Starting your first garden

 

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Poster text by Emily Springfield and images by Victoria Zakrzewski. You may reuse it for non-commercial purposes if you attribute it to the authors.

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Why do I need a root cellar?

I’ve been gardening for about 15 years now. I’ve gardened at home, at a neighbor’s house, at a community garden, in full sun, in half-shade, in the ground, in raised beds, in containers of all sizes, in a small greenhouse, on the windowsill, under lights, and in the weedy strip between two parking lots. I’ve gardened for joy, for science, for security, for reducing my carbon footprint, and for taste. I have explored all kinds of ways of extending the homegrown food season, from  lights to row covers to that greenhouse I mentioned.

And what is the #1 piece of equipment I recommend if you are serious about growing your own food? A cool storage space, like a root cellar.

Why? Root cellars:

  • allow you to eat locally-grown food pretty much all year long
  • are very low-maintenance – much less work than a greenhouse
  • are perfect storage for high-calorie, nutrient-dense crops like root vegetables
  • if you have a bad garden year, you can stock them with food from the market
  • unlike a greenhouse, they let you take the winter off from gardening
  • unlike canning, prepping food for the root cellar takes very little time and energy
  • zero ongoing energy costs for storage

Ways to do cold storage

Cool storage, for winter squash, sweet potatoes, and onions, can be up to 50 degrees, so a cool corner of a basement can work. But true cold storage, for root vegetables, apples, and cabbage, needs to be around 35-40 degrees, but can never freeze. This space will need to be vented to the outdoors (this assumes your winters get down to freezing). Some options include:

  • Large buckets or tubs layering crops between peat moss or wood shavings, stored in an attached garage or unheated breezeway
  • Wall off a corner of the basement that has a window that can be opened/closed as needed
  • Bury a fridge (with a vent installed) in a hillside – see instructions in Anna Hess’s book $10 Root Cellar along with some other DIY ideas!

 

Should I buy seeds or transplants?

I get asked this all the time, and I also see plants for sale at outrageous prices that people should really be planting as seeds.

Short list:

Always use transplants (either buy them or start indoors):

  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Onions (plant the dry “sets” that look like baby onions, or plants that look like scallions)
  • Kale/collards
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Woody herbs, like rosemary, sage, and basil

Always plant as seeds directly in the garden:

  • Peas and beans
  • Lettuce
  • Corn
  • Root vegetables: carrots, radishes, parsnips, beets, turnips, rutabagas
  • Cilantro

Here’s my long answer – in visual form!

Seeds or transplants.jpg

What should I plant in my first garden?

Gardeners

Grow what you love.

This always holds true, but it’s especially important for your first garden. And notice – I didn’t say “grow what you love to eat” – just grow things that make you happy. Do zinnias remind you of your favorite grandmother? Be sure to include them. Do sunflowers make you smile? Grow those. Have you always wondered what peanut plants look like? Save a spot for them!

If you are really not sure what you like yet, some good “starter” garden vegetables are:

  • Tomatoes
  • Green beans
  • Kale
  • Zucchini
  • Snow peas
  • Potatoes

All of these are easy to grow, produce a reasonable amount of food in a small  space, and taste noticeably better than store-bought varieties. Obviously, don’t grow anything you know you won’t eat.

Explore pre-planned gardens

Gardener’s Supply Company has a GREAT free drag-and-drop garden planning tool, and also a gallery of garden plans for a couple different sizes of beds.

gardenPlanner

Screenshot of a pre-planned garden from Gardener’s Supply Co.

Don’t overextend yourself

If you’ve never gardened before, I recommend starting with one 4’x8′ raised bed. This is enough space to get appreciable harvests, but not so big as to overwhelm. I know this seems small, but the #1 reason I see that people abandon gardening after a year is that they take on too much the first year, and gardening becomes a chore instead of a delight. Once you get the first year under your belt, the steepest part of the learning curve is out of the way…and adding more beds the next year doesn’t feel like much more work.

 

 

No, you don’t need a greenhouse

I often hear people say “I need to get a greenhouse” very early on in their gardening lives. They assume that a greenhouse is just one of those big things you need to “garden right,” like a hose and seeds.

Nope.

I owned a greenhouse for four years, and while it had its good points, I am not in a hurry to do it again. Here are my observations, based on my own greenhouse, those of friends, and my stint working on a commercial organic farm – you make your own decision.

