How to Have an Awesome Garden in 5 Easy Steps
January is the perfect time to plan an awesome garden. Everything else has been done. We have taken the last few weeks to put away Christmas decorations and get our house back in order. The cold weather has us in the kitchen making pots of homemade soup and hopefully, a loaf or two of homemade bread to go with it. Now it is time to settle in and take care of a labor of love.
By the end of January, our mailboxes are stuffed with the newest seed catalogs. We can’t wait to fix a mug of hot chocolate, grab a couple of homemade cookies and settle in to dream. Within moments, we have a list a mile long of everything we want to plant. After all, we just cannot pass up that beautiful variety of carrots. And wouldn’t that tomato be delicious on a sandwich!
This begs the question: What are our gardening plans, and can we really fit all those seeds into that space? Whether you are planning a spring, fall or year-round garden, these tips should help you start planning.
Awesome Garden Planning Tools
The first thing we need to plan an awesome garden is a few tools. These are helpful from the beginning – choosing a location and measuring your space, to the end result of what to plant and the spacing.
Measuring Tape – Once you have chosen a location, use a measuring tape to determine the length and width of your garden. I recommend a minimum of 25’ of tape, if possible.
Garden Stakes &/Flags – Now that you know the size of your garden, use flags or stakes in the corners so you know exactly where to dig or till.
Paper – Loose leaf or a notebook is fine. This is a place you can take notes as you plan.
Grid Paper – This is helpful for drawing your garden to scale.
Ruler – I like a 6” plastic ruler, but a 12” is fine. You just need something to draw straight rows.
Stencils – I find using circle stencils are great for each plant. It helps me to know where each plant goes.
#2 Pencil & Colored Pencils – It’s easier to erase with a regular #2 pencil. Colored pencils helps with a color-coded key chart.
Garden Planner – These are borderline necessities. With worksheets, a place for notes and planting guidelines, they are almost indispensable.
Plan an Awesome Garden with the Best Location and Size
Before you go too much further, you need to choose a location for your garden. Most vegetables need at least eight hours of full sun. A little bit of shade, especially during the hottest part of the day, is okay. It can give the plants a bit of cool relief from the hot sun. However, heavy shade, or shade that lasts for the better part of the day will prevent your plants from growing to their full potential.
Your location and your eventual harvest will determine the size of your garden. In our case, I have a small (30’x33’) kitchen garden outside my back door. But because there isn’t enough room there for a large garden, I have smaller ones in other areas.
Gas and water lines also need to be taken into consideration. The last thing you want to do is hit one of these with a shovel or a tiller. If possible, call the utility companies and ask them to come mark your lines, before you choose your location.
Also consider an easily accessible water source. You don’t want to be stretching 200’ of hose across the yard in order to get a sprinkler going. Try to keep your garden no less than 50’ from water. (More on Water Options below!)
When planning an awesome garden, don’t allow lack of space cause you to give up. Container gardens work very well! And with containers, your location may be easier to choose. If you live in an apartment, your location may be a balcony, or a small flowerbed. Townhouses usually have a small yard, with a patio surrounded by grassy areas. A typical home may have flower beds in the front, and a yard in the back.
Any of these homes will work for containers. Whether pots, crates, or raised beds, some type of container garden can be installed no matter where you live. You may also want to consider window boxes. Herbs and some vegetables can easily be grown in these.
You can also use larger containers, such as half whiskey barrels. There is enough space in these to grow quite a few different types of vegetables and herbs.
Your garden size will also have to take into consideration plant spacing. Some vegetables, such as carrots, only need to be roughly 3” apart. Peppers need 2’ between plants, while squash and tomatoes do best with 3’ spacing. Check your seed packets for spacing of each individual plant.
Now that you have chosen your location, the next thing you need to do is test your soil. The best possible pH level is 6.5, although getting it in a range of 5.5 to 7.5 will work. If your pH drops below 5.5, you can add lime to bring it up. If it is higher than 7.5, try adding composted manure, peat moss or even leaf mulch. Keep in mind, raising or lowering your pH level does take time. It is best to do it at least 6 months, if not one year, before planting.
