Raising your own food – Gardening: start small
Having a garden is a great way to augment your food supply that enhances your sustainability. But growing food can take some time and effort and some great advice is to start small and build up to the level you are able to sustain.
You can easily start a garden patch without having to till the earth. This avoids the heavy work of plowing or tilling and doesn’t disturb the existing flora and fauna currently in the ground. Tilling the ground can kill worms that are needed to help break down the soil so plants can thrive. Pick a 4-foot by 8-foot patch and begin building up in layers.
Layer one: First, if you are putting the patch over existing grass or plants, cut the grass but leave the clippings. Next, put about 1” of compost, soil, or manure (or any mixture of these three). Compost is preferred, since you made it essentially for free and it will have the micro-biological life already active in the soil. You need about 3 cubic feet to cover the area (if you are buying top soil by the bag at your local nursery, a bag is about $1.60 as of this writing).
Layer two: Flatten out some old cardboard boxes and lay them over the first layer. Overlap 3-6 inches along any edges. Worms will eventually digest the box later but it will protect your plot until the root systems develop and prevent the plants on the ground from punching through.
Layer three: Add another 2 to 3 inches of soil, compost, and/or manure. This is six to nine cubic feet if you are buying it at the store.
Layer four: Add 6 to 12 inches of mulch (leaves, grass, hay, straw, bark or wood chips, shredded paper). The purpose of the mulch is to keep moisture in the soil. Over time, this layer will compress (actually start to breakdown and return nutrients to the soil).
Ok, you are ready to plant. This type of garden is better for seedlings rather than seeds, but it needs to be planted right away. Pull the mulch away and punch a hole in the cardboard and place your seedling in the hole. Push back the mulch and then water the patch. You don’t need to water again as long as the mulch keeps the soil moist.
If you are planning on broadcast planting you would spread your seed before you apply the mulch. In this case you should either separate layer three into two layers, lay down the first one then broadcast your seeds and then lay down the second layer before you add the mulch.
Alternatively, you can rake part of the second layer to the sides and broadcast the seeds, then rake in that material from the side berms into the center to cover the seeds before you add the mulch. Tamping down the soil after raking helps insure good seed to soil contact.
We recommend starting small because it helps you learn as you go. You learn how much effort you need to commit for each patch you have planted. Nothing worse than planting a large garden then have it fail because you couldn’t or didn’t take care of it.
If you are transplanting seedlings into the patch, of course that means your seedlings should be ready to go. You can grow seedlings in trays inside your home to lengthen your growing season (you start growing seedlings before the last spring frost and get a jump on the growing season).
Backwards planning 4 to 12 weeks before expected date of the last frost (depends on your area), each seed packet usually comes with instructions on when and how to plant including spacing. Seedlings usually grow best when kept warm (60-70 degrees) and moist. You can place them in window cells for sunlight or use artificial lighting (no more than 12-16 hours a day) about 4 to 6 inches above the plants. Rotate trays in window cells so the seedlings get uniform light. You want to get the first set of true leaves (not the first two seedling leaves) before they are ready to transplant. Some plants may require hardening before you transplant, this consists of moving them outside in the shade and in the sun for increasing amounts of time each day (start with one hour a day and increase it to two then four then six then eight – your seedlings should be ready to transplant at this point.
If you see any discoloration in seedlings it might just be under watered, not enough light, the temperature is too low, or needs fertilizer. But if you see some obvious blight, remove the plant and the soil immediately around it to prevent spread of the disease.
If your transplants are in peat pots, cow pots, boxes with other biodegradable materials, cut slits along the sides of the pot before you place it in the patch and you may want to even cut out the bottom. Don’t let the top of the pot protrude over the soil as this will wick moisture away from the roots. Either cut off the top or full bury the pot.
Seeds: Seeds lose viability over time so you can’t just establish a seed bank and never plant them until the crisis starts. Trying grabbing seeds from produce you buy in the store to see if you can get them to germinate (such as peppers or tomatoes). Expand your seed selection each season as you determine your ability to tend to plants. If you do have left over seeds, store them in their packet (with all that planting information on it) in an air tight container in a cool dark place. You might want to add some desiccant packets in the container to keep them dry. Remember that come harvest time you can have fresh produce but you may have to preserve some of the crop that you can’t eat right away and don’t forget to get seeds for next year’s planting.
Growing a small patch is the first step in your journey to food independence. Start learning now as you gauge your ability to tend to crops according to your schedule and capability.
► ID the plants you are going to grow, get the seeds
► Start the seedlings, store excess seeds
► Harden the seedlings before transplant
► Continue composting
► Build your layered plot (after last expected frost)
► Transplant the seedlings
► Water as needed
► Harvest when ripened
► Eat your fresh produce
► Get seeds for the next year’s crop
► Preserve any excess produce for later use