Gardening Lessons – Part 1, by R.R.

So… You think that you can garden? Got the books, got some seeds, and you grew something once. Sure, it’s easy! Well, good for you. It hasn’t come easy for this guy. I’m the so called green-thumb in my house. House plants, no problem. Landscaping around the home, got that. Garden as if our life depends on, not so much. I managed lawn and landscaping crews for seven years during and after college. We did some major commercial work and I know more than the average homeowner about these things. I have to admit that vegetable gardening has been a whole different experience. I hope this article provides you all with some gardening lessons learned and hopefully some motivation to get moving and not wait for the apocalypse before getting some food growing.

I’ve been experimenting in the garden for eight years with some successes, a few accidental successes and plenty of failures. Failures are just lessons, right? I’ve always tried to learn from my own mistakes but more so learn from the mistakes of others. Mistakes cost time and money and I’d rather learn from the lost time and money of others if possible, in the garden and in life.

Key Gardening Factors

There are several factors when it comes to a garden. Some we can control and some can we can’t:

  • Sun – Do we have enough of it where we plan to garden? Six hours a day would be a minimum.
  • Temperature – Where do we live and what is the climate (what garden zone are we in). There are even micro climates within an area depending on mountains, valleys, rivers, etc… This will dictate what you can grow and when.
  • Soil – Location and climate will dictate this. Some of us are lucky, others not so much. Rich/dark soil or hard packed clay, sandy loamy soil, or somewhere in between? My feelings are that the soil makes all the difference in the world and it takes time/money/energy to get it right.
  • Water – Can you get water to where you are gardening? Enough of it?
  • Time – Energy and effort. How much of this are you willing to give?

You have to take an analysis yourself and answer these questions of where you stand in relation to each. These answers will dictate what needs to be done and what is possible.

The Right Spot

Let’s start with the right spot. Find a place where you can meet the water and sun requirements and take a soil sample. You may need to take several samples if you garden spot is large and if you plan to garden in several spots. Do you have the time/effort/energy to tend that big of a garden? Your local cooperative (call your garden center) can help you through the soil analysis process.

Find out what you have in the ground and what it will take to make the soil right for vegetable gardening. Typically, a PH of 6.5-to-7 will be best for most vegetables. You will also want soil you can work with. We have clay and it takes a ton of work to get the nutrients right but also to add enough compost to get it where it can be worked. More on this later.

Choosing What to Plant

What to plant? What do you like to eat? Plant that. I’ve bought plenty of seed packets and grew some things successfully only to have my family say they hated it. Radish, kohlrabi and kale come to mind. What do you buy at the grocery store mostly? As for us, we eat a ton of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers (all types) and lettuces. Potatoes, corn, beans and onions as well, though I’m only in year two of experimentation on growing those. Enjoy the garden now and learn to grow what you like. If you want to experiment with some other stuff, then go for it. Don’t try to conquer the world in one summer.

There are some shortcuts to getting the soil right but it costs money. Let’s see how the comments section comes back on this article as I’m sure some folks have good ideas. As for me, I built raised beds and bought soil. I also made a separate 30’ x 15’ garden area based on the existing soil (hard packed clay). In regards to raised beds I started many years ago by reading the Square Foot Gardening method.

Raised Bed Width

I like the idea of the 4 foot width maximum as it does make it simple to work all sides of the bed without stepping in it. Use non-treated lumber and get building. I can’t build a birdhouse but was able to pull this off. Check the web site and make some rectangles (pay attention in how best to tie the ends to the sides). I used 2” x 8” in 8’, 10’ and 12’ sections.

In regards to the soil mix, that’s up for debate. The first time I did the mix of peat moss, vermiculite and compost, just like they say at the Square Foot Gardening web site. It was expensive and kind of a pain to mix it up right. It’s a one-time sunk cost so perhaps that will make you feel better when you pay the bill. The second time I did this, I just used LeafGro and local soil in a 50/50 mix from the local garden center. The second method was less expensive, yet it seemed to work fine. If you wanted to add random vermiculite and peat moss into it, then go for it.

