The COVID-19 virus has made it difficult for grocery stores to keep shelves stocked. I visited the grocery for the first time in a month and was surprised to see so many shelves empty. Toilet paper, of course, was no where to be found. But, other things like flour, eggs, butter, and many fresh vegetables were in short supply too.
Seeing so many of our necessities and favorites missing from the shelves makes us feel especially vulnerable in tough times. So, many people are trying to reclaim a little control for their food supply by starting vegetable gardens.
More gardeners is a great thing. But it’s happening at a hard time. Seed sellers are seeing explosions in sales. Some sellers have had to cut off seed access to non-farmers because demand is so high and supply chains weren’t ready for this much sudden interest. But even in a crisis, with supply shortages, there are still things you can do to get started gardening.
Most importantly, remember that no matter what, the basics are the same. You have to prepare your soil. You have to plan your layout, even if it’s just a temporary. If you aren’t already composting, start now! If you can vermicompost – even better!
Once you do those things, the challenge of finding seeds and plants remains. So, here are some ideas to help you get started right now… even if you can’t get seeds delivered from online sellers.
Ask gardeners you know to share a few seeds (using social distancing pick-ups).
Local vegetable farmers may sell plant starts. (Even those that normally don’t sell plants, might be willing to now. So ask.)
You can also start many things from cuttings including all of your herbs. Get these at the grocery or from friends and neighbors yards (with permission).
You can start sweet potato slips from the sweet potatoes you get at the grocery store. Also, sweet potato vines can be cooked like spinach. So even if you don’t have 120 warm days to grow these for tubers, you can grow them just for the greens.
The seeds in store bought pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and more can be planted. They are likely hybrids, so the plant you get will be completely different than the one you planted from. But it will most likely still be edible.
You can also use the crowns of celery, romaine lettuce, carrots, parsnips, and others to grow more. Just put the base in water (changed daily) until roots form. Then plant in your garden.
Even though it’s not ideal, you can also use store bought potatoes as seed potatoes. Soak the tubers in water for a couple hours to expunge any growth retardants. Place in a warm location until eyes form. Then use 2-3 ounce pieces as seed potatoes.
Onions, garlic, and ginger from the store can also be planted. The tops of these three plants are edible too. So, you may want to grow them just for the greens. Ginger needs warm weather to grow.
Dried grocery store beans can also be used as seeds. Just plant extras because germination rates will be low.
Even your spice seeds such as dried mustard and coriander can be used in a bind.
Note for items from the grocery store because these are mass harvested, the plants they produces aren’t likely to be the best, most productive, or beautiful. They also have a higher risk for plant pathogens than certified disease free seeds and plants. Yet, in a crisis, if this is all you have to work with, it’s certainly worth trying.
Also, although no one lines to think about it under normal circumstances, diluted urine makes a perfect fertilizer. Don’t apply to plant leaves. Instead apply to the soil. You can read my post about using urine in the garden on Morning Chores.
Also, before you say “gross” think about this fact. All organic garden soil is loaded with the excrement and dead bodies of decomposed of insects, bacteria, fungi, and others. It also contains bird poop from the birds who fly over or eat pests. Oh and, commercial farmers who sell at grocery stores use industrial sewage and feed lot manure to fertilize field crops.
Closing the loop by using waste to add nutrients to soil is the foundation of sustainable agriculture. We just have to be smart about how we do it.
Most soils have some minerals. But many are simply too compacted to grow in. It will take some work, but if you can dig up your soil and mix it with mulched leaves, you can very quickly improve the structure so that you can at least grow some kinds of vegetables.
Ideally, you’ll also add well-aged compost. But that can also be hard to find these days. So, work with what you have.
Care and Share
Especially when gardening in non-ideal conditions, good plant care is the key to getting a crop. Water regularly, weed often, add compost as soon as you have it, mulch with a light layer of grass clippings or paper, and hand pick insects if you see multiples.
Finally, always remember, nature is built on sharing not hoarding. Share your extras. Share what you learn. Then, you’ll not only grow a garden, but a strong community that often shares exactly what you you need in surprising ways.
