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

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

May 26, 2017

How to Make Your Own Garden Soil

lasagna gardening, sheet mulching
This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site!

I continue to struggle with setting up our garden. A lot of things have delayed creating vegetable beds on our homestead: particularly, a hurricane-force wind storm that blew the roof off my greenhouse and lead to the loss of every single plant marker (oy!); my husband's limited spare time and projects that I simply needed his help with; weather that seems to make everything bolt (go to seed); and too many holes for our income. So I've decided to do what homesteaders should: Make do with what I have. The problem is, good soil is something we have almost nothing of. And though I don't have the ability to bring truckloads of soil home, I'm doing my best to find creative ways to produce the soil I need.

Building Your Own Soil 

I began by considering lasagna gardening (also called, much more boringly, "sheet mulching"). This is not only easy, but it's ideal for people who have terrible garden soil. The idea is simple: Lay cardboard or many layers of newspaper on top of the soil (no need to remove weeds or grass) and get them thoroughly wet. Then put layers of organic matter on top. That's it!

To help the materials break down more quickly into soil, it helps to alternate "brown" and "green" materials, just like you would when composting. (Not sure what that means? Click here for an explanation.) But it's not absolutely necessary. Any organic matter you use will eventually break down and create great soil.

So what kinds of things can you use for lasagna gardening? Almost any organic matter you can get your hands on, including compost, animal manure that's not "hot;" a thin layer of grass clippings, fall leaves, clippings from the garden (but none that have gone to seed), straw (that hasn't been treated with weed killer), coffee grounds, a thin layer of wood ashes, dryer lint, shredded newspaper...

Ideally, you start layering lasagna gardens in the fall and the beds will be mostly decomposed and ready for planting by spring, but Patricia Lanza, author of Lasagna Gardening, says you can plant seedlings directly into a just-created lasagna bed. Just remember that as the bed decomposes, it will shrink in height.

How I Did It

You can make a large, proper garden with the lasagna gardening method, but I'm having to scramble more than that since my garden area currently has our motor home parked on it. (If you're reading this honey, "Ahem.") For example, recently I drug an old bathtub (which the previous owners left behind) and put it in a sunny spot. (It's 1950s pink. It's got retro charm, dontcha know.)

To prep it, I took a broken piece of terracotta pot (also left behind by the previous owners) and placed it over the tub's drain hole. This will keep the soil in the tub while still allowing water to drain from the hole. Next, I added a layer of bad soil. This happened to be super dry, dead potting soil left in buckets by the previous owners. (Noticing a trend here?) For you, it could be soil from your yard. I broke up the clumps, but I allowed the small roots in the soil to stay there. They will decompose eventually.
My stylin' retro pink bathtub garden bed.

Next, the rabbit cage needed cleaning, so I put a thick layer of rabbit manure and straw (which we use as bedding) in the tub. The wonderful thing about herbivore manure is it doesn't need to sit and compost before you can use it in the garden; it can go directly into the soil without danger of burning plants. (For more info on using manure in the garden, click here.) Finally, I added a bucket or two of decent soil that I'd bought in bags and had previously used for seed starting. I watered this all down well, and voila! I had a garden bed. (But who knows what's planted in it, since all my seed markers went missing...)

A Few Other Tips

* If you're using a deep container for planting, you can prevent the need for quite so much soil by placing small nursery pots, broken terracotta pots, or even packing peanuts in the bottom of the container. This is not, however, recommended for veggies with long roots, like tomatoes.

* If you have woods nearby (that you own, or that a friend or neighbor has given you permission to use), you could remove topsoil from the forest and use it in your beds. You'll probably bring some weeds with you, but they should be easy to distinguish from desirable plants. Obviously, you'd want to do this gently and not remove too much soil from the natural landscape.

* It might pay to check with your local city. Some offer free compost to people residing in the area. Technically, if the compost is completely "finished," you can use it in place of soil. But I find it's almost never finished when you rely on someone else to determine that for you, so it's best to use compost only as an amendment. Nevertheless, it can add bulk to your garden beds, reducing your need for quality garden soil.

* Use kitchen scraps to bulk up your beds. Yes, scraps that aren't composted! Just put fruit and vegetable scraps in the bottom of the garden bed, and cover them with other organic materials. They will decompose there and help create fantastic soil.
Mystery seedlings.

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.

Mar 25, 2015

Organic Gardening Isn't Just About Ditching Chemicals

More and more people are interested in growing food without chemicals. But true organic growing is much more than just avoiding chemicals - something that seems strange and new to many home gardeners (and even to many farmers).