In regards to the garden plot on existing soil, that has been a whole other ballgame. First I fenced off the area to keep critters out. I used 4’ tall chicken wire with metal T-posts as that seems to suffice for the critters near me. You may need a more serious fencing solution depending on your circumstances. I do suggest burying the bottom 3” or so of the fence into the soil and maybe tack it down with some sod stakes and then put soil over it to keep digging critters from coming underneath. Now, on to the soil. What a mess I have. It’s hard packed mid-Atlantic clay. I started with a broadfork. You can buy a cheap one, but I like to buy things once and know they will likely last forever.

I took a lot of passes forward, backwards and sideways with the broadfork. If you use the broadfork properly it really does a lot of the effort for you. Lots of rocks and roots came up and huge chunks of clay. I wanted to quit and stick with the raised beds but I’m an idiot and so I kept going. I think it’s a form of therapy. I then added some LeafGro and any other compost I could get my hands on and just kept mixing it all in and breaking it up the best I could. I tilled it a few times and planted some seeds. I grew some lovely weeds and ate lots of ibuprofen. I did it again and a few things sprouted…I did it again and even more came up. I did it again and actually had edible food. I did it again and… You get the idea here.

The Soil is Improving

My soil sucks but it sucks less now. If you have cr*ppy soil, it’s going to take some serious effort and compost to get it right. You will see the color change and the composition (how it feels) improve. You will know it as you see and feel it. If you want to test the soil again, go for it. The lesson here is: soil means everything. You have to go through the effort to get it right. Hopefully what you start with is better than what I had.

Starts or seeds, or some combination of both? Early on in my endeavors I bought starts from the local store. That’s an expensive way to go but may make sense for some first timers. I have since started most of my plants from seed. Like I said earlier, I’m an idiot and need therapy.

Do what you want, but I will give some examples of lessons on starting from seed. I started with the cute little Jiffy start trays and pellets. They worked, but they didn’t. If you want stringy little starts, then it’s great. The smaller the container/pellet tends to limit the potential of the start as it grows. I gradually moved up to 3 inch squares and 5 inch rounds. I use potting soil in the Peat Pot containers and use the Jiffy bottoms to place them in. I did this for a while and still had poor results, such as stringy long starts. So I got smart and invested in a shelving unit, some grow lights, and heating mats. This changed everything, for the better: Seedling mats.

Get the size that works for you. I wanted to place two of the Jiffy trays side by side on each mat and shelf. My shelves are 48” long and 21” wide and worked well for two standard Jiffy trays, mats and 48” lights.

Note: You will need to water every two to three days, as they dry out quickly under these conditions.

For grow lights. I used 48” hooded shop lights. I found some small chain and got some S-hooks so I could raise and lower the lights as needed. Look for specific bulbs for growing, such as T8 daylight bulbs, such as those sold at Home Depot.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2)


  1. Almost felt like I was reading one of my garden posts or youtube videos – My Victory Garden. This guy has it right … you can establish a baseline of garden knowledge from books, but like all prepping, it’s the “doing” that provides the wisdom (and fun). I have 20+ years of garden experiments, weather woes, varmint battles, soil particulars, and finnicky family taste discoveries for our home-grown veggies and fruits. And there’s also the physical fitness aspect – gardening will get your body moving, build muscle, deliver fresh air, and bathe you in life-giving sunlight. It’s a family affair where my teen children leave the mobile phones behind!

  2. Great read. I recently sold my “homestead” and left behind a fine garden with great regret. It is difficult to start a new garden plot when you are old …. well, older. But it is a labor of love. And if it isn’t? Plan on doing something else and trading for garden food.

    I found that it takes at least three years for a garden to begin good production. Amending the soil those first three years is critical. Once in “production” you better have a system for preserving the bounty.

