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Whether you are brand new to backyard farming or you’re just getting started, planning your homestead garden is likely one of the most important and earliest things you will do. The food truly tastes better from your own garden, plus it can be cheaper, healthier, a stress relief, and so much more. This article explains how to get started and what you can do to start producing your own food from your garden now!
What is a Homestead Garden?
A homestead garden (or a backyard garden, urban garden, micro-garden, etc) can be as small as a few pots, or large enough to feed your family through the whole year. When you get started in vegetable gardening, it is easy to get carried away with all the details and specifics of each crop, and all the best practices. It is important to remember that at the heart of backyard farming is the simple fact that if you put a seed in the soil, and mix in a little sun and water, you are likely to get something to grow. Of course the more you work and tweak, the better your outcomes, and the more you will get from your garden.
Before we dive into the details of creating your garden here are some general recommendations for your own backyard food garden:
- Start small the first year and build on your success
- Build amazing soil
- Consider planting fruit trees early since these take years to establish
- Grow what you love to eat
- Do your research but don’t get overwhelmed
- Get Started!
Things to consider before you start your homestead garden
So you’ve set your sights on that first ripe tomato coming out of your garden. Before you head to the store and buy up all the tomato seedlings, now’s the time to slow down and do some general planning. A little preparation will go a long way to ensuring success in your homestead garden.
Your Overall Backyard Goals
Before you start digging up your yard, you will want to make sure you’ve taken a full look at your homesteading goals or other plans for your backyard space. Maybe you need to set aside an area for a chicken coop or a greenhouse, or maybe your growing kids will soon need a place to play soccer. It is important that your gardening goals align with the goals in the rest of your life. Make sure you consider space for future projects, renovations, fencing, etc so you don’t waste time rebuilding your garden in a new spot next year.
Time and Resources
Be honest with yourself about the time and resources you have for this project. While gardening can indeed save you money in the long run, it is highly likely that there will be upfront costs to getting started including mulch, soil, seeds and tools (See William Alexander’s book on the $64 Dollar Tomato).
It’s also important to consider how much time you have to spend working on your backyard garden. If you only have 1 hour/week to devote to gardening you will need to start small and grow, otherwise you will get to August and be overwhelmed with weeds, pests and other problems.
Your climate will dictate what you can and can’t grow in your garden. You will have much more success if you plant crops that thrive in your climate.
If you are in the United States, you will want to check your hardiness zone map available through the USDA – you can simply input your Zip code to find your zone. Outside the US, you can look up international hardiness zones. Most plants and seeds are marked with the zones. If you are in zone 5 you will want to limit your crops to these seeds marked for zone 5. You will also want to look up how long your growing season lasts by looking up last and first frost dates. Many vegetables are labelled with the days to maturity and you will want to ensure your growing season is long enough to harvest these crops.
In addition to finding your zones through this method, you will also want to talk with neighbors or your garden center, since there are often micro-climates that will impact what you can grow. Even on your own property, you will find parts of your yard (on the south side of a building) that are warmer or cooler and allow you to grow different crops.
Your soil is the basis for everything you will grow, just as healthy food is important for a healthy body. This is the place that most people skimp on and it is incredibly important for gardening success. If you are at all serious about a backyard garden, start by getting your soil sampled. You can purchase basic sample kits online or in your local gardening center, but your best results will come by sending your samples to a local lab (this usually costs about $50). The lab will send you back information about your soil as well as general suggestions for what amendments you should add to your garden.
Taking the time to think carefully about where to locate your garden and how to set it up will pay off in the long run. You will want to spend time in your yard and observe:
- What part of your yard receives full sun – at least 6 hours a day. If this doesn’t exist on your property, choose the best spot available, and select crops that require less sun
- Think about the proximity to water and the ability to drive a wheel barrow to your site
- Choose a location that you can see or quickly visit from the house. You are much more likely to work in the garden if it is near where you spend most of your time. I typically place herbs close to the house so I’m more likely to grab them when I need them.
- Choose a spot with good drainage – don’t plant where the ground is soggy or the roots will drown. If you have poor drainage, consider raised beds or pots
- Start thinking about your long term goals – if you plan to put in a chicken coop, now is the time to consider where it might go. Also remember fruit trees will start small but in a few years may be adding shade to an otherwise sunny area.
Planning your Backyard Garden
Once you have some basic background work done, it is time to start laying out your plans and gathering your supplies for your backyard garden. This means you will plan where things will actually go, you can gather your tools, seeds and plants, and start building the health of your soil.
