How to Start a Backyard Veggie Garden - Part 1
The first in a series of posts about creating your own organic backyard vegetable garden.
PREPARING FOR SPRING PLANTING
Why grow your own food?
For a variety of reasons growing your own organic, tasty, and nutritionally dense food is at the heart of living a healthier life, sustaining the environment, and encouraging communities and neighborhoods to interact positively on the most basic of levels.
If you're new to growing your own food now is the time to give it a try. It can be very simple, very exciting, extremely delicious and saves you money! We are now in the dead of winter in Port Orchard, about an hour's drive from Seattle and though we usually have very mild winters the ground is somewhat frozen at the moment. As soon as the soil warms up a bit our first step will be to prepare our soil for spring planting by mixing in organic matter. If we lived in an area where the winters were severe we probably would have mixed in organic matter in the fall when the soil was much easier to work with.
Where should I put my veggie beds?
Soil is a complex mixture of mineral content or broken down rock and organic matter. Soil is alive with bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms as well as worms and other larger life. Many soils have very limited nutrients from lack of organic matter or they are very poor construction soils from the building of your home, etc. When we first moved into our home one of the first decisions we made was that we really wanted to have our own vegetable garden.
The main consideration for deciding where to put our vegetable garden was the fact that the majority of vegetables love full sun so we picked an area in our yard that provided that. Most of our backyard was lawn so we marked out sections and dug out the grass by hand. Digging a few inches deep in small chunks we took the sod and made small mounds of it, grass side down. We allowed the sod to break down for over a year and then used much of it in our other vegetable beds that we built the following year. It made for great soil! We opted for raised beds and created planter boxes out of old cedar decking. I would recommend if you want raised beds to use old or new cedar boards without any chemical treatments as this wood is naturally rot resistant and will not leach harmful chemicals into your soil. We just as easily could have mounded the vegetable beds without the use of raised wooden sides.
Next we added some extra soil from a reputable local soil company. The soil we bought was basically 50% compost and 50% sand/sandy loam soil. It had great drainage and lots of organic matter, just perfect for vegetables. Keep in mind that this soil was not organically certified but we knew the company well and felt comfortable with the high quality product they produced. In the future when we create more vegetable beds that need additional soil I will probably purchase organically certified soil. So our beds were in good shape with a mixture of added soil, existing soil, and broken down sod.
In general the less you have to disturb your soils the better as the soil is a host to beneficial fungi and bacteria as well as earth worms that can be damaged by heavy and consistent tilling of your soils. In our case our soil was hard as hell and needed to be tilled initially with our new soil we brought in so it would be workable to plant seeds. A pointed hand shovel or sturdy pitchfork can be used to manually till the soil together or a gas powered tiller could be considered. If you can till down to a depth of about 12 inches when you initially setup your garden that may be the only deep tilling you ever have to do.
So the first year we planted our organically sourced heirloom seeds and kept them watered in every couple of days in the spring and every day in the summer time. Before we knew it we had delicious, tasty, and nutritious home grown organic food.
Getting Ready for Spring
Now back to the topic at hand. Spring is coming again and what the hell do we need to do to get ready for our next growing season? Compost! Compost! Compost! As soon as the soil is workable with a shovel and pitch fork we are going to work in compost to replenish and improve the organic matter content in our soils that vegetables especially, and plants in general love.
Home composting is perhaps the best way to produce organic compost but you may need to supplement this supply if you cannot create enough. Keep in mind that the less you disturb your soils after you have done your initial deep tilling the better. We planted a fall cover crop of Austrian Snap Peas that we are going to lightly till in at the same time as our compost. This year we are going to source our additional compost from one of two places. There are several farms with horses on them nearby. Horse manure that has been well rotted and broken down for several years is freakin amazing for soil, especially if it comes from small local farms that raise them organically or most of their food is from open grazing. Cow manure and chicken manure also work great. If there are farms nearby that may not be organic you could still consider using their manure and allow it to sit for a year plus to help break down any man-made chemicals. Another excellent source of organic matter is compost from local soil supply companies. Look for organic composts that are well broken down and if possible have more than one type of organic matter in it. You can ask the suppliers what exactly is in the compost. The more variety the better!
So in our case we are going to buy either well broken down horse manure from a local farm or purchase organic compost from a local soil supply company. We are going to spread 2-3 inches of the compost over all our vegetable beds as well as our fruit grove areas. In the vegetable beds we will work the compost into the top few inches of the soil with a shovel or pitchfork and then spread it evenly with a rake. After the last frost date, which in our area is March 15th we will start spreading our organic heirloom seeds into the soil. We are both more than excited to see all the different types of food we can grow this year.
Imagine if you could make some of these recipes or supplement purchased foods from the store/local stands and farms using your own food grown in your very own backyard (or front yard, don't limit yourself)!
Want to learn more about growing your own vegetables? I recommend reading Geoff Hamilton's “Organic Gardening” and “Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard” by Colin Mcgrate and Brad Halm for a more detailed exploration of organic gardening and organic food production and don't forget to check back here frequently for updates!