If you’re ready to sink your shovel into the soil for a garden of your own, there’s a number of considerations that need to be made beforehand.
There’s no boilerplate design or format when it comes to gardening – but you can expect different results based on how your garden is set up.
Whether you’re planning on direct sowing, pot planting, or raised beds, you’ll need to make sure your plants have a good foundation.
By taking special care into planning in early stages, planting and growth, and the final harvest, you can make the most out of your garden year over year.
Before you begin, you want to ask yourself the question: “what do I want to eat?”
This is because growing food that you and/or your family won’t eat isn’t worth the time, energy and space you will devote to it. If you don’t like eating kale or broccoli, why grow it?
If you like tomatoes, or have an awesome tomato salsa recipe you may want to invest more space to growing your tomato plants. Think about what you want to eat during the “off” season as well.
Do you want to eat lots of spaghetti? Probably should add some onions and basil to your garden. Salsa? Plan on some jalapeno plants.
Table of Contents
Step 1: Location, Location, Location
Your geographic location will be the first key element to consider when determining the placement of your garden.
In what climate are you located? What’s your USDA hardiness zone? You can check out this U.S. map to find out. This is your starting point that will allow you to make a list of the plants that you can and cannot grow.
Next is the location of the garden on your property, and the location of your property itself. Is it on a slope? Is it prone to flooding? DO you have any trees growing on it? These are all very good questions you should ask yourself.
The garden will need to be positioned on your property in an area with access to water, adequate space, and sufficient sunlight. Sun tracking is the best starting point before you turn over that first piece of soil.
This means you’ll need to track the sun’s path along your garden plot. You can do this by paying close attention to sunrise and sunset shadows cast by nearby structures, fences, or trees
Then, once you’ve got an area with enough sunlight and space, you’ll want to factor in the type of terrain, weather, and security measures. Access to a southern-facing slope is ideal for anyone north of the Equator.
Once you’ve done some basic sun observations, follow up by providing water and gauging the size of garden you can plant and maintain. The size and type of garden you chose may be limited depending on resources and geography.
In areas of vast, open land, your garden plot may be as simple as picking an area that is easy to access. However, aggressive terrain can make this choice a bit more challenging.
Hillsides, valleys, rocky terrain, and dense overgrowth can add a layer of complexity. Low-lying flat lands can be prone to flooding where hillsides and overbrush can create challenges with watering and maintenance.
Think ahead. By taking special care to think through catastrophic challenges that can be bear down on your garden, you can increase your chances of a successful harvest.
Natural weather cycles may dictate the size and style of garden that you keep. Areas with heavy rainfall will require different planning and design than areas prone to drought.
Areas with harsh cold temperatures and snowfall will require a different level of care than areas where weather remains relatively constant.
High winds or stagnant humidity will limit the types of plants you choose for your garden.
If you are new to an area or unsure about regular weather patterns for the area, you can determine the best types of plants and growing seasons by following a zone map and pairing your seeds and planting times with the appropriate zone.
This is a critical consideration. Local extension offices are a significant resource and they can provide region-specific information on the regular weather patterns, typical planting seasons, and types of plants that work best in your area based on climate.
Intruders and Predators
A garden will likely attract a variety of wildlife and even draw attention from neighbors and family. As corn stalks and sunflowers start cresting above privacy fences, you may get a few visitors at the door curious about your plot.
Protecting your garden is a consideration that few people make early on. But without some level of security, you could wind up losing your entire crop.
A backyard garden near a playground could be lost at the hands of curious neighbor kids. An open plot could be trampled by rambunctious pets.
And your hard work could turn out to be the main food source for wildlife like rabbits, deer, and moles – instead of food for your family.
Fences and barriers will help to increase the protection of your plants. There are also audio alarms and deterrents that can be used to keep wildlife away.
There is often a cost associated with protecting your garden, and in some cases permitting and local laws may dictate the types of protection you have in place.
Step 2: Time to Get Down and Dirty
Once you’ve got your garden plot positioned and staked out, you can start looking closely at the dirt within the plot.
Quality soil is a major part of your garden success for any direct-sow garden. Nutrients and soil condition will drive growth from seed to bloom.
Soil condition will be apparent in the first shovelful. You’ll know right away what the garden has working for it – and against it. The soil will speak volumes based on the rock density, clay, aeration, compaction, and drainage.
You’ll also be able to tell the quality of the soil by the amount of activity going on under the surface. However, the best thing you can do is perform a soil test.
This will not only tell you the type of soil you have (sandy, clay, loamy), but also whether it has enough essential nutrients.
