The COVID-19 virus has made it difficult for grocery stores to keep shelves stocked. I visited the grocery for the first time in a month and was surprised to see so many shelves empty. Toilet paper, of course, was no where to be found. But, other things like flour, eggs, butter, and many fresh vegetables were in short supply too.
Seeing so many of our necessities and favorites missing from the shelves makes us feel especially vulnerable in tough times. So, many people are trying to reclaim a little control for their food supply by starting vegetable gardens.
More gardeners is a great thing. But it’s happening at a hard time. Seed sellers are seeing explosions in sales. Some sellers have had to cut off seed access to non-farmers because demand is so high and supply chains weren’t ready for this much sudden interest. But even in a crisis, with supply shortages, there are still things you can do to get started gardening.
Most importantly, remember that no matter what, the basics are the same. You have to prepare your soil. You have to plan your layout, even if it’s just a temporary. If you aren’t already composting, start now! If you can vermicompost – even better!
Once you do those things, the challenge of finding seeds and plants remains. So, here are some ideas to help you get started right now… even if you can’t get seeds delivered from online sellers.
Ask gardeners you know to share a few seeds (using social distancing pick-ups).
Local vegetable farmers may sell plant starts. (Even those that normally don’t sell plants, might be willing to now. So ask.)
You can also start many things from cuttings including all of your herbs. Get these at the grocery or from friends and neighbors yards (with permission).
You can start sweet potato slips from the sweet potatoes you get at the grocery store. Also, sweet potato vines can be cooked like spinach. So even if you don’t have 120 warm days to grow these for tubers, you can grow them just for the greens.
The seeds in store bought pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and more can be planted. They are likely hybrids, so the plant you get will be completely different than the one you planted from. But it will most likely still be edible.
You can also use the crowns of celery, romaine lettuce, carrots, parsnips, and others to grow more. Just put the base in water (changed daily) until roots form. Then plant in your garden.
Even though it’s not ideal, you can also use store bought potatoes as seed potatoes. Soak the tubers in water for a couple hours to expunge any growth retardants. Place in a warm location until eyes form. Then use 2-3 ounce pieces as seed potatoes.
Onions, garlic, and ginger from the store can also be planted. The tops of these three plants are edible too. So, you may want to grow them just for the greens. Ginger needs warm weather to grow.
Dried grocery store beans can also be used as seeds. Just plant extras because germination rates will be low.
Even your spice seeds such as dried mustard and coriander can be used in a bind.
Note for items from the grocery store because these are mass harvested, the plants they produces aren’t likely to be the best, most productive, or beautiful. They also have a higher risk for plant pathogens than certified disease free seeds and plants. Yet, in a crisis, if this is all you have to work with, it’s certainly worth trying.
Also, although no one lines to think about it under normal circumstances, diluted urine makes a perfect fertilizer. Don’t apply to plant leaves. Instead apply to the soil. You can read my post about using urine in the garden on Morning Chores.
Also, before you say “gross” think about this fact. All organic garden soil is loaded with the excrement and dead bodies of decomposed of insects, bacteria, fungi, and others. It also contains bird poop from the birds who fly over or eat pests. Oh and, commercial farmers who sell at grocery stores use industrial sewage and feed lot manure to fertilize field crops.
Closing the loop by using waste to add nutrients to soil is the foundation of sustainable agriculture. We just have to be smart about how we do it.
Most soils have some minerals. But many are simply too compacted to grow in. It will take some work, but if you can dig up your soil and mix it with mulched leaves, you can very quickly improve the structure so that you can at least grow some kinds of vegetables.
Ideally, you’ll also add well-aged compost. But that can also be hard to find these days. So, work with what you have.
Care and Share
Especially when gardening in non-ideal conditions, good plant care is the key to getting a crop. Water regularly, weed often, add compost as soon as you have it, mulch with a light layer of grass clippings or paper, and hand pick insects if you see multiples.
Finally, always remember, nature is built on sharing not hoarding. Share your extras. Share what you learn. Then, you’ll not only grow a garden, but a strong community that often shares exactly what you you need in surprising ways.
Choosing the plants that will grow well in your climate, weather, soil type, and garden is quite complicated. That’s why a big part of becoming a good gardener is learning how to read your landscape, understand your conditions, and carefully select plants that are most likely to thrive where you live.
If you want to learn more about all the intricacies involved in careful plant selection, then check out my post on MorningChores.com.
Also, remember to give any new plant a little extra care until you are certain it is happy and habituated to its new home. Start with good soil, water regularly, and fertilize organically with compost, compost tea, or slow-release bagged mixes that won’t be toxic for all the beneficial organisms that live in your soil.
It can be difficult to think beyond the grocery store, or the farmers market, when deciding what kind of food to grow on your homestead. Every recipe we know, every cookbook we have, tend to rely only on the readily available ingredients most of us can access. Yet, the most thrilling part about having your own garden is that you are not limited to the short list of ingredients available to the average shopper.
These more diverse, colorful and flavorful foods tend to have not only more utility in fine cooking, but also more nutrient content. Deeper colors, richer more complex taste profiles, and varied textures are all indicators of the wholesomeness of your food. This is what you really want from your potager – better health and the richness and beauty of an abundantly interesting array of culinary delights.
So the first advice I am going to give you is not to shop for seeds at the seed racks at big box stores. They are fine for a first year garden when you are just trying to learn a few skills and improve your soil .
In the second year, though, seek seeds from seed saving organizations that act as the keepers of our culinary legacies. Heirloom, open-pollinated seeds have been handed down for generations. Those seeds carry not only the genetic information to make a new plant, but also the history of their relationship with gardeners over many generations.
There are lots of great organizations out there offering seeds. Below are a few I use frequently. This list is not exclusive and I will happily add others if you have suggestions you love.
My next bit of advice is to grow the ingredients that greatly enhance the quality and pleasure of your meals. For example, if you plan to grow potatoes, grow gourmet fingerlings, or purple varieties lower in starch and higher in anthocyanins, or German styles with more complex flavors.
If you adore artichokes, then start them in pots indoors and transplant outside so you can get a crop the first year. If your grandmother grew pickling cucumbers that make you feel like a child at heart, then plant that variety even if they take are not as productive as new hybrids.
Growing what you love, with loving care, is the absolute best way to improve your gardening skills. Once you become an excellent vegetable gardener, it’s quite simple to scale up and grow a production garden for greater self-sufficient. Until you’ve mastered the basics though, focus on plants that make you want to fine tune your skills because they are meaningful to you.
