I did something that others might consider crazy on purpose. I ignored my Simplestead potager garden for 4 weeks during our hottest, driest period.
We’ve had less than an inch of rain in the last 4 weeks and most of it fell today just before I came outside to document the condition of the garden after my near total neglect. Our temperatures were also over 85 F for 23 of those 28 days of neglect.
I didn’t water.
I didn’t weed.
I didn’t stake or trellis anything.
I didn’t pick off insects or coddle any fungal prone plants.
I just harvested the things that would rot if I didn’t pick them. That included tons of carrots, beets, peppers, cantaloupes, tomatoes, beans, and more. That harvesting took me a grand total of about 15 minutes over the last 4 weeks.
This is not my normal gardening practice. I love gardening and spending time in my garden. So, it was actually hard for me to stay away. But, this is a test/proof of concept garden that I created for the purpose of writing this blog.
Gardening is not a just a way to produce food. It’s a relationship with your environment. So, I don’t recommend that you practice total neglect of your garden as a habit. However, there are times when you can’t garden as much as you want to. Stuff comes up and you simply can’t get outside to do your routine maintenance and enjoy time in your garden. In other words, life happens.
If you put the time into planning, developing your soil, and choosing the right plants for your garden, and keep your garden constantly planted, then your well-planned potager can keep on without you for a while.
Yes – it may look a bit like a jungle with sprawling tomatoes, out of control melon vines, and a few pests (deer in my case) may visit and eat your bean or sweet potato vine leaves while you are away.
Still your garden grows on. Plus, it can be easily worked back into condition with an hour or two of care.
Most importantly, that density of planting from that jungle like atmosphere protects the soil and all the biological life encouraged with compost and compost tea when you do have time to invest in your garden.
Now that this experiment is over, I’ll be harvesting mass quantities of vegetables today. Despite the sprawl, there are ripe, ready to eat tomatoes hiding in those vines.
Although the beet greens are a bit sun-scalded and crispy, the roots are are plump and ready to eat. I’ll be freezing about 30 pounds of cantaloupe for our smoothies. A few that didn’t ripen fully will go to the chickens. I’ll also harvesting every pepper and bean I can find to encourage the plants to get back to production.
After that, I’ll do a couple hours of maintenance such as getting some light to my garlic chives which were nearly swallowed by the tomatoes. Generally though, I’ll just spend some quality time with my garden again.
There will be lots more potager-related posts to come. However, since it is now time to start super-powering your garden with poop, I’m going to switch gears for the next few posts and talk about raising chickens the Simplestead way.
Is it a beautiful ornamental or a possible invasive pest? Where I live now, with many below freezing days of winter, this lovely tree has no chance of becoming invasive because it’s not cold hardy. So, I am going to rate it as a beautiful ornamental. In fact, I have to grow it in a pot that I can cart in and out of my greenhouse on a mover’s trolley as needed.
Until recently, it never even occurred to me to try to grow this beauty in my mountainous region of North Carolina. However, I have set upon a journey to grow as many spices as I can, understand their uses, and appreciate the cultures that first brought them to our attention.
The annatto tree and spice is a great place for me to start my journey because it is one of the few spices native to the Americas. No, it doesn’t come from the part of North America where I live. But it did grow like a native in the landscape of my childhood.
I first encountered this tree growing up in Southern California. My dad used to take me walking along the sidewalk-lined suburban streets of our Orange County neighborhood. The area we lived in was “well-established”. That’s a nice way of saying it had a lot of older homes that weren’t as eye catching as the McMansions beginning to pop up in tracts on all the empty lots nearby.
Personally, I loved where we lived though because every home had a variety of mature landscaping plants. There was lots of eucalyptus, lemons, oranges, avocados, olives, persimmons, figs, pomegranates, jacaranda, and more.
One house had a wall of annatto trees growing so thick across the front lawn, you had to try hard to see the house hiding behind. I suspect that was what the owner wanted since their home was on what had become a busy road as all the new shopping centers started to move in.
That area of the sidewalk seemed constantly stained red from the spiky seed pods that fell, cracked open, and then after a few rains, were ground in by the feet of pedestrians like me. A few times, I collected some seeds still intact. I remember trying to use them as my own homemade version of sidewalk chalk.
In a fit of recent nostalgia, I scoured the Falling Fruit site (a resource for urban and suburban food foragers) to see if anyone reported those edible seed pods still falling on the sidewalk of my youth. Unfortunately, no one has reported them.
It could be that my memories have outlived those trees which are only reputed to have a 20-25 year productive life. Or, perhaps, they grow on renewed by self-seeding. Maybe passerbys today still smash those seeds into sidewalk stain as I once did, never realizing the culinary value falling at their feet.