When doing a soil test, take samples from different areas of your garden. Mix it up, and either purchase a Soil Tester, or contact your Extension Agency for instructions on how to submit one to your State. These do cost, but each state charges differently.
The second soil consideration is its makeup. Heavy clay will prevent the plants roots from being able to grow deep. Sandy soil isn’t stable enough. You need to have a good, pliable soil for the best plant production.
Do this test: Grab a handful of soil and mold it into a ball. If it holds together and you can use it as a softball without threat of it breaking apart, you have way too much clay. If instead of a ball, it just spills out between your fingers, it may be perfect for a beach, but not a garden.
Good soil is dark, rich, has an earthy aroma, and will hold together when slightly moist, but easily broken apart. The more organic matter worked into your soil, the better.
Ready to ‘Dig’ In?
Once you know you are ready to plant, you have a choice: till, ‘Lasagna’, or double dig.
This as simple as starting an engine and getting to work. Keep in mind – I said ‘simple’, not necessarily easy. Tillers can be a handful, and are heavy. We have two. One is lighter weight, and easy for me to handle. Primarily it is better for breaking new ground. The second one is heavier, and better suited to digging in deep to pulverize the soil. Although I can use this one, it is difficult, and the beast has a habit of getting away from me. If I want straight rows, I let the Country Boy manhandle this one.
I do use a tiller to break ground. For a new garden, I use it to get the soil broken up and to till in compost and leaves. Once that is done, I only lightly till at the end of each season to mix in the old mulch. I will till lightly again at the beginning of each season, to break up the top. Since I have begun mulching, I find I am having to till less and less.
Here’s a note on tilling: By using a mechanical means of preparing your garden, you also run a strong risk of disturbing the earth worms and other beneficial microbes in your soil. Take this into consideration when you make a decision on how to prepare your garden space.
This is a no till, no dig way of preparing your space. To use this method, you need to get started a year in advance. Lasagna gardening uses layering to kill the grass and eventually break down into healthy mulch. You begin with a layer of heavy corrugated cardboard. From there, you add layers of newspaper, leaves, compost and other organic matter. The most simplistic explanation is build your layers and let it be. Over time, these layers will break down, kill the grass and be ready for your garden.
I have never tried this, but Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza is an excellent book that explains the process.
This is a method that lowers the risk of disturbing the worms and other microbes in your garden. It takes a shovel, a sturdy pair of gloves and a strong back. Simply put, you dig your first row to a depth of 1 to 2 feet. As you dig, set the dirt on the outside of the row. Move to the next row, and put the dirt from that row into the first. Continue with this until you reach the last row. Fill in the last row with the dirt removed from the first one.
I consider this the ideal way of prepping a small garden. However, for larger ones, you may want to consider all that physical labor before you grab your shovel.
By far, having sufficient compost is the best option for any garden. Composting is a simple matter of layering organic matter in a pile, adding a little moisture, and being patient while it breaks down. In most cases, it is best to start a pile in the winter, so it is ready for spring gardening.
Compost is a combination of ‘brown’ and ‘green’ layers. Brown matter consists of grass clippings, old hay and leaves. Green matter comes from kitchen scraps and manure.
Piles of compost can be adapted for any size home. Larger places may have room for a traditional pile. Some gardeners use a 3-Bin system that is built from wood or even pallets. I am experimenting using black mineral tubs, in which I have drilled drainage holes. I like these because they come with lids, which prevents too much moisture getting in from heavy rains. Smaller gardens, such as one on a balcony or a container garden, can use small crates to make Mini-Compost Bins.
If you still do not have room for a compost pile or bin, you can purchase compost in bags at your local feed store or gardening supply retail outlet. These bags are ready to go.
A Note on Container Gardening Soil
For containers, whether pots and crates or raised beds, you really don’t want to use soil dug up from the ground. This dirt is too heavy, and compacts quickly. Eventually, it will be detrimental to the roots of the plant. For small containers, I use a mixture of compost, potting soil and peat moss, with a 1:2:1 ratio. Get a large tub and stir these together. Fill each pot to the rim. Plant your flower, herb or vegetable, pack the dirt around the roots, the water. Watering will settle the dirt around the roots and in the pot. Wait a few minutes, and then add more soil as needed.
