Since it is mid-February and the first planting of the year is upon us (here in North Carolina), it is appropriate to share some gardening pointers. Many of you have on your “bucket list,” to grow some of your own food. If that is true, this is the time of year you begin the planning and execution of your foray into food production.
We do all of our gardening in raised beds, even though we live on 12 acres of land. The act of managing our plantings and maintaining them throughout the year is easier than traditional surface farming, and my wife can more readily reach in and out of them. We raised our children gardening on raised beds, and our granddaughter will soon be the next generation of raised bed gardeners. Here is our strategy.
- Make beds, not a bed. You want the ability to segregate your crops as well as isolate your plantings. For example, we are going to have a February planting an April planting and a September planting. Those plantings will occur in different beds, and each will have a different harvest window. Some of our beds needed to be deep (potato and root crops), so we made those from concrete cinder blocks. Some could be shallow, and we made those from lumber, with metal fasteners on the top and bottom. We tried nails and screws, but the effects of weathering made the wood separate. We get twice the longevity of our lumber if we use metal fasteners. We started with four beds, and we are now at 11.
- Place hardscape between the beds. It prevents weed growth from adjacent grasses. It makes it easier to work on them, and it reduces the maintenance required around the beds, as you don’t have to mow or weed eat.
- Put down a natural weed barrier before you start filling your beds. Whatever used to grow before you placed the beds on the ground will still try to grow. A thin layer of black landscaping fabric will stop those grasses from returning. This is both cheap and easy if you do it at the start of the construction process. I had to go back and add it later, and it was double the effort compared to doing it upon initial construction. Please, learn from my mistake!
- Fill them with “good dirt,” not the stuff already on the ground. For our geography, our soil is rich in clay and does not drain well. We also are low in the primary ingredients in 10-10-10 fertilizer (potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen), so we buy our dirt by the truckload from a local store. Ours contains horse manure and sawdust, and we can grow about anything in it without the addition of any chemical enhancers. A truckload ($200) seems like a lot, but smaller bags of dirt at the big box retailers add up, and it is great to have it when you need it.
- Be a scientist! Remember, the first scientists were farmers, looking to learn from their mistakes and produce better yields for similar efforts. Record everything you do and compare it to your expectations and what your seed packets said. Write down your planting dates and write down how long you were told it would take to harvest. Compare that to what really happened. Take the seed packet or the plant label and put it in the ground next to your plant, so you remember what it is you planted. Record the dates that you weeded your beds. Record your watering frequency, as well. I think we invest about an hour for every 10 lbs of food we harvest. For us, that is worth it.
- Map our your plan for the year, now. We will have a February, April, May and July planting season, based on crop selection. We will be harvesting “something” between May and November, every week. That means half a year of fresh produce. We still have a hundred pounds of sweet potatoes in the basement and lots of peppers in the freezer for pizza days. Plan on eating some, storing some and giving away some. That equates to healthy living.
For us, something like half the joy of gardening comes giving away our harvest. My wife carries baskets of food and a bag of plastic bags with her half the summer, as nothing makes a better gift. Part of our free health course includes conversations about the social and health benefits of gardening. If you are interested, let us know, as we intend to offer our course again once the fear of COVID has passed.
Here are some pictures of our different style of beds and some of our harvests.