Our Era’s Victory Garden
I’d say that right about now is a great time to plan a vegetable garden. Birds are starting to chirp, the ground is warming, spring ephemerals are pushing out and blooming all over the place, oh yes, and we’re all quarantined to our homes with impending doom resonating from the newsstands worldwide. Now is the time to look inward and outward, to assess what life sustaining skills you have and which ones you want to learn more about. You might not grow a quarantine supply of vegetables for your family overnight but you can build your confidence in vegetable gardening and perhaps learn a great deal about yourself in the process. At the very least, you’ll get outside and hopefully plunge your hands in your soil rich in healthy, good-for-the-mind and soul microbes that are the essence of life and sustenance.
I’m going to give you the whole process on how to develop a successful raised bed veggie garden from my own personal experience. The Steps include: Location and Construction, Planning For Irrigation, Garden Dreaming and Crop Planning, Transplanting, Weeding Watching and Waiting, Harvesting, and Turnover.
Step 1: Pick a Location and Plan your Beds (or Containers)!
After moving into my house, I decided to add one cedar raised garden bed a year. Cedar is not an inexpensive wood and at the time, I could only justify one bed a year. I chose cedar because I wanted an untreated wood that would hold up. Growing organically is important to me, so I therefore avoided any pressure treated wood, chemically treated pallet scraps, and the like so they wouldn’t leach nasty toxins into my soil and therefore plants and food.
The first year I went big and did a 6’x 4’ raised bed. I chose what I thought was good placement parallel to my back fence and installed it. I was conscious to make the dimensions to the size that I could reach at least halfway into the bed from all sides to avoid stepping inside and compacting the soil. While I did give that part thorough thought, I didn’t give the placement enough thought and installed it too close to my neighbor’s fence which made it difficult to access on one side. Subsequent years and garden beds later, I adjusted to 4’ x 4’ beds, which also end up holding up better.
After construction and installation was complete, I chose the lasagna gardening method and used multiple layers of cardboard as the bottom layer of my bed to suppress weeds. From there, I added bucketful after bucketful of rich compost and mixed in coconut coir flake by flake or perlite/vermiculite (when I could get my hands on them) to add aeration and structure to my organic material.
- Size –small enough that you can reach halfway in on all sides to limit any temptation of stepping inside and compacting the soil
- Materials – I suggest cedar – will hold up to several seasons of weathering without treatment therefore chemical free and organic friendly
- Placement – as full sun as possible, out of the way of other impediments, and on a level spot
- Soil – the lifeblood of your garden – start with good soil by building layers of inorganic minerals + organic matter (compost) + air and water
- *Please don’t plant directly into your garden topsoil – if you insist, please get your soil tested first through your local extension services to see if there are any deadly chemicals such as lead or others.
Remember, containers are another great choice – if you’re not ready to commit to a permanent garden bed or are short on space, start with containers! Use the same premise – start with a good location and great soil!
From a blank canvas to the beginnings of a garden
Step 2: Irrigation
Once you’ve hand watered containers or a garden for a season multiple times a day in the peak of summer sun, you know the value of a good (preferably timed) irrigation system. I inherited a drip irrigation system that I was able to use in my garden. The lead hose runs the entirety of my backyard and then I hook in drip irrigation run off sections that I wind through all my beds. This system is connected to a pressure gauge, then hose, then to a timer right at the junction with the spigot. You can set you timer to go on for the same time each day if you get a fancy programmable one or you can set it to run for an hour or two that you can set manually which I have. This allows me to adjust watering as needed – if we’re in a dry spell I go out every morning and set the irrigation to an hour or two to run or if we’re getting a lot of rain, I just don’t set it to run at all – pretty simple. I run another hose connected to a series of soaker hoses to my front flower garden to water when needed as well.
- Plan on how to water your beloved plants, better yet install an irrigation system to set it and forget it, check out your local garden center for supplies
Step 3: Plant Planning
This is the fun part! At this point you want to surround yourself with seed catalogs or starter catalogs like ours at Peace Tree. You may now begin to picture yourself frolicking in your backyard while you fill your quaint harvest basket with ripe picture-perfect fruits and vegetables. It all starts somewhere! Go circle crazy and figure out what your must –haves are, your second tier, and then your fillers. If you’re a tomato nut – start there, if you love greens – drool over all the different varieties and colors of them. Once you have your wish list of vegetables and fruits for your gardens you can start mapping out where you’ll plant everything on paper.
Get yourself a garden notebook and sketch out your garden bed-by-bed or container-by-container. You don’t have to be an artist you can merely make blob shapes labeled by spinach or tomato etc and build the garden of blob shapes of your dreams. I have a notebook that I pull out every winter and start with a wish list page for the upcoming season, I then sketch out my garden and start laying things out. I keep this in one central notebook because it allows me to remember where I planted things the year prior. This is important because you want to rotate your crops as best as possible. You don’t want to plant your tomatoes in the same place year after year because that will promote pest, disease, and deplete your soil.