Growing Beyond the Grocery Store
My last bit of advice is to spend a little time understanding the full scope of plants you can grow at home. Because grocery stores only carry what stores and sells well, and farmers markets can only carry the variety their customers will readily buy, trying to build a garden around what you see in those locations is very limiting.
Instead, do some research into all the various kinds of foods you can potentially grow. Read old, pre-grocery tore recipe books for inspiration on how to use less common ingredients. Embrace authentic ethnically varied and obscure culinary cookbooks.
To get you started, here’s a list of the kinds of things you might want to consider growing in your potager. Once you narrow down this list to what you might want to grow in your potager, then you’ll still need to look around for the specific varieties that speak to you and are well-suited to your climate.
Alliums – hard neck garlic with scapes, soft neck garlic for storing, leeks, storing onions, bunching onions, torpedo onions, flat onions, multiplier onions, Egyptian walking onions, shallots, garlic chives, society garlic, and common chives are all great choices for a potager.
Artichokes – Start indoors and grow as annuals in cold climates. Grow as perennials in USDA Hardiness Zone 7b and above.
Arugula – Grow the cultivated varieties as annuals and Sylvetta as a perennial.
Asparagus – Buy crowns or start from seed. Mary Washington is the only heirloom that is commonly found as 2 year crowns. Start some of those, then also start some Precoce D’argenteuil or Conovers Colossal from seed for more variety. Once these get going, they self seed and keep you stocked with new plants when you need them.
Beans – There are so many kinds of beans it’s amazing. Classic canning beans, filet beans, runners, half-runners, drying, broad, garbanzo, long, turtle, lima, butter, soy, and more. Some even come in bush form so you don’t need to trellis. Try a couple types each year to expand your bean expertise.
Beets – These also come in a host of colors, shapes, and best uses. There are varieties that are great for fermenting or storage, others best fresh in salads, and some are used to make sugar. Some make tastier tops. Beets only take 60-75 days, so they are a good choice to try several kinds of to find your favorites.
Broccoli – We’re used to the large headed types that we get at the grocery store. At home you can grow multi-heading varieties that produce one larger head followed by lots of small heads. You can grow rapini broccoli with edible flowers or Romanesco heads that simulate the Fibonacci spiral.
Brussels sprouts – In warm climates, these are easier to grow in fall than spring. But it’s worth it because you can get much tastier and more colorful varieties than most markets sell.
Cabbage – There are lost more styles of cabbage than most people realize. There are heading and non-heading types, early maturing, fresh eating, long-storing, multi-colored, conical, savoy-leafed, and more. Once you start growing heirloom cabbage at home, you’ll understand why this is one of the mot versatile foods you can grow.
Carrots – Purple, yellow, red, short, fat, long, squarish, narrow, baby, and more carrot options exist for the home grower. You can also use the tops in stocks and as garnish.
Cauliflower – This comes in a variety of colors like purple, yellow, and green. There are even varieties you can grow in warm climates.
Celery – Stalk celery can be a pain to grow unless you perennialize it in a pot and harvest unblanched stalks as needed. But leaf celery is just as tasty and grows as easily as kale. Celeriac is root celery that grows well in cold climates and makes for a perfect mashed potato substitute or creamed soup base.
Chard – This is wonderful in just about any garden. There are so many varieties. Bright lights is fun for color. Fordham is great for large leaves, Perpetual spinach chard is my favorite for a cooked spinach substitute in warmer weather.
Chicory – This family includes gourmet favorites like radicchio, endive, frisee. It also includes root chicory which makes a great coffee substitute.
Corn – Sweet corn is nice, but nothing beats a homegrown polenta with drying corn. Homegrown popcorn is tons of fun too. There are hundreds of heirloom corn varieties. But, you’ll need to plant enough for cross pollination. Plus, you’ll want to time planting when GMOs in your area won’t interfere.
Cukes – Want to grow your own cornichons, make cucumber soup, garnish your salads, make food art, ferment pickles, and more? You can do it all with the right kinds of cucumbers. I usually grow two varieties a year for fun. Protect the stem from borers with aluminum foil and use packing tape to remove squash bug eggs and nymphs from your plants.
Greens – I have a seedbox that I call “greens”. This is where I store an endless variety of leafy vegetables that I cut for a continuous harvest of salad. My collection includes collards, cresses (water, upland, and garden cress), all sorts of lettuce, kale, mustard, mizuna, tatsoi, bok choy, spinach, false spinaches like New Zealand and Malabar, sorrel, oyster plant, Seven Top turnips, purslane, mache, and more. Many of these also work amazingly well for stir-fry dishes and saute’s. (I tend to grow these in smaller quantities than my staple greens like chard, arugula, or cabbage so that’s why I lump them together as greens rather than giving them their own line item.)
Fattened/modified stems – Many plants that we think of as “roots” are really fattened, modified stems. Potatoes for example are a fattened underground stem that roots grow below. Ginger, galangal, and turmeric are referred to as rhizomes, but these too are just a variation on a fattened stem. Wasabi, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, bulb fennel, and yams are other examples of fattened stems you can grow in your potager in the right conditions. (Note yams and sweet potatoes are two different plants, and sweet potatoes are a root).
Legumes – Besides beans, there are also all sorts of other legume family plants to consider. Snow peas, snap peas, shelling peas, pea tendrils, cowpeas, crowder peas, fenugreek, lentils, alfalfa, peanuts, and beneficial flowers like lupines, clover, and sweat pea.
Melons – Watermelons, cantaloupe, muskmelon, honeydew, are all part of the squash family (see below) but they are on the fruity side of the spectrum and make delicious warm season low calorie treats.
Nightshades – This family includes so many garden favorites that have similar growing requirements including tomatoes, sweet or spicy peppers for fresh or dried eating, ground cherries, tomatillos, and eggplant.
Rustic roots – Salsify, turnips, rutabaga, parsnips, parsley root, horseradish, burdock, daikon, radish, Chinese yam, yacon, skirret, dandelion, and sweet potatoes are some lovely rustic roots that are easy to grow in the right climate.
Other squash family plants – Summer squash, winter squash, luffa, gourds, bitter melon, and pumpkins all fall into this basic plant group along with the cukes and melons already mentioned. These plants take lots of room unless you choose compact varieties or make use of vertical space. But they are highly productive and fun to grow. See the tips under cucumbers for insect prevention.