Choosing the plants that will grow well in your climate, weather, soil type, and garden is quite complicated. That’s why a big part of becoming a good gardener is learning how to read your landscape, understand your conditions, and carefully select plants that are most likely to thrive where you live.
If you want to learn more about all the intricacies involved in careful plant selection, then check out my post on MorningChores.com.
Also, remember to give any new plant a little extra care until you are certain it is happy and habituated to its new home. Start with good soil, water regularly, and fertilize organically with compost, compost tea, or slow-release bagged mixes that won’t be toxic for all the beneficial organisms that live in your soil.
When I started with chickens, I spent 5 months raising them before I got my first egg. Three of those months the chicks were in a brooder, in our house. For several weeks the brooder had to be heated. For the entire time, the brooder had to be cleaned daily to keep down unwanted aromas.
I learned a lot of things from that experience. The most important lesson was the fact that I never, ever want to raise chickens in my house, again. I am not the only chicken keeper who has these thoughts. That’s why you’ll find endless plans and ideas for making stand alone brooders to incorporate in your coop or use in outbuildings.
If you have never raised chickens before, I want to save you a lot of time and trouble with these three words of wisdom.
Buy laying hens!
The simplest way to start your flock is to look on Craigslist, or whatever farm classified ads you prefer, and find yourself hens that are already laying. Sexlinks, Rhode island reds, white-egg laying chickens, other hybrids or heritage breeds, whatever kind of laying hen you can find will make a great starting point — as long as they are healthy and already laying eggs.
Often the chickens you find on classifieds are layers in their 2nd or 3rd year of egg production. Their production has slowed down. Instead of 5-6 eggs a week, they lay 1-3. Their keepers want more eggs, but don’t have the heart to kill them. So they sell them cheap, hoping someone else just wants chickens for company. Sometimes you can find younger chickens offered for sale by people who realized they weren’t really chicken keepers. Occasionally, you can find people who just like to raise chicks and not keep the chickens.
Frankly, any of these chickens are fine because your goal with your first flock is not peak egg production. It’s to learn how to care for chickens, experiment with raising methods, and to keep them alive.
Nearly every chicken keeper I know lost chickens their first time through because they didn’t even know what they were supposed to worry about. Even if egg production is low with your first flock, you’ll still get manure which is one of the best fertility sources for your garden. Plus, this starter flock is your chance to gain experience through trial and error without going to great expense, or becoming inordinately attached to your first flock.
Benefits of a Second-Hand Flock
If you start by building a fancy coop and picking heritage breeds from a catalog, raising them from chicks, treating them like pets instead of livestock — you’re chances of being heart-broken by your first flock are very high. Trust me. Something is going to go wrong.
Your dog will sneak in when you feed the chickens and take 5 of them out in under 60 seconds.
You’ll forget to close the coop door one night and a raccoon will gut your most beautiful, favorite layer.
Or instead of a raccoon, a wide ranging weasel may come by and take out your entire flock because you were a little late closing the door.
I could go on. But I think you get the point. Until you raise chickens, you can’t anticipate the kind of things you need to be ready for. Many new chicken keepers end up feeling guilty and sad because they invested so much effort and care only to fail in devastating ways.
By starting with a second-hand flock, you can off-set some of that emotional anguish with the knowledge that you did your best to give unwanted animals a second chance. Also, more mature chickens have been around the block and aren’t as likely to make dumb mistakes. So, they tend to be a bit more durable than birds raised in a brooder by an inexperienced chicken keeper.
Hopefully I’ve persuaded you of the benefits of starting with a second hand flock. Now, here’s what to look for when you buy.
Ideally, aim for the youngest layers you can find and make sure they are in great health.
Don’t buy chickens that have poopy butts, have irrigated skin in their rear area, make you itch when you hold them, or are missing lots of head feathers. These chickens will require mite removal and health care before you move them to their new coop.
Squat down with the chickens and see if they come near you. They may not let you touch them. But, they’ll usually come close, out of curiosity, if they are healthy and well-adjusted.
