Building Your Garden’s Foundation
Are you ready? Do you even know where you’d put a garden on your property so that it gets optimum light, water, and wind protection? Have you begun clearing and tilling the land so that it is free from rocks, debris, pests, and unwanted vegetation? Have you amended the soil so that it is not too dense with clay or too sandy, too acidic or too alkaline, too wet or too dry?
If you haven’t even begun to work on a garden, the fall is the time to do it. Actually, now is a good time, especially if you need to put in a fall cover crop, manure, humus, and/or compost. Over the winter these will work in your soil to help prepare it for the spring planting.
When selecting the location for your garden, there are many considerations to keep in mind:
- Size. To feed a family of four with vegetables and small animal meat, it is generally thought that a minimum of two acres is required. However, if you are not raising animals and are just getting started growing vegetables, I strongly suggest you keep your garden much smaller to begin with. You do not want your garden to be so large that you are overwhelmed the first year and throw up your hands and quit. If you have a family of four, where there will be more than one person helping with weeding and harvesting, you might consider something between 800-2,000 square feet of growing space. Our first garden was three raised beds 5′ x 48′ each. That garden still exists and has just become our medicinal, herd, and tea garden, while a much large garden has been put in for vegetables and another area for fruit bushes. Think about expansion room, but I recommend not getting too big right at the beginning.
- Sun. Most fruits and vegetables require full sun or at least partial sun for almost all of the day, so the spot you select should not be surrounded by trees, buildings, or objects that produce shade during much of the day. Consider the area you are thinking about using as your garden and visit it early in the morning as well as late in the afternoon and check to see if there are any areas that are shaded. If so, maybe you should consider putting the garden somewhere else or trimming trees.
- Access. Your garden will need a lot of attention, daily, and will require your protection from predators. If your garden is not easily accessible to you or you cannot keep an eye on it, it will not be well cared for. Remember that it is called a garden and while we who grow gardens are called gardeners, we really are most appropriately “guardians”. We guard it from weeds, dehydration, and destructive pests and predators. Therefore, we need to keep it within easy access of us. Putting it on the back side of your 10-acre field is not a good idea. Keep it close to your back door so you can step outside to check on it throughout the day and easily enjoy the proceeds, too.
- Protection. You may want to put up some fencing or border of some kind to keep neighborhood animals or wildlife out of your garden. I’m told that sunflowers will keep wild hogs away, and there are some plants that will deter deer. However, a fence is the best way to assure that animals stay out of the garden. I can recall being pretty angry one morning when I went out to pick a cucumber that I had been watching grow only to find it half eaten by a skunk. (His lingering odor gave his identity away.) Additionally, if you live where there are strong winds, you may want to consider putting it where there is wind protection. Heavy, spring winds and rains can knock down a tender young garden quickly. Just keep in mind that you don’t want to block out the sunlight.
- Level/low slope. A fairly level plot is preferred so that water soaks down rather than running off and washing nutrients, soil, and seeds away. If there is a slope on all of your land, you do have the option of making a tiered or terraced garden, like farmers and ?vintners? do on hillsides. These are rows or flat beds that run perpendicular to the slope so that the water is held in place and then built at various levels. There are many good articles online about building terraced gardens using various building materials. A terraced garden should be built wide enough for your tilling equipment though. If you plan to use a tractor in the future, keep this in mind. However, try to find a level or low grade area if possible, as it will be much easier to handle in the long run.
- Water. Your garden is going to require a daily, consistent water supply. Having access to your water and preferably multiple sources of water, if necessary, is optimal. A drip system is the most efficient but can be quite an elaborate setup and expense. A sprinkler may be your preferred means to get started. Regardless, a hose or multiple hoses or pipes long enough to reach all sides of the garden plot are required, so consider this when deciding on your garden’s location.
- Security/OPSEC. Putting your garden in the front yard may be the only place you have to grow food, but it will not be secure. Ideally, you should have it where it is out of sight and not easily accessible by passersby. It is simply good OPSEC to keep outsiders from having knowledge of your food production, because when they get hungry they will be likely to trespass and steal what you have in your garden and also expect that you have stores of more food in your home. It’s just better for folks to not know about all that you grow!
Preparing the Soil This Fall
Once you have a location picked out for your garden, you need to determine what your soil is lacking. It is the foundation of your garden, and through it all of the nourishment and water will transfer to the plants to enable them to grow and produce food for you and your loved ones. Poor quality soil may not produce plants at all, no matter how good the seeds are and how much you water. Yet, some soil may grow plants but then soon cause them to rot and die, or dry up and die. Especially if you’ve never grown a garden in this location, I suggest that you get your soil tested at your local co-op office, which sells kits to take soil samples that you can mail to labs who will do an analysis for you for a fee, or you can purchase a do-it-yourself soil test kit online that allows for repeat testings of basic factors.
