Getting started in gardening

Developing a successful garden requires some preparation and basic knowledge, but no complex skills.  It’s fun – especially if you love cooking or have kids – and it’s pretty cheap, especially if you focus on growing things from seed instead of buying plants from a nursery and if you compost instead of buying fertilizer.  Even if you have no tools at all, you can get started for less than $100 (assuming you don’t buy a wheelbarrow).  If you own the basic tools, you can get started for $25 or less.  A small garden won’t make you food self-sufficient, but it will add variety to your table and it will give you the skills you need to expand your garden rapidly if you do want or need to grow more of your own food at home.

I’m writing this post in mid-July, when many people might think they’ve missed the window to start.  Good news: you haven’t.  There is a fall gardening season starting in a few weeks.  Start preparing now and you’ll be ready.

I’m writing this post as a Quick Start-style guide.  I’ll give you the major points and some details on why they are important and how to do them.  I may update and expand it or add supplemental guides as I have time and as the seasons change.  Other experienced gardeners should feel free to chime in with their advice.  Novices should feel free to post questions.

Here are the main steps, each of which are explained in detail below:

1) Pick a sunny spot big enough for two 4×8 foot beds

2) Order your seeds

3) Prepare your soil using double dig or hugelkultur methods

4) Plant seeds

5) Water frequently until seeds sprout, then less often

6) Mulch heavily

7) Thin seedlings as necessary

8) Manage your weeds

9) Harvest or prepare crops for overwintering in the ground

10) Put your beds to rest for the winter

11) Compost

Obviously, these are my personal opinions, based on my experiences and reading.  I make no claims of professional expertise.  Use at your own risk.

Quick Start Guide to Gardening

1) Pick a spot in your yard that is sunny all day long and convenient to check on.  It should be big enough for two 4×8 foot beds with a 3 foot row between them.

Too many people (including myself when I started) assume that the garden will be unsightly or will somehow offend the neighbors, so they try to tuck it into some far corner of the yard where no one will notice.  Don’t do this.

You need to pick a spot that gets as much sunlight as possible each day.  Go out at 7am, 10am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm and look at how the shadows move across your yard.  Find the spot or spots that get maximum sunlight.  Gardening guides talk about a minimum of 7 hours, but you don’t need to count.  Just find the spots that get the most sun.

Also, your garden will do best if you visit it every day.  Some plants, like peas, actually bear more heavily if they are picked often.  Some vegetables, like okra, get tough and inedible if left on the plant too long.  So when choosing among your sunny spots, try to put your garden someplace where you will see it and walk by it every day.

If you don’t live somewhere with a strict HOA, consider a front yard garden.  Most front yards have fewer trees and so more sun, and you’ll see it whenever you open your front door, get the mail, or get out of your car (assuming you’re driving anywhere these days).  Yes, the garden can get unruly, especially in summer, but the flowering plants are often beautiful and kids absolutely love a garden, especially if you plant things like sorrel or snow peas that they can pick and eat.  It’s a like a treasure hunt for edibles.  It will become a conversation starter with neighbors, and may inspire some of them to start gardening too.

You may also consider drainage.  Being toward the bottom of a hill, where the soil is continually moist, can be good, but don’t pick anyplace that is constantly muddy or gets big flows of water during rainstorms.

Select at least two rectangular patches of about 4×8 feet.  If they’re side by side, leave at least 3 feet between them to walk and kneel.  If you are very ambitious, you can add a third patch, but I would suggest starting modestly and adding beds over time because preparing beds is a lot of work.

2) Order seed.  Focus on fall vegetables like carrots, beets, turnips, kale, collards, radishes, mizuna, and green onions. 

I put seed ordering second on this list because you need to make sure that you actually have a suitable space to garden before you order seed and you may choose to order more if you decide on a bigger garden.

As a very rough rule of thumb, a typical packet of seed will fill at least half of one of your 4×8 beds.  (We’ll talk more about plant spacing below.)  You’ll also want some variety, so with these things in mind I would suggest buying 4-5 packets of seeds for two beds.

The key things to consider here are your frost date and time to maturity.  You want plants that will produce food before the first frost in your area (you can look this up online ‘first frost in [zip code]’).  When you start browsing seed, you will find in the seller’s description (if shopping online) or the seed packet (if you are in a store) a ‘time to maturity’.  For most root crops and greens, this is the typical time from planting the seeds until the plant is ready to eat.  Pick things that can be ready at least a week or two before your expected frost.

A word of caution: things get more complicated if you are growing crops where you eat the fruit of the plant – things like tomatoes or okra.  Then date to maturity means the date when the plant starts to produce food.  If you want a good harvest, you’ll want another 2-6 weeks or even more to regularly harvest the produce.  Also, some plants, like tomatoes and peppers, are typically started in a greenhouse or indoors under grow lamps.  (Often the description/packet will mention something about starting indoors.)  In that case, ‘time to maturity’ begins from when the juvenile plant is brought outside and planted in the garden.  For your first fall garden, I don’t suggest trying anything you need to start indoors, and you will save money if you don’t buy whole plants from a nursery.

