Welcome to my 24th One Simple Change post, my friends!

{New here? Wondering what the heck is One Simple Change? It’s my year-long series of posts that focus on small changes…changes that when practiced and cultivated into habits will help improve the quality of your life and help make you a healthier person.}

Today I’d like to follow up on my recent post about eating local with one about how to grow you own food/start your own garden.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You are thinking that starting (and maintaining) a garden is NOT simple. And you’re not wrong: a garden CAN be a lot of work.

But.

I am really passionate about organic gardening, and I honestly believe this pursuit can change your life.

I also believe that once you’ve built your infrastructure, gardening can be simple!

Now I’d be thrilled if you wanted to embark on building a huge garden after reading this post. But my goal with this post is really just to encourage you to grow something. Anything. Because maybe after you do that…after you get your feet wet… you’ll be inspired to expand your horizons and grow more. This is what happened to me: I started gardening by growing one tomato plant in a container on a patio. It’s been about fifteen years since then; now I have a really big fenced garden with 10 raised beds that are packed with fruits and vegetables!

photo of organic kitchen garden
(This is my garden today. On the far side you can see the shed that’s divided with the the back functioning as the chicken coop; the netting you see covers our chicken run. My beehive is on the other side of the shed. Want to see what the garden site looked like as we were building it? Check out this post).

If you do want to start a garden, I am about to give you some info that I hope will be helpful. I am doing this because I think it would be silly to tell you to grow your own food but not tell you anything about how to go about doing so! So here goes.

An organic home garden enhances the look and feel of your home/property and an organic vegetable garden feeds your family the healthiest possible produce. Organic gardens also encourage diverse ecosystems, and this is great for the environment. A garden can be a small or a large commitment, or something in between. In my experience, however, most of the work is in the set-up of your garden; once the infrastructure is in place, I don’t find it to be particularly time-consuming…or maybe it is, but I love it so much I don’t notice? I do most of my gardening “work” on the weekends. When I am planting seeds or starter plants it takes some time, but other than that, I spend about 10-15 minutes per day trying to stay on top of weeds. Damn those weeds: you can’t beat them so you might as well eat them (a good plan for the ones that are truly edible). Note that I mulch the areas around my raised beds very heavily. This cuts down on the weeds a lot.

If you have never gardened before, you might want to start out with organic container gardening like I did. Or you could start with just 1 or 2 raised beds.

If you’re sure want a bigger garden, make sure to spend some time evaluating your property to determine the best site. Planning a successful and beautiful kitchen garden takes time, so don’t rush. Look at books or magazines for inspiration, then draw a map of what you’d like your garden to look like, and ask yourself the following questions:

*How much sun does your proposed garden site receive?

Keep in mind that if it’s less than 6-8 hours a day, it’s probably not an appropriate site for growing vegetables.

*What do you want to grow?

A few basic veggies or a large assortment of heirloom varieties? I am of the opinion that it’s more fun to grow things you can’t find in the supermarket. Like sorrel. Or lemongrass.


(Why grow plain old zucchini when you can grow Italian heirloom zucchini?)


(I love chile peppers. I grow many different kinds).

*What is your soil like?

Getting a soil test is always a good idea, but you should add nutrients by amending your soil no matter what. In fact, if you take away just one tip from this post, let it be that cultivating high quality soil is the most important thing you can do in your home garden. What does this mean? It means that you don’t just want to plant in plain old topsoil. You want to mix in lots and lots of compost and other organic matter, like peat moss and/or manure. I compost everything I can and love being able to add my compost- and all the wonderful worms that come with it- to my garden beds. The bedding from my chicken coop (the poop mixed in with all the cedar shavings) gets added to my compost every now and then, as well: this is also excellent for the garden.

*Will you be bringing in soil and compost to fill the beds? How much will you need?

If you come to my house on any given day in the spring, you are likely to see a big pile at the end of my driveway. This might be screened topsoil, composted manure, or sweet peat…or a mixture of the above. I suggest staying away from buying any of this stuff in bags- it costs much more, plus then you have to throw away the plastic bags- you’re better off getting it delivered in bulk from a local gardening/landscaping center (or if you have access to a pickup truck, you’ll save on the delivery fee). You’ll be able to estimate how much of everything you need if you give the dimensions of your gardening beds to the person you’re ordering the materials from. FYI wheelbarrowing/shoveling the materials from your “piles” to your raised beds is a great workout.