Don’t buy chickens if they run up on you or peck you when you squat down. They usually can’t be broken of those bad habits and will make caring for the rest of your flock more difficult.
Trust your gut instincts on chicken buying. If the way the chickens are kept or their health condition makes you feel a bit queasy, don’t bring them home. In my experience, our stomachs often notice things that our minds choose to ignore. There’s a reason why “trust your gut” is an enduring expression!
Tips on Keeping Chickens
Obviously there’s a lot more to keeping chickens than just buying them. Before you bring home chickens, you need a secure space ready for them and a plan for how you’ll care for them. Then, later you’ll be experimenting, researching, learning, and making more permanent decisions about what works well in your environment.
The tips that follow are meant to help you get started. In future posts, I’ll get into more ideas about how to use and keep chickens as part of a homestead system. At the outset though, start with simple systems and focus on learning as much as you can about your flock, about yourself as a chicken keeper, and about how chickens interact with your environment.
Tip 1: No Right Way to Keep Chickens
No matter what anybody tells you, there is no single best way to keep chickens. They are adaptable, intelligent animals that are durable in some ways and can thrive in lots of different conditions. Every environment is different as well.
Try not to get too tied to particular ways of raising or using chickens early on. Be open to learning about all the different ways people raise chickens in your research. Then, later make the decisions that feel right to you, work well in your environment, and compliment your lifestyle.
Tip 2: Conditions and Care Needs Change
Also, we now live in a world with a rapidly changing world with wildly unpredictable weather threats and climate changes. Pests, pathogens, and diseases are proliferating and spreading in ways no one expected. New risks emerge constantly.
I got away with safely free-ranging chickens for 5 years until terrible flooding reduced the rat, mice, and rabbit populations on our landscape. Then, hawks took an interest in my chickens. Shortly after that, a fox family moved in. I had to completely re-think my chicken keeping practices based on those new predator concerns.
Even highly controlled industrial chicken care environments, fine-tuned with scientific precision, are susceptible to risks from our evolving conditions. Floods, diseases, feed problems, and more have made even supposedly invulnerable “engineered environments” danger zones for livestock.
It’s important to understand at the outset that chicken care is a moving target. You will never come up with the perfect plan for all time. There will always be tweaks and adjustments and even wholesale rethinking at times. Now, more than ever, you need to be flexible and responsive in your approach to chicken care.
Tip 3: Coop and Run Security is Key
Chickens need a secure space to spend their days and nights. Until you know your predator risks, you won’t want to let them out of their coop and run except under your close supervision.
So, you need to plan a large space to keep them secure. There are many different ways to go about this. They key is that you need to build them an effective refuge that keeps digging, aerial, and strong or cunning predators out.
– Hardware Cloth v. Chicken Wire
Generally, you want all openings less than an inch wide. So called “chicken wire” is the right size, yet it’s not durable enough for protection against strong predators. Hardware cloth is a better choice.
– Full Protection
Make sure your coop and run has complete overhead, underground, all around protection. Here are a few things I’ve learned about coop security.
Buried fencing can keep out diggers. Yet, it’s often easier to just tack hardware cloth over the whole floor or use a solid plywood floor for protection.
Self-locking latches and sliding bars keep out raccoons. Those crafty predators can open less complicated latches or pry up corners of light weight openings.
Ventilation is a must. But screens are easily clawed open by climbers. Instead use hardware cloth on your window openings.
Wood rots and swells. Nailed boards can be pried loose by stronger predators. Protect wood from moisture or use treated wood (e.g. stained/painted). Use screws rather than nails for more security.
Roofing materials should provide weather and predator protection. Plastic or dark colored roofs can make coops hot in summer. Tarps can be easily chewed through and lose durability quickly when exposed to the elements. Metal roofing tends to work best.
Tip 4: Try Temporary Coops
Your first time through, I suggest you make something durable yet temporary. For example, hoop coops made with cattle panels and hardware cloth can be cheaply and easily built. They also create a lot of space for small flock of chickens. You can stand up inside which makes cleaning and spending time with your chickens easy.
