Guest post from Seth Wheeler. Seth Wheeler designs low maintenance gardens, innovative energy systems and smart structures for schools, corporations and private clients. He approaches projects as an ‘elemental designer’ by tapping the inherent powers already present in the natural environment and solving problems with thermodynamics, gravity, evaporation/condensation, solar radiation, and other laws of physics. Seth’s passions include permaculture, real food education, community activism, harmonious systems, farming, dirty fingernails, and enjoying the sunshine. You can contact Seth at firstname.lastname@example.org
The dead cold of winter may not bring to mind blooming swaths of food foliage but this is the exact time to start preparing for your food-growing season. Many beginning gardeners are unsure where to start and the overwhelming amount of growing options can really make the process quite difficult. I understand, BUT I am here to help rescue you from the daunting task of planning your first garden alone.
There are some important factors to consider when planning your first garden or cultivating a long-term garden. Finding a balance by working with the land will ensure a more enjoyable experience and superior produce. Most people have a limited space to garden, so try to match plant types to that space. Plants like corn, peppers, grapes, melons and squash need a lot of sunshine to thrive while greens, some herbs, brassicas and more will tolerate less light. If you can get at least 7-8 hours of light per day, you can grow just about anything.
Plants tend to do better when grown together.
The close proximity minimizes the amount of soil exposed to the sun, which inhibits the growth of unwanted plants (weeds) and cuts down on moisture loss because of the shade. A moist but well drained soil encourages biotic and fungal diversity, establishing a highly beneficial symbiotic relationship between a variety of life forms and mimicking natural processes.
Mychorizzae fungi grows on plant roots providing the host plant with extra oxygen, nutrients and water when needed, this minimizes stress symptoms and encourages more sustained growth and increased drought resistivity.
Stones and leaves are two more ways to encourage moisture retention and soil diversity.
Ever turned over a stone in the forest or a field and found moisture, worms, bugs or fungi even if it hasn’t rained for weeks? What do you find under dead leaves? A top mulching layer of leaves, grasses, sticks or straw will slowly compost, adding nutrients to the soil and inhibit the growth of ‘weeds.’ Stones have an added benefit, they absorb solar thermal heat during the day, releasing it at night. With careful placement consideration, you can significantly increase your growing season. Ponds, lakes, rivers or streams also add moisture to the air and reflect the sun onto plants, potentially extending the season.
Rain drainage and air drainage will further protect from the effects of erosion, drought and cold temperatures.
Terracing on a slight angle will encourage a slow soaking from rain while diverting excess down the hill. This design also ensures cooler air will continue on down its path instead of settling in your garden.
Look for a dark brown or black soil, kind of a fluffy texture with a high content of organic matter while being well drained. So, low clay, high hummus and gravel content would be an ideal soil. Most plants prefer a neutral to alkaline ph, so have your soil tested to determine proper pH. Ash and lime can be used to balance the ph if needed. A garden area with little to no diversity in plant matter content may be relatively low in minerals, if this is the case, you can purchase mineral amendment mineral amendment and add it sparingly to the soil.
These are this most important considerations when planning a garden and designing with these guidelines in mind will most likely bring better results.
Putting it into practice
Let’s look at an example situation that we can put these guidelines to use in a practical manner. We will choose a south-facing (in the northern hemisphere) plot in an urban or suburban environment about 1,000 square feet. It is a relatively flat area of a yard that has been grass for years. Now, we could till and amend the soil, but building a raised bed is going to be a little less laborious and gives us a chance to build a more ideal soil quickly. You want to build beds out of non weather treated wood or logs, make them no more than four feet wide and ten feet long for easy access and lay cardboard or newspaper in the bottom to inhibit grass growth. Now find some good organic leaf, kitchen scrap and aged (1 year or more) manure compost and mix it all together in the beds, adding gravel, sand and / or Vermiculite. Voila! Ideal soil! I suggest mixing together wheelbarrow full portions at a time and dumping them into the beds. You want them to be higher in the middle and lower on the edges to ensure proper drainage and the logs or planks, staked in place, will prevent your soil from washing away.
Deciding what to grow and getting the seeds ready
Now, were going to determine which plants we want to grow. I always suggest growing what you know you’re going to eat or be able to trade. Most plants work pretty well together, so we’re going to mix our seeds seeds in a bucket, including some greens, flowers, bushing plants and vining plants. Tomatoes, okra, kale, spinach, peas, radishes and marigolds all tend to grow very prolifically with little effort. You may find different results however. Refer to package instructions for proper seed amounts. Now add some mychorizzae, also know as inoculant, to your seed mix, fill with water about an inch or more above the top of the seeds and stir.
After letting your seeds soak overnight, pour the water off into the garden area. You can also dilute this water in buckets and water the entire garden with the solution. Pour your seeds into a five gallon bucket half full of sand and mix thoroughly with your hands, the sand will scratch the seed surface promoting faster germination and also ensure a more even distribution when broadcasting your seeds. Now, scatter handfuls over the raised beds, keeping most seed at the top of the mounds. Carefully rake the seed mix into the soil and cover with a thin layer of leaves or straw and water well for the next two weeks.
Reaping the abundance
Now, marvel at your garden because all of the hard work is done! All of your seed should have sprouted within the first two weeks and should be hardy enough to take care of itself with very little care. Weeding and watering needs will be kept to a minimum with this design and your plants will work together to encourage a more naturally occurring growing system.
Want a head start on next years garden? Sow seed directly from fruits and veggies when you harvest, they will come up in the spring OR actually give you a second crop in the same season if done early enough in the year. Using this method, you will have a perpetually growing garden, needing very minimal upkeep that will produce beyond your expectations.
Remember, don’t be too hard on yourself, even the most experienced farmers face tough conditions, pest problems, drought and crop loss. There is no turnkey solution to gardening or farming, but keeping these guidelines in mind will certainly give you a great foundation to face any problems with confidence and help provide your family with healthy produce!
Wherever you are in your personal journey toward clean living and local food, thank you for joining me in mine. I look forward to sharing it with you.