The garden explosion happened. Those tiny, seedlings I showed pictures of in the last post Plant Your Homestead Potager suddenly started to look like fully-fledged plants.
Even when you visit your garden daily, and observe the incremental growth, there is still this moment when you realize “Wow, this is a real garden.”
Honestly, it was a real garden from the first moment you poured your intentions into it. Yet, it always seems so surprising when your effort starts to pay off and your aesthetic ideals of a garden are gratified.
Stop and enjoy this moment. Savor it like you would a perfect, but fleeting sunset. Take some mental, or actual pictures, to refer back to from year to year. Then, get out your harvest basket and scissors and get to work.
Harvesting as Health Care for Your Garden
This is the point in time when you really have to be diligent. If you don’t stay on top of your harvesting and garden care, your plants’ heath will decline quickly.
So-called “pests” will come to help eradicate failing plants. We call them pests, but really they are just nature’s helpers, culling the poor performers so they don’t go to seed and start generations of weak plants.
As plants fail, the biological life in your soil will lose their sense of purpose. Those damaged plants begin to process nutrients poorly, leaving too much behind in the soil. . Those once eager biological workers start to go dormant from boredom as the nutrients they provide begin pile up and their efforts go unappreciated by dying root systems.
Don’t worry. This does not need to be the fate of your garden.
All you need to do is harvest and replenish what you take. Then, you’ll have a continuous supply of fresh food. Your soil life will be busy and satisfied. Your plants will be healthy and you won’t need the services of nature’s pest-like plant killers who offer a quick end to suffering plants.
The Continuous Harvest
If you took my advice and over seeded, you can use your scissors to cut out the extra plants that are smaller in size. Leave the largest, healthiest plants in the ground to grow out to maturity.
The Art of Thinning
If all those extra plants with edible greens look healthy, and aren’t developing slug problems, I thin in increments. That way I get a harvest of baby greens every day for a week or two. Even a small handful of fresh tasty greens can spruce up an omelet, make a great side salad, or be tossed with olive oil and salt when you need something salty and crunchy on warm days.
If plants show signs of insect damage or leaf discoloration, then I thin brutally, leaving only those plants that have the best chance of success. Heavy rains followed by periods of hot, sunny days can create fungal problems and encourage slugs to move in. So, when that happens, I also speed up my thinning process to maintain good air circulation and avoid creating a slug heaven.
– Minimally Thinned Root Vegetables
Most plants ultimately need plenty of space to grow to mature size. However, there are a few that can grow to a large size even in close contact with fellow plants. For example, beets, turnips, and radish can grow in groups of 3-4, almost right on top of each other in fertile soil.
The bulb portions of the plants just push each other apart as they swell. Then, you can carefully harvest the biggest of the bulbs and let the others continue growing. You do need good airflow around your clusters though. So, you will still need to thin many of the greens for good root production.
– Non-Edible Plant Thinning
Even for plants that I can’t eat the thinnings of, like tomatoes and peppers, I still thin incrementally. High-performing, young plants really seem to benefit from a little competition and companionship at the outset of planting.
This method requires is a delicate balance though because once the strongest plants are established, they can become stunted by crowding. Usually within 2-3 weeks in warm weather and 3-4 weeks in cool weather, it’s time to let your winners make the rest of their journey toward plant maturity on their own.
Leave Non-eDible Roots In Place
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, bacteria and fungi form relationships with plant roots. So, if you rip out your plant roots every time you harvest, you end up taking a lot of those amazing garden helpers with you.
Instead, leave the roots in the ground when you can. Small roots decompose quickly. Even large roots can be left to decompose if you have room to plant around them.
If your plants have become pest infested, though, you’ll want to pull those roots out and throw them away so that you don’t run the risk of harboring lots of larva in your soil and plant matter.
Here’s an example of my kohlrabi seedlings before thinning.
Now, here’s what it looked like after I harvested the baby greens to use for making a variation on Palak Paneer. I only left the two largest plants on the outer edges of the photo so that they can continue to grow to maturity. The rest were dinner and delicious!
If you need another application of organic fertilizer for your heavy feeders, then you can do this after you complete your thinning process.
When using slow-release, meal-based fertilizers like feather meal and bone meal, or organic 4-4-4 mixes, you can sprinkle them directly on the soil all around your plants. I like to cover them with a thin layer of compost and then water them in to help them start to penetrate the soil.
When you eventually harvest your mature plants, you’ll also want to fertilize the bed again before you start a new crop. Then, you’re all set to start growing your next crop.
As you finish harvesting your cool season crops, you’ll most likely want to put in warm season crops. For example, if your March planted peas are spent, then it might be time for your late-May planted green beans. When cabbage comes out, okra might go in.
If you are removing warm season crops, it may be time to start planting for a fall harvest. Fall gardening really starts in summer. This is usually around late July through mid-August. But the exact timing for fall planting depends on your climate and growing season.
Your fall plants need to be well-established before your day-length shortens too much and soil temperatures cool. Winter cover crops are generally started around this time too.
If it’s not quite fall planting time, you may need to grow a short term, hot season cover crop like buckwheat or cowpeas. The important thing is never to leave your beds unplanted.
I often put my new seeds in the ground a few days before I harvest the entire mature plant (e.g. cabbage heads). That gives the seeds time to acclimate and activate. Once I remove the ready to harvest plants, those eager seeds seem to sprout instantly.
Note, this only works if you can leave the mature plant roots in the ground. You don’t want to disturb newly planted seeds by pulling out old roots.
Come and Cut Greens
For densely planted come and cut greens, like the lettuce bed shown above, I harvest in sections. This promotes good air flow and keeps the bed looking full even after I fill my salad bowl.
You want to leave at least an inch of leaf producing part of each plant so that the lettuce leaves can regrow from the base. Many of your lettuce plants will actually make multiple heads and start to become more productive as you harvest them.
Once that happens, you’ll be able to harvest a section of your bed almost daily . Then, a week later when you’re ready to re-harvest that first section, it will be lush and ready to cut again.
If your plants start to bolt (send up flower stalks), you need to harvest them all the way to the soil at each cutting to kill those plant and make room for more. Right after you cut a bolting section down, add some more fertilizer to the soil and cover with 1-2 inches of compost. Then, re-seed your next round of lettuce right over your just butchered patch.
If you do this in segments, your garden bed will never be completely bare while waiting for new seedlings to sprout. When you get your timing exactly right, then you never want for lettuce.
In hot climates, your second planting may need to be a collection of oak leaf lettuces or alternative greens like New Zealand spinach that better tolerate excessive heat.
Salad Preparation Tip
Cut your lettuce up into bite size portions and put them directly in your salad spinner in the garden. Then, all you need to do is give them a rinse and spin back in the house and they are ready to eat.
Also, if you do have issues with slugs, they tend to be heaviest in the bottom inch or two of the cut leaves.By trimming that area and throwing it on top of your compost pile to dry out in the sun, you remove the slugs from your lettuce bed and have fewer pests to wash out of your cut lettuce.
Your timing and efficiency at harvesting vegetables from your potager will get better the more you do it. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. Visualize ways that you’ll improve your process for next year as you go along, even if it’s too late to correct things this year.
In my experience, the best time to plan your garden for next year is actually right now while you are in the thick of the growing season. You may not formalize your plan until winter when you have time to sit down and write it out. But, by solving challenges and making plans for your future garden now, and keeping good notes so you remember, your work will be mostly done before you put your future plantings on paper.
Next time, we’ll start to get into the details of making compost right in the garden. In the meantime…Bon Appétit!
Now that you’ve constructed your homestead potager, it’s time to plant. Well, almost…
There are two more things I suggest you do before you put plants or seeds in the ground.
Pre-Planting Step 1: Start Compost Tea
The first thing I recommend is that you get a five gallon bucket, fill it with rain water (if possible), and drop a bag of 2-3 cups of vermicompost in your bucket. You can use an old pillow case, a flour sack towel, or an official compost tea bag to hold your castings.
Let this “brew” for 7 days. This is basic compost tea. Twice a week, use one cup of your tea to every 1 gallon of water you use to water your garden. I keep a 2 cup measuring cup by my bucket and use a 2 gallon watering can, so that makes it easy to figure out my dosages.
No Additives Please
Please do not add molasses or kelp or any other additives to your compost tea. It’s not necessary and may occasionally encourage not so beneficial bacteria when used in passive compost tea.
Note: Down the road, if you want to buy a $60 pump and run it for 3 days every 2-4 weeks, then you can add those extra ingredients to make actively aerated compost tea (ACT or AACT) which does need those additives to encourage bacteria and fungi. For now though, let’s start with simple, safe, passive compost tea with worm castings only!
Keep it Going
Start a new bucket as needed so that you always have compost tea that has brewed for at least 7 days ready to use when watering during the growing season.
The reason for doing this is that bacteria and fungi are what make the compost in your garden effective as a fertilizer. If you bought commercial or bulk produced compost, it was made quickly and often does not have the same quantity of microlife as slow-processed, homemade compost. Also, many of your fungi and bacteria only wake up and start working when they come into contact with plant roots.
So, at the outset, your garden soil is more of a growing medium than a nutrient factory. Depending on your starting conditions and the quality of your compost, it can take 1-2 years for compost to be a sufficient fertilizer for vegetables.
By putting your worm castings in water, you extract the water soluble nutrients and make them immediately available to plants. You also add small quantities of bacteria and fungi direct to your root zone as you water so they can quickly form beneficial relationships with your plants.
Think of compost tea as a compost activator and short-term plant health booster.
Pre-Planting Step 2: Add Fertilizer
Many gardeners swear by compost as the only thing needed to grow a great organic garden. In the long-term I agree that it can be if you add enough slow-made, well-aged compost and keep your garden continuously planted.
In the short-term though, most soils simply do not have enough humic content for compost alone to grow a densely planted potager garden. Also, most new gardeners aren’t experts at crop rotation and cover crop use which are both also important tools for growing a garden without additional fertilizer.
So, while many organic gardeners frown on adding fertilizer beyond compost, for the health of your new garden I suggest you incorporate some “meal-based” fertilizers into your compost before you plant. Meals are plant or animal material that have been ground up into a powdered form.
Option 1: Use Organic Meals
My two favorite meals to work with are feather meal as a nitrogen (N) source and bone meal as a phosphorous (P) and calcium (Ca) source. They are both slow release with only a small portion of their nutrients being available when you first apply them. But, over the growing season, they deliver a fairly continuous supply of N, P, and Ca. They are also usually the least expensive organic fertilizer pound for pound of nutrient delivered.
