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Why and Where and How
Why grow your own food?
My goal in the garden is not only to grow food but to grow food that is substantially more nutritious than any food I can buy.
Even if you’re lucky enough to shop at a local, organic farmer’s market, most farmers can’t put the effort into growing food that’s as nutritious as what you can grow yourself.
Depending on which nutrient we’re measuring, food grown today is 20-80% lower in nutrition than it was in the 1940s, and with some knowledge and practice, you can get these nutrients back into your food.
Many human health problems are the result of nutritional deficiencies, and nutrient-dense food is medicine. It’s a great thing to have your own medicine outside your kitchen door.
Where to put the garden
The best place for a food garden is in full sun, in good soil, near a source of irrigation water, and close to the kitchen so you can pick a few things to stir into breakfast or dinner.
Of course, you may not have full sun, good soil, and a hose all close to the kitchen, so there’s often a compromise to be made, but as you walk around your yard, those are some things to consider.
And yes, there are caveats.
If you live in a particularly hot climate, your plants may actually appreciate a little afternoon shade.
If you live in a cold climate, you may choose a gentle, south-facing slope where the snow is always first to melt in the spring, knowing the soil may not be quite as good there but that with work, you will improve it.
How large to make a garden bed
A single bed with a width of 4-5 feet is about right because it makes efficient use of space while still allowing you to reach into the middle of the bed without trampling your plants.
That said, depending on the size of your yard, you may choose to deviate from that.
Bed length is entirely flexible.
If you build multiple beds next to each other, you only need 1-foot wide paths between them for walking, although, if you plant right to the edge of the bed, the foliage of many plants will spill out to the paths, so your 1-foot path may gradually disappear. If you need to fit a wheelbarrow, 3-foot paths may be needed.
As for overall square footage, I recommend starting small. A big garden can easily get away from you, overrun with weeds or too many plants needing your attention at once.
You might start with 1 bed in the first year and double the square footage each year until you get to what works for you.
You can grow most of your food with a few thousand square feet of densely-planted beds, but even with a couple of hundred square feet, you can grow a nice amount of medicinal food.
Some people say the ideal orientation of a garden is having the long side going north to south because the plants will all receive more equal light, but I’ve oriented my beds every which way and it has always worked out fine.
What To Do, When To Do It
Broadly speaking, I think about my garden in 3 stages:
- Preparing the bed.
Preparing the bed
Preparing a new bed can happen any time of year that the ground can be worked.
It especially seems to happen in spring a couple of weeks before the average last frost date because that’s when we tend to think about getting the garden ready.
That said, you may build a bed in the summer to get ready for a fall garden or in the fall so it’s ready for peas the following spring (peas like to be planted very early, as soon as the soil can be worked).
Planting can happen throughout much of the growing season, but there are some key moments.
Many people start some seeds indoors in late winter, 4-8 weeks before the last frost, in order to have the plants ready to plant out when the warm weather arrives. That means seeds are often ordered in mid-winter.
And for some people, that indoor seed starting may continue throughout the spring and summer to always have something ready to plant in the garden as other crops are harvested.
Then there is sowing seeds directly into the garden, which happens especially in a 1-2 month period during spring but may continue throughout the summer with some seeds.
The main tasks here are fertilizing, watering, pest management, harvesting, and seed saving.
Most of these may happen throughout the growing season.
Some fertilizing is done only once or twice a year but some is done monthly or even weekly. Watering is done at least weekly and sometimes daily.
Pest management is an ongoing process of observation, prevention, and occasional intervention.
Harvesting starts in spring and may continue even into the winter. Most seed saving happens in the summer and fall.
We'll get into all of this later.
For now, it all starts with the soil, so that’s where we’ll start, too...
If there’s an existing lawn, there are a few ways to deal with it.
With the method of soil preparation I’ll be using, called double digging, I get rid of the grass first.
First, it’s best to mow it fairly short. Then, here are some common ways to get rid of a lawn:
- Spade. It’s hard work, scraping off the top inch or so of soil and grass, and it doesn’t even get rid of all the roots, but it’s low-tech, so it’s often what I do.
- Sod cutter. Similar to the above, but with a machine, which you can rent from an equipment rental place, does most of the work for you.
- Rototiller. You need a heavy-duty tiller to be able to break up a lawn, and still, it usually takes a few passes. After, you can rake off some of the grass, and some of it will be left in the soil.
- Solarizing. This only works during hot times of the year. Cut the grass short and place a sheet of 1-4 millimeter-thick clear plastic. Cover the perimeter with something to keep the heat and moisture in. Wait 1-2 months.
- Smothering. Place overlapping layers of newspaper, cardboard, landscaping fabric, black plastic, etc. to block out the sun entirely. Weigh them down so they don’t blow away. This may take 2-3 months, but it kills most of the grass.
If you take the grass out, it would ideally be put into a compost pile so you can eventually return that topsoil and organic matter back to the soil.
If you have weeds growing, you may want to do something about them first.
If there aren’t many weeds, you could prepare the bed with any of the methods I’ll be sharing and they’ll just be incorporated in the soil.
But if it’s a lot of weeds, I remove them with a hoe and then I either leave them on the soil surface as mulch when I’m done the digging or I move them to a compost pile. Most weeds are good for the soil, so it’s okay to leave them even if some of them end up taking root again.
Or if they’re particularly troublesome weeds like English ivy, kudzu, or bindweed, I remove as much of them as I can, root and all, with the help of a garden fork.
Soil testing is beyond the scope of these lessons, but I do want to mention it because if your goal is to grow your own nutrient-dense food, soil testing will eventually become part of the puzzle.
With a clean shovel, take at least a few samples of soil from around your garden, mix them together in a clean container, and send 1-2 cups to a soil lab. I like to use an organically-minded lab, which usually means mailing the sample outside of your area.
The lab will tell you the excesses and deficiencies of the main elements in your soil along with fertilizer recommendations for moving things into balance. The cost of the labs I use is around $25 for a basic test, $25 for more comprehensive testing, and another $25 for their recommendations.
On top of that, you can get into biological testing to look at the balance of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms in your soil, which is also important for soil health. That’s another $25-$50.
Some people are reluctant to spend this money up front, and that’s okay - it’s never too late to test.