The Secret Ingredient
Despite the fact that I grew up on “ethnic foods” as a resident of Southern California and must have had more than my fair share of dishes seasoned with achiotte paste or the commerical version called sázon, I never connected that plant to its culinary applications until I became a cheese maker.
When I made my first cheddar at home, I was shocked to discover it had a pale whitish-yellow color and not the rich orange I had been expecting. A little research revealed that annatto was used a colorant to make cheddar appear orange.
After that I experimented a bit using the annatto seeds, also called achiote when used as a spice, as a colorant and to flavor rice and chicken dishes. In my experience, it isn’t particularly strong flavored on its own. Yet, it seems to somehow enhance the flavor of other things it also seems to make the fats in foods seem more supple and smooth and less oily.
Growing Your Knowledge of Annatto
In yet another phase of my appreciation and understanding of this sidewalk-staining, spice-emphasizing, cheese-colorant, I recently learned that those towering trees that turned a California lawn into an impenetrable forest, can also be kept compact and grown in containers.
As such, I now have a specimen growing in my greenhouse. In the not to distant future, since this plant is purported to grow quickly, I’ll know a lot more about how to use it and why it is so deserving of a place of honor in the home spice rack.
In the meantime, here are some articles I have found helpful in my quest to better understand this beautiful spice plant.
Thai basil grows very similar to other basils. It does well in fertile, well-draining soils, and can tolerate some drought. It has been much slower to flower than the common Genovese basil and more resistant to bolting in hot, dry weather. This basil grows a bit slower than many other basils, but puts on a spectacular flower show and is worth the wait.
Taste and Smell
Thai basil is more pungent than other basils. It has a peppery, licorice-taste that is very pronounced. It is definitely a savory herb which is why it balances so nicely in sweet and sour dishes or things like curry with a sweet coconut milk base.
Thai basil has a strong, lingering black licorice or anise scent that becomes even stronger when dried. This is one of the best drying basils I grow in my garden.
Thai basil has light green leaves with rose hued stems. The leaf color is a bit more lime or yellow-tending than than the shiny, brightness of the more common Genovese basil. The leaves are also more narrow and tend to be smaller and more angular in shape.
Thai basil leaves seem more prone to insect damage than is typical for the other kinds of basil I have experience growing. It also seems to be less of a nutrient scavenger than other kinds of basil and requires more care to avoid chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves).
Thai basil has blooms that more closely resemble lilac flower clusters than the tall flower stakes that are more typical of most basil plant. They are incredibly beautiful in clusters. The flowers also hold up well when cut and are excellent in aromatic herb bouquets.
This is one of the more compact and slower growing basil plants I have grown. It also doesn’t spread as wide even with regular pinching to encourage bushiness.
These plants seem to do best in direct sunlight. The interior leaves show a lot of yellowing if plants aren’t allowed enough room to grow.
Mature height in fertile soil ranges between about 2-3 feet, width is about 1 foot wide. I only grow this plant in fertile, vegetable garden soil because it seems more finicky than other basil plants.
Starts easily from seed. Can be direct planted or transplanted.
It does exceptionally well growing through hot weather even with minimal rain or watering and is slow to flower even under extended heat stress.
Needs warm temperatures to germinate. Seeds started in late May in North Carolina, in 80 degrees F germinated in 4-5 days. Germination rates seem lower than for most basils I have tried. So, I heavily over seed for this plant.
Water daily until plants are at least a few inches tall for faster growth rates.
Thai basil’s compact size and slower growth rates make it more weed prone in general. By starting more plants, closer together, then harvesting the thinnings, to use in cooking, you get more yield and have less weed competition at the outset.
This basil also seems to need regular fertilizing for peak health. Compost tea applied weekly to the roots intensifies the color and aroma of the leaves.
Persian basil grows very similar to other basils. It does well in fertile, well-draining soils, and can tolerate some drought. It has been much slower to flower than the common Genovese basil and more resistant to bolting in hot, dry weather.
Taste and Smell
Persian basil is very mild in flavor. It can be used fresh in salads as whole or chopped leaves. It has a hint of licorice and mint as well as the savory, green flavor common to most basil. The leaves are a bit meatier than Italian-style basils.
There is a hint of cinnamon in the flower blossoms. The leaves smell more strongly of licorice than some other basils. Overall, though the aroma is mild like the flavor.
Persian basil has green leaves with purple hued stems and veins. The leaf color is darker and more subdued than the shiny, brightness of the more common Genovese basil. The leaves are also more narrow and elongated in shape.
Persian basil has purple flower stakes with white flower blooms. The stakes grow from the center of the leaves starting the size of a button and growing to 3-4 inches in length.
The plants are about 1 foot wide with minimal pinching. However they can spread out a few feet if you continually pinch growing heads to encourage bushiness.
