When we moved to our 8 acres in New Hampshire a few years ago, we came from a small suburban lot in NJ with a pretty small garden of a few raised beds. While we grew a garden each year, we never grew enough to really impact our grocery bill or add to our food storage. One of our main goals for moving here and for our new homestead, was to be more self-sufficient, and a larger more successful garden was a big part of that plan.
Here was our vegetable garden in 2012, when we still lived in NJ. Starting with this smaller garden, and reading all the gardening books I could find, really helped to prepare us for the bigger gardens we have now....but despite that we still made (and will continue to make) a ton of mistakes with the new gardens!
What we've learned!
The best piece of advice I've ever gotten, and will ever give about starting a garden is to start SMALL! Especially if you're new to gardening because bugs, weeds, critters and crops that just don't do well can be SUPER frustrating, so start with something more manageable.
Observe Your Land
Installing a new garden starts with observing your land. Much borrowed from permaculture practices, observing your land for a season first allows you to figure out a few important things:
Where is your water source and how hard/far will it be to lug hoses out to the garden area?
WHAT is your water source? Is it a well with a pump that may cause you to loose a significant amount of water pressure the farther away from the pump you get? Which will limit using both sprinklers and soaker hoses if you're too far away from the pump (something we learned the hard way here).
What is the path of the sun across your property (during the spring, summer and fall)? What areas are shaded by structures for part of the day? Most vegetables need 6-8 hours of direct light a day, and some can get by with dappled light.
How does your land drain after a heavy rain? Where does the water lay and where does it drain well?
How protected are different parts of your land/yard from strong winds?
Are there bushes or trees in a spot that gets great sun that you'd be willing to cut down? What will you do with the stumps? (work around them, have them removed etc)
Is the spot currently covered in grass? How will you remove it? (we rented a rototiller, but that just kicked up more weeds and we ended up fighting them all season)
Is there enough room to easily expand the garden in future seasons if you want to? (trust me, you'll probably want to as you get more comfortable)
Set Yourself Up For Efficiency
There's nothing more frustrating than having to walk all over creation to find a rake, or lugging heavy hoses 100 feet. Think about where you will keep your gardening supplies and try to create areas or "zones" that will make you more efficient near the garden. Some things that are nice to have in close proximity to the garden and will make your life easier:
-The compost pile
-Garden tools (think about a method to keep them somewhat out of the weather as well to extend their life). I love a simple mailbox for small tools and gloves near the garden. We also built a small lean-to next to the compost pile that my garden cart fits in.
-Water (I have a new-found hatred for lugging heavy hoses all over the place to water)
-A container to carry in your produce harvest
-Bonus points: an area to wash your produce out by the garden (can be a cheap laundry basket with slats in it that fits inside a larger solid tub to dunk and drain your harvest). Cooling your produce off right out in the garden (if you're not heading immediately in the house) will extend its freshness. It's called getting the "field heat" off.
-If you're going to try your hand at common crops for storage like: potatoes, garlic and onions, think about a spot where you can "cure" them. A shaded area with good airflow where they can hang or lay for a few weeks to toughen up the skins and make them last longer in storage. A garage works well, but it's worth identifying a spot before you have a huge container of potatoes to contend with!
I HATE weeding. Seriously though, I HATE it! In the battle with weeds, your new best friend is mulch! I've found the times I've had to deal with the most weeds are when we have a new garden that was previously grass, that stuff is seriously resilient.
In my chronic battle with weeds here, I've found I can significantly reduce my frustration by using straw or hay mulch. Everyone has differing opinions about what works best for mulch (from raised beds to wood chips and lawn clippings or leaves). I've tried it all and I've had the most success with straw mulch.
In order of how often I use them here are our top weed control methods:
1. Straw or hay mulch. You need a thick layer to prevent any seeds in the mulch from germinating, but it's easy to find and cheap (just be sure to make sure the farmer doesn't spray their hay with chemicals, if you are going for an organic garden).
Here you can see a portion of our 1st season garden mulched with straw, note the weeds in the foreground where it wasn't mulched.