“Soil organic matter” is plants, animals, and microorganisms, some of them living but most at various stages of decomposition.
Organic matter makes up a small part of the soil, but has many important roles to play.
Compost is made of organic materials that have been broken down over the course of weeks, months, or years until they resemble something akin to dark soil.
Those organic materials may have included grass clippings, leaves, food scraps, manure, straw, wood chips, and pretty much anything that was once a plant or animal.
Good compost is full of nutrients and beneficial microorganisms. It looks good and smells good.
Bad compost contains toxins and harmful microorganisms. Sometimes, it looks and smells bad, but sometimes, it looks similar to the good stuff. That’s why you may want to eventually make your own so you can control the ingredients and the process.
In the meantime, the best way I know to find good compost is to ask around. You may find it from a garden center, a dedicated composting center or mulch/soil supplier, even a local farmer.
You can also buy compost in a bag, which is easier than buying in bulk, albeit much more expensive. You can even buy it online, although I’ve found it to be much lower in price at a garden center.
A common suggestion is to spread a 1/2 inch thick layer of compost, although some people spread as much as 1 inch, but really, even 1/16 of an inch is very helpful if the compost is good.
A cubic yard of compost (a common measurement when buying in bulk), often costs $20-$40 USD (although you can get it for as low as free and as high as $100). When spread at 1/2 inch thick, it will cover about 650 square feet. When spread at 1/16, it will cover about 5000 square feet. It goes a long way.
If you buy it in bags and spread it at 1/2 inch thick, that’s about 1 liter (1.5 pounds) per square foot. When spread at 1/16 inch thick, that’s 1 liter per 8 square feet.
A good mulch feeds the soil, protects the soil from rain/wind/sun, and blocks weeds.
My favorite mulch that does all of the above is leaves. In the fall, you can collect them from your property and put them on your beds.
I often pile them 6 inches high. They partially break down over the winter. In the spring, they need to be raked aside in places where you sow seeds, and then you can gradually bring them back underneath the seedlings, although in some places, I end up planting so densely that there’s not much room for mulch. In that case, the plants make more of a living mulch that protects the soil.
If you don’t have leaves, straw is a reasonable substitute. I’ve often found bales of straw in online classifieds from local farmers, or at hardware stores or garden centers.
Wood chips can be an okay mulch, too, especially under trees and shrubs. In a vegetable garden, I prefer leaves and straw.
Soil Prep Options
If we want our plants to be healthy and the foods we grow nutritious, we usually need to do a little soil work.
It’s conceivable that your soil has such great natural fertility and structure that not much needs to be done.
But to dramatically increase your chance of success, I’ll show you how to prepare a garden bed in a way that is proven to produce big yields in a small space.
I’ll also mention some other options you could use instead.
We prepare a garden bed to make it easy for seeds to germinate and grow, and for planted plants to get comfortable and start making roots.
We also want that soil to have a good balance of water, air, nutrients, and beneficial biology.
Today, I’m using an established method called deep soil penetration, aka double digging, because, with just a shovel and a garden fork, I can make the soil ready for planting and unencumbered root growth right away.
A double dug soil will capture, retain, and drain water well.
It will have sufficient air space to support roots and beneficial soil organisms. Soils without enough air tend to promote organisms that are harmful to plants.
Some other options:
The first is tilling with a gas-powered machine. Most home tillers go 3-6” deep, although some can get 8” down. This is similar to digging by hand, but you can’t go nearly as deep with a tiller, and proponents of double digging say it’s less hard on soil structure and biology. That said, it is a fast and easy way to get a big area of soil prepared for planting, so I understand why some people like it. Back when I was installing gardens for clients, I used a tiller because time was of the essence.
The second method is sheet mulching, which is where you lay down a thick layer of organic materials, 12-24 inches thick, often starting with a layer of cardboard or newspaper to block the grass/weeds and then piling on some combination of materials like manure, straw, leaves, and grass clippings. That can be an excellent option if you have 6-24 months to wait for it to become usable. And there are even a couple of things you can grow there in the meantime, the common one being potatoes.
The third method is to buy some topsoil, 2-way mix, or 3-way mix and put it right on top of your soil, making a raised bed perhaps 6-12” high. I don’t love 3-way mix because it usually contains peat, a non-renewable resource that really isn’t that useful to have in the soil. My preference would be a 2-way mix of topsoil and compost, whether you buy it already mixed or make it yourself with 75% topsoil and 25% compost. You can use some boards, rocks, or any number of other things to keep the soil within a defined area, or if it’s moist and not too high, it may hold its shape without being supported.
Double Digging A Bed
Here’s what you’ll need…
- A spade or shovel for digging.
- A garden fork for deeper soil penetration.
- A hard rake (aka bow rake) to level out the bed.
Optional preliminary steps:
- Water. We want the soil to be moist but not too wet. If it’s dry, water it the day before or in the morning. If it’s saturated with water, wait until it’s not, because working wet soil can cause problems.
- Remove weeds. You don’t necessarily have to remove weeds, but if there are some you want to get rid of, now’s the time.
- Spread compost. 1/2 inch thick is plenty. That’s about 1 liter (1.5 pounds) per square foot. You can use up to 1 inch, but even 1/16 inch (1 liter per 8 square feet) is incredibly helpful.
- Spread fertilizers. If you did a soil test, you can apply fertilizers based on that test. If you didn’t do a soil test, you could apply a broad-spectrum fertilizer. Or you can wait until later to fertilize. I’ll discuss fertilizers more in the maintenance section.
- Loosen bed with a garden fork. Some people do this now to make the subsequent digging a little easier.
Now, here’s how to prepare your bed:
1. Starting at one end, with a spade or shovel or garden fork, dig a trench about 12 inches wide and 12 inches deep going across the width of your bed (that’s a 4-foot trench for me) and put that soil into a wheelbarrow or onto a tarp. We’ll save it for later. If you can’t dig 12 inches, no problem, do what you can. Even 6 inches is worthwhile.
2. Optionally (but optimally), with a garden fork, loosen the soil in the bottom of that trench. Ideally, we do this a further 12 inches deep, although some soils are so compacted, it can be tough to get that deep. Go as deep as you can manage. Again, 6 inches would be worthwhile.
