Gardening season is upon us, and the garden must be tended in order to have a successful harvest. Gardening is one of the more popular leisure activities in the United States. An average backyard garden will cost about $30 for seeds and about $50 for organic potting soil and fertilizers, yet it will yield more than $600 in fresh, organic produce. That is a great investment, not only for our finances but also for our health.
5 Reasons To Grow A Garden
- Health is the main reason people grow gardens. The food we plant, grow and prepare for our families is healthier than produce purchased from the grocery store. If we grow our own food, we know whether it is organic, since we control the fertilization, pest-control and harvesting methods. Gardening is great for mental health, too. Working hard in a garden gives us pleasure in accomplishing something wonderful.
- Stress relief occurs when we do something meaningful that makes us happy. Planting and digging in the dirt relieve stress and make us feel better.
- Connecting to the Earth slows us down and grounds us. The soil, the worms and the living plants are fascinating to watch. When we slow down long enough, we become aware of the miracle of life.
- Self-sufficiency is another great reason to grow a garden. With the cost of commodities rising rapidly, gardening can offset the high cost of food. This puts more money in our pockets to use for other necessities.
- We save money by going to the grocery store less often. It’s possible to save hundreds of dollars per growing season, which really helps with the food budget.
If you live in a cramped space and have a small yard, you can still grow a garden. Look around and see if you have places to put tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, etc. Flower gardens are ideal, because you can plant vegetables between flowers. Some flowers help with bug control. For example, marigolds ward off some garden pests.
The location of your garden is important. It needs to be a sunny, well-drained location, rich in compost and soil texture. Plant taller plants on the north side of the yard or garden so they won’t shade shorter plants. Plants can be planted along fences, patios and corners of lots, even in the yard. A strip of grass can be removed from the lawn and worked to become a raised vegetable bed.
Raised beds are ideal for small areas. You can either shape the dirt into a hill or use a wooden frame around the grow bed. The frame is made of 2-by-4 planks placed in a rectangular shape. Use two 2-by-4 planks stacked one on top of the other to make the bed 8 inches tall, or use two 2-by-8 planks stacked one on top of the other to make the bed 16 inches tall. Make the bed 3 feet wide and as long as your space allows. The soil in the raised beds can be added to and maintained even if the texture of the surrounding soil is poor and has bad drainage. Make your raised bed level even if your garden spot is on a slope, so the water will remain in the bed and the soil will not wash away. Cultivate the soil 2 inches deeper than the height of the grow bed. Add mulch, compost or organic matter, and then dig down and turn the soil. Use a pitchfork to break up dirt clots. Rake it into a nice, level bed. Once that’s done, it is ready for planting.
Continue to add more compost so the soil improves each year. My husband is in the process of putting wood chips between the rows to keep the moisture in and the weeds out.
If you are an apartment dweller and long to have a garden, try container gardening. Herbs and vegetables are great for containers, because they can be moved indoors when the weather gets too cold. Onions, radishes and lettuce mixtures can be grown in containers. Tomatoes and sweet bell peppers can be grown in large pots on the balcony. Zucchini and cucumbers can be trained to grow up a trellis or wire fencing. This way, they grow in a smaller space and the vegetables can be picked easily.
Use organic, inexpensive material such as vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, tea leaves, manure, chicken droppings, mulch, potting soil, leaves, grass clippings, sawdust, wood shavings, straw or hay to make a nutrient-rich topsoil. Avoid using anything that might have weed seeds in it. Peat moss, perlite or vermiculite can be used in composting, but they are more expensive and have no nutritional value. The better the soil, the more worms will be attracted to it, which is a good thing. Worm castings and worm holes help develop nutrient-rich soil as well.
Every year, new compost made from all-organic materials must be added to the soil. It is good to mix the compost in a pile as you add to it and let it rest for the year before putting it on the garden — especially if it contains manure or chicken droppings. Manure is considered hot and can burn plants if it’s used fresh. That is why you mix it with compost and let it set for a year.
We have a compost pile near our chicken coop so when we clean out the coop we can add the droppings to the compost pile. Mixing it often allows it to decompose throughout the year.
Till the garden by hand
My husband prepares the soil by hand because he likes to break up dirt clots and rake out the beds before he plants. He likes to use a D-handled spading fork and a U-bar digger. A small tiller can also be used to till the soil and prepare it for planting.
The best types of seeds to store are called non-hybrid or heirloom seeds. They can be saved from year to year and will be true to form each season. To learn more about non-hybrid garden seeds, refer to my article Growing A Backyard Garden Can Be Good For Your Health.
The hybrid- or regular-type seeds that can be found in most garden centers are good for only one season. You need to purchase seeds from year to year. The seeds cannot be saved because they are genetically altered. Their offspring the second year will look like a crossbred vegetable.
Keep garden seeds in a container with a lid so mice don’t get into the seeds and eat them. It is best to keep them in a cool, dry, dark container to avoid light exposure. The cooler the temperature, the longer the seeds will last. Seeds have a shelf life of up to five years. To extend the shelf life, keep them in the refrigerator or freezer.
