How To Get Started
Many people in the prepping world often ask me how to get started producing products local to their own back yards. Good news? It’s easier than ever in history to get started with a garden! The vegetables and fruits you grow not only will provide nutritonal benefits for you and your family, but also provide an excellent stress reliever from your hard day at work.
First, I completely understand that some folks live in apartments or condos and simply cannot garden to the extent that the garden will provide enough. I suggest that if you fall into this area, try your best to use large pots, hanging baskets that attach to the railing of your patio, or maybe a community roof-top coop garden with your neighbors if permitted.
Let’s start with size. Gardens can be all kinds of sizes, shapes and designs, but a rule of thumb is 200 sq. ft. for each person being fed, year around. A family of 4 will need roughly 800 sq. ft. — or a 40′ x 20′ ft. plot. Not terribly big really and should fit even in a smaller home’s backyard. We are very into gardening and the two of us have about 2,500 sq. ft. set up, but, like I said, we’re a bit crazy and also like to can. You can divide up this area however you wish! It doesn’t have to just be a big, huge box.
I am going to recommend raised garden beds unless the soil where you live is incredibly fertile. Save yourself the time and energy of planting in a non-raised area the first year as you will quickly understand the benefits of raised beds. Raised beds provide a lot of advantages as you can custom tailor the soil to the plants you’re going to grow. Some like a high pH, some like a lower pH, for example. You can also put in substrate before your soil such as garden rock to provide drainage for your bed, which is crucial if you have poorly-drained soil. Not very many garden plants like to be wet at the root all the time. Another huge advantage of raised beds is they’re raised! When you get a bit older, not bending over to the ground or crawling around on it is very nice.
What kind of raised bed or box should I make? Honestly, it’s up to you and the area you have to work with. I have done what amounts to looking like fishing piers with grass in between each row. I also have some beds that are tiered, some skinny, some wider and some in a stacked effect. Be creative! Do what comes to mind that you think will be cool. Keep it fun and take your time building them as, if done properly, can last 10 years or more.
What do I make my boxes out of? Well, that depends on your time constraints and cost considerations. If you’re truly short on time, big box stores sell pre-fab boxes, usually make of some kind of plastic. Sometimes they look very nice. If you want to make your own DIY boxes, there are a variety of woods to use and each cost a bit more or less. Generally, cedar is a preferred wood to use as it’s relatively cost-effective and has a decent longevity of about 8 years before it starts to rot out. Cedar also has the added benefit of being a natural bug deterrent. Many species of insects that can be harmful to your garden do not like to be near cedar, helping your plants to remain insect-free. Redwood is also very popular due to it’s durability, but also can be very pricey. Pine is also very popular with gardeners that do not mind rebuilding their boxes every 4-5 years.
Personally, I have chosen to use rough-cut cedar boards, 2 in. thick and 8 in. tall. Using 4×4 cedar for the corner posts, they can be assembled using 3 in. deck screws. Dig your 4×4 post holes about 16 inches deep and make to account for that when doing your measuring and cutting. The tools used for this project can be as simple as a hand saw, a cordless drill, a level, shovel and rake. I used a chop saw to help not make my arm fall off with a hand saw.
One of my favorites is a box in a “U” shape. I can walk around the outside of the “U” or in the middle of it to get to the plants on both sides. My “U” box is 18 inches tall (3 boards tall) so it’s not hard to bend over to manage.
Alternatives to wood are also stones, bricks, and sometimes just earthen mounds around the growing area. I have some beds made of left-over bricks from a patio remodel that we did. They look very nice, but leveling the ground out and stacking the bricks was certainly more effort. Regardless of the material that you choose to make your boxes out of, make sure and till up the ground/break up with a shovel and then level the area.
Box placement in your yard is also a big consideration. Some plants like a lot of sun, so have some boxes in full sun, all day. Some plants enjoy cooler temps, such as onions and do well in a partial shade environment. Sometimes the easiest way to do this is to simply go outside every couple of hours and see where and how long roughly the sun is in each area. This will change some over the growing season and eventually you might need to relocate a box to a better spot the following year or do some tree trimming to get the desired sun results.
