By now you should have some basic plans for your homestead, and have hopefully done some reading. If you missed the first week of this class, you may read it here.
Now, for this week we are going to begin honing your gardening skills. Gardening can be done just about anywhere, and is a good place to start for the beginning homesteader. It can be done on just about any level of experience, and is one of the least costly and most rewarding initial skills to master.
Lets start with the apartment dweller or person who is not yet ready to tear up their yard. In these cases, simple buckets or large planters set out on a porch or in front of windows will work. You can also build a simple wooden box or two and fill them with dirt. For some, raised beds are ideal, especially where the soil is very rocky or poor. Those with access to tillers and tractors will get more food for their time by simply tilling and amending a large plot of land.
The basics of gardening are actually quite simple. You are dealing with living things, and all living things need food, water, and sunlight. Too little or too much of any of these will cause your plants to not produce well or become pest ridden. In general, your soil should be enriched with compost and be crumbly in your hand, not forming clumps or so fine that it’s hard to pick up. Water should make it moist, but not soggy. Different plants need different amounts of sun, so a variation in light is okay, but most vegetables and fruit need lots of sunlight, so it’s better not to be too close to trees or tall buildings unless the garden is on the sunny side.
If using raised beds, be sure they are 8-12 inches deep at a minimum. This will be costly if you have to buy all your dirt. In our case, we stared by clearing out a few areas of grass and built a bed using landscape timbers. We then hand-turned the soil as deep as we could, and slowly built our depth over a couple of years by adding compost. Just keep in mind that root-crops need deep soil, so if you cannot work the soil deeply you will have to start with veggies that produce above-ground.
Here are the best choices for a beginning gardener. They grow well and are easy to preserve. First, tomatoes rock! They are good fresh, canned, or frozen, and are quite prolific. I would recommend starting with plants from a nursery, as starting seeds indoors your-self takes a bit of skill. They are tolerant of many soil conditions, thought they prefer it to be slightly acidic. Keep them watered regularly, but don’t drown them. Water all plants under the leaves when possible, and early in the morning.
Another good starter plant is summer squash. Plant the seeds outside in mounds where you won’t mind them spreading out. They also make attractive deck plants as they fill out and climb railings.
Peas and beans are good for your soil and make good fresh eating. I find it takes a bit of space to have enough to put up for winter, and they are low-acid so you need a pressure canner or freezer space if you want to preserve them. Broccoli and lettuce are also good choices for early spring. They don’t need pollination to eat them and can be grown indoors if you want. Lettuce has a shallow root system, and the broccoli will continue to produce as you trim individual heads for eating.
I avoid pesticides, so keep an eye out for worms or bugs that seem to multiply or eat your plants. Pick them off and destroy them as often as possible. This is a good job for kids!
If you are in a location you intend to stay at, plant some fruit trees right away! We have a half acre, and have dwarf fruit trees to allow us more variety. We have 6 apples, 4 pears, 2 plum, 3 cherry, 2 peach trees, and 6 grape vines. They provide plenty of fresh fruit for the whole family. In our more southern climate, we also have 3 fig trees, raspberry canes, and a couple of blueberry bushes.
On a side note, not everything you plant has to be for eating! I grow many types of flowers among my vegetables to help with insect control. Marigolds are a favorite, as is tansy. I also love to add cilantro and parsley for flavoring meat stocks. Among my fruit trees I plant many herbs that tolerate some shade, and border some of the beds with rosemary and roses. (You can eat rose petals and hips, and make many craft with them!) I often add zinnias, bachelors buttons, sunflowers, and wildflowers to the garden as well since they draw birds and beneficial insects to your garden. All this variety tends to discourage pests from finding their main targets, your vegetables! I also happen to love the chance to play with my camera!
Be sure to start planning your garden now to be ready for spring. This is a great time to start preparing the ground and planning your plants. I would also recommend a good garden book, like “The American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening” . It is a great resource for almost any plant you are going to put in, and has an overview of soil and pests.