That compost-driven potager I planned and started back in winter and spring is thriving even during extreme heat thanks to all the compost I used to amend the soil. In a 134 square foot garden, I’ve harvested 75 beets, 20 kohlrabi, 25 turnips, 5 large heads of storage cabbage, 18 pounds of potatoes, more carrots than I could count, daily salads from April to July, endless kale, chard, and mustard, herbs, peas, and more.
Now, one month into summer tomatoes, peppers, more beets, eggplant, okra, melons, chard, sweet potatoes, runner beans, and sunflowers are growing well in the garden. Fall vegetable seeds will go in a month from now so that I can harvest fresh food even into winter.
Oh, and did I mention that I only I spend about 1 hour a week tending the garden. Every couple of weeks, during hot dry periods, I spend an extra hour clearing up weeds and deep watering. I have picked off a few cabbage moth larva and I’ve had a little flea beetle and slug damage to a few leaves. But I’ve had no losses to pests and haven’t done anything to control for pests.
I owe all of this success, not to my own incredible intelligence (I wish), but to nature’s. Using nature’s method of adding fertility, in the form of top applied compost to encourage thriving soil life, this first year garden is doing amazing.
To maintain this kind of performance, I’ll need to add several inches of compost annually.
Making compost is an incredibly satisfying act of environmental love. Knowing that you are putting what would otherwise be treated as “waste” to work in your garden is both soul and soil enriching.
There are endless ways to make compost. Before you get carried away by all the exciting compost bin plans out there, though, I want to make sure you know that you don’t need an elaborate system to make compost. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. You also don’t need to spend more than a few minutes every so often to make a whole lot of compost.
Compost is nature’s gift to us. Nature doesn’t care if you have a 2 bin system or a 3 bin system. Nature doesn’t demand that you use a multi-tiered vermicompost tower or inoculated bran and and an anaerobic container to do your composting.
Those things are tools that we choose to make compost on our terms. Depending on your circumstance, some tools may be useful or they might be a waste of your time. That’s for you to decide.
Nature, though, only needs a few things from you to convert your waste into something useful in the garden.
This is a website devoted to simple homesteading. So, I am not going to be covering all the complicated ways to make compost. Instead, I am going to share some very simple, minimal work ways to help nature do what nature wants to do anyways.
Make a first layer with a few inches of twigs and branches to elevate your pile off the ground for good drainage.
Step 2: Add Browns
You’ll be alternately layering 2 to 3 parts dried browns to 1 part greens until your pile is 4 feet tall and wide. But, you want to start with a good base of browns to absorb excess moisture from your greens.
For browns, I prefer straw or mulched leaves collected in fall. Shredded paper and bits of cardboard also work.
Step 3: Alternate Greens and Browns
Now, you’ll start the layering process by adding 1 part greens to every 2-3 part browns. Keep your greens layers no more than 2 inches deep for good airflow.
Greens are things like kitchen scraps, animal manure, grass clippings, or crop residues from the garden. As a rule of thumb, any plant parts harvested when they were green and actively growing or any animal by-products are counted as greens.
If you are using bokashi to expand your compost options, add that between layers of browns. Also, put it toward the bottom of the pile to discourage pests (just in case it’s not fully bokashi-ed).
Note: Your collection buckets might contain some browns like paper towels or junk mail. If you have lots of browns in there already lean toward 2 parts browns. If you have very few browns in your collection buckets, go for 3 parts browns.
Step 4: Repeat Until Complete, Then Water
Keep the top of the pile covered with a tarp, or other water proof protection, so it doesn’t get wet until it reaches full-size. Make sure the sides are not covered because you still need airflow to keep your pile from becoming anaerobic.
When your pile is about 4 feet tall and wide, water the entire pile until it feels like a wet but not soppy sponge. This will activate composting.
Step 5: Cover and Wait
After watering, top your pile with several inches of dry browns as a moisture barrier. Then, let the pile sit for uncovered 4 weeks.
If you happen to have heavy rain in the forecast put the tarp back on before it rains and remove it after the rain. Otherwise leave the pile open for good air flow.
Step 6: Turn and Burn
Now you need to turn your pile. This requires using a pitch fork to move the contents of the pile, fork load by fork load, to a new location.
Usually this new location is adjacent to your pile so you don’t have to move your pile very far. Also, you’ll want to layer some branches and browns on bottom like you did in steps 1 and 2 before you start forking to promote good drainage.
Try to fold the outsides of the pile in so they get to be on the inside in this new pile. You may also need to water your pile again so it feels like a wet but not sopping wet sponge.