Putting Dirt to the Test
For a garden, you won’t want just any kind of dirt. You need soil. Quality soil. After a few garden seasons, you’ll know exactly what kind of soil works best for the plants you intend to grow.
But there are a few ways to make sure your first season will stand a better chance at survival.
You can collect a sample of dirt and tell by how it feels in your hands. Is it soft and loamy like fresh compost in a bag? Is it thick and clay-like? Or is it filled with rocks?
For each type of native soil, there are methods for amending the soil to get the best performance out of it. This will allow you to have a greater variety of plants, and more success overall.
If you have a specific type of garden or plant you want to grow, you’ll want to look even closer at the plant needs and determine if the soil can provide it. Some plants require more acidic soil and some thrive on less.
A pH test can help to determine the acidity of your soil. There are methods for performing a pH test at home, or you can provide a sample to your extension office. The results of the test will help to guide any chemical amendments you may want to add in.
Drainage and Density
Adequate drainage is a broad term, but it is the best way to describe your soil’s ability to retain or remove water. Soil with good drainage will allow plants to absorb moisture and nutrients through the root systems based on the regular water pattern.
Soils with poor drainage can cause two polar problems: excessive water use, or stagnation at the root.
Soil that drains too quickly will cause plants to dry out despite constant watering. This often leads to nutrients leaching away from the roots instead of allowing them to be absorbed.
In most cases, soil that drains too quickly will be lacking in nutrients and fertility for your plants.
Soil that is too dense may cause water to remain at the surface or drown the root base.
Roots must have access to air below ground. In addition to water challenges, dense soil can prevent young plants from taking root at all, or stunt growth and production.
Creating adequate drainage is possible by finding the right balance between soil density and aeration. Clay-like soil can be mixed with fast draining soils to create a good blend.
Other methods of soil amendments can be introduced in the form of sand, vermiculite, and perlite, or insects like earthworms that can help to provide nutrients while aerating soils.
Fertility and Contaminants
Soil that has the right pH, adequate drainage, and a good consistency may still be lacking in nutrients. Healthy soil will show signs of life below ground – things like organic matter, bugs, and the like.
If you don’t see signs of life below the surface, you may need to introduce nutrients to help out or check for signs of contamination.
Industrial contamination in the form of mining activity, smelting, and airborne chemicals may hinder the soil’s ability to survive. This will also impact your plant growth.
In extreme cases, you may need to remedy the soil, and have new topsoil introduced.
If you are looking at a garden plot that hasn’t seen activity in a while, you may just need to introduce fertilizers to encourage growth.
Chemical fertilizers are available over the counter at most hardware stores. However, natural fertilizers can be even more powerful.
Castings from rabbits, chickens, bats, and worms all help to introduce nitrogen and bacteria into soils that aid in composting and plant growth.
If you introduce fertilizers to aid in soil performance, keep in mind that some fertilizers are hot and need to season over while others can be added within days of the initial planting.
Step 3: Make Room to Work and Grow
Depending on the scale of your garden, you may need to factor in access. Will your plants be in the back 40 where you’ll need to pack a lunch just to get to it? Or will it be right outside the door?
And, once in the midst of your garden, will you have room to move and work without crushing your plants?
Even with the best sunlight and soil available, your ability to access the garden may be a challenge you need to address or accommodate. Your best location may be a significant distance from the closest water source.
Garden tools may need to be packed long distances or stored nearby. And you may want to be able to provide gated access to allow for large vehicles while keeping intruders out.
Tools and Utilities
In order for your garden to work, you’ll need to work your garden. Access to essential garden tools and supplies will take some of the work out of the equation.
Water is the most important thing you’ll need to provide. Whether you intend on drip line systems, hand watering, sprinklers, or other forms of watering, you’ll need to make sure you can provide water to some point close to your garden.
Standpipes, hand wells, or hose spigots located near your garden will reduce the amount of work overall. Deliver a water source near your garden to eliminate the need for extended hoses.
Nevertheless, you’ll still need those if you want some flexibility when you water your plants. These Gilmour garden hoses are very durable and will last a lifetime, but do mind the length of the one(s) you get.
You want hose a little longer than you anticipate, but you certainly don’t want to overpay on hoses that are too long.
Also pay attention to the diameter of the hoses you choose. narrower ones will offer a smaller flow of water.
These will help conserve water, and avoid puddles from forming. This is fine, as narrower hoses are cheaper. You should always look for ways to cut costs when gardening.