These are by-products of the commercial poultry and meat processing industries. Although I don’t generally support the way those industries operate, those by-products would simply be landfill waste if not converted to useful garden nutrients. They are not perfect from an environmental perspective but they are so beneficial to a new garden and do help solve a waste problem. They are also much better and safer than the synthetic alternatives.
For potassium, I use wood ash from the hardwoods we burn on our landscape. There can be a lot of variance in potassium quantity in wood ash. But they tend to be higher if you use the ash from hard woods only. Wood ash also contains some calcium and other trace minerals.
Ashes should be kept dry until applied in the garden and sifted to remove any large coals that might bind nitrogen in your soil.
Simplestead Fertilizer Recipe
My new garden fertilizer formula is:
4.5 pounds feather meal
4.5 pounds bone meal
1 pound wood ash
I coat the top of my garden beds with this mix at a rate of about 1/2 pound for every 10 square feet of garden area. So, you’ll use 5 pounds for a 100 square foot garden to start.
For plants that require lots of nitrogen like lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, and others, I will reapply the same amount of fertilizer again in about 3-4 weeks as plants start to really size up. If those high-nitrogen needs plants take more than 80 days to grow, I’ll also reapply again at the 6-8 week mark.
For light feeders, I’ll only reapply fertilizer if my plants seem to need it. Then, I’ll reapply a 1/2 pound per 10 square feet whenever I start new plants.
Note, I only do this for the first two years after starting a garden. After that point, the power of compost usually kicks in and you run the risk of overloading your garden using a generic formula like this. From that point on, I use plant specific fertilizer mixes as needed. (We’ll cover more on that in much later posts.)
If you don’t want to mix your own, you can also buy 4-4-4 organic fertilizer mixes from makers like Down to Earth, Jobes, Dr. Earth, or others.
Avoid all synthetic fertilizers. Also, in general, avoid applying any fast-release fertilizers to your garden even if they are organic. Also, be careful not to apply a quantity that is greater than 5-5-5 at any one time. For the health of your soil, it’s better to apply more only when you need it than too much at one time.
Here’s why. Synthetic fertilizers eventually bind nutrients and limit microlife. Strong fertilizers, organic or not, can burn plants and cause biological life in the soil to go dormant. These also pose run-off risks during rain and watering because plants grown in compost heavy gardens simply do not need all those excess nutrients and won’t use them quickly enough.
How to Incorporate Fertilizer
For the Simplestead mix or store-bought organic fertilizer, sprinkle it on top of your soil. Then, use your finger tips to work it into the top 2 inches of your compost. Watering, soil life, and plant roots will work your fertilizer deeper over time. After incorporation, water your entire bed area to activate the fertilizer and settle it into your compost.
What to Plant in a First Year Potager
I know everyone wants to jump right in and start growing giant heirloom tomatoes. Unfortunately, that usually ends in disappointment. Do yourself a favor and buy those at your local farmers market. Then instead, focus on things you will be able to grow well in a first year garden.
I can’t give you specific suggestions because every climate is different. But, I do have some broad, general principles to share that should help you have a bountiful harvest in your first year.
1. Focus on CONTINUOUS Harvest Type Vegetables
Plants that can be planted once and harvested for a month or more are wonderful for a potager. They help keep the garden looking full and beautiful while giving you something to use in your meals each day. They also tend to be terrifically nutritious and low calorie.
Here are my favorites.
Leaf Lettuce Mixes
Turnip Greens (e.g. Seven Top, not Root Turnips)
Green Onions (cut greens, leave roots in place to regrow tops)
Cherry or Grape Tomatoes
Sweet or Hot Peppers
2. Choose Fast-Growing, Direct Seed Varieties
I highly recommend that new gardeners also focus on plants that can be harvested in 75 days (or less) and are easy to grow. Also, focus on plants that and can be started by putting seeds directly in the ground.
Quicker time to harvest means you can plant 2 or 3 times the quantity in the same place. Also, shorter time in the garden limits risk for pests to come and find your new location and spoil your crop before your soil has time to improve.
Here are some of my favorites fast-production vegetables. Make sure to choose varieties that specifically have time to harvest of 75 days or less.
3. Plan for Cool And Hot Season Crops
Cool season plants tend to bolt when temperatures warm up. So, you need to consider your number of cool days when planning for cool season vegetables. Until you have tried and true season extension and container seed starting methods, consider buying your early spring transplants. Country stores and farmers markets are great places to get them for less cost than the hardware store.
Warm season plants also need sufficient time to grow and ripen before harvest. So, make sure to allow enough hot days for good growth.
Easy to Grow Cool Season Plants
Baby Pok or Bok Choy
65-80 Day cabbages (e.g. Early Jersey Wakefield, Red or Green Acre)
Easy to Grow Hot Season Plants
Summer Squash or Zucchini (Choose compact varieties for best use of space)
New Zealand Spinach
4. Practice Growing Storage Foods
You probably don’t have room in your first year potager for a lot of long-storing foods. But, you can get some practice by growing a winter squash at the end of a row, a few potato plants, or a couple sweet potatoes plants.
Drying beans are also a good use of vertical space, such as along the north side of a garden fence. Shell them while watching a sun set or catching up on TV shows during bad weather.
Down the road, you may want to grow more of these as you expand your compost capacity and garden area. But for now, dabbling with them can be a satisfying experience.
What Not To Grow In Your Potager
Like I said at the outset, skip the large-sized heirloom tomatoes for year 1. They require rich soil, good staking, and active fungal management for good results from year to year. Save these as a challenge to master later.
I suggest skipping the corn too. It’s easy to grow. But it easily cross pollinates during the growing season. So without advanced planning, you can end up growing GMO corn in your homestead potager. Plus you need about 20 plants grown in a dense patch for good pollination. That means it will take a lot of soil fertility management for good production.
Long-storing cabbages are also better grown after a few years of soil improvement. The longer maturing varieties really need deep, rich soil to be able resist seasonal stresses and create their own defenses against pests like the cabbage moth.
Watermelon is incredibly easy to grow. But it will swallow your garden if you are not careful and give you almost no calories in return for all that space. Buy those at your farmers market too and save your space for the stuff above.
Tips On Organization and Planting Procedures
Now that you have a few plant choices to consider, here are a few tips to help you plan, plant, and encourage a healthy garden.
1. Intermix your continuous harvest vegetables with your one-time harvest vegetables. Potagers should be pretty and productive. That means you don’t want to be harvesting everything all at once. By mixing it up, your garden will never looks empty even though you’ll harvest regularly.
2. Stagger your plantings. For example, start beets every 2 weeks rather than all at once. Also, use heirlooms, they tend to have more varied germination rates than hybrid seeds. Throw in small radish as filler when needed.
3. Over seed on all things with edible plant parts. Beets, turnips, kohlrabi, mustard, lettuce, etc. can all be cut with scissors at the baby stage and eaten in salads or tossed into omelets. Thinning your seedlings is basically your first harvest.
4. Over seed on other plants like tomatoes, peppers, etc., too. But don’t eat the greens! Just cut the weaker seedlings back to soil level with scissors and let your strongest plant survive.
5. Make a key of your plantings. Labels in the beds are awesome, but also keep a paper map of everything you planted and when.
6. Add flowers and herbs. Flowers like marigolds, borage, nasturtium (dwarf) and herbs like basil, cilantro, and dill also have beneficial insect-attracting and pest-repelling benefits. Work them into any empty spaces you have for beauty and utility.
7. Water daily. Unless it rains or your soil is waterlogged, you really need to water daily. This regulates soil temperature, activates seeds, and nourishes the biological life in the soil so they can sustain your plants. Water slowly until the moisture pools on top for a few seconds.
8. Plant in uniform configurations like rows or squares. This makes it easy to see bare spots when your seedlings come up so you can re-seed if necessary. It also makes it easier to tell what’s a weed and what’s a seedling until you learn to recognize your plants in juvenile form.
9. Weed carefully and regularly. Use your finger tips to uproot baby weeds and expose their roots to dry and die. If you get them early on sunny or windy days, this is all it takes to weed a garden. Be careful not to uproot seedlings by accident.
10. Grow 10. Choose ten things to grow at a time at most. Research the growing requirements for each plant. Then, try to give them the custom care they need just as you would livestock or household pets.
11. Cull weak plants. If a plant is not doing well, remove it and put it in the trash. Do not compost it! Later when you’ve learned how to identify plant problems and fix them, you can. For now, though, get rid of anything potentially diseased or pest-attracting for the health of the rest of your garden.
Plants will grow slowly at first. Then suddenly one day you’ll look out in the garden and barely see your paths through your plants.
Your skills in the garden will grow like this too. At first, you’ll second guess everything you do, then one day you’ll realize you’ve become a gardener. Simple steps, done with loving care. That’s all it takes to grow a successful potager and a gardener!
Personally, before I pick up my shovel and turn the dream into reality, I like to take a little time to let that idea sink in. A new garden isn’t just a physical place. It’s also the start of a new relationship with your natural environment, with all of the human history that led to the kind of gardening we practice today, and with your future health and well-being.
It will take physical labor from this point forward. It will also take time, energy, and likely some monetary resources as well. There will likely be some challenges – things you didn’t think of, physical fatigue, and more time spent than you planned.
This is how you become a homesteader. Step by step, skill by skill, challenge by challenge, shaping you into a more mentally and physically competent person. Are you ready?
Step 1: Map It on Land
The first thing I do once I finalize my plan is to lay out my design. You are basically making an outline on the earth of where everything will go.
If you’ve been following along with the series, you’ve probably already done this few times as you were formalizing your plan. This time, though, you want to be precise.
You will probably need a tape measure, string, garden stakes, a corner angle or a firm cardboard box you can use to make sure you keep things square where appropriate. If you are making circles or odd shapes, you might need paint to mark the area. Or, you can use natural materials such as sprinkled sawdust to map out unusual shapes on the ground.
I am a good digger, so I actually map out my lines by doing some shallow digging . Then, when I’ve got it right, and double-checked my measurements, I move on to step 2.
Step 2: Create Your Paths
When you’ve got your plan laid out, you are ready to execute. Every plan is different, so I can’t tell you exactly what to do. However, this was my process.
Note: There were a few areas of my paths that I could not dig the soil because I risked hitting tree roots from the existing peach tree. In that case, I added cardboard and paper over the grass and weeds to help with suppression before I put my organic matter on top.