Within 1-2 days of turning your pile, put your hand near, but not inside the pile. (Your pile could get to 160ºF, so don’t touch it!) Make sure you can feel lots of heat emanating from the pile. If not, then pour some fresh urine the pile as you can and check again in a day or two.
Step 7: Have Patience
Now, you just need to let your compost sit around for a year before you use it. That will allow any pathogens to time out. It will take care of some toxins such as minimal quantities of pesticides and herbicides that might have drifted into your lawn when your neighbor used those chemicals.
That time also gives all your compost critters a chance to decompose most of what’s in your pile without you having to sift a lot later.
Carbon to Nitrogen Calculations
Down the road, when you want to get a more balanced compost to control nutrients in your soil, understanding carbon to nitrogen ratios can be really helpful. However, I recommend you use this basic method based on parts of “browns and greens” a couple of times before you move up to fancy compost.
When you are ready for using carbon to nitrogen calculations to make even better compost, then head over MorningChores.com and look for the compost calculator I helped create.
A Few More Thoughts on Composting
Now that you know how easy making compost can be, there are a few other things for you to think about.
Turning The Pile
If you want to make compost quickly, you can turn your pile more often. The problem with doing this is that you attract mostly high-temperature loving compost bacteria to your pile. Those bacteria are great for decomposing things in a hurry. But since your soil temperatures are not going to be that high, they won’t do much for your soil and your plants when you put fast-made compost in your bed.
I normally turn a pile only once. Sometimes if stuff doesn’t seem to be breaking down or I don’t get noticeable heat when I turn the pile then I may turn it a 2nd or even 3rd time for good measure. Overall though, less turning and longer aging tend to be more beneficial for plants in my experience.
I might shock a few people by saying this. But here goes.
I don’t sift my compost. Ever.
Usually the bits that aren’t fully decomposed after a year of aging disappear within a few weeks of spreading compost on soil. So, I’ve just never worried about them.
Every so often I’ll come across a clump of stuff in a compost pile that just didn’t break down because it stayed too wet. In that case, I break it apart and throw it into my next compost pile or I’ll give it to my worms for expedited processing.
You’ll notice that I only had you check for heat after you turned your pile. Other instruction sets have you check it each time, which is fine. But, I know lots of first time composters who don’t get heat in their first pile. It may be too wet, or wet only in certain places, the layers might be to light or too heavy.
By the time that stuff has sat around and melded for a month and attracted bacteria and fungi, then when you turn the pile and moisten it a second time, it almost always ignites. So, that’s why I don’t worry about a temperature check until I turn the pile.
– Compost Thermometer
Also, if your pile feels hot when you hover your hand near it, then it’s doing it’s thing just fine. However, if you want to be precise, get yourself a compost thermometer and take a reading. Temperatures between 135-165ºF are ideal.
– Moisture Meter
If you like the idea of using a thermometer, then you might also want to consider a moisture meter too. Aiming for about 60% water content in your pile is also ideal for active decomposition.
Bins are totally optional. However, they can be beneficial if you have neighbors who don’t want to see your unsightly pile, or if plan to compost things that rodents and raccoons might love to eat too.
If you are going to the trouble of setting up a multi-bin system, I suggest that you use hardwood or paint your parts so they last a while. Put roofs on them so you can better control moisture. And give yourself room to store lots of browns so you can make use of all your neighbors leaves too.
Skip the elevated bins that you have to turn daily. They seem simple. But I assure you a pile like the one described above will save you lots of work and frustration while making you more compost.
I’ll cover some more composting information in upcoming posts. But, now between vermicompost, bokashi, and basic compost, you have a great repertoire of tools to start really improving your soil.
Now, go perform your own act of environmental love by turning your waste into garden goodness!
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!
I strongly believe that all in-ground homestead vegetable gardens should be “potagers”. Potager is a French word that embodies the idea of both a functional kitchen garden and a beautiful space that allows for creative expression and cultivation of your gardening skills.
Potagers have lots of vegetables, of course. However, they often include plants to make tea, culinary herbs, flowers, fruits, nuts, perennial edibles, medicinal plants for health and immune support, and more. They are also designed, not just for function, but for the pleasure of being in them.
The Lure of the Potager
So many of us “homesteader types” are attracted to this kind of garden because we don’t just want to grow food, we want to cultivate beauty all around us. Yet, I think there are deeper, more naturally-driven reasons why we dream of potagers and not just endless rows of high-calorie field crops.