2. Solarization. This is the process of covering your beds with clear plastic or dark tarps. You're creating a warm, moist environment that will encourage weed seeds to germinate and will then choke them out. I've had success with both clear plastic (cooks the weeds) as well as dark tarps (kills them off from no sun exposure). This takes 4-6 weeks to work in warm seasons, much more in the cold. The only part I don't love about solarization is it also kills off some of the beneficial microbes in the soil, which you can help to bounce-back with good quality compost.
Here you can see the same garden with the beds covered in black tarps early in the season.
3. Weed fabric. More expensive and harder to work with (having to punch or cut holes in it for the crops) and only works on certain crops: things that are densely planted like carrots and baby salad greens would be impossible to use weed fabric with. I use it mostly for transplanted head lettuce and walkways.
This is the only spot we really use weed fabric is for our head lettuce (Salanova) that is transplanted.
4. Buckwheat. Buckwheat is a fast-growing cover crop. I use it in my tomato beds, and in between crops so my beds are never bare. I sprinkle it heavily over the beds in spring (it is frost-sensitive), then before it flowers and subsequently develops seeds (lots of them, which you can save and use next year), I just knock it over and plant my seedlings right into it. Provides some great organic matter for the soil as it decomposes.
5. Wood chips. I only use these in my more ornamental Potager Garden and on my flower gardens (for looks mostly, as well as weed suppression). The use of wood chips in a vegetable garden is still somewhat controversial, you'll see plenty of people using the "Back to Eden" wood chip method, but for me it's just not a long-term solution: wood chips have a ton of carbon and incorporating them into your soil can cause a huge imbalance, so many pull them aside and add compost under them each year (too much work for me) and they can lead to a dominance of fungal over bacterial soil (your plants want bacterial-dominated soil), of which the solution is again pulling them off and tilling or adding compost (again, too much work for me), and lastly unless you know your wood chip source very well, trees that can be bad for your vegetables could be mixed in, as could trees that have been sprayed with chemicals.
Our Potager Garden the first year, check out our post on Potager Gardens for more information and current pictures of it. You can see both cardboard peeking out and the wood chips on the beds.
6. Cardboard. This is last on the list because I only really use it when setting up a new garden bed. You can actually lay heavy cardboard right over grass and kill it. It will eventually break down into the soil so don't use anything with a lot of printing on it, you don't want the ink chemicals in your soil.
I remember finding these squishy gross bugs on our potato plants the first year we gardened here. I had NO IDEA what they were, because we had never grown potatoes before! A little research ahead of time about the pests in our area would have saved husband and I HOURS every night picking colorado potato beetles off of our potato plants! I learned my lesson that year and now we immediately cover our potato rows with insect netting. It's great, you can water right through it.
Here is the colorado potato beetle at the larval stage (first two pictures) and adult. They eat so much foliage from your plants and reproduce so rapidly they can completely defoliate a crop and kill the plants if left un-checked. They lay eggs on the underside of leaves that also need to be squished.
The point here is that some plants in your area will be more prone to certain pests and there may be prevention methods you can put in place ahead of time (like insect netting) or easy treatments (like picking the bugs; easy but time-consuming). A little research ahead of time will save frantic last-minute googling (like I had to do).
One other specific pest I will mention here, because it's in almost every area, is the tomato hornworm. These can be hard to spot because they're green, just look for eaten leaves and their droppings, they can also completely defoliate tomato plants and kill them rather quickly.
They look scary but they DO NOT BITE AND WON'T HURT YOU. The best control is picking them off and squishing them or dropping them in some soapy water. **One important note is the picture on the right with the little white things on its back--this would be the one situation when you DO NOT want to remove or kill a hornworm. Those little things are egg sacs from a very beneficial insect, the Braconid wasp. As they grow and hatch they will kill the hornworm, so leave them be and let them hatch.
The bottom line here is to accept that you may have a battle with both weeds and pests, and that you may loose some plants to them. Plant a little extra to compensate for this! Worse case scenario you'll have extras--friends and family will love you for it!
Starting Your Own Seeds?