Step 3: Make the Beds
After the paths were made, I started on the beds. Here’s what I did.
Remove any tap rooted weeds from the bed area. Things like dandelion, dock, and thistle need to come out before you add your compost to your planting area. They will just grow deeper roots and be harder to pull later if you don’t get them now. But most of your fibrous rooted plants like grass and clover will be smothered by your compost.
Rake the beds to level to integrate the soil from paths. Don’t compact it, just make a fairly smooth surface so you can easily spread your compost on top.
Add 4 inches of compost on top of the entire planting area. If you’ve been picking up your bags of compost with your grocery trips, you just have to dump them on top. If not, now’s the the time to get a bulk order delivery or enlist a friend to help you haul lots of compost!
Also, save those plastic bags that your compost comes in for later use. They are perfect for storing materials to use for making your own compost such as leaves and seed free weeds that you pull during the season. Or, they can be made into a quilt to use to smother weeds when necessary.
Step 4: Water Well and Let it Settle
When you first add your organic matter to your paths and your compost on your beds, your garden will be like a big fully pillow. Now you need to water it in and let it settle. Water plus gravity and a few days time will cohere your beds and paths into something that looks more like a garden.
Water the paths and the beds deeply or wait for a few good rains to do it for you. If weeds sprout in your compost or force their way through from below, pull them as they come up. Keep pulling any weeds that crop up until you are ready to plant. Save them in one of your empty compost bags to use for your compost pile later.
Step 5: Incorporate Design Features
If you have planned any design or decorative features, now is the time to add them. Put up your fences, install your water features, set out your benches, put in a table, set up your watering and washing station, and add decorative bed details. Put down your decorative mulch if you are using it.
If you have specific compost bins you want to use add them now too. Don’t worry if you don’t, I’ll be showing you simple ways to compost in future posts that don’t require complex bin building. All you need is to set aside that compost bed area that I described in the last post.
Try to do all your major “moving in” to your garden at the outset so you don’t have to risk disturbing your plants later.
In my case, I added double shred hardwood along the paths. I used some painted boxes and a narrow container to create a focal, roundabout at the center intersection of the beds. I also added a planter area and some containers at the entrance. I painted all my decorative wooden features in a dark blue that will add a lot of contrast as plants begin to grow.
All of these steps are simple if you take them one at a time. It took me about 6 hours to lay out the beds, dig the paths, and add the organic matter and compost. I spent a few hours painting my decorative items, leveling the areas I set them in, and generally making things look like the wanted to.
I’ve also spent several hours, watering to help the area settle, picking weeds as they emerged, and making sure the garden feels right. For example, the garden didn’t look quite as rustic and charming as I wanted at first. So, when some friends gave us some unsplit logs as firewood, I took several of those logs and used them to line the downhill side of the beds. This made the beds look a bit terraced and helped define the space more.
As you will learn in the coming months, a garden is never done. It is an ever-changing canvas for your creativity and skills. So, don’t feel as if it must be perfect now. Just make sure it feels like your garden, rather than something impersonal.
In the next post, we’ll get into details about what to plant in a potager. There will also be a few more steps to bed preparation to make sure you have the fertility you need to grow healthy plants this year. In the meantime, weed, water, and make yourself at home in your new garden space.
In previous posts, I covered some things I know to be beneficial about choosing your potager location and designing your paths and bed styles. I also explained why I think it’s really important to make a vegetable garden functional and beautiful and inviting.
Now I want to cover a few other practical considerations that may influence your potager design and make it simple for you to maintain and use your garden effectively.
Homestead potagers are fueled by compost. So, I recommend that you match your vegetable garden bed size with your compost creation capacity. However, the deeper you get into the homesteading arts, the greater your compost capacity will become.
Down the road you will most definitely be able to to increase your garden size as you grow your skills. So, it makes sense to plan some additional space now to expand into later.
If you have set aside 250 square feet now, you may want to double that two years from now. You can simply plan to expand out from your current potager. Or, you can consider the idea of pocket gardens.
Large vegetable gardens tend to be a bit like a red carpet invite for pests. They are basically a grand buffet for vegetable leaf eating insects, root eaters like voles, green eaters like rabbits, and larger pests like deer who consider our gardens to be irresistible.
Instead of expanding out into one giant vegetable garden, I have learned the benefit of having several smaller pocket potagers. These gardens can be integrated with your broader landscape.
For example, when you are ready to grow some fruit trees and bushes, then perhaps you want to tuck your pocket potagers in between your larger orchard aisles. This works well if you are planning to use dwarf or semi-standard trees pruned low. That way you’ll still have full sun for your vegetables.
Or perhaps, you want to intermix your pocket potagers with your livestock. For example, I have one of my vegetable gardens sandwiched between my chicken run on one side and my goat barn on the other. This gives me access to throw the chickens and goats garden scraps. Plus, I have easy proximity to transfer their manure and litter to my compost area.
When planning for future pocket potagers, keep in mind proximity to your house for harvesting. Also, keep in mind all the other location considerations such as sun, obstacles, water, drainage, etc. Finally, plan to unite your gardens using inviting paths that encourage you to walk from area to area so no garden gets neglected.
Expanding out to a larger sized potager can also work well if you break up some of your vegetables growing area with other beneficial plants. For example, inside my largest potgater garden, I have created islands of non-vegetable plants to break up my vegetable beds.
That makes my garden less of a smorgasbord for pests and more like trying to get to a particular store inside a mall. Pests have to navigate through places they don’t want to visit to get to the place they want. Since that’s more work, pests will often just go somewhere else where the food is easier for them to get. Or, they’ll get distracted by something along the way and forget about my more delicate edibles.
If the only flowering food source you offer pollinators is the cucumbers and squash blossoms in your potager, you’ll have a hard time attracting sufficient pollinators to your garden. You can hand pollinate, but that makes for more work.
If you have the space, consider creating provide pollinator-friendly plots . These should be adjacent to or inside your potager areas for good yields and insect pest-prevention.
Many pollinator-friendly plants grow like weeds. They don’t require much care, can get by with lower fertility, and add interest to your landscape. So, you don’t need to factor those planting areas into your compost calculations. Think about things like mints, clovers, dandelions, wild flowers, etc.
I will share a lot more information on pollinator plots in future posts. But for now, planning some pollinator areas in or around your potager is an important step in your design. Grouping at least 5-10 pollinator plants together works best.
Yet, even if you are working with really limited space, dotting a few high-impact pollinator attracting plants (bee balm, butterfly bush, anise hyssop), around your potager area will also help ensure you get good pollination when you need it. Between a few long-bloomers and a sequence of flowering vegetables, you can help attract the pollinators you need.
We’ll get deeper into this subject later. For now though, earmark as much space as you can, close to your garden for pollinators. And keep in mind pollinators need to be part of your potager plan to keep things simple long-term.
There are a few times a year when you might use a long-handled shovel, rake, and pitchfork in a potager. But the rest of the time, simple hand-held tools are all you need to grow a homestead potager. You may also need to store seed trays, watering cans, garden amendments, and a few other things year round.
Beyond these basics that any potager requires, your personal choices will determine how much additional storage you need. Here are some things to think about in your storage planning.
Design Dictates Tools Needed
Your garden design, and particularly your path maintenance, will dictate which tools you use and need to store. If you’ve made simple choices like using nutrient swales and mounded beds, then your storage needs will likely be similar to those listed above. If you’ve opted for more labor intensive choices, like wide grassy paths, then your storage needs will also likely be greater.
Take some some to figure out what your future storage needs might be based on your design plan in progress. Consider the storage options you currently have and whether they can be used for garden tools also.
For example, if your potager is close to your house and you a garage (or another place in your house) where you can store tools, that might be all you need. However, if you live in a single-wide mobile home like I do, and barely have room to walk down your hallways, then you may need to plan alternate storage for your garden tools.
Planning for a Potting Shed
If you intend to build something like a potting shed down the road, or some other structure for homestead use, make sure you factor that into your potager plan. Keeping that close your potager will save you steps in gathering and returning tools.
You also want to make sure that structure won’t cast shade, create wind tunnels, or otherwise become an obstacle for your potager. You may also want to consider using it as a roof surface to collect rain for watering your garden down the road.
You don’t need to know your exact plan for storage now. However, if you do think you might want to build something, then leaving space for it in or near your potager can be helpful.
Right now, you are probably focused on vermicompost and maybe bokashi to create compost for your garden. However, as you begin to increase your compost capacity, you’ll need room to store the larger stuff you collect such as cardboard, leaves, grass clippings, free mulch, all the vegetable tops you don’t eat, etc.
Also, when you start growing your own food instead of getting packaged stuff at the grocery store, you’ll find that your volume of compostable materials increases in relation to your garden success.
Plan a Compost “Bed”
Personally, I like to leave myself about an 4 foot wide by 8 foot long area, similar to a garden bed for composting. There are a lot of ways to compost that we’ll cover in more detail in future posts. But that amount of area gives you room to store, compost, turn, age, etc. enough compost for a potager garden.
If you plan to keep your potager small, such as around 100 square feet, then you just need a few feet for storage. A big pile won’t make a lot of sense in a garden that small. So, you can work with about half that space.
In the process of making compost, leachate –the liquid that runs out from your compost pile — can be either a benefit or a source or risk for your garden. Leachate can often be too strong of a fertilizer for vegetable beds. In some cases, it may also contain pathogens that you would not want to overflow onto something like your come and cut lettuce area.
Situating your compost pile so that the leachate runs to places like a lawn, the outer root zones of mature perennial plants, or to the root zone of plants that benefit from high fertility (e.g. a rhubarb patch) can harness those nutrients without harm.
Protect Ground Water
Also, if you maintain your own well, and rely on mostly untreated ground water, then make sure your compost pile is at least 50 feet away from your well head. This is extremely important if you are planning to compost manure of any sort.
Be a Good Neighbor
Compost piles do occasionally attract pests like flies. So, don’t put compost piles adjacent to property lines. Your decisions to compost should not be something your neighbors have to live with too!
Season Extension and Seed Starting
I have a 36 foot by 12 foot greenhouse. I use it to propagate plants for over 2 acres of cleared land. I also use it for growing some exotic plants that aren’t compatible with our climate such as a lemon tree, an olive tree, and year-round heads of lettuce.
Do You Need a Greenhouse?
I love my greenhouse. But, in retrospect, it’s not necessary for homesteading. It’s more of a luxury item that I enjoy. For those of you just getting started, you may feel the need for a greenhouse. However, there are much simpler solutions to get you started.