Commercially Grown Organic

The organic produce you find in grocery stores - and from some farmer's markets - is more like conventionally grown food than truly organic food. As I've written before, certified organic produce may be sprayed with synthetic sprays; the USDA rules allow this under certain circumstances, and some organic farmers do it on the sly, while others are seemingly unaware that their plants were sprayed per-field.

More often, though, commercial organic fields are sprayed with natural ingredient sprays. Automatically. Whether the plants need them or not. And now it's coming to light that these sprays mostly haven't been tested for human safety. Some that have, it turns out, are harmful to humans. (Here's an example. Remember, natural doesn't mean safe. There are plenty of things that are natural that can make you sick or even kill you.) In addition, much of this organic produce is grown in other ways similar to convention produce, with little thought about the most important aspects of organic gardening.


"More than anything else, organic gardening is about building up the soil so it grows healthy plants strong enough to ward off insects and disease."

The True Organic Garden

The true organic garden, however, is much different. More than anything else, organic gardening is about building up the soil so it grows healthy plants strong enough to ward off insects and disease. How is this achieved? By loading the soil with organic matter.

Some organic gardeners dig into the soil, turning it over or tilling it in preparation for planting. These gardeners also dig in aged manure and/or compost to feed the soil and replenish it from previous plantings. Once the plants are several inches high, good organic gardeners add more organic matter to the top of the soil. They might sprinkle aged manure around, or lay down an organic mulch, like straw, that will hold in moisture, keep down weeds, and slowly decompose, further feeding the soil

For those who choose a "no dig" method - meaning they don't dig into the soil, except to make a hole for a plant - the key is to layer organic matter on top of the existing soil. Lasagna gardening (also called sheet mulching) is a great example of this. Layers of anything that's organic and that will decompose and feed the soil - like straw, bits of vegetables and fruits from the kitchen, grass clippings, and shredded black and white newspaper - are piled onto the soil. This creates a rich bed for planting.

With either method - the dig or the no-dig - the soil is constantly receiving nutrients in the form of decaying matter. (Just like in nature, where tree leaves and other organic matter are always falling to the soil and decomposing there.) This not only enriches the soil and encourages beneficial microbes and worms, but it, in turn, fertilizes or feeds the plants growing in that soil.

What About Disease and Pests?

Some argue that if you rotate crops and use the organic methods mentioned above, you'll never have pest or disease problems. This simply isn't true - although organic practices will decrease the likelihood of pest and disease in the garden.

The best organic gardeners take a daily stroll through their garden so they can catch pest and disease problems early - when they are easiest to control. Many pests can be hand picked off plants. Home gardeners can also use things like milk and other natural, completely harmless ingredients, for warding off disease, as well as simple pesticides like ordinary soap.

Is Fertilizer Necessary?

Because the focus of organic gardening is to feed to soil, fertilizer often isn't necessary. However, if your soil hasn't had much chance to build up good nutrients, or if you're growing heavy feeders like tomatoes, spinach, or celery, you will probably want to use fertilizer. But you don't need to go out and buy commercially prepared "organic" fertilizer. Instead, try to use certain types of animal manure, compost tea, comfrey, and other ingredients I discuss here.

Organic Home Grown is Better

I think you can now see why home grown organic food is so far superior to anything you can buy in a grocery store. When you buy supermarket produce, you simply don't know what you're getting. And once you've tasted fresh from the garden vegetables and fruits, it's tough to go back to store bought.

Happily, organic gardening isn't difficult, but it is a different mind-set from conventional vegetable and fruit gardening - one that is much closer to nature.

Feb 10, 2012

The Organic, Weed Free Garden

The first year of our marriage, we decided we needed a vegetable garden. My husband had no background in gardening, and I'd only ever helped one of my parents with the garden. Still, all went well - at first. My husband tilled the soil and I planted the seeds. Soon, vegetable plants began sprouting everywhere, and we were delighted.

Then the weeds came.

By mid-summer, our vegetable garden looked like a jungle. Not because the vegetables were growing rambunctiously, but because the weeds had completely taken over. Nevertheless, I diligently got down on my hands and knees and weeded that garden nearly every day. Yet the weeds still kept coming - and coming and coming. We were greatly discouraged.