For someone starting out, I'd say don't aim to start all of your own seedlings at home, plan to get about half of what you want to plant, if not all of them, from nurseries that first year. My reasoning for this is two-fold (from my own experiences and frustrations):
1. Space and light. It's amazing how much space enough plants for a typical small vegetable garden takes up when they're in the house) especially considering that a lot of what you will plant is direct-seeded in the garden and not started early inside (i.e. cucumbers, lettuce, radish, spinach, carrots, potatoes and so on).
Starting seeds isn't super complicated and if you have a nice sunny spot inside give it a go! The problem with growing them by a window (as opposed to under grow lights) is they can get "leggy" or stretched out, which can reduce your harvest later. Mitigate this by rotating your trays so a new side is facing the window every 1-2 days.
This was our set-up the first year, I started my own seedlings in prior years so I went for it that year as well. What I ended up with was our back room filled with seedlings and and old folding table that I had husband hang a fluorescent light over (because I ran out of room on the windowsills). There are still water stains on the wood floor out there from that year!
Now we have shelves in the basement with height-adjustable lights where I start all my seedlings (especially now that we've tripled the size of the gardens).
Honestly, buying starts from a nursery is just plain convenient. Starting seeds at home does take some time and maintenance. From rotating them so they get light on all sides, to watering and hardening off.
What you will sacrifice is variety. There are hundreds of varieties of vegetables, and most nurseries or big box stores will only have a very limited sampling of them. We grow 99% heirlooms, and finding those as starts is hard, which is why I start all my own seeds for the gardens here.
I learned how important research is when we moved to NH. I was used to growing in Zone 7 and where we moved to is in Zone 4B....which means that I had to plan for a later last frost date and the timing of when to start each plant was now wildly different than I was used to. Also consider how long your growing season is (the time from last frost to first frost) and be aware of days to maturity for what you pick to grow, don't try to grow something that needs 100 days if your season is 60.
A few things to consider:
1. What growing zone you are located in and what that means.
Most seed packets will tell you to "start indoor x-xx weeks prior to last frost". That way they are the perfect size to go into your garden once the danger of a frost has passed.
Your growing zone will tell you when your average last frost date is. Here is a link to the USDA growing zones, here's a link to the Farmers Almanac planting dates calculator for common vegetables, and here is a link to calculate weeks from a certain date (punch in your last frost date and subtract the number of weeks back the seed packet recommends starting indoors).
2. Keep a diary from your garden!
Keeping notes from our gardens each year has been really valuable. I can look back and see what grew well, what didn't, what had a lot of bug pressure and what I would and wouldn't grow again.
3. Plan out your garden layout
I found it valuable to draw out my garden plan before we started digging in the soil. Seeing it in black-and-white helps you visualize it better and helps you thinks of issues that might arise before your garden is formed (for us, width of the walkways between beds which ended up being too narrow to comfortably walk once all the plants were big).
Keep in mind the path of the sun across your property and how larger plants may shade smaller ones.
This was my "map" for our initial garden here. We did modify this the following year after growing in it and figuring out what did and didn't work.
4. Write out when each vegetable you're going to grow should be started indoors, direct seeded outdoors, and/or transplanted into the garden. Using your last frost date and recommendations on the seed packet will get you these dates. One of the biggest ways I kept from getting overwhelmed, especially this past year when we tripled the gardens, was by having when I needed to do something written down on a calendar. Keep in mind dates of succession planting if you're planning to do that.
This does look a little crazy, but this past year was our big garden expansion and our test year for our future market garden/CSA on our land.
Where We're Going
In preparation for even more stored food for us and our family up here, and a possible future market garden/CSA, we went from this (about 30'x30'):
To this (the above garden that we still use, plus a new area that's about 90'x30'):
The beds are oriented North-->South so that each bed gets the same sun exposure and so that those tall tomato and corn plants you see don't shade out their neighboring beds.
We've been able to stock our root cellar this year with canned produce from the garden, as well as fresh carrots, garlic, potatoes and onions. We blanched and froze various things from the garden this year: brussels, corn, peas, shredded carrots, blueberries, rhubarb, beets, broccoli, green beans and squash to name a few!
The final thing we've learned from our Homestead Garden journey? Don't take things too seriously and always keep planning and dreaming! What else are the cold, snowy, long winters up here for?
Want to read about our Potager (Kitchen) Garden? Click HERE!