Row covers, cold frames, and even over-bed hoop houses are more self-sufficient and economical choices for simple potagers. I will cover these ideas in future posts.
Plan for Some Season Extension
For now though, if you want a greenhouse for personal reasons, please include it in your design. Make sure to keep in mind how it influences and coordinates with your design.
If you simply want to get an early start on the planting season, then set aside some space for a cold frame in your potager. Similar to making compost, setting aside the equivalent space and pathway access as you would for a 4 x 8 foot bed is plenty of room.
If you have limited space, then direct seeding fast-growing plant varieties in season using over-bed cold frames, or starting indoors under lights, are simple solutions that don’t require additional seed starting space.
Perennial Potager Plants
There are a few perennial fruits, vegetables, and herbs that you may want to include in your potager garden. Once established, many of these plants have minimum fertility requirements or just require heavy winter mulching to feed the soil life around them.
So, you may want to consider adding some extra bed space for these plants in your potager design now. Even if you can’t quite make enough compost to support them at the outset, it’s good to start these early on since perennials can take a few years go really get growing.
Personally, when I spend buying soil improvements to plant perennials now, I consider that like putting money in the bank. Later when I start to harvest, those early investments will continue to pay off for years to come.
Asparagus, Rhubarb, StrawberrIES
Asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries are some plants I always include in or near my potager garden. For asparagus I aim for at least 20-40 square feet to make it worth growing. You can also use those beds for growing a few tomatoes and basil until the asparagus plants fill up the space.
Rhubarb and strawberries work well in 4 x 4 or 4 x 8 foot beds. These do require lots of compost for good production and benefit from afternoon shade in summer. We’ll get further into how to grow them later. But, if you plan to grow them, leave room and plan to buy lots of compost to give them a good start.
Dwarf Fruit Trees and Bushes
Dwarf-size, self-fertile fruit trees, blackberries and raspberries are also good options for a potager. Plan at least an 8 x 8 foot area for dwarf trees and 4 square feet or more for berry bushes. Note, things like blueberries and grapes have different soil requirements than your average potager garden grown plants, so I usually save those for other locations outside the potager.
On the herb front, many of your classic cooking herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, lavender, French tarragon, culinary mint, and more can all be great additions to the potager garden. They have lower fertility requirements than most vegetables and can keep growing for years. So give them their own dedicated bed space.
For annuals or biennials like basil, parsley, cilantro, and dill you can grow them in your vegetable beds, or give them their own space. In general, I plan about 2 to 4 square feet of space for each herb I plant. For smaller plants like thyme, I’ll plant several in that space so I don’t risk over-harvesting from fewer plants.
Deep Bed Plants
Depending on the depth of your soil now, and how rocky it is, you may want to consider creating a deep bed or two to use for potatoes or long carrots.
With the addition of compost, your soil will get deeper over time. Also, as you garden, you’ll dig out rocks that you come across. At the outset though, with no till practices, you may want to use containers to grow these kind of plants that really need 10 – 16 inches of soil for high production.
Alternatively, you can grow oxheart carrots which are wide and short and use grow bags for potatoes.
Vegetables are delicious to us and just about everything else that eats plants. As such, I don’t know any gardeners who don’t have, or wish they had, a fence around their vegetable gardens.
You can often get away without a fence your first year since pests don’t know you have a garden. But, once they discover it, easier deterrents like soap and fishing line will only work for a while. Then a fence becomes necessary.
At least leave room in your design for the possibility of a fence. That way, you’ve got the space and accessibility in the event that you need to install one.
There are a few more convenient features you may want to consider in your design if you have the room and interest.
A washing station can be as simple as a place to fill a few buckets with water to give your vegetables a dunking rinse before bringing them in the house. That rinse water can be used to water your plants later.
You can certainly get more elaborate on your wash areas, though it’s not necessary. For any area you use for washing vegetables, plan for drainage. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add several layers of gravel and make a wash station landing.
Similar to compost leachate, think about where the water will ultimately drain so you can direct it for good use.
For a small garden, it’s a pleasure to water using a watering can. The sound of water pouring through those small holes in the rosette sprayer are therapeutic. As you water you get a chance to study the health of your plants, learn about their growing habits, and connect with your garden.
In fact, I even hand water in large garden because I enjoy it so much. What I don’t enjoy though is waiting for the hose to fill my watering can. Instead, I keep a barrel full of irrigation water at all times. So, when I need to water, I just dip my can in the barrel and fill it up much faster. Recycled food grade 55 gallon drums work well for this.
If you have even more space, down the road you can add an irrigation pond to collect rainwater, and dip your watering can direct into the pond.
I am not a fan of pulling hoses around in the garden. They have the bad habit of crushing plants that meander into the paths. They tend to be heavy and hard to maneuver once you turn the water on. But if you plan to use them, make sure to plan for how you will drag them around without crossing your beds.
Many people hammer in PVC or steel posts to use for directing hoses around the bed areas. Some elaborate systems even include overhead pulleys to keep the hoses above the beds so nothing gets crushed.
Drip tape or line and soaker hoses only hold up a few years in a garden. Then they need to be replaced. They also often have clogs or water pressure issues that require maintenance.
They don’t really fit with my idea of a simple homestead potager because they increase complexity and require replacement. But, if you must have them, make sure you plan your installation in your garden design.
It’s nice to have a surface to work on when potting up seedlings, sorting seeds, making notes, etc. This doesn’t have to be in the garden, but it’s nice to have. Generally, I like to include a seating area in my potager for my own enjoyment. So, then I can use that as my surface for doing gardening work too.
Your potager is yours and should be a reflection of your personal tastes. If there are decorative details you dream of in your garden, make sure to include them in your design. You may not be able to put them all in place your first year. But you can chip away at your list as time allows.
When I lived in the suburbs, I added a three tiered water fountain to my first potager. I had an arbor for an entrance. I used decorative fencing to keep out my dogs, and I planted almost as many flowers as I did food plants.
I wouldn’t quite call it a homestead potager, but I loved being in my garden so much that I spent enormous time there. That garden helped dramatically improve my gardening skills. If a beautiful space will attract you out to the garden more often, then indulge in those one-time decorative features that beckon you.
The Simplestead Potager Garden
Now it’s time to bring all this how-to information together as an actual garden design. Your garden will be designed based on your conditions. But, to give you an idea of how to go from concepts to concrete plans, I’ve summarized my garden location details and my garden design for the new Simplestead garden.
The garden is situated just below the gravel parking area in front of our house. There’s about a 5-6 foot green space buffer between the gravel and the garden. The parking area is graded away from where the garden will be so there are no risks of pollution from our cars draining into the garden beds.
This location is close to the house for easy harvesting. There’s a porch on the house that can be used for storage as needed. There’s a hose on the house that can be used for watering. I can easily set up a washing station on the gravel parking area using a few buckets and the house hose.
I originally used this as a duck paddock for meat ducks. So, it has a 40 inch chicken wire fence, a small duck house, and small pond that collects the run off from the roof of the duck house. I can use that pond water for dipping my watering can to irrigate the garden. When the pond runs low, I can fill it with the hose rather than running the hose through the garden. (If it didn’t already have this feature, I would have just added a hose-filled 55 gallon drum to fill as my water can dipping source.)
The garden is full sun for at least 8-10 hours a day, facing to the south east. It’s actually oriented almost exactly the same way as our solar panels are for optimal sun catching. It’s also sloped toward the same direction so it warms up a bit faster in mornings than other areas of our property. The slope is a tiny bit too steep where I plan to have the bottom beds, so I’ll change the slope a bit when I make the beds and create the paths.
The house provides great wind protection. The driveway also creates a bit of a heat sink so this area experiences much less frost than other parts of landscape.
There are three peach trees breaking up the space between the driveway and the garden. They are pruned for air circulation, so even though they cast a little bit of a shade shadow over a few feet of the garden, it’s dappled, and occurs during the afternoon heat so will actually be beneficial for growing greens in summer. Those trees also pollinator-friendly for most of March.
There are no utilities in the area or access issues. Deer do graze nearby, but generally not that close to the house because of our Great Pyrenees dog on duty. Our four farm cats also patrol that area heavily so there’s no vole activity visible. Rabbits also don’t seem to be breaching the existing fence.
The soil is of mixed quality. In the upper bed area, it’s a bit deeper. So, I can grow potatoes there even this first year. There are a lot of weeds in the north-side pollinator strip, so those weeds will need to be addressed before I can plant other things there.
The rest of the future garden area is growing mostly annual grasses, clover, and a few edible weeds like bittercress. The duck poop has clearly made the soil nutrient rich, but the roots stop about 2-3 inches deep, so that means the subsoil is pretty compacted. Overall, it’s better than having no soil, but lots and lots of compost are an absolute must for this area!
In terms of beauty, the area is a bit of an eyesore right now. But by turning it into a potager, I’m enhancing the whole front entrance to our house and solving that problem.
Now, given the location and the space I have to work with, I came up with a simple garden design plan that will give me about 128 square feet of vegetable bed area for the first year, plus some pollinator areas, and makes use of some existing resources in or near the garden.
Here are the details of the plan shown above.
Four Main Vegetable Beds that are 4 feet wide by 8 feet long
Pollinator strips running along the inside perimeter of the existing fence on the northern and southern sides of the beds
Compost area in two parts – 1 for storing materials, the other for composting and aging, with leachate from the piles running into the outer root zone of an edible food forest aisle down slope
Paths are about 18 wide in perimeter paths and about 24 inches wide in the center path
I am going to create a small round-about using the corners of the beds and the intersection of the paths to make it a bit more interesting than just having rectangular beds
I’ll leave an existing clover filled area next to the garden and add a small table set in that area
I’ll keep the duck house as a rain catch and down the road, it can be used as infrastructure for either storage depending on whether I opt to expand the potager or keep some small livestock there
I’m adding some raised containers outside the garden to give it a more grand entrance
I’m also going to grow some low maintenance pest-resistant plants outside the perimeter of the garden, such as lilacs, and some tea plants (e.g. mints and other strong herbs) to create natural pest barriers
Now it’s your turn. Take all the ideas from this potager planning series and turn them into the framework for your own potager. You may want to read back through the earlier posts to remind you of some of the information we’ve covered. Also, look back through your homework assignments.
Put your design on paper. It doesn’t have to be perfectly to scale, but try to get close so you have a good guide to use to keep you on track.
I use a computer spreadsheet and make each cell about .50 x .50 to represent a square foot. It’s basically like making my own electronic graph paper. You can also do this on real graph paper using pencils. Or, just eyeball and draw it on blank paper if that’s more your style.
