- I Claimed I Killed Plants: I laugh to think of myself saying this once upon a time. I thought I was bad at caring for plants. The real “problem” was that I just did not know what I was doing in the garden. Once I learned about soil preparation, raised garden beds, and how to treat various plants, I was well on my way to success with my goal of becoming an urban organic gardener.
- I Didn’t Watch the Weather: When I first started my perennial and vegetable gardends, I loved my garden and loved tending the seedlings and plants. To tend them, I would water and water. Sometimes, it rained. This meant that the poor vegetable plants were getting way too much water. I did not kill anything (thank goodness), but I waterlogged a bunch of plants until I started watching the weather and checking the soil if I was not sure about the moisture level.
- I Never Calculated How Much to Grow: This year, I took steps toward attempting to figure out how much I need to grow to feed my family. For instance, I planted about 36 heads of garlic last fall. They should be ready this July. I calculated that would give me enough for 12 months with a few to give as gifts. It’s good I did that, because we lost a good portion of the crop. For potatoes, I calculated how many we would want to eat over 12 months and bought enough to plant to fulfill that number. I still find it a challenge to calculate the proper number of lettuce plants (and other vegetables that don’t store well).
- I Did Not Plan:I would visit the garden center and buy whatever looked intriguing. I’m not knocking my previous approach completely, because exploring taught me a lot and kept me interested in gardening in the early years. Eventually, though, the time comes when it’s efficient and beneficial to you to plan ahead what you will plant and where you will plant it.
- I Did Not Test and Learn:When working to become good, it’s important to try new things. At Facebook, I think they say something like “Break Things and Move Fast.” The same applies to organic gardening. This year I tested a variety of approaches and noted them here for future reference.
- I Did Write Down Where I Planted Vegetables: This is especially important for potatoes, which should not be grown in the same place until four years have passed. I am wondering how I will be able to rotate beds since I am planting so many potatoes. Should I expand or plant fewer next year? Time and experience will give me the answer. In the meantime, I will definitely write down where I planted potatoes this year so I know not to use that bed for another four years.
When I started gardening, I planted lots of flowers. Eventually, I had in mind that I would only take my time to grow edible plants. Visions of an edible landscape danced in my head. I planted fig trees, apple trees, purple radishes, spinach, lettuce, garlic, tomatoes, potatoes, peas, dill, and much more. I wanted to see how much food I could provide for my family from the garden. I found a website that focuses on edible landscaping and was in heaven choosing which trees I liked and would work in zone 7.
Before too long, I started to focus only on edible plants. I stopped caring so much about the perennial garden that I planned and tended. Big mistake! This year, I planted some marigolds among the vegetables in my garden. My first organic gardening teacher taught me that they keep away certain bugs. Later, I learned that gardeners do not agree about whether the marigolds really do any such thing. However, I did not regret planting the flowers. When I washed dishes and looked out the window over the sink, I’d see those orange balls adding color to the raised garden bed filled with green seedlings. I was happy to know they were there.
As any gardener learns, flowers have their uses. For one, purple coneflower is beautiful. They make me happy *and* they feed birds. I bought one flower for $20. When five flowers grew the following year, my $20 started to seem worth it. Then, the 5 flowers turned into a dozen or more over the years. Then, the plant was big enough for me to separate and spread out. The density of the plant meant it blocked weeds, and I spent less time wrangling with annoying and invasive weeds.
I learned that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with planting a flower just because I think it’s beautiful. The flowers attract pollinators, delight my family, add color to the yard, cheer me up on cloudy days and look more vibrant against a background of dark pine mulch.
What are your favorite flowers? What flowers do you have in your garden?
I had big plans to show you step-by-step how to set up a raised gardening bed. Then, my gardening partner came by the house and did it all while I was at work. That meant I did not get any photos of the process. However, I DO have some photos from a previous time. They just won’t include the play-by-play as I added soil and plants. They will show the basics of starting your own raised bed gardening system.
