Harvest and Succession Plant Your Homestead Potager

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.

– Warning

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!

Fertilizing

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.

Succession Planting

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

Lettuce Bed Before Harvest

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.

Lettuce Bed After Harvest

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.

Slug Tip

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.

Conclusion

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!

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Homestead Potager Garden Bed Design

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.

Forest Garden

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

Garden Beds with Paths

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

Small Spaces

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.

Bed Dimensions

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.

Other Shapes

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

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.

Landing Pad

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.

Mounded Beds

Mounded Beds

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.

Raised Beds

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.

  1. Your soil is toxic, so you need to build over the existing soil.
  2. You have severe vole problems and need to create barriers under your beds.
  3. You can’t bend to garden, so you need to elevate your beds to a height you can reach.
  4. You are trying to garden on flat land that becomes a mosquito pool every time it rains.
  5. 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. 

Garden Bed Design

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

Bed Design

 

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.

Wheelbarrow Considerations

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

Garden Beds 1

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.

Homework

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Simple Homesteading Starts Now

Why do you want to homestead? Greater security? Self-sufficiency? To increase your skills? For a deeper connection to nature? Better health? Tastier food? To live a simpler life?

All of the above and then some?

We all have different reasons for wanting to homestead. Each of us also has unique ideas of what homesteading means. I think, that’s how it should be.

Homesteading is a deeply personal act. This is your dream. This is your life.

Now, I may not know your exact dreams or reasons for wanting to homestead. I also don’t know your personal living conditions, your financial situation, your challenges, or your aptitudes. We are strangers connected only by our desire to homestead.

Yet, even without knowing you, I know with certainty, there is only one big difference between you and those people who are already living their homestead dreams.

Here it is.

Those other people got started.

That’s it!

They are not smarter than you. They are not more creative. They don’t have magical powers to grow things or make things that you simply don’t possess. But they did make up their mind to start homesteading.

Start Simple

You have to start the journey one day, one idea, and one activity at a time. Simple steps are all it takes. Trying to do anything other than starting simply is an invitation to frustration and failure.

In fact, if you choose the simple path to homesteading, then deciding to homestead is the hardest part. It gets much easier from here.

Make up your mind that you will start now. Don’t wait until you have your dream property, more time, or more money.

Begin exactly where you are. Use the things you already have. Rely on the skills that have gotten you this far in life.

Then, take focused, but simple steps toward your ultimate dream each and every day. Even the smallest steps in the right direction move you forward toward the homesteading future you want.

No Excuses

I know the excuses are already starting to line up in your head. I heard them all too.

I don’t know how. It’s too complicated. I don’t have land. I don’t have money. I’m afraid. It’s selfish. It’s too late. My family won’t understand. I don’t deserve a beautiful life.

These are all lies. They are the lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to take risks and reach for the things we want. And they are a total waste of time.

As someone who lives on the other side, on the homestead of my dreams, I assure you, the only difference between me and you is that I heard the excuses. Then, I made the commitment to homestead anyway.

My Wish For You

Now, I may not know you personally, but I want this life for you. I want it for you because you are the kind of person who would wish for self-sufficiency over mindless consumerism.

You want to grow your food so that it is wholesome and nutritious — not just for yourself but for our planet.

You want to raise your own livestock – whether it be worms, honey bees, quail, chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats, cows, pigs, or other animals  – so you can treat them with dignity and face those relationships honestly.

You want to make things yourself so you don’t have to bring home endless plastic packaging and support hidden human and environmental costs.

I want this for you because you are the kind of person who wants a meaningful and mindful life. So, even though we might be strangers, we’ve got some things in common.

Simple Steps

I started this website so I could share simple steps to help new homesteaders start living their dreams right now. That’s because I know homesteading is only hard if you try to do it all at once or take on more than you are ready for.

When you do it slowly, methodically, with careful intention, it is easy. It’s personally enriching and downright enjoyable. Plus, you get faster results doing it the simple way than you do bull-dozing into it without laying the ground work first.

No, it’s not going to be perfect. Yes, there is a lot of work involved. But, your life is not perfect now. And you are no stranger to hard work.

The difference is that when you start taking simple steps to create your homestead, the hard work you do and the imperfections that result are somehow exactly what you need to feel at home in your own life.
Home – as in a place to belong – is the defining word in homestead. And I think it’s what we are all really looking for.

Yes, this is the pep-talk post. Truthfully though, just by making a commitment to start living the homesteading life you want — choosing that act of bravery — sets in motion the start of your incredible homesteading journey.

Today, make this promise to yourself.

Simple homesteading starts now.

 

Tomorrow, continue your journey with Seed Starting