Sleep On It
Once you have your design on paper, sleep on it for a few nights. Then go back and make sure it still makes sense.
Don’t rush this process. I’m an impatient person. I get the desire to charge ahead. But, if you want to have a garden that is simple to maintain and works well for you long term, you need to take your time with planning.
Gut instincts and ideas are great, so don’t discount them. However, do make sure you flesh them out though and put them through your reasoning faculties before you commit to them.
Try it On
Once you feel great about your design and have gotten a little distance to make sure it really resonates, then try it on. Use whatever you’ve got to simulate what your garden will look like when finished. String, chairs, brooms, streamers, old paint, your recycleables…
It really doesn’t matter what you use as a stand in, just make sure you represent everything on your plan on land. Then, pretend like you are using it.
Squat down and plant imaginary seeds. Sit on your bench and imagine your view. Harvest pretend vegetables and take them to your house. Pretend to dunk your watering can, haul around your hoses, build your compost pile, move tools around, etc.
You may feel like a crazy person at first. Trust me, though, this step can save you from silly design mistakes that can seriously complicate your gardening activities later. If something feels wrong, make adjustments until it feels right.
Revise Your Plan
Revise your plan on land, then translate it back to your paper plan. That paper plan will keep you on track as you start digging. You may also want to make notes on any details you need to pay attention to based on your trial run.
Believe it or not, once you’ve done your homework from this post, the rest of this potager-making process is going to be really simple.
Yes, there will be work. But, you’re not afraid of a little work. If you were, you wouldn’t be reading a homesteading website or planning to grow your own food!
In fact, if you are like me, you are probably so excited you can’t want to dig in and start to make your potager dreams a reality. So, in our next posts, we’ll break ground and get ready to garden!
The first gardens were forest gardens. Actually they were more like cultivated forests than gardens. The plants that humans found beneficial, they encouraged. The plants that didn’t have utility were removed.
Eventually, early gardeners installed fences to protect their food supply from being eaten by other free-ranging forest animals. There’s no precise information on when forest gardening gave way to bare land gardening. Probably it was around 10,000 BC. which, on the scale of human history, is a fairly recent event.
Vegetable gardens, as opposed to field crops, may only have begun in ancient Egypt around 3000 or 4000 BC. It’s believed that these early gardens were likely grown in blocks or squares. They may have been surrounded by earthen walls to help retain water and soil in the desert.
The beds were kept close to the house since they required more tending and watering than field crops. Even early iterations, when grown mostly for food self-sufficiency, gardens were considered places of pleasure, relaxation, and contemplation.
When you are considering your potager design, take your cues from history. Fresh, colorful, nutrient rich food is beautiful. And your garden beds deserve to be too. Make beds that are appropriately functional for your climate and aesthetically appealing too.
Garden Beds Not Rows
Long, narrow rows are only part of our garden vernacular because we’ve been influenced by visions of mechanized fields — planted, maintained, and (in many cases) even harvested by machines. In a human, hand-tool scale garden, narrow rows tend to take up too much space and require too much maintenance. They are also difficult to navigate or use for planning purposes.
That’s why “beds” are more appropriate for homestead potagers. In gardening, the bed is the area you plant. Sometimes it’s a raised bed, but usually it’s just a defined area where you have improved the soil to use for planting. Pretty much any ready to plant area, broken up by paths for access, can be considered a garden with beds.
There are many different ways to create your beds by mounding, elevating, building hugelkulturs, and more. Comfort, space utility, your available land, slope, environmental considerations, aesthetic preferences, and more are factors that you’ll want to use to decide what kind of potager garden beds are right for you.
To help you choose beds that will make your job as a gardener easy, here are some ideas to consider.
Maximizing Your Potager Planting Area
Let’s assume you have a 10 x 10 foot space, or a 100 square feet of gardening area, including your pathways. That’s a good amount of space for a first garden. As long as your soil is well-nourished with compost, and your beds are well-designed, you can grow quite a bit of food in a garden of that size.
Depending on your design though, that 100 square feet grow a lot of food with a little work. Or, it can be a lot of work and a little food. For example, with 1 foot wide rows, you would waste most of your growing space on pathways.
If you use wider rows, such as 3 feet or 4 feet wide rows, you get more planting space. However, long rows mean more work walking back and forth. So, for efficiency, long rows usually become rectangular beds with narrow pathways between. Also, even if you are tall with long arms, reaching across a 4 foot wide bed is challenging. So, access from both sides is more comfortable.
Also, keyhole gardens are incredibly useful when you have limited space gardens. By making beds with a keyhole shape, you can create a design that gives you easy access to all your growing space with very little square footage taken up by paths.
Notice the keyhole bed example above. Except at the corners where you’ll have to reach across about 32 inches of bed width, you will only have to reach 2 feet across to do your weeding and seeding. That’s a lot easier on your back in the long run than 4 foot wide rows with access from one side only. That design also gets you the most square feet of growing space.
Best of Bed Ideas
I love keyhole gardens for maximizing small spaces. However, I find it easier to plan a garden in rectangular blocks than in irregular shapes. So, when you’ve got a bit more space, it’s easier to plan your plantings if you use square or rectangular shaped beds.
Based on experience, my preferred bed size is 4 feet wide and 8-12 feet long. A four foot wide bed, with access from both sides preserves moisture and makes planning and planting easy. Even though you could just run your four foot beds as long wide rows, breaking them up makes it easier to navigate your garden area.
If you want to consider other shapes, the limiting factor for bed design should be how far you have to reach to dig in the soil.
For example, if you want to make a circle garden, with a plus sign path, plan your circle diameter to accommodate your arm’s reach. This is your garden after all, so custom-fitting it to your needs is ideal.
The Landing Pad Garden
If you want to plant in bigger blocks, but don’t want to maintain lengthy paths, you can also create landing pads. Essentially, you only run paths where you need them, then you step across your beds to cleared areas where you can squat to do your garden chores.
This works well if you plan your plantings in your step across zone to be short and non-vining. For example, you might use come and cut lettuce as your step across plant choice. This design is ideal in small spaces, but can be a bit irritating when gardening in larger gardens.
Identifying your landing zones with stones or pavers cuts down on accidental crushing of new seedlings. They can also add aesthetic interest when your plants are young and don’t hide your landing pad.
All of my garden beds now are mounded beds. This happens naturally when you turn your paths into nutrient swales. Plus, before you start planting, you’ll be adding a significant amount of compost to the surface of your beds to prepare them for planting. So, that too elevates the bed surface a bit.
Mounded beds promote good drainage, but still have close contact with surrounding soil so they don’t dry out as quickly as raised beds. Plants can also reach into the surrounding pathways of mounded beds to get water and nutrients when needed.
The benefit of mounded beds over planting at the level of your paths is that they still look distinctly like garden beds. That makes it easy for you to identify where to plant. It also makes it obvious to any guests you bring to your garden not to walk on them. Plus, they will drain to the paths in heavy rain.
I am about to write some blasphemous things about raised beds, so if you’d rather not know the downsides skip this section!
Raised beds can be beautiful…if they are well-maintained and made using durable materials. Most people use lumber and decking screws from the hardware store to build them. If you are adding lots of compost and organic matter to your beds, all that biological life that decomposes organic matter sees your lumber as more food!
Also, those boards soak up water when it rains, Then, they dry when it doesn’t. That swelling and drying cycle loosens the connections with the screws and allows water to seep deeply around the screws so corners break down quickly.
Frankly, in an organic garden, lumber-made beds just don’t last long. So, you have to buy more lumber and rebuild them every couple years to maintain the raised bed aesthetic. Or, to extend their life, you need to pull them out of the garden when not in use and store them somewhere. (In a potager, your garden will always be in use though!) Or, you have to use cedar which, even when FSC, is environmentally questionable.
Sorry, but lumber-built raised beds don’t quite fit the definition of simple homesteading. (It’s like the lawn mower hiding behind beaten down garden pathways.)
Now, there are some good reasons to use raised beds in general though.
Your soil is toxic, so you need to build over the existing soil.
You have severe vole problems and need to create barriers under your beds.
You can’t bend to garden, so you need to elevate your beds to a height you can reach.
You are trying to garden on flat land that becomes a mosquito pool every time it rains.
You just love how they look and must have them.
In any of those cases, raised beds might be perfect for you. I urge you to consider investing in more permanent beds such as stacked stone, plastered earthen walls, or masonry-installed (not just stacked) cinder blocks so that you can limit maintenance on your bed frames.
Your one time investment in permanent bed walls will give you a much more attractive end product and make your bed maintenance simpler. These materials all have embodied environmental costs like lumber too. But, their durability makes them a one time investment rather than a life-time dependency.
Even with permanent bed walls, there are a few extra concerns to keep in mind about gardening in raised beds.
– Plan to Add Soil Often
If you use raised beds, expect to have to refill your soil to bring it up to the level of your bed edges often. Garden soil should be full of water. In fact 25% of it must be if you want to successfully grow vegetables in it.
By nature, water always tries to flow to the lowest point in it’s vicinity. That means the water in your soil will work very hard to become even with the water all around your beds (e.g. the water in the soil of your paths).
As it does, it will take bits of soil, minerals, and nutrients with it. You can slow this down with barriers like lining your beds with water but not soil permeable material or installing actual bottoms with relatively small drainage holes. Still though, your soil will seep out over time.
– Plan to Add More Fertilizer
Since water will find a way to move to lower levels and will take nutrients with it, you will have a harder time keeping nutrients in the top 4-6 inches of soil that most vegetables gather nutrients from. So, you will need to top dress with nutrients more often.
– Plan to Water More Often
You probably already figured this last point out. But you’ll also have to water more often. The more organic matter in your raised bed soil and the use of mulches can help reduce this requirement while adding nutrients. But I have never met a raised bed yet that doesn’t take require more watering than a simple mounded, in-ground bed.
Alternatives to Raised Beds
If you just want to give your beds the appearance of raised beds without the drawbacks of actually elevating them, consider framing your beds using branches and tree trunks. Quite frankly, downed tree parts are available in excessive abundance these days due to storms and other environmental factors. Around your beds, they will feed the soil while providing some rustic appeal.
Salvage lumbers and stakes, and cinder blocks you can remove down the road can also create a defined space to help you get started gardening.