What to plant?  I suggest things like carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, mizuna, kale, collards, or green onions.  All of these are fairly simple to grow and come in multiple interesting varieties.  I suggest having some fun and picking things you don’t always see at the grocery store (at least where I live): Chioggia beets, Lacinato kale, French breakfast radishes, red carrots, etc.

Some people grow legumes as a fall crop, but you may need to build a trellis, so I don’t recommend it for your first garden.  You might try garlic, especially if you want to eat the immature green garlic in the spring, but I won’t cover the details here, so you’ll need to find a guide online.  Choose hardneck varieties so that you can eat the garlic scapes.

Where to buy seeds?  You can order from a big nursery company, like Burgess or Gurney.  Buying seed packets from your local nursery or big box store is fine too.  But far and away, I have had the best results with ordering from Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), which sells heirloom, organic varieties.  Their shipping and handling can be higher, but their seed prices are reasonable.

3) Prepare your soil using the double dig method, which will create frameless raised beds.

There are many, many ways to prepare garden beds.  I like the double dig method because it’s effective, it uses simple hand tools, and it creates raised beds without having to build framing.  You can find out more about its benefits here: http://www.growbiointensive.org/FAQ/FAQ_DoubleDigging.html  It does require some sweat and effort, but you don’t have to do it all at once.  You can do part of the project every day until it is done.

I’ve also included a note about hügelkultur (building sharply raised beds over dead tree trunks or branches) below.

If you are physically unable to dig or have contaminated soil (e.g., you live in an urban neighborhood where the houses were painted with lead), you can look into bag gardening and straw bale gardening as easy ways to get started without the expense of building framed beds and filling them with clean soil.  I don’t recommend using a rototiller.  It breaks up the soil structure and doesn’t get deep enough.

The double dig method works like this:

1)     Read this list all the way through.  If you are going to skip step 7, mow your grass really short on the selected patches.  If these instructions are unclear, see if you can get a copy of How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons – your library probably has a copy.  It has illustrations.

2)     If you don’t have them, buy:

a.      D-handled, square bottomed spade (basically a square-tipped shovel)

b.      D-handled spading fork (looks like a pitchfork, but isn’t)

c.      Large plastic watering can (cheap and durable) or a sprinkler and hose

d.      Optional: Tape measure (you can get by using string or a garden hose or a ruler)

e.      Optional: Hard rake (bow rake or level rake, not a leaf rake)

3)     Water thoroughly the space you have selected for your beds or wait for rain.  You want moist soil (moist like a good cake), not mud.  If you pour water on the spot and any standing water is not absorbed into the soil within 2 seconds, stop watering.

4)     Wait a day, so the water can soak in

5)     Use the spade to cut the edges of your rectangle.  Go all the way around your 4×8 foot bed, just driving the blade in and taking it out.  You can use a tape measure to make sure the dimensions are correct, but I wouldn’t too much worry if it is exactly square; the edges won’t be perfect anyway if you’re not building a frame.  (If you really do want it square, you’ll need 4 stakes – scrape wood or sticks work fine – and some string.  Use a measuring tape and your eye to get a 4×8 shape (make sure you have two 8’ sides and two 4’ sides), tying the string around each stake so that the lengths of the sides can’t change.  Then measure corner-to-corner, diagonally across the bed.  Adjust the stakes until the diagonals are equal.  Now your bed should be square.)

6)     Use the spading fork to break up the top layer of soil.  Start about 12” from the short side of the bed, touching one long side.  Step on the fork to drive the tines all the way in, and then pull backwards on the top of the handle until the tines come almost out of the ground.  Then lift low on the shaft, just above the tines, to pull the head out of the soil.

Work sideways until you have gone all the way across, then step back 12” and repeat.  Work backwards until you have forked all of the bed.  You always work backwards to avoid compressing the soil.  Note that you are just loosening up the soil, not ‘turning it over.’

7)     Pull up all of the grass clumps.  (Truthfully, I don’t always bother.  Sometimes I just cut the grass really short with the mower before I start and leave it there.  You may have to deal with more weeds later (grass in the garden = weed) but it saves time and effort at the start.)  Set aside the clumps to compost.

8)     Dig the bed.  Start again at the short side of the rectangle:

a.      With your spade, dig out one 4 foot row of soil, putting it some buckets or wheelbarrow.

b.      Take your fork and stand in the trench you have created.  Fork over the soil at the bottom of the trench.  The goal here is to loosen it up to make it easier for plant roots to penetrate.  Don’t worry if it’s still a bit chunky.

c.      Move over 12” and start again.  Shovel the dirt from this new row into the trench from the first row.  Don’t turn over the soil.  Just let it slide off your shovel in way that helps it break up and fluff up a bit.  Once you have an open trench again, fork the bottom.

d.      Repeat until you get to the end of the bed.  After you fork the bottom of the last trench, fill it in with the soil from your bucket or wheelbarrow.