As you can see in the photo below, I set up the “walls” of the raised garden bed first. The instructions will vary depending upon the system you buy or make. (If you are handy, this will probably be an easy project for you.) See all that luscious green grass? I saved up newspapers for a week or so (yes, I still do subscribe to a paper newspaper thankyouverymuch!) and then placed them over the grass inside the raised bed. I was not conservative in my usage of the papers. I wanted a thick layer to kill the existing grass and prevent it from growing into my garden.
Below, you can see I’ve added more newspaper:
Once you have the entire ground inside the raised bed covered with newspaper, it’s time to get your rich humus-heavy soil. I buy bags of composted leaves and grass clippings from our county (very inexpensive and sold all over the place). I pour that in and then I add worm casings (aka worm poo), manure (if I have it), chicken poo, lime, and organic fertilizer (lately, I’ve been using fertilizer made in Amish country). As you may already know, soil is SO important. I gently turn the above into the soil to mix it all up.
You are now ready to add your plants. I love the contrast between fresh green lettuce plants and rich, black dirt. Seeing that contrast is one of my favorite gardening experiences. FYI: I would avoid purchasing these.
In the Facebook community, we discussed organic methods to rid our gardens of pests. Sometimes, I do not mind if a bug chomps on, say, some of my radish leaves. Some pests do not stop at a few chomps, though, and can completely wreck all of your hard work if you do not repel them in some manner. Organic methods to the rescue!
- Ants: These are tricky creatures. Once they decide where they will march, it’s hard to deter them. I’ve found that Borax (keep away from children), red chili powder, and cinnamon. You can even roll Borax into flour/sugar balls and place them around the ant trails. If the pests are coming into your home, a good scrub with soap and water across the ant trail might help.
- Weeds: This is one of my new favorite tips. I think I found this one via the Facebook community (join us there?). Boil about 1/2 gallon of water and add a half cup of sale and 2 tablespoons of vinegar. Pour this mixture on the weeds. Don’t let the mixture cool first. Since the vinegar will help kill all plants, you have to be selective where you use this. For organic garden beds in a raised garden, I’ve found it’s pretty easy to pluck weeds from the loose soil by hand.
- Rabbits: One Facebook community member suggested using raw onion rings hung on plants. Since you have to keep refreshing the rings, he decided to grow onions on the perimeter of his garden to keep away rabbits and the like.
- Other Pests: I keep hearing how mint deters pests. Some gardeners grow mint in containers on the sidelines. You can also use the fabulous mint-scented castile soap. This soap can be used for laundry, dishes, your body. I’ve used it a lot. In the garden, use two tablespoons of of the minty castile soap and diffuse it with a gallon of water. Then, spray this where you have pests. Do not rinse. Flies, ants, fleas and mice avoid peppermint. You’ll have to apply it again after a big rain.
The Beginning of My Vegetable Garden
I followed the advice of gardening books to plan out:
1. What I wanted to plant;
2. Where I wanted to plant it.
Did I mention planning gardens is not my strong suit? I can plan vacations, my time, and projects, but planning a garden mystified me until I dug in and figured out how to do it.
Few of these steps take very much time, which is great if you are working a day job full time!
1. Notice the light: Where is your back yard getting the most sunlight? If you can, stay home one day. Putter in the yard, read a book in a lawn chair, and notice where the light goes. It might not be realistic to stay home for a whole day. That’s okay. Instead, you can take a day you’re not working and make note of light at different times as you go about your day. I think I just like the idea of spending a day sitting in the yard with a book and some lemonade! Time Spent: 30 min in 5-minute increments throughout the day
2. Decide Where to Plant: Once you know where the light is greatest, choose your space. Keep in mind that some vegetables are happiest when receiving 14 hours of sun a day. If your yard gets less, vegetables can still grow there. I know an organic gardener who grows plenty of fruits and vegetables in a slightly shady back yard. Sketch out where items will go. For my own purposes, I made a “map.” My garden map was not true to scale and still worked just fine. Time Spent: 10-15 minutes if you are fast at making decisions.
