Edible Gardens

How to Start an Organic Garden

Growing your own fruits and vegetables

An organic garden has benefits that far surpass the simple salad you may serve with lunch, or the delicious potatoes you prepare for a family dinner. Knowing what nutrients are going into the food you harvest (and what chemicals aren’t going into the food on your plate and into your body), creates a wonderful peace of mind.

While many think that starting their own organic garden can be complicated or require special skills, the truth is, anyone with a little time on their hands, a small growing area, and a passion for good food can grow a garden! All you have to do to get started is follow these eight guidelines.(https://www.craftsy.com/gardening/classes/vegetable-gardening-smart-techniques-for-plentiful-results/35503

1. Know your growing season

Honestly, Growing Zones can be confusing. However, knowing how many frost-free days you have in your area and planning accordingly is easy. Daves Garden (http://davesgarden.com/guides/freeze-frost-dates/) has an amazing tool to help you figure out how many frost-free days you have on average in your growing season based on your zip code. Plug in your five-digit zip code and take note of your number as it will go a very long way to helping you plan what you can grow.

2. Track the sunshine

It’s important to keep in mind how the sun hits your property throughout the day. The number of hours of direct sunlight your growing space gets will determine what you can actually grow.

For example:

  • With 6+ hours of direct sun each day, you can grow things like corn, tomatoes (https://www.craftsy.com/gardening/classes/growing-heirloom-tomatoes/35542), peppers, beans and peas, summer and winter squash, melons, potatoes, cucumbers and a wide variety of culinary herbs.
  • With 4 to 6 hours of direct sun each day, you can grow things like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and Brussels sprouts.
  • With 2 to 4 hours of direct sun each day, you can grow greens! Spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce, endive, mesclun, arugula, bok choi, mustard greens and parsley.
  • If you have less than 2 hours of direct sun per day, you’re in for a challenge, but it’s still worth a shot! Try loose leaf lettuce or radishes.

3. Build and prepare your beds

Whether you live in a home that already has established garden beds, will be building the beds yourself (https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2015/04/how-to-build-a-raised-garden-bed/?_ct=rbew&_ctp=148369), buying a raised bed kit from Deep Roots Project (url to our kits page) or planting in pots (http://www.bhg.com/gardening/vegetable/vegetables/growing-vegetables-in-containers/) depends on your time, your budget and your skill. If yo have the budget and not time alf skill we suggest yo hire a company to build the beds for you and fill them with rich organic soil ready for planting vegetable seedlings or seeds.

4. Get to know, then build your soil

Edibles must have a nutrient-dense home to grow in in order to become nutrient-dense themselves. Soil that is lacking nutrients has nothing to give the plants that are growing in it, so it won’t. Most local nurseries sell inexpensive soil testing kits that will give you a good idea of what is in your soil. Once you know what’s in your soil, you can amend it using compost (https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2015/04/easiest-compost-tea-recipe/?_ct=rbew&_ctp=148369), manure or a variety of organic products found in your local nursery.

When planning an organic garden, you have to take this process one step further by doing your best to find out how the soil has been treated previously. If you can easily track who has planted what and whether or not it has been organic, excellent. If you cannot track it, your best bet is to proceed with raised beds so you can build up on top of the existing soil with organic soil and compost.

Lasagna gardening (https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2015/05/lasagna-garden-layers/?_ct=rbew&_ctp=148369) and hugelkultur beds (are two other fantastic ways to build your soil while knowing exactly what is going into it. These methods take a little more effort than simply pushing seeds into the existing soil, but will ensure that the vegetables you plant are growing in healthy, organic soil.

Adapted from an article on craftsy.com  https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2015/05/how-to-start-an-organic-garden/) & (https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2015/04/hugelkultur/?_ct=rbew&_ctp=148369)

5. Water

Think about your water sources and how you will water your growing plants. Depending on whether you have raised beds (https://www.craftsy.com/gardening/classes/building-a-raised-bed-garden/40761) ground level beds or are planning to grow in pots, all seeds must have water and all established plants require even more water.

Your options for getting water to your growing space might include hand watering, using a hose, drip irrigation or letting nature take care of it (if you are lucky enough to live in an area that isn’t faced with drought (https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2015/01/water-wise-gardening/?_ct=rbew&_ctp=148369), but it must be thought about and planned for. Depending on the size of your growing space, watering by hand can take a lot of time and must be factored in to your daily routine.