If you have a water source near the garden it is much easier to establish elaborate irrigation methods. Plus, hand-watering will be much easier, and you can set up specific timers to aid in smart water use.
Tools kept in a garden shed nearby will save time and energy. Plus, you’ll be able to keep your tools in better shape and prevent them from getting lost, stolen, or damaged.
If your garden is located a fair distance from your main tool area, you might consider building a small tool shed close to the garden plot.
If tool theft is a concern in your area, you may want to limit access to your tool shed by installing locks or security cameras.
Pathways and Trails
Ease of access will be a major component in your garden – both on the approach and between the rows. Your daily venture to the garden will drive the need for a trail that is safe, easily accessible, and sturdy.
This is especially important for terraced or hillside gardens. Trails provide regular access to your plot, and to sections within your garden. An ideal trail will need to be wide enough to pull a hand cart or push a wheelbarrow.
Pathways within your garden will allow you to access individual plants. These may not be traveled as much as trails, but they should be made to prevent the spread of weeds.
Pathways don’t need to be as wide, but they should provide enough separation from plants to allow room to grow. They should also provide enough room for you to get in to harvest, pull weeds, or inspect for bugs or rodent activity.
Step 4: Prepare to Protect Your Garden
Your garden will eventually come under attack. Whether it is at the paws of predators, antennae of insects, or even your own pets betraying you, you’ll need to be aware of loss as a result of these outside forces.
Insects, small animals, and large animals all have the potential to wreak havoc on your garden.
It may be part or in whole, but either way, you’ll need to protect the garden from these predators.
Insects are the smallest form of predator. Slugs, aphids, and other insects will stress out or damage plants day and night. You can defend your garden from insects by introducing insect predators or chemical defenses.
In order to protect against this threat, you’ll need to be able to identify the insect activity. Sometimes the damage will be obvious, like leaves that are curled or carved out by insects feasting on the ends.
Other damage will be less obvious, with insects that hide inside vines or on the underside of the plant leaves. It’s important to properly identify the damage before setting up defenses.
Once you’ve identified the insect threat, you can take steps to prevent further damage. You may be able to attract or introduce natural predators that will help plants and attack the plant predators.
Create homes or environments that entice harmful insect hunters. You may also introduce chemical barriers to help stop threats. Natural chemicals like salts or soaps are useful against most harmful insects.
Leaf eating insects and animals have potential to cause significant damage to your garden. Plants use leafy growth above ground to absorb vital energy from the sun. But when leaves are damaged by predators, your plants will struggle to recover.
Leaf eaters like caterpillars, rabbits, deer, and more, may require special attention. Fences can be used to help deter access.
Attract robins and other birds to help reduce large insect activity, and deter small animal leaf eaters by installing faux predators like owl, or snake effigies.
Depending on the regulations in your area, you may be able to install traps to help keep rodent activity under control.
Roots are critical for plants to absorb water and nutrients out of the soil. So you’ll want to keep an eye on predators that decide to feast on your roots before you do.
If you notice plants missing and a cavity in its place, you’ll want to check out the activity below ground.
Voles, moles, and other sub-terranean predators may require audible deterrents, smokes, or natural predators like snakes or traps.
Just because these predators are out of sight doesn’t mean they can remain out of mind. You’ll notice right away if your plants disappear when one in the row disappears or dies among the rest.
Check closely around the base for signs of cavities in the ground, freshly disturbed dirt, or scat.
Early in the season, your seeds are a valuable commodity. Be sure to protect them from seed eaters. Squirrels, birds, and small rodents may be emerging from winter hunger by feasting on your garden.
Spreading garden seeds is no different than spreading wild animal seed, and they will not be able to differentiate.
Protect early planted seeds by covering new seeds until they’ve germinated, either inside a greenhouse, or by enclosing the seed in some kind of protection.
You can use a small enclosure, like a pop bottle, to encourage growth. Other options might include deterrents like cats, netting, or bright reflective tape.
Toward the end of your garden season you may find that large game are on the move and ready to graze on your harvest. Corn, leafy greens, fruits and vines are often the favorites of deer, moose, hogs, racoons and sometimes elk.
Large game poses a more significant logistical threat. You may not be able to snare, trap, or kill large game in your area. Some animals have learned to take advantage of this and tend to feast on late season gardens before you get a chance to pull your harvest.
Large game deterrents may include tall fencing, offensive odors, or other animals like large dogs. Fences may not be enough for large game capable of jumping them, but dogs can alert you to their presence and help to scare them off.