*Are you going to use raised beds? How many will you need? What dimensions will they be? What will they be made from?

I believe raised bed gardening has many advantages over planting directly in the ground. You’ll have greater control over your growing medium- you can fill your beds with high quality topsoil, plus all the organic matter I mentioned above. You’ll also have better drainage- excess moisture drains more easily from raised beds, and this is better for most vegetables and flowers. In raised beds, the soil warms faster – this gives you a longer growing season which is especially important for heat loving plants like tomatoes (though you may need to cool raised beds down in the heat of summer with mulch). Lastly, raised bed gardening is easier on the body- you don’t need to stoop so much since the plants are brought closer to you.

Raised beds should be rectangular. A good width is 4 feet as it allows you to reach across from both sides (you don’t want to have to walk in your raised bed as this compacts the soil). If you plan to grow a vining vegetable on a trellis against one of the long sides of the bed, you should probably make your bed thinner- Brett L. Markham, author of Mini Farming for Self Sufficiency, suggests 3 1/2 feet- so you’ll be able to access the trellis.

You can make your beds as high as you like- a higher level is desirable for less mobile individuals or those with back trouble. If you are building more than one raised bed, make sure to leave a pathway wide enough for a wheelbarrow to travel in between your beds.

You can build your own raised beds, and there are many materials that work well. Wood such as redwood or cedar is an attractive choice, but keep in mind that wood may rot. Pressure treated wood used to be frowned upon due to the potential for nasty chemicals getting into your plants, but it is currently considered a safe choice. You can paint or stain the wood, but make sure, again, that whatever you use won’t contaminate your plants.

Concrete blocks are not as pretty as wood but they are very durable (and cheap!). You can change the shape of your beds easily if you use concrete blocks, but they are heavy and you’ll need quite a few, so this may be a deterrant to using them. Stones make beautiful raised beds, but they too are heavy and they can be expensive. Bamboo is a possibility, and recycled plastic is a very long-lasting and relatively inexpensive option. There are many kits available for raised bed gardening: I’ve seen nice ones over at Gardener’s Supply Company.

You can also make a raised bed without using any material to enclose it, but the shape won’t hold as well, and will be prone to erosion. A good option if you prefer not to enclose your bed is to make a raised bed using the sheet mulching method. You can sheet mulch in a raised bed enclosure as well- you’ll end up with wonderfully productive soil! Here’s an article I wrote for eHow on sheet mulching: Start a Garden Using the Sheet Mulching Method.

*How will you water? Can you utilize rainbarrels or an irrigation system?

I recommend both! You can always use sprinklers, but I find it a bit hard to direct the water exactly where it needs to go. Keep in mind that watering a garden by hand takes a lot of time: for some strange reason, though, I enjoy doing it.

*Do you have critters that you want to keep out of your garden? Are they small or large? If you need a fence, how high does it need to be and what will you construct it with?

Building a fence to surround our garden was no small task, but it was essential: I have big dogs who enjoy digging and I did not want them getting into my garden; we also live in an area with a huge deer population. Our fence is made of heavy duty chicken wire that we buried several inches by digging a trench around the perimeter of the garden. We put rocks into the trench on both sides of the fence: this has been very effective in keeping any animals from crawling under the fence.


(Burying your fence and filling the trench with rocks makes it difficult for anything that might eat your plants to crawl underneath).

As far as smaller garden pests go, I don’t really notice many problems with “bad bugs” (except when I’ve attempted to grow eggplant: the leaves were all chewed up). This is possibly due to the fact that I plant marigolds all throughout my vegetable beds (these are said to repel a variety of pests). I also have a perennial flower bed in the center of my garden, plus I plant many edible flowers and herbs interspersed in my vegetable beds: these all seem to attract beneficial insects and they keep away pests, as well.


(Marigolds are an excellent addition to your vegetable beds. They’re said to be particularly useful next to tomato plants).


(Butterfly bush: a perennial that attracts beneficial insects and butterflies).

*How will you maximize space in your new garden? Can you utilize structures that will allow your vegetables to grow vertically (ex. cages for tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, etc.; fences or trellises for climbing beans/peas, etc.)?

