This post is part of a series of educational articles on gardening, self-sufficiency and food independence. That’s what The Liberty Garden is all about. To find out more about the mission behind The Liberty Garden concept, go here. Or read all the archives.
“Eating is an agricultural act.” – Wendell Berry
A mid-western wheat field at harvest may be majestic, but it no longer represents my view of agriculture. Agriculture is much more personal these days, and much less passive. Local agriculture is my small farm where I grow vegetables for my family, friends, and neighbors.
When my wife and I moved into our home nine years ago, we had no plans to become farmers. Our first year, we set up a modest backyard garden, something that many of you may be considering. We built nine 4’x4’ raised beds and three 25’x3’ rows, giving us approximately 400 square feet for planting. If you have space limitations don’t worry – Based on our experience, it is possible to grow significant quantities of food in a small area.
So what considerations are important in starting your first garden?
In central North Carolina where I live, we have a six month frost-free growing season and adequate summer rainfall. Your growing conditions may be a bit different; however many common principals to site selection will apply.
- Sunshine – Some annual vegetables are “shade tolerant,” but most grow best when exposed to full sunshine. Ideally your garden will receive at least six hours of sun per day and if possible, more. Evaluate potential sites several times during the day to get a feel for the amount of sun/shade an area receives.
- Water – Most likely you will need to supplement the rainfall your garden receives with occasional irrigation – So look for a site that is within easy reach of a hose or a rain barrel. Irrigation is especially needed when you are setting out transplants which require watering at least every other day for a week or two.
- Drainage – While vegetable plants require adequate water, they will fail miserably if their roots are exposed to standing water for an extended period of time. Look for a high spot that does not flood regularly.
- Soil – Soil quality is certainly important; however you can overcome poor soil with effort and/or money. For the purposes of site selection, focus on finding an area where your vegetables will not compete with existing plants, especially shrubs and trees.
- Annoyances – If you have deer, rabbits, groundhogs, moles, voles, etc., you will have to protect your plants. Also, if you have a neighborhood homeowners association, be familiar with any restrictive covenants that apply to gardens and gardening structures.
Note: Readers that do not have enough space for a garden may be able to grow a few vegetables in containers or perhaps participate in a community garden. Even if you don’t grow a significant amount of produce, you will learn a great deal from the experience.
If you plan to take advantage of existing soil, test a small sample to determine pH, organic matter content, and the availability of key minerals. Some states offer free soil tests for residents or you can use one of several fee-based soil testing services . The results will include specific recommendations for improving any imbalances. In any case you will need plenty of good compost on hand. Leslie Allen provided excellent advice in her Composting 101 post for creating your own compost.
One method of preparing a new site for a garden is called double digging. The basic idea is to dig a trench 18 inches deep and 12 inches wide along the entire length of your new bed. The soil that is removed is mixed with compost and organic matter and put back into the trench. The process is repeated until the entire bed has been turned over. I can attest that this method works; however it is backbreaking and may ruin any positive feelings you have for gardening.
Another method of site preparation, one that I am quite fond of, is called “Lasagna Gardening.” Lasagna gardening is a method of creating raised beds from alternating layers of organic materials and compost. Not only does this method create a rich, healthy soil, but it also helps keep weeds in check.
For each garden bed, place a layer of cardboard or multiple thicknesses of newspaper directly on the ground and soak with water. On top of this layer add a two inch thickness of peat moss, leaves, grass clippings or wheat straw. After soaking the organic matter, add about 6 inches of compost. Add another two inches of organic material. Continue alternating compost layers with organic material (and watering) until the bed is about 18 inches high. Plant seeds and transplants directly into the new bed.
If you create raised beds either by the lasagna method or by purchasing topsoil, you may decide to create a structure to contain the bed. Most gardeners use wood or concrete block for building the structure – avoid using treated lumber due to its proximity to the food you will be producing.
After establishing permanent raised beds, you will layer on additional organic matter each fall and winter and reap the rewards in the spring. Starting a garden isn’t hard, and doing proper preparation will mean a lot less work during the growing and weeding season.
For additional gardening guidance, you may find the following two books valuable: Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew and Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman. If you really want to jump into the deep end, read Soil and Health by Sir Albert Howard. First published in 1947, Soil and Health makes clear the connection between the quality of our soil and the nutrition of the food derived from it.
Good luck with your local agricultural adventures, and be sure to take advantage of the new gardening section in the forums if you have questions.