They also seem perfectly happy to grow in large , overcrowded groups, and do an excellent job at stifling weeds. The plants along the outer perimeter will lean over to get sun and air and then set new roots and spread. Even well-shaded inner leaves show no signs of discoloration. So, I suspect this plant can even tolerate a fair amount of shade or being grown in indirect window sunlight.
Mature height in fertile soil ranges between about 3-4 feet. The plants are shorter in drier, less fertile soil.
Starts easily from seed. Can be direct planted or transplanted.
This basil grows slower than other basils at first. So it may need weeding for the first few weeks. But then it catches up quickly and does exceptionally well growing through hot weather.
Needs warm temperatures to germinate. Seeds started in late May in North Carolina, in 80 degrees F germinated in 2-3 days.
Water daily until plants are at least a few inches tall for faster growth rates.
Thinning is optional. This plant seems to self-select the winners if you over seed and then adjusts well to overcrowding.
It’s beautiful to plant in bunches for more impact than from individual plants.
That compost-driven potager I planned and started back in winter and spring is thriving even during extreme heat thanks to all the compost I used to amend the soil. In a 134 square foot garden, I’ve harvested 75 beets, 20 kohlrabi, 25 turnips, 5 large heads of storage cabbage, 18 pounds of potatoes, more carrots than I could count, daily salads from April to July, endless kale, chard, and mustard, herbs, peas, and more.
Now, one month into summer tomatoes, peppers, more beets, eggplant, okra, melons, chard, sweet potatoes, runner beans, and sunflowers are growing well in the garden. Fall vegetable seeds will go in a month from now so that I can harvest fresh food even into winter.
Oh, and did I mention that I only I spend about 1 hour a week tending the garden. Every couple of weeks, during hot dry periods, I spend an extra hour clearing up weeds and deep watering. I have picked off a few cabbage moth larva and I’ve had a little flea beetle and slug damage to a few leaves. But I’ve had no losses to pests and haven’t done anything to control for pests.
I owe all of this success, not to my own incredible intelligence (I wish), but to nature’s. Using nature’s method of adding fertility, in the form of top applied compost to encourage thriving soil life, this first year garden is doing amazing.
To maintain this kind of performance, I’ll need to add several inches of compost annually.
Making compost is an incredibly satisfying act of environmental love. Knowing that you are putting what would otherwise be treated as “waste” to work in your garden is both soul and soil enriching.
There are endless ways to make compost. Before you get carried away by all the exciting compost bin plans out there, though, I want to make sure you know that you don’t need an elaborate system to make compost. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. You also don’t need to spend more than a few minutes every so often to make a whole lot of compost.
Compost is nature’s gift to us. Nature doesn’t care if you have a 2 bin system or a 3 bin system. Nature doesn’t demand that you use a multi-tiered vermicompost tower or inoculated bran and and an anaerobic container to do your composting.
Those things are tools that we choose to make compost on our terms. Depending on your circumstance, some tools may be useful or they might be a waste of your time. That’s for you to decide.
Nature, though, only needs a few things from you to convert your waste into something useful in the garden.
This is a website devoted to simple homesteading. So, I am not going to be covering all the complicated ways to make compost. Instead, I am going to share some very simple, minimal work ways to help nature do what nature wants to do anyways.
Make a first layer with a few inches of twigs and branches to elevate your pile off the ground for good drainage.
Step 2: Add Browns
You’ll be alternately layering 2 to 3 parts dried browns to 1 part greens until your pile is 4 feet tall and wide. But, you want to start with a good base of browns to absorb excess moisture from your greens.
For browns, I prefer straw or mulched leaves collected in fall. Shredded paper and bits of cardboard also work.
Step 3: Alternate Greens and Browns
Now, you’ll start the layering process by adding 1 part greens to every 2-3 part browns. Keep your greens layers no more than 2 inches deep for good airflow.
Greens are things like kitchen scraps, animal manure, grass clippings, or crop residues from the garden. As a rule of thumb, any plant parts harvested when they were green and actively growing or any animal by-products are counted as greens.
If you are using bokashi to expand your compost options, add that between layers of browns. Also, put it toward the bottom of the pile to discourage pests (just in case it’s not fully bokashi-ed).
Note: Your collection buckets might contain some browns like paper towels or junk mail. If you have lots of browns in there already lean toward 2 parts browns. If you have very few browns in your collection buckets, go for 3 parts browns.
Step 4: Repeat Until Complete, Then Water
Keep the top of the pile covered with a tarp, or other water proof protection, so it doesn’t get wet until it reaches full-size. Make sure the sides are not covered because you still need airflow to keep your pile from becoming anaerobic.
When your pile is about 4 feet tall and wide, water the entire pile until it feels like a wet but not soppy sponge. This will activate composting.
Step 5: Cover and Wait
After watering, top your pile with several inches of dry browns as a moisture barrier. Then, let the pile sit for uncovered 4 weeks.
