have it delivered to your house. For a very small garden, you might be able to buy soil in bags and bring it home yourself. Be aware, though, that quality varies a lot. Since soil is the most important element in gardening, research your soil options well.

Berms in my garden.
5. If you want to plant directly in the ground, I recommend using a raised bed or berm for your first, small garden. You don't have to spend a lot of money on this. Berms are by far the cheapest - they are really just raised beds without sides. (I know; you'd think the soil would erode terribly...but it doesn't.) If you want sides on your raised bed, choose an inexpensive material - hopefully one you already have laying around or can buy cheap on Craigslist, such as used wood planks or bricks.

6. Know your hardiness zone. This is absolutely must know information because it will tell you what plants you can grow (all seeds and seedlings are marked with information about what zones the plant grows in) and when you should plant it. To find your zone, click over to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

7. I'll give you a pass on starting things from seed for your first garden. If you want to go buy read here about choosing seeds here. Download my free ebook on how to start seeds, too. It includes lots of ideas for starting seeds on the cheap, without special equipment.
seedlings, do so. Ideally, buy them from a source that actually starts and grows them in your area - otherwise you may end up with a plant that doesn't grow well where you live. Be sure to read up on the seedlings you buy, though. Google the specific variety and learn when it should be planted and how it should be cared for. (Next year, plan on starting your own seeds. You can

8. Learn how to water plants. Hand watering is okay if your garden is really small, but you still have to know how long to water. Generally, plants with deep roots (like tomatoes) like deep, infrequent watering. In fact, a lot of gardeners give their tomatoes a good water when initially planted, then don't water them again until the tomato leaves start drooping. Lettuce, on the other hand, with it's shallow roots, needs much more frequent watering. A good general rule of thiumb is this: If you can stick your finger in the soil and it's dry 1 - 2 inches down, it's time to water. Also remember: Raised beds and containers will require more watering than most in-the-ground gardens.

9. Don't be afraid to start harvesting. Plants shut down and stop producing food if you put off harvesting, so frequent picking is a must!

10. Plant some flowers, too. Not only will they make your garden prettier, but they will help attract bees that will pollinate your plants and make your garden more abundant! Some easy to grow, bee-attracting choices include borage, goldenrod, lemon balm, tansy, butterfly weed and bush, lantana, and sweet alyssum)

Bonus Tip: Know that gardening is something that's learned through years or reading and experience. Truly, people who've been gardening all their lives are still learning in the garden. So don't expect that after one season of growing, you'll know exactly what you're doing. You'll have learned a lot, no doubt, but expect to learn more each year.

Got a gardening question - or two or three? Send them my way, and I'll help!

Mar 31, 2013

March on the Homestead

Lenten rose (hellabore).
This month, an online friend from out of state came to visit us. When she saw my garden, she almost whispered, "I thought you had a much bigger garden!" I think it's natural for us to assume someone who is homesteading has more land, a bigger garden, Ma Ingalls' skills - a bunch of stuff we don't have. But while I wish we lived out in the country and had a huge vegetable garden (and a huge greenhouse, and a whole bunch of other things), I'm learning to make the best of what I do have.
My main vegetable bed is finally double dug and new, wider berms are in place. (And in case you wonder how I do this with two young kids at home, I'll tell you it isn't easy! It seemed every time the weather and my schedule cooperated and I got to do
Freshly dug beds, partially filled with seedlings.
some digging, the kids would have some emergency that would pull me out of the garden. Still, as the old saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way.) It wasn't easy work, I admit, but double digging loosens the soil deeper than tilling with a machine does. Besides, much of the work was pulling out all the many tough, small roots out of the existing berms. (I think they are from the trees in our yard.)

My winter sown cold weather vegetable seeds prodded me to work harder, too. Many were ready for transplanting before my garden was ready for them. But this month I did get radishes, kale, peas, potatoes, spinach, kholrabi, broccoli, parsnips, lettuce, cabbage, and collards planted. This year, my plan is to put things that don't mind some shade in our main, backyard veggie bed. Sun lovers, like squash, will go in the front, where it's sunnier.
A chick.