Big impact plants – Okra, rhubarb, cardoon, hibiscus (for tea), hops, moringa, hemp (if legal), and mammoth sunflowers for seeds are a few plants that take a fair amount of room, but offer big aesthetic impact and tasty treats in a potager.
Herbs – The classics like sweet basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, chives, mint, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and lavender are wonderful. But don’t forget epazote, licorice, Mexican marigold, lovage, culantro, methi, marjoram, leaf curry, fennel, hyssop, bay, anise, chervil, rue, French tarragon, lemon verbena, savory, and more.
Edible flowers – Pineapple sage, roses (flowers and hips), nasturtium, pansy, chrysanthemums, borage (cooked greens are edible too), honeysuckle, hollyhocks, and more.
Spices – Cumin, coriander, caraway, mustard seed, nigella, poppy, sesame, and anise for seed are some easy to grow spice plants that add stunning flower displays to a garden.
Seed Crops – Flax for seeds, ancient wheat, amaranth, quinoa, and other grains offer long-standing beauty and may even give you a tiny crop to use to top your salads or add interest to rice preparations.
Small fruits – Lots of dwarf fruits grow well in pots and can add interesting details and focal points to a potager. Blueberries which require more acidic soil than most vegetables can be grown in pots. Citrus that needs to be overwintered inside can adorn a potager in warm weather in large pots. Espaliered fruits like apples and pears can line paths. Strawberries fit in lots of places. Grapes, blackberries, and raspberries can be trained on fences. Figs, elderberry, goji, and hazelnut can be grown as shrubs and kept compact in size.
Garden helpers – Plants like marigolds, comfrey, zinnia, and flowering mints just seem to benefit all gardens. Also perennial flowers like echinacea, black-eyed susans, coreopsis, goldenrod, and others are well-loved by wildlife in my garden.
Cover crops – Whenever your garden is not planted with vegetables or flowers, then you’ll want to use cover crops to protect your soil. The easiest to start with are mustard in early spring, buckwheat in hot weather, and crimson clover in fall to overwinter. Once you get an understanding of those, then move on to winter wheat, Austrian peas, vetch, millet, sundangrass, annual rye, and barley.
I hope this list and the seed resources above will inspire you to think beyond the basics and grow a large variety of diverse and interesting foods and plants in your potager. Happy gardening!
If you are new to gardening and looking for a quick and easy tool to help you decide what to plant when, check out this new planting calendar. The programming team at Morning Chores developed it. Then, I helped refine some planting dates and adapt it to work for many different climates.
This is a perfect starting point for planning your own planting calendar. Plus, it’s easy to print so you can mark it up with your actual dates.
If you like this calculator, then you may also want to check out a few other cool calculators at Morning Chores.
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.
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!
Personally, before I pick up my shovel and turn the dream into reality, I like to take a little time to let that idea sink in. A new garden isn’t just a physical place. It’s also the start of a new relationship with your natural environment, with all of the human history that led to the kind of gardening we practice today, and with your future health and well-being.
It will take physical labor from this point forward. It will also take time, energy, and likely some monetary resources as well. There will likely be some challenges – things you didn’t think of, physical fatigue, and more time spent than you planned.
This is how you become a homesteader. Step by step, skill by skill, challenge by challenge, shaping you into a more mentally and physically competent person. Are you ready?
Step 1: Map It on Land
The first thing I do once I finalize my plan is to lay out my design. You are basically making an outline on the earth of where everything will go.
If you’ve been following along with the series, you’ve probably already done this few times as you were formalizing your plan. This time, though, you want to be precise.
You will probably need a tape measure, string, garden stakes, a corner angle or a firm cardboard box you can use to make sure you keep things square where appropriate. If you are making circles or odd shapes, you might need paint to mark the area. Or, you can use natural materials such as sprinkled sawdust to map out unusual shapes on the ground.
I am a good digger, so I actually map out my lines by doing some shallow digging . Then, when I’ve got it right, and double-checked my measurements, I move on to step 2.
Step 2: Create Your Paths
When you’ve got your plan laid out, you are ready to execute. Every plan is different, so I can’t tell you exactly what to do. However, this was my process.
Note: There were a few areas of my paths that I could not dig the soil because I risked hitting tree roots from the existing peach tree. In that case, I added cardboard and paper over the grass and weeds to help with suppression before I put my organic matter on top.
Step 3: Make the Beds
After the paths were made, I started on the beds. Here’s what I did.
Remove any tap rooted weeds from the bed area. Things like dandelion, dock, and thistle need to come out before you add your compost to your planting area. They will just grow deeper roots and be harder to pull later if you don’t get them now. But most of your fibrous rooted plants like grass and clover will be smothered by your compost.
Rake the beds to level to integrate the soil from paths. Don’t compact it, just make a fairly smooth surface so you can easily spread your compost on top.
Add 4 inches of compost on top of the entire planting area. If you’ve been picking up your bags of compost with your grocery trips, you just have to dump them on top. If not, now’s the the time to get a bulk order delivery or enlist a friend to help you haul lots of compost!
Also, save those plastic bags that your compost comes in for later use. They are perfect for storing materials to use for making your own compost such as leaves and seed free weeds that you pull during the season. Or, they can be made into a quilt to use to smother weeds when necessary.
Step 4: Water Well and Let it Settle
When you first add your organic matter to your paths and your compost on your beds, your garden will be like a big fully pillow. Now you need to water it in and let it settle. Water plus gravity and a few days time will cohere your beds and paths into something that looks more like a garden.
Water the paths and the beds deeply or wait for a few good rains to do it for you. If weeds sprout in your compost or force their way through from below, pull them as they come up. Keep pulling any weeds that crop up until you are ready to plant. Save them in one of your empty compost bags to use for your compost pile later.
Step 5: Incorporate Design Features
If you have planned any design or decorative features, now is the time to add them. Put up your fences, install your water features, set out your benches, put in a table, set up your watering and washing station, and add decorative bed details. Put down your decorative mulch if you are using it.
If you have specific compost bins you want to use add them now too. Don’t worry if you don’t, I’ll be showing you simple ways to compost in future posts that don’t require complex bin building. All you need is to set aside that compost bed area that I described in the last post.
Try to do all your major “moving in” to your garden at the outset so you don’t have to risk disturbing your plants later.