Now, continue digging trenches all the way down the bed, but this time, you can simply move the soil from each trench into the previous trench.
From here, we keep going. We loosen the soil in our new trench and then start again with a new trench beside it.
And so on, until we have a trench at the end of the bed. Some of the soil we saved from the first trench could go into the last trench, although you may find the soil is so fluffed up that you don’t need any of it. There’s often enough soil to fill the last trench just by raking the entire bed with a hard rake. In that case, you can instead keep some of it for other projects.
You may do this double digging again in future years, or if you feel it unnecessary, you can go for a lighter method such as single digging or just loosening the top 12 inches or even only 2 inches with a garden fork.
Choosing What To Grow
There are multiple factors you may consider when deciding what to grow. Here are some:
- What do you eat the most?
- What is most expensive for you to buy at the grocery store?
- What grows best in your soil and climate?
- Do you have health issues, for which there are foods that are known to help?
- Do you want to focus more on calories to feed your family (e.g. potatoes) or medicinal plants to keep you well (e.g. many herbs) or gifts for your neighbors (e.g. tomatoes and basil)?
Occasionally, you may satisfy all of the above, but not always, and that’s entirely fine - you get to choose based on what’s important to you.
As for how many different crops to grow, that’s something you will figure out over time.
For many reasons, it can be better for the garden to have a big diversity of plants growing and better for your health to eat a big diversity of plants.
But it’s more challenging to grow a big diversity of plants because you have to learn the intricacies of each of them.
Regardless of the square footage, I’d rather grow 5 types of plants exceptionally well than 50 types poorly.
My suggestion is to start with 5-10 varieties of plants.
Companion Planting and Polycultures
Companion planting is when you position certain plants in close proximity to each other in the garden because one of them benefits the other or they benefit each other.
The benefit could be reducing disease/insect pests/weeds, improving soil health, attracting beneficials such as pollinators and pest predators, providing physical support, providing shade, or simply making more efficient use of space.
Or sometimes we avoid certain combinations because a plant can negatively impact another.
I won’t get into too many specifics here because there are infinite possibilities, but here are a few combos that have been scientifically tested:
- Peas and lettuce are cool-season crops, often some of the first things sown in the garden. When planted together, the peas (which need some kind of vertical support) give shade and a little nitrogen to the lettuce.
- Corn makes a good trellis for pole beans. You just need to sow the corn seed a few weeks ahead and let it get 4-6 inches tall before sowing the bean seeds underneath. The beans may provide a little nitrogen to the corn. You can also sow a few vining squash along with the beans to provide a ground cover. This Indigenous American combo is often called the "Three Sisters."
- If you have squash bugs and/or squash vine borers on your squash family plants, then next year, plant some Blue Hubbard squash, which will lure the pests away from the other squash because Blue Hubbard is their favorite. Plant the Hubbards a few weeks before the other squash.
- If you have Colorado potato beetles on your potatoes, plant tansy and catmint among them.
A challenge with companion planting is that, although you’ll come across no shortage of recommendations, when you look for research, it often doesn’t exist, or if you find some, it’s often not so clear whether a certain combination is actually all that good.
Having read through many studies over the years, I don’t get too picky about choosing specific combinations, but I do plant many types of plants in close proximity with the expectation that the overall result will be better.
This is called a polyculture (as opposed to a monoculture). Although it could be as simple as mixing everything together all throughout the bed, there’s usually a little more order than that.
The way I tend to do it is I have a few plants that are my main crops, for example, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, beans, and broccoli. I may plan the garden around them and then among each of them, plant several smaller crops.
Polycultures can suppress weeds by having plants at different heights with different types of leaves that more thoroughly shade the soil, as well as different chemicals put out into the soil that stop some weeds from germinating.
A polyculture can confuse pests while also providing habitat for predators of those pests.
It can also make better use of soil nutrients, water, and temperature fluctuations. In some years, some crops do better than others, so if you have each area of the garden planted with multiple crops, you’ll be more likely to have something do well.
Yields from each crop are usually lower, but overall yields from a given area are higher.
This can be as informal as mixing many plants all together in a bed, or, if you want to keep things cleaner, you can do 1 row of X and then 1 row of Y, etc.
The most important thing to remember is that many herbs are useful companions, so I encourage you to plant them liberally among your vegetables.
Just like animals, plants are categorized into families.
The most common plant families in a vegetable garden are:
- Allium. E.g. Garlic, leek, onion, scallion, shallot.
- Amaranth. E.g. Beet, spinach, Swiss chard.
- Brassica. E.g. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radish.
- Cucurbit. E.g. Cucumber, pumpkin, squash, zucchini.
- Legume. E.g. Bean, pea, peanut.
- Solanum. E.g. Eggplant, pepper, potato, tomato.
- Examples from other families. Carrot, corn, lettuce.
It’s worthwhile to know which family each plant belongs to because ideally, we “rotate” (i.e. move) families to a new spot in the garden every year.
An example: if I grow broccoli in one spot this spring, I’m going to do my best to find a new spot to plant broccoli and all other members of the brassica family in the fall and again next year and perhaps for a few years.
Plants from the same family are often eaten by some of the same insects and diseases, and in some cases, moving them to a different spot from year to year (sometimes even season to season) can decrease that pest pressure.
And crop rotation has other benefits, too, similar to companion planting - it can decrease weeds, improve the soil, and improve yields.
I’ve seen 7-year rotations where members of the same family are planted in an area only once every 7 years.
Grouping your families together can help simplify this rotation process, for example, growing broccoli, cabbage, and kale in the same area and moving them together year to year. The downside of that, though, is if you get an insect that eats all of them, you’re just making it easier for the pest.
That’s why crop rotation can get quite tricky in a diverse vegetable garden with dozens of plants. Rotation certainly makes sense in a monoculture, where, instead of growing corn every year, a farmer may do beans one year, then corn the near year, and any number of plants in subsequent years.
In a home garden, crop rotation makes the most sense when you have a few crops that are especially important to you and you rotate them, concerning yourself less with the other plants.
I encourage you to take some notes (and photos) in case you want to get into rotating your crops next year.
One point of clarification: The previous lesson was about companion planting and polycultures. It’s possible to take a polyculture to such an extreme that all plants get intermingled together across the whole garden, which makes crop rotation virtually impossible.
