How To Get Started On Home Gardening
This Guide On Gardening was contributed by CJ
So, you want to raise a few vegetables? Just a small garden for fresh eating or to supplement your budget? Maybe a truck patch where you can sell extra produce? Gardening has been a lifestyle for my family as long as I can remember. I grew up tending the family garden as a child, I didn’t know why we grew a garden, I just enjoyed scratching in the dirt, and it wasn’t a chore, it was fun. My father taught me things to do and of course, things, you should not do. If you’re reading this blog, you know how precarious our economy is and nobody can predict our future, but we sense there is something happening. If you don’t know what you can do, you can plant a garden. It is time to prepare. A garden can offset the price of fresh vegetables, and contribute to your storage of good eating. Whatever your reasons may be, fresh vegetables are good for you, and besides, gardening is satisfying and relaxing.
Winter is a good time to dream and talk about a garden. Are you getting seed catalogs in the mail? Have you seen the new seed isle in Wal-Mart? Have you decided that you want to plant a garden? Do you have an idea what you would like to grow? Do you have the space? Is it in the sun light, full sun? In this guide, I hope to inspire your desire to dig in the dirt, plant a few vegetables, and share your enthusiasm when you are able to eat something you have grown yourself. We will discuss how to get started, tools, seeds & seed harvesting, seed starting, heirloom vegetables, enrichment of the soil, raised beds, & etc.
I will respond to comments and give suggestions if asked. I am not representing anyone but myself and my experience. You know the old saying about free advice? I am not promoting any company, but will mention the products that I personally use and have held up through heavy use. We will discuss methods, tried & true, some worked and some didn’t, methods used by our ancestors, they still work, but labor intensive. The use of modern technology has been a god send, but beware, they may fail, then what?
I plan on discussing the use, harvesting, and storing of your produce. Whether it be drying, canning, freezing, or other methods. This will be a work in progress, learning as we go, talking about good eating, food seasoning, and just plain ole fashion cooking. Fresh vegetables go along with a beef roast, pork ribs go with homemade sauerkraut, and that chicken that refuses to lay an egg, yes, she makes them dumplings go with mashed potatoes. How do you separate the garden from the livestock husbandry? Do use spice, herbs, & teas in your everyday life? Have you ever grown them? Do use garlic, lots of garlic? Are you aware how easy it is to grow?
I encourage experienced gardeners to chime in; I have a saying “I learn something new every day”. You can’t be wrong; it just might now work for me. Gardening is a great experiment. This is suppose to be a how-to-guide, but gardening has never been chiseled in stone. You have the characteristics of the soil to contend with, the weather, the seed, and human error. The subjects we will be discussing will depend on the comments from you, questions raised, and the rants of an ole urban homesteader.
Planning Your “Victory Garden”
During the 1940′s, the United States government was at war. They were rationing food products like sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat, & canned meats. They asked their citizens to plant a garden. They called it a “Victory Garden.” Are you waiting for the government to ask you to plant a garden? I don’t think our government will do that today. They are busy tearing up gardens, making it illegal to purchase raw milk, regulating the regulations. They are going so far as to make it illegal to feed yourself. What are we going to do?
We the people need to plant that “Victory Garden” today. So, with that in mind, let’s get started. A garden needs to be in a sunny location. And I will stress, location, location, location. A good location will solve a lot of problems before you begin. If you have an idea where you want that garden to be, watch the garden spot to see if it is in the shade, in the morning, at noon, or in the evening. The ideal spot should be in the full sun all day. Less than ideal is early morning to afternoon, but will work. The shadows from large trees & buildings make a garden less than desirable. I have a garden like that. I have an eight foot privacy fence that throws a shadow into my garden. Sun loving vegetables struggle to survive in that shadow. I have tried to make use of that area with winter onions, peppermint, and some perennial herbs that I’m not fond of. I also use the shadow from my neighbors house & a large hack berry tree for black raspberries & thorn less black berries. Even the grass refuses to grow there. I see wild berries growing in the woods, along old fence rows, and around old buildings, so I planted some to see if they would produce a crop. The black berries produced 5 qt of berries their first year. I am still waiting for a good crop from the black raspberries.