In my case, I added double shred hardwood along the paths. I used some painted boxes and a narrow container to create a focal, roundabout at the center intersection of the beds. I also added a planter area and some containers at the entrance. I painted all my decorative wooden features in a dark blue that will add a lot of contrast as plants begin to grow.
All of these steps are simple if you take them one at a time. It took me about 6 hours to lay out the beds, dig the paths, and add the organic matter and compost. I spent a few hours painting my decorative items, leveling the areas I set them in, and generally making things look like the wanted to.
I’ve also spent several hours, watering to help the area settle, picking weeds as they emerged, and making sure the garden feels right. For example, the garden didn’t look quite as rustic and charming as I wanted at first. So, when some friends gave us some unsplit logs as firewood, I took several of those logs and used them to line the downhill side of the beds. This made the beds look a bit terraced and helped define the space more.
As you will learn in the coming months, a garden is never done. It is an ever-changing canvas for your creativity and skills. So, don’t feel as if it must be perfect now. Just make sure it feels like your garden, rather than something impersonal.
In the next post, we’ll get into details about what to plant in a potager. There will also be a few more steps to bed preparation to make sure you have the fertility you need to grow healthy plants this year. In the meantime, weed, water, and make yourself at home in your new garden space.
In previous posts, I covered some things I know to be beneficial about choosing your potager location and designing your paths and bed styles. I also explained why I think it’s really important to make a vegetable garden functional and beautiful and inviting.
Now I want to cover a few other practical considerations that may influence your potager design and make it simple for you to maintain and use your garden effectively.
Homestead potagers are fueled by compost. So, I recommend that you match your vegetable garden bed size with your compost creation capacity. However, the deeper you get into the homesteading arts, the greater your compost capacity will become.
Down the road you will most definitely be able to to increase your garden size as you grow your skills. So, it makes sense to plan some additional space now to expand into later.
If you have set aside 250 square feet now, you may want to double that two years from now. You can simply plan to expand out from your current potager. Or, you can consider the idea of pocket gardens.
Large vegetable gardens tend to be a bit like a red carpet invite for pests. They are basically a grand buffet for vegetable leaf eating insects, root eaters like voles, green eaters like rabbits, and larger pests like deer who consider our gardens to be irresistible.
Instead of expanding out into one giant vegetable garden, I have learned the benefit of having several smaller pocket potagers. These gardens can be integrated with your broader landscape.
For example, when you are ready to grow some fruit trees and bushes, then perhaps you want to tuck your pocket potagers in between your larger orchard aisles. This works well if you are planning to use dwarf or semi-standard trees pruned low. That way you’ll still have full sun for your vegetables.
Or perhaps, you want to intermix your pocket potagers with your livestock. For example, I have one of my vegetable gardens sandwiched between my chicken run on one side and my goat barn on the other. This gives me access to throw the chickens and goats garden scraps. Plus, I have easy proximity to transfer their manure and litter to my compost area.
When planning for future pocket potagers, keep in mind proximity to your house for harvesting. Also, keep in mind all the other location considerations such as sun, obstacles, water, drainage, etc. Finally, plan to unite your gardens using inviting paths that encourage you to walk from area to area so no garden gets neglected.
Expanding out to a larger sized potager can also work well if you break up some of your vegetables growing area with other beneficial plants. For example, inside my largest potgater garden, I have created islands of non-vegetable plants to break up my vegetable beds.
That makes my garden less of a smorgasbord for pests and more like trying to get to a particular store inside a mall. Pests have to navigate through places they don’t want to visit to get to the place they want. Since that’s more work, pests will often just go somewhere else where the food is easier for them to get. Or, they’ll get distracted by something along the way and forget about my more delicate edibles.
If the only flowering food source you offer pollinators is the cucumbers and squash blossoms in your potager, you’ll have a hard time attracting sufficient pollinators to your garden. You can hand pollinate, but that makes for more work.
If you have the space, consider creating provide pollinator-friendly plots . These should be adjacent to or inside your potager areas for good yields and insect pest-prevention.
Many pollinator-friendly plants grow like weeds. They don’t require much care, can get by with lower fertility, and add interest to your landscape. So, you don’t need to factor those planting areas into your compost calculations. Think about things like mints, clovers, dandelions, wild flowers, etc.
I will share a lot more information on pollinator plots in future posts. But for now, planning some pollinator areas in or around your potager is an important step in your design. Grouping at least 5-10 pollinator plants together works best.
Yet, even if you are working with really limited space, dotting a few high-impact pollinator attracting plants (bee balm, butterfly bush, anise hyssop), around your potager area will also help ensure you get good pollination when you need it. Between a few long-bloomers and a sequence of flowering vegetables, you can help attract the pollinators you need.
We’ll get deeper into this subject later. For now though, earmark as much space as you can, close to your garden for pollinators. And keep in mind pollinators need to be part of your potager plan to keep things simple long-term.
There are a few times a year when you might use a long-handled shovel, rake, and pitchfork in a potager. But the rest of the time, simple hand-held tools are all you need to grow a homestead potager. You may also need to store seed trays, watering cans, garden amendments, and a few other things year round.
Beyond these basics that any potager requires, your personal choices will determine how much additional storage you need. Here are some things to think about in your storage planning.
Design Dictates Tools Needed
Your garden design, and particularly your path maintenance, will dictate which tools you use and need to store. If you’ve made simple choices like using nutrient swales and mounded beds, then your storage needs will likely be similar to those listed above. If you’ve opted for more labor intensive choices, like wide grassy paths, then your storage needs will also likely be greater.
Take some some to figure out what your future storage needs might be based on your design plan in progress. Consider the storage options you currently have and whether they can be used for garden tools also.
For example, if your potager is close to your house and you a garage (or another place in your house) where you can store tools, that might be all you need. However, if you live in a single-wide mobile home like I do, and barely have room to walk down your hallways, then you may need to plan alternate storage for your garden tools.
Planning for a Potting Shed
If you intend to build something like a potting shed down the road, or some other structure for homestead use, make sure you factor that into your potager plan. Keeping that close your potager will save you steps in gathering and returning tools.
You also want to make sure that structure won’t cast shade, create wind tunnels, or otherwise become an obstacle for your potager. You may also want to consider using it as a roof surface to collect rain for watering your garden down the road.
You don’t need to know your exact plan for storage now. However, if you do think you might want to build something, then leaving space for it in or near your potager can be helpful.
Right now, you are probably focused on vermicompost and maybe bokashi to create compost for your garden. However, as you begin to increase your compost capacity, you’ll need room to store the larger stuff you collect such as cardboard, leaves, grass clippings, free mulch, all the vegetable tops you don’t eat, etc.