9)     Use a hard rake to level the top and shape the sides of the bed.  All of that forking and shoveling will have added air to the soil (which is good), and raised the soil level 3-6”.  Also, if you skipped step 7, raking may let you get out some clumps of grass.

10)  Water the soil lightly and let it settle for a day before planting.

Alternative method: Hügelkultur

Hügelkultur involves using dead wood (preferably green) as a source of nutrients and moisture retention for your vegetables.  It can work well anywhere, but I think it is especially good on gently sloping ground, where it can make de facto terraces.  Be aware that these are much less attractive than traditional garden beds, especially if you are doing a front yard garden.  Here are your steps:

1)     Use a spade to outline a space about 2×8 feet.  On a hill, make this perpendicular to the slope.  You can even make the shape a very gentle ‘U’ or arc, so that water running downhill will be caught in the belly of the U.

2)     Dig out the trench about 12” deep.  Try to keep the top grass layer together.  You might try cutting the grass out and putting it on one side of the trench and digging the soil and putting it on the other.

3)     Fill the trench with green wood from recently cut trees, until the wood is slightly higher than the surrounding soil.  Whole tree trunks are great – they don’t need to be split.  Branches with leaves still on them are great too.  The wood acts as a nutrient source for the plants and a sponge that soaks up and releases water. You can use woodchips, but they will decompose faster, so you’ll lose the special properties of a hügelkultur bed after a couple seasons.

4)     Put the grass upside down on top of the wood.

5)     Put all the extra soil on top of the upside-down grass

6)     Dig out a shallow trench (about 6” deep) on the uphill side and dump the dirt from that on top too.  The trench will help catch water, especially if you built your bed in that gentle arc.

7)     When you are done, your bed will have a tall, almost pointy shape, like a miniature mountain range.  The dirt will have probably run down the sides, making the bed closer 3×8 or 4×8.

8)     Give the soil a day or two to settle before planting.  You can plant on the peak of the bed and along each side, especially near the top.

4) Plant seeds.  Time your planting so that the plants will mature at least 2 weeks before frost.  Use the ‘space between plants’ directions for your seeds for the space between plants AND the space between rows.  Don’t walk on your beds.

How late you can plant your fall garden depends on your climate zone.  Find your frost date and then use the time to maturity information on your seeds to figure out how early you need to plant.  Hedge your bets by adding 1-2 weeks to the time to maturity.

Plant your bed while kneeling on the path next it.  Don’t walk on the bed.  It will undo your hard work in the double-digging.  If you absolutely must walk on the bed for some reason, put down a board and stand on it to distribute your weight.

The instructions that come with your seeds (or are found on the website where you ordered them) will give instructions for space between plants and space between rows.  The spacing between rows assumes that you are growing a large, conventional garden rather than a densely planted raised bed.  Ignore than number, and instead space your rows just as far apart as you space your individual plants. This will make better use of your garden bed space and, as your plants grow up, their leaves will help shade out weeds and trap moist air close to the soil.  For plants with wider spacings, stagger the rows to make better use of space.

You can make spacing easier by finding a piece of scrap wood and marking common planting spacings on each edge. Adjust where you start the markings on the second edge, to create staggered rows.  Another option is to make a cardboard triangle with each side the length of the desired distance between plants.  If you put a seed on both bottom edges and the top point, you’ll get two staggered rows as you move it along.

Plant seeds at the depth specified on the package.  If you are working with very small seeds, you can try making a little chute out of a folded scrap of stiff paper, putting some seeds in it, and then shaking them off the end one at a time.  If you get too many seeds in your row, don’t worry.  You can thin later.

Not every seed you plant will germinate, so many plants suggest a dense planting (e.g., every 2”) followed by a thinning (e.g., thin to 4”).  For the best harvest possible, you should follow this.  However, if thinning sounds like a tedious chore (and it can be), you can plant seeds at the thinned spacing (e.g., every 4”) and just accept that you will have a smaller harvest if 20-30% of your seeds don’t germinate.

5) Water.  Water as soon as your seeds are in the ground.  Water frequently (at least every other day, unless it rains) until your seeds germinate.  Soil should be moist, not muddy.  Then water less often but monitor soil moisture regularly.

Once your seeds are in, water gently.  A watering can or sprinkler will work.

To know if you have given enough water, spray or pour out a bit of water and count how long it takes for the soil to absorb it.  If the standing water is gone quickly, keep watering.  If it is not absorbed after 2 seconds, stop watering.

Keep the surface of the soil moist until your seeds sprout.  Moist means like the inside of a good cake, not mud.  Feel the soil with your hands; don’t just look.

Once your seeds have sprouted, they will still need regular watering or rain.  To know if your soil needs water, push your fingers into the soil about 2”.  If the soil is getting dry 2” down, it’s time to water.

Aim for fewer, more thorough waterings.  This encourages root development.

6) Mulch.  Mulch is the key to efficient gardening.  It suppresses weeds, adds nutrients to the soil, and traps moisture. 

Mulch is almost any organic, weed-free medium that you can spread over your soil.  You can use leaves, grass clippings (preferably mixed with leaves), or wheat straw [see Josh’s post below, however, about buying these things].  My favorite is partially decomposed compost.