Our chicks are growing by leaps and bounds. Most days, we can literally see they've grown overnight. It's astonishing. They are no longer cute little fuzz balls; they are now gangly teenagers - mini chickens with messy hairdos as their feathers grow in. To prevent them from becoming over-crowded, I placed two in a separate box. But because pecking order and flocks are vital to chicken happiness, I placed the boxes side by side, one side of each box touching the other. The boxes are clear, so they can see the rest of their flock, which prevents problems later, when the birds go outside. Each box now contains a stick for roosting on, shredded newspaper for scratching in, chick grit, and a daily dose of fresh greens (mostly dandelion and grass leaves) to eat. On warm days, we also let them go outside in a "chicken tractor" - a screened in box that keeps them contained but allow them to scratch around and enjoy the fresh air.

Chicks enjoying the "tractor."

The grown chickens (and the kids) love the little backyard hill created from last month's torn-out turf.
Calendula, which I use for medicinal purposes.

Daffodils, hyacinths, and other spring bulbs are in full swing.

2013 Produce Totals 
(with 6 two-and-a-half year old hens, no greenhouse, and no cold frames)

Eggs 196 (116 this month)
Collards 4 lbs.
Kale 1 lb.
Dandelion Greens 5 lb.
Dandelion Root 1 lb.
Wild onion 1 1/2 lb.
Beets 1
Sunchokes 40 lbs.
Chives 1 lb. (all this month)
Parsnips 1 lbs (all this month)
Green onions 1 lb. (all this month)
Passion vine 1 lb. (all this month; I use this medicinally)

Feb 27, 2013

February on the Homestead

Crocus are the first thing to bloom.
For a few days, it's spring. For another few, the weather is wintery. That's a typical spring for us, so I usually take my cues from the plants. In February, the crocus is blooming, the daffodils are budding, and the Lenten rose has begun to blossom, too. Time to get serious about the garden

Seed starting.
This month, I started my cool season seeds via the winter sowing method - over a month later than I typically do. I started Fizz kale, Wild Garden kale, Flash collards, Jericho lettuce, Outrageous lettuce, Danvers 126 Half Long carrots, Berligum carrots, Quick Start cabbage, Javelin parsnips, Red Head radishes, Tyee spinach, Early White Vienne kohlrabi, Catskills Brussels sprouts, and Thompson broccoli. After soaking the seeds overnight, I also started Alaska peas, Blue Podded peas, and Early Wonder beets.

Lenten rose.
This year, my seed starting containers are the plastic tubs the lettuce we've been buying this winter is sold in. They seem to be working perfectly, creating a nice little greenhouse for the seeds. I also have a few plastic muffin/cookie tubs from the store - and a supply of plastic milk jugs I can cut in half and duct tape back together for seed starting, if needed. Call me Scotch, but I just can't bear to buy expensive seed starting systems and containers when I can use items like these!

My 7 year old daughter really wanted to try her hand at her own garden this year and we agreed that it would be 100% her responsibility. "If you make mistakes, like over- or under-watering, they will be lessons," I told her, and she's taking this to heart - to the point of not even wanting me to explain the process.
Adding composted chicken manure and straw.
Because our garden space is really limited, I'll be giving her a large pot to grow in. She started her own seeds, alongside me: Berligum Carrots, Tom Thumb lettuce, and some California poppies.

I haven't had the nerve to ask the neighbors behind us - the ones with a tree greatly shading our garden - if they would consider cutting it down (since they never use their backyard), so I've decided to use what I've always considered our main veggie bed for things that don't mind a bit of shade - including spinach, peas, kale, and collards. But I felt I really needed to loosen up the soil, so I began double digging it.

The new planting area.
I began by digging up the first berm (raised bed without borders), setting the soil to one side as I worked. Then I sprinkled 6 month old chicken manure and straw into the bottom of the resulting ditch. Then I replaced the now-loosened soil, creating a berm again. I will do this for all the berms - but I'm also widening the berms - something I wanted to do right from the start of this garden.

Food Produced So Far This Year 
(without green houses, cold frames, or tunnels - and with 2 yr. old hens):

Eggs: 80

Collards 2 lbs.
Kale 2 lb.
Dandelion Greens 5 lb.
Sunchokes 40 lbs.

My 4 yr. old's "garden."

A couple of chickens taking a dust bath in wood ash from our stove.