Next, lets talk about size. It don’t have to be large. Actually, a small garden is easier to take care of. You can enlarge the space next year if you are satisfied with the results this year. Remember, it has to be turned under or tilled, weeded often, and maybe watered. So, be realistic about the size. It can be as small as 3 X 3 , 10 X 10 , or 100 X 100. You can raise a lot of produce in a small space, so don’t get discouraged because of the lack of space. If more space is what you want, ask your neighbor about planting a garden in their yard. I have a garden in my neighbors back yard. They are welcome to gather fresh produce in trade for the location. From experience, I have had an acre in vegetables, half an acre in flowers, and a 16′ X 30′ green house. Very intensive gardening.
In the days when the garden meant thriving or starving, family gardens were plowed by a team of horses in the fall so that the sod, or refuse would be turned under to decompose through the winter, Today, it should be tuned under by a tractor and a plow. The same garden can be tilled by the use of a garden tiller or even by a shovel. Before I became the owner of a tiller, I would just rent one for a half day from the rental shop. The rest of the year, I cultivated by hand with tools like a hoe and a push plow. I still use them more than a tiller. So don’t let, having a tiller, keep you from planting a garden. There are ways around that.
Here in southern Indiana, we are in the midst of the winter, the pretty days make you think about a garden, but cold winds & snow flurries keep you inside. It’s a time for planning.
Plowing The Garden
For those folks that are experienced gardeners, this might seem boring, but for newbie’s, you have to start somewhere. You learn by doing. So, just tag along. On the first pretty day, put on some sturdy work shoes or boots, grab a shovel, a bag of flour out of the pantry and go to that spot where we’re going to put that garden you’ve have been dreaming about. Sprinkle flour down each side of your purposed garden, it should look like a white chalk line. It doesn’t have to be pretty. Start on the far side, take the shovel & dig the sod/soil as deep as possible, raising it up and turning it upside down in the same hole it came out from. Take a step to the rear & take slices of only a few inches; this will work much better when you get a rhythm going.
Now if this was lawn/grass, you should see the soil side up. Work your way from this end to the next. If you get tired, take a breather, come back and do it again. It’s not planting time yet, so you have plenty of time to work on this. Each pretty day, or just on weekends, work on the garden. Pace yourself. Remember, it won’t be this hard again. The hardest part was getting started. Next year, all you have to do is rototill the garden.
This procedure is used to make new gardens. We will rototill this area up once the soil has warmed and is in the right condition. This is the reason I recommend having a garden spot turned over with a real plow. It basically flips the soil over so the grass or refuse can decompose. A rototiller will only aerate the earth 4-6 inches, where a plow can do 6-8 inches. Some lawn & garden contractors will rototill your garden for a fee, sometimes they just go a couple inches. If you have this done, be there, stay with the operator, make him go as deep as you want him to go, they should work with you. If this doesn’t happen, the grass will sprout and overtake your garden. There is grass seed in the top 2 inches of the soil. Once it sees the sunlight, it will germinate.
All you needed to get started was a shovel. If your hands are tender from doing office work, plan on a pair of thin leather gloves to protect your hands from blisters. While we are waiting for the weather to change and the soil to warm up, let’s see what we need in the line of tools. I will explain the most useful, cheapest, & simplest to work with. Shovel; wood handles do get broken, whereas a fiberglass handle could last you a lifetime if your not careless. Hoe; a heavy hoe works best for me- doesn’t take a lot of strength to make it work, but I do have light ones, too. These are when I have visitors. You know what they always say ? “If only I had brought my tools, I would help”. Did I find a remedy for that! I put them to work, they don’t stay near as long. Push plow; the push plow is the work horse in the garden. It can be used to make rows (furrows) to plant your seeds in and it can be used to cultivate the soil as your vegetables grow. The cultivator is used all summer long. I found mine at a flea market with one handle missing. I replaced the handles and it works like a new one. I have two of these, one has the plow attachment and the other has the cultivator attachment. Saves me the time changing attachments.