Mulch keeps weed seeds from reaching the soil, reducing the amount of weeding you need to do.  It also traps moisture and keeps the soil from drying out.  This reduces the need for watering and also makes your soil a friendlier place for helpful creatures like earthworms.  The mulch will break down over time and the worms will incorporate it into the soil, making it healthier.

When you have seedlings, spread your mulch between the rows.  After you thin your plants (if you are doing that) you can spread your mulch further so that it surrounds every plant.  It can touch the plants – that’s fine.  Just make sure that it is lower than the lowest leaves.

As your plants grow, deepen your mulch.  3-6 inches deep is ideal, but you’ll get plenty of benefit out of just 1-2”.  Make sure to add more as your mulch decomposes.

7) Thin seedlings.  If you planted anything that needs thinning, use scissors to snip off unwanted seedlings just above the soil.  If the mature plant has edible greens, put the thinnings in a salad.

8) Weeding and pest management.  Weed as necessary.  Don’t let weeds take over your garden.  You probably don’t need pesticides.

Weeds compete with your plants for sun and nutrients.  With close plant spacing, you will have fewer weeds once your plants mature.  Mulch will help too.  But do take the time every few days to pull whatever weeds you find.  A hoe can be helpful, especially if you have trouble bending over, but you can also pull weeds by hand.  If you have neglected things and need to remove a lot of weeds, a hand cultivator (looks like a large, bent fork) or similar tool will make things faster.

Pest control is tricky to advise on, since things vary by region.  Research organic solutions online if you’re having a serious problem.  I use almost no chemicals in the garden and rarely have problems (I’ve used neem oil a few times).  Cool fall weather means fewer bugs and the larger crops you’re planting mean that a little damage is more tolerable than if slugs eat one of the only 3 pepper plants in your garden.

9) Harvest.  Research which of your crops can overwinter in the ground.  Research best ways to store. Use all of what you harvest.

If you are checking on your garden regularly, you’ll get a sense for when things are close to being ready to harvest.  Don’t worry if things seem to start small or grow slowly.  Your plants will grow faster as they get larger and develop more leaves and roots.

You can check your root crops by brushing away some mulch and soil and checking the diameter of the top of the bulb.  Cover it back up if it’s too small, although recognize that your garden vegetables won’t always be as big as what you’re used to at the supermarket (especially conventional produce grown with fertilizer).

Not every plant will be ready at the same time, and you can also start using some things when they are on the young side, to have a continual flow of fresh produce into your kitchen.

Not all crops needs to be pulled when they are mature.  Some plants will overwinter in the garden depending on your climate.  Kale can overwinter in some places.  Carrots can stay in the ground even in some cold climates, if you mulch them really heavily so that the ground doesn’t freeze around them.  Research your crops and your climate.

You’ll also need to do research on storage techniques.  Many greens freeze well if blanched in boiling water first.  Many root crops store well in the fridge (or even outside it, if you have cool, dark space).  Perhaps someone else can create a guide and forum on food storage to provide help.

Lastly, make sure to research how to use all of what you harvest.  Radishes can be roasted and pickled, not just eaten in salads.  Radish greens are edible and beet greens and turnip greens are delicious.  You don’t often see them attached to the roots at the store, but don’t reduce your crops to their supermarket brethren.  Use all of what you get.  A little online searching will yield numerous recipes.

10) Put your beds to rest.  Any beds without overwinter crops should be heavily mulched.

Clean any plants or weeds out of your beds (including the roots of any greens you have harvested) and then put down a thick layer of mulch.  This will protect your soil until spring.  This can be as simple as blowing the leaves from your yard over your garden bed.

11) Compost.  Collect your kitchen scraps and yard waste to enrich your garden in the spring.  You don’t need a special bin, but you do need to alternate layers of ‘green’ waste (fresh grass, weeds, or kitchen scraps) with ‘brown’ waste (leaves, straw, or dry grass).

Compost is just decomposing organic matter that breaks down, over time, into a rich humus.  Added to your garden, it will restore nutrients, loosen up your soil, and introduce beneficial organisms.  It is far, far better for your soil and plant health than chemical fertilizer, and you can make it at home for free.

If you layer your compost properly, it will, well, compost instead of rotting and will not be particularly smelly.

A lot of science has gone into studying how to get the most soil nutrients out of your compost pile.  It is worth reading some of that information, but a lot of that literature assumes you are building a whole compose pile at once, and so can layer it in a fairly scientific way.  Most people don’t have enough waste on hand to do that.  Here is what you can do instead:

1)     Pick a good spot (most people go for someplace out of the way, but others like to put the pile right in their garden, so that it enriches the soil underneath it).

2)     Loosen the soil under the pile with a spading for and then put down a 1-2 inch layer of brown material about 3 feet in diameter – leaves, straw, dry grass, old corn stalks, etc.  Basically anything from your yard that looks brown and dry and isn’t a twig.  If you blow your leaves, blow them into a pile next to where you compost pile is to have on hand.  You can buy a bale of straw from your garden center if necessary [but see Josh’s caution in his post below] and use a few handfuls from that if you have no brown waste in your yard.