This is especially important if you don’t have a lot of room, but even if you do, it’s just good practice to allow veggies to grow up, instead of letting them spread out on the ground, whenever possible.


(Tomatoes need support: I place cages around all of mine).

*How much time are you willing to put in to the maintenance of your garden?

Be realistic and try not to bite off more that you can chew. If you don’t ever want to spend time maintaining your garden, don’t bother building one :)

If you find that something you need to do is out of your skill set (like building raised beds or a fence), you can always hire help. Or, if you have like-minded friends, you could organize garden work days where you help each other with different projects. I have participated in several garden building days at my childrens’ schools and it always amazes me how much lighter the work is and how much can get done when there are lots of people on hand to help.

Connecting with other gardeners in your community can be a great way to get any questions/confusion you have about getting started sorted out. I have found that seasoned gardeners love sharing their knowledge and experiences.

Ok clearly I could go on and on with this topic, but I think I need to stop writing now! Was this helpful? Do you already have a garden or are you thinking about starting one? Are you “in” to this week’s One Simple Change?

Some of my favorite internet gardening resources:

Organic Gardening
You Grow Girl
A Way to Garden
Garden Girl TV
Seeds of Change
The Cook’s Garden

Some of my favorite gardening books (please note that I make a small amount of money from any book that you purchase by way of one of my Amazon affiliate links):

Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work
Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden And Your Neighborhood into a Community
Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre
The Backyard Homestead: Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre!
Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long
Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!
Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening
Great Garden Companions: A Companion-Planting System for a Beautiful, Chemical-Free Vegetable Garden

 

10 Comments

  1. 1

    Dr.T Trivedi — June 29, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

    very good. One couple frined of mine, totally, completely live on their farm produce, no cash..They raised two children on that..they grow theitr clothes..i mean cotton too..soap, and oil too!

  2. 2

    IdaBaker — June 30, 2012 @ 5:02 am

    You have a lovely garden. I don’t have this much space, but I have been considering getting back into it. Many years ago, I had a small garden, which my kids help me take care of. Now, even though I don’t have the space, the call of fresh veggies is getting louder.

    I think I’ll start with herbs.

    Oh, and I bet those tomatoes will make a great salad.

  3. 3

    LiztheChef — June 30, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    Over the years, I have become more realistic in terms of space and light for a garden. Nowadays, I have a year-round herb garden and seasonal cherry tomatoes – that’s about it, in addition to an orange and Meyer lemon tree. But it is SO satisfying to run outside and grab a handful of lemon thyme for a supper dish.

  4. 4

    Luke Townsley — June 30, 2012 @ 3:46 pm

    Great article!

    Container gardening may not be the most cost effective, but it is an easy way to get into growing things. Raised beds are both cost effective and quite practical.

    I’m planning on converting our more traditional garden to either raised beds or deep mulch this fall. This was our first year here and we weren’t able to do it this spring.

    Luke

  5. 5

    momgateway — June 30, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

    Thanks, you have such great ideas and wonderful tips. Next year I will be expanding my garden –right now I’m growing just salad greens and zucchini in bags of top soil and I’m reaping a lush harvest daily.

  6. 6

    amelia from z tasty life — July 1, 2012 @ 1:24 am

    Winnie: your garden sounds like a dream and a step closer to self sufficiency. How amazing.

  7. 7

    Jessica — July 1, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    Hi! I know I’m really more of a quiet follower but I wanted to let you know that I really enjoy your blog, and just nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award over on mine! http://floptimism.blogspot.com/2012/07/paying-it-forward-with-versatile.html

  8. 8

    val — July 2, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

    This is a great overview. I’d only add–it’s exercise, too! It is so important to emphasize soil preparation as you have done here. There is nothing more gratifying that picking your own meal.

  9. 9

    Betsy S. Franz — July 5, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    What a great post. Very thorough! Much more than ONE simple thing, since it covers so many of the eco-friendly aspects of gardening…rain water, compost, keeping critters at bay. Wonderful!

  10. 10

    One Simple Change: More Raw Foods | Healthy Green Kitchen — July 14, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    [...] stuff and not in front of the computer so much), you may have missed my last few posts for OSC: on gardening, and on composting. I’m pretty passionate about both topics, so I do hope you will check those [...]