Homesteading Where You Are: Grow

This is part 3 of a 7-part series about homesteading right where you are.  If you've missed the first 2 posts of this series, you can read them here.  This weeks post is about growing your own food, something I've become very passionate about.

Gardening is the first thing people think of when you say "self-sufficient living".  Growing the produce you will eventually feed your family with is the ultimate feeling of accomplishment and empowerment.  Not to mention it can save you quite a bit of money in groceries.  It can, however, seem daunting if you've never grown food before.  Case in point - go to any book store and see the miles of gardening books, all claiming they have the knowledge of exactly what you must do in order to be a successful gardener.  Here's the thing......

you don't need a book.

You really don't.  You don't need a horticulture degree, a gardening pedigree, or anything else telling you that you can garden.  You need seeds, dirt, and water.  Good dirt, but dirt nonetheless.  It does take time, as well, although I don't feel it's as time-consuming as I once feared. 

Gardening is very much trial-and-error.  You may be very good at growing some things and not others {I stink at growing melons and cauliflower}.  In that case, do a bit of reading or speak with someone who lives in your zone to see what they do to grow successfully, and try it again.   I say, jump in, plant a few things, and see what happens.

Ready to get started?  Here's some things to think about:

1.  Compost - your dirt needs to be amended with compost.  You can choose to buy it or make it.  I wrote a post here about making compost if you're interested.  As long as you layer it and cover it, it does not stink.  You can get fancy with it and put the exact amount of "greens" and "browns", turn it every couple of weeks, and take it's temp, but I don't and I still get a great bunch of compost.

     With store-bought compost, it's usually one type {i.e. cow manure, mushrooms, chicken manure, etc.}.  If that's the case, I strongly encourage you to buy a few different types and blend them in each gardening bed.  This will give your plants a wide range of nutrients they may need.

2.  Decide if you'll grow in the ground, raised beds or containers - if you live on a small plot of land it's likely a bit scary to think of digging up your yard to plant a garden.  You can, as an alternative, plant a few things in containers the first year or two before committing to that.  We've done that in the condos we lived in while J was in the military.  We would plant what we could in the existing flower beds, mostly root veggies or squash, and then the remaining plants went into pots placed around the decks and yard. 
     Here's a few things to consider if you're planting in containers:
     a.  container selection - size and what it's made of.  If you're growing plants that will get tall {i.e. tomato plants}, they need a taller container so their roots can grow.  Same goes with root vegetables - they grow down, so make sure they have space.  As far as what it's made of - metal and anything black will attract and retain heat, so if you live in an environment known for it's heat, you'll need to water these more frequently.
     b.  growing medium - rather than taking a shovel full of dirt and pouring it into a container, use a growing medium made specifically for containers.  As a side note, it's a good idea to top the soil with mulch to help retain moisture.
     c.  choose the best plants for container gardening - bush-type plants would be a good choice, plants that are ok being next to others would also be a good choice so you can grow more in fewer containers.  Many veggies have specific plants bred to grow more compact for container gardening.
     d.  water daily - you'll likely need to water your containers daily because it will dry out much quicker.  Check your plants daily, only giving them water if needed.
     e.  food - because the container plants are watered more frequently, there is more of a chance the nutrients will be diluted or watered out, over time.  The plants will need a well-balanced fertilizer - look for a good organic one at your local nursery.
     f.  staking - if you will have either climbing plants or tall bush-like plants, you'll need to stake them.  Stakes, trellises, cages - you should be able to find something that can go in or around each container.

     If you're interested in planting in raised beds, you can read the article I wrote about our raised bed garden here.

3.  Sun - make sure your garden receives plenty of sun.  Prior to deciding where it will go, watch that space to see the approximate number of hours it will get.  I didn't do this once we moved to the house we are currently in, and the result was we needed to remove trees.

4.  Making the most of your space - regardless of the way in which you'll garden, unless you have a large space to devote to it, you may need to get creative with space.  There are books, if you desire, {i.e. "Tomatoes Love Carrots"} that will tell you what plants do next to each other or you can do a bit of trial-and-error with this as well. 

I give the mainstays their own space {eggplant, tomatoes, cukes, squash, melons, beans, peas, corn} and then interplant different lettuces, herbs, beets, carrots, etc.  For us, lettuce bolts as soon as it hits June, so I plant it between the rows of peas, allowing it's roots to be shaded.  I also usually line the outer edge of one or two of my raised bed boxes with beets or carrots. 