3)     Get a compost bucket for your kitchen.  You don’t need to spend any money.  Go to the bakery at your grocery store (if you are still going into stores) and ask them if they have any old frosting buckets.  Get a bucket with a lid.  I find that a smaller one (about 1.5 gallon size) can hold a week of kitchen waste.  It’s better (less smelly) if you empty it more often, but you may not have the time.

4)     Put in your compost bucket everything that is not oily, meat, or dairy.  Some people skip egg shells out of fear that they’ll attract rats, but I’ve never had that problem.  Collect vegetable scraps, coffee grounds (with the filter), tea bags and leaves, white napkins, etc.

5)     When your bucket is getting full or you have the time, take it to your compost pile.  Dump it out (may be quite smelly if it has been a while since you last emptied it) and use a stick to spread it into a layer (more or less, no need to be precise).  Throw leaves or other brown material over the top to get at least a 1-inch layer.  Tip: if your bucket is really smelly, rinse it out and then pour a half-inch of white vinegar in the bottom.  No need to empty it; just start collecting your next batch of waste on top of the vinegar.

6)     If you do weeding or mow the lawn and bag the grass, put that on the compost pile too.  If it is a large amount, break it into several layers 3-6 inches thick, depending on how dense the green waste is, with brown waste between them.

7)     When your pile gets to be about 4 feet in diameter at the base and 3-4 feet tall, start a new pile.  Take a spading fork and mix around the old pile, to mix up the layers and add some air.

8)     Wait a month or two and you can use it as mulch.  Wait 3-6 months and it will decompose noticeably and you can add it to your soil like fertilizer in the spring.

12) Resources.  The Prepared will be updating the Best Survival and Prepper Books page soon to include a good selection of gardening books.  Watch for the revised list.  In the meantime, start with How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons if you want to learn more.


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  • Comments (32)

    • 5

      I hope this isn’t a stupid question, but do you have to make any significant modifications if you live at altitude? I know it’s drier, but does that mean you have to water more? Or does the soil we tend to have kinda made for these conditions, so you don’t have to adjust?

      • 6

        Not a stupid question.  The thing I didn’t really make clear in the guide is that good gardening is about the soil, not the plants.  I read a quotation somewhere that ‘good gardeners grow soil, not plants.’  Ideally, your garden soil will be relatively loose and rich in organic matter.  It may take a couple of years of mulching and composting to get it that way.

        I have not gardened at altitude, but my expectation is that you just need to monitor your soil moisture like you would anywhere else (use the 2 second test or dig in and feel for moisture 2″ deep).  If your soil is thin or sandy and the air is dry, you may need to water more often.  If you mulch heavily and start working compost into the soil each year (or even every season), your soil should accumulate more organic matter and be able to hold more moisture over time.

        Any high altitude gardeners want to add their perspective?

      • 5

        I’m at 10,200 feet and have been experimenting with different vegetables for about 10 years up here in Colorado. It’s a challenge, but very doable for the right kinds of plants. Your altitude may be higher or lower, making these factors more extreme or less, but the general ideas still apply. The biggest modification is being realistic about what you can grow.

        You asked about what’s different and here are several factors conspiring at altitude that you’ll need to work around:

        • Cold nights: plants such as tomatoes and peppers do a lot of their growing at night, so where I live you can’t grow these without some means of artificially elevating the temps at night (covers, rocks, water bags, etc).
        • Intense sun: The other extreme. Days can get hot. Here we peak in the 70s but middle elevations such as Denver (5280ft) regular hit high 90s. You’re closer to the sun and it can really zap plants on a cloudless day, even if you’ve watered in the morning.
        • Weak soil: There’s just not as much deep, rich topsoil at higher elevations. My base soil is little more than decomposed granite. The soil high up along the Continental Divide is younger than, say, the rich loam on the coasts. The tips in the initial post on developing your soil are good.
        • Low humidity: this conspires with the intense sun and sandy soil to rapidly dry out areas that get all-day sun. As you wondered in your comment. I use straw to mulch over seed planted directly and around transplants until plants get big enough to shade themselves. See any of the mulch tips in the initial post for ideas. Avoid large swathes of bare soil at all costs because they allow moisture to fly out of your garden patch.

        Sounds daunting, right? Yes, but it’s still worth doing. It’s midsummer already, so if you just want to get started and grow something, keep it simple. Make yourself a small raised bed or just till up a a patch of your yard and mix in some compost or even potting soil. Plant a packet of radish seeds (unless you hate radishes!) and buy some herbs such as cilantro, dill, parsley, mint, etc and just try to get the radishes to grow and keep the transplants alive. If you can get some initial success and enjoy the process, you can do more next year and go down all the rabbit holes of composting and trying different plants and varieties to see what works in your area.