Raised beds can be a bit costly to do this way. You can add ground soil to your mixture, but having an abundance of compost and leaves can help fill those beds a bit more quickly. When I had raised beds, I lined the bottom of my bed with a layer of straw approximately 6″ deep. From there I used a combination of bagged components, leaves I raked and compost.
A 4’x4’ raised bed built a standard 1.5’ high takes 24 cubic feet of dirt. When you consider potting soil comes in 2 cubic feet bags, and peat moss in 3 cubic feet bricks, that is a lot of potting soil, compost, peat moss, leaves and other soil. I won’t even go into the cost.
Plan an Awesome Garden using Companion Planting
Now that you have your main plants lined out in your awesome garden plan, it’s time to think about how to best utilize all that open space between plants. Companion planting can come to your rescue in more than one way.
First, companion plants can easily be placed in the spaces between friendly plants. Second, they are considered companions because they benefit each other through pest control, shading and by other means.
Basil is best friends with tomatoes. Tomatoes shade the basil and helps keep it cool. Basil in turn protects the tomatoes from insects and diseases.
But some plants do NOT like each other. Basil and Rue seem to have been warring with each other since ancient times, preventing each other from healthy growth.
A Short List of Friends & Enemies
Tomatoes – Basil
Beans – Carrots, Cauliflower, Corn, Squash
Beets – Onions, bush beans
Broccoli – Dill, Celery, Peppermint, Rosemary
Carrots – Onions, Leeks, Rosemary, Sage
Corn – beans, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, sunflowers, marigolds
Cucumbers – corn, radishes, beans, sunflowers
Peppers – Basil, okra, thyme, nasturtium
Squash – Radish, nasturtiums
Basil – Rue
Beets – Pole beans, field mustard
Broccoli – Tomatoes, Pole Beans, Strawberries
Carrots – Dill
Corn – Tomatoes
Cucumbers – Potatoes
Peppers – The ‘Peacemaker’ of the garden, as it seems to get along with everyone!
Squash – Potatoes
If you want more detailed information on Companion Planting, the best book I have seen is Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte!
Irrigation & Mulch
As I said before, plants are thirsty creatures. A good rule of thumb is to give them approximately 1” of water per week, which calculates out to around 60 gallons per 100 square feet. Be sure to water them deeply, at around a 6”depth. Don’t make the mistake of ‘shallow watering’. Roots need moist loose soil to grow deeply, which in turn provides stability and healthier growth and production.
The Country Boy built us an irrigation system using PVC pipe and irrigation tape. Once the plants are in the ground, we lay the tape next to the base of the plants, the full length of the row. This helps me to monitor the amount of water my garden gets each week. The nearest faucet to my kitchen garden is less than 50’ away. I do have to connect a water hose to the irrigation pipe, but it is easily moved when time to mow the grass.
For my container plants, I use a rain barrel. This is basically ‘free’ water, which makes this frugal farm wife happy. Ours is elevated enough to allow for a watering can to be placed under the spigot.
The only issue with a rain barrel is it can fill up rather quickly. My goal is to have a rain barrel system, where one barrel flows into another. This will result in enough water to last me most of the summer.
Don’t have a rain barrel? Get a couple of 5-gallon buckets. Add window screening on the top and secure in place.
One of the best ways to ‘water’ your garden is to prevent evaporation. Using mulch helps tremendously with that. Mulching is just a simple way of layering organic matter over the soil and around the plants.
If you use raised beds or terra cotta pots, be aware both dry out faster than an in-ground garden. Consequently, both need to be watered more frequently. Container gardens may need to be watered as much as two times a day, possibly more in the extreme heat of the summer.
Some of the best mulches:
Have you got your tools ready? Did you find the best place for your garden? The next step is to grab your gloves and get busy. While you are outside working, I will be preparing a Resource list for the best places to order your seeds.
While you are waiting for the list, fill me in on your progress. How big of a garden are you making? Tell me about your irrigation plans, and if you built a compost bin. I would love to hear all the details!
Don’t wander too far off. It’s almost time to get those seeds started. See you on Thursday!
Did you know that for some Homemakers, the Garden is actually an extension of their homes? Interested in knowing the tricks that help you become the best Homemaker possible? Check out The Ultimate Manual for the Art of Homemaking!