You can also easily re-purpose all the materials later when you are ready to build a formal coop and run. You can turn the hoop coop into a greenhouse by covering it with plastic sheeting. Or you can use those cattle panels to make curcurbit tunnels in your garden later.
There are a number of hoop plans out there to choose from. This will likely not be your final coop design, so if I were you, I’d go for the easiest design possible.
Hoop coops are not the only option out there. But unless you have carpentry skills and a lot of tools, they are a great beginner option. You can also buy second hand coops or find a local builder making low cost coops in some areas.
Tip 5: Pay Attention to Pet Peeves
I know you are going to read a lot of posts, magazines, and books before you bring home your first flock. Make sure to pay attention to all the nuanced little details chicken keepers share. Paying attention to pet peeves, in particular, can help you save time. Here are a few of mine.
– No “U” Nails
Personally, I am not a fan of U nails. Instead, I like to sandwich hardware cloth or wire fencing between two pieces of wood connected by screws. This makes taking it apart later much easier than having to rip out a bunch of U nails. It also saves on smashed fingers.
– Pass on Movable Coops
Movable coops, except those on trailers, only work on flat land. I’ve tried several drag and drop designs on our hilled landscape and they quickly warp and fall apart quickly.
Even on flat land though, the only chicken keepers I know who actually move their coop often enough for chicken health are farmers. They use tractors to tow them.
Instead of a movable coop, I recommend that you use deep bedding. Alternatively, use a shovel to scrape and then sweep up manure weekly to keep chickens from spending too much time on accumulated manure. Then you can also use that manure in your garden as fertilizer.
Tip 6: Start With What Works
For your first few months, start with the things that work universally.
Use pelleted layer feed before you try to make your own or start fermenting feed.
Use an $8 hanging chicken waterer cleaned and refilled every other day.
Don’t use supplements that may or may not be helpful to your chickens.
Put out oyster shells to ensure access to calcium.
Bring chickens your fresh kitchen scraps and anything from your garden to use to build rapport with your new flock.
Collect eggs at least once daily so you know they are fresh.
Let your chickens lay naturally without using electric lights to induce winter laying.
Store extra feed somewhere other than inside the coop so you don’t attract scavengers who might also eat your chickens (e.g. possums and raccoons).
Clean your coop at least weekly.
Spend time observing your chickens from a distance to learn more about them.
Tip 7: Experiment Carefully
Just like people, chickens need time to adapt to changes. When you are ready to start making your own feed mixes, fermenting your feed, using herbs for their health, offering probiotics, trialing Diatomaceous Earth (DE), give them yard access, use them in the garden, etc. – do it slowly.
For example, let chickens sample new foods. Watch their reactions and monitor their health. Only make full changes when you are certain your chickens will benefit from them.
If you give chickens access to your yard, keep an eye on them to make sure there are no unrecognized hazards. Start free-ranging them in the evenings so night will drive them back into the coop in case you have trouble rounding them back up.
Pay attention to what they eat and don’t eat from your yard or garden on their own. Then look up those plant properties to find out why chickens might favor them or avoid them. This will tell you a lot about whether your feed program is working.
Becoming a Chicken Keeper
Learning how to keep mature chickens safe and healthy is a great place to start your journey of becoming a chicken keeper. The real fun though comes with giving them purpose on your homestead.
Chickens actually enjoy being put to work scavenging their own food, controlling weeds, conditioning soil, and keeping you company when you work outside. Once you know how to care for them, then you can find meaningful ways to direct their natural abilities and integrate them into your homesteading life.
Then, later as you perpetuate your flock with new chickens you can make all those important decisions about whether to brood your own chicks or let a broody hen handle it. You can also try lots of breeds and narrow down your breed preferences.
Homesteading isn’t just about the activities that provide you greater resource self-sufficiency like eggs, meat, manure, and livestock labor. It’s also about thinking for yourself and deeply understanding all the aspects at play in the environment you inhabit.