If you happen to have heavy rain in the forecast put the tarp back on before it rains and remove it after the rain. Otherwise leave the pile open for good air flow.
Step 6: Turn and Burn
Now you need to turn your pile. This requires using a pitch fork to move the contents of the pile, fork load by fork load, to a new location.
Usually this new location is adjacent to your pile so you don’t have to move your pile very far. Also, you’ll want to layer some branches and browns on bottom like you did in steps 1 and 2 before you start forking to promote good drainage.
Try to fold the outsides of the pile in so they get to be on the inside in this new pile. You may also need to water your pile again so it feels like a wet but not sopping wet sponge.
Within 1-2 days of turning your pile, put your hand near, but not inside the pile. (Your pile could get to 160ºF, so don’t touch it!) Make sure you can feel lots of heat emanating from the pile. If not, then pour some fresh urine the pile as you can and check again in a day or two.
Step 7: Have Patience
Now, you just need to let your compost sit around for a year before you use it. That will allow any pathogens to time out. It will take care of some toxins such as minimal quantities of pesticides and herbicides that might have drifted into your lawn when your neighbor used those chemicals.
That time also gives all your compost critters a chance to decompose most of what’s in your pile without you having to sift a lot later.
Carbon to Nitrogen Calculations
Down the road, when you want to get a more balanced compost to control nutrients in your soil, understanding carbon to nitrogen ratios can be really helpful. However, I recommend you use this basic method based on parts of “browns and greens” a couple of times before you move up to fancy compost.
When you are ready for using carbon to nitrogen calculations to make even better compost, then head over MorningChores.com and look for the compost calculator I helped create.
A Few More Thoughts on Composting
Now that you know how easy making compost can be, there are a few other things for you to think about.
Turning The Pile
If you want to make compost quickly, you can turn your pile more often. The problem with doing this is that you attract mostly high-temperature loving compost bacteria to your pile. Those bacteria are great for decomposing things in a hurry. But since your soil temperatures are not going to be that high, they won’t do much for your soil and your plants when you put fast-made compost in your bed.
I normally turn a pile only once. Sometimes if stuff doesn’t seem to be breaking down or I don’t get noticeable heat when I turn the pile then I may turn it a 2nd or even 3rd time for good measure. Overall though, less turning and longer aging tend to be more beneficial for plants in my experience.
I might shock a few people by saying this. But here goes.
I don’t sift my compost. Ever.
Usually the bits that aren’t fully decomposed after a year of aging disappear within a few weeks of spreading compost on soil. So, I’ve just never worried about them.
Every so often I’ll come across a clump of stuff in a compost pile that just didn’t break down because it stayed too wet. In that case, I break it apart and throw it into my next compost pile or I’ll give it to my worms for expedited processing.
You’ll notice that I only had you check for heat after you turned your pile. Other instruction sets have you check it each time, which is fine. But, I know lots of first time composters who don’t get heat in their first pile. It may be too wet, or wet only in certain places, the layers might be to light or too heavy.
By the time that stuff has sat around and melded for a month and attracted bacteria and fungi, then when you turn the pile and moisten it a second time, it almost always ignites. So, that’s why I don’t worry about a temperature check until I turn the pile.
– Compost Thermometer
Also, if your pile feels hot when you hover your hand near it, then it’s doing it’s thing just fine. However, if you want to be precise, get yourself a compost thermometer and take a reading. Temperatures between 135-165ºF are ideal.
– Moisture Meter
If you like the idea of using a thermometer, then you might also want to consider a moisture meter too. Aiming for about 60% water content in your pile is also ideal for active decomposition.
Bins are totally optional. However, they can be beneficial if you have neighbors who don’t want to see your unsightly pile, or if plan to compost things that rodents and raccoons might love to eat too.
If you are going to the trouble of setting up a multi-bin system, I suggest that you use hardwood or paint your parts so they last a while. Put roofs on them so you can better control moisture. And give yourself room to store lots of browns so you can make use of all your neighbors leaves too.
Skip the elevated bins that you have to turn daily. They seem simple. But I assure you a pile like the one described above will save you lots of work and frustration while making you more compost.
I’ll cover some more composting information in upcoming posts. But, now between vermicompost, bokashi, and basic compost, you have a great repertoire of tools to start really improving your soil.
Now, go perform your own act of environmental love by turning your waste into garden goodness!
The garden explosion happened. Those tiny, seedlings I showed pictures of in the last post Plant Your Homestead Potager suddenly started to look like fully-fledged plants.
Even when you visit your garden daily, and observe the incremental growth, there is still this moment when you realize “Wow, this is a real garden.”
Honestly, it was a real garden from the first moment you poured your intentions into it. Yet, it always seems so surprising when your effort starts to pay off and your aesthetic ideals of a garden are gratified.