    An additional bonus is that …..unbeknownst to me at the time ….. my children were watching me labor every spare minute in the garden. Now as adults they are avid gardeners. I guess gardening indirectly created interests toward a wholesome life instead of substance abuse, tv-itis and such.

    There is one bad thing about growing your own food. Supermarket produce will never taste as good.

  3. We have clay soil too and Lots of rocks. . It’s the Rocky Mountains ! We built a lot of raised beds but because we are getting older and I don’t have long arms, we made them 3 feet across. Less stress on me. We are able to get free composted leaves from the county . They gather them up in the fall and by spring they are well broken down. They give them away here free and if you arrange it and come real early with a truck or trailer they will even load them for you. Also I have raised seedlings in a South facing window but have recently used led lights the daylight kind. I had great success this year with them. Money is snug here so I was able to get used planting trays from a local greenhouse ( they just get new ones each year) . I washed them and reuse them every year. We grow our stuff organically so I purchase organic starter soil or make my own. I look for ways to save money all the time and starting your own seedlings saves a lot.

    1. Sis, I just learned a new phrase from you, “Money is snug here”. Love it.

      Being in the same “snug” boat for most of my low income life, I am very frugal and agree about getting everything possible free.

      My grow lights are regular shop lights, no need for the fancy “grow-lite” fixture. The shop light has served me well since 1982. Happy seedlings.

      Reusing trays and pots has saved me lots of time (something we often forget the value of) and money.

      Living urban means I am able to find bags of leaves my neighbors discard. Some go into the compost bin and many go on the garden in autumn. You should see the earthworm colonies under those leave right now. They are turning those leaves into rich soil as I sit here. To plant, I simply move some leaves aside, dig a hole, and drop the seedling in. We actually plant in a small percentage of the garden, you know. The leaves then hold moisture in the ground around the plant and end up as that soil by the end of summer.

      Carry on

  4. I had good black soil in one winter because I went around to every local coffee shop and begged for bags of used coffee grounds (worms LOVE coffee grounds), Then I saved all my eggshells, teabags, potato peels, crusts of bread, lettuce leaves etc, and once a week all Fall (Sept-Nov) I tucked a small lunch size paper bag full of this stuff into the existing local soil (which I shoveled into the planter bed til it was 8 inches deep) under a layer of screen door screen weighted down by used bricks to keep the possums and raccoons out. I let it cook all winter and in March I unrolled the screen, turned the soil and added a bag of glacial rock dust and a bag of Miracle Gro potting soil. Granted I only had the one bed which was 2 feet by 6 feet but I was able to grow a salad garden and have enough to share with neighbors. “Man, for all his accomplishments in art, science and literature, owes his very existence to 2 inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains”!

  5. Use cement blocks and glue them together with exterior construction adhesive for robust raised beds. See “Gardening Revolution” for some good tips. 4×16 works great. But he is absolutely right, you must do gardening to succeed (eat).

  6. Fortunately we have had more time than expected to practice what we preach, cause I’m behind the old ‘power curve’ when it comes to real experience in the garden. My gardening ‘bible’ is Gardening When It Counts, hence my approach is old fashioned and focused on growing what grows good, so we are not lacking for nutrition. As a pragmatist, I’ll tend to first ‘eat to live, rather than live to eat’. ‘Living to eat’ will hopefully happen, and can happen if I get the first part right. The old writing skills are definitely rusty and that is not good, cause by talking or writing about a subject, one can learn. So please chime in you old hands! Admittedly I ain’t been learning enough about gardening as I could have. Fortunately as hard core survivalists, we have learned many skills, focused like a laser beam, and piled up essential skills, and no different is the skill of gardening. Yet we only get to practice once a year, and I ain’t got many years left. Perhaps this is the last year we got. So what to do, if we want to chew and chew? For other ‘noobs’ as myself, how do we speed up the process? I suggest we use the ‘shotgun’ method and experiment. This means improvise as necessary. Spring is springing, so spring up, and get at it in any way one can, expedient means are absolutely acceptable, and perhaps preferable. We are under the gun to get it done. This is your personal FTX (Field Training Exercise), so get into the field, and get some exercise to get the training. We learn best by our failures, so do not fear failure, but fear inaction, and failure to learn from other’s hard won lessons. We will not live long enough to make all the mistakes that can be made, to learned gardening on our own.