I’m not sure which would be better - interplanting of all plants across the whole garden with no crop rotation or full separation of plant families with careful rotation. I expect there’s a happy medium, with some companion planting and some crop rotation.
Planting doesn’t have to happen all at once in the spring.
Even plants that take longer to get to maturity, like tomatoes, can be planted in 2 or 3 sessions over the course of a month in order to spread out the summer harvest.
And some seeds can be sown (to “sow” a seed simply means to plant it) every couple of weeks throughout the spring and summer to get an extended harvest.
Staggered planting like this can also decrease pest problems, because sometimes, the earlier plants will have problems that are avoided by the later plants, and vice versa.
When sowing seeds during hot months, it can be worthwhile to sow them a little more deeply to give them a little protection from the heat, and covering the bed with shade cloth can keep the soil cooler.
Going back to our main plant families:
- Allium. E.g. Garlic, leek, onion, scallion, shallot. Mostly planted once/year, but scallions and shallots can be planted regularly.
- Amaranth. E.g. Beet, spinach, Swiss chard. Can be planted regularly throughout the year.
- Brassica. E.g. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, radish. Can be planted regularly, but most of them don’t like to mature in the summer heat, so you may take a break from planting them in late spring, but then start again in summer for a fall crop.
- Cucurbit. E.g. Cucumber, pumpkin, squash, zucchini. Mostly planted once/year, especially because most people don’t need many plants since these are so productive, but you can definitely plant them in 2-3 stages to extend the harvest and prevent some pest problems.
- Legume. E.g. Bean, pea. Can be planted regularly, but peas don’t like the heat, so take a break in late spring.
- Solanum. E.g. Eggplant, pepper, potato, tomato. Mostly planted once in spring for harvest in the summer, although if you live in a warmer climate, you can also do a planting in late summer for a winter harvest.
- From other families. Carrots can be planted regularly. Corn could be planted 2-3 times in spring. Lettuce can be planted regularly, although many lettuces don’t like summer heat.
- Perennials are generally just planted once. E.g. Chives, Mint, Oregano, Sage, Thyme.
- Annuals could be planted regularly. E.g. Basil, Cilantro, Dill, Parsley.
There’s no special formula for this. Just choose some plants that you’d like to have more of and plan to sow them regularly, perhaps every couple of weeks.
I especially do this with different types of lettuces and other greens, but you may decide to include beets, bush beans, carrots, etc.
Planning Your Garden
Most food plants want full sun, which, in horticulture, means at least 6 hours a day, but really, for most food plants, 10+ hours a day is better.
If you don’t have full sun, there are some plants that grow in part shade, even if they take longer to mature and don’t get as big. Your main options are various lettuces and greens, many herbs, and many root vegetables.
If you do have good sun and you’re growing tall plants like climbing tomatoes or beans, it’s best to put them on the side of the bed that allows the rest of the garden to remain in full sun, unless you’re growing some plants that like a little shade, in which case, you may use the climbing plants to provide shade for them.
The spacing between plants in the garden is different depending on the plant. Planting in rows is fine, although if you’re an efficiency nerd, you can get about 15% more plants if you plant in a hexagon pattern.
Either way, you don’t have to have big rows between plants. Farmers plant in rows with wide spaces between them so their tractors can drive through the field during the growing season.
You can plant things closer together, which reduces soil moisture evaporation, decreases weeds, and protects the soil.
There’s no magical way to lay out a garden, and although I’ve seen charts of how many of each type of plant to grow per person, the truth is, that’s entirely up to you.
What I will give you is a general idea of some things most people don’t need many of and other things for which you may plant dozens of plants:
- 1-4 per person. Cucumber, Eggplant, Pepper, Squash, Tomato, Zucchini, Herbs (each).
- 10-ish per person. Bean, Pea, Potato.
- Dozen(s) per person. Beet, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrot, Corn, Garlic, Kale, Lettuce, Onion, Radish, Spinach, Swiss chard.
To summarize these planting preparation lessons, here are the main things to remember:
- Grow whatever you want to grow, whether it’s what you eat the most, what is most expensive to buy, what grows best in your soil and climate, or some other criteria.
- Feel free to intermingle your plants in polycultures, as the benefits of having them together are many.
- Take note (and photos) of where everything is planted so you can consider moving them to a different spot next year.
- Plan on having at least a couple of plant types that you continue to plant successively throughout the season.
Seeds and Seedlings
A seedling is a small plant that was started from a seed several weeks earlier.
If you were planning to grow just a few plants, you may decide to buy seedlings from a garden center or farmer’s market so you don’t have to go through the process of starting your own from seed.
But the more plants you’re intending to grow, the more likely you’ll want to start them from seed yourself, partially to save money but also for the other benefits that come from using your own seed that you saved from last year.
You can buy seed from a local garden center, but the more you get into this, the more likely you’ll want to go right to the source - the seed companies growing the seed.
Most of them are now online, so you can order from their websites, and some of them will still mail you a physical catalog if you prefer ordering the old-fashioned way.
Regardless, I do still encourage you to buy local, which doesn’t necessarily mean your direct community because there may not be any seed growers there, but does mean seed grown in a similar climate to yours. That could be your state/province, or your USDA plant hardiness zone, etc.
If you store your seeds at a cool temperature, dry and away from light, they can remain viable for 2-5 or more years, depending on the seed.
You may see some seeds that are labeled “open-pollinated” and others that are “hybrids.”
Hybrids are created by humans by cross-pollinating 2 different species of plants from the same genus (e.g. 2 types of tomatoes) in order to get the strengths of each.
(Hybridization is very different from genetic modification, which is a whole other level of intervention that is not allowed in organic farming and gardening).
The main time you may decide to use a hybrid in a home garden is when you have a lot of trouble with a certain disease on a certain plant and you find a hybrid that has been bred to be resistant to that disease.
The big downside of hybrids is that when the plant goes to seed, that seed usually reverts to one of its genetic parents, which usually isn’t very appealing. That’s why, with hybrids, you can’t save the seed and expect the same benefits next year.
Open-pollinated seeds are mostly pollinated by insects, birds, or the wind. Some of them are “heirloom” seeds that have been passed down for generations, often because of some benefit such as exceptional taste or disease-resistance.