Lastly, you might want to incorporate a trellis/lattice-type setup in your box (as seen in the photo above). I have tried stakes, plant support poles, you name it and finally settled on a relatively cheap and easy solution used for thousands of years. Bamboo. Bamboo poles are sturdy (people still use them for scaffolding in large construction projects in Asia) and have a good durability to harsh weather. Bamboo is also versatile as you can construct a trellis in nearly any way you wish. I use a “teepee” style design with a pole on one side of the box, another pole on the other side and then the top of the pole leaned into each other and then secured with a zip tie. A support pole is used as a brace for wind, attached halfway down the upper pole with the other end of the support stuck into the ground. I have also toyed with using garden twine, string of various gauges and wire to hold the bamboo together. But in the end, zip ties are best as they hold all growing season and are easy to remove in the fall when you may want to remove your support to allow easier tilling the following spring.
A top pole is finally secured across the top of the side support poles (see above photo again). This horizontal pole is used to support your plants. Taking tomatoes as an example, a piece of garden string is attached to the horizontal pole going down to the tomato plant and attached to the plant with a plastic plant clip. As the plant grows, you simply wind the string up at the top on the horizontal pole, keeping the other end attached to the plant. Alternatively, you can use tomato cages, but that’s for another volume of discussion as this gets into the differences between determinate and indeterminate tomato plants.
Now that you’ve made your boxes, you almost surely will want to fill them and get those plants in the ground! Take your time, it’s not going anywhere. If you have heavy clay soil with poor drainage, then start with a substrate, which is the bottom layer of your box. White garden stones/rock work nicely and are not very expensive. A lot of plant nurseries carry this in bulk for a cheaper purchase. Spread out about 2 inches depth of rock in the bottom evenly across the box. Next comes your soil. Make sure you read up on soil conditions for the plants you want in there. For example, strawberries like a nice rich soil, but also some sand added for great results.
General soil recipe:
I usually just mix this in a normal-sized wheelbarrow.
- ½ Good garden or potting soil. Don’t cheap out unless you are on a budget. The richer, the better.
- ¼ Compost. You can buy good compost in bags or make your own. Composted manure also works.
- A few handfuls of worm castings and/or bat guano.
- A few handfuls of peat moss.
- A few handfuls of Perlite. This will help retain moisture and keep your soil loose and workable.
- A sprinkling of general, 8-8-8 fertilizer.
Mix all of this thoroughly until blended well. Keep making more until you’ve filled your box 1 in. from the top of the bed. This will settle some over time, slightly lower. Lastly, once your plants are in and established, using gorilla hair mulch around your plants and across the bed will provide stress relief for your plants from drying out too quickly, weed control and is also another bug deterrent. Another option for mulching can be straw, which is very affordable. Ensure when purchasing your straw that you get a brand that touts a weed-free, non-chemical treated hay/straw so you do not introduce extra weeds into your garden or nasty chemicals, which could leach into your vegetables. I chose gorilla hair mulch because it lasts a very long time and when it decomposes, works nicely into your soil and keeps the soil loose.
This should get your started on your new garden. That first year can be a little frustrating as you want those plants in now, but spend the early spring making your boxes and by planting time, you’ll be ready. Just takes some time and effort to give you and your family those foods that help you stay healthy.
Another good thing about having chickens is that they produce wonderful manure.
We use rabbit poop; it can go directly on the garden without any composting time. We have a lot of chickens so their poop gets composted for a couple of months before using it.
Thanks for this article which is timely for me, as I plan to build a raised bed next month.
Timely for Chris. Here are a couple quotes that are timeless for all of us.
If you have a garden and a library you have everything.–Cicero
Gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.–Anonymous
This year, I want to try the Shou sugi ban method on some 2×6 raised beds, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakisugi, using a weed torch, brush and Linseed oil.
I also would like to try some aircrete precast modular raised beds.
For Trellises, I’ve been thinking about 1V and 2V domes, but I am not sure if the 1V is strong enough for pumpkins, using 2inx2inx8ft lumber for struts, 3 in conduit cut 2in wide as connector hubs, and either zip ties, or #36 bank line to bind them together.
Don’t build boxes out of pressure treated lumber if you plan to eat the plant.
Blend chopped seaweed into soil mixture if available …. no composting necessary.
When setting boxes on the ground without a black plastic barrier, allow for the width of your lawn mower so you can run it between rows.
Order from Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm and add composting worms directly to the soil.
A trellis can easily be made using firing strips and self drilling screws. Easy, cheap and effective.
Concrete for raised bed! We have tried many different over the years.