Also, when you start growing your own food instead of getting packaged stuff at the grocery store, you’ll find that your volume of compostable materials increases in relation to your garden success.
Plan a Compost “Bed”
Personally, I like to leave myself about an 4 foot wide by 8 foot long area, similar to a garden bed for composting. There are a lot of ways to compost that we’ll cover in more detail in future posts. But that amount of area gives you room to store, compost, turn, age, etc. enough compost for a potager garden.
If you plan to keep your potager small, such as around 100 square feet, then you just need a few feet for storage. A big pile won’t make a lot of sense in a garden that small. So, you can work with about half that space.
In the process of making compost, leachate –the liquid that runs out from your compost pile — can be either a benefit or a source or risk for your garden. Leachate can often be too strong of a fertilizer for vegetable beds. In some cases, it may also contain pathogens that you would not want to overflow onto something like your come and cut lettuce area.
Situating your compost pile so that the leachate runs to places like a lawn, the outer root zones of mature perennial plants, or to the root zone of plants that benefit from high fertility (e.g. a rhubarb patch) can harness those nutrients without harm.
Protect Ground Water
Also, if you maintain your own well, and rely on mostly untreated ground water, then make sure your compost pile is at least 50 feet away from your well head. This is extremely important if you are planning to compost manure of any sort.
Be a Good Neighbor
Compost piles do occasionally attract pests like flies. So, don’t put compost piles adjacent to property lines. Your decisions to compost should not be something your neighbors have to live with too!
Season Extension and Seed Starting
I have a 36 foot by 12 foot greenhouse. I use it to propagate plants for over 2 acres of cleared land. I also use it for growing some exotic plants that aren’t compatible with our climate such as a lemon tree, an olive tree, and year-round heads of lettuce.
Do You Need a Greenhouse?
I love my greenhouse. But, in retrospect, it’s not necessary for homesteading. It’s more of a luxury item that I enjoy. For those of you just getting started, you may feel the need for a greenhouse. However, there are much simpler solutions to get you started.
Row covers, cold frames, and even over-bed hoop houses are more self-sufficient and economical choices for simple potagers. I will cover these ideas in future posts.
Plan for Some Season Extension
For now though, if you want a greenhouse for personal reasons, please include it in your design. Make sure to keep in mind how it influences and coordinates with your design.
If you simply want to get an early start on the planting season, then set aside some space for a cold frame in your potager. Similar to making compost, setting aside the equivalent space and pathway access as you would for a 4 x 8 foot bed is plenty of room.
If you have limited space, then direct seeding fast-growing plant varieties in season using over-bed cold frames, or starting indoors under lights, are simple solutions that don’t require additional seed starting space.
Perennial Potager Plants
There are a few perennial fruits, vegetables, and herbs that you may want to include in your potager garden. Once established, many of these plants have minimum fertility requirements or just require heavy winter mulching to feed the soil life around them.
So, you may want to consider adding some extra bed space for these plants in your potager design now. Even if you can’t quite make enough compost to support them at the outset, it’s good to start these early on since perennials can take a few years go really get growing.
Personally, when I spend buying soil improvements to plant perennials now, I consider that like putting money in the bank. Later when I start to harvest, those early investments will continue to pay off for years to come.
Asparagus, Rhubarb, StrawberrIES
Asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries are some plants I always include in or near my potager garden. For asparagus I aim for at least 20-40 square feet to make it worth growing. You can also use those beds for growing a few tomatoes and basil until the asparagus plants fill up the space.
Rhubarb and strawberries work well in 4 x 4 or 4 x 8 foot beds. These do require lots of compost for good production and benefit from afternoon shade in summer. We’ll get further into how to grow them later. But, if you plan to grow them, leave room and plan to buy lots of compost to give them a good start.
Dwarf Fruit Trees and Bushes
Dwarf-size, self-fertile fruit trees, blackberries and raspberries are also good options for a potager. Plan at least an 8 x 8 foot area for dwarf trees and 4 square feet or more for berry bushes. Note, things like blueberries and grapes have different soil requirements than your average potager garden grown plants, so I usually save those for other locations outside the potager.
On the herb front, many of your classic cooking herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, lavender, French tarragon, culinary mint, and more can all be great additions to the potager garden. They have lower fertility requirements than most vegetables and can keep growing for years. So give them their own dedicated bed space.
For annuals or biennials like basil, parsley, cilantro, and dill you can grow them in your vegetable beds, or give them their own space. In general, I plan about 2 to 4 square feet of space for each herb I plant. For smaller plants like thyme, I’ll plant several in that space so I don’t risk over-harvesting from fewer plants.
Deep Bed Plants
Depending on the depth of your soil now, and how rocky it is, you may want to consider creating a deep bed or two to use for potatoes or long carrots.
With the addition of compost, your soil will get deeper over time. Also, as you garden, you’ll dig out rocks that you come across. At the outset though, with no till practices, you may want to use containers to grow these kind of plants that really need 10 – 16 inches of soil for high production.
Alternatively, you can grow oxheart carrots which are wide and short and use grow bags for potatoes.
Vegetables are delicious to us and just about everything else that eats plants. As such, I don’t know any gardeners who don’t have, or wish they had, a fence around their vegetable gardens.
You can often get away without a fence your first year since pests don’t know you have a garden. But, once they discover it, easier deterrents like soap and fishing line will only work for a while. Then a fence becomes necessary.
At least leave room in your design for the possibility of a fence. That way, you’ve got the space and accessibility in the event that you need to install one.
There are a few more convenient features you may want to consider in your design if you have the room and interest.
A washing station can be as simple as a place to fill a few buckets with water to give your vegetables a dunking rinse before bringing them in the house. That rinse water can be used to water your plants later.
You can certainly get more elaborate on your wash areas, though it’s not necessary. For any area you use for washing vegetables, plan for drainage. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add several layers of gravel and make a wash station landing.
Similar to compost leachate, think about where the water will ultimately drain so you can direct it for good use.
For a small garden, it’s a pleasure to water using a watering can. The sound of water pouring through those small holes in the rosette sprayer are therapeutic. As you water you get a chance to study the health of your plants, learn about their growing habits, and connect with your garden.