The main advantage of open-pollinated seeds is that they do reproduce true to type, so you can save them every year and plant them again next year, getting the same benefits, saving money, and importantly, allowing the seed to gradually adapt to your soil and climate conditions over time.
Then there’s organic. Although you could buy a non-organically-grown seed and grow it organically and feel good about what you’re eating, I always prefer to support the folks who are doing things without synthetic chemicals. Same goes for buying plants, although finding organic plants can be harder.
Starting Indoors Vs Outdoors
We may start seeds indoors to give them a head start on the growing season or to give them a more protected place to begin their lives, away from pests and inclement weather.
The further you get from the equator, the more likely you need to start some things inside because your growing season may not be long enough for certain plants to bear fruit if they were directly sown outside.
And during the growing season, you may continue to start some things inside to make better use of space in the garden. When your lettuce is ready to be harvested, it’s nice to have a plant ready to put in its place, rather than sowing a seed directly and waiting weeks or months for it to be ready to harvest.
That said, starting seeds indoors is more work than sowing them directly in the garden, so when direct sowing is possible, I mostly go with that.
I’ll give you a list below, but note that from the “Start Indoors” list, there will be plants that some people prefer to sow directly outside, especially as you get closer to the equator, and from the “Start Outdoors” list, there will be plants that some people prefer to start inside. There’s some trial and error to figure out what works best for you.
Many of the “Start Outdoors” plants have delicate roots, so they don’t love being transplanted, which is one reason they’re often directly sown outside. That said, some gardeners do start some of them inside in order to get an earlier harvest, or to avoid early pest damage, or if they have short summers that don’t allow enough time for plants to reach maturity.
- Brassica. E.g. Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage. Brassicas can be a little challenging, and they seem to do better when started indoors. Also, they generally need to be grown in the spring and fall when it’s cooler, so starting them indoors allows them to grow to harvesting size before the heat of summer hits (or the cold of winter, for a fall crop).
- Solanum. E.g. Tomato, pepper, eggplant. This family tends to take a long time to bear fruit, so they’re best started inside to ensure they give you fruit before it gets colder in the fall.
- Cucurbit. E.g. Cucumber, zucchini, squash, pumpkin.
- Legume. E.g. Peas and beans.
- Root crops. E.g. Beet, carrot, potato, radish, onion, garlic.
Indoors or Outdoors (for these, many people like to start them inside and many people like to sow them directly outside):
- Greens. Lettuce, kale, spinach.
- Herbs. Most of these can be directly sown, but some people like to start them indoors.
Sowing And Planting Outdoors
Some seeds are planted 1 inch apart and some 2 feet apart. Seed packets usually tell you.
As for depth, most seeds are planted just under the surface of the soil, slightly deeper than they are thick. For example, a beet seed is about 4mm wide, so it goes about 4-6mm deep, i.e. with 4-6mm of soil on top of it.
For seeds that are planted close together, some people like to make a shallow trench with a trowel or even their finger.
For seeds that go further apart, like 6”, you may dig individual holes, or if your soil is particularly fluffy, which is generally the case if you’re recently double dug the bed, you’ll be able to bury the seed directly with your fingers without doing any digging.
Sometimes, I find it better to water the soil before sowing the seeds, especially for tiny seeds, which are sown so shallowly that watering after can wash them all away. That said, sometimes it’s easier working with drier soil when sowing, in which case you can water after. Watering after also can help settle the soil.
You can use the soil that’s already in the bed to cover the seed. Just make sure it’s not a big chunk of soil - we want the soil on top of the seed to be closer to a powder so it’s easy for the root to go down and the shoot to come up.
And then there’s planting.
Whether you’ve purchased some seedlings or grown them yourself, planting in the garden is easy.
Gently remove the plant from the container without pulling on the plant itself. Sometimes, I can squeeze it out, but usually, a butter knife helps to remove it, like muffins from a muffin pan.
When you get it out, if the roots are root-bound (circling around the edges of the container due to having overgrown the container), tease them apart with your fingers or cut them with a sharp knife to help encourage them to grow out into the soil.
Then, you just dig a small hole. If you’ve already prepared your soil with compost and fertilizer, you don’t need to do anything special in the planting hole. In general, we want to amend the whole soil, not just the planting hole.
That being said, it’s okay to toss in a tiny amount of compost and/or broad-spectrum fertilizer/microbial inoculants during planting just to make sure the plant has a good environment to begin with. But don’t go overboard. I don’t want the rootball to be only planted in compost. That can cause problems.
Place the plant so the top of the rootball is slightly deeper than the top of the soil, and use your hands to make sure the soil is firmly around the rootball.
Some people plant even deeper, so the plant’s lowest leaves are just above the soil. I do this for tomatoes, peppers, and the brassica family because it’s well established that they will develop more roots along the buried stem and be better off for doing so.
I suspect some other plants do the same, but some may be unhappy buried too deep, so with most plants, I only go slightly lower than soil level (side note: most trees and shrubs don’t want to be planted deeply, and indeed, in some cases, like clay soil that gets a lot of rain, we may plant them a little higher than the surrounding grade).
Unless the soil is already too wet for some reason, it’s usually good to water gently when you’re done planting to help settle the soil around the rootball.
Starting Seeds Indoors - What You Need
There are many types and sizes of containers. As long as they have drainage, they all can work.
I mostly use small, plastic pots that are 2.5-3” wide and tall. I start a couple of hundred plants this way each year.
It's possible to use smaller containers that are more like 1-2” wide and tall. This makes more efficient use of space, with the compromise being a smaller root system. You could also use bigger containers, but that can be overkill. I find 2.5-3” to be about right for growing a seed for 4-8 weeks before planting it out.
I put these into a 10” by 20” tray to catch any water that drains out of the containers when I water. Depending on the exact dimensions of the containers I’m using, I can usually get 20-30 containers into a tray.
Some people grow the plants all together directly in 10” by 20” trays and then gently tease each of them out with a popsicle stick or something similar. This is more space-efficient, so if I ever wanted to start more plants, I would consider that instead.
Using soil from the garden can work, but has a higher failure rate because it’s often too heavy. Instead, you can buy seed starting mix online or at a garden center or hardware store and it works very well. I’ve used cheap ones and expensive ones and they’ve all worked fine.
