Years ago, a former intern and I were talking about our love of growing our own food. We each shared our gardening practices. He chuckled at one point and said that one time he had an unused patch of soil in his plot. He decided to mix a bunch of diverse seeds in his hands, shake ’em up, and then cast them into the vacant soil. While not every seed grew, enough did to make his experiment a success. I imagine he likely had some great salads and several warm-weather vegetable plants to pick from.
Sure. There are a lot of rules you can follow to garden well and grow good food. But before feeling you need to know everything, simply decide to garden. Know that you too can experiment. Learn as you go along. Be easy on yourself.
While I am about to share my gardening methods, I should note that I am a cook who sometimes ignores the recipe. I use the instructions on the back of my seed packets as suggestions. I use what wisdom I can remember from books and gardening comrades. And, if I make mistakes, I realize that the seed packets often have more than enough seeds for me to try again.
So by all means, if the advice I am about to give sounds like gobbledygook, just have fun. Just cast some seeds on the soil and watch them grow. (Or ask me questions in the comment section below.)
Here’s my advice:
Gardening method 1: garden in raised beds
Raised beds can take many forms, shapes, and sizes. Generally, they are wooden-, stone-, or steel-structures that rise above the ground by anywhere from six inches to three feet tall. The height varies based on the desires, mobility issues, and/or amount of soil a gardener has. Most beds are rectangles, three to four feet across — making reaching to the middle of the bed possible. Length depends again either on the gardener’s desires or to the amount of space available. Raised beds have several advantages. My two favorite reasons are, first, because no one walks in or drives a tractor on them, the soil is less likely to become compacted. This makes for a more vibrant and deeper root structure for plants. And, second, they warm up earlier in the year than the ground we walk on, lengthening the season often by a couple of weeks or more on both sides of the growing season.
Gardening method 2: use open pollinated seeds
“Open-pollinated varieties are those, which if properly isolated from other varieties in the same plant species, will produce seed that is genetically ‘true to type’ (High Mowing Organic Seeds, 15 Feb 2013)” In other words all things being equal, the vegetables that will come from that seed should look, smell, and have the texture of and taste similar to the parent.
If the paragraph above sounds confusing just know that open-pollinated seeds are often labelled as such. The main benefit is that you will be promoting seed diversity. (Again, if you have questions — like “why is seed diversity important?” ask me about it in the comment section. Or read this blog post.
Gardening method 3: trellis what you can
Beans, cucumbers, peas, tomatoes, and winter squash all trellis. Sunflowers and amaranth each benefit from the bracing an end post provides. So I think it was a good idea to place permanent trellises into each of my seven 4.5′ x 6′ raised beds. Each year at least one bed plays host to non-trellising veggies (e.g. lettuces planted with onions). But crop rotation keeps the trellises in use for 6 straight years after that.
Right now my trellises line the north and west sides of my beds, which has worked out okay. However, this year I’m likely going to move the posts so there is only one line straight down the middle. This will make it easier to reach the fruits on both sides of the trellis wall.
Trellising is a great space saver. For example, you can get a lot more beans per square foot when trellising rather than relying on bush bean varieties. Trellises also (somewhat) tame cucumbers as well as summer and winter squash plants.
Gardening method 4: employ companion planting
As Louise Riotte’s book title states, Carrots Love Tomatoes. If you’re not going to buy her book, at least check out this resource from Cooperative Extension of Chemung County, NY. It tells you which plants are friends and which are enemies.
In addition to knowing which plants grow well together, I like companion planting because it allows for a more intensive use of garden space.
Gardening method 5: build defenses against pests
My garden is surrounded by 6 inch by 6 inch redwood cedar posts, mostly submerged in the soil, but stacked three high. The plot is also enclosed by a 3-foot high, hardware cloth fence. That means, many critters — except for squirrels, mice, voles, and chipmunks — have a hard time getting in.
Read this article for an easier (and less costly) way to keep pests out of your garden.