NEW: we will be using DIY concrete modular https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuSBwFkCiAw
Best for new ground we used several times in the past IF you have access to a LOT of free sawdust: I call these non-raised raised beds. Dig out the paths and put the dirt up on the beds (that thin soil just became twice as thick!), and fill the paths in with sawdust up to level with the tops of the beds… it will settle a little and the beds will be raised an inch or so. Sawdust on the beds is BAD, sucks up too much nitrogen… but in the paths we never had any problem. In a couple years, things start looking a little rough, so till the whole area up again in the fall (adding some manure) for a winter green manure crop too and then start over with new paths, new sawdust the next spring = adding an huge amount of organic matter to the garden (sawdust, now partly broken down)
We have heavy clay soil and Colombian ground squirrels. So we have most of our garden in raised beds. We are serious gardeners and canners so the amount of raised beds we need is more than our budget could afford to purchase. While I love the neat and tidy look of the beds made with galvanized metal, we couldn’t afford that. We have plenty of logs but I wanted a tidier look as our garden is quite close to the shouse.
We solved the problem by using used garage door panels. They are powder coated painted, insulated, and come in various heights and lengths. Usually even if the exterior of the panel is a different color the interior is always white so you set the box up with the interior out and all of your boxes are white. For instance, we would take 3, 8’ panels, cut one of them in half with a saws all for your end pieces. Brace the corners with scrap metal that you predrill with holes (you could use wood but it won’t last as long) and using bolts, washers, and nuts put the box together and you end up with a raised bed that is 8’x8’x4’. If the panels are 24” tall I set wheat straw bales in the boxes (after I line the boxes with wire to keep out the ground squirrels) as tight as possible, taking loose straw and filling any spaces between the bales (remove the baling twine after you have the bale where you want it) then I put a mixture of soil, compost, manure, etc. on top of the bales. It’s basically a bastardized hugelkulture method.
The first year the box doesn’t produce much. That fall I plant the box in wheat or oats for a green manure to till in in the spring. Every year the box is in production it produces more.
TeresaSue, I admire your resourcefulness. Garage door panels. I never would have come up with that one. I reckon they last a long time. My kind of re-purposing. The next time I build some beds, that is on my list.
They’re useful for other things too. We have several long doors that came out of a huge shop that we are going to use for two walls of a three sided machine shed. They interlock together and the paint is practically indestructible so you don’t have to paint them unless you just want to. They look very decent. The best part? We got them free. The garage door companies have to dispose of the doors they take out and they were happy for us to take them so they didn’t have to pay dump fees. When scrap metal is high they might be harder to get but they are still a great resource to recycle. You would not believe how many people get new garage door to have a different “look”. They will spend hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars on a whim.
Wow, “The best part? We got them free. The garage door companies have to dispose of the doors they take out and they were happy for us to take them so they didn’t have to pay dump fees. ”
Where I come from, we call that win/win.
Two great survival gardening books by David the Good.
Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening
Good article! We also use raised beds. Most are 3 ft. wide with a few at 4 ft. wide. I would add to nail wire mesh to the bottoms before setting the beds. This will keep the voles and ground squirrels out. We have a lot of deer and rabbits that like the salad bar so we also have netting over the top of our beds. We place rebar down in the soil just on the inside of the side of the bed, sticking up about 8 inches. Then we fashion hoops out of black irrigation hose that fits over the rebar. We attach the netting to the hoops with zip ties, making them tight enough to secure but loose enough to slide up and down for weeding and harvesting.
We live in a dry, high altitude climate. I have found that Eliot Coleman’s composting methods work well here and have also used his plans for trellises and a greenhouse. These were found in his book ” Four Season Harvest”. Although I always enjoy a bit of winter’s rest, I’m getting excited for the new growing season. I get most of my seeds at Territorial Seed. I ordered the last of what i needed a few weeks ago and was surprised to see some varieties already sold out! If you haven’t gotten seeds yet, better get on it! Happy gardening!
Yep, I have found some varieties sold out on several sites I visited this week.
Stay in the saddle, everyone. A rough ride is ahead.
Plant perennials. Usually low maintenance and long productivity.
I agree with you. A combination of edible perennials, fruit trees, fruit bushes and annual veggies provide a much bigger annual yield than just growing annual veggies in raised beds. Our soil is mostly clay as many have said, but fruit trees tend to grow just fine. We also include berry bushes such as raspberries, strawberries for ground cover and bush-type blueberries in containers.