You can also make your own, probably not worth the time when you’re not starting many seeds, but it can save you money when your garden gets big, as well as giving you more control over the growing medium. A simple recipe is ½ light soil or sand and ½ well-finished compost. Another common recipe is 1/3 topsoil or peat moss or coconut coir, 1/3 compost, and 1/3 sand or perlite or vermiculite.
As I wrote in a previous lesson, you can buy seed from a local garden center, but the more you get into this, the more likely you’ll want to go right to the source - the seed companies growing the seed.
Most of them are now online, so you can order from their websites, and some of them will still mail you a physical catalog if you prefer ordering the old-fashioned way.
Regardless, I do still encourage you to buy local, which doesn’t necessarily mean your direct community because there may not be any seed growers there, but does mean seed grown in a similar climate to yours. That could be your state/province, or your USDA plant hardiness zone, etc.
Unless you have a lot of direct sun coming through a window, which is rare in the winter, it’s worthwhile to have some supplementary lighting for your plants.
I use LED lights in the 5000-6500 Kelvin range. It’s quite a white light, not a yellow light, and it’s very bright.
With two 4-foot LED “T5” lights, I can provide light for 2 trays. I have them on a timer for 16 hours/day.
That said, I know plenty of people who just put the plants in a sunny window, and although growth may not be optimal, it’s often enough to get them started.
Room temperature works best for most vegetables that are started indoors. If your room is cold, you can buy an electrical heat mat for $15-$30 that will go under one 10” by 20” tray.
Starting Seeds Indoors - The Process
Here’s how I start my seeds:
Although not necessary, I usually soak my seeds overnight because it speeds up the germination process.
I also add a small amount of liquid kelp and/or sea minerals to the soak water so the seed will have access to all of the elements it needs to be optimally healthy at the beginning of its life - again, an optional step, but worthwhile.
Add your growing medium to your containers and put the containers into a tray with no holes (for catching water).
I like to water them now, before seeding, but many people water them after seeding.
Most seeds are planted just under the surface of the soil, slightly deeper than they are thick.
Put 1-3 seeds per container, just deep enough to lightly cover them with soil.
Once you get more experienced, you start to have an idea of which seeds germinate very well, which means only 1 is needed per container, and which ones don’t germinate as easily, in which case 2-3 per container will give you a better chance of having a plant in each container.
When more than 1 seed germinates in a container, you cut all but 1 of them off with a pair of scissors.
I put the trays under my lights right away. Most seeds don’t need light to germinate, but even LEDs, which don’t put off much heat, give a little heat that speeds up germination for most plants.
I like to keep the lights 2-4” above the tops of the plants, which means they need to be raised higher every week or two as the plants grow.
I water every couple of days, once I see the soil has dried out a little.
I don’t want the soil to stay saturated all the time because that can promote disease, but I don’t want it to dry out much because the plants don’t have a big root system yet to be able to get much water.
When the plants are 4-8” tall, which often takes 4-8 weeks (although it does depend on the plant), and the temperature outside is appropriate (which varies a little for different plants), I harden the plants off.
Hardening off is when you take the plants outside for an increasing amount of time every day to gradually get them acclimated to the sun and wind.
There are many ways to do it, but an easy way to remember is 1 hour outside on day 1, 2 hours on day 2, etc.
Along with the increasing time outside should be a little more time in the sun each day, starting with shade on the first day and gradually a little more sun.
After about a week of hardening off, plant them in the garden.
Fertilizers and Inoculants
Most soils have at least some of each element plants need, but many soils don’t have enough of each element or the right balance of elements to grow optimally healthy plants.
You can get an idea of the fertility of your soil by sending a sample to a soil lab.
Based on their analysis, you can apply the deficient elements to the garden.
It is very worthwhile to do this to improve soil health as well as plant health, nutrient density, and flavor.
But even without a soil test to guide us, there are things we can apply in small amounts that don’t supply too much of any one element and so won’t cause any excesses.
Compost is a great start, and we don’t need much. 1/2” spread out over a bed before digging, or even dusted on the surface during the growing season, is usually more than enough.
You can also make your own liquid fertilizer by combining a mixture of weeds and fresh grass clippings in a container, filling it with water, covering it with an air-tight lid, and leaving it for a few days or, even better, a few weeks.
I do this regularly, the only downside being unless you get weeds from other places, you’re only bringing in the nutrients that are already abundant in your soil, not the ones you need the most.
For that reason, I use several broad-spectrum fertilizers, most of which come from the ocean - seaweed fertilizer, sea minerals fertilizer, and fish fertilizer. There are some similarities between them, but they each bring their own benefits, so I use them all.
Most gardeners focus on fertilizers (let’s call that the chemistry of the soil), but just as important is the life in your garden (the biology).
“Microbial inoculants” bring that biology, the beneficial microorganisms that are often deficient in the garden for various reasons. We need that biology to feed our plants and protect them from diseases.
The main way to bring in this biology is, again, a small amount of high-quality compost.
And then there are products. My favorite is called Effective Microorganisms, a liquid mixture of fermenting microbes that was formulated in Japan in the 70s and early 80s and is now used all around the world.
If possible, it’s a good idea to apply small amounts of broad-spectrum fertilizer and beneficial microorganisms often, rather than just dumping everything on at once in the spring.
So I come through at least monthly and sometimes weekly – especially useful during late spring and summer when plants are growing the most.
How To Water
Just like us, plants need water to live.
In nature, they’re watered by rain.
You can approximate that in the garden with a hose, sprinkler, or even a simple watering can.
That said, some plants are more disease-prone than others, like the tomato and squash families, and they’ll be less likely to get diseased if their leaves stay dry.
In a humid climate, those plants may benefit from being spaced further apart to allow for more airflow among the leaves, and you may water the soil instead of watering from higher up, whether getting in there with a watering can or using drip irrigation or a soaker hose.
Or you may just water in the morning, letting the sun’s rays dry the leaves.
If you use drip or a soaker hose, you still want to water the whole soil area rather than only watering around the plant.
In these lessons, the whole soil area is covered by plants, but even for people who plant in rows with big spaces in between them, the roots eventually go out into those rows, too, so as long as you have sufficient irrigation water, there should be water applied there.