3. Raised versus In-Ground Garden Beds?: Since I have aggressive grass in my yard, I chose raised beds. I’ve done both and the raised beds work better for me and my situation. They required less weeding, and less time spent weeding means more time planting or harvesting or tending. Time Spent: 10-15 minutes to decide.
4. Buy Beds or Dig into the Ground: As you can imagine, the raised beds will save you the time spent digging, and that is my recommendation. If you dig, I recommend you dig in rows. Remove the sod and then dig about 12 to 18 inches into the earth to turn it over. Remove the first row of dirt and place it in a wheelbarrow. Turn the second row into the first row and so on until you are done. Place the dirt from the wheelbarrow into your last row. Time Spent: 6-8 hours for digging into the ground, depending on the garden size. 2-4 hours if using raised beds, depending upon whether the raised beds need to be assembled.
5. Fertilize and Amend the Soil: Your soil will likely need some kind of fertilizer. I bought chicken poo, worm casings (poo) and an organic Amish fertilizer from my local food coop. Find out if your state sells composted leaves. I use composted leaves and grass clippings as the base for most of my beds, and they do not cost much. Sure, I could save my own, but it would take a long time to have enough. As a result, I supplement with this recycled and economical option. My gardening friend has a connection to a horse stable, so we sometimes get manure and add that too (you have to let manure break down for six months or so before using, so take that into account). Time Spent: 15 minutes.
6. Order Seeds: Order vegetable seeds from the internet at a website like Seed Savers to save time. If you don’t have to drive to a store, you could save an hour of your precious non-job time. Time Spent: 30 minutes
7. Once you’ve done that, you are ready to plant. I won’t go into much detail about the vegetable planting since I’ve covered that elsewhere. Time Spent: 1-2 hours each time. You may have successive plantings throughout the season. Planting is relaxing to me, so I am happy to have it take a bit longer.
Once you get accustomed to the rhythms of your garden and do the initial set up, you’ll find it takes less and less time (and money!) as you gain experience and have certain items already set up. Yes, you can certainly spend 4-8 hours a day in your garden if you wish. However, it’s not necessary.
What do you do to maximize the time you have available to garden?
A former organic gardening teacher told me that planting marigolds in my garden would help repel insects. I planted some, and they looked stunning. I have NO idea if they really repeled insects or not, but I grew to adore this small but might flower. They are small yet so powerful and resilient.
For no good reason, I took a few years off of planting them in the vegetable garden. Recently, I saw some at a local nursery and was reminded of when I started vegetable garden years ago and took those lessons from an organic gardening “master.” Well, I decided to buy some of these orange flowers.
Not everyone agrees that marigolds will work to repel insects. I’ve since found out they may be of no real use in the organic veggie garden. Do I care? Not really.
I have them now because they provide color while I wait for the veggies to grow. I’m sure they keep pollinators happy too, and I love their orange color and peppery scent.
Do you have companion plants you’ve found useful in your vegetable garden?
photo by Carcophan
I have had a ball growing small pea plants and then transplanting them into the garden. I learned a lot about the seed-sprouting process from a fellow gardener and will share it with you here. One of the benefits of sprouting is knowing which seeds will make it and which won’t sprout. Knowing this saves you room, because you won’t bother plant seeds that aren’t going to work. Another benefit is that the squirrels seems less interested in the sports than they are in the seeds.
If you have suggestions or comments, please let me know!
Aren’t vegetable seeds beautiful? To think they all start out this way continually amazes me. As you can see, the seeds look rather large. If I recall correctly, these were covered with clay, which increases the size of the seed and makes them easier to hold and plant.
A neighbor taught me how to start seeds indoors and then transfer them outside into the vegetable garden. The advantage is you can get a head start on your growing season. By the time it’s warm enough to plant seeds outdoors, you will already have small plants to transplant outside and have your first harvest sooner. This means you might also have time for an additional planting and a second vegetable harvest!
