This articles is a how-to for starting out gardening, mostly using raised beds. I found raised bed gardening the best method for me and for my area. “Raised beds” does not mean the garden beds are necessarily raised, the soil is raised to the height of the form holding the soil. See below for the different ways to make your garden’s raised bed boxes and the materials you can use.
This long and without any images this round except for the one above and further down to break up the test a teeny-weeny bit. It shows my garden from last year. Click my Garden link at the top of the page for some photos. Things are getting weird out there. The old Victory gardens back during the world war eras fed people well. At least supplementing your pantry with home-grown food during these weird times is something to consider, yes?
Though it looks daunting, gardening is really easy. I used to kill cactuses. Poor things… When I moved up into northern Idaho, I had the room to grow my own food. Though I was hesitant with my history of cactus-cide, I took the plunge. The article below gives some help in starting a garden and what I learned as I was trying to set it all up almost a decade ago.
If you want to turn your lawn into a garden, make sure your county does not have some sort of rule banning it if it is the front yard, or if you are leashed into a HOA that does not like the beauty of a food garden as your front yard. Lawns tend to have a lot of poisons in the soils from weed killers. Talk to others to see if they had any challenges to bring the soil into a fertile state after a lawn is removed. You may need to cover the area with plastic and “cook” the soil of the poisons and bugs before starting, using regular planters to grow in while the soil recovers.
Use heirloom and/or organic seeds. You can let a plant go to seed for the next year planting. You pick the plant that produces the most and seems to be the healthiest plant of the lot. Hybrid seed plants produce seeds, but they do not grow “true” if using their seeds.
If there is a seed co-op in your area, they are the best place to get seeds for your area. If you have a nursery that sells heirloom or organic plant starts, and it will not break your budget, you can start that way. Most stores that sell gardening supplies sell heirloom and organic seeds, soil amendments and organic soils by the bag. There are a number of places online to buy heirloom seeds.
Buy only seeds for vegetables you know you will eat. Having a lot of vegetables you find nasty, well… you can always give them away to a neighbor that loves them and chalk it up to experience. I go to the store and buy the vegetable I have never tried and try it out first.
The first time you eat a meal from your garden, snatch a tomato off the vine and munch down on it, that first salad of the year, you will wonder what that stuff in the stores really is. The flavor of homegrown vegetables is the best you will ever have.
If you live in an apartment, you can grow small vegetables in your windows- Cherry tomatoes, herbs, leaf lettuce, green onions, and so on. If you have a patio, you can grow vegetables in 5-gallon buckets, even potatoes. Be sure to add drainage holes in the bottom and put a large plastic “saucer” under the bucket to catch any water that leaks out.
A lot of vegetables can be grown upright, like squash, in a bucket. Add a sturdy pole in the pot and tie the plant as it grows. You also use hanging pots. There are special pots for growing tomatoes upside-down, though I think there are instructions of DIY versions online. Every little bit you can grow yourself helps, especially when times are tough.
Raised Beds Gardening
There may be a Master Gardener program in your area. They give classes and can be very helpful, though I found most of them do row planting. I prefer the French kitchen garden form, otherwise known as squarefoot gardening using raised beds. The amount of plants you can grow by that method, using the least amount of space, is wonderful. I use less water and only amend the soil in the box. I find it cheaper in the long run. Win-win.
Ways to Make Raised Beds
To make your boxes for the raised beds, you have a lot of options. You could make barriers with rocks, bricks, cement blocks and wood boards. Other options I saw were using old plastic water bottles lined up and filled with water for the bed sides and other found items. Trash-to-raised beds, so to speak.
Be creative! You could even dismantle pallets and use them for sides, or as deep boxes for potatoes. If you have the ability, you can make garden beds using 8″ or taller boards for the sides with a bottom (with teeny-weeny holes for drainage) and 4″x4″ legs, making them tall enough so that you do not have to bend over.
If you use boards to make your raised beds, make sure they are untreated! The treatment is deadly to plants, worms… and you. Most squarefoot gardening plans use a 4’ x 6’ or 8’ raised bed boxes. I found, for me, that width to be too wide to reach into easily. I used untreated 6’ tall by 6” wide by 1″ thick cedar fence boards that are flat on top, not the “dog-eared” ones. They are also the cheapest. 2 boards will give me a 3’x3’ box, 3 boards give me a 3’x6’ box. No waste of the wood.
I will be switching to cement blocks this year. I live in an area that has too harsh of winters for the boards to last more than a few years. A thicker board would last longer, but the cement blocks are much cheaper in the long run and I can plant herbs or small vegetables in the holes of the blocks, a plus to me.
