Starting a vegetable garden is an easy way to save money and with the recently high costs of fresh produce more people are choosing to start a vegetable garden this summer. Other reasons to start your own vegetable garden include
• Food safety, you have control of what you are going how it is going, and control over fertilizers and pesticides used.
• Access to fresh vegetables during the growing season, and the satisfaction of processing and storing your own homegrown vegetables for use in the off season.
• Health benefits of active gardening cannot be understated. Gardening has benefits both the physical, mental and emotional health of its participants and can be a fun recreational pursuit for the whole family.
The important thing to remember is that gardening is not as difficult as you may think. The simplicity of gardening, of dropping the seed into soil, adding proper care and producing an edible vegetable is simply the way nature works.
By paying attention to a few basic rules and following a few recommendations, there is no reason for you not to have a successful productive garden this summer. You will be able to enjoy cheaper, more nutritious, and safer food through the summer season and be able to preserve and store your homegrown goodies for the winter. Some basics
1. Location – some vegetable plants need full sun, some vegetable plants need partial shade. Try to select a location on your property that can provide a bit of both. If the area chosen is full sun, you can use row covers to provide some shade to the plants that need it.
2. You will also need an easily accessible source of water. A nearby faucet that can provide water through a hose, or close to a building that can provide water from gravity feed rain barrels will also do the trick. Hauling water in buckets is not an enjoyable experience for the gardener.
3. Good soil is the most important factor in a successful garden. Know your soil type and add lots of organic matter. We are fortunate to have rich sandy loam that drains well and have added as much organic matter as we can get over the past seven years. Compost, shredded leaves, grass clippings, aged sawdust all finds its way into the raised rows and raised beds.
4. Keep it natural. Avoid chemical fertilizers, pesticides and GMO seed and you can be assured you are feeding your family the very best of fresh produce. Grow like your grandparents did.
1. Keep it small and in control. A large garden demands more time and can prove to be overwhelming for the first time gardener. It is best to start small and as you gain experience and set new gardening goals allow the size of your garden to grow. A 10’ x 16’ garden can adequately provide for a family of four through the summer season and still supply foods for processing and storage into the winter months.
2. Plant what you will eat. Kale may be the new superfood. However, if no one in your family will eat it, it is taking up valuable gardening space. If you like fresh salads. Plant a variety of leafy greens that provide daily fresh salads. Like green beans, plant green beans and plant enough to vacuum pack and freeze and enjoy it with your Christmas dinner. Like salsa for movie nights? Grow tomatoes, onions and peppers. The idea here is to plant according to what your family likes to eat.
3. Source seeds locally. Avoid purchasing seeds where you do not know the source. Good seed, non-GMO seldom sells for $1.00 a package. Beware of low pricing as they could be re-packaged old seeds. Buy from a reliable source that is producing seed tested for your hardiness zone. The Creative Garden Patch sources seed in our geographical area. Last year we had super success with seed from Rainbow Seed, located in Riverside-Albert, NB and supplies non GMO, heirloom seed. Our garlic seed is sourced minutes away from the Gagetown Garlic Company.
4. Avoid over planting. One tomato plant, depending on the variety, can produce 10 to 15 pounds of tomatoes. Do you really need three six-packs of tomatoes from the nursery? If you want different varieties of tomatoes, consider giving your excess plants away to community gardens or arranged to share with fellow gardening friends.
5. Mulch all your bare soil. Use of mulch suppresses weeds and helps retain moisture in the soil. Mulching will also cut down on the labour required. We mulch with year old hay, straw, shredded leaves and plant cover crops like annual rye and buckwheat as we harvest areas of the garden.
6. Seek out advice. Gather information on what grows best in your geographical area and hardiness zone. Find the most experienced gardener in your locale and ask if you can visit. Be prepared to help in the weeding and keep your eyes and ears open and ask questions. Visit local farmers markets and talk to the local organic farmers. Most are happy to share their knowledge and will likely invite you to visit the organic operation. Get to know your nearby nurseries. Many offer seminars on gardening for free or a small fee.
7. Join a gardening group or club. Visit community gardens, search the Internet and Facebook, and inquire at your local nurseries for groups that may be operating in your area. Through these clubs, you will be able to share with the knowledge and experience of other gardeners and participate in seed and plant exchanges.
8. Our final recommendation – do not procrastinate. If you’re thinking about starting your own garden, start planning now. We have been using the Garden Planner from GrowVeg.com for three years and love the ease of use in keeping things organized and scheduled.
Growing your own fresh, nutritious food is easier than many think.
Spring may seem and feel like it is a long way away, but we start our preparation for the gardens in the late fall. After the last crop is harvested we immediately start preparing our growing beds and rows for spring planting. We address two concerns with our preparation, augmenting the soil and protecting the soil.
We start by removing all plant waste from the beds and rows. Some gardeners like to leave plant material where it is in the garden over winter and have it rot into the soil. In our area it tends not to rot completely over the winter and it would be necessary to till the plant remains into the soil or remove it entirely. We prefer not to till excessively so remove the plant material to composting bins in the fall and clean up the growing areas. Removed plant material will one day return, but as rich compost.