Even when we are new to gardening, some part of our intuition recognizes that vegetables grow better in a community of other plants and wild life. Our souls and our soils don’t like barren, disturbed landscapes that give way to machine-planted monocrops.
We want a diversity of color, leaf-texture, heights, widths, states of growth – new, ready to harvest, continuously giving plants – and the sounds of birds, frogs, and insects singing. We want decorative features like a bird bath, raised beds, pollinator houses, colorful containers, beautiful and functional trellises and arbors, and color combinations that compliment each other.
Somehow we also just know that gardening does not require expensive, complicated equipment that takes more time and money to maintain than a hand-cultivated garden does. We long to step back in time to simpler methods, using our hands, our hearts, and our brains instead of machines, manipulated seeds, and manufactured goods.
What we want, is to grow our gardens in such a way that each year our soil gets better, we produce more bounty with less work, and our food production become more manageable over time.
The Practicality of the Potager
These are all beautiful and realistic desires for your homestead potager. The concept of a potager pre-dates the industrial revolution. It relies on human, hand-scale work, using a few quality tools, and simple garden innovations. The emphasis is on beauty and productivity, in balance.
Yet, there’s also another practical reason for making your garden not only a place to grow food, but a potager-style paradise of plenty.
Nobody wants to cook in a dirty, disorganized kitchen. So, we order our kitchens in ways that work for us. We add decorative details to make us feel at home. We pick plates and pots that do their job, but also make us want to use them. We paint our walls, put up pictures, use interesting containers to hold our tools.
Well, the same should hold true for your garden. Yes, a garden has to function, just as kitchen does. We can’t sacrifice utility for the sake of charm. Yet, within reason, a garden must also be beautiful and inviting to its owner. It must draw us in and make us want to stay awhile.
Planning your garden to be a potager is not only attractive, but imminently practical because its beauty will entice you to it. And your gardening skills will increase in direct relation to the amount of time you spend enjoying your potager.
The Self-Sufficient Garden
A lot of people, particularly in the country, will just till up some earth in a sunny spot, spread some fertilizer, and plant some seeds. They might put in a few rows of tomatoes, a bit of lettuce, some summer squash, maybe some pumpkin, watermelon, okra, or corn.
There is a certain beauty and utility to this kind of gardening at first. Yet within a few years, the soil depletes, the pests move in, the weeds win. The yields go down, the ground gets harder, and gardening stops being worth the time it takes to do it.
That is not the kind of garden I want for you. I want something enduring, that gets better and better each time you grow it.
A Simple Garden Path
The new garden I am starting for the purpose of sharing the experience with you here on Simplestead will be a “no till” garden. I will borrow some top soil from my garden paths to add to my garden beds. Otherwise, I will not dig up my garden beds.
– The Virtues of Not Tilling
I will not release the years and years of wild, dormant seeds just waiting to see the light of day and feel a hint of rain.
I will not unnecessarily disturb the unbelievable diversity of lifeforms that live happily in my tiny bit of top soil.
I will not expose all my soil nutrients to air and water and cause them to wash away before my plants are large enough to access them.
I will not cause my soil to become dry by digging up all the moist under parts and letting them be deprived of water by the wind and sun.
I will not waste my time doing something that is unnecessary, overly complicated, and will end up making me dependent on things like weed killer, fertilizer, and pesticides long-term.
– Nature Assisted
Instead of tilling, my simple garden will be built upon what nature has started. I’ll use the lessons nature has taught — only more intensely applied — to grow food in just a couple months.
In particular, I’ll be using compost applied on top of beds and mulch (e.g. uncomposted organic matter like grass clippings or old hay) on top of paths. Any other garden amendments applied will also be made with organic matter that promotes soil health.
– Initial Purchases for Long-Term Self-Sufficiency
I will buy a few things to get my garden started. For example, I’ll buy a whole bunch of compost to start my beds. After this initial investment, though, I’ll manage the beds using just the compost I can make.
I’ll also buy a few soil amendments until I can get my own nutrient production systems in place. Most soils are so eroded and deficient in nutrients that you need to give them a jump start for the first couple years.
Seeds, a few hand-tools, one-time investments in infrastructure (e.g. storage shed, cold-frames, personal decorative items, etc.) may also take up some financial resources in the early years.
Within 3 years, though, the garden will grow on homestead resources alone. I will nourish my garden with the compost and amendment production systems I put in place. In return, my garden will nourish me with food, beauty, good health, and entertainment.
