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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Starting a Garden in a New Place, 9 Tips

Since this is our first big growing season in our new place, I've been thinking a lot about the different gardens I've started over the years, and the things I've learned along the way. Up until now, we had always rented. So my previous gardens weren't quite as invested in. I've also noticed the recent surge of new gardeners, as I'm sure most of us have, and that sort of inspired this post.

One pretty undeniable fact that I have realized, is that no two gardens are the same. Whether you are in raised beds, bare earth, mulched ground, Back to Eden, mounded rows, containers, hanging planters, or any combination of the above, starting a garden from scratch can be overwhelming. Here are my best tips for the different categories to consider. Obviously I can't fit every little hack and bit of advice into one blog post, so I am just going to summarize what I think are top priority.

1. Light.
Choosing the location for your garden must start with two things. Sunlight, and water. Water access is something you may have a little control over, sunlight is "you get what you get." Decide what types of plants you want to grow, and how much light they need. Track your sunlight and find the best areas according to your garden's needs. For most home-kitchen gardens, I like a full sun area (6-8 hrs), with some edges or pockets that get some shade in the late afternoon.

2. Water.
Pay attention to how large your space is. How much hose you'll need and how long it will take to hand-water. Consider installing a drip line if you won't have time to water in the hot months. Water is the second most important thing to sunlight. Different mulching methods can assist you with water retention, but very simply, you're going to need easy access to water. Make this a top priority when choosing where to plan your garden.

3. Bare Earth Garden.
This means you dig a hole in the native ground, plant your seedlings, and don't do a whole lot of tilling, amending, etc. If you have decent enough soil for this method, please consider using a wood chip mulch for water retention. Apply it thickly to help keep moisture from evaporating out of the soil, and to keep plant roots cool. If you have hard, sand, or heavy clay soils, look into the "Back to Eden" gardening method for more detailed instructions on how to manage it. If planting into the bare earth, do yourself a favor and purchase a soil test kit from your local hardware store. These can really help you learn what your soil is missing, and fertilize or feed nutrients accordingly. Please do not till. Read number 7 below, to learn why.

4. Container Gardening.
Totally doable! Great in small spaces.  Also helpful during seasons with unpredictable weather changes, as the containers can be moved inside or under cover as-needed. Make sure you get large enough containers, pay attention to how quickly some of them will dry out.  Make sure you give more water to the ones that dry faster. Also note that roots can get really hot in those black containers sitting in the sun. If your plants start to really struggle, try using a towel or blanket to block the sun from roasting the containers. Some containers stay really wet as opposed to drying out. Pay attention to these things and water each container based on it's individual needs. Wet conditions invite pests like slugs. Many plants do not have tolerance for soggy roots. Consider drilling additional drainage holes, or watering less, if this becomes an issue.

5. Raised Beds.
Awesome for weed control. Great option for small spaces, and areas with invasive weeds (like bindweed, or field morning glory). A lot of really great pros to using raised beds, I am not going to list them all here, just take my word for it. However, keep in mind, you have to fill the beds with something, and good soil is expensive! Don't just purchase the cheapest available in order to save a buck. Here's a better idea: Before filling your raised beds, throw in several inches of other organic material. Old dry sticks and branches, dry leaves, bark, etc. Gravel can be used if you want to mix it with some of your native soil to increase the volume and save money. Use whatever you can get ahold of. Fill a good portion of your beds with this, then top off with several (12-18 inches) of quality garden soil mixed with compost. Keep in mind that carbon matter (like dry leaves and branches) will retain moisture, while rock and gravel will assist with drainage. Please mulch raised beds. Use wood chip, dry lawn clippings, dry leaves, commercial (organic) mulch, straw, etc. Many people skip this step in raised beds and I don't know why. There are many, many benefits to mulching, even if you don't have a full comprehension of how it works, or why to do it, just do it.