Map it Out
Now it’s time to start laying out your backyard garden design. Start with your overall backyard farm plan and decide where you will place fruit trees, perennial plants, vegetables and herbs. You can do this using graph paper and making a scale drawing of your property, or by doing a rough sketch (I’ve even seen someone do this by using google maps and zooming in!). You will want to be as accurate as you can. It is difficult to predict how large to make your garden since your output will depend on the types of crops you want to grow. Crops like pumpkins and corn take up lots of space, while lettuce and carrots can be grown in small spaces. You can use the guide here to estimate the space your plants will need.
Once you have your general vegetable garden size and shape you can start laying out what to plant where. I recommend you start with what you love to eat, and then consider expanding in the future based on what worked well. Every year keep a record of the general location of each crop within the garden so you can set up a crop rotation. By maintaining a simple rotation, you can cut down on damage from bugs and nutrient depletion. While it is often tempting to squeeze in as many plants as possible, giving plants the recommended space means you will actually get more produce (something I would do well to keep in mind). If you are starting a small garden, consider ways you could expand in the future. If you are taking the time to create your garden, growing only organic foods is easy and worth the commitment. There are many simple ways you can achieve success without the use of pesticides and certain fertilizers.
Gather Your Tools
You can start gardening with very few tools, but it helps to have a few tools to make the work easier and save time in the garden. I recommend you purchase the best tools you can afford as these will last longer and it pays off in the long run. Here is a list of the tools you should consider getting front the start:
- Garden Shears
- Pruning Shears
- Hand trowel
- Garden hose
- Spray nozzle or watering wand
Build Your Soil
Soil is a very important part of your garden. If your site doesn’t have decent soil, enrich it by having soil or compost delivered. It can feel a little ridiculous to spend money on your garden before you even start planting, but this investment will improve the health of your garden for years. If this is too much, you can also start small by getting a few bags of decent soil and adding a bit each year. Adding mulch or compost each year helps contain the weeds and can also amend the soil for new crops. If you are buying manure, make sure it has been aged and is not green or it will kill your plants. Also look into alternative ways to get soil or manure, including a local farm that might be giving away manure.
Purchase Seeds and Plants
Soil is a very important part of your garden. If your site doesn’t have decent soil, enrich it by having soil or compost delivered. It can feel a little ridiculous to spend money on your garden before you even start planting, but this investment will improve the health of your garden for years. If this is too much, you can also start small by getting a few bags of decent soil and adding a bit each year. Adding mulch or compost each year helps contain the weeds and can also amend the soil for new crops. Use the information from your soil test to amend your soil. If you are buying manure, make sure it has been aged and is not green or it will kill your plants. Also look into alternative ways to get soil or manure, including a local farm that might be giving it away.
Creating a compost system should go hand in hand with starting a garden. Composting decreases the amount of trash you make while creating yummy, healthy soil for your gardens. Create a compost system that is easy to use so you are more likely to stick with it. When done correctly, a compost bin does not have to smell or attract a lot of unwanted animals. If you don’t have much space, consider a worm bin and produce amazing soil with worm castings. When creating a compost system consider the following:
- Keep your compost bin relatively close to your home, or you simply won’t use it
- Add both green and brown material to your bin at a ratio of about 2:1
- To help keep out unwanted animals, only compost plant matter and cover food scraps with grass clippings or leaves to keep away animals
Buying seeds is one of my favorite activities of the year. We usually spread out a few catalogs, go online and proceed to buy more than we can possibly plant. Before you start ordering seeds, determine what zone you live in and buy seeds that grow well in your zone. If you are looking for some information on specific crops, make sure to stop over and read about what crops to grow in your kitchen garden and fruit gardening resources to learn more. Here are some ideas to keep in mind when you are buying seeds:
- Choose crops you like to eat
- Grow something you can’t buy, or something that tastes way better grown fresh (like tomatoes!)
- Start with easy crops such as lettuce, beans, cucumbers, squash, or peas
- If you are growing in pots or small container beds, try tomatoes, eggplants, lettuce, or peas
If you are putting perennials or fruit trees into your garden, you will want to plant them in early spring or fall. Try to plant these where they will stay as transplanting can set them back. Perennial fruits and vegetables include: rhubarb, strawberries, asparagus, berry bushes, and more.
