Thursday, February 6, 2014

The DD's Comprehensive Guide to Saving Money by Growing Your Own Food, Part IV: Preparing Your Garden for Planting

In my ongoing series on saving money by growing your own food, I've explained how to create your own compost to fertilize your garden, how to plan your garden for maximum production efficiency, and where to find the cheapest seeds.

In my USDA climate zone, it's about a month out from being able to plant certain cold-tolerant vegetables in the garden, so today we're going to finally get digging in the soil.  I will show you how to prepare your garden bed to get ready for planting seeds when spring rolls around next month.

Hopefully, you've still been throwing your kitchen scraps, yard clippings, and other organic matter into your compost pile and turning it regularly.  If this is your first year composting, you probably won't have a huge amount to use for your garden.  That's totally fine... any amount of compost is going to provide some benefits to the plants you decide to grow.  And if you are consistent with composting your organic material, in the coming years you will have more and more compost to use to fertilize your garden.

Preparing the Garden Bed

You'll want to start by sizing out your garden bed.  I have decided to make a 5'x5' area in my backyard the vegetable gardening bed.  I highly recommend that if you are new to gardening to start with a much smaller area, so as to not become overwhelmed with the amount of work to do, at least at first.  As you gain more experience, you can expand your vegetable garden as much as you want.  Just remember that a small garden that is maintained will be more productive than a large garden that is given up on because it's just too much work.  A 3'x3' bed is a good starting point for a novice gardener, as it will allow enough room to plant a decent variety of vegetables without requiring too much work or material to start and maintain.  Even a 2'x2' will work, although it will produce much less food.  Just start with whatever you're comfortable with, even if it's just one vegetable.

Once you have figured out where your bed will be located, it will be time to decide on a border for the space.  You don't necessarily have to have a border for your bed, but it will help keep the soil raised up (good for soil temperature and drainage), as well as marking where not to step (helps avoid soil compaction).  If you decide to use borders, there are a lot of materials that will work.  Collecting sticks from fallen tree limbs in your yard is a simple way to create a border around your bed.  Bricks will also work if you have any extras lying around your home.  Rocks are also another idea, although you will want to be careful not to hurt your knees when bending down to dig or weed around them.  Lumber is also an option.  For my garden bed, I picked up some free scrap lumber pieces from a local high school's shop class:

Some scrap lumber makes excellent garden borders

After you decide on the material you will use for your bordering, go ahead and align the material into the shape of your bed.  Initially, I measured out a much larger area for my bed.  Something like 7'x8'.  I quickly realized there would be no way to access the middle area of the bed without stepping in it, which will compact the soil and potentially damage plants.

My initial garden bed... way too big
I sized down the bed to a manageable 5'x5' area, allowing for a small corner space to use as a stepping area to get in the middle of the bed when necessary.  Again, I recommend anyone just starting out use a much smaller area of space.

To improve the fertility of soil (even without adding in compost just yet), I raked my yard and put all the leaves on top of the bed.  There are two benefits to doing this.  First, the leaves are an effective mulch, which will keep weeds from getting the light they need to survive in the area we want to use for our vegetable bed.  Second, the leaves, as well as the weeds the leaves smothered, break down over time, improving the fertility of the soil by adding nutrients back into it.  If you don't have any leaves, don't worry... it's not necessary for a productive garden.  But if you still haven't gotten around to raking your yard of fall leaves, consider putting them to use in your garden before bagging them up to be put on the street for the garbage collectors.  At the very least, they can be valuable as composting material.

My re-sized veggie bed, topped off with leaf mulch
Next, you'll want to apply some of that compost you have been working so hard to create on top of the leaves in the bed.  Even if it's just a few shovel's worth of partially broken-down kitchen scraps, go ahead and throw on top of the pile.  Every little bit of extra nutrients worked into the soil are going improve the productivity of the plant you choose.  If your compost has a lot of large pieces, you can remove them from the bed and throw them back into the pile to decompose more.

A year's worth of compost ready to be mixed into the garden soil
Locating the compost pile next to your garden bed will make this an easy task.  Just start digging to your pile and evenly layering the compost onto your bed.

Adding the compost to the bed
A general recommendation is to add in about an inch of compost to the soil you plan to be growing plants with.  If you add more or less, it's totally fine.  Just keep in mind that the more compost you have in the soil, the more productive your plants will be (to an extent... eventually you'll reach a point of diminishing returns, as with almost anything in life).  Add as much as you feel necessary or comfortable.

Here's the bed with about 1" layer of compost
Now that your bed is sufficiently filled with old leaves and compost, you can either let it sit this way until you are ready to plant seeds, or go ahead and till the compost/leaf mix into the soil.  I decided to wait to till it in, as the day that I did this work was the first day after a lot of snow melted and the ground was a muddy, semi-frozen mess.  Wet soil is not good to dig in, so wait until it has dried off at least slightly before mixing it in.  If your soil is dry, I recommend mixing it in now, to help the compost break down even further before you plant your seeds.

Rake smooth after mixing leaves and compost into the soil

Finally, when the compost and leaves are thoroughly mixed into the soil, use a rake or similar tool to even out the surface of the bed, making it a little more flat on top.

Now your garden bed is ready for seeds to be planted when warmer weather rolls around.  In the next article, I will show you how to sprout your vegetables, efficient plant spacing for maximum production, and more.  Things are about to get a lot more interesting!

Total Costs So Far

The cost of growing your own food so far:
  • $0.00 for home-made compost
  • $0.25 for seed packets
  • $1.00 for potting soil
  • $1.00 for hand tools
  • $5.00 for perennial plant starts
My total costs for this year: $23.54 (for vegetable/flower seed packets, potting soil)

Click here to read Part V: Starting Your Own Transplants


Tina said...

Just curious - whyy did you choose to stay with a square bed? Most people of average height will not be able to reach more than 2ft from either side of a garden bed, therefore a bed 4ft wide is generally the maximum width that can be tended without stepping on the bed. As you mention, even once you'd reduced yours to 5ft, you still had to step on it -a narrower bed would have eliminated that. The length, however, is irrelevant - as long as you can reach from either side, the bed can be as long as you like. Therefore, in your original 7x8 space, you could have had a rectangular 4x8 (32 sqft) bed with no stepping needed, rather than the 25 sqft bed you ended up with.

Nate D said...

Thanks for your comment, and I apologize on taking so long to reply. You make a good point in your post, that my original design was not as space efficient as it could have been.

I eventually made this bed into two smaller beds (4x4 and 4x5) with a walkway in the middle. After several years of experience gardening this area, I decided to do it this way to make it easier to get around in the garden without having to walk all the way around it every time. It also gives me more space to work, like you mentioned. Additionally, I started utilizing the small spaces on each side of these two beds to grow more plants, giving me approximately 100 square feet of growing space in total.

My original guide is admittedly naive and a few more years of gardening has shown me that I still have much to learn about growing food, especially abundant amounts of it in small spaces. Every year I get a little better at it, but my original plans prove just how little I knew what I was doing at the time. Looking back at those posts, I think it was highly presumptuous to call it a definitive guide to growing food.

One day I hope to write up a new guide with even better advice regarding space usage, fertilizing, mulching, and reducing erosion/pollution/disease with the information I've learned from other gardeners and my first-hand experiences over the years. I have to get better results first, though! Perhaps this will be that year... perhaps not