        Radishes are a good pick because they are tough and grow to a harvestable size in just over a month. I like herbs for new gardeners in general because they add a lot to meals without requiring a ton of space. Growing beans all summer and only getting one meal’s worth can be disheartening to new gardeners, but herbs can deliver big value in small spaces over a longer period of time.

        Last tip is to find your local cooperative extension if you live in the US. Every state has these and they exist to help farmers and gardeners deal with local conditions. Your specific property will have its own unique features, but they usually have lots of information for your region to get you started.

      • 3

        Thanks for chiming in on this Justin – I appreciated your note below too on greenhouses and polytunnels.  Definitely experience I lack. (I’m in the SE US, Zone 7a, so I can grow about 8-9 months without cover).

        I think your suggestion of starting with high success/high return plants is really good.  I remember my first attempt to grown green beans – I think I got like 3 beans…

      • 4

        Haha, yeah, I’ve been there. New meaning to “Three-Bean Salad”. And yeah, greenhouses and covered beds are key for extending the season here. I think our avg. last frost date is mid-June and first frost date is mid-August. Depressingly short season.

    • 8

      This is all good, but I’ll add a caution against using any amendments from outside your property like hay, straw, manure, and compost. A chemical called Grazon has been getting into that stuff, and it will kill your plants and contaminate your ground. I make all my own compost now and only use my own grass clippings for mulch.

      I ordered a pointed hoe from Easydigging.com and I love it. I have hard, rocky soil, and the hoe tears right through it. It makes ripping out thick weeds effortless.

      I throw meat and other stuff into the compost, and I don’t have any problems. I’ve buried a few dead chickens in the bottom of my compost. If I slaughter one, I bury the guts into the compost pile.

      • 6

        Thanks for this, Josh.  I knew that wheat straw could sometimes have herbicide contamination but I didn’t know anything about Grazon (which I have since looked up) or that it can even contaminate manure.  This is a timely warning.

    • 6

      Thanks so much for sharing. This is top of mind for my family right now. I haven’t been able to read everything yet (so apologies if covered), but what do you think the biggest pain/investment is that people who get into survival gardening don’t expect ahead of time, but should?

      • 7

        Good question.  A few things come to mind:

        1) Time requirements.  It takes time to keep up with your garden.  If you are working from home or playing with your kids in the yard each day, it can be easier.  But it is easy to let the weeds get out of control or to forget to water a batch of seedlings or neglect harvesting some okra until they are hard and inedible.

        Root crops (and fall crops in general) are easier, because once they get established they will tolerate a fair bit of neglect.  But in general, for your best harvest, you have visit the garden every day and spend at least 10-30 minutes weeding or harvesting every couple of days, even for a modestly sized garden.

        2) Learning curve.  In my opinion, it is easy to get started in gardening but hard to achieve mastery.  I’m probably a journeyman gardener – by no means a master.  I try new things every year (new plants, new spacings, etc.) and about 20% of what I try doesn’t work out.  Probably you can get things to be more reliable if you don’t experiment as much, but the experimentation is a big part of the fun.

        3) Garden size/harvest size.  I think that you have to have a fairly large garden to make a substantial impact on your family’s food needs.  I garden maybe 250-300 square feet.  I get some great harvests of some things – I can freeze enough kale and other greens for the whole year sometimes – but other things supplement what my family eats; they don’t don’t replace the grocery store.  By comparison, I know someone who gardens at least a quarter acre (10,000 square feet).  She also uses chemical fertilizer, which boosts yields.  She grows enough food to have vegetables for her family all summer long with, I think, no need for the grocery store and extra for freezing and canning.

        Growing a larger garden also gives you more space for experimentation – your failures don’t matter as much when you have a large garden.

        4) Time to process the harvest.  Except for the produce you or your children eat while out in the yard (which can be a lot!), everything else needs to be processed in some way.  Sometimes this is minimal: you run outside with a colander while you are making dinner, grab what you need, and prepare it.  But when you grow big crops of things you have to expect to spend some afternoons or evenings washing, chopping, blanching, and freezing.

      • 6

        Again, thanks so much, that’s all helpful. Your comments about the difficulty of it and things failing got me wondering… is there a “dummies plan” even more specific than your original post that maximizes the chance of success for a total newbie? In other words, some crop / mix of crops and a plan that is near fool proof?

      • 7

        A couple of books come to mind.

        One option is Square Foot Gardening (https://www.amazon.com/Square-Foot-Gardening-Fully-Updated/dp/0760362858).  The book is probably at your library.  I have not used the method or the book, but it is very popular and my impression is that it trades upfront labor and expense (building wood-framed beds and filling them with a special mix of store-bought fillers) for very reliable results.  While I haven’t tried it, I would be very surprised if it didn’t work.  You’d be starting with rich, weed-free soil in a deep bed and using a pretty careful planting plan.

        There is also a book called ‘Starter Vegetable Gardens’ that is pretty detailed, including pictures of different layouts for various gardens and plans for how your garden will grow/change from year to year.