Step 5: Attracting Beneficial Insects and Animals
While some insects and animals can do significant harm to your garden, there are others that can help your garden by aerating soil, attacking invasive harmful insects, pollinating plants, and fertilizing soil.
It is important to check for signs of helpful animals and encourage their activity in your garden.
When harmful insects start to show up in your garden, you may see a few others that are on the hunt. Ladybugs, spiders and praying mantises all work help to keep the predatory insect population down in your garden. Encourage insect defenders in your garden.
By introducing select plants into your garden alongside your main harvest, you can attract more of these helpful insects. Plants like fennel, dill, marigold, and yarrow will attract these beneficial insects.
Bees and butterflies also help to pollinate your flowering garden plants. By planting perennial berry bushes or fruit trees, you can help to attract these insects year over year. In doing so, you’ll have fuller harvests.
You may need to protect bee activity by discouraging wasps and other bee aggressors. If a bee box is allowed in your area, you can set one up and provide a long-term home for an entire colony.
Pollinating and Protective Birds
While some birds wreak havoc on your early seed sowing, they can be helpful in keeping the harmful insect population under control. Sparrows, finches, and robins will feed on larger insects like crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars.
You can encourage bird activity by introducing shade trees, birdhouses, bird baths, and bird feeders. If you installed bird deterrents early in the planting season, be sure to remove them once your plants start to show promise.
Hummingbirds help to pollinate your flowering fruits and vegetables and will promote growth in your garden all season long. The nectar from flowers may not be enough to keep them around, so provide a bright hummingbird feeder.
Predatory birds are also helpful with keeping rodent populations down. Kestrels and owls work day and night to hunt mice, voles, and other small rodents. Encourage their activity by providing homes like kestrel boxes or owl shelters.
Insects and animals can provide better fertilizer than what’s available over the counter. Chickens and bats can provide “hot” fertilizer that can be put down at the end of a planting season to recharge it over winter.
Both chickens and bats help to hunt harmful insects and they provide fertilizer that is very high in nitrogen. You may be able to purchase or barter for chicken manure if you cannot grow chickens in your area.
Bat guano is much harder to come by, but you can encourage bat activity by building a bat box.
Worm castings are immediately beneficial to gardens, and their activity below ground helps to aerate and mix the soil. Harmful chemicals can reduce worm activity, so avoid using them whenever possible.
Power Tools – Weed eaters, rototillers, and security
There’s a significant amount of work required in tilling soil or maintaining it year after year. Some of this work can be reduced with the help of animals.
While the antics and challenges of large farm animals are many, it may be worthwhile to introduce them on your homestead.
If you have the room and the means, a pig can prove a powerful tool for tilling. Instead of muscling that gas-powered tiller, section off your garden for a pig pen and rotate it out.
Pigs will root up the soil, fertilize it, and stir it well enough for the next year. After your harvest, move the animal and it will get started on the new terrain.
Goats also help in the garden by passing over your vegetables and instead eating invasive weeds. They can be tethered to a small area, or allowed to roam depending on the space you have and rules in your area.
Step 6: Plants, Planting, and Planning
With the location set, and your plant predator defenses in line, you can start making a plan for planting. Depending on your long-term plan and your garden restrictions, you may be limited to what you can plant.
In leased land like rental homes or apartments, you may be limited to above-ground, annual plants. On a new homestead, you will have more freedom to plant longstanding fruits and vegetables that return year over year.
Starting seeds can be as simple or as complicated as you like.
I start mine in egg shells that have been broken in 1/2 and filled with some dirt. I put the 1/2 shells in a styrofoam egg carton since it holds the water better than the cardboard ones. Plant the seeds, water, and place in a sunny windowsill. Voilà! Instant transplantable pots!
Tomato plants seem to especially love this, and the seedling can be put into the ground within the eggshell completely. It makes for a bit less shock to the plants system. Or, you can buy the little “mini greenhouses” that they commonly sell, and start your seeds in there.
They can be spendy, but if you are careful with them, you can use them again and again. I have a set we used for 4 years to get our seeds started.
Annual plants must be planted from seed year after year. You can purchase seeds or if you have adequate stock, you can save seeds after harvest and sow again the next year.
Annual plants generally have a single growing season and produce flowering plants. Plant annuals at the beginning of the season and select a planting date based on the final harvest date.
Some plants have short growing seasons and can be sown multiple times in a season. You can generally find this information on the back of the seed packet or in resource catalogs like the Farmer’s Almanac.
Perennial plants like shrubs, bulbs, vining plants, and herbs have the potential to come back year after year.
