When it comes to gardening, everyone has his favorite crops, fertilizer, and methods. I’m going to cover the basics here, the way I do things, so feel free to improvise and adapt. Furthermore, I’m going to assume this is your first large garden on your homestead.
You don’t start your garden in the spring, you actually start in January. That’s when you make a list and a plan. Decide what you want to grow—and remember, no matter how much you might want to experiment, if your family doesn’t like it, don’t bother putting in the work to grow it.
Make a list as to when each vegetable should go in the ground, or when they should be started indoors. Go to your local extension website to find one of their charts—these are super helpful. Then purchase your seeds or starters. Go with heirloom varieties. These are non-GMO and you can harvest and dry the seeds for next year. I order mine from My Patriot Supply; Baker’s Creek is another popular choice.
I make my lists in a Word doc, and save from year-to-year which helps in planning. I make notes during the season so I can do better the following year. That’s always the goal, making your garden better and more productive each year.
About the middle of February, you’ll want to fertilize your garden area. I use horse manure, because, well, I have six horses and plenty of manure. I let it sit for a couple weeks, plow it under, then let it sit for a couple more weeks. This is also the time to put up that deer fence, at least seven or eight feet high, with chicken wire and rocks around the bottom to keep out the rabbits. If you already have that fence, check it, tighten it, and do any repairs.
As soon as the ground thaws—for the most part, early March or so—we till it and rake out the old growth, rocks, and whatever else has found its way in there. Then we’re ready to plant.
All this said, you’ll also need a watering system. Watch the weather and get a rain gauge to see how much rainfall you’re actually getting. My luck, if I water, it rains; if I wait, it doesn’t. But you need a system to deliver that water to your vegetables and a system to make sure they’re getting enough, but not too much.
We played around with soaker hoses, PVC pipes, and a few other things, but it came down to good old-fashioned hoses and sprinklers. I’ve hooked up enough hose and figured out the right placement so I don’t have to drag those heavy suckers any more than necessary. In the fall, you simply drain and coil the hoses and they’re good for the next year.
A lot of people garden in raised beds, and some use tires, or squares, or whatever, but I stick to what generations of my family have used: plain, straight rows. My rows all run about 25 feet deep, for 100 feet. The entire garden, fenced, is twice that size, because I also have a few fruit trees—so they say, haven’t seen any actual fruit yet—some wild black raspberries, grapes, blueberries, and strawberries, as well as the greenhouse. Speaking of, I got that on Amazon, steel frame, heavy plastic, zippered from door and velcroed back window, 10 X 12, for about $200. Good product. Just a note: it’s also held down with rocks around the base, as well as steel anchors. We have a lot of rocks, may as well use them! But seriously, once the darn thing blew over when it was open and caught a gust of wind; I’d just stepped out. My seedlings went everywhere, so that year we had “surprise” rows in the garden or, as someone once said: mixed vegies.
The first row in my garden is a dedicated asparagus bed; the second row is for garlic. Garlic takes about 10 months, and it’s planted in the fall around the first of October. So, when I’m spreading manure and plowing up the ground, I always know where those two crops are located—unlike when I pointed out the strawberry patch and told my husband DO NOT plow those up. And he did. Of course.
The rest of the rows are marked and usually pretty straight; it can be tricky. I had heard that my great-grandpa used a board to help with that, but he must have had a longer one that what I tried one year. Now, I just eyeball it and hope for the best! I plan out roughly a foot and a half per row, with two feet in between. That leaves the right amount of space for my little tiller without tearing up the vegetables, and room for them to grow in a, hopefully, straight line.
I add plants or seeds to the garden as they’re scheduled to be planted: peas, spinach, kale, onions, lettuce, and so forth, starting around the middle of March through the middle of May. My tomatoes and peppers are started, of course, in the greenhouse, near the end of March, and go into the ground after about two months. I used to use those tiny seed starting trays, but finally got smarter and bought about a hundred plastic planting cups, with drain holes, about the size of a Styrofoam cup, for just a few dollars. Seedlings have more room to grow, and you can reuse them for years. I mark all of them with a Popsicle stick and permanent marker, which can also be reused.
As to how much to plant? Go back to that local extension website. They have a list for that too—how much person to plant for eating and for processing. It’s a lot. But if you’re homesteading, and aiming for self-sufficiency, you’ll need a lot. For instance, I generally plant two rows of green beans; that’s a total of 50 feet. Between eating them often, a few times a week, and freezing the rest, that’ll give me enough green beans for two people for an entire year. That’s the goal.
Some things won’t grow…this year. They might next year. As you gain more experience, you’ll do better each year. You might be overrun with jalapenos—true story—or you may end up buying zucchini. Also a true story, and a very sad one…
About that tiller I mentioned…I generally till between the rows in my garden every couple weeks to improve drainage and aeration. However, I DO NOT do this until my seeds have broken through the ground and are identifiable. Lesson learned: you will end up with kale in the onion row. I don’t start weeding until then either, for a similar reason—you certainly don’t want to pull up the wrong things.
I have an electric tiller, a Sun Joe. It’s cute, but powerful. Compared to my old gas one, it’s an absolute dream—it’s only jammed twice in two years; the old one would stop once every couple rows (those rock, ya know). Also, this one starts with pulling the trigger and starts immediately; with the old one, by the time I got it started, I was too tired to till!
So, from mid-March until mid-May, you’re planting and watering and maybe pulling a few really obvious weeds well in-between rows, and then BAM! All of a sudden, you’ll be tilling and weeding and running that sprinkler for a couple hours a day.
And then—everything is ready to harvest all at once. And when you do that, you have to either eat it or process it. I can my tomatoes, but freeze almost everything else. Sometimes I dehydrate, like onions or peppers. Naturally, all that is done during the hottest days of the year, and it can be brutal. Mostly it’s herbs that I dry, and no, I don’t plant those in the garden. They’re on my back porch, with easy kitchen access, and in the winter they go into the greenhouse.
But wait, there’s more! You ALSO have to keep weeding and watering, while you’re harvesting and processing. So, let’s say I spend a couple hours one day, weeding and watering my garden, and then three more hours cooking tomato sauce and canning it. There’s five hours, plus feeding the animals, another hour or so, plus any household chores, plus maybe cutting firewood, and there’s your day. And during the season, this is at least 3-4 days a week if your garden is going to feed your family for the following year.
Just like anything on a homestead, there’s constant work, and some of it’s physically hard. Be prepared before you start, but everything here will help keep you organized and knowing (some) of what to expect.