Growing your own food is a blessing. Not only is it cheaper in the long run, but you have all the health benefits of fresh produce that has been organically grown and the benefits of spending the time outdoors. For most homesteaders, the dream to grow/raise all of their family's food is a common goal. It can seem like a daunting task. One question that I hear often is, "Where do we start?" Here is how I plan ours.
1. Plan your garden area. How much space do you have available? We have 20 acres, but only a very small portion of it is good fertile soil for gardening. Luckily, it is the area directly behind the house and not a section in the farthest end of our field! We also have a couple of other smaller areas where we can plant, but the soil is not as fertile and would need a great deal of compost to make it good enough for growing a vegetable garden. The area where we plant the garden is roughly 1/8 acre in size. I am able to plant quite alot in that area and by succession planting, I am able to grow 3 gardens in the same space.
2. Deciding what to plant. This is one of the hardest things for many people. I made it easy for us by keeping track of the foods we actually enjoy eating. Make a list of all the vegetables that your family eats on a regular basis. You can take this a step further by saving your shopping receipts.
When you first start planting a garden, make sure to plant the vegetables, such as tomatoes, that can be expensive to buy in the store's produce area.
3. How much do we plant? This is another area where the shopping receipts can help. You can take a look at a typical month and add up the quantity of the vegetables you buy. Be sure to include canned and frozen vegetables in the amount. I count 1 pint for each small 12-15 oz. can of vegetables and 1 quart for each large 28 oz. can. This is also going to be important to know if you are planning to can the vegetables as it will give you an idea of how many jars you will need. Next, talk to gardeners in your area or the nurseries. Find out what kind of yield you can expect. Look through seed catalogues. They can often give you an idea of what type of yield to expect. Then, plan your seed purchase accordingly.
4. Start your seeds early. I buy my seeds from Heirloom Acres Seeds about the beginning of January. By late February, I am ready to start the seeds in little flats indoors. I like to give the seeds about 8 weeks headstart in their growth before planting just after the last frost. Buy enough seed to last the entire year. They offer their seeds in packets and also a variety of bulk size quantities. The larger the quantity, the better the price. All of their seeds are open pollinated, they do not sell any that are hybrids.
5. One tip that I learned from my Father was to plant things like green beans & peas in double rows. He would plant 2 rows of beans or peas only 2 inches apart. This would give him twice as much harvest in the same area that traditionally he would have gotten had he planted them in single rows. Between each set of double rows, he would leave a space wide enough to walk through. The plants grew very well. I remember one year in particular that we had 2 (20 ft long) rows of green beans that in their first picking produced 115 quarts of green beans for canning.
6. Succession planting is essential. About 2-3 weeks after you plant your garden, go back and plant a second planting of the vegetables. I will plant a row of squash plants, for example, then a few weeks later, plant more squash seeds. This will allow me to get a continual harvest. By the time the first plants are starting to slow down production, the second planting is in full production.
7. Pay close attention to your area's first and last frost dates. Plants such as winter squash, root crops, peas and beans that produce well in cooler temperatures can be planted in late summer for a fall harvest. If you have very hot summers (100*+ for several weeks in a row) you may want to start the seeds in a flat, then only expose them to the sun during the cooler parts of the day. This will prevent the intense heat of the sun from burning up the tender plants. Then, once the hottest part of summer is over, transplant them into the garden. Things like peas may need to be planted in an area where they will get partial shade in the afternoon if the temperatures are still pretty hot in the afternoon. When I planted a fall crop this year, I checked the date of the first frost, then counted backwards the number of days on the calendar the seed packets gave for the amount of time until harvest. This gave me the last possible date when I could plant the seeds and still have a harvest. To give us a better harvest, I included a couple extra weeks for the harvesting. For most of the vegetables, this meant that I could plant as late as Labor Day in September to get the seeds in the ground.
Vegetable gardening is not an exact science. Some years the weather is better than others and will affect your crop accordingly. We learned through experience that in our area, the heavy rains in the spring flood our garden. So, we now have to plant in raised rows. The rows are built up about 10 inches taller than the walk space between them. This keeps the plants high enough that even when there is standing water in the garden, the plants are high enough to not be flooded out. We also learned that if the intense heat hits the garden too early in the summer and slows down the amount of harvest, plant the same varieties of plants again in late August and we will have a bumper crop of vegetables in the fall.
There are some vegetables, such as tomatoes, that enjoy the heat. Those are planted for a summer harvest. By the time they are starting to slow down, we are able to pull up the tomato plants and plant other vegetable seeds and plants in their place. By planting in this way, we are now able to get 3 full gardens in the same space in one growing season.
Next year, I am going to set up a large cold frame. I am curious to try and grow salad vegetables in a cold frame and see how long into the winter we can have fresh salads.