If you want to witness God’s beauty, it all begins in the dirt. We often speak of gardening as a ‘hobby’, but gardening isn’t simply a hobby, it is part of the human experience. It is a visceral experience that defines our relationship to this earth. When you have planted a garden, tended a garden, weeded a garden, reaped a garden, and then saved seeds to plant again next year, you understand that gardening is more than a hobby – it is creation, love, and resurrection right before our eyes.
When we pick up a spade and make the decision to plant a garden we are attempting to understand nature, nature that is all around us and sustains us. When we pierce the dirt with that spade we tap into the energy of the earth. And when we tend to and harvest vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers that we have grown, we discover how much more meaningful it is to seek ‘deep and simple’ over ‘shallow and complex’.
If I could only express adequately how digging up fingerling potatoes with my daughter is like finding a treasure in the ground, and just when you think you have dug up all your potatoes – you find more! Or the sheer amazement in my daughter’s eyes when she pulls up a dragon carrot from the dirt. Or the delight in my heart when I see her picking vegetables from the garden and sharing with her friends by explaining to them what she is picking and why it is healthy. Or the effect that Green Zebra heirloom tomatoes have had on our meals and our taste buds. Or how interesting and essential it is to watch a honey bee or butterfly flit from bloom to bloom.
“So where do I begin?” Is the question most readers and friends ask me. My advice is to start small – you can even start with container gardens on your patio with herbs, tomatoes, and peppers. Another way to start small is with a raised bed. You can find raised beds at your local garden store, Home Depot, Lowe’s, or online. They typical come in 4×4 and if you want your beds larger you can buy more and configure them how you like. For instance we have 8×8, 4×8, and 4×4 beds. These beds mainly come in cedar which will last longer.
Once you have figured out how much space you would like your bed to take up, you can begin to clear the space of any grass by laying down cardboard, newspaper, or other paper material. Fixating your paper material to the ground and letting it sit for a week will help ensure grass or weeds from getting in your beds.
When it is time to set up the sides of your raised beds, it is also time to add your soil. Remember your soil is one of the most important factors in growing a great garden. Opting for bags of garden soil at Home Depot may work for you, but here is the soil recipe I recommend for a hearty garden: 1 part compost, 1 part peat moss, 1 part manure, and 1/4 vermiculite. Figure out your square footage so you can calculate how much to buy of each organic material. Organic matter improves the fertility, the structure and the tilth of all kinds of soils. In particular, organic matter provides a continuous source of nitrogen and other nutrients that plants need to grow.
Make Efficient Use of Space
The location of your garden (the amount of sunlight it receives, proximity to a water source, and protection from frost and wind) is important. Yet just as crucial for growing vegetables is making the most of your garden space. Raised beds are a good choice for beginners because they make the garden more manageable.
Think Square Feet Not Rows
Single rows of crops, while they might be efficient on farms that use large machines for planting, cultivating, and harvesting, are often not the best way to go in the backyard vegetable garden. In a home-sized garden, the fewer rows you have, the fewer paths between rows you will need, and the more square footage you will have available for growing crops.
Good reasons to convert from rows to an intensive garden system:
- Less space means easier to maintain.
- When vegetables are planted intensively they shade and cool the ground below and require less watering, less weeding, less mulching — in other words, less drudgery for the gardener.
- Less soil compaction. The more access you have between rows or beds, the more you and others will be compacting the soil by walking in them. By increasing the width of the growing beds and reducing the number of paths, you will have more growing area that you won’t be walking on, and this untrammeled soil will be fluffier and better for plants’ roots.
Once you have your square foot map laid out – you should definitely do this on paper and then many people use wood dividers to map out the actual garden, while others draw in the dirt the square feet. How much you plant in each square foot depends on the vegetable. For instance you can plant 16 carrots or radishes in one square foot, while you can plant only 1 tomato in a square foot. Below is a guide.
Next to square foot planting, trellising represents the most efficient way to use space in the garden. People who have tiny gardens will want to grow as many crops as possible on vertical supports, and gardeners who have a lot of space will still need to lend physical support to some of their vegetables, such as climbing varieties of peas and pole beans. Other vegetables that are commonly trellised include vining crops, such as cucumbers and tomatoes. Even potatoes work well because you can keep the vines more organized until its time to dig the potatoes up!
Crop rotation within the vegetable garden means planting the same crop in the same place only once every three years. This policy ensures that the same garden vegetables will not deplete the same nutrients year after year. It can also help foil any insect pests or disease pathogens that might be lurking in the soil after the crop is harvested.
To use a three-year crop rotation system, make a plan of the garden on paper during each growing season, showing the location of all crops. For most people these garden plans are invaluable, because it can be difficult to remember exactly what you were growing where even last season, much less two years ago. Saving garden plans for the past two or three years means that you don’t have to rely on memory alone.
Planting crops in succession is yet another way to maximize growing area in the garden. All too often, though, gardeners will prepare their seedbeds and plant or transplant all their crops on only one or two days in the spring, usually after the last frost date for their location.
While there is nothing wrong with planting a garden this way, wouldn’t it be easier to plant a few seeds or transplants at a time, throughout the course of the whole growing season?
Another benefit of succession planting is that for crops like radishes, you can plant 3 or 4 times in a year.
The biggest benefit of succession planting, of course, is that your harvest season lasts longer for every crop. This means that, instead of getting buried in snap beans or summer squash as your plants mature all at once, you can stagger plantings to ensure a steady, but more manageable supply of fresh vegetables. In the South we can make our growing season last well into November. Also, know your crops – vegetables like carrots are actually sweeter in the winter months.
Just as drawing a garden plan each year helps you remember where things were growing, taking notes can help you avoid making the same mistakes again, or ensure that your good results can be reproduced in future years. For instance, write down all the names of different vegetable varieties, and compare them from year to year, so you will know which ones have done well in your garden.