If you want to go all in on natural raised beds, then hugelkulturs are also an incredible way to feed soil and garden in comfort. They take a lot of work to make. However, they not only elevate your gardening area, they increase your organic matter content tremendously in the long-run. Plus, they act like a sponge to hold water.
Coordinating Paths and Beds
In a limited space garden, 1 foot paths between beds are usually sufficient because you can use a bucket to carry in your amendments. However, if you plan to expand your garden as you increase your skill (and your compost capacity), then you may want to think about wider paths between your rows or around your garden perimeter.
Generally, if you are not short on space, 18-24 inches between beds is a good width. It allows room to kneel between the beds for chores like weeding and harvesting. Plus, it limits path maintenance and makes it more reasonable to use your paths as nutrient swales.
My ideal garden design includes wheelbarrow access either down the center of the garden beds or around the outer perimeter. Then, you can push the wheelbarrow close to the beds and use a bucket to transfer amendments on to the beds.
It may seem like more work to use the bucket, but when you get into the habit of amending your soil right after you harvest (to replace what you removed), your need for a wheelbarrow declines immensely.
You may need a wheelbarrow at the outset of garden creation if you are hauling in bulk compost or mulch for your paths. If so, rather than dedicating wheelbarrow paths you probably won’t need long- term, consider putting up your garden fence after you get your beds ready that way you can have access on all sides.
Getting Down To Gardening
Good garden design starts by choosing the right location and understanding the benefits and challenges of the location you have chosen. Then you need to plan good bones to support your activities by choosing pathways and bed styles that fit your space and meet your needs. These steps are the foundation work necessary to make your gardening chores simple going forward.
Once you’ve done this critical ground work though, then the fun begins. You can build on these bones using your creativity to make your potager garden personal and inviting.
Take some time to contemplate potential bed shapes and dimensions. Coordinate those choices with your paths. Do some preliminary planning on paper.
You still have more choices to make, such as where to situate your compost pile or how to squeeze in a pollinator plot to increase your yields. So, don’t finalize your plans yet. But do start to get a concrete sense of what style of garden paths and beds will work best for you given the area you have to work with.
Then, think back to all those inspiration ideas you gathered before you got focused on paths and bed styles. Are there features you really want to see in your garden? A birdbath? A seating area? A few decorative containers or a water feature? Imagine how you’d like to integrate those items with your beds and paths.
In our next post, we’ll address a few more things that you’ll want to consider to make growing a potager simple. And, we’ll finalize our design. I’ll also show you the final choices I made for the Simplestead garden I am starting as I write these posts.
A potager garden is a place to grow food, skills, and beauty. You can make one just about anywhere, in a lot as small as a few hundred square feet. However, when you spend a little time carefully considering your location and planning your design, your job as a gardener becomes a whole lot easier.
I have no idea what your land looks like or how much space you have to work with. So, I can’t give you specific recommendations on the best location for your garden. However, these are the considerations I prioritize in my garden planning.
Most homes have underground power, cable, other lines, or plumbing features (well, septic tank, etc.) that need to be factored into garden planning. Additionally, many properties have zones of easement (e.g. sidewalks or meter reading access) that can impact your choice about where to situate your garden.
Some communities or home owners associations have regulations that might dictate the location of your garden. Check with the appropriate parties to identify any of these regulatory obstacles.
Potential pest problems are another kind of obstacle to consider. Planning your garden in an existing deer path, near heavy squirrel activity, or where household pets tend to potty will necessitate extra measures to secure your garden. Choosing less traveled areas to locate your garden gives you a better starting point to make pest prevention easier.
Don’t forget those potentially pest-like neighbors too. If you happen to live near to someone who might take umbrage or derail your gardening efforts, try to plan around them to keep the peace.
For me, sunlight is the one resource I can’t reasonably or sustainably create in a vegetable garden. The sun is 93,000,000 miles away from us. By the time its rays reach us, it has already pierced through the darkest, deepest space.
It bridges that distance in about 8 minutes and 20 seconds, soaring toward us constantly, at the speed of light. Even on cloudy days, though filtered, its presence can be felt. That’s some incredibly powerful stuff!
Sunlight is not only a heat and light source, but also a food source for plants. Plants are designed to absorb the sun’s energy and convert it into sugars to feed themselves and the fungi living in the soil.
You really need full sun to get good food production in your potager garden. There are some edible plants that grow in partial shade. But you aren’t likely to be able to grow large amounts of vegetables that way. (You can grow other food sources like mushrooms, but we’ll get to that later in the series).
Don’t just guess whether your site has enough sun. Bathe in the sunlight of your potential garden locations. Do this as if you are a plant, eating up those rays, to make sugars to send to your roots.
Feel the sun at first light, high noon, late afternoon. Lay down on the ground, at the level of a plant to fully experience it.
Does the sun feel strong in the morning? Is it limited at certain times of the day by your house, a fence, a tree, a hedge, your parked car? Does it become scorching mid-day even when it’s chilly out? Try different locations and note differences.
Try to imagine which plot plants will be best for your plants.
The angle of the sun is also very different from summer to winter and in between. If you aren’t sure what your sun and shade patterns are like during different seasons of the year, then you may also want to use some online tools to make sure you’ll have full sun year round.
– Online Sun/Shade Planning Tool
I most recently used Sunearthtools.com. You enter your address and choose “Sun Position” from the menu. Then, alternate between the shade path and sun rays mode. Update the dates to see what your sun and shade patterns will look like at various times of the year.
If you have large trees, sheds, fences, or other obstacles in your landscape, move the center yellow bubble on top of those obstacles. That will allow you to see the shade profile for those objects relative to locations you are considering for your garden.
When you have a good idea of your sun and shade patterns, then ask yourself this. Will my future plants thrive in the sunlight of this location?
Once you have narrowed down your some ideal garden locations based on your availability of sunlight, the next consideration is wind. Wind can severely stunt and slow plant growth. Strong winds can even pull young transplanted seedlings from the ground before they have a chance to anchor into the soil.
There are things you can do to mitigate wind, such as put up a wall or plant a shrub windbreak. However, if your wall or windbreak would then shade your garden, that’s not going to work.
Choosing a location that is already protected from wind is ideal. Alternatively, choosing a location that allows for planting or erecting a wind break without obstructing sun can also work well.
Every property has microclimates. Slopes, timing of sun, hardscapes, water surfaces, and more all change the climate near to the surface of the soil.
Sometimes microclimates are beneficial. For example, I grow my rosemary bed on the south side of my house, close to our gravel driveway. This helps keep the rosemary warmer in winter so I don’t get so much damage during our cold weather.
I wouldn’t want to grow lettuce there though. Since it can be as much as 15 degrees warmer on a hot spring day, it might make my lettuce bolt.
In general, for a vegetable garden, you want to avoid things like frost pockets. Try to take advantage or morning sun. Some shade in late afternoon usually isn’t an issue if you’ve already had 6-8 hours of full sun.
Save hot spots for your Mediterranean plants. Choose cooler, frost-free locations, if you have lots of ups and downs in your weather in spring and summer.
5. Access to Water
For ideal growth rates, plants need soil that is consistently moist. Growing in compost and using mulch will minimize the need for watering. However, there will still be times such as when planting seeds or extended droughts when watering is necessary.
Choosing a garden location with access to water will make your job easier. This doesn’t necessarily need to be from a house hose.
If you have structures with roofs and gutters on your property, you can harvest rain water. If you have a spring, that also makes a potential source of water.
If you have or plan to build a pond, siting your garden down hill from your pond allows for gravity fed water systems. If you have enough room, and won’t shade your garden beds, you could even consider a roof over your compost area to harvest rain water.
Planning for water collection or access will make gardening much less work in the long-term.
“Good drainage” is a term we use often in vegetable gardening. It essentially means water doesn’t pool and stagnate. It also means water doesn’t run through like a faucet and wash away soil.
– Too Flat
Completely flat locations are often zones for water pooling in extreme rain. However, you can use techniques like creating mounded or raised beds to help promote better flow on flat surfaces.
– Too Steep
Overly steeped slopes move water too quickly and often erode soils. In that case, you need to create terraced beds to help catch water and prevent erosion.
– Too Low
Bottom land, such as the low point between other slopes, is often good to use in extremely dry climates. However, the risk is that big storms will over-saturate that area and create boggy, conditions. If I have a choice, I prefer to build a garden a bit upslope from the bottom land.
– Just Right
For me, the ideal garden location is on a slight slope. That way I can use my garden paths and gravity to move excess water through the garden and harvest it when and were I need it.
7. Proximity to the Kitchen
The closer you can get your potager to your kitchen, the easier it will be to harvest vegetables when you need them. If your potager starts right out the door nearest to your kitchen, then you can dash out when you need to and collect herbs, fresh cut lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and more.
8. Soil Quality
I put soil quality low on my list because I know I can rapidly improve soil using compost. However, if you have a location which meets all the criteria above and already has some good, loamy top soil, then you are in luck!
If you have toxic soil, that would be a factor to consider. There are things you can do like building raised keyhole beds, even over toxic soil. But that takes more work.
To the extent possible a potager garden should also be integrated into your landscape to enhance the beauty of your home. If you can locate it near to some beautiful flowering trees, against a backdrop of mature evergreens, or where you have other existing landscape features, that can enhance your experience while gardening.
If you have to start it in the middle of what is currently a boring lawn, that works too. But you’ll probably want to do some things to soften the edges later, like maybe add some pollinator plots all around.
You can always create beauty as you go. But, integrating your garden into your existing landscape can get you there faster.
The Simplestead Potager
The location I chose for starting the Simplestead potager garden currently has a view of our parking area. It’s a bit more sloped than is ideal. But, the sun is perfect. Our house blocks much of the wind.
We have a house hose for watering. We also have rain barrels on the house gutters that can be in this garden.
There’s a peach trees growing between the cars and the garden. That can form the start of a plant hedge to help integrate the garden into the landscape and hide our vehicles.
Deer graze nearby. However, it’s far enough out of their normal path that I should still be able to keep them out of the garden. I used to keep Pekin ducks in that area, so I already have a 40 inch fence around the space.
The fence is just made of chicken wire and has large gaps at the bottom. I can use it to start, but I’ll need to make some improvements for it to be useful for pest prevention.
Also, the gate is at the farthest end from our house door. So, I may want to move the gate to save some steps between the kitchen and access to the garden.
Homework Assignment No. 2
Consider the factors explained above. Spend some time studying your landscape. Determine a suitable location to start your potager. Make sure to include a little extra room for some flowers and herbs, a place to sit, and your compost pile.
