The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Spring has officially sprung and so therefore, has the motivation to discover my green thumb. With a wide open, south facing backyard that requires constant mowing, the solution seemed obvious >> why spend the time and effort to maintain a lawn when we could instead be growing food? For me, I like to know exactly where my food comes from – so where better than from my own backyard?
Just through talking to different people within my community on the subject, the consensus seems to be that although the learning process to successful gardening is never-ending, there is no better way to learn other than to dig right in and figure out what works best from year to year.
Constructing Raised Beds
In my conversations with a Master Gardener at the Main Street Co-op, the one piece of advice she wished someone had given her when she first started gardening was to build raised beds with various layers in the soil, a method known as “lasagna gardening”. Raised beds are easy to tend, and are a key to success because they are filled with loose, well-amended layers of nutrient-rich soils, composts and mulches that allow for sufficient drainage.
Another advantage to building raised beds is that this method does not require laborious tilling and picking of rock, which is terribly abundant in the soil of our region. Instead, we were simply able to construct the box frames, place them directly onto the lawn and fill them with soil. For our first year, we decided to start with two beds: each 16′ long, 4′ wide and 10″ deep. In total, the lumber we used to construct the bed boxes costed around $65.
To prevent grasses and other weeds from poking though, we simply lined the bottom of each box with a layer of cardboard. This layer kills the grass beneath, and eventually decomposes into the ground over time. I just knew I had been hoarding all those cardboard boxes in the basement for a reason !
For top quality soil, we chose to bring in some garden soil mixed with organic compost from Peterson lawn care service. Because we had other needs for soil around the perimeter of our house and throughout the yard, we ordered 10 cubic yards for roughly $265 and free delivery. The cost may sound spendy – but that is only because we ordered quite a bit more soil than we needed for our raised bed garden project.
To determine how much soil we would need to fill our raised beds, I found this nifty Soil Calculator online. To use it, simply enter the proper dimensions of your bed (in inches) and the calculator will generate the soil volume required, in both cubic yards or cubic feet. Combined, our two beds called for roughly 4 cubic yards of soil, at a worth of approximately $100 total.
For the base of our “lasagna’, we added a layer of mulched dead leaves from last fall. After adding a layer of soil with compost over the mulched leaves, we added a layer of grass clippings, and then another layer of soil.
And then finally, before topping everything off with a generous layer of soil, we added a layer of fluffy material known as sphagnum peat moss. Peat moss is important because it allows for proper root growth and drainage by loosening and aerating your soil. I found a large, 3.8 cubic-foot bag at my local garden center for about $12.
Since we live in the country with a wooded backyard, fencing was a must. Definitely an added cost that we didn’t consider initially, but at the end of the day, we knew it was deal breaker. With a little additional research, I was able to find some affordable material. Brandon liked the look of square wooden fence posts, so we went with those and stained them for an added aesthetic, however basic metal stakes would have worked just as well.
With deer being the ultimate concern, we wanted high enough fencing that they wouldn’t be tempted to jump. After reading some online gardening forums, it sounded like anywhere between 6 – 8 feet would be high enough to keep the deer out. I found a 7′ x 100′ roll of mesh deer fencing for $58 at Farm & Fleet which turned out to fit perfectly to our dimensions. It was also very easy to work with, and much more affordable than galvanized welded wire fencing. Because the mesh wasn’t really meant for keeping out rabbits and other nibblers, we also reinforced the base perimeter of the mesh fence with chicken wire (about $25 for two 50′ rolls at Farm & Fleet).
The fun part ! When it came down to deciding what to plant in this garden, I went with the produce items we tend to go through the most in our household — tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, various leafy greens, a few select herbs, as well as some sunflowers and watermelons, just to see what happens =) I only wish we had more room to plant! We did deliberately allow some extra space within the fencing to install additional raised beds, hopefully next summer.
For starter plants and seeds, almost everything was available at my Main Street Market Co-op so I was almost able to completely avoid the big box garden centers. Their “Seed Savers Exchange” brand seeds are certified organic / non-GMO, while the transplants are heirloom (seeds can be harvested from the plant, saved and replanted year after year) and locally grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides. For me, these specifications are an important factor in part of knowing where our food comes from.
The layout of our garden was based along two main guidelines: heights and companions. Since the sunflowers could reach anywhere from 5-7 feet high, those were planted farthest back. Then the larger tomato plants, smaller pepper plants, followed by the leafy greens, potatoes and watermelon seedlings. This way, everything will receive optimal sunlight throughout the day.
Another important factor to consider when determining your layout is “companion planting”, or the planting of different crops in proximity for pest control, pollination, providing habitat for beneficial creatures, maximizing use of space, and to otherwise increase crop productivity. Through my research browsing online forums and talking to experienced gardeners, I was able to determine some companionships to try with my crops this year:
Basil ♡ Tomatoes
Chives ♡ Tomatoes
Tomatoes ♡ Peppers
Potatoes ♡ Lettuces
Here is a companion planting chart I found helpful along the way. If this doesn’t happen to reference a certain plant you may be looking for, I came across all kinds of these with a simple Google search.
Organic Gardening Tips
✦ Be mindful not to step in your raised beds. Only reach in from the sides to keep your soils light, aerated and fluffy for adequate drainage. This also eliminates the risk of accidentally stepping on your plants.
✦ Set your transplant tomatoes deeper into the ground than they grew originally, with the lowest leaves just above the soil. The little hairs on the stem will develop into roots in the soil to help strengthen and stabilize the plant once it begins to bear heavy fruit.
✦ As an experiment this year, I surrounded the base of each tomato plant with scraps of newspaper to prevent blight. You could use straw or mulch as well. However, if the moist environment beneath the newspaper ends up attracting slugs, I am scratching this plan…stay tuned.
✦ Trim away any weak or yellowing foliage at the base of the tomato plant. These take energy away from the fruit bearing foliage, reducing yields.
✦ Keep lower lying foliage off the ground, or remove those stems completely to prevent disease, blight, additional gateways for pests, etc.
✦ Save and crush your left over egg shells and occasionally sprinkle them into the soil as an added source of calcium.
✦ Don’t forget to label your rows! I made my own using left over empty seed packets and plastic tags from previous years.
Now that everything is finally in place, we wait. . . keep an eye out for the next part of the ‘Grow Your Own’ Series where I will explore ways to maintain your garden, keep soils nutrient-rich and ward off pests naturally. Stay tuned !