Taking time to become a true chicken keeper, rather than just being someone who keeps chickens, takes more time up front. But doing so will make you much more skilled and help you effectively integrate long-term chickens into the life you are creating.
You may also decide chickens aren’t right for you. And if that’s the case, then by starting with a second-hand flock, you’ll sure be glad you aren’t stuck with an expensive coop and a sense of guilt over selling off those chicks you raised in your bathroom or basement.
I did something that others might consider crazy on purpose. I ignored my Simplestead potager garden for 4 weeks during our hottest, driest period.
We’ve had less than an inch of rain in the last 4 weeks and most of it fell today just before I came outside to document the condition of the garden after my near total neglect. Our temperatures were also over 85 F for 23 of those 28 days of neglect.
I didn’t water.
I didn’t weed.
I didn’t stake or trellis anything.
I didn’t pick off insects or coddle any fungal prone plants.
I just harvested the things that would rot if I didn’t pick them. That included tons of carrots, beets, peppers, cantaloupes, tomatoes, beans, and more. That harvesting took me a grand total of about 15 minutes over the last 4 weeks.
This is not my normal gardening practice. I love gardening and spending time in my garden. So, it was actually hard for me to stay away. But, this is a test/proof of concept garden that I created for the purpose of writing this blog.
Gardening is not a just a way to produce food. It’s a relationship with your environment. So, I don’t recommend that you practice total neglect of your garden as a habit. However, there are times when you can’t garden as much as you want to. Stuff comes up and you simply can’t get outside to do your routine maintenance and enjoy time in your garden. In other words, life happens.
If you put the time into planning, developing your soil, and choosing the right plants for your garden, and keep your garden constantly planted, then your well-planned potager can keep on without you for a while.
Yes – it may look a bit like a jungle with sprawling tomatoes, out of control melon vines, and a few pests (deer in my case) may visit and eat your bean or sweet potato vine leaves while you are away.
Still your garden grows on. Plus, it can be easily worked back into condition with an hour or two of care.
Most importantly, that density of planting from that jungle like atmosphere protects the soil and all the biological life encouraged with compost and compost tea when you do have time to invest in your garden.
Now that this experiment is over, I’ll be harvesting mass quantities of vegetables today. Despite the sprawl, there are ripe, ready to eat tomatoes hiding in those vines.
Although the beet greens are a bit sun-scalded and crispy, the roots are are plump and ready to eat. I’ll be freezing about 30 pounds of cantaloupe for our smoothies. A few that didn’t ripen fully will go to the chickens. I’ll also harvesting every pepper and bean I can find to encourage the plants to get back to production.
After that, I’ll do a couple hours of maintenance such as getting some light to my garlic chives which were nearly swallowed by the tomatoes. Generally though, I’ll just spend some quality time with my garden again.
There will be lots more potager-related posts to come. However, since it is now time to start super-powering your garden with poop, I’m going to switch gears for the next few posts and talk about raising chickens the Simplestead way.
Thai basil grows very similar to other basils. It does well in fertile, well-draining soils, and can tolerate some drought. It has been much slower to flower than the common Genovese basil and more resistant to bolting in hot, dry weather. This basil grows a bit slower than many other basils, but puts on a spectacular flower show and is worth the wait.
Taste and Smell
Thai basil is more pungent than other basils. It has a peppery, licorice-taste that is very pronounced. It is definitely a savory herb which is why it balances so nicely in sweet and sour dishes or things like curry with a sweet coconut milk base.
Thai basil has a strong, lingering black licorice or anise scent that becomes even stronger when dried. This is one of the best drying basils I grow in my garden.
Thai basil has light green leaves with rose hued stems. The leaf color is a bit more lime or yellow-tending than than the shiny, brightness of the more common Genovese basil. The leaves are also more narrow and tend to be smaller and more angular in shape.
Thai basil leaves seem more prone to insect damage than is typical for the other kinds of basil I have experience growing. It also seems to be less of a nutrient scavenger than other kinds of basil and requires more care to avoid chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves).
