With everything in life, there are pros and cons. A garden has tons of each. Before you grow a garden, here are some things to consider.
Before you commit to growing a garden, make sure you can commit to setting up, maintaining, and harvesting your garden. I see it every year, people invest so much time setting up a wonderful garden. Then life gets in the way and they can no longer commit to it like they had planned. Weeds take over and the garden becomes overwhelming. Produce goes to waste and you become discouraged.
Don't fret, there are things you can do on the front end to help you in the long run. Weed management is a big one. Landscaping fabric is great for boarders and walkways. Don't let the grass creep into your garden area. Grass can easily smother our your seedlings and small plants. It is also very hard to remove once it has taken over. On top of the landscaping fabric you can use mulch. This is good if you intend to keep your garden in the same spot for several years, otherwise it may be wasted effort. You can also mulch on your beds with straw, wood chips, compost, and grass clippings to prevent weeds in the beds. Just make sure not to use hay, as it can contain lots of seeds.
"No till" is another helpful method. The less you disturb the soil, the less chances of bringing new seeds up the the surface of the soil. This was a surprise to me when I started gardening. It sounds silly, but I had no idea the amount or dormant seeds beneath the top layer of soil. They are just waiting for you to turn them up and be exposed to perfect growing conditions. If you till your walkways or till your beds in spring, you can become overwhelmed with the new amount of sprouting weeds. It all makes sense to me now. Don't bring the seeds to the top, they wont grow! Solarizing is another method that I believe goes hand and hand with No Till. This is the killing of seeds with the power of the sun. This is really easy to do. Just cover your garden beds with a black tarp or black plastic. Depending of your climate, and the time of year it can speed up or slow down the process. Here in Iowa, slower times are very early spring, late fall, and winter. In the middle of summer, you can cover a bed and all seeds will be dead in a week. This is good if you are doing multiple vegetables in one bed. For example, our garlic gets harvested in late May, early June. After harvesting, the plot is covered with black plastic for a week. The ensures the bed is clean before planting our sweet potatoes. ** Side note: Sweet potatoes and garlic make the perfect garden pair. Sweet potatoes (in Iowa) planted in June, harvested in October/ November. After harvesting is perfect timing to plant your garlic. Garlic is harvested in late May, early June.** If you plan to use the solarizing method in the off season, this will help you in spring. After cleaning up your beds in the fall, cover them with tarps or heavy plastic. This will smother out anything left behind and kill off any seeds before planting in the spring.
Other natural weeding methods include: vinegar, boiling water, vodka or rubbing alcohol, and flame weeders. These are good methods to know, but are risky in my opinion, as they have the potential to harm the plants you are trying to grow.
Another potentially time consuming task is watering. Obviously this depends on the weather too, but if it isn't raining every day, you should be watering. Other things that affect soil moisture is the type of soil and your garden beds. Often times raised beds (depending on soil) drain quickly and require more water. If you have a small garden plot, watering might not take much time and you can commit to watering by hand daily. If you have a larger plot you may want to consider irrigation. There are two types of reliable irrigation; overhead and drip. Here is good article that compares the two. Something I personally love about the idea of irrigation is the automation. You can easily attach a timer and never have to remember to water. If you are like me, and have a lot on your mind at all times, this simple reason may be enough to justify the cost.
Fencing is another important part of the garden plot. The fence purpose is to keep out predators. Predators can be rodents or people (depending on your location). Since you will be putting your heart and soul into growing a delicious variety of vegetables, you also want to be able to enjoy them before anyone else. Common predators include rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, gophers, deer, and more. Fencing will help with most, but if the small rodents become a large problem for you here is an article on repelling them naturally. At the Homestead, our biggest predator on the garden are our chickens! They LOVE pecking at our tomatoes, herbs, cabbage, and everything else they can get their beak on!
Another thing to consider when setting up your garden plot is the location. Does the plot get plenty of sun? Is it close to your water source? Is it close to your home/kitchen? What tools will you need, and how much will it cost? (Here is a list of good starter tools. I don't believe they are ALL necessary, but it is still a good list.) What is the soil like in my locations? Now soil is a huge topic in itself. One that I am not ready to blog about. But here is a good article on why you should test your soil, what you are testing for, and how to test. If you are local to our area, we always recommend the Soil Kitchen in Ankeny for any of your soil needs.
Alright, so now you have your garden plot, now what are you going to grow in it? Huge factors you should consider: Size of plant: each vegetable plant is a different size. They can take up a lot more space than you anticipate. Vine plants, like pumpkins, zucchini, gourds, watermelon, and other squash takes up a huge amount of space. Yield from plant: is the required space to grow that plant worth the production? For example, cabbage. Cabbage plants take up a significant amount of space (as much as a 3x3ft space), and only provides you with one head of cabbage. Is there something else that you could grow in that space that will yield more? Again, its all preference. Maybe it is worth it for you to spend the space on cabbage. Maybe you have a very large garden and space is no issue. Each case is different. Is it a vegetable you will actually use? I personally hate to see waste. Are you growing something with a purpose? Hot pepper plants yield lots of peppers. if this garden is for personal use, you probably don't need more than a few plants. **Food preservation is another topic I am passionate about, stay tuned for some preservation posts! **
Okay, so now you have decided what you want to grow. How are you going to start them? You can start your plants as seeds or you can skip a few steps and start your garden with starter plants. If you want to start from seed you will need a good nursery set up. This includes, but is not limited to grow lights, heat pads, fans, plant trays, and soil. We have our nursery in our basement. We use folding tables and shelves to house all the started plants and seedlings. Where are you going to get all the supplies? Well in the spring, there are several stores that have the supplies you need. Menards, Home Depot, Fleet Farm, and even Wal Mart. We usually get our supplies from Amazon. Except for our soil and seeds. Soil comes from the previously mentioned Soil Kitchen. Our seeds are from Seed Savers (love supporting this Iowa company), Johnny's, and Baker Creek. These websites are great resources. They talk about each seed in depth. What will grow well in your area, how much space needed, how long it will take for produce, and more. You can even request seed catalogs from each place.
Alright, so you have your garden plot, you know what you want to grow, and you know if you will be growing from seed or starts. When does it go in the ground? Well this is where its gets a little grey. There are many variables to when you should plant. It all depends on your climate and the weather, so I don't want to go into tons of detail on something that may not be specific to your area. If you have questions, or want to chat about gardening feel free to comment or send me an email.
Although I feel like I typed my heart out about gardening, this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is such a rewarding hobby and a skill set everyone should have. I encourage everyone to try gardening at least once, it is good for your soul!
The Holton Homestead