For the purpose of this guide, I’ll share how I started peas and spinach indoors, transferred them outside, and had healthy plants producing food for me.
- Start Early: With any plant, find out the best time to plant. I’ll assume you’ve done that research and are ready to get started. Using plastic lunch bags, I sprouted seeds, which allowed me to know which seeds would germinate and which I should plant. Also, I purchased a two-tier grow light system with lights than can be raised on lowered depending on whether the plants are still seeds or tall or short. I bought that so I could start seeds indoors when it was still too cold outside. If you want a more economical solution, you can purchase lights and find ways to rig them so they hang above where you place your plants. Rigging them up on my own seemed like too much hassle. I prefer to spend my time in the dirt, so I decided it was worth it to pay for the two-tier lighting system, and I love it. I wish I’d bought it sooner!
- Find Your Containers: This year, I tested growing seedlings in both egg cartons and cow manure pots. I was curious if I’d see any difference. I noticed that seedlings grew really well in egg cartons but not in the manure pots. I’m not sure I know why they grew so well this way, but I’ll probably use egg cartons again. One drawback is that egg cartons are space hogs. So, keep in mind I also had success using the bottom of a plastic milk jug, which allows for more seedlings per square inch than the egg carton.
- Use Organic Seedling Mix: I planted seeds in organic seedling mix—better than garden soil—and ignored all the spacing requirements spelled out on the seed packet. I ignored them because I knew I’d be transplanting all of the seeds anyway, and I would space the vegetable seedlings out in the garden. Using a special seedling mix ensures your tender and nutrient-hungry seedlings get the nutrients they need in a less dense soil that allows water to drain.
- Gasp with Joy: When the seedlings started to come up, we were all so excited. I never tire of growing plants from seeds.
- Harden Off the Plants: Once you are ready to put the vegetable plants outside, you’ll need to “harden off” the plants. This just means you need to let the plants transition from the cushy environment of your house or greenhouse to the outdoors. To harden off my pea and spinach plants, I placed them outside for a few hours each day for several days. Advice on this varies. Let me just say I did not exactly follow any rule book, and my plants came out just fine. Once I had placed them outside for a few hours each day, I planted them in the garden on a not-so-bright day. My neighbor likes to plant transplants in the afternoon when it’s cooler, so they have more time to accustom themselves to the outdoor garden and its variable temperatures.
- Weed, Water, Tend: This is one of my favorite parts of gardening. Watering is, for me, one kind of meditation. The world seems quiet. I am both doing and not doing. The peaceful and repetitive work is calming and encourages me to notice the plants, the scents, the birds, and so on. Since I use raised garden beds, I do not have to worry too much about weeding. Recently, I removed about 20 baby maple trees from the garden. This is easy to do with any weed when you noticed and remove the weed early and when you are able to pull it from loose soil (as the dirt should be in your garden).
- Spacing Concerns: As your garden grows, it’s important to give your plants room to spread out and grow. However, it hurts me to remove perfectly good plants! Yesterday, I noticed radishes pushing up from the ground. This is the sign I use to know when it’s time to eat the radish. The other radishes were looking cramped, so I harvested ones that were ready and transferred the ones that weren’t to a new raised bed I’d set up. That way, I did not have to kill or give away perfectly fine plants. I know I’ll have to thin plants again, and so I am thinking it might be time for another raised bed or three, so I can transplant healthy plants to another location.
What are your tips for growing healthy vegetable plants in your garden?
One afternoon, I discovered radishes were ready to harvest far earlier than I’d anticipated. Harvesting in May? That’s unusual for me. I noticed that the cilantro had quadrupled its size. The lettuce had tripled its size. The spinach had grown from spindly leaves that I feared might die into large crinkly leaves that I dreamed of sautéing in olive oil with garlic. That day, the garden decided what I would be having for dinner. How perfect.