Bulbs and root ball plants that aren’t harvested can be dug up and separated to generate plant clusters, or selectively harvested once they are well established. They will go dormant during winter but return every spring without additional planting.
Fruits are an obvious choice for most home gardeners. Fruits attract pollinators and return year after year. However, they take time to establish well enough to produce a significant harvest. Berry bushes and fruit trees should be planted early on to allow a harvest, which may take 3-5 years.
Vegetable gardens are generally planted annually. Since they require special attention every planting season, vegetable gardens should be scaled up only to the level that they can be effectively maintained.
Otherwise, the plants may become overcrowded, overrun by weeds, or the garden could go to waste if plants aren’t harvested in time.
Flower gardens may contain both annual or perennial plants. You can plant specific flowers within your fruit or vegetable gardens to help promote helpful insect and bird activity.
Or, you can design flower gardens specifically to create an appealing look that compliments your landscape.
Planting combinations are a helpful tool in any garden. Plants that provide shade can help encourage growth for other plants that do well in indirect sun.
Plants that grow stalks like sunflowers or corn can help provide a path for vertical vining plants like peas or beans.
Some plants also work in tandem by exchanging nutrients below ground just by being planted close to each other, like the Three Sisters – corn, squash, and beans.
Flowers within a vegetable garden can help to deter invasive, harmful insects, while others can be used to attract helpful insects.
Some fruits within a flower garden can help to provide additional color and complimentary foliage.
Look carefully into plant selection and choose plants that work together and provide a good balance of benefits within your garden. As your garden takes shape, you’ll start to understand which combinations work out best.
Look closely at the needs and life cycle of your plants and see how you can introduce plant combinations to help encourage growth and a better harvest.
Step 7: Alternative Garden Types and Forms
You can grow a garden anywhere. Any time of year. And in any climate zone. However, your success will vary depending on the type of garden you choose and how much you need to provide.
In most cases, a backyard garden is as simple as digging up some dirt and planting a few seeds. But there are also forms of gardening that allow you to take advantage of even the most desolate spaces.
Growing Up With a Vertical Garden
When land is at a premium you can always look up the benefits of vertical gardens. These types of gardens use a gravity-fed water supply to provide plants the water they need to survive.
The vertical garden shuns the need for wide open spaces. Instead, plants can be stacked on top of each other using various structures, like hanging pots, vertical netting, or even PVC pipe.
This form of planting is very beneficial in small spaces like apartments, small lots, and decks or terraces.
Even a basement can become flourishing vertical garden if plants are provided with enough light and nutrients.
Grow lights are essential in environments such as these. It’s also important to note that these systems require a regiment of hand watering, or pumps to continuously provide water.
Because of the weight and water capture requirements of these systems, they are best suited for placement on or above concrete surfaces.
Another option for small spaces with limited turf is the micro garden. These are small gardens that can be very productive with the use of simple containers.
The benefits of mobility and storage allows you to plant early on and move plants outdoors as they grow. Or, you can use counter space to grow and harvest fresh herbs and spices.
Weather sensitive plants can be moved indoors in cold winter weather and transported outside when spring returns. Micro gardening comes in many forms, like garden planters, hay bales, pallet planters, zeer pots, and more.
This type of gardening requires a certain level of daily care and maintenance. Water is often provided by hand watering or drip lines.
When soil is not an option, you may be able to make use of your water instead. Hydroponics is a modern form of gardening where plants are grown in water instead of dirt.
Chemical nutrients are added to the water to encourage growth and flowering. As plants mature, they are harvested and replaced with new seedlings.
Chemicals are added by hand to the watering system in most cases. Since all plant growth is rooted in the water, it must be provided in the form of misting, water beds, or constant flow systems.
These systems are often expensive to start up, but can be profitable if used for mass production.
Aquaponics is an old form of gardening that is similar to hydroponics. Plants are grown in water systems that allow them to draw nutrients out. But instead of providing nutrients to the plants by means of chemical additives, the plants survive on fish waste.
The combination of fish waste and root filtration creates a small ecosystem where fish have clean water because of the plants and the plants have nutrients because of the fish.
Properly managed systems can spur growth quickly and harvests are often extended. However, these systems must be carefully managed. Not only are you caring for your plants on a regular basis but also the needs of your fish.
The system must remain balanced, which requires a significant level of attention. If too many plants are removed, the filtration won’t be adequate. If too many or too little fish are present, the plants will not be as useful.
Another caveat is that aquaponics will stop functioning in case of a blackout, so you’ll need a backup generator, preferably with an auto-switch function. This way you’ll ensure the system continues to work smoothly in case of a short-term power outage.