Other Ways To Garden
There are lots of other ways to garden successfully. Square foot gardening, hydroponics, straw bales, aquaponics, and more are wonderful, efficient ways to grow vegetables. They generally use fewer resources and cause much less environmental harm than conventional farming does. They also grow lots of tasty, healthy food, with minimal work.
Here at Simplestead though, simple self-sufficiency is the goal. Those other gardening methods are simple to create and to use. However, they rely on complex supply chains and continuous inputs from outside the homestead.
In other words, there is hidden complexity in them. I do think they are wonderful for many people. I also really appreciate that they introduce so many people into the joy and beauty of growing your own food at home. They just don’t quite fit the mold for long-term self-sufficiency.
For that reason, our next several posts will revolve around no till, compost and organic matter driven, garden creation. Later in the series, I will also cover container gardening using homestead fertility systems. And don’t worry, we’ll also get into perennials, orchards, and livestock in future posts too!
For now, though, let’s recap what we’ve covered so we’re ready to move forward with creating a new potager garden!
You probably have a good sense about how many square feet of garden space you’ll be able to support with your current compost capacity. (Remember, each 5 gallon bucket you fill earns you a square foot of garden space.)
You may have even sprouted a few seeds on your counter to get a sense of how seeds grow. Now, don’t worry if all those grocery store beans you tried to start didn’t all sprout. That too was an important lesson!
Seeds for growing food have to be carefully stored and used within certain time frames so that they are viable for planting. The fact that any of your “seeds” from the supermarket sprouted (and I am sure they did) is a testament to your care and the power of plants to find ways to survive.
Once we get our garden planned and break ground, we’ll get a lot deeper into seed starting, seedling care, and eventually seed saving in the series.
– The Homestead Dream
Even if you didn’t sprout actual seeds, the most important thing is that you have sprouted your homestead dreams and are now growing them into reality. All of these early exercises and tasks have been simple. Yet, your efforts have already prepared you for the next phase of your homestead creation.
Starting a Homestead Garden
Starting a garden is just a series of simple steps, one after another. I am going to be starting a brand new garden and sharing the experience with you to help you through the process.
Your garden will be different than mine because it will be a reflection of your tastes, climate, landscape, and available resources. Still our techniques, processes, and considerations are similar despite our regional and aesthetic differences.
If this is your first time starting a garden, I invite you to start your garden, step by step, as I do. I am an experienced gardener and I am an pretty good physical shape. So, I expect it will take me about 8-10 hours to plan, prepare, and create a 150 square feet of bed space, plus prepare my pathways. However I won’t do this all at once, but in phases so that it doesn’t take up too much time all at once.
For new gardeners, it may take you a bit more time to make your decisions and do the physical work of making a garden. But even so, I think you’ll be surprised how much you can get done in a short time, if you do it using simple steps.
Here’s what I’ll be covering in the next few blogs.
Garden Site Selection
Planning Your Garden Layout
Laying out the Garden
Building the Beds
Planning Your Plantings
Simple Cold Frames for Seed Starting
First Round Planting
As we move forward, I recommend that you read one post and then take the recommended action before going on to the next post.
As I mentioned earlier in the series, many people do a lot of intellectual learning but then fail to do the legwork to connect their mind and body in the process. By treating the action items from the posts like “homework” and doing that before you come back to “class” to read the next post, you will bridge the gap between knowing and doing.
Homework Assignment No. 1
For your first garden preparation homework assignment do these three things.
1. Gather Inspiration
Take a little time to reflect on this idea of “potager”. Gather inspiration from established vegetable gardens either from images and descriptions online or in your area.
Notice the design details that appeal to you, bed shapes, materials used in construction, path spacing, and other features that make you want to spend time in those other people’s gardens. Make notes in your observation journal and cross check the resources in your area to see if there are things that might help you achieve a similar feel or result.
2. Identify Vegetables For Your Climate
Also, find out what vegetables grow well near you. Your local agricultural extension office can help, universities with agricultural departments, or vegetable gardening writers that garden near to where you live are all good resources.
3. Find Your First and Last Frost Dates
Finally, find out your first and last frost dates. You can plant somethings before and after these dates. Your primary food production though, will fall between those two dates.
See you in the next “class” when we choose our garden location!
All organic gardens start with compost. That’s why, in our last post, we started saving materials to make compost in a 5 gallon bucket. In this post, we’ll take a few more simple steps in the compost-making process.
There are many different ways of making compost ranging from easy to elaborate. I am going to explain a few simple options in this series. But, regardless of which methods you ultimately end up using, I recommend that all new gardeners start by making vermicompost!