6. Seeds and seedlings

Once you know how much sun your plants will get, how long your growing season is and where you’ll be planting your glorious veggies, it’s time to think about purchasing some seeds (https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2014/11/rare-heirloom-seeds/?_ct=rbew&_ctp=148369) or starts.

If you have the space and know-how to build your own set of grow lights, you might not ever have to purchase starts from your local nursery or farmer's market. However, if you are limited on space, time or confidence in your building abilities (practice makes perfect!), ensure that you are purchasing organic vegetables that were started from organic seed and not treated with any chemicals before they get to you. Your pollinator friends (http://evergrowingfarm.com/2014/02/the-importance-of-pollinators.html) will thank you first, your body will thank you later.

Start small and work your way up. If you’re passionate about growing your own organic fruit and vegetables, you probably want to start with as many varieties as possible, right? While this is not without its merits, you will do yourself a huge favor by picking just a few things to start and learn with now. Then, next year (and every year after that), you can expand. It’s always better to have a few successful varieties than a ton of failing varieties. Trust me.

7. Try companion planting on a small scale.

Companion planting
and organic gardening easily go hand in hand. Planting a tomato in a big pot? Strategically place 10 carrot seeds or three basil seeds around the base of the tomato and watch them grow together. Planting some cucumbers to climb up a fence? Plant some bush beans in front of them to shade their toes and add nitrogen to the soil.

Companion planting, when done intentionally, can help your fruits and vegetable grow healthier and more nutrient dense as well as help protect each other from pests. 

(https://www.craftsy.com/blog/2015/02/companion-plants/?_ct=rbew&_ctp=148369)

8. Be prepared for “failure” and take pride in the small victories.

Every single seed will not germinate and despite your best efforts, not every start will survive. Pests will find your beautiful plants and rip them to shreds. Hail or whipping winds will damage your fruits and veggies right before harvest time. As hard as it is, it’s really just part of the process. Some years are better than others, some years you just can’t seem to do anything right in the garden. Like life, take every lesson and each heartbreak and pour the knowledge gained from them into next year’s plans and each year in the garden will get a little bit better.

Harvesting 10 carrots from a small pot for the first time can feel like winning a gold medal. Eating a still-warm-from-the-sun tomato is one of the most satisfying experiences ever. Allow yourself to feel the pride of your harvest and then enjoy each of that carrot or that tomato like it’s the best thing on the planet because it is and because you deserve to!

Organic gardening is full of rewards, both for your own health, and for the health of the planet. By following a few easy steps on how to start your own organic garden, you can be well on your way to harvesting your first meal straight out of your very own garden!

Bonus Tips

Healthy soil is the core of a bountiful organic vegetable garden

An organic vegetative garden is a cycle of renewal. Garden soil lives and breathes, although you can't see most of its' important components. A handful of dirt is filled with thousands of invisible microbes, bacteria and fungi. As leaves fall from the trees, and other plant life decays, soil organisms go to work recycling the once-living matter. It decomposes into nutrients that growing plants need to thrive and be healthy.

Plant lighting requirements

If you’re mystified by plant and seed labels, here’s how to figure out what they mean when they talk about light requirements:

                        Sun – direct sunlight at least eight hours a day

                        Shade – less than four hours of direct sunlight

                        Partial Sun – between four and six hours of sunlight a day

Know how much light your future garden will get. You may have some great vegetables planted out there, but no amount of praying to the gardening gods will get them to grow if they don’t have enough light. Ask yourself a few basic questions: How is the light distributed? Are their shady spots? What about sun rich areas? Matching up the right plant, to how much light an area of your garden receives, can prevent big problems down the road.

Edible Perennials Versus Annuals

From a functional standpoint, there are many ways to design a garden so that it is easier to grow and maintain. For many time-pressed gardeners, perennials, which come up year after year on their own, can be a great solution versus annuals that have to be planted each year. Also, consider growing herbs that not only smell great and require minimal care but will also help spice up your cooking. Most are perennials, as are chives and scallions.

Beauty and Aesthetics

When it comes to aesthetics, some points to consider are variety and balance. Vary heights, colors, densities, sizes and shapes.