Create Your Garden Beds
There are many ways to layout your garden beds: rows, raised beds, pots, etc. If your garden has a problem with drainage, you will want to raise your bed to improve the runoff. When you build your garden beds, remember not to make them any wider than you can reach. You should avoid stepping in your garden bed as this compresses the soil and roots of your plants. You should work hard from the start to get rid of as many weeds as possible. You can do this by pulling the weeds, using a no-till method where you layer organic materials to cover the weeds, or cover the weeds for a while in advance with plastic or other material to block the sunlight. Try to limit the amount of tilling you do as this disrupts the soil’s natural structure including the soil’s natural bacteria.
Plan a Watering System
For a small garden plot, you can choose to water your seeds and plants by hand with either a watering can or a hose. For a larger garden you can use a sprinkler, but to decrease your water usage, you may want to consider an irrigation system. An irrigation system can deliver water directly to the base of the plants. If you aren’t ready to invest in irrigation, this is something you can add in a year or two once you’ve started your garden.
Purchase Seeds and Plants
You will want to decide whether you will grow your own seeds or transplant seedlings that you buy. Some seeds (like carrots) prefer to be planted directly into the soil and don’t like being moved, while others seeds (like tomatoes and peppers) may benefit from starting indoors or purchasing from a nursery. If you’re just starting and planning a small garden, some transplants from the local nursery will be a great way to start.
You can purchase your seeds from the local nursery, but if you are interested in a larger variety, you can also shop online – there are many wonderful seed companies. You can check out the ones in your area, or some of my favorites are:
When you are selecting plants or trees, it is a good idea to start with your local nurseries for healthy stock. You can also order bare root plants through the mail. We generally order our plants and trees from Fedco, but you can also look up regional nurseries to find plants that do well in your area.
Getting Started in Your Homestead Garden
You’ve done your research and planning and now it’s time to get started in your backyard garden.
Planting Fruit Trees, Berries, and Perennials
Planting fruit trees, nut trees, and berry bushes in the homestead garden is best done at the end of the season – preferably in the early spring or late fall when the trees are dormant. Make sure you create a large enough hole and and provide your trees with plenty of water in the early days. I strongly recommend the book the Holistic Orchard to set up a care schedule for your trees.
Most perennial fruit and vegetable plants are also best planted early in the season and may take some time to establish before you can harvest them. Make sure you are planting them in a place where they can remain for a long time.
Planting Seeds and Seedlings
Based on the information on the seed packs, you can plan when to put your seeds in the ground. The seed packs will also tell you the depth you should plant your seeds in the soil, but a good rule is to plant the seed 2 times the length of the longest side. Here are some general guidelines for planting seeds:
- Make sure your garden and soil is full prepared
- The best time to plant is when the soil is wet and there aren’t any large storms in the next few days that may wash away the seeds.
- Choose a week that the weather isn’t dramatically hot or cold so the emerging seedlings have the best chance of success
- Water your seeds after planting, and don’t let the soil completely dry out when they are trying to germinate
When you are transplanting seedlings either from your own home or the nursery, you will want to harden them off before you put them in the ground. Start by putting the seeding outside for a few hours in a protected area and slowly increase their time outside each day. Remember that these plants are fragile so don’t get ready to put them outside until the weather is warm enough.
After you’ve hardened off your seedlings, make sure you water them thoroughly and choose a mild day to plant them in the garden bed. Always handle your seedlings carefully and cover the holes with an extra ¼ inch of soil. Water your seedlings immediately and keep them well watered until they become established.
Water, Mulch, Thin, and Weed
Once your garden is planted, it’s time to switch gears to keeping your plants healthy. Below is a list of some of the things you should do to keep your homestead garden growing:
- Water – keep your plants well watered throughout the growing season
- Mulch between your plants and rows to keep weeds down and help keep the soil moist. You can use store bought mulch, leaves, grass clippings, etc.
- Weed as often as needed to keep weeds from competing with your plants
- Thin – many plants will need to be thinned as they grow to get the best results from your harvest.
- Support – as your plants grow, some (like tomatoes and peas) will need additional support
As your plants begin to produce food, it’s time to celebrate your hard work. Make sure you harvest at the right time for each plant. If you have excess food, you may want to plan how you will preserve the bounty with freezing, canning or drying.
Many of the early crops can be cleared out after harvesting and you can plant another crop before the end of the season. We often do this with crops like lettuce to ensure that we have an ongoing supply.
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