Soil & Planting Tips
After you figure out where you can plant, how you want to set up your garden, go to the following sites to find your growing zone and the last and first hard frost date. The latter is your length of growing season. Every area is different on what will grow well. Go to your local farmer’s market to get a good idea, too. What a zone map says may not be true in your area due to various factors. I have 3 different “micro-climates” on my property!
I have never had my soil tested, though they have cheap testers at the garden stores. I know my soil is on the sandy side of sandy loam. I did get a Ph meter so I can add what was needed to get a neutral balance good for most vegetables. The Farmer’s Almanac has an article to help you out:
They also give you your planting zone and last/first hard frost dates for your area:
There are planting guides, hints and tips on the Farmer’s Almanac site for you to peruse. They also have a companion planting guide, something I use without fail. One vegetable will repel a bug enough to let the neighboring plant thrive without becoming a bug snack. Some vegetables “aid” each other to thrive. It is very cool.
There are other free helps out there online. Look around. Also look at You Tube. Many gardeners share their hints and tips. I have the challenge of an altitude (over 2200’), a short growing season being at the top of Idaho, various large critters that love to snack on gardens and marauding wild turkeys during certain times of the year. Fences will not stop a moose. Thankfully, they do not come near the house where my gardens are placed. Fences will not stop moose. Wait, I cannot afford a fence that would stop a moose.
Before I forget- Think about trellising for vegetables when you put in your beds. I use my old hoops to hold 3’ tall fencing and run it along the side of a plant bed. I found it easier to maintain and pick the vegetables. You may want to do something else. For pole beans and taller vining vegetables, there is the option to set up separate “teepees” of bamboo poles stick into the ground, planting the seeds around the poles.
Another method I learned about last year that is easy and pretty to boot is- You take some fencing and bend it into an arch; making its height and width (the height of the fencing) one you can easily deal with. You put 4 t-posts on each corner and attach the fencing to the post to secure it. The vegetable can then do its thing easily, it is easily to maintain and pick from and looks beautiful growing. I do not have a photo for you, I will have one of the setup when I put them in this summer to help you “see” what I am talking about.
Okay… You got the raised beds in, the soil amended and you are ready to go. I found using graph paper and plotting out each bed to the inch, along with what vegetables will go into each and what should be in that bed so they “play nicely” together, to be very helpful when setting up, starting seeds, planting and maintaining the garden. I know it sounds rather anal-retentive to plot things out that way. For me, the results have been large harvests and an easy growing season because of good planning. You do what you are comfortable with.
I found this printable pdf for plotting each square here:
I also found a heirloom seed site with the spacing of various vegetables. There are more out there to look at:
You can go to a garden center or nursery your first year and get plant starts. If they are not organic or heirloom, you will not get proper seeds and they are more expensive than starting your seeds yourself. You can start your seeds indoors on a table with a growing light or 3. You want one that gets warm. I found the cool LED lights to not work for me.
You can use old egg cartons to plant in, then tear them and plant the little “cup” when it is the right time to set them out. If you add an egg shell, it makes a nice little holder and feeds the plant, especially tomatoes and peppers. Remember to break a hole through the bottom if you plant the whole thing.
When my gardens covered over half of an acre and I needed a large area to start seed, I made my “redneck greenhouse” with my old canopy frame from my Renaissance faire days, and covered it in 6 mil plastic- tops and sides, leaving an overlap to enter and leave from. I ran an outdoor electrical cord and hung grow lights from the bars above.
I put some old tables in there and large plastic growing trays to hold the little pots, cartons, etc. that I start my seeds in. It worked well for me. You can also get instant little greenhouses with shelves and use clip lights with grow bulbs, my current method after cutting my garden way back. I put it under my carport, out of the wind. I hang a thermometer in there so it does not get too warm and to keep an eye on the temp inside. I use it for tomatoes, peppers and cabbages.
Another Tip: if your beds are like mine- 6” to 8” tall and you will be sitting or kneeling on the ground while digging around in the beds, get a child’s foam kickboard for playing in the pool for a kneeling/sitting pad. They last at least 2 seasons, though mine are 4 years old now. They are cheap, much cheaper than the fancy kneeling pads and last just as long, if not longer.
I will write another article of some of the things I learned when planting and another when I rebuild my garden this summer. We are planting only potatoes, the only area that will be done in time for growing. I have some house maintenance to do this year, like sanding and painting porches and rebuilding the steps in the back which rotted and fell apart because they was not properly attached and set up.
I will also go over various ways to save your harvests and give you pdfs of my journals to make your own for planning and maintaining your garden. Making notes will help you the following year.
Take care and hugs!