Particulars of my greenhouse

  • 8×12′ “barn-shaped” twin wall polycarbonate greenhouse – NOT very air-tight
  • No irrigation system (beyond dragging a hose in the door and watering)
  • Automatic vent openers failed again and again, so venting was manual (roof, gable end, and door). Rigged window screen and a low fence in the door to keep critters out when the door was open
  • Oriented on east/west axis (so the long sides faced north and south)
  • Very exposed site
  • Insulated with straw bales around base each winter
  • Southern Michigan, zone 5, min temp -30

Basic physics and maintenance

  • A greenhouse this size (or smaller) doesn’t have the thermal mass to avoid big temperature swings. There was a huge danger of freezing/cooking crops…perhaps in the same day.
  • In the winter, it was generally 5-10 degrees warmer than outside.
  • By May, it was regularly too hot for any cool-weather crops, even with the vents open.
  • Summer temps (with all vents/door open) were generally around 100 degrees.
  • Greenhouses are NOT good places for starting seeds, due to temp swings and pests. Much better to start indoors under good lights.
  • I could not water it enough in the summer months to allow warm-weather crops to thrive. And, because it wasn’t movable, it never really recharged the soil moisture over the winter.
  • Pests LOVE greenhouses. Aphids, hornworms, voles, chipmunks all flock in there because you’ve protected them from the elements and predators.
  • In short, you have to be much more hands-on in a greenhouse and provide for more of its needs than in an open-air garden.

Good points

  • Somewhat extended growing season.
    • Peas in greenhouse bore fruit 6 weeks before those outside (keep in mind, they were planted 11 weeks earlier than those outside).
    • Kale overwintered reliably and resprouted in spring, resulting in huge harvests in April and May.
  • Amazing to have a warm place to sit in the sun on sunny winter days.
  • Friends who have somewhat larger, better-sealed hoop houses (often with chickens/rabbits in the mix) have had much better luck with extended harvests.

If I did it again…

  • I’d make it bigger.
  • I’d use a solid, insulated north wall and add thermal mass in any way possible.
  • I’d have some kind of irrigation on a timer. Knowing myself, I can’t be bothered to water every day, and timed irrigation is the only way I’d keep the soil hydrated.

My conclusion

For me, home-sized greenhouses aren’t worth it. I will gladly buy produce from farms with commercial-sized hoop houses for the early spring months. I will start seeds indoors under lights. I will grow a few greens in a southern window of my house in February. But I’d save the money and hassle of another big thing to maintain and not buy another greenhouse.

Permaculture revelation

The reason permaculture isn’t “clicking” for me in my current location is that the space I live in is already a forest. That’s as perma as it gets. You don’t design a forest garden in a forest the same way you design when you’re starting with a degraded, eroded open field.

Must think about this in a different way…

Fruit tree change of mindset

I’ve been getting hung up lately on “where do I put the fruit trees?” and even “what trees do I want to have?” The south part of the yard is what we see from the house, and I want it to look good and be functional. And the south sun (especially full sun) is extremely limited, so it feels like I need to be very careful about what I plant. And it seems like I need to get the whole thing figured out before I start planting. I’m getting a brain cramp from thinking about it. This is not the fun way to garden.

Well, I found a way around that today: I just decided to throw a bunch of stuff into a different part of the yard, a corner we don’t see except when going in/out the driveway.  This will be a quantity, not necessarily quality or pretty, orchard. Throw in a bunch of stuff, in different varieties, give it the minimum care to get it established, and see what happens. Don’t worry about arranging it for beauty; just make sure it doesn’t take over the powerline cut. Plant enough so I might get some after the critters dine. Just get things in the ground, so five years from now I’m not wishing I’d started five years ago.

Here’s the list of species:

  • Serviceberries (aka saskatoons)
  • Hazelnuts
  • Raspberries
  • Bush cherries
  • Bush apricots
  • Red mulberries
  • Cider apples
  • Hardy pecan
  • English walnut

The areas I’m planting this stuff is pretty shady. Some of this stuff is supposed to have full sun, but you know, I’m not trying to optimize yield. There’s already an apple tree back there, and it was more productive than the entire commercial orchard down the road this year because it’s under the canopy and protected from frost. So what the hell. I’ll toss some stuff in there and see what happens. It’ll be fun. And if I get some fruit from it, great! I’ll sure come out knowing what can handle a laissez-faire gardening style!

Very simple succession planting for zone 5b-6

Succession planting is the idea that you plant your garden in stages, so there’s always something to eat and you don’t get all your green beans in a 2-week window. There are tons of books and guides out there to help you figure this out, but I thought I’d share what I’ve figured out that works for me. What “works for me” means the most food for the least amount of fussing. Tweak as you see fit.

Some assumptions:

  • The only things I start from seed are things I can direct-sow in the garden: peas, beans, squash, root vegetables, sunflowers. I don’t start my own tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, or onions. I buy all those things as transplants on one warm weekend in May and call it good.
  • The one exception to this rule is kale. I’m a kale fiend, and picky about variety. So I do generally start some kale indoors in about March. And oh, while I’ve got the lights up, maybe some other brassicas like broccoli or cabbage.

There are certain things that start early and end early, and only so many things that you can start late and have any kind of harvest. So I tend to think of these things as “pairs” in the garden bed – the early crop and the late crop. For example, after I pull the turnips out, I always then put in bush beans.