    This literally how I see it, so this year I’ve gone nuts. To compress this year’s opportunity to learn by doing with minimal effort, and expense, without fear of looking like a fool, planted are 4 different garden types, raised bed, traditional, container, and a field expedient green house, each with different soil types, using myown starts, and direct seeding with a variety of proven cold weather short season seeds that have been stored for at least one year. These are seeds that may or may not germinate. Where possible several varieties of a type of plant where used to determine which were the hardiest. Several plantings will be made, including one in late July and August. If any one of the beds fail, other planting will be used to take advantage of the remaining season,albeit, less than ideal. The make -shift green house now in use to grow an early crop of potatoes, will then be used to grow vegitables that are well known to grow throughout the fall, and beyond the first frost. This is about nutrition not calories. The best experienments are planned out and executed with great disicipline, but even haphazard attempts are still instructive. So I say go for ‘it’!

    Last year’s limited experiment with potatoes proved to be very useful. 4 types planted in the best black and beautiful soil available here in NW Montana late season, and only the Gold Yukon did well. It in fact blew the competition away. It was planted late in the season as seed for the spring. It worked. It was seed for this spring. In Denmark there is held each year, a traditional competition for the first potatoes grown in that area. I accept that challenge. Ambitious, reckless, yet let see what is learned. By keeping each type of garden small, and planted with the greatest variety of available plants of the cold weather short season types, the exercise might be manageable. Too large, and it would be a less effective tool for learning. Don’t bite off more than one can chew is the thinking.

    Tunnel Rabbit

  7. Like the other comments here, I agree experience is the best resource.
    As for building soil, if you have the time use a cover crop, also known as ” green manure”. These crops can be a single variety or a mixture. I’ve always preferred the mixtures. Most will have some legumes included which will “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere on their roots and leave it behind for the next crop. God is smart and everything has a design. These crops, when turned back into the soil provide raw organic matter, smoother weeds while growing, attract beneficial insects, and if you have livestock most can be used as feed generating another form of fertilizer. As a bonus, I’ve found them to be inexpensive overall and easy to use. Most any farm store should have some and possibly varieties selected for your particular climate.
    There are myriad ways of incorporating them into your garden plan; every other row, borders, 50/50 split each year, etc.

    1. Great point Delroy. I use red clover I get at the farm store. Cheap seeds and it replenishes the nitrogen as you say. Get it down in the fall so you have a nice cover for the winter. It helps with erosion as well.

  8. I think that a lot of people think that they can’t grow food if they don’t have a big garden in the ground. I am blessed to have plenty of garden space. But I also know myself and know that some things are better grown in pots close by to where I go all the time (Zone 1 in permaculture terminology). So I have a lot of ground pots and hanging pots with veggies in them. With the right soil, you can grow lots of food in pots, even if you are in an apartment. I grow cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, chives, basil and lettuce in hanging pots. There’s probably a lot more that could be grown in hanging pots. I have lots of pots of aloe vera and I swap them out when I get one used up, and I let it sit and grow in the sun. I bring in another pot and use off it. It works really well.

  9. Interesting article, a lot of the article is familiar to me, as I was raised on a farm.
    both my grandparents and parents had large gardens. but now with my wife of 48 yrs gone, I’ve lost interest in gardening and a lot of other things that we did together.

