Okay, I get it. This has to be one of the cheesiest titles ever, but being cheesy is kinda my thing.
Anyways… Time to get serious.
The art of gardening should not be made light of - it is truly an art, after all. Although starting a garden is totally attainable for most anyone, there are some nuances that make the endeavor more enjoyable, sustainable, and successful overall.
This year, we moved into a new house that presented us with an ideal opportunity to begin our journey in growing our food in our own backyard. As hunters, the “do it yourself” lifestyle had always appealed to us, and gardening was just another way that we could have a hand in supporting our health by growing something with our own two hands, just outside of our front door.
Our journey with our garden so far has been a lot of trial and error in learning the most effective and efficient way to do things. We know that the idea of turning over untouched soil and starting a garden from scratch can be pretty overwhelming and lead to a lot of uncertainty (trust me, I’ve felt it). For this reason, we’ve compiled a list of 5 tips that we feel are most important based off of what we have experienced and the observations that we’ve made as we’ve watched our garden grow!
1. Soil Test
Testing soil is one of the most simple, but most overlooked steps in the planting process. It’s very tempting to get your hands in the soil and start to plant once you have cleared an area for your garden, but the fact is - plants will not grow if they do not have the necessary balance of primary, secondary, and micro nutrients. There are agricultural laboratories all over the country (we sent ours to one in Kentucky that was recommended to us) that will test your soil for a reasonable price and provide you with a detailed analysis of your soil. We were given an outline of our garden’s levels of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and pH - all of which are key for plant growth. Instead of adopting the common misconception that “just throwing some lime down will take care of the imbalances” (which is very untrue), do a simple soil test and know what your soil truly needs!
2. Draw It Out
This was one of my favorite parts of the process, the planning! I’d recommend doing it the old-fashioned way and grab yourself a blank piece of paper and a pencil. List the type of plants that you would like to grow, and compare them to what grows best in your region. Even if resources deem certain plants as difficult to grow where you live, don’t let it discourage you. Give them a try, but have this information in the back of your mind to come up with ways to adjust to the difficulties. I would also recommend looking into something called “companion planting”. Companion planting is a method of planting that basically helps you to decide which plants should be planted next to one another, and which should not. This order is based off of things like pest control, pollination, maximizing space, and crop productivity. I compared the list of plants that I had made to companion planting charts, and that’s how I organized the plants in our garden!
3. Protect Your Plants
If you’re like us, you will need to put some means of fencing around your garden to keep animals out. Where we live, we are up against rabbits (SO many rabbits), deer, groundhogs, chipmunks, and squirrels, to name a few. I will admit, this was a part of our garden that I hope to do better with next year. Currently, we have quite the operation… one side of our garden is closed in with our chicken coop fence (which is working beautifully), one side is a 42’ electric net fence, and the other two sides are made up of a thin strand of electric fence (usually used for horse pasture) located approximately 6-8’’ off of the ground. Is it ideal? Absolutely not. Does it work? Technically yes, but I have seen a few rabbits inside of the fencing, but they have yet to eat anything. Because I knew that we did not have the best line of defense with our fencing situation, I purchased something called “bone meal” which is a powder that is supposed to deter rabbits. I spread the bone meal several times around the perimeter of our garden, and it seems to have worked. BUT, the moral behind our fence is this: it is worth it to put the appropriate time and money into protection for your garden. We are using alternative means and they seem to be working, but it does not (and should not) have to be this way. Lesson learned!
4. Manage the Weeds
In our opinion, this is probably the single-most important thing to consider when planting a garden. New gardeners, excited and motivated to grow their own food, often overlook weed control and become burnt out later in the gardening season when the upkeep for weed management becomes very overwhelming. We attempted to control for weeds so our garden would be as low maintenance as possible, but we did not make the best choice for doing that. We had initially planned to lay newspaper down, as it is inexpensive and biodegradable, but that proved to be much too time consuming. We then bought plastic, but because our garden was so big, we found that it was going to be hundreds and hundreds of dollars to fully plastic the garden. So, our only option having plants already in the ground and not being able to condense the garden very much, was to plastic the rows where the rest of the plants would be planted. It seemed like a perfectly acceptable idea at the time when the soil was freshly tilled and little weeds had come up, but now the areas in between the rows are filled with A LOT of lush weeds. Our plant rows are protected because of the plastic that we placed there, but I have to weedeat in between the rows at least once a week to keep them away from the plants. Having once again learned our lesson, we plan to condense our garden next year and lay plastic or mesh down on the entire garden floor.
5. Know What Your Growing Plants Will Need
There are some things that you will plant and they will not require much upkeep until harvest time (zucchini, cucumber, onions, peas, beans, peppers). But, some plants will need care throughout the growing season. For example, tomatoes will need to be staked as they grow taller to support their stems, lettuce will need to be cut so that it continues to reproduce, carrots will need to be weeded out so that you provide them with enough room to grow, and cauliflower heads need to be wrapped with their leaves for the final phase of growing. I spent time doing research, speaking with seasoned gardeners, and taking notes on everything as I went to ensure that I would be prepared to give our plants exactly what they needed. Taking these detailed notes is also a good idea so that you have them to refer to later when you’re reflecting on successes and failures to better plan for the next year.
Gardening is a constant learning process, which is one of the many things that we love about it. It is a journey that requires time, patience, and knowledge in order to be successful. Although it may feel very overwhelming as a new gardener, I encourage everyone to celebrate the successes and learn from the failures, never taking things too seriously to the point that is becomes unenjoyable. At the end of the day, no matter how silly your fence looks, how many weeds are growing, or the mistakes that you make, the journey is about making an effort to live a life that allows you to know exactly where your food comes from, while being rewarded with pride for the time and energy that you put in along the way.