We weren't alone. Among people who grow their own veggies, I frequently hear the hardest part - or the reason they've stopped gardening altogether - is weeds. But the good news is that weeds can be controlled in an easy fashion. Nobody is ever going to have a perfectly weed free garden, mind you - but that's okay. All we really need is a garden that's mostly weed free. Let me show you how to do it.

Start with the Soil
Wind and animals bring weed seeds into your garden. There's nothing you can do about that. But you can limit the number of surviving weed seeds, right from the start.

The easiest way to do this is to bring in quality, weed free gardening soil and make raised beds or berms. I did this two years ago, creating large berms (or unframed raised beds). I barely have to weed now - and I didn't have to try to turn my clay soil into something plant would love.

An alternative is to solarize the garden soil you do have. If there is vegetation in the garden area, cut it down low to the ground or mow over it. Next, remove any remaining weeds or sod. I do not recommend using a weed killer. (Do you really want to grow food where chemicals were recently sprayed?) Instead, either yank up the weeds (first watering to make the soil moist but not soggy) or use a steel rake to uproot the weeds. Sod can be dug up, turned upside down (soil side up), and left in place.

Now you might think you're done - but you're not! There are at least hundreds of weed seeds still in that soil, and most of them will sprout if you don't continue with the solarizing process.

So first make sure the entire garden area is moist, then cover it with a piece of clear polyethylene that's between 1 and 6 mils in thickness. Secure the plastic in place with large stones or bricks. Keep the plastic in place for 4 to 6 weeks; do not move it or lift it up to look under it. The heat of the sun, increased by the plastic, is cooking the weed seeds and making them so they will not sprout.

The trick to proper solarizing is timing. Ideally, it's done in the late spring or summer, when the sun is hotter than it will be in fall, winter, or early spring. Ideally, the soil temperature under the plastic should reach 125° F (52 ° C). "But," you may be thinking, "by then I should have my garden planted!" However, if you solarize in the summer, you can still plant a fall garden in August. Should you decide to solarize earlier in the spring, many weed seeds will die - but not all of them. I recommend being patient and solarizing when the weather is warmer.

Lasagna gardening can also do a great job of eliminating weed seeds, but it delays planting by a couple of seasons. For this method, lay down newspapers over the garden area, 1 inch thick. Add an inch of peat moss, then 3 inches of shredded leaves or chemical-free grass clippings. Repeat the layers of pea moss and leaves or clippings until you have a pile that's about 2 feet tall. Cover with a sprinkling of wood ashes. When the layers are mostly decomposed (2 seasons later, usually), you'll have a rich garden bed that's nearly free of weed seeds.

What About Barriers?
Many gardeners think the best way to prevent weeds is to lay down landscaping fabric or black plastic, cover it with a little soil or mulch, then cut holes in it for their plants. Honestly, I've never seen this work very well, especially for more than one year. Fresh soil, solarizing, or lasagna gardening all work better - are are easier, to boot!

Every vegetable garden needs pathways. Without them, food is likely to go bad in the garden, because you can't see or reach it. And if you climb into the garden to harvest food, you'll compacting the soil everywhere you step, making the garden far less fertile.

One way to keep pathways weed free is to till them. If you use a narrow tiller, the pathways don't need to be more than a few feet wide - which is about as wide as you need them to tend the garden anyway.

Thick layers of weedless mulch work almost as well. Or you might choose an organic weed killer. For example, boiling hot water poured over weeds kills them, as does applications of white vinegar during hot weather. You can also keep weed seeds from germinating by sprinkling corn gluten meal in pathways. Please note that these methods are best kept to the pathways; you don't want to accidentally kill vegetable plants.

Maintaining the Beds
The first rule of keeping the garden weed free is to never let weeds go to seed. So if you see buds forming on the weeds, make it a priority to get rid of them. This is how you will keep your garden weed seed free. I cannot stress enough how important this is. If needed, make this a family affair. Even toddlers can learn to pick off the buds or flowers of weeds. (You'll still need to remove the weed itself later, but you'll accomplish the all-important task of delaying the day those weeds go to seed.)

Mulching the beds is also helpful, but mulch shouldn't be applied to the garden until after the soil is well warmed in the late spring or early summer. (Otherwise the mulch can keep the soil cool, which in turn makes the plants grow slowly or not at all.) You do not need to purchase mulch. You may use, for example, grass clippings from the lawn mower (as long as you don't use chemicals on your lawn), dry leaves from your trees or your neighbors' trees, homemade wood chips, or homemade compost. If you must purchase mulch, consider buying a bale of weedless straw (not hay) at a feed store; I buy them for about $7 and a bale will mulch an average backyard-sized vegetable garden once or twice.