Height. Use raised beds or pedestals. Shaped containers can also help, as do vines, which can crawl up walls, fences or other vertical structures. Climbing flowers, such as morning glories or sweet peas, as well as tall flowers such as hollyhocks or sunflowers, not only will add height, but can hide ugly chain link fences. Planting trees and bushes in the middle of flower beds varies height and makes your garden more visually attractive. Just be sure to consider how tall your trees will grow in say 20 years as well as where their roots will spread and where there shade will fall.

Color. Amazed by the colors you see in those formal gardens in Europe, but don’t have the foggiest idea of what color scheme to use in your garden? Use a color wheel to find similar colors that will go well together or look for opposites that will provide contrast.

Plants with “cool” colored blooms such as blue, green and lavender can go in shady spots because direct sunlight will tend to wash out their color.

You can also create a monochromatic garden. Choose one color — orange, purple, red — and choose plants and flowers with different shades of the same color. Monochromatic gardens are known for looking harmonious.

If you want to add color to your lawn, consider adding a flower element to it. Just scatter crocuses throughout the lawn. It will add early color to your landscape in the spring. Start in the fall, by digging up small plugs of grass and replacing them with a crocus bulb. The crocus will bloom, die and then will be replaced by grass later on in the season.

Texture. Ornamental grasses add color and texture and they last longer than most plants. So, even when the rest of your garden has turned brown and dormant, your grasses will still be green.

When Mother Nature doesn’t deliver, your garden doesn’t have to suffer. We’ve got backup watering equipment and tools that will keep your garden from going thirsty. If you’re in a low-rainfall area, look into using a rain barrel, which will save precious water that would just roll through your gutters.

Finally, plant something new every year. You may get some pleasant surprises and you’ll learn from cultivating something that you haven’t grown before. Remember that you want some contrast, but an overall harmony.

Where to put what?

There are several strategies you can use to decide where to plant what. You may want to cluster plants with similar needs — amount of water, nutrients, sunlight — together to make it easier to care for them.

You can also practice “companion planting” where you place plants together which can work with each other to keep your garden flourishing. For example, one plant can replenish the soil with nutrients that another plant uses from the soil. Sometimes combining different plants together can help attract beneficial insects.

If a particular plant specimen needs more warmth than your climate can provide, give it shelter by planting it next to a south-facing wall. The wall collects warmth from the sun by day and will release it at night.

What else to include – trees shrubs, native plants, flowers and more?

If you have shaded areas, consider using native ferns for ground cover since they don’t require a lot of sun and, in fact, prefer the shade. Perfumed flowers also make a great addition to any garden and give it “smell appeal.” Consider planning citrus, gardenia or plumeria.

If you live where the winds blow hard and often, consider including evergreens and tall deciduous trees. They tend to be fast growing and can block prevailing winds. It’s what the pioneers did when homesteading in the plains and it will work for you as well. One tip for lazy gardeners: don’t plant trees that shed leaves, fruit or nuts near the driveway or you will spend the summer months picking up after them.

Also, don’t neglect plants that attract beneficial insects. They can help your garden grow by attracting “good bugs” that will fight garden pests. Such plants include: baby blue eyes, candy tuft, evening primrose and sweet alyssum. Our Beneficial Insect Seed Mix will attract both wild and introduced beneficial insects to your garden. Use as a border or plant between rows.

Even if you don’t have a lot of space, you can enjoy vegetables that grow on vines. Just get creative in your choices. Anything from squash to melons to cucumbers can be trained to grow on a trellis. Just give them the support they need and they’ll take care of the rest (see Grow Vertical Vegetables).

Also, remember that a garden is more than greenery. You may want to add stone slabs, brick pavers, small gravel or a wooden deck. Adding “flooring” to your garden will make it more attractive and will help with movement and maintenance. In addition, add boundary “lines” with fences, stone walls and hedges to keep your garden orderly.

Tip: When building boundaries, don’t use railroad ties or pressure treated wood around your vegetables. The chemicals used to preserve the wood are toxic and certainly shouldn’t be used where they can leach into the soil and be absorbed by your plants.

Keep in mind that it’s your garden. So unless you’re entering a competition, if your plan makes you happy it’s achieved its goal.

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Register for our workshops, sign up for our Newsletter and contact us with questions. We welcome all into Deep Roots Project. Please contact David Murphy at djmurphy1967[at]gmail.com or 773-502-5600 if you have questions or if you are interested in exploring ways you can become involved.