Some people even set up battery alarms that alert them when the power goes out – as this even typically goes unnoticed unless you’re watching TV, or it’s nighttime and the lights are on.
For those with dirt in hand who want a little bit more to work with, Hugelkulture is a good option. It combines vertical gardening with traditional soil planting by creating a mound of dirt and planting in the sides and along the top.
This increases the planting space significantly within the same footprint. Mounds are constructed by first digging a trench, then adding deadfall like branches, logs, and old stumps.
The filled trench is covered with leaves and grass, then dirt is added on the tops and sides to form a mound.
As the lower layers compost, they provide drainage and nutrients to the plants above and by the end of a few seasons, you have prime compost to work with year after year.
If you want a garden without all the seasonal tilling and site work, Permaculture is the way to go. Do it right and you can even get a higher yield than you would from a traditional garden in the same space.
Permaculture uses natural growth methods to encourage native plant perennials. Plants are only maintained initially, and there is some work to be done to prepare the soil, but once the cycle kicks in, it takes almost no maintenance. Harvests are guided by what is available.
Shade is provided by fruit bearing trees or bushes. Weed control is obtained by packing plants together tightly instead of traditionally manicured plant spacing.
Bug and pest control is provided by plants that repel harmful insects. Watering is generally minimal if done properly. Nutrients are provided by the natural decay and no-till gardening methods.
If you’re starting out fresh with a new homestead or garden, a fruit tree and careful plant selection may be best way to get settled in.
Given the way a permaculture food forest works, you may have to grow plants that aren’t that common in the supermarket, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be delicious in the hands of the right chef! Plus, nutritionally speaking, most of these plants are macro- and micro-nutrient powerhouses!
Raised Boxes and Beds
Raised beds provide an excellent level of control. The raised bed is a simple structure that contains quality soil for planting and isolates plants from most harmful factors like pests or weeds.
They also provide an elevated work surface to allow for easier planting and harvest. They can be constructed at any working height or configuration and in some cases they can be bought or built with leftover construction materials.
Keyhole gardens allow for access on almost all sides where rectangular raised beds can provide garden spaces along walking paths or fence lines.
Step 8: Scale and Purpose
You may have already decided what you hope to achieve with your garden. But even your long-term goals start out with a few simple steps like the ones listed above.
To stay the course, you’ll want to have a clear purpose and scale in mind. Your purpose may seem obvious at first, but it often changes as you become more experienced and get a few seasons under your hat.
The scale will also change and grow – or shrink – once you realize the amount of work and care it takes to grow a garden successfully.
For Fun and Family
The easiest way to start out is to try a few sample plants indoors and watch them germinate. An egg carton planter is enough to get started, or even some recycled bottles or cans.
Containers of almost any kind can be used to kick of an indoor container garden to learn the growth cycle and plant needs in a controlled environment.
The first few weeks of plant growth are the most exciting – second only to the harvest. These are the moments you can capture with kids and friends to share in the excitement of your new path.
It’s a doorway to explaining life cycles and plant needs. It’s also useful for learning how to identify seedlings to tell them apart from weeds.
When your micro-gardens graduate to the outdoors, you can include family in the care, maintenance, and harvest. If your garden is purely for visual appeal, it is something you can share with others.
No matter how big the garden is, your care and work will show through at the peak of the season.
Putting Food On the Table
Most homesteaders have a solid purpose for a good garden: food. Planting enough, saving enough, and using space effectively will be major considerations.
But once you get the hang of how seasons affect your yield and why, you can alter your methods to get a little more.
When it comes to growing for survival and self-sufficiency, you’ll want to plant more than you think you need and store as much as possible.
Because harvests are often staggered through the growing season, you can work steadily and cycle varieties through your diet as they mature.
But, since you only have one opportunity to harvest, you need to make the most of it. Especially once you realize the amount of work involved.
The time and energy invested in your garden’s success will be apparent based on the final product. If you plant a mound of seeds but don’t tend to the garden, it will fail.
If you don’t plant enough seeds and care intensively on only a few plants, you won’t have the ability to provide more than a meal or two for all your effort.
Few people realize the importance of finding the balance between how much you need, how much work is involved, and how much you can harvest when the time comes.
The answer to how much food you need will depend on your situation. By weight, the average person eats 3-5 pounds of food each day. So your yield to provide food for an entire year per person would need to be 1,100-1,800 pounds.
Granted, some may be for meats, cheeses and dairy products, but your fruit and vegetable offset would need to be a good portion of the total.