  • Early crops: Turnips, lettuce, onions, peas, radishes. These are all things I can plant mid- to late-April, and they will be out of the garden by July 4th.
  • Late crops: Bush beans, fall crop of kale, fall lettuce, spinach, garlic (plant in October). Bush beans planted at July 4th will usually set a crop before frost. Lettuce and kale might need to be started indoors, or under shade, because they don’t like hot weather at all. But if you don’t get those started by August, you won’t have much of a fall/winter crop. Spinach planted after October will really get eaten in the spring, but it’s totally worth planting that late because it’ll be the first thing you eat in June (even without a greenhouse).

I also like to minimize the number of times I’m planting things. So, instead of planting 1/4 of my total bean crop every 2 weeks for two months, I’ve found it works great to plant a row of bush beans and a row of pole beans at the same time. They will start to bear a week or two apart, usually. Then I plant some more bush beans when one of the early crops comes out, and that usually covers me for the whole summer. Other pairings for extending the harvest:

  • Bush + pole beans
  • Indeterminate + determinate (i.e., “patio”) tomatoes
  • Short + tall snap/snow peas
  • Early + late potatoes
  • Everbearing + June-bearing strawberries
  • Early + late “storage” carrots

Your seed catalog should tell you days to maturity and/or key words like “earliest bean we carry” or “great for storage” or “determinate tomato concentrates harvest over two weeks” or “harvest all summer long.” Using these kinds of pairings lets you plant at the same time but harvest at different times.

So – what I recommend for truly simple “succession” planting is:

  • Pick some early/late pairs: for example, turnips + bush beans; lettuce + late kale; peas + garlic – and plan to put those in the same space in your garden. Once you figure out a couple that work for you, you can use the same pairings each year.
  • For other crops, pick varieties that will mature at different times and plant two varieties as indicated in the list above.

That’s it!

Permaculture thoughts

As I look out the window through the forest to the fen, I see oaks, hickories, cattails, and herds of deer.

To a resident of this ridge 400 years ago, that’s a damn grocery store. I think our next step toward local eating is to develop a taste for these foods – adapt ourselves to this environment at least as much as we try to adapt it to us by gardening.

Great day at the homestead

What a gorgeous gift of a day! Nov. 12th, but sunny and warm (60, by mid-day). Last week’s snow jolted us into realizing a number of chores that really needed to get done before winter set in, and we did pretty much all of them today.

Our neighbor, Gary, came over with his tractor and moved the giant pile of wood chips (20yd dropped off for cheap by a local tree service) to the various plantings that needed a fresh coat: the oak berm, the berry berm, and the apple/raspberry bed. When he was done, he moved the remaining chips (8 yd?) to a back corner of the property so they’re out of the driveway. As he did that, Scott and I started to take the pergola “roof” down, which lets the sun into the house and also keeps the pergola from collapsing under the weight of snow – I don’t think 4 year old willow fencing can handle a foot of snow!

This is always a shaky job – our ladder is just barely tall enough to get to one end of the pergola, and it sinks into the ground. It’s nerve-wracking and not terribly safe. Finally, Gary says, “I can’t take it any more! Scott, get in the bucket!” And in a move that looked more dangerous (but both guys swore it was better than the ladder), Scott gets in the bucket of the tractor and Gary lifts him up level to the top of the pergola, which we can then dismantle in record time. (I’m on the roof at this point, managing the slats that hold the screening on the top of the pergola, thinking I’ve got the safest perch of the bunch.) And heck, while I’m up there, I cleaned out the gutters, too.

When that was done, we trimmed a couple branches overhanging the deck, and finally called it a morning. After showers and lunch, Scott ran off to do Scott things involving coffee, and I decided to flop on the couch with a book, or the internet, or something. But! The living room is cold.

No worries! There is wood, and a fireplace. But! There’s so much ash in the fireplace that it’s hard to keep a fire lit. No worries! There is a shovel, and a tin for the ashes.  But! Now the ash tin is full. No worries! It is beautiful and sunny, and I can go dump them out by the greenhouse.

Oooh, greenhouse. I wonder how things are going in there? Pretty well, as it turns out. There’s actually a serving of green beans to be harvested, and the winter savoy cabbages are starting to head up. Hmm, cabbage – that reminds me, I was going to transplant the Storage #4s from the garden to the greenhouse to compare how they keep “live” to in the root cellar. Did I mention it’s beautiful and sunny?

And so on, for at least another hour.  And now the cabbages are transplanted and watered, one water barrel is empty (I don’t think they’re big enough for warm thermal mass, and since this one is on the north side, I’m betting it would freeze, making it the wrong kind of thermal mass), beans harvested, greens for dinner picked, and three cookie trays of herbs (oregano, rosemary, and sage) are drying on the kitchen table.

I’m a couple hours late to my flop on the couch, but so what? Now I’ve got fresh green beans to eat as I putter online. 🙂

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