For potatoes, you can use a trash can or vertical gardening boxes.  I've had very good luck with planting a layer of potatoes, covering that with dirt or straw as the greenery grows from the potatoes, then more potatoes, more dirt/straw, for 3-4 layers, always ensuring the potato greenery is above the dirt/straw.  This way they grow up rather than out.

5.  Feeding/Watering - regardless of the type of garden you have, you'll need to determine what type of food to use in your space.  Use a well-balanced, organic fertilizer and make sure to water your plants before they get too dry, so they aren't stressed.

6.  Pests - squash bugs are my biggest challenge {so far}, and they only attack as my plants are winding down for the year.  Check your plants daily, if you can, or at least weekly and keep them well-fed and watered.  If you can do drip irrigation for watering, it makes for the healthiest of plants because water on their leaves can spread disease.  Healthy plants will be less susceptible to pest damage.

7.  Time - if you don't have much time, start with just a few things so you can be successful.  This will allow you the opportunity to get your feet wet and determine just how much you want to take on.

8.  If you're limited on space or time, grow the expensive things - if you can buy zucchini a dime a dozen at the farmer's market during peak season, why grow it if you're limited on time and space?  Choose the items your family eats that cost you the most at the store and the items you can grow extra of and preserve for the winter months.  You'll get much more out of the work you've put into it.

9.  Keep the cats and dogs out - something you don't really think about until you see Fido lifting his leg on the herbs you were going to use for dinner, or, as you're digging to plant another round of lettuce you get a handful of Kitty surprise.  {both has happened to me and neither were animals of ours - better yet, the dogs owner saw no issue with her dog "visiting" our yard and "watering" our veggies and herbs.  Ugh!}

There is a lot to gardening, don't get me wrong, including building good soil, but I honestly believe you should start with growing a few things first and then slowly educate yourself regarding amendments and changes you would like to make.  Trying to do it all from the start can be a bit overwhelming.

Some years may be more successful than others.  In 2012 we grew almost every single veggie we ate for the year, supplementing with just a few things.  In 2013 new critters hit our beds and wiped them out mid-season.  That, in addition to a storm in late Spring that wiped out all my corn plants, made for a less than successful season.  At that point it was too late to plant additional plants for fall preservation so we made the decision to join a CSA mid-year.

This year we're trying to grow all our veggies again - although we'll be utilizing fencing to keep some of our wild "friends" out and staking for the corn which I've never had the need to use before.  We'll also be growing even more herbs, trying our hand at mushrooms and planting additional fruit trees and bushes and I want to save more of our own seeds.  This is one of the areas I would love to someday be as fully self-sufficient as possible in.

The Series
The rest of the topics in this series are:


daisy g said...

What a thorough and thoughtful post. It's so impressive to me that y'all have grown most, if not all, the veggies you eat for the year. You're so right that you don't need a book to garden. We are gardeners because we garden, not because we read a book about gardening. Photos are gorgeous, as always...

Sue Frelick said...

The wild beasties found your garden, eh? We have deer here and have put up a six foot high fence around the garden area. I love your potato boxes, what a great idea! And an informative article. There are so many things to think about it can be overwhelming and intimidating. I like what you say about just jumping in. :-)

Our Neck of the Woods said...

Awesome post! I have to agree that gardening is very much trial and error. You do have to just jump in and give it a try and see what happens!

born imaginative. said...

I love your idea of lettuce with the peas. I might try that this year. You do a marvelous job growing all that!

Danni said...

Wonderful outline and post, Staci...I look forward to going back and reading the earlier ones.
Your pictures always make me feel happy and optimistic for the growing season!

Big Rigs 'n Lil' Cookies said...

You have given me some new idea's. Thanks for the inspiration. Also, thanks for sharing the gorgeous picture of the morel. I certainly hope we have a great season this year.

Unknown said...

I just found your blog and I'm going to enjoy reading it! When my family was young I longed to homestead but my husband had no interest in it. Over the years I've had some small gardens and now I am much older and apartment dwelling but the English gardener, Alys Fowler, who grew up on a farm, grows most of her food in a small Suburban plot and I learned there about pickling. We have so much locally grown veg in the summer that I plan to try canning and pickling this year and growing salad on the balcony! Recently I've seen that in some suburban areas the homeowners have successfully gotten the local government to change ordinances about how much food they can grow in their yards, mainly due to the economy. It's great to see more people growing their own food! ; )