In fact, I even hand water in large garden because I enjoy it so much. What I don’t enjoy though is waiting for the hose to fill my watering can. Instead, I keep a barrel full of irrigation water at all times. So, when I need to water, I just dip my can in the barrel and fill it up much faster. Recycled food grade 55 gallon drums work well for this.
If you have even more space, down the road you can add an irrigation pond to collect rainwater, and dip your watering can direct into the pond.
I am not a fan of pulling hoses around in the garden. They have the bad habit of crushing plants that meander into the paths. They tend to be heavy and hard to maneuver once you turn the water on. But if you plan to use them, make sure to plan for how you will drag them around without crossing your beds.
Many people hammer in PVC or steel posts to use for directing hoses around the bed areas. Some elaborate systems even include overhead pulleys to keep the hoses above the beds so nothing gets crushed.
Drip tape or line and soaker hoses only hold up a few years in a garden. Then they need to be replaced. They also often have clogs or water pressure issues that require maintenance.
They don’t really fit with my idea of a simple homestead potager because they increase complexity and require replacement. But, if you must have them, make sure you plan your installation in your garden design.
It’s nice to have a surface to work on when potting up seedlings, sorting seeds, making notes, etc. This doesn’t have to be in the garden, but it’s nice to have. Generally, I like to include a seating area in my potager for my own enjoyment. So, then I can use that as my surface for doing gardening work too.
Your potager is yours and should be a reflection of your personal tastes. If there are decorative details you dream of in your garden, make sure to include them in your design. You may not be able to put them all in place your first year. But you can chip away at your list as time allows.
When I lived in the suburbs, I added a three tiered water fountain to my first potager. I had an arbor for an entrance. I used decorative fencing to keep out my dogs, and I planted almost as many flowers as I did food plants.
I wouldn’t quite call it a homestead potager, but I loved being in my garden so much that I spent enormous time there. That garden helped dramatically improve my gardening skills. If a beautiful space will attract you out to the garden more often, then indulge in those one-time decorative features that beckon you.
The Simplestead Potager Garden
Now it’s time to bring all this how-to information together as an actual garden design. Your garden will be designed based on your conditions. But, to give you an idea of how to go from concepts to concrete plans, I’ve summarized my garden location details and my garden design for the new Simplestead garden.
The garden is situated just below the gravel parking area in front of our house. There’s about a 5-6 foot green space buffer between the gravel and the garden. The parking area is graded away from where the garden will be so there are no risks of pollution from our cars draining into the garden beds.
This location is close to the house for easy harvesting. There’s a porch on the house that can be used for storage as needed. There’s a hose on the house that can be used for watering. I can easily set up a washing station on the gravel parking area using a few buckets and the house hose.
I originally used this as a duck paddock for meat ducks. So, it has a 40 inch chicken wire fence, a small duck house, and small pond that collects the run off from the roof of the duck house. I can use that pond water for dipping my watering can to irrigate the garden. When the pond runs low, I can fill it with the hose rather than running the hose through the garden. (If it didn’t already have this feature, I would have just added a hose-filled 55 gallon drum to fill as my water can dipping source.)
The garden is full sun for at least 8-10 hours a day, facing to the south east. It’s actually oriented almost exactly the same way as our solar panels are for optimal sun catching. It’s also sloped toward the same direction so it warms up a bit faster in mornings than other areas of our property. The slope is a tiny bit too steep where I plan to have the bottom beds, so I’ll change the slope a bit when I make the beds and create the paths.
The house provides great wind protection. The driveway also creates a bit of a heat sink so this area experiences much less frost than other parts of landscape.
There are three peach trees breaking up the space between the driveway and the garden. They are pruned for air circulation, so even though they cast a little bit of a shade shadow over a few feet of the garden, it’s dappled, and occurs during the afternoon heat so will actually be beneficial for growing greens in summer. Those trees also pollinator-friendly for most of March.
There are no utilities in the area or access issues. Deer do graze nearby, but generally not that close to the house because of our Great Pyrenees dog on duty. Our four farm cats also patrol that area heavily so there’s no vole activity visible. Rabbits also don’t seem to be breaching the existing fence.
The soil is of mixed quality. In the upper bed area, it’s a bit deeper. So, I can grow potatoes there even this first year. There are a lot of weeds in the north-side pollinator strip, so those weeds will need to be addressed before I can plant other things there.
The rest of the future garden area is growing mostly annual grasses, clover, and a few edible weeds like bittercress. The duck poop has clearly made the soil nutrient rich, but the roots stop about 2-3 inches deep, so that means the subsoil is pretty compacted. Overall, it’s better than having no soil, but lots and lots of compost are an absolute must for this area!
In terms of beauty, the area is a bit of an eyesore right now. But by turning it into a potager, I’m enhancing the whole front entrance to our house and solving that problem.
Now, given the location and the space I have to work with, I came up with a simple garden design plan that will give me about 128 square feet of vegetable bed area for the first year, plus some pollinator areas, and makes use of some existing resources in or near the garden.
Here are the details of the plan shown above.
Four Main Vegetable Beds that are 4 feet wide by 8 feet long
Pollinator strips running along the inside perimeter of the existing fence on the northern and southern sides of the beds
Compost area in two parts – 1 for storing materials, the other for composting and aging, with leachate from the piles running into the outer root zone of an edible food forest aisle down slope
Paths are about 18 wide in perimeter paths and about 24 inches wide in the center path
I am going to create a small round-about using the corners of the beds and the intersection of the paths to make it a bit more interesting than just having rectangular beds
I’ll leave an existing clover filled area next to the garden and add a small table set in that area
I’ll keep the duck house as a rain catch and down the road, it can be used as infrastructure for either storage depending on whether I opt to expand the potager or keep some small livestock there
I’m adding some raised containers outside the garden to give it a more grand entrance
I’m also going to grow some low maintenance pest-resistant plants outside the perimeter of the garden, such as lilacs, and some tea plants (e.g. mints and other strong herbs) to create natural pest barriers
Now it’s your turn. Take all the ideas from this potager planning series and turn them into the framework for your own potager. You may want to read back through the earlier posts to remind you of some of the information we’ve covered. Also, look back through your homework assignments.
Put your design on paper. It doesn’t have to be perfectly to scale, but try to get close so you have a good guide to use to keep you on track.
I use a computer spreadsheet and make each cell about .50 x .50 to represent a square foot. It’s basically like making my own electronic graph paper. You can also do this on real graph paper using pencils. Or, just eyeball and draw it on blank paper if that’s more your style.