Some weeds will still appear in the garden bed. But their quantity will be very small, if you follow the guidelines in this article. To remove them, simply pull them by hand after a light rain or watering. Or, if you prefer, use a sharp hoe to chop off their tops. The latter requires more frequent weeding, but doesn't require bending or stooping. And if you have chickens, don't neglect to toss them the weeds; they think they are a fine treat!

Mar 5, 2011

Working with Poor Garden Soil

Yesterday, I typed about the key to having a green thumb: Knowing what kind of soil you have. Once you've followed the advice I give on do-it-yourself soil testing, what do you do with the information? If you have loamy soil with a pH of 6 or 7, you do nothing but start planting! But if your soil is less than ideal, you don't have to give up on gardening.

Solution #1: Bring it In. If you want to start gardening right now and don't want to mess with changing your natural soil, then purchasing garden soil is a good option. Although you could bring it in bag by bag, it's cheaper and easier to buy it by the yard from a gardening or landscaping center. You can build raised beds and pour the soil into them, or you can create berms, as I have in my garden (see the photo to the right). Although I wouldn't call this method cheap, it's not as expensive as you might think. Last year, I bought 5 yards for $187 plus delivery. If you have access to a truck, you can save a little by hauling the soil yourself.

Solution #2: Contain 'Em. Many fruits and vegetables grow well in containers. The trick is to make sure the containers have lots of drainage holes and are filled with good quality soil. But if you're concerned about costs, check out the price of potting soil and store bought containers first. Nonetheless, containers can not only include traditional plant pots, but also plastic storage boxes, plastic trugs, old buckets, old cans, and grow bags.

Solution #3: Have Some Lasagna. With the ingenious lasagna or no-dig method, it doesn't matter a whit what sort of soil you have. First, lay corrugated cardboard or 3 or 4 layers of newspapers over the existing soil. If weeds or grass are present, there's no need to remove them. Dampen the cardboard or paper, then add a layer of "browns" (for example, fallen, dry leaves, shredded newspaper, or peat), followed by a layer of "greens") (for example: vegetable or fruit scraps and grass clippings). The brown layer should be about 2 times as deep as the green layer. Keep layering until the layers are about 2 feet tall. Soon, the layers will decompose, leaving behind excellent gardening soil. Although autumn is the best time to start lasagna beds, you can also start in the spring or summer. To have access to the bed as soon as possible, use peat, compost, or topsoil for most of your "browns," ending with a 4 inch layer of compost or gardening soil. In a few weeks, you can plant.

Solution #4: Make Amends. Soil amendment is the traditional route, but also the slowest method.

Soil amendment is simply a method of adding organic matter to the existing soil to - ultimately - change the soil structure. If your soil is just a bit less than ideal, you can amend in the fall and have the garden ready by spring. But if your soil is very clay or very sandy, it will probably take several years before the soil is decent - and you'll need to keep amending every year to keep the soil in good condition.

First, look at the soil's pH. If you used a do-it-yourself pH kit, it will come with instructions on various things that can be added to the soil to make the dirt's level of acidity more plant friendly. If you hired someone to test the pH level of your soil, they should have provided you with similar information.

If you're trying to make clay soil better for gardening, it may be tempting to dig a hole, fill it with potting soil, and plant something in it. But this isn't a good idea. When plants grow and their roots spread, they won't respond well to the sudden change in soil type. So you'll need to amend a large area (ideally, an entire bed) at a time - and only when the soil isn't wet. Use coarse sand (also called builder's sand), readily available at home improvement centers; do not use fine sand (such as is used for sandboxes) since it can exacerbate the soil's problems. In addition, use coarse compost. Use equal parts of sand and compost throughout the bed, spreading each in a 3 or 4 inch layer. Once it's spread, work it into the soil, 6 inches deep. You can do this with a rototiller, but some gardeners argue these destroy soil structure. On the other hand, digging by hand is time honored, cheap, and good exercise. As the amendments decompose, it's a good idea to repeat your pH test.

To make sandy soil better for gardening, layer rotted (aged) manure or compost over the soil, then till it in.

For more details about choosing soil ammendments, visit the Colorado State University Extension website and the Oregon State University's website.