Then, mark off that area using posts, chairs, buckets, or whatever you have available. Visit the site of your future garden several times a day. Start to imagine how your garden will look there when it is mature.
When you are sure the location you’ve chosen is the right home for your new homestead potager, then you’ll be ready to move on to the next simple step in making a potager garden.
The Perfect Place for Your Potager
Very few of us will have the perfect place for our potager. Most of us will have to make the best choice possible given the conditions we have to work with. Once you have made a careful, conscientious choice though, then know in your mind and your heart that you can make that place absolutely perfect for your needs.
I hate to take out the trash. It actually makes me sad when I see all the stuff I send (or used to send) to the landfill. That’s because I know the place I send my trash is in the middle of a rural, residential zone.
Property is cheaper over there. I suspect that’s because most people don’t want to live near a landfill. So, there tends to be a lot of young families just starting out and retired folks on fixed incomes in that area. Sending my garbage off to their neighborhood just feels inconsiderate.
Luckily, homesteading is a way of life that can lead to zero waste in the long-term.
Making compost is one of the easiest and most beneficial ways to immediately reduce your landfill load. Starting a vermicompost bin and using that to grow a compost-driven garden, is something you can do in just a few simple steps.
Unfortunately, people who are new to composting are often told to only compost certain things. In particular, they are warned to keep dairy, fish, meats, oils, fats, and prepared or processed foods out of their compost bucket.
Doing this cuts down on potential problems like bad smells or houseflies invading your compost bucket. However, it also severely limits the amount of compost you can make. Plus, you still end up sending a lot of unnecessary waste into other people’s backyards.
Overcoming the Limited Approach to Composting
Quite frankly, you don’t have to limit what you compost – indoors or out – as long as you use compost methods designed to deal with potentially stinkier and more pathogenic compost materials.
We’ll get into outdoor methods of composting everything in future posts. Today though, I want to tell you about a simple tool called “bokashi”. This process allows you to prepare all your food waste so that you can safely compost it using your indoor vermicompost bin.
Benefits of Bokashi
The word bokashi is Japanese for “fermented organic matter”. This fermentation process minimizes harmful bacteria in higher risk foods like meat and dairy. It also fast tracks the growth of beneficial bacteria to expedite composting later.
It can even improve the rate at which your worms generate compost because it makes your raw compost materials even healthier for them to eat. Like humans who enjoy lacto-fermented sauerkraut, worms who eat bokashi materials may be better able to digest those fermented foods. They also ingest beneficial bacteria which may improve their health and productivity.
Bokashi is done “anaerobically” which means without air. So, it limits the potential for bad smells in the early processing. Also, flies, gnats, and such can’t survive airtight containers. So, even if they get in, they don’t get out!
How to Make Bokashi at Home
Bokashi is very simple process. Well…it is once you establish a simple system for doing it. Here are the basics.
1. Fill Your Bokashi Bucket with Layers
Bokashi involves putting a few inches of compost materials (e.g. kitchen scraps and leftovers) in a container, covering them with a light dusting of inoculated bokashi bran or splash of bokashi liquid.
Then you add a few more inches of compost material with another sprinkle or splash of bokashi inoculant. You repeat this layering processing until you have filled your container.
2. Compress Your Materials and Limit Air Flow
Because this process is anaerobic, you also need to compress your scraps to push out the air between your layers. I use the bottom of a mason jar as a tamper to squish everything down.
You keep your container tightly closed between each application of compost materials. Then, once your container is full, you close it up tight for 2-3 weeks to keep all air out while the fermentation happens.
Side Note: Incidentally, this process is very similar to making fermented foods like sauerkraut. Instead of compressing compost materials and sprinkling with bokashi bran, you compress shredded veggies or herbs and sprinkle with salt.
I’ll get into more details on fermenting foods later. But, as I explained at the start of this series, homesteading is all about simple skills. Once you know the basics, you’ll start to discover lots of different applications around the homestead!
3. Strain Out Fermentation Liquid Often
Bokashi works best when moisture levels are about 60%. Most of the food scraps we collect have more than 60% moisture. So, there is one more trick to bokashi.
You have to remove the excess moisture during the fermentation process, without letting in air. To do that, you need the right kind of container.
That container is usually called a bokashi bucket. When you buy the pre-made versions, they are about 5 gallons in size with an airtight lid.
The bokashi buckets usually have a spigot at the bottom that allows you to drain the moisture without opening the lid. Better versions also have a strainer over the spigot opening inside the bucket to keep it from clogging up.
I’ll include buying options at the bottom of this post if you are interested. But you can also make your own bokashi buckets at home for much less than you can buy them.
DIY Bokashi Bucket Systems
Here are some simple container ideas to help you get started making bokashi for very little investment.
– Bucket with a Drain or Spigot
If you have a hole saw or a spade drill bit kit, you can make a hole in the base of your bucket and insert a 3/4″ PVC bulkhead or a 1″ to 3/4″ PVC male adapter as a drain. Then, you’ll also need a threaded PVC end cap to close the drain.
Note: If you use the adapter not the bulkhead, you’ll also need to use silicone caulk to hold the adapter in place and prevent leakage.
This concept costs about $6 in parts at the hardware store. It takes about 5 minutes of work to make. You’ll also need to buy or free source a bucket with a tight-fitting lid.
You could also use a spigot as a drain. They cost more like $10 for a good one that won’t clog. But they make draining your bokashi liquid easy too.
– The 3-Bucket Systems
If you don’t have a a hole saw or spade drill kit, you can also just drill a few drainage holes in the bottom of a bucket just like you did for the vermicompost bin. Then you can set the bucket with the holes inside another bucket (with no holes) to catch the liquid that drains out.
When using this method, it’s nice to have two buckets for catching the liquid. That way to remove the liquid, you just lift the inner bucket from the outer bucket. Then you immediately put the inner bucket into the second outer bucket.
After that, you can then use the bucket that has the bokashi liquid to make fertilizer (see “Using Bokashi Liquid” below for details).
For this three bucket system to work, the inner bucket must have a very tight fitting lid to create the airless conditions for making bokashi. Also, the other two buckets (that catch the liquid) must fit snugly around your inner bucket. Similar to the lid, the snug fit between the buckets helps maintain an airless environment for bokashi.
Warning: If you don’t have a second outer bucket (e.g. you use 2 not 3 buckets), then you have to put the inner bucket on something else when you empty the catch bucket. Otherwise, your bokashi bucket drips out all over the place until you put the catch bucket back.
Multiple Bokashi Bins
Similar to vermicomposting, you really need at least two bokashi bins for this to be an effective tool on the homestead. That way while one bin is fermenting, you can be filling up the other.
Using the 3 bucket system, you’ll always need to keep one bucket under your bokashi bin to catch the liquid. However you really only need one extra catch bucket for transfers. So, if you wanted 3 bokashi bins, you’d need 6 dedicated buckets (3 inner, 3 outer) and 1 extra catch bucket for transferring. In that case, you’d have a 7 bucket system.
Side Note: As you can probably tell by now, buckets are a pretty incredible tool on the homestead. so free source and stash them whenever you get the chance.
Where to Keep Your Bokashi Bins
Bokashi bins, like your vermicompost bins, should be kept at temperatures suitable for human comfort, out of direct sunlight, and in a place that is convenient for you to access regularly.
Also, when using a bucket with a drain, you’ll want to elevate it (e.g. sit it in a phone book or stack of old magazines) so you can get a cup under your drain to catch your liquid.
Most bokashi instructions say it takes 2 weeks to ferment your scraps. I am not so great about cutting my scraps up into tiny pieces. Sometimes I put large bones, like poultry drumsticks and pork ribs, into my bokashi bucket. So, I usually just let the bokashi bucket sit for 3 weeks to make sure things are good and fermented.
When you open the bucket, if it is finished, it should have a slight vinegary, almost sweet smell. It may also smell a bit musty and sour. However, it shouldn’t smell like rancid, rotted meat. If it does, add a lot more bokashi inoculant and close that sucker up for another 3 weeks!
Using Your Bokashi Liquid
The bokashi liquid that comes out during fermentation can be diluted at a rate of 100 parts water to 1 part bokashi juice. Then you can apply it to house plants, non-edible flowers, your lawn, or mature perennial plants as a short-term fertilizer.
If you use the 3 bucket method, then just add the water to your bucket and use a jar or cup to dip out what you need for plants. I usually go for about a cup of diluted liquid per square foot of soil around the roots.
Avoid using this liquid directly in the vegetable garden as it may still contain some food-borne pathogens.
Vermicomposting Bokashi Solids
Once your bokashi is fermented, then you can add those solids from your bokashi bucket to your vermicompost bins and let your worms convert it to compost for you.
Feed your bokashi-ed goodies to your worms just like you do your un-fermented composting materials. Add a few inches to your vermicompost bin to start. When your worms eat most of that, replenish it with more bokashi solids.
Make sure you never overload your worm bin or you can suffocate your worms by creating an airless environment like your bokashi bucket!
Now, that you have the basics down, we must talk about the all-important bokashi inoculant. This stuff is basically like adding yeast to bread dough or wine must, except instead of yeast, it adds the bacteria that ferment organic matter in airless conditions.
Just to get started, I recommend you buy your dry bokashi bran ready-made. This will give you a chance to see how the inoculant is supposed to work. However, this stuff is pretty expensive to buy.
So, just a little further down the homesteading road, you’ll want to make your own bokashi starter. (I’ll cover that in a later post, too.) By then, you’ll have made a few batches of bokashi using the commercial bran. You’ll know what the process is supposed to look like. And that will make it easy for you to confirm that your homemade bokashi is working equally well.
In the meantime though, you don’t have to bokashi everything. You can continue to put your “limited list” compost materials into your worm bins fresh. Then you can use your bokashi bran just for your meat, dairy, fats, prepared, and cooked foods. That way you won’t burn through your bran in a week.
Different bokashi inoculants have different application rates. So, I can’t tell you exactly how much to apply. You’ll need to read the instructions on your bokashi inoculant for exact measurements.
Personally, though, when I buy bokashi inoculant, I prefer to use dry bran. It’s easier to store and holds up longer on my shelf.
– Compost Base
I start my bokashi by putting some finished compost in the bottom of my bokashi bucket (about an inch). This helps keep my drain from clogging and acts as a kind of biofilter for the liquid that comes out at the start of the fermentation cycle. (It tends to be stinkier than the stuff that comes out later.)
