I love gardening, and we have a huge garden, so I have to start thinking about it early and get a head start or it would eat me alive! We joke about how we don’t save any money gardening, but homegrown produce is organic and far superior to store bought in both taste and nutrition, so price is not really a fair measurement. Even more valuable are the relationships and skills we cultivate as we work together as a family, planting, weeding, watering and harvesting. Knowing how to feed yourself is priceless!
Here are 7 ways to get a head start on your garden:
1. Research. You will need to know your growing zone and climate. Check out this link to find a plant hardiness map. Local friends and neighbors who garden are a great resource, too, and are usually thrilled to help! You could also check out the gardening shelf at your library, local facebook gardening groups, gardening blogs or forums, and you can find free or cheap ebooks on Amazon.
You should also determine your soil type and pH (through a soil test) and learn about how to work with it or amend it to something more suitable. You can check your average last frost date, which you will need in order to determine the best planting dates for your area.
2. Pick the location of your garden. You will want someplace with full sun and no tree roots or other competition. It should have good drainage and access to water or some sort of irrigation. You will also want to think ahead somewhat to what you want to grow and how much room it will take. Keep in mind that you will want to rotate your crops each year.
3. Bed preparation– After determining the ideal location for your garden, you will want to prepare the ground for planting. Now is a perfect time for that! Some people like to till the soil, but not me. The weeds seem to multiply. It’s too much work for very little return on investment. Instead, I have a very easy garden-bed-starting method. I save cardboard shipping boxes through the holidays (I do lots of online shopping), break them down flat and store them in my garage. When I’m ready to start a new garden bed I simply cover the ground in that location with cardboard boxes, one or two thick, wet them down and mulch on top of the boxes. Your bed will look tidy and attractive, the cardboard will get soft and mushy and be ready to plant through come spring (just use a knife to cut an X and peel the cardboard back to plant through), and the cardboard will provide excellent water retention and weed barrier for several seasons. Also, as it decomposes, it adds humus to your soil.
4. Map out your site— Literally, just use a measuring tape and a piece of graph paper to map your site. Decide what to grow and where. Be sure to pick plants that match your hardiness zone. Draw your rows onto your graph paper and check plant size to determine approximately how many seeds you’ll need. Remember that certain plants are planted in cool weather, like peas, onions, beets and spinach and others, like tomatoes, beans and corn after all threat of frost has passed.
5. Mulch– I know I mentioned mulching over the cardboard boxes in number three, but I need to re-emphasize the mulch, and bark mulch in particular. Bark mulch is your best friend, baby! You can never have too much mulch! It will greatly reduce your watering and weeding, in addition to contributing essential mychorrizae (which deserves it’s own post!) and humus to your soil. Be sure not to mix it into your soil, as it will deplete nitrogen while it decomposes. Just leave it sitting on top of the soil to do its magic. Orison Orchards (my farm) is windy, dry and rocky. The first year we lived here we planted 54 fruit trees. Despite textbook-perfect care, only about 10 of them survived. That winter I did lots of research. Our second year here we planted another 57 fruit trees, but this time we topped them with over six-inch-thick bark mulch in a 3′ radius and all but three lived. They flourished!
While planting our garden the first year, I looked and could not find any worms. The next year, after having had the mulch in place for a year, the garden was virtually teeming with worms. Because you are significantly changing an ecosystem, you will notice what may look like undesirable changes. I started seeing an excess of roly poly bugs. I just patiently allowed the ecosystem time to rebalance itself, and it did. I now see fewer roly poly bugs than I did before the mulch inputs.
Be sure your mulch is nice and thick to make a difference. You will need to add more every year. We purchase ours pretty inexpensively from a local landscaper who chips the trees and prunings he pulls out of his client’s yards.
6. Irrigation system— Unless you live in a place with sufficient rainfall you will need to irrigate. The easier you make irrigation on yourself, the more likely it is to be done adequately. I find drip hoses to be the most efficient way for me, and I like for as many drip hoses as possible to be on a timer so that I can go on vacation. A good irrigations system is a little complicated, so I created a separate post about it, but it will save you the time you spend setting it up times ten. At least! And it will save your garden, too!
7. Purchase– Keep a list on the same graph paper with your map of what you will need to purchase. Because you have planned so well, you will know exactly what in need in terms of both seeds and equipment so you can purchase with confidence! Be sure to look for coupons. I get mail every day from Gurneys, Burpee, Territorial Seed and more, and nearly all of them have big 50% off coupons on the front. And be sure not to overbuy–no matter how many interesting and tempting varieties of zuchinin there are your family can only eat so much zuchini.
Who is excited to get back to gardening?