Your soil needs:
- A fairly neutral pH level. A pH level that is too alkaline or too acidic will not be friendly to various plants. Some plants can tolerate more alkaline or more acidic soils than other plants. Most vegetables prefer pH between 5.5 and 8.0, but many won’t tolerate the extremes of this range. So, it is best to get your soil in the 6.0-7.0 range for the greatest variety of vegetables. This is especially important if you rotate your garden arrangement each year, as I do, in order to manage soil nutrients, microbes, and pests.
- Organic materials to feed the soil and keep it loose and moisture-retentive. Both manure (of vegetable-eating animals like cows and goats only, please) and compost qualify as organic materials. SurvivalBlog has some great articles and letters on composting. However, I will reiterate my opinion that it is important to use only the feces of vegetarian animals in your garden for health purposes. Most manure will need to have been well cured before being added to the garden. The exception is rabbit manure, which can be used immediately in the garden without harm to plants. In fact, I hear it is “garden gold”, but I have not been fortunate enough to obtain any to try myself. If your soil is hard and compact, even with nutrient-rich soil and plenty of water your plant’s roots will not be able to spread easily into hard soil and reach out to extract nutrients. Humus in the form of straw or other organic matter may need to be added to allow air into the soil. If your soil is sandy and light so that roots can easily spread but it won’t retain water in the heat of the day, you also need humus to hold in the moisture and keep tender plants from drying out and dying. Working the soil to add composting, even if it is just the previous season’s dead plant material, into the ground so that it can decompose and feed the soil as well as add air and new life is important.
- Balanced nutrients, particularly the basics– nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium (N-P-K). You can use chemical fertilizers, but I personally prefer to add only organic amendments to my garden. To add nitrogen to the soil, manure may help but adding a nitrogen-fixing cover crop this fall can also be a good solution. Also, planting nitrogen-fixing plants, like beans, can be the solution especially if there are just spots of your garden that are low in nitrogen. To get the phosphorus increased, you can add bone meal or rock phosphate. Adding potassium can be increased with things like potash and even wood ash or green sand from ocean floors. Additionally, garden vegetables grow best in soils with trace minerals. I have boosted my garden’s production with the addition of Azomite, which has 67 trace minerals in this powder that I lightly sprinkled into my garden soil before planting.
It is important to learn about your type of soil so that you have time to get the process started months before planting time. It takes time for organic materials to break down in the soil and for good microbes to multiply. At least some of my garden is kept alive during the winter and there are plants that are grown and tilled into it in the spring to keep it alive and nourished.
If you haven’t had a garden before and especially if your soil is nitrogen starved, you might think about putting in a fall cover crop to help losen the soil and amend it in time for a late spring planting. According to Wikipedia, a cover crop is “a crop planted primarily to manage soil erosion, soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, diseases, biodiversity and wildlife in an agroecosystem (Lu et al. 2000), an ecological system managed and largely shaped by humans across a range of intensities to produce food, feed, or fiber.” This is certainly a wide definition. One of the benefits of a cover crop that I like best is that it attracts beneficial insects into your garden, like lady bugs. My research has led me to find hairy vetch a most interesting cover crop. Even dandelions are quite useful, but their seeds are prolific and difficult to control in the spring garden if left to bloom as the weather warms. There are certainly other cover crops that rank high on the list, too, but the legumes are the best at nitrogen fixing. Hairy vetch should be planted at least 30 days prior to the first freeze in your area, so for many people that is coming up very soon!
If you are going to plant a cover crop, remove all of the existing plants from from your garden area. Then till the soil very well to a depth of six inches. Add in well-aged manure or compost or a fertilizer and work it into the top several inches. A good rate of addition of compost or manure is about 20 pounds for every 100 square feet, being sure that the manure and compost is loose and not in clumps. Then, water it into the soil. Let it sit for day so that the soil is not too muddy to plant in. Then, large-seeded cover crops, like hairy vetch and peas, are spread at a rate of about 1/4 pound per 100 square feet. Small grass seed cover crops, like wheat or rye, are spread at 1/6 of a pound per 100 square feet. Then, the seed is lightly covered with soil per instructions (depending upon the size of seed) and watered. Keep it moist until it germinates in a week or two. Water periodically and let it grow during the winter. It should be mowed before it has the opportunity to bloom and go to seed. Then, in the spring, till it into the ground before late spring/summer garden planting. The plant will have drawn nitrogen from the air into the soil through the winter and the plant matter will decompose and provide much-needed nutrients and humus into the soil to feed your food crop. It a life cycle that regenerates.
I really like helping the life cycles rather than just being a consumer. It helps me sleep at night knowing that I know how to feed my grandbabies and those I hold dear if trouble comes and my larder burns to the ground or something else occurs. Life will go on and I will be able to grow nourishing and delicious foods, using what I have grown to grow more. The basis for future gardens are in my gardens and fields as well as my home, barn, and out buildings. The seeds are on the ground. I know how to collect them and use them for next year. Life is all around me, and I know what to do to help perpetuate it. Do you?
You might want to get started learning now, if you haven’t already! You have a foundation to build in terms of knowledge and a garden. Get your soil built and begin the journey to self-sufficient food provision. It feels great!