-Extra Bran for Bigger Bits and Bones
I sprinkle on about a tablespoon of dry bokashi bran over the compost. Then, I add 2-3 inches of food scraps. I add another tablespoon or so of bokashi bran, and repeat. If I am adding primarily meat or lots of bones, I add 2 tablespoons of bran instead of just 1.
Also if I am putting in large chunks of stuff, I also up my bran input. It takes longer for the bacteria to work their way through bigger bits. So I figure by adding more of them, many bacterial buddies will make lighter work.
– Bone Meal Beginnings
Because I do put bones, large and small, in my bokashi, later after my worms have composted my bokashi solids, I pick those bones out of the worm castings. The worms eat up all the meat residue and leave me with just bones. Then, I air dry those bones and save them to use for bone meal fertilizer (more on that in later posts).
– Lacking in Liquid
Also, since I don’t bokashi all of my kitchen scraps, sometimes I even have to add some water to my bokashi to get to the 60% moisture level that is necessary for the bacteria to be active. If you aren’t getting any liquid run-off from your bokashi bucket, open it up and make sure your bokashi solids feel squishy but not oozy.
Bokashi is Love
We all learn to sort our recyclables, to flush the toilet, to put the seat up or down, to wrap up stinky stuff or take it direct to the outside trash bins, and so on. We take out the trash, haul it to the curb, etc. These are all habits that we have normalized in our society to keep things nice.
Bokashi and vermicomposting are no different. You are simply sorting a different way. Then instead of taking out the trash and sending it to someone else’s backyard, you are turning it into compost for your own.
Bokashi to me is an act of love. It’s love for my community because I am not sending my stinky mess away for someone else to live next door to. It’s love for my soil because the ultimate end product — more compost — will increase fertility for growing plants. It’s love for myself and my family because that compost ultimately grows things that nourish us and our planet.
Don’t let anyone tell you this is too hard, or too much work, or any other iteration of poo-pooing your efforts to do the right thing. This is easy, basic stuff that you can do with the same amount of effort as sending your garbage off for someone else to deal with. Yet, it is profoundly better for you, your family, our society, and our planet.
Also if you have cats or dogs, bokashi can make their poop useful for non-edible plants too. I’ll cover that in more detail in future posts. But, wouldn’t you love to not have to use toxic kitty litter? Or put your pup’s poop to good use making your homestead beautiful?
Just in case you need to buy some things to get your bokashi started, if you click the images below to buy, I’ll get a small percentage of your purchase price at no extra charge to you.
This is how I support this website. However, I totally understand if you prefer to make your own or find different suppliers.
Here is an easy to use dry bokashi bran. It costs $13 for 2.2 pounds. You can also buy larger batches if you want to have a supply for a while.
If you prefer a pre-made bokashi bucket, instead of making your own, you can get one that includes 2.2 pounds of dry bokashi bran for about $47 (first image). You can get also fancier version that includes a counter top compost bucket and cup for the liquid for $55 (second image).
Also note, your purchases will likely come in packaging. Save your cardboard for the garden or your worm bins as extra browns. Hang on to your plastic bags for use later to make a plastic quilt to use in the garden.
Also, if they happen to send you those puffy air pillows or Styrofoam, those are great insulation around plant containers. More on these ideas in later posts too!
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!
How did we figure things out before the internet? Did we learn at school?
In the US, children weren’t required to attend school until about 100 years ago. As such, schools have only been a source of learning for large populations in recent times.
Did we learn from books? Books have been around for thousands of years. For most of that history, though, books were not widely available. It wasn’t really until about the 18th century, during the enlightenment, that books became available to all of us ordinary folks.
Did we learn from our parents and our community? Certainly, for most of human history, a good deal of learning came by way of other people. But, then how did we increase our knowledge? Did we just go out meet new people and ask them to give us their knowledge? Likely we did.
Yet how did those who taught others first learn? How did humans first determine what was safe and healthy to eat, what and where to drink, how to live?
There’s a lot of speculation on the subject of how early humans figured out what was safe to eat and how to create and use tools. We may not have fully unraveled those mysteries. However I know one thing for certain.
Before all these other methods of learning evolved, nature was our teacher. We are designed to learn directly from nature.
Many of us have forgotten how to learn from nature because we are so accustomed to learning by other methods. As a homesteader though, I promise you, nature is still a better teacher than any others you will have.
Predicting the Weather
Most of us can get weather predictions from a website or app in just a click or two. But can you walk outside and know what kind of day it’s going to be?
Quite frankly, I am much more accurate at it than the meteorologists who report predictions for my area. I can literally feel if rain is coming, or snow, or warm, or wind – even hours to days before it happens.
I can also predict long-term trends accurately. I can tell whether winter will be exceptionally cold or not in August or September. I can come within a week of knowing our last frost day three months before it happens.
You can do all of this too if you put your mind to it.
How to Know What Nature Knows
I didn’t start out with this ability to predict the weather. I used to be as dependent on weather reports with limited accuracy as everyone else. But after years of carefully observing and recording the weather, my body and brain simply know what’s coming.
I didn’t have to take a class on how to read the different cloud types. I didn’t have to attend a nature course to learn how to recognize the natural patterns around me.
All I did was start paying attention to the weather every day. I kept a notebook to record the date and the weather conditions. I also recorded anything that stood out related to the weather or the time of year. Here are some examples of what I wrote down.
I marked the first date I heard the peepers (singing tree frogs). Then, I marked when the peepers singing increased, when it stopped, the nights when it was so loud it almost broke my ear drums, and the nights they failed to sing.
I recorded when new weeds appeared, when they started to look stressed, and when they disappeared from the landscape. If I didn’t know the name of the weed, I gave them one as a placeholder. Later, when I had time, I looked them up and learned as much as I could about them.
Blooms and Pollinators
I noted when flowers and weeds bloomed and what insects visited those plants. Again, if didn’t know the exact name, I made up my own. As time allowed, I used online databases to identify them. I kept track of populations based on my perception.
Personal Physical Changes
I also noted physical changes in me. My body seemed to know things my brain didn’t. For example, even though we keep our house thermostat set to the same temperature most of the time, my toes are always cold on mornings when it’s cold and damp outside.
I have ringing in my ears before big, windy storms. My hair and fingernails start to grow noticeably faster a few weeks before our last frost each year.
The Expansion Effect
How to tell the weather is just the beginning of what you can learn from nature. Once you begin to make observation a habit, you quickly develop accurate, intuitive instincts for almost anything you do regularly. For example, you begin to understand:
How to grow things well
How much liquid to add to anything (batter, soil, concrete) to get the right consistence
Whether something will fit in location or space
Whether or not a recipe, instruction set, or idea will work
How much things weigh without a scale
When to be cautious
When to charge ahead
Now, this doesn’t mean you will automatically listen to yourself on these subject. We’ve become accustomed to relying on external resources for our knowledge. So it can take a while before you truly trust your own natural expertise.
It can also take a while before your instincts begin to be right most of the time. A healthy dose of self-skepticism, at the outset, is not necessarily a bad thing.
Observation Triggers Intuition
Still, I know with certainty that the more time you spend observing the natural world, the more spillover you have into all the facets of your homesteading life.
I don’t know exactly why this is true. But I believe that once we begin using our powers of observation acutely for one thing, then they just keep working in everything else we do. Observation is like a muscle, the more you build it, the better it works.
Eventually, we simply become attuned to all the different forces at work in our various activities. We notice signals we missed before. We become better able to feel the answers.
Why Weather Observation
I am going to offer you some basic ideas on how to use weather observation as a gateway to expanding your observation skills. I chose weather because it is something we all already have around us. That makes it an equal opportunity tool for any new homesteader regardless of where or how you live.
Knowing your weather patterns is also critical to so much of your homestead planning and decision-making. Even if you are skeptical about the benefits of weather observations on something like baking a cake, knowing your weather patterns in general is still a key homesteading skill.
Though, please believe me, weather also makes a huge difference when making a cake. It also impacts ripening, harvesting, cheese-making, bread production, fruit and vegetable fermentation, seed germination, livestock behavior and so much more.
You do not need to buy anything for this exercise. However, having access to a few tools will enhance the experience.
It will be easier if you record your observations in a bound notebook so you can carry it with you and find all your observations in one place. But, if you don’t have one, you can also write them on scrap paper and then collect them in a grocery bag.
I know you may be tempted to record this in a text file or spreadsheet. That can be awesome for long-term data collection. However, we have a tendency to forget data we store electronically since we know we can find it easily when we need it. Recording this information using a pen and a paper is like a signal to your body that this information needs to be integrated into your brain.
Trust me, writing it down is important. But you can also record it in an electronic file too if you want to use it later.
Ideally you will want some way to confirm your own observations on the temperature, humidity, quantity of rain, and strength and direction of the wind. You can use formal gauges for this like thermometers, barometers, rain gauges, and wind vanes.
If you don’t have the budget for these things, though, you can simply use the reported data from your closest weather station. Weather services like Weather Underground allow you access to the data from Personal Weather Stations (PWS) that might be much closer to you than the regional airports that may not accurately represent your conditions.
How to Start Observing the Weather
Now that you have chosen your tools, it’s time to start observing. Personally, I recommend doing this three times a day to start. When you wake up, mid-day, and evening.
Step outside or open a window. If you can’t (e.g. you live in a high-rise or are stuck in an office), put your hand on a window and look outside.
Look around you for clues as to the weather conditions.
Are leaves rustling? Is trash blowing? How fast, how hard? From which direction?
Is there frost, snow, rain, moisture, dryness? Does it seem hot, cold, in between?
What are people wearing? What are animals doing?
What sounds do you hear? Do they seem louder than usual or more distant?
Does anything stand out to you outside or inside?
How does your body feel?
Guess what the conditions are based on your observations.
Estimate the temperature
Estimate the wind speed and direction
Estimate the humidity level
Guess at how much rain or snow a given storm system will drop or whether rain or snow is likely
Check your gauges or the reported conditions at your nearest weather station.
Contemplate the similarities and differences between what you noticed and what was confirmed by the gauges or weather station.
Your observations may be way off base when you first start paying attention to the weather. Or, you may be a natural at this. For now, it doesn’t really matter how accurate or inaccurate you are. The real benefit comes simply from making observation a habit.
At some point in the future, you will become a walking weather station. It could take months or years depending on where you live, your background, and how consistently and completely you do this exercise each day.
Don’t worry about your performance, just keep at it as often as you can. Even if you can’t do it three times a day, or even every day, just do it as much as you can. The more often you do a thing, the better you get. However, even a little learning here and there can start to add up.