Another consideration to keep in mind is that a full harvest can only be consumed a day at a time. This means fresh vegetables staggered out during the growing season will ease the burden and solid preservation skills will carry you through those colder months.
Many believe the work starts when you plant the seeds, but in a food-bearing garden the work begins at harvest and doesn’t end until every pound is packaged and stored away.
Growing For Income
Cash crops are a rare occurrence for the beginning gardener. But even experienced gardeners know they need to start somewhere. You may be able to offset the expenses of your garden by selling off some of your harvest.
A few boxes of corn or a few tomato plants can fetch a good price at a local farmer’s market. Or, you may have an old family recipe for jam or a soup mix that would go over well at work.
Determining a small-scale cash crop will hinge on your market. Hit the local farmers markets or fruit stands to find out what people are paying for quality foods.
See which foods are common and which foods are missing. If you can fill a void or come up with a better quality on your own, you may have an advantage and earn a few bucks on the side.
Most importantly, do your research before you go planting a single-plant crop for income.
If everyone is selling tomatoes and you want to join the bandwagon, you’ll be hard-pressed to make a single dime. And, if your fruits or vegetables are sub-par, you won’t last long at the market.
Don’t go full-speed ahead with a single crop on a whim. Otherwise you’ll be stuck with a harvest that you may not want and months of work down the drain.
Developing New Strains
New strains of plants and hybrid versions are for the advanced gardener. But even as a beginner, you may see a need to develop a strain of plant that does well in your area or zone. Mixing plants and cross-breeding is a practice that is centuries old and can create stunning visual and flavor varieties.
New strains can be lucrative if they are effective and hearty. Plant varieties can earn recognition in fairs and exhibitions. And mastery of a plant’s behaviors, weaknesses, and growth patterns can lend itself to development of a better plant.
If your purpose is to develop something new and extraordinary, plant with a rigid focus on what you want to create.
Take the time to learn what you can about existing varieties and how to twist genetic codes to your advantage. While seemingly complex, it is fairly simple to come up with a custom plant if you’re willing to put in the time and work with the results.
Step 9: Harvest and Preserve
Harvesting is the pinnacle of the garden life cycle. But it is also the beginning of the food storage and preservation cycle.
With a mound of food from farm to table, you’ll need to spend a fair amount of time and energy to preserve what you have.
Root vegetables will need to be washed and cleaned. Beans, peas, and corn will need to be cut, shucked or cored. Other plants may need to be dried, boxed up, or otherwise handled.
This is where the work involved in a big garden starts to pile up. Time is critical as you can’t let some vegetables wait. And if you pick too early or too late, you’ll miss out on the best taste or quality.
The point of harvest and the moment of preservation must be factored in to your garden timelines. And in some cases you may want to recruit some help to make sure you get it all done.
Timing and Multiple Harvests
One way to reduce the compounded workload of a single end-of-season harvest is to stagger the harvests. Some plants allow you to pick when they start to ripen, and continue to yield throughout the summer.
Berry plants are an example that can be harvested almost daily. Peas and beans may be plucked weekly, along with squash and tomatoes.
Because of the range of maturity, many plants can be harvested on cycles. Entire crops of leafy greens can be cut back and regrown in 30-45 days.
Root vegetables can be staggered so harvests can be drawn upon weekly throughout the end of the growing season. Berries and fruits can be pulled when ripe and stored away by freezing or dehydrating.
Staggering the harvest will prevent a mad rush to get it all done at the end of summer. It will also allow you to store and harvest as you grow so your garden isn’t as daunting when the first frost hits.
You’ll lose fewer crops and waste less in the process. Plus, you’ll learn how to gauge ripeness and timing within your garden.
Managing Time and Harvest
Throughout the growing season, you’ll become accustomed to a steady routine of watering, weeding, pruning and some low levels of harvest. Much of this can be done with minimal time and effort as part of a daily routine.
When it comes time to harvest, you’ll need to budget more of your time in the garden. At this point you’ll be doing more than just a little bit of watering and observation.
You’ll need to carefully inspect and pull what you can on a daily basis and get it ready to preserve. This is tricky.
If you do not continually monitor your vegetables during the harvest season, you may miss out on vegetables and reduce your overall harvest.
Preservation Techniques and Traditions
Tackling the harvest will present a new challenge – how to preserve what you are harvesting. There are a few common means for food storage and preservation.
Short term preservation allows food to remain ripe long enough to be cooked. Long-term preservation is also a great way to make the most of your harvest by preserving well into winter months or even years ahead.