Feb 9, 2010

Total Beginner's Guide to Growing Vegetables

The U.S. is experiencing an upswing in interest in vegetable gardens (sometimes called Victory Gardens). There are a lot of reasons for this: It's cheaper, you know if it's truly organic (if you're concerned about that), it's good exercise, it helps us slow down and enjoy God's creation, it's a great learning experience for kids, and so on. But what if, as a Proverbs 31 Woman, you're interested in growing your own vegetables but have no idea where to begin? That's what I'm here for, folks!

1. Don't confuse yourself with gardening books. Books that give specific information about growing vegetables can be pretty useless. That is, unless they are specific to your region. So hop on Amazon and see if you can find books about growing veggies in your state or region. This way you can avoid advice that's perfect, say, for gardeners in Washington but completely unsuitable for gardeners in your state of New York.

2. Choosing the right location is one of the most important things you can do. Most vegetables need at least six hours of sun to produce well. Even if all other conditions are ideal, if your plants don't get enough sun, they will disappoint you. Some plants - including beets, lettuce, arugula, endive, cress, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, peas, Brussels sprouts, radishes, Swiss chard, collards, spinach, mustard greens, kale, beans, onions, garlic, chives, radishes, mint, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, and strawberries tolerate five hours of sun. Almost no edible will grow well in full shade.

The traditional way to determine how much sun an area of your yard gets is to mark off areas of shade with stakes at various times of the day, usually 8 AM, noon, and 4 PM. Then, plant only in the land inside the stakes.

If this seems too time consuming, you can purchase a product like SunCalc, which measures light automatically. Just stick the gadget in the soil in the evening, and by the following evening it will tell you exactly how much sun that area receives. The only down side to this sort of gadget is you must use it every few feet in your prospective garden bed because some areas may receive less light than others.

Also bear in mind that you don't necessarily have to grow vegetables in a traditional row. If your only full sun locations already have flowers, for example, consider pulling just a few and planting your edibles along side them. I've seen some amazingly beautiful gardens that had edibles and ornamentals planted side by side. Almost any vegetable also grows well in containers.

But remember: You must measure the light during the growing season. In other words, if you're planting spring vegetables, measure the sun light in early spring. For summer veggies, check the sunlight in the early summer.

3. Soil is as important as light. If you have bad soil, nothing but weeds are likely to grow. If you have so-so soil, veggies will grow but won't thrive as they will with better soil. There are several schools of thought on making your soil better. One - the traditional route - is to amend your soil in the fall, after testing it to see what nutrients it lacks. Since fall is a long way away, I'm going to assume this won't work for you this year. But in the future, consider purchasing a soil testing kit at a gardening center and following its instructions carefully. The test should tell you what nutrients your soil needs and an employee at a gardening center can help you find amendments to make the soil better by the following spring. The biggest downside to this method is that you're fighting nature; each fall you'll have to test the soil and amend accordingly - and amending is sometimes costly.

Another school of thought is that you should just pile up new soil on the surface of your existing soil. This makes tilling (by hand or machine) unnecessary, and can quickly kill weeds if you first lay down several layers of black and white newspaper. Sometimes this is called "the lasagna method" because you'll lay down newspaper, soil, compost, and so forth on top of the soil, much like you layer ingredients in the traditional Italian dish. This is a relatively cheap and easy method, but unless you're willing to wait on home made compost, you'll need to purchase it.

A similar method is the use of raised beds. You can either just pile up good dirt to create beds that are at least six inches above the existing soil or - better yet - create bed "frames" from wood, stone, or brick. Some advantages of this method include fewer weeds, no need for tilling (because - if you make the frames no wider or longer than your arm's reach - you never walk on the soil, compacting it), warmer beds (which equal a longer growing season), and easier gardening (because you bend over less). The disadvantages are expense (buying soil and materials for making "frames") and the fact that raised beds tend to require a bit more water.

There's also the Square Foot method. This is super easy for beginners. 4 x 4 foot frames are built and placed atop existing soil, a special soil mixture is added to the bed (less than in ordinary raised beds, reducing costs) and one plant is planted in each square foot of the frame.

For any of these methods, you'll probably be buying some good soil or compost, which can be pricey. In future years, you can cut this expense by making your own compost.

3. Know your gardening zone. The USDA has created a map of the United States that tracks the frostiness of the soil. Before you choose any plants or seeds for your garden, be sure you know exactly what your gardening zone is, or you may end up with plants that can't possibly survive in your area. If you're still unsure after looking at the USDA map, contact your local extension office; they'll have plenty of free gardening advice specific to your locale and can easily tell you your gardening zone.