One benefit of planting intensely is that the plants cover the soil, decreasing evaporation. That, partnered with a mulch, will help you conserve water.
As for how much water to apply, you may come across the rule of thumb of 1 inch per week. That may be a little much, but may be okay during the heat of summer. It works out to about 60 gallons per 100 square feet.
My own rule of thumb is 1/3 inch (20 gallons per 100 square feet) per week during spring and fall and 2/3 inch (40 gallons per 100 square feet) per week during summer.
If my hose puts out 8 gallons per minute, that’s just 2.5 minutes per 100 square feet in spring and fall and 5 minutes in the summer, but every hose is different, and once you get going through any kind of irrigation accessories, that changes things.
A rain gauge will help you figure out how much water you’re applying, at least for overhead watering methods like a hose, sprinkler, or watering can. Ideally, we set up at least a few gauges (or straight-sided cups) around the garden to figure out how long it takes us to apply that 1/3 inch or what have you.
Really, how much to apply depends on the weather - temperature, wind, humidity, and sun exposure.
Sandy soils don’t hold as much water, so they need to be watered more often, with less water each time, often 2-4 times per week. Clay soils hold a lot of water, so in order to get the water down deep, we supply a greater amount of water each time, but then we wait longer between waterings, more like 1-2 times per week.
Of course, when you get a good rain, that will decrease your watering, too. A rain gauge will tell you how much rain you got (it’s hard to guess).
With new seeds and seedlings, we need to water more often, sometimes every day or two, because their roots don’t reach wide and deep enough to tap into the soil’s reserves.
But as the roots grow bigger, we gradually water more deeply, less often, in order to encourage the roots to go deeper, which makes for healthier plants.
The most important thing to know about pest management is that unhealthy plants get eaten by insects and diseases while healthy plants don’t.
Not only can healthy plants defend themselves against pests, but even more interesting, plant-feeding insects and diseases evolved to consume nutritionally-imbalanced plants, so they don’t even eat healthy plants.
Mammals are another story - they evolved to eat healthy plants - so to keep rabbits, squirrels, deer, and others out, you need to find a way to block them. That often means some type of fencing, but may also involve chemistry (e.g. cayenne pepper) and biology (e.g. a cat or dog).
But for plant-feeding insects and diseases, the main goal is to improve soil and plant health so that they don’t cause much of any problem.
This involves some combination of the things we’ve been talking about in these lessons: good compost and mulching, fertilizers, microbial inoculants, appropriate watering, proper plant placement in the garden, companion planting, crop rotation, etc.
But building good soil can take years, so in the meantime, you will likely see some issues on some plants.
For some insects, like an occasional caterpillar that’s eating your leaves, you can just pick it off. Caterpillars eventually turn into beneficial butterflies, so you may want to just relocate them rather than kill them.
But if you have an infestation, you may decide to come through with a pesticide, whether homemade or purchased.
I don’t use synthetic pesticides, not only because most of them are quite toxic to beneficial organisms (including plants and people), but also because they tend to make the situation worse in the long run.
Even organic pesticides can cause issues if overused, but most of them are more benign, so when used sparingly, they can have a role to play.
The most common homemade pesticides are:
- Soap and water. 1 teaspoon of natural liquid soap (not detergent) per quart of water can be useful on its own and is often recommended as an addition to the recipes below.
- Herbal tea. Add a mixture of herbs to a bucket and cover them with warm water, put on an air-tight lid, stir it every 48 hours, and start using it after 7 days. Mix it with an equal part of water before spraying.
- Garlic. Crush 2 cloves of garlic and marinate them in 1 tsp of mineral/vegetable oil for at least 24 hours. Strain it and add 1 tsp of liquid soap and mix well in 1/4 cup of water. You can keep this in the fridge for at least 2 weeks. When it’s time to spray, dilute this again in 1 quart of water and spray on the plants in the morning, preferably on a non-sunny day so as not to burn the leaves.
All of these can be somewhat harmful to beneficial insects and microorganisms, too, so we spray them only on plants that really need it.
The most common organic pesticides to purchase are:
- Microbial (made from microorganisms). One example is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacteria that makes a protein that kills some insects.
- Botanical (made from plants). My favorite is neem oil, made from the seeds of the neem tree (Azadiracta indica).
- Horticultural oil. Made from petroleum (aka mineral oil) or from plants like soy and canola.
- Insecticidal soap. Similar to liquid hand soap, but making use of plant oils with longer-chain fatty acids, like olive and canola oil, which are easier on plants.
The last thing to remember is that even if you do use any of the above, be sure to come through regularly with fertilizers and inoculants that improve plant health since that’s the best way to prevent and control pest problems.
Now we get into one of the most rewarding parts of growing your own food.
In climates with cold winters, most planting happens in spring and then harvesting happens in the summer and early fall.
In climates with milder winters, planting happens earlier in the spring and even earlier, in winter, so the harvests often come more in the spring.
And in most any climate, there may be a summer planting for a fall harvest, but here, I’m mainly focusing on the main harvest.
In case you’re wondering what comes first in early spring, whichever month that is for you, you may have asparagus, rhubarb, scallions, perennial herbs, plus anything else that is still in the ground from winter (e.g. carrots, onions) and perhaps some other things that have survived in a cold frame (e.g. some greens).
If you buy your seeds and plants locally, the seed packets and plant labels should give you an idea of the expected harvest time for your area.
Going back to our main plant families, I’ll share the main harvest times for North America:
- Allium. E.g. Garlic, leek, onion, scallion, shallot. Mostly harvested in the summer, but many of them are perennial, so if you always leave some in the ground, you may be able to harvest some in spring and throughout the whole growing season.
- Amaranth. E.g. Beets are harvested in summer, spinach in spring and fall.
- Brassica. E.g. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale. May be harvested in summer, but the hotter the summer and milder the winter, the more that harvest moves towards spring and fall, and even winter in the hottest climates.
- Cucurbit. E.g. Cucumber and zucchini early to late summer, winter squash late summer to fall, pumpkin in fall.
- Legume. E.g. Beans can be harvested all summer and fall if you plant them every couple of weeks during the spring and summer, peas are harvested in spring before it gets too hot (and fall if you plant a fall crop in late summer).
- Solanum. E.g. Eggplant, pepper, potato, tomato. Harvested summer to early fall.