Vermicomposting makes great humus which is magical stuff that helps everything in your garden grow better. Plus it also makes “plant perfect” fertilizer that you can start using almost immediately.
What is Vermicompost?
Vermicompost is made primarily by red wriggler worms. Red wrigglers are very small worms that can eat half their body weight, each day, of all those fresh materials you’ve been saving in your 5 gallon bucket.
In reality, you’ll get a lot of ebb and flow in compost production depending on what you’ve got in your bucket. Still, with very minimal work, you can accumulate quite a bit of the highest quality, least work compost possible using these amazing worms.
Also, if you plan to keep other livestock later, your ability to take care of these worms is both good practice and an excellent test of your readiness for more complex life forms (e.g. chickens).
How Do You Care For Worms?
To take care of your worms, you’ll need to provide them proper shelter and bedding, nutritious food and sufficient water, occasionally clean their living area, and make adjustments in their care as required for their continued good health. (Incidentally, that’s also what you need to do for all other livestock.)
– Shelter and Bedding
For your first round of worms, their shelter will be a plastic container. Their bedding will be compost or top soil.
– Food and Water
Their food will be the materials you have been saving in your 5-gallon bucket, plus some loose brown matter that I’ll tell you about in a minute. Generally the food materials from your bucket will have sufficient water to hydrate your worms. Although, you may occasionally need to moisten your feed materials if they start to dry out.
Like us, worms don’t want to open the metaphorical fridge and find that the only thing to eat is ketchup. So, make sure to feed them before they run out of food. That way they can pick and choose what to eat and don’t end up living on nothing but onions and coffee grounds for a month.
Similar to making compost, some people say you shouldn’t give worms certain things. Well, smells and insects can be a problem in indoor worm bins. So I recommend you do one of two things.
If you prefer to compost everything indoors, then you’ll need to ferment your compost materials before you feed them to your worms. This is done by a very simple process called bokashi. (I will tell you more about that in our next post).
People also say you should chop things up small — not give whole egg shells or wash them first, avoid citrus, limit onions — etc. etc. etc. Personally, I ignore all those special rules. Whatever the worms don’t eat, goes into the garden with the worm castings. There, other life forms end up eating them eventually.
As far as cleaning goes, I recommend that you make at least two worm bins. When one bucket fills up you can scrape the majority of the worms from the top of your full bucket and transfer them to a new bucket. Then all you need to do is spread the compost from your first bucket on your garden. Once your second bucket is full, repeat the same process.
You will also need to empty the liquid, called leachate, that drains from your worm bin into your second container, regularly. Dilute this liquid to a ratio of 10 parts water to 1 part leachate. Use it to water the roots of your more mature plants. (Don’t use this on seedlings, sometimes it can be too strong.)
Worm care is very simple. Still, I can’t tell you how many people have managed to kill their worms. One lady left them shut up in her greenhouse on a hot day. A man put them in his garage which was well below freezing, so his worms froze to death. Most people just fail to feed them and those poor, trapped worms die of starvation.
Worms like the same basic climate conditions as we do for best performance. Well, except that they live in a plastic box – which amplifies conditions like sunlight, heat, and cold. Basically, though, if you keep them at the house temperatures you feel comfortable in, out of direct sunlight, and away from vents that will cause them to become too dry, they’ll be happy.
Feed them before they get hungry. Transfer them to a new bin before they run out of space. And remember to treat them like they are living beings, doing amazing work for you, then you’ll do just fine!
Now, that you are primed on the basic needs of worms, here’s what you need to do to start using them at home.
1. Prepare Your Browns
You’ve already started gathering your worm food in your 5 gallon buckets. But now, it’s time to start saving up some separate “browns” to go help create a hospitable environment for worms. Used computer paper, newspaper, junk mail with the plastic windows torn out, paper towels, cardboard, paper egg cartons, tissues boxes, toilet paper rolls, etc. are all good options. Crushed, but not composted, fall leaves are also a good option when the season is right.
Shred your paper items if you can. But if you don’t have access to a shredder, you can also do this manually. If you watch any TV or movies, tearing large paper-based materials into small pieces by hand while you watch is relaxing and redeeming. (Personally, I don’t feel guilty about my TV time if I am also doing some homesteading “work” while I watch).
2. Make Your Worm Bin
Extra large cat litter boxes or 5 gallon sized food grade buckets make great worm bins. Ideally you’ll want two containers of the same size that you can nest together.