Always be looking for older tools at yard sales, flea markets, & estate sales. Not only are garden tools found at these places, I find maintenance tools, butchering tools, canning & preserving tools. You may be able to save some money. Always turn them over to see where they are made. No, Taiwan is not a state here in the USA. Not only are older tools made better, they are made in America.
Choosing What To Grow
How do you decide what you want to plant? Well, I start with the vegetables I like to eat. Tomatoes is my first choice. Cabbage, cucumbers, peppers & beans. You can plant carrots, radishes, spinach, peas, yellow necked squash, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, & onions. If you have a large garden, you can grow vine crops like pumpkin & melons. I would also plant sweet corn and potatoes. Since my gardens are small, I buy my sweet corn and potatoes. If you have a permanent garden, one that has been there a few years or you are planning for your new one to be there for years, you can plant Rhubarb, asparagus, winter onions, horse radish & perennial herbs. These fellows come back year after year.
Your next decision will be if you want to plant plants that have been started already or do you want to start seeds. It wasn’t that far lorn that plants were unheard of. Everybody started with seeds. Then the plant revolution came and now, well everybody sells plants. Even the vegetables that were hard to transplant. I even see sweet corn in a pot. The largest plant grower in the mid west has good plants, just may not have the variety you are looking for. In that case, seeds are your only alternative. Tomato and pepper seeds will need to be planted early to be able to produce a crop. If you want to plant seed, they will have to be planted in the house, or preferably a warm location 6-8 weeks before the last frost. Something to think about. If you haven’t the time or have never planted a garden, I would recommend purchasing your plants. You can but them, bring them home, and plant them in the graden. No mess or fuss! Read more on plants here.
Tomatoes, a whole chapter can be written about tomatoes. There are tomatoes for slicing, juice, paste, & drying, Goliath tomatoes, & cherries tomatoes. To understand tomatoes, I go to a seed catalog that sells tomato seeds and use the catalog as an encyclopedia. These catalogs are excellent for research materials. There are hybrids and there are heirloom tomatoes. Heirloom tomato seed can be harvested and saved for planting the next year. Tomatoe plants are a sun loving plant. They desire full sun to thrive. I raised my tomato plants from seed. I started with New Yorker, Golden Jubilee, Pineapple, Amish Paste, Mortgage Lifter, Rutgers and Pink Brandwine . Plants grown from seed will need to be started early. So if that is what you want to do, go ahead and purchase your seed. Read more on tomatoes here.
I planted 10 Amish Paste plants for tomato paste and for drying, 20 plants of the other varieties for juice and eating. My wife canned the juice and we had sliced tomatoes every meal, all summer. I sold about 75 plants to friends.
Cabbage is another vegetable that has promise. Cabbage is a hardy cool-season plant. They can be started 10-12 weeks in a warm location. Since these plants can with stand cool weather, they be planted into the garden much sooner than the sun loving /tender plants. Some cabbage is better for sauerkraut than others and all are good for slaw, salads, or steamed cabbage. The spring or early cabbage is grown for all of these. The fall or late cabbage is grown for more sauerkraut making. I have raised cabbage plants, but lately, I just purchase plants. Everybody sells cabbage plants in the spring. Th fall or late cabbage plants are hard to find.
Are you in the zone?
There are oodles of books written about gardening. Just go to the used book store or a flea market that peddles used books. You will find shelves/boxes of these things. How can a writer sell such a book when it is just a repeat of yesterdays news? They all talk about the vegetables, the different varieties of each, days to maturity, how much sunlight each plant needs, raised beds, soil types, nutrients, and the zone in which each plant does the best. The truth is, it can be over whelming!
I personally like the books with lots of colorful pictures. You have heard the saying, “A picture tells it all,” or “Pictures are worth a million words.” Of all the books about gardening, I can relate to just one, “Joy of Gardening” published by Garden Way. And I give it away! Imagine that. I should have kept that one.
