The Power of a Well-Planned Potager

I did something that others might consider crazy on purpose. I ignored my Simplestead potager garden for 4 weeks during our hottest, driest period.

We’ve had less than an inch of rain in the last 4 weeks and most of it fell today just before I came outside to document the condition of the garden after my near total neglect. Our temperatures were also over 85 F for 23 of those 28 days of neglect.

I didn’t water.

I didn’t weed.

I didn’t stake or trellis anything.

I didn’t pick off insects or coddle any fungal prone plants.

I just harvested the things that would rot if I didn’t pick them. That included tons of carrots, beets, peppers, cantaloupes, tomatoes, beans, and more. That harvesting took me a grand total of about 15 minutes over the last 4 weeks.

This is not my normal gardening practice. I love gardening and spending time in my garden. So, it was actually hard for me to stay away. But, this is a test/proof of concept garden that I created for the purpose of writing this blog.

I neglected my potager garden — on purpose — to show you how resilient a well-planned, continuously planted, compost-driven garden could be.

Gardening is not a just a way to produce food. It’s a relationship with your environment. So, I don’t recommend that you practice total neglect of your garden as a habit. However, there are times when you can’t garden as much as you want to. Stuff comes up and you simply can’t get outside to do your routine maintenance and enjoy time in your garden. In other words, life happens.

If you put the time into planning, developing your soil, and choosing the right plants for your garden, and keep your garden constantly planted, then your well-planned potager can keep on without you for a while.

Yes – it may look a bit like a jungle with sprawling tomatoes, out of control melon vines, and a few pests (deer in my case) may visit and eat your bean or sweet potato vine leaves while you are away.

Still your garden grows on. Plus, it can be easily worked back into condition with an hour or two of care.

Most importantly, that density of planting from that jungle like atmosphere protects the soil and all the biological life encouraged with compost and compost tea when you do have time to invest in your garden.

Now that this experiment is over, I’ll be harvesting mass quantities of vegetables today. Despite the sprawl, there are ripe, ready to eat tomatoes hiding in those vines.

Although the beet greens are a bit sun-scalded and crispy, the roots are are plump and ready to eat. I’ll be freezing about 30 pounds of cantaloupe for our smoothies. A few that didn’t ripen fully will go to the chickens. I’ll also harvesting every pepper and bean I can find to encourage the plants to get back to production.

After that, I’ll do a couple hours of maintenance such as getting some light to my garlic chives which were nearly swallowed by the tomatoes. Generally though, I’ll just spend some quality time with my garden again.

There will be lots more potager-related posts to come. However, since it is now time to start super-powering your garden with poop, I’m going to switch gears for the next few posts and talk about raising chickens the Simplestead way.

Starting a Homestead Potager

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!

Simplestead Review

If you’ve been following the series, then you have been collecting your compost materials, started a vermicompost bin, and may even be implementing your bokashi system to increase your compost potential.

– Garden Size

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.)

– Observation and Resource Identification

You’ve also started to hone your observation skills and get a feel for your weather. Plus, you’ve looked around at the tools and abundant resources you have already or in your area.

– Seed Germination

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

keyhole 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.

  1. Garden Site Selection
  2. Planning Your Garden Layout
  3. Laying out the Garden
  4. Building the Beds
  5. Planning Your Plantings
  6. Simple Cold Frames for Seed Starting
  7. 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!

 

 

Garden Dreams and Compost Calculations

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.

  1. You need soil that is about 2 feet deep, loose in texture, and high in humus content.
  2. 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.

Here’s why.

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.

Why?

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.

Garden Bed Possibilities

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.

Compost Approaches

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.)

Compost

Don’t Compost

Fruits and vegetables Black walnut tree leaves or twigs
Eggshells – Releases substances that might be harmful to plants
Coffee grounds and filters Coal or charcoal ash
Tea bags – Might contain substances harmful to plants
Nut shells Dairy products (e.g., butter, milk, sour cream, yogurt) and eggs*
Shredded newspaper – Create odor problems and attract pests
Cardboard Diseased or insect-ridden plants
Paper – Diseases or insects might survive and be transferred to new plants
Yard trimmings Fats, grease, lard, or oils
Grass clippings – Create odor problems and attract pests
Houseplants Meat or fish bones and scraps
Hay and straw – Create odor problems and attract pests
Leaves Pet wastes (e.g., dog or cat feces, soiled cat litter)
Sawdust – Might contain parasites, bacteria, germs, pathogens, and viruses
Wood chips Yard trimmings treated with chemical pesticides
Cotton and Wool Rags – Might kill beneficial composting organisms
Dryer and vacuum cleaner lint
Hair and fur
Fireplace ashes

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.

  1. Get yourself a 5 gallon bucket with a tight fitting lid.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Upcoming Posts

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!

Tomorrow, continue your simple homesteading journey with Simple Vermicomposting.

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