After planning locations for your plants, you want to go the next step and figure out where your plants are going to come from. Are you going to direct seed the plant into your beds? Are you going to start seeds indoors before the last frost? Or are you going to buy starter plants to transplant after your last frost? This can be tricky for new gardeners – how are you supposed to know what is what? If you’re brand new to gardening I suggest you go the veggie start route – I’ll wax poetic in a later post on why I love Peace Tree Organics 1 QT pots. Starting seeds can be exciting and thrilling (not joking) but it’s also requires a lot of time and resources that beginners may not have. Start a few or plan to do that in the future and start yourself off with strong starts from your local garden center or farmer.
- Dream – drool over those catalogs and make a wishlist
- Seeds vs. Transplants Organic Growers School
- Layout – plan where these plants are going keeping basics of crop rotation in mind
- Source –order seeds, scope out your garden center hours, put a spring plant sale on your calendar, farms often sell off excess starts at farmers markets or farmstands too! Look out for 1 QT Peace Tree Organics starts
Step 4: Plant On
In the MidAtlantic and Northeast for the most part the classic safe planting date for gardeners is Mother’s Day. This date is deemed safe to plant because it’s past the last frost date. Don’t let yourself be duped by Fools Spring planting your babies out early eager by a few unseasonably warm days only to have them die in a cold snap the next few nights. Springs seem to be coming earlier and earlier, and season extension is certainly a possibility using things like caterpillar tunnels or other insulating apparatuses, but unless you’re willing to religiously check the 24hr weather multiple times a day, and are able to cover and uncover your babies with the changing winds, then stick to planting after your last frost date. By Mother’s Day, your soil should be completely thawed and plantable and you can go crazy planting!
Refer to your garden plan for planting locations and then get going. I always like to transplant with a little added fertility in the way of a little compost at the root base, some granular fertilizer, or watering in with a water-soluble organic fertilizer like fish emulsion (watch out for the stench). I also prefer to construct and install my trellis systems at the time of planting so that I’m setting my transplants up for later success. Remember, plant in the early morning or evening, you never want to plant in the peak heat of the day which will stress you AND your plants out.
Step 5: Weeding, Watching, & Waiting
Gardeners love to bemoan weeding but it’s a critical task for every gardener. The more regularly you weed, the less effort you’ll have to put in. Sure, you can consider weed suppression methods – salt hay, landscape fabric, grass clippings and the like are all great choices. Personally, my garden is so small and my plant grow list is so long that I tend to err on the plant crowding method and it doesn’t take long for the plants themselves to suppress weeds by simply not having enough space and out growing weeds. For this method to work, it’s crucial that you stay on top of the weeds early on – if you don’t, those noxious virulent weeds will win out every time.
The watching and waiting part have become one of my favorite parts of gardening. Develop your own ritual in your garden while you weed or water and check in with your babes – see how they’re growing! Have they bulked up or put out a new shoot, do you see a flower developing that will someday turn into fruit? Watching and observing your garden is where you’ll find your peace and stride as a gardener (or at least that’s where I have). If you do this diligently, not only will you learn a great deal but you’ll also notice first signs of pest or disease damage hopefully allowing you to act quickly!
- Weed regularly to make the job easier – smaller weeds are easier to manage than gigantic ones
- Watch and Wait – enjoy watching how your plants change and develop as they grow keeping a keen eye out for pest or disease
Praise be it’s time to harvest!!!!! This is the time you’ve been waiting for as a new gardener – your first harvest, and your first taste of all your labors. Every plant and every different variety has their own ideal harvest window. This can be informed by personal preference as well as varietal ideals. Do your homework prior to harvest time on each of your crops so that you don’t under or over shoot your harvest. Resist the temptation of harvesting too early!
Savor the fresh flavors you’ve grown in your own backyard or window box and celebrate all its possibility. Indulge in backyard eating AND plan a meal that you’ll proudly prepare and share with your family and friends. Instagram your backyard bounty and take in a deep breath of satisfaction. I find few things as rewarding as just that and I hope you’ll be hooked on growing food too!
- Harvest – learn when and how to harvest your crops at their peak
- Planting and Harvesting Times – lots of extension services have similar timetables for your specific location
- Eat barefoot in the garden
- Plan meals around your prized produce and share with family and friends
As you become a more seasoned vegetable gardener, you should plan for turnover. Plan what crops will go in next to turnover the soil as efficiently as possible into the next harvest (think Market Gardener). From there, you’ll edge into growing in the shoulder seasons and you won’t want to stop. You’ll peer over your neighbor’s fence and suggest that they grow themselves, and from there we’ll start a backyard vegetable garden movement capable of nourishing us all a little closer to home and hopefully with a greater sense of self-sufficiency and security.
My garden after a late spring rain