Herbs can be started from seed or can be purchased from a nursery and planted in an herb garden or around decorative rocks and flower beds. Fresh herbs have great flavor, and they are good for your health.
Certain plants do well if started indoors or in a greenhouse first and then transplanted later. These plants include tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and onions. Some plants do just as well if started in the ground. These include corn, spinach, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, peas, radishes, Swiss chard, carrots, potatoes and garlic.
Corn, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and cucumbers need warm soil before germination can take place. Onions, spinach, lettuce, peas, cabbage, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower and Swiss chard may be planted early in the spring. A second crop can be planted in late July or early August to extend the growing season.
The frequency of watering depends on the texture of the soil. In dry climates, more frequent watering is very important. Gardens with sandy soil require more watering than those with clay-based soils. Sandy soil does not hold moisture so you will need to water more frequently. After the garden has been planted, it is really important to keep it moist so the seeds will germinate. Carrots are very touchy. They must be kept moist every day to germinate.
My husband puts finely chopped wood chips around our plants and grow beds to hold in the moisture. You could also lay black plastic or newspaper, covered with dirt or chips, around plants to hold in the moisture and keep weeds from growing. Because plastic is an inorganic material, it must be removed in the winter and replaced the next spring. Straw will hold moisture also. However; we tried using straw last year, and it had grain seed in it. As a result, we had an outbreak of oat grass and had to do a lot of extra weeding. If you are using straw, sift through it and use only the stems of the straw.
We have found that it’s best to water either early in the morning or just before dark. Whenever we watered the plants during the day, the leaves got burned from the sun reflecting on the water.
Metal Cages And Fencing Wire
When we plant peas, we put tomato cages around them — at least three across — and as many as needed for the length. The peas grow straight up and cling to the metal for stability. As the peas reach the top of the metal cages, we put up a higher fence to support them as they grow taller. This makes it easier to pick the peas, and the plants do not fall over. (See the photo at the right.)
We put up metal fencing for the pole beans, cucumbers, melons and squash. They also climb straight up, which takes up less space. The plants cling to the fencing, which gives them stability and makes it easier to pick the vegetables. All the tomatoes and peppers have cages around them to protect them from the dogs and cats running through the garden. The tomato cages give the tomatoes stability as well.
I once heard that metal around a garden conducts electromagnetic energy during a rain or electrical storm, which stimulates the growth of the vegetables.
It is a good idea to put a fence around the entire garden to keep out deer and other animals. We live near the mountains, and many of my neighbors have a serious deer problem. At night the deer come from the mountains and graze on anything they can find. Many gardens have been completely eaten before they matured. It might be a good idea to have an outside dog near the garden to scare off the nighttime predators.
We lock up our chickens in their run during the months we are planting and harvesting our garden. The chickens will scratch the soil and find all the seeds we have planted. When the tomatoes are ripe, the chickens will peck at them and eat holes into the fruit.
We get the baby weeds before they even have a chance to grow. A small rake made for weeding the garden is the best. It is small enough to go around the plants and loosen the dirt. This disrupts the root system of small weeds, and they die. We do a lot of weeding early on, which saves us many hours of weeding. Weeds use up the nutrients in the soil, so you want to stop them before they grow.
We put wood chips or sawdust on the walkways between the grow beds. This keeps the moisture in the garden, and the weeds don’t grow through it. Taking care of the weeds early on saves much frustration later.
Raising a completely organic garden means not using any chemicals in the soil or on the plants. There is always a problem with pests such as tomato hornworms, cutworms, aphids, whiteflies, ants, etc. To kill insects, mix a solution of water and a few drops of dish soap into a spray bottle or a large sprayer and spray the plants with it. When you spray it on the plant, make sure to spray the underside of the leaves where aphids hide. After spraying the plants with the mixture of dish soap and water, rinse the plants with warm water to remove the soap and the dead bugs.
Diatomaceous earth is used as a mildly abrasive insecticide that can be sprinkled onto and around the base of plants. Diatomaceous earth can be purchased in home-and-garden centers. Do not use the one for swimming pools. Get the one for plants and vegetables.
A friend of mine raises ducks to eat grasshoppers, earwigs, worms and other pests. Ducks will eat the insects and not necessarily the vegetables. Ducks are less harmful to produce than chickens. However, chickens will eat any insects they can find, so that might be an option if you can keep the chickens from getting into the vegetables.
We Love Having a Garden
I believe tending a garden is like therapy for the soul. We love the fresh, organic vegetables we get from the harvest. We feel happy that we do not have to depend on the grocery store for our fresh produce. And we know that our food is organic, with no sprays, chemical additives or preservatives in it, which is much better for our health.
Peggy Layton is a freelance writer and the author of seven books on the subjects of food storage and emergency preparedness. She and her husband grow a backyard garden every year and live off the land during the growing season. Peggy bottles and dehydrates excess produce. Peggy and her husband keep winter vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, squash, onions and apples in a root cellar they built. During the winter when produce is less plentiful, they grow food in their greenhouse. And they gather fresh eggs daily from their chickens. Provident living is a way of life in their home.
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