        If you’re just looking for crops that come up very reliably, you can build confidence with things like radishes and kale, which I find to be pretty fool-proof.  If you want to grow a few perennials (although you’ll probably have to buy these as plants at a nursery, not grow from seed), I find rosemary, oregano, and sorrel to be practically indestructible once they get established.  Just remember that if you’re planting them in mid-summer, they will need regular waterings.

        Others on this list may be able to recommend their favorite easily grown crops.  Anyone else have favorite fool-proof crops?

      • 6

        Start by planting what you already eat regularly and enjoy in your diet and maybe add one or two new things. If you don’t already love veggies, it can take time to shift your taste buds to crave produce. I would argue that you should start smaller rather than with a large experimental plot. Have fun… gardening is therapeutic and such a great prepping skill.

      • 3

        Thank you both. CP, I’ll check out that book. Xenogirl, if you didn’t love veggies when you started, how long did it take to develop that habit/craving?

      • 3

        If you were by chance raised Catholic, just channel that guilt. 🙂 I use guilt over wasting the produce that was so hard-won to force myself to eat it early in the season and then it becomes and habit.

        I posted this above, but for the newest of newbies I recommend radishes. They germinate and grow quickly even in harsh environments and can get you hooked on growing your own produce. If this all seems overwhelming but you want to try something, just scratch yourself out a small bed and plant a packet of radish seeds and see how it goes.

      • 2

        I could learn to like radishes. Thanks for the tip!

    • 6

      I’ve added a post on how to build raised bed frames with wood, stone, or block.  It’s a separate forum, but you can click to it here:


    • 4

      Any suggestions for high altitude greenhouses? Seems to be very difficult to moderate temp changes in an off grid environment?

      • 3

        I have built walk-in greenhouses and there are really nice pre-built geodesic ones meant for high altitude from Growing Spaces in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. https://growingspaces.com/

        Right now I keep it simple and use hooped covers for my raised beds. It takes management, but I open them in the morning for fresh air sun and pollination and then close them at dusk to retain a few extra degrees of heat overnight for the plants that need it.

        If you get into building a greenhouse, there are lots of options for venting without electricity. Temperature controlled windows that pop open when temps in the greenhouse reach a certain threshold. Obvious having a solar panel and battery open up some powered options.

    • 6

      I have raised beds that are hugelkultur-esque: 2 feet tall, but with the bottom 1.5′ filled with logs, downed branches, and mulch. It’s worked really well, and makes planting, weeding, etc. easier to have everything up so high. It also retains water really well, all that decomposing wood down below hanging onto rainfall like a sponge. I have a “lasagna garden” (composting in place) in other parts of the yard around berry bushes and other fruit, but haven’t done it in the veggie garden beds yet.

      I also suggest at least a loose square foot gardening design, even if you don’t do that specific soil mix. I find it easier to design, maintain, and harvest than a traditional row design. And mentally, it was easier for me to commit to trying something new with one square foot than a whole row (even if it’s the same amount of space!).

      • 3

        Never heard the term “lasagna garden” before but after looking into it, I like the idea a lot. And it would be a pretty green way for me to get rid of some stuff!

    • 4

      This is great! We wanted to start a garden with my gf but thought we were too late for this year. I’ll share the checklist with her and we’ll get started asap!

    • 3

      Great primer for the [new] home gardener.  The basics are enough to get started.  And, perhaps what many people fear is failure.   Gardening is a lot of trial and error… you’ve provided a nice list of tips to allay some of those fears.

    • 3

      We started a kitchen garden from scratch, and in my estimation it took 3 years to get our soil to the point where it had sorted itself out, had healthy microorganisms, and did not need tools to work it. Your soil should be fluffy and tillable with your bare hand.   Later, we converted to raised beds bottomed with local dirt and topped with organic soil from the big box store. Though started with a bit of expense, this was much easier to deal with, was instantly fertile, was easier to weed, and much more productive. Stay away from manure or hay, unless they come from your place and you know for sure they are unadulterated.  Wood chips are great, though you won’t find anyone recommending that in the literature – they make a good mulch and provide a substrate for microorganisms. Every year is different.

    • 5

      Regarding what to grow:

      I’ve been reading ‘Gardening When it Counts’ by Steve Solomon.  He gives good advice about which plants are most likely to grow reasonably well in un-enriched soil – which is what you have if you have just started your garden and haven’t built up your soil through repeated rounds of digging in compost and layering on mulch.  Several of them have been mentioned on this forum already.   Here are the ones from his list that I think are good candidates for fall growing, although I haven’t tried all of them.


      Burdock (early spring harvest for roots; greens much earlier)



      Collard greens


      Herbs (most kinds)




      Swiss chard

      Turnip greens

    • 2

      I have some very loose, general gardening tips that works well for most common plants you’ll want to grow -whether veggies, berries, medicinal plants and herbs, or poisonous plants (hey, it’s possible!): 

      Listen to your plants!

      As we all know from science class, plants need light, water, & nutrients (traditonally, extracted from the soil) to survive. Duh. How much of each of these things is dependent on the type plant. A tomato plant won’t have the same requirements as, say, a fern (ever tried fiddlesticks?) or echinacea .