    1. Those are best for full on indoor growing, but as an electrician and a gardener I recommend T5 florescent lights with 6500K bulbs for popping seeds and making starts.
      Not all LED “grow lights” are created equal. There is a large amount of outright junk out there, and unless you are in the business of growing plants indoors it can be difficult to sort it out. If you want to go this direction I suggest you do a LOT of research before buying. A 6500K T5 bulb is a 6500K T5 bulb, though, and you can get bulbs and fixtures at your local big box home improvement store or online.

  10. I’ve been working my place in the maritime NW for years and I want to encourage any new folks to keep at it. No, I don’t have the perfect garden but I try to improve something each year. Last year was my first attempt at growing the 3 sisters; I don’t recommend anything like the close spacing of bio intensive for that combination.
    When I started the place looked like the surface of Mars. You’ll want to start small on your garden but plant cover crops everywhere you’re not doing anything with. I used buckwheat as my primary seed because it grows well as a pioneer plant.
    Grow different things to see what works. I have a mixed fruit orchard to help assure (no guarantees) that something will come through; mostly the trees produce. This year the peaches look great, the apples and plums good, but only one of the 3 pears looks to be productive.
    In the short term vegetable garden continue to grow what works and the family will eat (not salsify). I plant the same varieties of tomatoes each year, but also try a new one. If I could only plant one it’d be Principe Bourghese (YMMV) but I don’t have to only grow one.
    I’ve not done it but I have seen others who had enviable tomatoes crops with each plant in its own 5 gallon bucket.
    Try, persevere, learn, and then try again.
    Hope this helps.

    1. Good article. I agree with the writer. Over many years I witnessed other gardeners using peat moss without much success. In fact, their gardens seemed unhealthy when too much moss was applied.

      As a alternative, every fall I purchased alfalfa from a local horse lover (expensive in Alaska due to shipping) and covered the garden over the winter. The alfalfa protects the garden’s nutrients from being washed out, decomposes and tills in beautifully in the spring.

    2. I was taught to add peat as an amendment for sandy soils to increase moisture and nutrient retention, but never more than 5% by volume, and usually more like 2%. It’s also highly acidic so is best for plants that like a little lower pH. Combined with an equal amount of perlite it can do wonders for sandy soils.
      I have no experience with coir but that’s by choice. It’s almost a hydroponic medium when used in pots because it doesn’t hold moisture or nutrients well nor does it support any ecology at all. It’s just something for the roots to hold on to while the plant is grown completely with fertigation. I wouldn’t recommend adding coir as an amendment for general gardening.
      I agree that compost is a superior amendment for almost every situation.

  11. RR, so much of what you offer is right on. Esp. the link to the broadfork, Meadow Creature. The one I use may be my most valuable tool. This week, I am using it to dig up deep-rooted quackgrass. I am able to get “almost” all the roots, each of which left in the soil would birth new grass.

    Carry on

  12. Tried and failed growing stuff for over 2 years, then remembered a brilliant quote. “A man’s got to know his limitations.” So rather than spend tons of money on tools, equipment, soil, pesticides and so many other things, as well as wasting valuable time, I decided to put the money into buying freeze-dried food. Might be slightly more expensive, but if you factor in the time saved not farming and earning money instead, probably better off. And if SHTF, I won’t have to worry about spending time fighting off insects and pests. Plus I will have animal protein without having to raise livestock. And I can barter for fresh food, if I need to, with things that I am skilled at, which ain’t growing stuff.

  13. As a kid, I hated weeding in our acre sized garden with super heavy clay soil. In a typical summer, you couldn’t go into the garden for 2 days after a rain or you would come out with pounds of mud stuck to each foot. As an early teen, I started raking up the grass from our large lawn to mulch the plants. My Mom suggested that I cleanup the spillage from filling our silo with haylage and I moved many wheelbarrow loads and mulched the entire garden with 3 to 4 inches of mulch. We didn’t need to water all summer, no weeds and when I went to check for new potatoes, I found large potatoes just under the mulch (the largest one was 2.5 pounds, solid and delicious). After 2 years of heavy mulching, the texture of the soil had completely changed and everything was growing like crazy.

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