Sleep On It
Once you have your design on paper, sleep on it for a few nights. Then go back and make sure it still makes sense.
Don’t rush this process. I’m an impatient person. I get the desire to charge ahead. But, if you want to have a garden that is simple to maintain and works well for you long term, you need to take your time with planning.
Gut instincts and ideas are great, so don’t discount them. However, do make sure you flesh them out though and put them through your reasoning faculties before you commit to them.
Try it On
Once you feel great about your design and have gotten a little distance to make sure it really resonates, then try it on. Use whatever you’ve got to simulate what your garden will look like when finished. String, chairs, brooms, streamers, old paint, your recycleables…
It really doesn’t matter what you use as a stand in, just make sure you represent everything on your plan on land. Then, pretend like you are using it.
Squat down and plant imaginary seeds. Sit on your bench and imagine your view. Harvest pretend vegetables and take them to your house. Pretend to dunk your watering can, haul around your hoses, build your compost pile, move tools around, etc.
You may feel like a crazy person at first. Trust me, though, this step can save you from silly design mistakes that can seriously complicate your gardening activities later. If something feels wrong, make adjustments until it feels right.
Revise Your Plan
Revise your plan on land, then translate it back to your paper plan. That paper plan will keep you on track as you start digging. You may also want to make notes on any details you need to pay attention to based on your trial run.
Believe it or not, once you’ve done your homework from this post, the rest of this potager-making process is going to be really simple.
Yes, there will be work. But, you’re not afraid of a little work. If you were, you wouldn’t be reading a homesteading website or planning to grow your own food!
In fact, if you are like me, you are probably so excited you can’t want to dig in and start to make your potager dreams a reality. So, in our next posts, we’ll break ground and get ready to garden!
The first gardens were forest gardens. Actually they were more like cultivated forests than gardens. The plants that humans found beneficial, they encouraged. The plants that didn’t have utility were removed.
Eventually, early gardeners installed fences to protect their food supply from being eaten by other free-ranging forest animals. There’s no precise information on when forest gardening gave way to bare land gardening. Probably it was around 10,000 BC. which, on the scale of human history, is a fairly recent event.
Vegetable gardens, as opposed to field crops, may only have begun in ancient Egypt around 3000 or 4000 BC. It’s believed that these early gardens were likely grown in blocks or squares. They may have been surrounded by earthen walls to help retain water and soil in the desert.
The beds were kept close to the house since they required more tending and watering than field crops. Even early iterations, when grown mostly for food self-sufficiency, gardens were considered places of pleasure, relaxation, and contemplation.
When you are considering your potager design, take your cues from history. Fresh, colorful, nutrient rich food is beautiful. And your garden beds deserve to be too. Make beds that are appropriately functional for your climate and aesthetically appealing too.
Garden Beds Not Rows
Long, narrow rows are only part of our garden vernacular because we’ve been influenced by visions of mechanized fields — planted, maintained, and (in many cases) even harvested by machines. In a human, hand-tool scale garden, narrow rows tend to take up too much space and require too much maintenance. They are also difficult to navigate or use for planning purposes.
That’s why “beds” are more appropriate for homestead potagers. In gardening, the bed is the area you plant. Sometimes it’s a raised bed, but usually it’s just a defined area where you have improved the soil to use for planting. Pretty much any ready to plant area, broken up by paths for access, can be considered a garden with beds.
There are many different ways to create your beds by mounding, elevating, building hugelkulturs, and more. Comfort, space utility, your available land, slope, environmental considerations, aesthetic preferences, and more are factors that you’ll want to use to decide what kind of potager garden beds are right for you.
To help you choose beds that will make your job as a gardener easy, here are some ideas to consider.
Maximizing Your Potager Planting Area
Let’s assume you have a 10 x 10 foot space, or a 100 square feet of gardening area, including your pathways. That’s a good amount of space for a first garden. As long as your soil is well-nourished with compost, and your beds are well-designed, you can grow quite a bit of food in a garden of that size.
Depending on your design though, that 100 square feet grow a lot of food with a little work. Or, it can be a lot of work and a little food. For example, with 1 foot wide rows, you would waste most of your growing space on pathways.
If you use wider rows, such as 3 feet or 4 feet wide rows, you get more planting space. However, long rows mean more work walking back and forth. So, for efficiency, long rows usually become rectangular beds with narrow pathways between. Also, even if you are tall with long arms, reaching across a 4 foot wide bed is challenging. So, access from both sides is more comfortable.
Also, keyhole gardens are incredibly useful when you have limited space gardens. By making beds with a keyhole shape, you can create a design that gives you easy access to all your growing space with very little square footage taken up by paths.
Notice the keyhole bed example above. Except at the corners where you’ll have to reach across about 32 inches of bed width, you will only have to reach 2 feet across to do your weeding and seeding. That’s a lot easier on your back in the long run than 4 foot wide rows with access from one side only. That design also gets you the most square feet of growing space.
Best of Bed Ideas
I love keyhole gardens for maximizing small spaces. However, I find it easier to plan a garden in rectangular blocks than in irregular shapes. So, when you’ve got a bit more space, it’s easier to plan your plantings if you use square or rectangular shaped beds.
Based on experience, my preferred bed size is 4 feet wide and 8-12 feet long. A four foot wide bed, with access from both sides preserves moisture and makes planning and planting easy. Even though you could just run your four foot beds as long wide rows, breaking them up makes it easier to navigate your garden area.
If you want to consider other shapes, the limiting factor for bed design should be how far you have to reach to dig in the soil.
For example, if you want to make a circle garden, with a plus sign path, plan your circle diameter to accommodate your arm’s reach. This is your garden after all, so custom-fitting it to your needs is ideal.
The Landing Pad Garden
If you want to plant in bigger blocks, but don’t want to maintain lengthy paths, you can also create landing pads. Essentially, you only run paths where you need them, then you step across your beds to cleared areas where you can squat to do your garden chores.
This works well if you plan your plantings in your step across zone to be short and non-vining. For example, you might use come and cut lettuce as your step across plant choice. This design is ideal in small spaces, but can be a bit irritating when gardening in larger gardens.
Identifying your landing zones with stones or pavers cuts down on accidental crushing of new seedlings. They can also add aesthetic interest when your plants are young and don’t hide your landing pad.
All of my garden beds now are mounded beds. This happens naturally when you turn your paths into nutrient swales. Plus, before you start planting, you’ll be adding a significant amount of compost to the surface of your beds to prepare them for planting. So, that too elevates the bed surface a bit.