Stop and enjoy this moment. Savor it like you would a perfect, but fleeting sunset. Take some mental, or actual pictures, to refer back to from year to year. Then, get out your harvest basket and scissors and get to work.
Harvesting as Health Care for Your Garden
This is the point in time when you really have to be diligent. If you don’t stay on top of your harvesting and garden care, your plants’ heath will decline quickly.
So-called “pests” will come to help eradicate failing plants. We call them pests, but really they are just nature’s helpers, culling the poor performers so they don’t go to seed and start generations of weak plants.
As plants fail, the biological life in your soil will lose their sense of purpose. Those damaged plants begin to process nutrients poorly, leaving too much behind in the soil. . Those once eager biological workers start to go dormant from boredom as the nutrients they provide begin pile up and their efforts go unappreciated by dying root systems.
Don’t worry. This does not need to be the fate of your garden.
All you need to do is harvest and replenish what you take. Then, you’ll have a continuous supply of fresh food. Your soil life will be busy and satisfied. Your plants will be healthy and you won’t need the services of nature’s pest-like plant killers who offer a quick end to suffering plants.
The Continuous Harvest
If you took my advice and over seeded, you can use your scissors to cut out the extra plants that are smaller in size. Leave the largest, healthiest plants in the ground to grow out to maturity.
The Art of Thinning
If all those extra plants with edible greens look healthy, and aren’t developing slug problems, I thin in increments. That way I get a harvest of baby greens every day for a week or two. Even a small handful of fresh tasty greens can spruce up an omelet, make a great side salad, or be tossed with olive oil and salt when you need something salty and crunchy on warm days.
If plants show signs of insect damage or leaf discoloration, then I thin brutally, leaving only those plants that have the best chance of success. Heavy rains followed by periods of hot, sunny days can create fungal problems and encourage slugs to move in. So, when that happens, I also speed up my thinning process to maintain good air circulation and avoid creating a slug heaven.
– Minimally Thinned Root Vegetables
Most plants ultimately need plenty of space to grow to mature size. However, there are a few that can grow to a large size even in close contact with fellow plants. For example, beets, turnips, and radish can grow in groups of 3-4, almost right on top of each other in fertile soil.
The bulb portions of the plants just push each other apart as they swell. Then, you can carefully harvest the biggest of the bulbs and let the others continue growing. You do need good airflow around your clusters though. So, you will still need to thin many of the greens for good root production.
– Non-Edible Plant Thinning
Even for plants that I can’t eat the thinnings of, like tomatoes and peppers, I still thin incrementally. High-performing, young plants really seem to benefit from a little competition and companionship at the outset of planting.
This method requires is a delicate balance though because once the strongest plants are established, they can become stunted by crowding. Usually within 2-3 weeks in warm weather and 3-4 weeks in cool weather, it’s time to let your winners make the rest of their journey toward plant maturity on their own.
Leave Non-eDible Roots In Place
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, bacteria and fungi form relationships with plant roots. So, if you rip out your plant roots every time you harvest, you end up taking a lot of those amazing garden helpers with you.
Instead, leave the roots in the ground when you can. Small roots decompose quickly. Even large roots can be left to decompose if you have room to plant around them.
If your plants have become pest infested, though, you’ll want to pull those roots out and throw them away so that you don’t run the risk of harboring lots of larva in your soil and plant matter.
Here’s an example of my kohlrabi seedlings before thinning.
Now, here’s what it looked like after I harvested the baby greens to use for making a variation on Palak Paneer. I only left the two largest plants on the outer edges of the photo so that they can continue to grow to maturity. The rest were dinner and delicious!
If you need another application of organic fertilizer for your heavy feeders, then you can do this after you complete your thinning process.
When using slow-release, meal-based fertilizers like feather meal and bone meal, or organic 4-4-4 mixes, you can sprinkle them directly on the soil all around your plants. I like to cover them with a thin layer of compost and then water them in to help them start to penetrate the soil.
When you eventually harvest your mature plants, you’ll also want to fertilize the bed again before you start a new crop. Then, you’re all set to start growing your next crop.
As you finish harvesting your cool season crops, you’ll most likely want to put in warm season crops. For example, if your March planted peas are spent, then it might be time for your late-May planted green beans. When cabbage comes out, okra might go in.
If you are removing warm season crops, it may be time to start planting for a fall harvest. Fall gardening really starts in summer. This is usually around late July through mid-August. But the exact timing for fall planting depends on your climate and growing season.
Your fall plants need to be well-established before your day-length shortens too much and soil temperatures cool. Winter cover crops are generally started around this time too.
If it’s not quite fall planting time, you may need to grow a short term, hot season cover crop like buckwheat or cowpeas. The important thing is never to leave your beds unplanted.