Don’t forget layers as you can plant vines next to structure plants like trees (think three sisters-corn being your structure plant, beans are your climbers and squash moves on the ground around the corn) and magnify your yield. Permaculture resources have plenty of ideas for increasing your options to grow.
Hey Paul, nice article, lots of good information.
“I have also toyed with using garden twine, string of various gauges and wire to hold the bamboo together.”
I’m going to finally try the bamboo tripod trellises this year. I hope they work as well as people say. Have you though of using bailing twine for tying them together?
I’m surprised how few people mention bailing twine on SB. For $25 you can get 4 miles (20K feet) of polypropylene twine that’s UV stabilized so it lasts at least a couple of years (some of my garden stuff is now in its third year and going strong). It’s super lightweight, surprisingly strong, and has a bazillion and three uses. I keep one roll up above the door in my shop with the end hanging down through an eyelet by the door so whenever I need a piece I just pull and cut. The other roll is in my garden shed for the projects when I need a lot more and want to carry the roll around. Four miles should last most of us a lifetime and is much cheaper than almost any other alternative. I’ve even braided it for times when I’ve needed a little more strength. Check around for pricing, you can find it cheaper if you just need a single roll instead of the 2-pack. All the farm stores carry it and other locations as well.
Good luck on your garden this year and wish me luck on my bamboo trellises. 🙂
As a kid, baler twine was the only string we ever used for anything. We used it to tie gates shut, to hang heat lamps, to secure things in the truck bed, and any other use for string. We had an old empty five-gallon hydraulic fluid bucket in the barn where we put all the strings that we cut off of bales of hay and straw so there was always a ready supply of strings that were about 5′ long.
St Funogas I use a lot of wheat straw on our place and I use twine all the time. I save it from the bales though, I don’t buy it. My husband teases me and calls me twiney Sue if I forget to pick it up. I believe a good lot of ranches and farms would totally collapse if all their twine was removed, lol!
I was wondering where we in the USA could get Gorilla Hair. Asked Grandpa Google. Found this.
Gorilla Hair mulch is made from the fibrous bark of redwood trees. The bark is mechanically shredded and the result is fibrous, tufted mulch that makes an aesthetically pleasing flower bed cover that is different than more traditional forms of mulch.
And here I was going to recommend human hair or waste wool. Joke’s on me.
Last spring I couldn’t find any seeds to plant. I searched all the local usual places and there was very little variety and most beans, lettuces and kale and chard where just gone. I then remembered my trip to Monticello, in Virginia about 24 years ago and falling in love with Jeffersons garden. They sell mostly heirloom seeds there of what they grow in the garden. I figured not many people knew that so I looked them up on line and, low and behold, they had everything I needed. Everything grew well and I have saved the seeds for this years garden, too. One of my new favorites is the heirloom pumpkin. It looks nothing like a pumpkin but grew many large squash and is a great keeper and delicious.
Sharing my secret source with you and wishing you all great success with your gardens!
Jill we loved Monticello too. Very clever of you to think of them!
Our son in law, before he retired, was a Marine and he was stationed back east the last 12 years, bounced between Virginia and South Carolina. Anyway when we would go visit we would go see so many amazing places and Monticello was one of them. President Jefferson was an avid gardener and I admired his seed collection. We also got to see President Washington’s farm. One of the best places was Polyface farm in the Shenandoah valley. All three places have influenced my gardening.
Excuse me, my son in law will probably never read the above comment, but if he did I would be reminded that he is, and always will be a Marine.
I want to always be on the son in law’s good side. : )
Yep, the second part of my moniker is, Always a Marine.
Give your son in law a high five from a jarhead of fifty years ago.
Next time I see him I will. They retired to Tucson, where he’s from. They bought 10 next tour acreage but we’ll see if they do anything with it. For some bizarre reason all of our kids live in cities. They didn’t get that from us!
If we ever meet in person you have to sign the back of my Iwo Jima (spelling?) quilt.
I went to Mr. Jefferson’s University so Monticello is one of my favorite places. As soon as I saw your comment (I’m a little behind in my reading), I went to the Monticello site and ordered 8 kinds of seeds, including a second pack of hot pepper seeds to give our son. He is on a quest to find the hottest peppers he can handle. We will see how he does with these.
Thanks for the source, even though our local stores are just beginning to display their gardening stock. The shipping charges are pretty high ($9.95 for standard) but I am hoping at least part of that goes toward the restoration and research work. At any rate, we shall see if their seeds can stand up to Texas conditions.
Roger that, TeresaSue.