As for how to harvest, most leaves and fruits can be harvested by hand, just snapping them from the plant, but often, a knife or scissors is easier for you and less damaging to the plant.
Leaves taste best when they’re younger, before they start to flower, whereas fruits are best when they’re allowed to ripen fully on the plant.
Roots may be pulled by hand, but a garden fork is often helpful.
There are a few plants that we may harvest all at once when the plant has largely died back, like potatoes, dry beans, and winter squash to be stored for winter.
But for most plants, it’s best to harvest them regularly, as soon as they’re ready, because they’re the most nutritious then and because harvesting them often causes them to produce more until the weather gets either too hot or cold for them (depending on the plant).
Many foods can be stored for many months so you can keep eating your vegetables throughout the winter. But you need to create the right storage for each food.
Some of them want it cold and moist, others warm and dry, and others want something in between. I won’t get into all of those details here, but it’s something you can learn as you go.
If you want to grow nutrient-dense food, planting your own saved seed is part of that process.
That’s because when you save the seed from the healthiest plants every year, your seed will gradually become more adapted to your soil.
First off, you need to make sure you’re starting by buying mostly open-pollinated seeds rather than hybrids, since hybrids usually revert to one of their genetic parents, so there’s not much point in saving them.
Next, some plants are self-pollinating and they are much easier to save. Many of them are pollinated before the flowers even open, so they don’t cross-pollinate as readily.
But plants that are pollinated by insects or the wind are trickier because they’ll easily cross-pollinate with other plants within the same species. Basically, you get a hybrid, and the resulting plants, although sometimes interesting-looking, often don’t taste good. It’s complicated to save seed from plants in these families. Seed producers have to use meticulous isolation procedures, either big distances or physical barriers, to avoid cross-pollination.
Let’s go back to our main plant families:
- Allium. E.g. Garlic, leek, onion, scallion, shallot. Onions, scallions, and shallots can cross-pollinate with each other. Garlic doesn’t cross-pollinate, and leek only with other leeks.
- Amaranth. E.g. Beets and Swiss chard will cross-pollinate. Spinach is its own species but is pollinated by wind, so will often cross with other spinaches.
- Brassica. E.g. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale. Will all cross-pollinate with each other.
- Cucurbit. E.g. Cucumbers will cross-pollinate with other cucumbers. Pumpkin, squash, and zucchini have a few species, so they will cross-pollinate if it’s the same species, and it’s hard to guess (e.g. some pumpkins will cross with squash, etc.).
- Legume. E.g. Bean, pea. Are self-fertilizing, so good candidates for saving.
- Solanum. E.g. Eggplants are self-fertilizing and don’t cross much, peppers hot and sweet will cross with each other, potatoes will cross with each other but we save the tubers, so it doesn’t matter, tomatoes are self-fertilizing but they may cross with insect pollination, so it’s best to plant just 1 variety if you want to save true seed (but who wants to plant only 1 tomato?).
- From other families. Corn will cross-pollinate. Lettuce is self-fertilizing and doesn’t cross-pollinate as readily.
Looking at that list, the easiest seeds to save are cucumbers, beans and peas, solanums (eggplants, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes), and lettuces.
And yet still, it’s best to plant only 1 variety of each because cross-pollination can occur, or at least keep the varieties as far apart as you can.
You can save seed from all of the other plants, but again, you need to either have big distance between them (may be possible if you live in the country very far from neighbors) or physical barriers (beyond the scope of this lesson) or accept that you may get some weird broccoli-cauliflower cross that doesn’t taste great (and just be sure to still buy some broccoli and cauliflower seeds and plant them, too).
For the seeds you’re going to save, choose the healthiest plants. That may mean plants with the most growth, tastiest fruits, highest yields, etc.
Be sure to take seeds from at least a couple of different plants to maintain genetic diversity.
Try to leave the seeds (or the fruits that contain them) on the plant to ripen for as long as possible before disease starts to set in, even beyond when you would usually harvest them for eating.
You can dry seed on any surface, although a seed drying rack (bought or homemade) uses fine mesh to get more airflow around the entire seed.
When your seeds are dry enough that a fingernail doesn’t leave a mark, they're ready for storage.
Store them in a cool, dark place in a glass or plastic jar. Label them carefully, including the year they were harvested.
Preparing For Winter
It’s late autumn and the harvest is done.
It’s worthwhile to do a little work in the garden at this time of year. Sometimes, I even prepare some new beds in the fall, because I have more time now and the soil usually isn’t too wet.
On the other hand, if I’m going to be preparing new beds where I have a lawn, I often wait until spring because I like having the grass there to nourish and protect the soil over winter.
For the same reason, I like to sow a cover crop in existing beds 4-8 weeks before my first autumn frost. I generally use a combination of several legumes (e.g. clover, vetch) and grasses (e.g. rye, oats). They all bring something a little different to the table, but overall, they protect and improve the soil over winter, suppress weeds, and give homes for beneficial insects.
If the beds still have plants until frost, or if I otherwise don’t get around to sowing a cover crop, I mulch them heavily with the leaves that fall on the property, and if there aren’t enough leaves, I’ll volunteer to rake the neighbors’ leaves for them and take them off their hands. I’ll pile on 6” of leaves if I have them, but even an inch or two is better than leaving the soil exposed.
As for the remains of my vegetable plants, like squash and tomato vines, I may move them into a compost pile, especially if it’s a garden that I want to keep looking tidy, but often, I just let them stay right where they are. Their roots will continue providing food and habitat for soil microbes, and when they die, they’ll just become part of the mulch.
Then, in my climate, there are a few months of waiting until it starts all over again the next year and I’m back to this cycle of preparing the soil, planning the garden, planting the garden, and maintaining it.
And that’s what I encourage you to do from here, make your own plan for preparing your soil, planning your garden, planting it, and maintaining it. Putting together a plan, even if it’s just 1 page, pushes you to think through a whole bunch of things, which will make the process go more smoothly when it’s time to get to work.
At the end of this video, I mentioned that there's a whole other course on healthy eating, on how to use what you grow in the garden - and food in general - to improve your health and prevent and support the major diseases of our time.
You can get that course for free here on Thrive's website (you'll also get this course again as part of the bundle, but you can just jump right into the healthy eating course).