4. Choose your plants wisely. Seed packets and plant labels should explain which gardening zones plants thrive in. As a beginner, never choose seeds or plants not specified for your zone. Be sure not to go overboard with plants, too, especially your first year, or you'll quickly become overwhelmed. Take it slow. Choose a few of your favorite vegetables, and be sure to think about whether or not they are worth growing. For example, although I'd like to grow all our veggies, my space is quite limited. Therefore, I always save potatoes for last. If I run out of room, I know I can buy them quite inexpensively at the store, but if I put them in my garden, they will eat up a lot of space. On the other hand, no store bought tomato even remotely compares to a home grown tomato, so I always make sure I have room for several tomato plants.

To help you determine how many of each plant you'll want, here's a handy guide.

5. Plant at the right time. Unless you've successfully winter sown a plant, be sure to follow the seed packet or plant tag information about when they should go in the garden. Don't put them in before your last threat of frost (according to the USDA map or your local extension office) or they may die; don't put them in too late or you may end up spending a lot of time and money on plants that don't offer much produce.

6. Water well. It's best to water two or three times a week, but thoroughly. Sprinklers make this job easier. Set out a tuna fish can where the water will fall. When the can has an inch of water in it, you can turn off the water. This sort of watering, as opposed to watering less and more frequently, results in stronger root systems and happier plants.

7. Harvest at the right time. Be sure you understand when your vegetables are ready to pick. This is where a good gardening book can come in handy - or a little research on the Internet. If you pick too soon, the food may not taste good and may be less nutritious. But pick too late and the same may be true.

There are lots of other things you can do in your garden, like learning how to plant successively so you have a continuous crop, or using cold frames and cloches to extend the season, or any number of other great topics, but worry about these less important things after your first season gardening. Keep it simple your first time out so you can build confidence for the following year.

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Jan 31, 2011

Are Vegetable Gardens Frugal?

According to a National Gardening Association (NGA) study, the average American family spends about $70 a year on their vegetable garden, but reaps about $600 worth of food from it. Burpee, one of the nation’s oldest and most popular home garden seed supply sources, adds “well-planned garden will result in a 1 to 25 cost-savings ratio, meaning $50 in seeds and fertilizer can produce as much as $1,250 worth of groceries purchased at a supermarket." Reading these stats, I couldn't help but wonder whether they were accurate - and how they compared to my family's experience.

So last year, I kept track of how much we grew and what it was worth. Granted, I wasn't terribly scientific about it. I did not weigh all the produce from our garden. I estimated only, always leaning toward underestimating our yield instead of overestimating. I also wasn't sure what food I should compare it to. Although what comes from our garden is most like food from a farmer's market, I never shop at the farmer's market because it's considerably more expensive than the grocery store. Therefore, I chose to compare produce costs to our local supermarket's non-organic food, even though I know what comes from our garden is far superior in quality and absolutely organic.

UPDATE: I also kept track of our gardening and homesteading costs and "profit" in 2013. Click here to view the results.


Seeds: $75
Seed starting containers: free
Seed starting soil: $10
Fertilizer: $20
Compost: free
Water: $80



Collards: $30
Beets: I can't find these locally, but I estimate I'd pay about $10 for all the beetroots and greens we grew
Carrots: $20
Peas: $20
Brussels sprouts: $25
Chard: $2 (we had a very bad crop)
Lettuce: $15
Chives: $15
Basil: $15
Parsley: $13
Cilantro: $6
Strawberries: $60
Blueberries: $6 (these were from first year bushes; in a few years, we'll be getting pounds and pounds of berries)

Cabbage: $20
Zucchini: $20
Cherry tomatoes: $30
Garlic: $7
Cucumber: $15
Green beans: $15
Large tomatoes: $48
Peas: $14
Wonderberries: I can't buy these locally, but I estimate what I grew, if sold at the same price of blueberries, was worth $10
Parsnips: $10
Spinach: $2 (another crop that didn't do well last year)
Kohlrabi: $15
Onions: $50

TOTAL: $493

So, we saved $308 - and we had the satisfaction of doing it ourselves, being more self-sufficient, getting more exercise, teaching our children about gardening and science, and knowing exactly what was (and was not) in our food.

But here's the catch: Last year, we purchased soil for our garden. We live where the soil is heavy clay, and I hadn't gardened in the area in years. We spent $227 to buy the soil and have it delivered. That means our actual savings were $81. However, that may not be a very fair way to look it. As long as I care for this soil well, feeding it compost yearly, it will remain quality gardening soil for as long as we want to use it.