I often put my new seeds in the ground a few days before I harvest the entire mature plant (e.g. cabbage heads). That gives the seeds time to acclimate and activate. Once I remove the ready to harvest plants, those eager seeds seem to sprout instantly.
Note, this only works if you can leave the mature plant roots in the ground. You don’t want to disturb newly planted seeds by pulling out old roots.
Come and Cut Greens
For densely planted come and cut greens, like the lettuce bed shown above, I harvest in sections. This promotes good air flow and keeps the bed looking full even after I fill my salad bowl.
You want to leave at least an inch of leaf producing part of each plant so that the lettuce leaves can regrow from the base. Many of your lettuce plants will actually make multiple heads and start to become more productive as you harvest them.
Once that happens, you’ll be able to harvest a section of your bed almost daily . Then, a week later when you’re ready to re-harvest that first section, it will be lush and ready to cut again.
If your plants start to bolt (send up flower stalks), you need to harvest them all the way to the soil at each cutting to kill those plant and make room for more. Right after you cut a bolting section down, add some more fertilizer to the soil and cover with 1-2 inches of compost. Then, re-seed your next round of lettuce right over your just butchered patch.
If you do this in segments, your garden bed will never be completely bare while waiting for new seedlings to sprout. When you get your timing exactly right, then you never want for lettuce.
In hot climates, your second planting may need to be a collection of oak leaf lettuces or alternative greens like New Zealand spinach that better tolerate excessive heat.
Salad Preparation Tip
Cut your lettuce up into bite size portions and put them directly in your salad spinner in the garden. Then, all you need to do is give them a rinse and spin back in the house and they are ready to eat.
Also, if you do have issues with slugs, they tend to be heaviest in the bottom inch or two of the cut leaves.By trimming that area and throwing it on top of your compost pile to dry out in the sun, you remove the slugs from your lettuce bed and have fewer pests to wash out of your cut lettuce.
Your timing and efficiency at harvesting vegetables from your potager will get better the more you do it. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. Visualize ways that you’ll improve your process for next year as you go along, even if it’s too late to correct things this year.
In my experience, the best time to plan your garden for next year is actually right now while you are in the thick of the growing season. You may not formalize your plan until winter when you have time to sit down and write it out. But, by solving challenges and making plans for your future garden now, and keeping good notes so you remember, your work will be mostly done before you put your future plantings on paper.
Next time, we’ll start to get into the details of making compost right in the garden. In the meantime…Bon Appétit!
Now that you’ve constructed your homestead potager, it’s time to plant. Well, almost…
There are two more things I suggest you do before you put plants or seeds in the ground.
Pre-Planting Step 1: Start Compost Tea
The first thing I recommend is that you get a five gallon bucket, fill it with rain water (if possible), and drop a bag of 2-3 cups of vermicompost in your bucket. You can use an old pillow case, a flour sack towel, or an official compost tea bag to hold your castings.
Let this “brew” for 7 days. This is basic compost tea. Twice a week, use one cup of your tea to every 1 gallon of water you use to water your garden. I keep a 2 cup measuring cup by my bucket and use a 2 gallon watering can, so that makes it easy to figure out my dosages.
No Additives Please
Please do not add molasses or kelp or any other additives to your compost tea. It’s not necessary and may occasionally encourage not so beneficial bacteria when used in passive compost tea.
Note: Down the road, if you want to buy a $60 pump and run it for 3 days every 2-4 weeks, then you can add those extra ingredients to make actively aerated compost tea (ACT or AACT) which does need those additives to encourage bacteria and fungi. For now though, let’s start with simple, safe, passive compost tea with worm castings only!
Keep it Going
Start a new bucket as needed so that you always have compost tea that has brewed for at least 7 days ready to use when watering during the growing season.
The reason for doing this is that bacteria and fungi are what make the compost in your garden effective as a fertilizer. If you bought commercial or bulk produced compost, it was made quickly and often does not have the same quantity of microlife as slow-processed, homemade compost. Also, many of your fungi and bacteria only wake up and start working when they come into contact with plant roots.
So, at the outset, your garden soil is more of a growing medium than a nutrient factory. Depending on your starting conditions and the quality of your compost, it can take 1-2 years for compost to be a sufficient fertilizer for vegetables.
By putting your worm castings in water, you extract the water soluble nutrients and make them immediately available to plants. You also add small quantities of bacteria and fungi direct to your root zone as you water so they can quickly form beneficial relationships with your plants.
Think of compost tea as a compost activator and short-term plant health booster.
Pre-Planting Step 2: Add Fertilizer
Many gardeners swear by compost as the only thing needed to grow a great organic garden. In the long-term I agree that it can be if you add enough slow-made, well-aged compost and keep your garden continuously planted.
In the short-term though, most soils simply do not have enough humic content for compost alone to grow a densely planted potager garden. Also, most new gardeners aren’t experts at crop rotation and cover crop use which are both also important tools for growing a garden without additional fertilizer.