6. "Back to Eden" method, or mulched ground.
Google this for a very in-depth and detailed description of how to replicate the courses of nature, to mimic what goes on throughout the depths of the forest floors. To put it simply, you're going to add wood chips and organic matter to the top of your soil. Over time, it will break down and enrich the earth below. It feeds microbes, cools the roots of your plants, prevents some freezing in winter, controls weeds, keeps moisture in the soil, and still allows the earth to breathe. This is hands-down probably one of the best ways to garden, in my opinion. And it's very adaptable to your specific setup, budget, and time. You pull fewer weeds, your plants are happy, the list goes on and on. You can imitate this to some degree in any setting. Whether its a raised bed, a mound, or a container. You just start with dirt, and keep adding wood chips on top. As they break down, add more. Try this if you have a big patch of dirt and you want to plant directly into the ground.

7. Tilling.
Don't. Just don't. There are so many other, better ways. Unless you are a big commercial grower (which I doubt), with commercial equipment, and you're tilling in some sort of amendment/fertilizers/etc, then please try other methods. Chances are, you're a home gardener looking for tips on how to get started or maintain a growing space. Using hand operated roto-tillers and the like, really don't do much for you, and they can truly mess up the micro biome of your garden space. Tillers spread weed seeds around like wildfire, then bury them, essentially "planting" weeds. They chop up weed roots and disperse them all along the surface of the soil, digging them in and sowing you a nice big crop of weeds. They kill bugs and worm colonies. They disturb little pockets of air and moisture that are breeding good bacteria and spores that feed the microorganisms, which disperse nutrients throughout your soil to feed your plants. So please, if you plan on planting in the ground, look into the Back to Eden, or No-Dig methods instead.

8. Small Space/High Intensity gardening.
This is something that can be done in any space really. The point is to fully max out your growing area. So it's great for smaller spaces where you want to try and grow as much food as possible. You grow plants closely together, as opposed to following the spacing directions on the seed packets. This creates some competition, which, to many gardeners is a bad thing. But I disagree. I think some healthy competition can be a good thing. No different than life, or the animal kingdom. The plants fight for the sun, they grow bigger, faster, more aggressively. You WILL need to feed them more! So do not attempt this if you do not want to have to make up for the nutrients that will be more quickly depleted and need replacing. While I do enjoy some high intensity/small space gardening, it shouldn't be taken to an extreme by assuming that you can just cram or jam-pack a bed full of heavy feeders and let them go for the season. Thought should be given to companion planting, the angle and direction of the sun, and nutrient availability. By companion planting, you can still max out your space, but without putting two plants with the same needs close together. So for example, planting nitrogen fixing plants like peas, alongside heavy feeders like broccoli would be a good thing. Onions intermingled to help deter cabbage moths and soil pests, the leaves can grow up through the broccoli, reach the sun, and the broccoli shades the soil, keeping the onions cool, and helping to prevent early bolting. That is ONE example of many, many different combinations of plants that you can grow close together.

9. Square foot gardening.
Best possible guide for absolute beginners. There is a ton of free information to be found online about square foot gardening. If you are totally new to gardening, don't want to deal with too much trial and error, and just want a method that will basically walk you through a garden plan, look into this method. This won't help you with planting dates, what to plant, how many, etc. But it will tell you exactly how much space is a good starting point for different types of plants, and that should help you map out where you want to put things.

So what method(s) do I use? All of the above. No, seriously. I use them all, all over my garden, except for tilling. We have some raised beds that were here when we bought the house, which I amended and keep mulched. I use Back to Eden/Wood Chip for areas that I plant straight into the ground. And a large portion of our garden area is already covered in really thick weed blocking landscape fabric, with bark on top. I don't necessarily want to remove that weed cloth because the entire corner of our yard is infested with bindweed. So I mostly use containers in that area. I have a few narrow beds around the border which I've used square-foot measurements to determine spacing. I've got two high-intensity beds, and one with rows. Then the last bed is a perennial bed that will basically be treated like a "Back to Eden" space once it's established.

So for any of you who are starting out at a new place, or even in an old place but just trying something new, whether you're a newbie gardener, or a seasoned wise one, I hope you found this information helpful!



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