      When a plant isn’t getting enough light, water, or nutrients, the plant will manifest its distress in a few different ways. A plant may wilt because it’s not getting enough water or it’s getting too much light. In some cases, wilting can be caused by too much water (ie., cactus).

      Another common sign of distress? Yellowing leaves. This could mean the plant isn’t getting enough light or you may be over-watering. It’s really super common that people will over-water their plants, especially newly planted plants.

      Be sure to check-in on your plants for other signs of distress. Be on the lookout for things like spotty leaves, fungus, pests (eg., aphids). Some plants are best watered at their base. Watering some plants, shrubs, and trees will develop spots if their leaves are watered and it’s a particularly hot day. Be on the lookout for browning leaves (usually indicates conditions are TOO dry).
      Although manifestations of plant distress can (and do!) vary from species to species, catching these signs early enough can provide you an opportunity to suss out what the plant needs before it dies off.


      1. When transplanting seedlings, allow 1-2 weeks (in general) for roots to get established.

      2. Separate plantings based on watering requirements. This prevents over- or under- watering.

      3. In general, resist the urge to over water. I usually give most plants just enough water to soak the soil. Also, some plants prefer their roots to dry-out a little between waterings. Root rot is what happens when a plant’s soil is too wet for too long -and it can destroy your plant. Other plants need their roots wet all the time. Learn which of your plants are suseptible to root rot and keep them apart from their other plants.

      3. Water in the early morning. Sunrise (or *just* before) is best. This helps plants brace for their workday.

      4. If you’ve watered in the morning and it’s been a brutally hot day, give the plant a couple short soaks immediately -if you notice any sagging or wilting. That way, the plant can recover overnight. Be sure to check the plant in the morning.

      5. Don’t water at night. Water and darkness are great conditions for fungi and other diseases to manifest.

      6. If it has recently rained (or if it has rained the previous night), hold off on watering. Check the soil and water only as needed.

      5. Watch for signs of other distress (sagging, wilting, yellowing or browning leaves, disease (spots, fungus), and pests

      Happy gardening!

      • 2

        This helps plants brace for their workday.

        Love that. Thanks for the pointers! Empathy, man 

    • 4

      I’ve started a thread for reviewing/recommending gardening books. I’m curious to hear what people have found useful and I thought that it might give beginners ideas for what to read. 


      If you’re interested in composting, I’ve just posted a review of Compost Everything by David the Good.

    • 2

      If you own land that you plan retiring on… take stock of what you already have (ie; wild plums, berries, walnuts, acorns, etc.).  Try to identify other edible plants on your property with the help of a plant in identification guide book or an expert familiar with the flora in your neck of the woods.  

      I would recommend purchasing heirloom variety seeds that you can continue to harvest seeds from and replant … in bulk (like 35,000 seeds) at a time from seed vault packs sold on Amazon for like 25 dollars rather than buying packs of seed from a dollar store or a home depot as those are going to end up costing a lot more.  Then, as they say, dont wait for the apocslype…  take one of the seed vaults and start making mistakes now so that you dont fail miserably when it matters.

      Also, if it is your forever home, consider planting all kinds of fruit trees.  The gift that keeps on giving.

    • 2

      I’ve been hand-digging some fall garden beds. My spring garden was traditional rows plowed by a tractor, but my ground is so hard that it actually broke a piece of the tractor. By hand-digging beds, I can raise them up like Steve Solomon suggests, which makes a nice loose bit of soil that veggies can expand in. The trench around the raised area acts as a swale to contain excess water.

      I start by using a string trimmer to cut down a section of field. I then measure out an 4×8 foot rectangle. I break that ground with my Meadow Creature broadfork, and then I use my pointed hoe to break up the soil and roughly form the bed. The pointed hoe is an essential tool for my hard, rocky, clay soil. I’ve tried many other methods to break up the soil after broadforking and none compare to the pointed hoe.

      Once I get the soil broken up into as small of clumps as I can, I use a bow rake to refine the bed and remove large clods and rocks. I leave the large clods in the walking paths outside the beds so they’ll break down over time as I step on them. Raking is the trickiest part. It’s hard to get things just right and very easy to undo all of your hard raking work.

      Here’s a picture of what I have so far. The bed on the right is growing garlic and I’ve planted turnip seed in the bed on the left. We have a lot of scrap cardboard, so I’m experimenting with using it as a mulch around the beds. I have a lot of empty space on each side of the bed. I plan to drag my chicken tractors down each side so my chickens can eat all the grass and fertilize the soil.


      If you’re going to hand dig garden beds for spring, I recommend starting now. It’s a slow and back-breaking process, so the more time you give yourself, the better.

      • 1

        How do you like the broadfork?  Do you find it a reasonable alternative to double digging?  I know Solomon isn’t big on double digging, so maybe broadfork + single dig is a reasonable compromise?

      • 1

        It’s *much* easier than double digging. I have extremely rocky soil that’s hard to work a shovel in. I can maneuver the broadfork to hit between rocks and break the ground. And I find the pointed hoe a lot easier than a shovel