Ways to Make the Garden Even More FrugalGetting started - buying tools and preparing the soil - is the most costly part. However, if you continue gardening and you care for your soil and your tools, you can use them forever. If you don't mind waiting a year or so to begin your garden, you can avoid buying soil by practicing the lasagna or no-dig method. Essentially, you'd lay cardboard over the soil where you want to garden and pile specific organic ingredients over it. The cardboard blocks light, which kills weeds, and the decaying organic matter - and worms - make the soil rich.

You can also save money by collecting your own seeds. The first year, you'd need to buy heirloom seeds, but ever after, you can let one or more plants in the garden go to seed, then collect and preserve those seeds for next year's garden.
Another big expense is watering your garden. There are a few things you can do to reduce your water bill. One is to mulch your garden beds with organic materials, like straw. This helps conserve water in the soil (and as the mulch decomposes, it feeds the soil nutrients). Spacing plants far apart also lets them grow root systems going deep in the soil - where there's more water. This is probably how traditional row-method vegetable gardening began - as a way to space vegetables out during a time when running water was non-existent or scarce. However, if you have only a small garden bed, you may be better off using traditional spacing. Close spacing (as is used in intensive or Square Foot gardening) requires the most water. Click here for more ideas on conserving water in the garden.

How you water your garden also makes a difference. Sprinklers waste a lot of water because they spread it everywhere - even places it's not needed. Drip hoses conserve much more water because they gradually water the plants' base. Some gardeners are also highly interested in rain barrels - and by all means, if they are legal in your area, use them. But don't use them to water edibles unless you have an expensive water filtration system. Remember: Whatever chemicals and what not that are on your roof end up in the rain barrel...and in your produce, if you use that liquid to water them.

Composting is another way to reduce gardening costs. Granted, it's difficult for a suburban gardener to create enough compost for her entire garden, but home made compost can go a long way. Anyone who has kitchen scraps, leaves, and a corner of their property can easily compost.

You will also notice I didn't spend a dime on seed starting supplies. With winter sowing, you can reuse all kinds of containers you probably already have on hand. The same is true with traditional seed starting. For example, toilet paper tubes make an excellent container for seedlings.

Finally, you might notice I saved a lot by growing fruit. If you have the space, fruit trees are an excellent investment, and if you buy dwarf varieties, they may not take up as much space as you think. Otherwise, stick to berries or vines, which fit well into small yards. And don't forget that most fruit trees and bushes produce more every year.

What about you? How much have you saved by growing your own food? And do you have tips for making gardening more frugal?

Oct 29, 2013

Got Fall Leaves? Here's What to Do With Them!

Every year, I'm amazed that my neighbors rake the leaves off their lawn and put them in piles along the street for the city to pick up and throw away. Apparently they have no idea what a gold mine they are adding to the garbage dump! Instead of raking and throwing yours away, try one or more of these easy methods for enriching your garden with autumn’s leaves.

* Add leaves to your compost bin. Leaves are one of nature's great plant foods. However, it's important to not dump a huge pile of leaves into the compost bin all at once (because they’ll turn to slimy mush that decomposes very slowly). So add a layer of leaves, then a layer of "green" (nitrogen-rich) things, like vegetable and fruit scraps, then another layer of leaves, and another layer of “greens,” and so on. Running the lawn mower over the leaves to shred them first speeds up their decomposition.

* Use leaves as mulch. Place a few inches of leaves on top of your garden soil, keeping the mulch a couple inches away from plant stems. Again, shredding the leaves first speeds their decomposition and helps keep them from blowing around. However, I don't bother to shred them; we get a lot of winter rain, and that keeps the leaves from blowing away. By spring, even leaves that weren’t shredded have decomposed (or nearly so). This type of leaf mulch not only feeds the soil, but it helps prevent weeds while retaining soil moisture.

* Throw leaves into a bare bed. If you have any bare garden beds, sprinkle fall leaves over the ground in a thin layer, then lightly dig in. The leaves will rot over winter, feeding the soil and encouraging good-for-your-garden worms and micro-organisms.
* Make leaf mold. Leaf mold is a rich compost that builds up nutrients in the soil - but it is, after all, just rotten leaves. To make your own, fill a black contractor's bag about three-quarters full; close the bag securely and poke small holes all over it. In a year or two, you'll have leaf mold.