Mounded beds promote good drainage, but still have close contact with surrounding soil so they don’t dry out as quickly as raised beds. Plants can also reach into the surrounding pathways of mounded beds to get water and nutrients when needed.
The benefit of mounded beds over planting at the level of your paths is that they still look distinctly like garden beds. That makes it easy for you to identify where to plant. It also makes it obvious to any guests you bring to your garden not to walk on them. Plus, they will drain to the paths in heavy rain.
I am about to write some blasphemous things about raised beds, so if you’d rather not know the downsides skip this section!
Raised beds can be beautiful…if they are well-maintained and made using durable materials. Most people use lumber and decking screws from the hardware store to build them. If you are adding lots of compost and organic matter to your beds, all that biological life that decomposes organic matter sees your lumber as more food!
Also, those boards soak up water when it rains, Then, they dry when it doesn’t. That swelling and drying cycle loosens the connections with the screws and allows water to seep deeply around the screws so corners break down quickly.
Frankly, in an organic garden, lumber-made beds just don’t last long. So, you have to buy more lumber and rebuild them every couple years to maintain the raised bed aesthetic. Or, to extend their life, you need to pull them out of the garden when not in use and store them somewhere. (In a potager, your garden will always be in use though!) Or, you have to use cedar which, even when FSC, is environmentally questionable.
Sorry, but lumber-built raised beds don’t quite fit the definition of simple homesteading. (It’s like the lawn mower hiding behind beaten down garden pathways.)
Now, there are some good reasons to use raised beds in general though.
Your soil is toxic, so you need to build over the existing soil.
You have severe vole problems and need to create barriers under your beds.
You can’t bend to garden, so you need to elevate your beds to a height you can reach.
You are trying to garden on flat land that becomes a mosquito pool every time it rains.
You just love how they look and must have them.
In any of those cases, raised beds might be perfect for you. I urge you to consider investing in more permanent beds such as stacked stone, plastered earthen walls, or masonry-installed (not just stacked) cinder blocks so that you can limit maintenance on your bed frames.
Your one time investment in permanent bed walls will give you a much more attractive end product and make your bed maintenance simpler. These materials all have embodied environmental costs like lumber too. But, their durability makes them a one time investment rather than a life-time dependency.
Even with permanent bed walls, there are a few extra concerns to keep in mind about gardening in raised beds.
– Plan to Add Soil Often
If you use raised beds, expect to have to refill your soil to bring it up to the level of your bed edges often. Garden soil should be full of water. In fact 25% of it must be if you want to successfully grow vegetables in it.
By nature, water always tries to flow to the lowest point in it’s vicinity. That means the water in your soil will work very hard to become even with the water all around your beds (e.g. the water in the soil of your paths).
As it does, it will take bits of soil, minerals, and nutrients with it. You can slow this down with barriers like lining your beds with water but not soil permeable material or installing actual bottoms with relatively small drainage holes. Still though, your soil will seep out over time.
– Plan to Add More Fertilizer
Since water will find a way to move to lower levels and will take nutrients with it, you will have a harder time keeping nutrients in the top 4-6 inches of soil that most vegetables gather nutrients from. So, you will need to top dress with nutrients more often.
– Plan to Water More Often
You probably already figured this last point out. But you’ll also have to water more often. The more organic matter in your raised bed soil and the use of mulches can help reduce this requirement while adding nutrients. But I have never met a raised bed yet that doesn’t take require more watering than a simple mounded, in-ground bed.
Alternatives to Raised Beds
If you just want to give your beds the appearance of raised beds without the drawbacks of actually elevating them, consider framing your beds using branches and tree trunks. Quite frankly, downed tree parts are available in excessive abundance these days due to storms and other environmental factors. Around your beds, they will feed the soil while providing some rustic appeal.
Salvage lumbers and stakes, and cinder blocks you can remove down the road can also create a defined space to help you get started gardening.
If you want to go all in on natural raised beds, then hugelkulturs are also an incredible way to feed soil and garden in comfort. They take a lot of work to make. However, they not only elevate your gardening area, they increase your organic matter content tremendously in the long-run. Plus, they act like a sponge to hold water.
Coordinating Paths and Beds
In a limited space garden, 1 foot paths between beds are usually sufficient because you can use a bucket to carry in your amendments. However, if you plan to expand your garden as you increase your skill (and your compost capacity), then you may want to think about wider paths between your rows or around your garden perimeter.
Generally, if you are not short on space, 18-24 inches between beds is a good width. It allows room to kneel between the beds for chores like weeding and harvesting. Plus, it limits path maintenance and makes it more reasonable to use your paths as nutrient swales.
My ideal garden design includes wheelbarrow access either down the center of the garden beds or around the outer perimeter. Then, you can push the wheelbarrow close to the beds and use a bucket to transfer amendments on to the beds.
It may seem like more work to use the bucket, but when you get into the habit of amending your soil right after you harvest (to replace what you removed), your need for a wheelbarrow declines immensely.
You may need a wheelbarrow at the outset of garden creation if you are hauling in bulk compost or mulch for your paths. If so, rather than dedicating wheelbarrow paths you probably won’t need long- term, consider putting up your garden fence after you get your beds ready that way you can have access on all sides.
Getting Down To Gardening
Good garden design starts by choosing the right location and understanding the benefits and challenges of the location you have chosen. Then you need to plan good bones to support your activities by choosing pathways and bed styles that fit your space and meet your needs. These steps are the foundation work necessary to make your gardening chores simple going forward.
Once you’ve done this critical ground work though, then the fun begins. You can build on these bones using your creativity to make your potager garden personal and inviting.
Take some time to contemplate potential bed shapes and dimensions. Coordinate those choices with your paths. Do some preliminary planning on paper.
You still have more choices to make, such as where to situate your compost pile or how to squeeze in a pollinator plot to increase your yields. So, don’t finalize your plans yet. But do start to get a concrete sense of what style of garden paths and beds will work best for you given the area you have to work with.
Then, think back to all those inspiration ideas you gathered before you got focused on paths and bed styles. Are there features you really want to see in your garden? A birdbath? A seating area? A few decorative containers or a water feature? Imagine how you’d like to integrate those items with your beds and paths.
In our next post, we’ll address a few more things that you’ll want to consider to make growing a potager simple. And, we’ll finalize our design. I’ll also show you the final choices I made for the Simplestead garden I am starting as I write these posts.