If you don’t have any containers from your own purchases, ask friends and family to collect these for you. Or check with your favorite restaurants to see if they can save you their large food grade buckets.
– Make Drainage Holes For The Worm Compost Leachate
Drill a few holes in the bottom of one container for drainage. Put some weight on the bucket using your foot to keep it steady. Then hold the drill with two hands to drill the holes. (Keep your foot away from the drill, though for safety).
Note: Those cat litter pails have ridged bottoms. Make sure you drill the part that is flush with the bottom — not the inverted ridges — because liquid needs to flow to the low point in the container. This is where your worm compost tea will drain out thanks to gravity.
Look! This is so easy, you can even get your cat involved!
– Make a Vent for Fresh Air
If your container has a lid, you can use a sharp utility knife to make an air vent. Cut out a small section. Cover it with a few coffee filters, folded to size, and held in place with duct tape. Paper towels also work if you are not a coffee drinker.
Note: Some people worry that the worms might eat through the coffee filters. I have never had it happen. I suspect that’s because there are better food options in the body of the bucket. But, if you are worried about this, you can use a piece of metal screen like you use for your screen door or over windows to keep flies out instead.
– No Lid? No Problem
If you only managed to scavenge containers but no lids, then just cover the whole top with a towel and secure it with a rope or bungee cord. You will be getting in and out of this bucket from time to time. So make sure you secure your towel using something you can untie easily.
Again, if you are concerned about worms escaping by eating the towel, then use some screen cut to size instead of a towel.
– Add Your Compost Leachate Catcher
Nest your bucket with holes inside your other container that doesn’t have holes.
With the cat litter boxes, you can even lean the drilled side forward a bit to help the liquid drain faster. This doesn’t work with round buckets, but it will still drain fine (just a bit more slowly).
3. Prepare Worm Habitat
There are all sorts of formulas out there for what to put in your worm bins. Personally, after years of raising worms in bins, in beds, and direct in the garden, I have decided that nature knows best.
I add 3 inches of top soil or finished compost to the bottom of my worm bin since this is what the worms live in when they free range. This also helps maintain the moisture in the bin in while acting as a bio-filter for the liquid that drains out the bottom.
Moisten your compost or soil so that it is like a full — but not soppy — sponge.
Side Note For Garden Preparation
You are going to need to get some already-made compost for your garden very soon. So, go ahead and start buying a couple of bags a week in preparation for starting your beds. If you grab a few bags each time you do your normal shopping, it’s not such a hit to your budget or so much heavy lifting for your back! Then you can use some of this in your worm bin too.
You’ll need about 3 cubic feet of well-aged compost for every 10 square feet of garden space you’ve earned based on your estimated compost making ability. Normally bagged compost is about 1 cubic foot per bag. Double check the label to be sure, though. (Organic compost can sometimes be in smaller bags to make the price seem more similar to the non-organic variety).
4. Move Your Worms into their New Home
You can buy worms online from specialized suppliers. They sell them by the pound or piece count. A pound of worms is about 1000 worms, and that’s about what you need to get started. Some suppliers only ship in good weather for worm safety. Others charge a lot for shipping because they use foam coolers and insulation to ship year round.
You can often get a batch of worms from other gardeners (if you ask nicely and maybe barter a bit). Bait and tackle shops often carry red wrigglers for fishermen to use as well.
If you have seen red wrigglers in your soil, then you can also just put a couple inches of your compost materials on your soil and wait until the worms crawl up to eat it. Then you can pick out worms and put them in your bin. You’ll need to repeat this a few times to get a sufficient population for your bin. But, it saves you up to $40 on the price of worms.
Once you have your worms, spread them out on top of the compost in your new worm bin. Introduce yourself. Let them know you’ll be taking care of them. And wish them well in their new home!
5. Feed Your Livestock
Now, add about 3 inches of loose compost materials from your 5 gallon bucket to this new worm bin to get them started. Do not pack this in. You don’t want those worms to suffocate or get crushed!
Cover the fresh materials with about 2 inches of the loose brown matter from step 1 above. The brown stuff will cut down on smells and irritating gnat flies.
If you haven’t collected enough browns yet, then you can also sprinkle just enough of your bagged compost to cover the fresh materials.
6. Get to Know Your Worms
Like any new livestock, you’ll want to spend a lot of time with your worms at first to get to know as much as you can about them. Move aside your browns every day or two and see how much your worms have eaten. Check to see if your materials are still moist. Pay attention to how much black, gummy goodness (a.k.a. worm poop) your power eaters have made.