So, while many organic gardeners frown on adding fertilizer beyond compost, for the health of your new garden I suggest you incorporate some “meal-based” fertilizers into your compost before you plant. Meals are plant or animal material that have been ground up into a powdered form.
Option 1: Use Organic Meals
My two favorite meals to work with are feather meal as a nitrogen (N) source and bone meal as a phosphorous (P) and calcium (Ca) source. They are both slow release with only a small portion of their nutrients being available when you first apply them. But, over the growing season, they deliver a fairly continuous supply of N, P, and Ca. They are also usually the least expensive organic fertilizer pound for pound of nutrient delivered.
These are by-products of the commercial poultry and meat processing industries. Although I don’t generally support the way those industries operate, those by-products would simply be landfill waste if not converted to useful garden nutrients. They are not perfect from an environmental perspective but they are so beneficial to a new garden and do help solve a waste problem. They are also much better and safer than the synthetic alternatives.
For potassium, I use wood ash from the hardwoods we burn on our landscape. There can be a lot of variance in potassium quantity in wood ash. But they tend to be higher if you use the ash from hard woods only. Wood ash also contains some calcium and other trace minerals.
Ashes should be kept dry until applied in the garden and sifted to remove any large coals that might bind nitrogen in your soil.
Simplestead Fertilizer Recipe
My new garden fertilizer formula is:
4.5 pounds feather meal
4.5 pounds bone meal
1 pound wood ash
I coat the top of my garden beds with this mix at a rate of about 1/2 pound for every 10 square feet of garden area. So, you’ll use 5 pounds for a 100 square foot garden to start.
For plants that require lots of nitrogen like lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, and others, I will reapply the same amount of fertilizer again in about 3-4 weeks as plants start to really size up. If those high-nitrogen needs plants take more than 80 days to grow, I’ll also reapply again at the 6-8 week mark.
For light feeders, I’ll only reapply fertilizer if my plants seem to need it. Then, I’ll reapply a 1/2 pound per 10 square feet whenever I start new plants.
Note, I only do this for the first two years after starting a garden. After that point, the power of compost usually kicks in and you run the risk of overloading your garden using a generic formula like this. From that point on, I use plant specific fertilizer mixes as needed. (We’ll cover more on that in much later posts.)
If you don’t want to mix your own, you can also buy 4-4-4 organic fertilizer mixes from makers like Down to Earth, Jobes, Dr. Earth, or others.
Avoid all synthetic fertilizers. Also, in general, avoid applying any fast-release fertilizers to your garden even if they are organic. Also, be careful not to apply a quantity that is greater than 5-5-5 at any one time. For the health of your soil, it’s better to apply more only when you need it than too much at one time.
Here’s why. Synthetic fertilizers eventually bind nutrients and limit microlife. Strong fertilizers, organic or not, can burn plants and cause biological life in the soil to go dormant. These also pose run-off risks during rain and watering because plants grown in compost heavy gardens simply do not need all those excess nutrients and won’t use them quickly enough.
How to Incorporate Fertilizer
For the Simplestead mix or store-bought organic fertilizer, sprinkle it on top of your soil. Then, use your finger tips to work it into the top 2 inches of your compost. Watering, soil life, and plant roots will work your fertilizer deeper over time. After incorporation, water your entire bed area to activate the fertilizer and settle it into your compost.
What to Plant in a First Year Potager
I know everyone wants to jump right in and start growing giant heirloom tomatoes. Unfortunately, that usually ends in disappointment. Do yourself a favor and buy those at your local farmers market. Then instead, focus on things you will be able to grow well in a first year garden.
I can’t give you specific suggestions because every climate is different. But, I do have some broad, general principles to share that should help you have a bountiful harvest in your first year.
1. Focus on CONTINUOUS Harvest Type Vegetables
Plants that can be planted once and harvested for a month or more are wonderful for a potager. They help keep the garden looking full and beautiful while giving you something to use in your meals each day. They also tend to be terrifically nutritious and low calorie.
Here are my favorites.
Leaf Lettuce Mixes
Turnip Greens (e.g. Seven Top, not Root Turnips)
Green Onions (cut greens, leave roots in place to regrow tops)
Cherry or Grape Tomatoes
Sweet or Hot Peppers
2. Choose Fast-Growing, Direct Seed Varieties
I highly recommend that new gardeners also focus on plants that can be harvested in 75 days (or less) and are easy to grow. Also, focus on plants that and can be started by putting seeds directly in the ground.
Quicker time to harvest means you can plant 2 or 3 times the quantity in the same place. Also, shorter time in the garden limits risk for pests to come and find your new location and spoil your crop before your soil has time to improve.
Here are some of my favorites fast-production vegetables. Make sure to choose varieties that specifically have time to harvest of 75 days or less.