Plant hardiness relates to the climate of your area. If you look at the shrubs, perennial flowers, and trees at your local nursery, you will see plant hardiness zone number. This is the zone in which this particular plant will do its best. The important date or zone information that we need to know is basically when will the last frost date occur in the spring and the earliest frost date in the fall. Remember, we need to get the plant in the ground and produce a crop between these dates. I have included a link to such a chart. These reference points are just that, I do not promote the company or companies in which I reference. If you like flowers, there is no harm in making your vegetable garden beautiful. With some research, you can find flowers that deter bugs and insects and is quite beneficial for the garden. I probably have more flowers than vegetables. At one time, I raised flowers that are used for flower arrangements. These are annuals and are raised just like vegetables, just to mention a few, babby’s breath, statice, straw flowers, cockscomb, yarrow, and corn flowers. All of thes plants can be started indoors and planted once that frost date has past.
You can see more on growing zones here.
By planting seeds 6-8 weeks earlier in a warm location, we cheat mother nature. Now, fooling mother nature works sometimes, but not always. For instance, I put straw around my tomato plants this last year, it saves moisture, cause I knew we would have a dry summer. Well, mother nature decides, not so, and so we now have the wettest year on record. We have droughts in some parts of the country and floods in the other, so do check out the zone maps. This is not an exact science, but will give you an idea.
I am in zone (6), so any plants that are not cold hardy should not be planted before the approximate date of May 10. Now, if I do, I am prepared to cover them up to protect them from the frost. It doesn’t have to be freezing temperature to frost. I have seen a frost at 40 degrees. Its the make-up of the moisture and temperature of the air that can or will produce a frost. And you will notice that a frost will develop as the sun rises. Cool isn’t it? A small breeze will deter frost. I am not the “Science Guy,” so any topic that your interested in, please go to google and research the topic for a full understanding.
Cold hardy plants like kales, spinach, broccoli, turnips, & cabbage can be started indoors, and planted 2-3 weeks before that last frost date. Also, they can be planted late in the summer to produce a fall or winter crop. Late cabbage can be used to make sauerkraut. The cool temperatures will make the sauerkraut ferment slower and the kraut to keep longer. I have turnips growing in the garden now. They were planted in late August. The soil has never frozen and they just keep growing. They are delicious fried and stewed. My wife likes them sliced and eaten raw. The chickens like the tops. They can withstand cool nights, some frost, and with protection, a late snow storm or two. My father remembers it snowing in May. This is how to fool mother nature.
Stock the Pantry
If you read this blog and feel the need to stockpile some supplies for your family, stocking the pantry should rank pretty high on your list. This guide on gardening is to help the beginner/old timer to do just that. The crop that you produce can be eaten immediately from the garden, or processed to keep for a long time if proper methods are followed.
If you want to can your green beans and tomatoes, you need to start purchasing fruit jars and the items necessary for the processing. My wife watches craigslist for used jars. They can be bought in the off season from most retailers at a mark down price, or as clearance items. This is the way to save money. If you wait to the canning season, expect to pay top dollar for all these items. Quarts are best for tomatoes, green beans, or family size meals. Pints are good for jellies, jams, condiments like green tomato relish, picked beets, apple butter, & rhubarb just to name of few. Also you can process butter like this in a jar for keeping. Don’t forget to purchase extra lids and rings. Once the jar seals, you can take the ring off and use it on another jar.
A water bath canner, pressure canner, kitchen tools, colander, food processor, and the list goes on that will make this process easier. Fancy gadgets work and make the job easier, so use them, but think about the tools that grandmother used, could you do that? I also recommend following the guide lines set by the USDA on food preparations. I also recommend a food dehydrator. Excellent for tomatoes, peppers, herbs, venison jerky, & etc. Ideas are endless. Use your imagination! If you can find strawberries to pick, they make excellent jelly and freezer jam. Black berries and raspberries can be frozen or canned for cobblers.
There are as many books on preserving food as there are gardening and recipes. I own a few of each, but still watch PBS shows on how the old timers done things. They didn’t learn these methods by reading it in a book. There is nothing like helping and learning by experience. This guide is about producing the quality to eat and the quantity to put back for tomorrow.
More sections coming soon