Each time you visit your worms, add in more fresh food and browns, as needed, to replace what’s missing. Also, give your worms a banana peel now and then. That’s their favorite food!
Actually it’s the potassium in the peels that they are attracted. Potassium can be hard to come by in other forms of organic matter. When you add a banana peel or two to each batch of vermicompost, you also increase the potassium content that will be in the vermicompost and leachate that you feed to your plants.
When you have accomplished the above, you can add “vermicompost manager” to your homesteading resume. You have not only started to make your own compost for the garden. but you have also added your first kind of livestock to your homestead line-up!
These simple steps, have led to huge progress. This one skill can feed your garden and your family for years to come. And, if you take great care of your worms, they will live long and propagate so you never have to buy them again.
Are you dreaming of a big, beautiful garden full of lush, tasty vegetables and fruits? Can you image the smell of a ripe tomato or of the earth as you carefully loosen pounds of perfect potatoes from your rich, loamy soil? Do your future beans, corn, and sunflowers climb 12 feet in the air and tower over you like benevolent garden giants?
Is your imagined garden abuzz with all the pollinating insects and beneficial pest eaters? Do borage, nasturtium, calendula, marigolds, and other companion flowers line your paths and intermix with your vegetables? Do you picture yourself cutting fresh herbs from a stunning array of ever-giving plants?
Oh, I love that dream! There is nothing so soul-moving and life-altering as a growing (or even imagining growing) a vibrant garden. And you can absolutely make that dream a reality using simple steps if you know how to grow a garden.
How Does Your Garden Grow?
Besides the basics, like seeds, plus sufficient water, light, and air (to be covered in detail later), there are just two more things you need to grow your very own garden of Eden.
You need soil that is about 2 feet deep, loose in texture, and high in humus content.
Then, you need a way to return nutrients to your soil every time you harvest.
Now, don’t panic! Remember in the pep-talk post, when I said that as long as you do it slowly, methodically, and with careful intention, then homesteading is easy?
Well, I need you to keep that in mind as you start planning your garden. This is important because the garden is where most new homesteaders start to go really wrong.
You’ve got big dreams, but little skills. And the garden is an excellent teacher. If you start too big, your garden will quickly teach you the limit of your skills. That can be very disheartening to new gardeners. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Grow According to Your Skill Level
Starting simple, by right-sizing your garden to your skills, will get you much better and quicker results than overreach. With that said, how big should you make your garden?
Well, here’s a good rule of thumb.
Match your garden size to your finished compost production.
If you are just getting started, you won’t even have finished compost for at least a year from when you start collecting materials. So, you’ll likely be buying compost for your first year of gardening.
In fact, you’ll probably be buying some things for the garden for at least the first 5 years until you get your soil in shape to qualify for point number 1 above. But, if you don’t want to be spending a fortune on your garden for the rest of your homesteading life, then using your ability to produce compost as your garden-size guide is the way to grow.
Because, if you don’t add enough fresh compost annually to your garden, it will produce less and less each year. Plus your pest, pathogen, and crop failure problems will increase in direct relation to your lack of compost.
Homestead gardens do not grow on dreams alone. The dream is just the seed that gets you started. After that, you must feed the garden dream. For that, you need compost!
How to Start Growing a Compost Driven Garden
Even if you have never composted before in your life and barely know what it is, I will tell you an easy way to estimate your compost capacity. Then I’ll give you a simple way to get started making compost right away.
Estimate Your Compost Capacity
A 5-gallon bucket works great for estimating your compost capacity. The number of times you can fill that bucket in a year equals the number of square feet you can grow in your garden using your own compost.
Think of it like this. Each time you fill that bucket, you’ve earned a square foot of garden space for one year. So, if you fill that bucket once a month, then in a year, you’ll have enough compost for a 12 foot long by 1 foot wide garden. If you fill it twice a month, your compost capacity can support twice that amount so you get 2 rows that are 12 feet long.
You can also rearrange those square feet of space anyway you like. For example, you could have a 6 foot row that is 2 feet wide. Or you could have three square beds that are 4 square feet each. Maybe you prefer a keyhole bed? That part is up to you.
If you’ll be container gardening, the bucket calculation still works. You may just need to do a little math to translate the shapes of your containers into square feet.
It’s easier with square and rectangular containers. For round containers, though, you can go back to your high school algebra or just use an online calculator to convert the diameter of your pots to square feet.
There are two theories on compost. The first is the theory that you can only compost uncooked vegetable and plant matter. The second theory is that you can compost almost everything that was once living or that came out of something once living.