3. Plan for Cool And Hot Season Crops
Cool season plants tend to bolt when temperatures warm up. So, you need to consider your number of cool days when planning for cool season vegetables. Until you have tried and true season extension and container seed starting methods, consider buying your early spring transplants. Country stores and farmers markets are great places to get them for less cost than the hardware store.
Warm season plants also need sufficient time to grow and ripen before harvest. So, make sure to allow enough hot days for good growth.
Easy to Grow Cool Season Plants
Baby Pok or Bok Choy
65-80 Day cabbages (e.g. Early Jersey Wakefield, Red or Green Acre)
Easy to Grow Hot Season Plants
Summer Squash or Zucchini (Choose compact varieties for best use of space)
New Zealand Spinach
4. Practice Growing Storage Foods
You probably don’t have room in your first year potager for a lot of long-storing foods. But, you can get some practice by growing a winter squash at the end of a row, a few potato plants, or a couple sweet potatoes plants.
Drying beans are also a good use of vertical space, such as along the north side of a garden fence. Shell them while watching a sun set or catching up on TV shows during bad weather.
Down the road, you may want to grow more of these as you expand your compost capacity and garden area. But for now, dabbling with them can be a satisfying experience.
What Not To Grow In Your Potager
Like I said at the outset, skip the large-sized heirloom tomatoes for year 1. They require rich soil, good staking, and active fungal management for good results from year to year. Save these as a challenge to master later.
I suggest skipping the corn too. It’s easy to grow. But it easily cross pollinates during the growing season. So without advanced planning, you can end up growing GMO corn in your homestead potager. Plus you need about 20 plants grown in a dense patch for good pollination. That means it will take a lot of soil fertility management for good production.
Long-storing cabbages are also better grown after a few years of soil improvement. The longer maturing varieties really need deep, rich soil to be able resist seasonal stresses and create their own defenses against pests like the cabbage moth.
Watermelon is incredibly easy to grow. But it will swallow your garden if you are not careful and give you almost no calories in return for all that space. Buy those at your farmers market too and save your space for the stuff above.
Tips On Organization and Planting Procedures
Now that you have a few plant choices to consider, here are a few tips to help you plan, plant, and encourage a healthy garden.
1. Intermix your continuous harvest vegetables with your one-time harvest vegetables. Potagers should be pretty and productive. That means you don’t want to be harvesting everything all at once. By mixing it up, your garden will never looks empty even though you’ll harvest regularly.
2. Stagger your plantings. For example, start beets every 2 weeks rather than all at once. Also, use heirlooms, they tend to have more varied germination rates than hybrid seeds. Throw in small radish as filler when needed.
3. Over seed on all things with edible plant parts. Beets, turnips, kohlrabi, mustard, lettuce, etc. can all be cut with scissors at the baby stage and eaten in salads or tossed into omelets. Thinning your seedlings is basically your first harvest.
4. Over seed on other plants like tomatoes, peppers, etc., too. But don’t eat the greens! Just cut the weaker seedlings back to soil level with scissors and let your strongest plant survive.
5. Make a key of your plantings. Labels in the beds are awesome, but also keep a paper map of everything you planted and when.
6. Add flowers and herbs. Flowers like marigolds, borage, nasturtium (dwarf) and herbs like basil, cilantro, and dill also have beneficial insect-attracting and pest-repelling benefits. Work them into any empty spaces you have for beauty and utility.
7. Water daily. Unless it rains or your soil is waterlogged, you really need to water daily. This regulates soil temperature, activates seeds, and nourishes the biological life in the soil so they can sustain your plants. Water slowly until the moisture pools on top for a few seconds.
8. Plant in uniform configurations like rows or squares. This makes it easy to see bare spots when your seedlings come up so you can re-seed if necessary. It also makes it easier to tell what’s a weed and what’s a seedling until you learn to recognize your plants in juvenile form.
9. Weed carefully and regularly. Use your finger tips to uproot baby weeds and expose their roots to dry and die. If you get them early on sunny or windy days, this is all it takes to weed a garden. Be careful not to uproot seedlings by accident.
10. Grow 10. Choose ten things to grow at a time at most. Research the growing requirements for each plant. Then, try to give them the custom care they need just as you would livestock or household pets.
11. Cull weak plants. If a plant is not doing well, remove it and put it in the trash. Do not compost it! Later when you’ve learned how to identify plant problems and fix them, you can. For now, though, get rid of anything potentially diseased or pest-attracting for the health of the rest of your garden.
Plants will grow slowly at first. Then suddenly one day you’ll look out in the garden and barely see your paths through your plants.
Your skills in the garden will grow like this too. At first, you’ll second guess everything you do, then one day you’ll realize you’ve become a gardener. Simple steps, done with loving care. That’s all it takes to grow a successful potager and a gardener!