Traditional food preservation makes use of known processes to eliminate the risk of rot, bacteria, and waste. These methods have stood the test of time, so you know they work – you just have to follow the steps to the letter.
Methods can be complex like freeze drying, or, they can be simple like sun drying, salting, canning, or freezing. With the exception of sun-drying, food preservation must be accompanied by proper storage in areas that are cool, dry, and dark.
Exposure to light, heat, or moisture can ruin food stores. When preserving food, make sure you follow known methods and maintain a high level of personal sanitation at every opportunity.
Step 10: Root Cellars and Seed Saving
After harvest and the first frost of the year, you may still have an opportunity to get a jump start on off-season planting and propagation.
Root cellars, greenhouses, cold frames, and seed harvesting are great ways to continue growth, and be ready for the next season, and to have a steady, organic, food supply year-round.
Root Cellar Basics
Root cellars are ideal for getting root vegetables to send runners. They can be as simple as a refrigerator, or much more spacious with cinder-block walls buried well below the surface or into a hillside.
Root cellars must be kept dark, cold, and mostly dry. Roots and bulbs like potatoes and garlic will start to generate runners from the eyes or the germ. Once these are developed, they can be directly sown back into the ground.
One downside to root cellars is that you have to spend a lot of time, effort and possibly money dig them, but as this fellow shows, you can dig a really small one for only $40:
Cloves of garlic can be split apart from the bulb and planted individually where potato roots can be cut out from the vegetable and replanted. In both instances, a single unit can generate several more individual plants.
As long as you know what kind of environment to provide, the plant will do the rest. You can provide the right environment by building a small structure or repurposing a container and storing it in a cool, dark place.
Off-Season Growth and Planting
If you want to extend your growing season, you may be able to take advantage of heat capturing structures like greenhouses or cold frames.
These focus energy from the sun to provide small amounts of heat capable of spurring growth for certain types of leafy vegetables and plants.
You may also be able to extend the life of your late bloomers by moving plants into a greenhouse toward the end of the season or starting plants early on in a greenhouse, so they are ready to grow vigorously after the last frost.
Off-season growth and planting can provide a leg-up on your planting goals while also providing some fresh produce to accompany your existing food stores.
While harvesting or processing your food for long-term storage, you will find several opportunities to harvest seeds. Heirloom seeds will generate produce year after year. Non-heirloom seeds will not. Most store-bought vegetables are not heirloom seeds.
There is a significant value and cost savings if you successfully grow fruits and vegetables from heirloom seeds, because one good fruit can generate dozens of seeds for the following year.
Harvesting seeds is easy yet many times overlooked, and seeds are discarded as waste or compost.
If you planted heirloom seeds, they will go to seed if you do not harvest the plant. For example, a radish that has gone to seed will generate dozens of pods with multiple seeds inside each pod from a single plant.
The pods can be dried on the vine or packaged and set aside. Other seeds are locked inside vegetables like tomatoes or squash. When removing seeds from these, be sure to set a few aside for the next season’s planting.
Edible seeds, like sunflowers or nuts, can be harvested and shelled or roasted and salted. A single sunflower can produce hundreds of seeds for food or future plantings.
Saving seeds is the final piece of the garden. Don’t let those little gems go to waste. Producing enough plants that take after transplanting or direct sowing can be a struggle.
So when you are successful, it’s important to harvest and save your seeds for future plantings.
Once you’ve harvested the seeds you are hoping to propagate, read up on how to process them for the next season.
Most seeds are pretty simple, but some do take extra care. Once thoroughly dried, seeds can be stored in envelopes or bins for the next year.
Write on the packaging so you know what type of seed it is – what variety, what year, and whether or not it is an heirloom seed. This will prevent mix-ups and confusion if the seeds get mixed in with other seed packages.
Every garden starts with good seeds, but don’t forget that every garden ends with good seeds. Take advantage of this final process in your garden year after year and you’ll never need to shop for your favorite seeds again.
Garden Book Links/Resources:
- Seed Savers Exchange
- USDA Guide on Building a Root Cellar
- USDA – Principles and Practices of Seed Storage
D. Ryan Buford is a professionally trained writer and journalist from the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. He currently hosts “The Next Generation,” a live, weekly internet radio show on Prepper Broadcasting Network that focuses on parenting and preparedness.
As an advocate of the preparedness and homesteading world, Ryan left behind a successful, fast-paced urban job for a more sustainable life among farm fields, wildlife and family. In addition to leading a self-sufficient life, he writes as a freelancer and maintains a blog and magazine at www.dryanbuford.com.