The soil in New Brunswick tends to be acidic. Pelitized lime was added to selected areas based on middle and late summer soil analysis and crop observations over the summer. We use the lime sparingly so the pH can be gradually raised over the next few years. All other augmentation used our own compost and shredded leaves. All raised beds and raised rows got a generous one inch layer of our home-made compost plus a layer or two-year old leaf mold. Each fall we gather and shred leaves from the property and add around forty to fifty bags of leaves collected from nearby towns. A ride-on mower is used to clean up and shred the leaves on the property and a 5 HP shredder tackles the bags providing enough leaves to replenish the leaf mold bins and provide protective mulch for the soil.
All growing beds and rows are either planted with annual rye and or covered with a six-inch layer of shredded leaves to protect against winter erosion. The annual rye is cut and incorporated into the top layer of the soil in the spring. By planting time next spring, the leaves will have started to decompose and all we do is pull them back “scratch till” and plant. Wait for seedlings to develop or set out your hardened off plants then push the shredded leaves back as mulch for the start of the growing season. All non growing areas of the garden are protected with a generous layer of old hay or straw, whatever is available. By using old hay we have avoided problems with weed seed germination. This layer protects against erosion and builds a mulch layer to stifle early weed growth.
Our fall preparation for spring is done and the gardens put to bed awaiting the first blanket of snow. Seed catalogs are arriving and the gardening planning for next year begins.
We have moved in an organic direction with the vegetable gardens for the past five years. We decided that if we are going to grow vegetables it makes sense to make the effort to produce great tasting, nutritious vegetables free of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals. It was a moving back to the land kind of idealism of growing and processing our own food that made the concept attractive.
We heard all the excuses about lower production, insects will prevail, and it is too hard to go organic. Our wish to have healthy great tasting food, however put us to work researching garden methods that would be productive, low maintenance, and incorporate organic production.
We decided to start with raised beds. The “upper garden” now has eight raised beds and we have started using Square Foot Gardening. Two years ago the “lower garden” was started. It is a 30’ by 75’ area and is developing as a Raised Row Garden. A section of the lower garden is for experimenting with other techniques. An earlier post describes our summer 2015 experiments including Straw Bale Gardening.
Here are some things we feel are important if you are going organic.
1. Learn about your soil
2. Learn about natural organic fertilizers
3. Learn how to protect your garden and keep it healthy
Today’s posting, Part I of our Learning Curve addresses soil.
1. The structure of Soil is the foundation of organic gardening. It is necessary to know as much as you can about the soil’s texture, pH levels, and the eco-system.
Texture relates to the components that make up the soil. The three main components are sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each in a soil sample will determine the texture of the soil. Soil structure can range from sandy and loose to clay and compacted. Soils high in sand content tend to drain quickly and not hold moisture needed for growth. Soils high in clay content do not drain well and hold too much moisture that can lead to root rot and kill your plants. A “feel” test can help determine your soil texture. Sandy soils will feel gritty and when moist will not clump together. Silt soils feel powdery when dry and will clump loosely when damp. Clay soils will clump tightly when squeezed and will mold together when damp.
Healthy soil also has organic matter supplied by decaying plant and animal waste. Healthy soil has that nice earthy aroma that gardeners thrive on. The organic matter is necessary for plant nutrition and feed for the living micro-organisms living in the soil. Everything from microscopic bacteria, fungi and beneficial insects make up the soils eco-system. The soil needs to be alive! Repeated use of commercial fertilizers over the years can “kill” the soil. The soils eco-system is the basis of organic gardening.
Time to recall your high school chemistry acids and bases. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14 with 7 as the mean. The pH of the soil is important as it will determine the plant’s ability to use nutrients in the soil. Most vegetables need a pH level around 6.5 in order to uptake the available nutrients in the soil. Home test kits are available at your garden center to test your soil pH. We test each bed and row every year and plant or adjust the pH accordingly. Adding lime to the soil will raise the pH level decreasing acidity. Adding sulphur to the soil will decrease the pH level decreasing the alkalinity. Be sure that the additive you use is approved safe for organic gardening. More on plants and the effects of pH on nutrient uptake and soil pH modification can be found here.
Soil structure is so important to the success of the organic garden that we constantly amend the soil. Successful organic gardening means making your own compost, lots of it and adding to the growing areas. It means planting cover crops as “green manure” and most importantly, testing and monitoring your growing beds. Always remember to keep records of your results.
The more you improve soil structure the healthier your garden will be. Healthy plants are disease free and less attractive to detrimental insects. The stronger your soil structure the lower the labour needed to enjoy your own nutritious, chemical free fruit and vegetables.
We are still learning and have a long way to go yet. Should you wish to dig deeper into soil structure, check out Phil Nauta at the The Smiling Gardener.
In the next post, we share our learning and experiences with natural fertilizers and tips to keeping a healthy garden.
Still waiting for the snow to go!
Tom and Di