* Start a lasagna garden. Lasagna gardening is a simple way to turn bad soil into spectacular soil - and one main ingredient is leaves. Essentially, you're just layering "greens" (nitrogen rich materials) and "browns" (carbon rich materials) on top of the soil; you'll need about twice as many browns as greens, and you should stack everything two or three feet high. Read more about lasagna gardening here.

One final note: Not all leaves are created equal. Some are quicker to decompose than others, and some add more nutrients to the soil than others. Thick leaves (like those of the holly) must be well shredded before you can use them in the garden.

Most importantly, eucalyptus, walnut, and camphor- and cherry-laurel leaves actually inhibit plant growth, so feel free to rake those into the street for city pick up.

All other leaves, however, are designed to fall to the ground and enrich the soil. So follow nature’s lead this autumn and let leaves do the work God designed them to do.

May 18, 2011

When the Compost Bin is Full

LinkUnless you have a very large compost pile, there inevitably comes a time when the compost bin is full but you still have materials that could go into it. Eventually the contents of the full compost bin will decompose further, making room for new compost-able materials, but in the meantime, what should you do with things you can't fit into the compost bin?

* Start another compost bin. Having two or three bins is an excellent idea, if you have the room. While one bin is full and decomposing, you can fill other bins.

* Instead of composting them, refrigerate or freeze vegetable and fruit scraps to make stock with. Most of us don't think about using scraps for this - let alone fruit for this - but it's quite traditional.

* Make "Garbage Soup" with the fruit and veggie scraps you'd normally compost. It's yummy.

* Feed scraps to the chickens. Nearly any food you'd compost is excellent food for chickens, too. They will eat all vegetables and fruits, in addition to meat scraps. A small amount of bread, rice, or pasta is fine, also. Just don't give them anything rotten.

* Use paper products like cardboard for lasagna gardening. (See basic instructions here.)

* Dig a trench. The original compost pile was really a pit or trench where people buried their trash. Anything you'd put in a compost bin can go into a hole in the ground. Cover the composting materials with dirt and the following year, the soil should be great for gardening. Sometimes instead of digging a trench, I lay things I want to compost in low lying areas and cover them with dried leaves, wood chips, or bark mulch.

* Throw it in the trash. Although this won't do anything to improve your living space, things that compost will do the same thing in the landfill as they do in your compost bin: Decompose into something good for the soil.

What do you do when your compost bin is full?

Mar 30, 2015

What's The Difference Between Mulch and Compost?

Here's a question I frequently hear: Mulch vs. compost...What's the difference?

Mulch Is...

Mulch is anything that is laid on the ground around plants in order to retain moisture in the soil and prevent weed seeds from seeing the sun. Mulch also helps keep the soil warmer, which is especially useful in the spring, fall, and winter.

Examples of mulch include landscaping fabric and plastic (usually black, but sometimes other colors; red is popular around peppers and tomatoes, since it warms the soil better than other colors). Organic mulches have the added benefit of feeding the soil and giving it nutrients as it decomposes. Examples of organic mulch include straw, wood chips, grass clippings, leaves, and yes, compost.

Compost Is...

Compost is made from organic matter (such as vegetable and fruit leftovers, leaves, and paper products) that has decomposed. Finished compost looks like black or dark brown soil. It's usually tilled or dug into the soil (or used as a layer in lasagna gardening) in order to add nutrients to the dirt.

When is used as mulch, it may help block sunlight from weed seeds, but it doesn't do a very good job of retaining moisture in the soil. Also, just tossing compost on top of the soil, without working it in or covering it with some other type of mulch, means much of the nutrients in the compost aren't readily available to plants.

How to Mulch

Lay down your choice of mulch (I recommend organic mulch, since it feeds the soil and attracts worms who aerate the soil...and who poop, adding excellent nutrients to the soil) around plants, or on any bare soil. The mulch should not touch plant stems, or the stems become susceptible to rot and disease. The thicker the layer of mulch, the more it helps retain water and prevent weeds.

Sometimes mulch is also used to protect plants that are being overwintered. For example, in many places in the U.S., you can keep carrots, parsnips, and beets in the soil over winter. If you get snow, it's best to cover the crop with a thick layer of straw or other mulch - at least seven inches of it. The tops of the root crops will die, but the mulch prevents the edible root from going bad.

How to Compost

In essence, toss fruit and vegetable scraps, thin layers of grass clippings, thin layers of shredded grass, weeds (that haven't gone to seed), and paper products (large ones shredded) into a pile. Everything will decompose and turn into compost.

For details on the fastest ways to get compost, please read my post "Composting the Easy, Cheap Way."

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!