– The Limited List Compost Approach
Nature composts everything. It just breaks some things down at a slower rate. It also breaks some things down using methods we humans can be a bit squeamish about. For example, cooked meat is often composted by stinky bacteria and maggots.
As such, the primary reasons to limit what you put in your compost piles are to reduce potential unsavory smells and get ready-compost faster. Many people prefer to use the limited list approach to composing so they don’t offend their neighbors or have to protect their compost piles from pesky pests (or pets).
The list below is taken straight from the EPA page on composting. (Under the don’t compost side, you’ll see the reason why you might not want to compost this stuff.)
Fruits and vegetables
Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
– Releases substances that might be harmful to plants
Coffee grounds and filters
Coal or charcoal ash
– Might contain substances harmful to plants
Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs*
– Create odor problems and attract pests
Diseased or insect-ridden plants
– Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred to new plants
Fats, grease, lard, or oils
– Create odor problems and attract pests
Meat or fish bones and scraps
Hay and straw
– Create odor problems and attract pests
Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)
– Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses
Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
Cotton and Wool Rags
– Might kill beneficial composting organisms
Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
Hair and fur
Note: Limited list composters may also compost some animal manure. But they often compost manures using different methods than for pure plant matter.
– The Compost Everything Approach
The compost everything approach requires that you have a composting system you can protect from rodents and bigger critters or pets. It also requires that you wait 1 year from the time your pile is 4 x 4 feet tall and wide (large enough to generate heat) to apply the compost to your garden.
The pile size requirement and the waiting period are both necessary to give slower composting materials time to break down and to minimize risk of pathogen reinfection.
What Not To Compost EVER!
Warning! For both composting approaches, there are 3 things to keep out of your pile.
Plant matter from walnut trees because these may contain juglone – a naturally occurring plant growth inhibitor.
Diseased plant matter because many fungal pathogens can survive composting and persist in the soil for up to 10 years.
Chemical-laced organic matter because some herbicides (and other chemicals) can take 2 years or more to decompose in compost. If you want to learn more about this, check out this fact sheet on Understanding Persistent Herbicides from the US Council on Composting.
Which Kind of Composter Are You?
The limited list compost camp is easiest for beginners. It has few risks and doesn’t require any special equipment. You can even just build your pile on some twigs on the ground without using a bin.
The downside of being a limited list composter is that you’ll have a lot less material to compost. Either that or you’ll have to do a lot more work to gather materials to increase your compost capacity.
When you take the compost everything approach, though, it’s hard to switch back to the limited list approach after you start. You’ll already have stuff in your pile that needs time to decompose. So, you’ll need to keep your compost pile protected until it decomposes. Or you’ll need to bag that stuff up and deliver it to the landfill. So, consider this option carefully.
In rural areas, composting everything may make a whole lot of sense. But in a small apartment, when you only plan to grow a few containers, then limited list composting might be the perfect solution.
There is no right or wrong answer here, just the one that makes the most sense for you.
Start Composting Now
I’ve given you a lot to think about. If it doesn’t all make perfect sense now, don’t worry. it will come.
For now, just start to move in the right direction. For your next steps do the following.
Get yourself a 5 gallon bucket with a tight fitting lid.
Take a little time to decide what kind of composter you think you want to be. If you are undecided, then start with the limited list approach. You can always start composting more things later when you have more experience.
Start collecting your composting materials in your bucket. Put the bucket under your kitchen sink or next to your trash can. Or, put the bucket elsewhere (e.g. in the garage, in a shed etc.) and then keep a small container on your counter to fill and empty into your bucket.
Be mindful about your new composting habit. Remind yourself to sort your compostables into your bucket every time you throw something away until this becomes a habit.
Make note of the date you start collecting and the date you fill the bucket. Keep track of this information for several months to get a reliable estimate.
There’s a bit more to learn about composting and gardening before you are ready to plant your first seeds. We’ll be getting deeper into those topics in future posts.
In particular, we’ll look at a few easy methods for turning those 5 gallon buckets of collected material into actual compost. We’ll also look at ways you can increase your compost production by sourcing materials for the purpose of composting.
We’re also going to start preparing a garden together. Yep, I am going to start one from scratch so I can show you how to begin and what to do each step of the way.
Remember, simple steps are all it takes. Don’t worry about all that other stuff yet. Just start filling your bucket. That is all you need to do to start composting.
Also, take pleasure in knowing that each bucket you fill brings you that much closer to the garden of your dreams!