Thai basil has blooms that more closely resemble lilac flower clusters than the tall flower stakes that are more typical of most basil plant. They are incredibly beautiful in clusters. The flowers also hold up well when cut and are excellent in aromatic herb bouquets.
This is one of the more compact and slower growing basil plants I have grown. It also doesn’t spread as wide even with regular pinching to encourage bushiness.
These plants seem to do best in direct sunlight. The interior leaves show a lot of yellowing if plants aren’t allowed enough room to grow.
Mature height in fertile soil ranges between about 2-3 feet, width is about 1 foot wide. I only grow this plant in fertile, vegetable garden soil because it seems more finicky than other basil plants.
Starts easily from seed. Can be direct planted or transplanted.
It does exceptionally well growing through hot weather even with minimal rain or watering and is slow to flower even under extended heat stress.
Needs warm temperatures to germinate. Seeds started in late May in North Carolina, in 80 degrees F germinated in 4-5 days. Germination rates seem lower than for most basils I have tried. So, I heavily over seed for this plant.
Water daily until plants are at least a few inches tall for faster growth rates.
Thai basil’s compact size and slower growth rates make it more weed prone in general. By starting more plants, closer together, then harvesting the thinnings, to use in cooking, you get more yield and have less weed competition at the outset.
This basil also seems to need regular fertilizing for peak health. Compost tea applied weekly to the roots intensifies the color and aroma of the leaves.
Persian basil grows very similar to other basils. It does well in fertile, well-draining soils, and can tolerate some drought. It has been much slower to flower than the common Genovese basil and more resistant to bolting in hot, dry weather.
Taste and Smell
Persian basil is very mild in flavor. It can be used fresh in salads as whole or chopped leaves. It has a hint of licorice and mint as well as the savory, green flavor common to most basil. The leaves are a bit meatier than Italian-style basils.
There is a hint of cinnamon in the flower blossoms. The leaves smell more strongly of licorice than some other basils. Overall, though the aroma is mild like the flavor.
Persian basil has green leaves with purple hued stems and veins. The leaf color is darker and more subdued than the shiny, brightness of the more common Genovese basil. The leaves are also more narrow and elongated in shape.
Persian basil has purple flower stakes with white flower blooms. The stakes grow from the center of the leaves starting the size of a button and growing to 3-4 inches in length.
The plants are about 1 foot wide with minimal pinching. However they can spread out a few feet if you continually pinch growing heads to encourage bushiness.
They also seem perfectly happy to grow in large , overcrowded groups, and do an excellent job at stifling weeds. The plants along the outer perimeter will lean over to get sun and air and then set new roots and spread. Even well-shaded inner leaves show no signs of discoloration. So, I suspect this plant can even tolerate a fair amount of shade or being grown in indirect window sunlight.
Mature height in fertile soil ranges between about 3-4 feet. The plants are shorter in drier, less fertile soil.
Starts easily from seed. Can be direct planted or transplanted.
This basil grows slower than other basils at first. So it may need weeding for the first few weeks. But then it catches up quickly and does exceptionally well growing through hot weather.
Needs warm temperatures to germinate. Seeds started in late May in North Carolina, in 80 degrees F germinated in 2-3 days.
Water daily until plants are at least a few inches tall for faster growth rates.
Thinning is optional. This plant seems to self-select the winners if you over seed and then adjusts well to overcrowding.
It’s beautiful to plant in bunches for more impact than from individual plants.
That compost-driven potager I planned and started back in winter and spring is thriving even during extreme heat thanks to all the compost I used to amend the soil. In a 134 square foot garden, I’ve harvested 75 beets, 20 kohlrabi, 25 turnips, 5 large heads of storage cabbage, 18 pounds of potatoes, more carrots than I could count, daily salads from April to July, endless kale, chard, and mustard, herbs, peas, and more.
Now, one month into summer tomatoes, peppers, more beets, eggplant, okra, melons, chard, sweet potatoes, runner beans, and sunflowers are growing well in the garden. Fall vegetable seeds will go in a month from now so that I can harvest fresh food even into winter.
Oh, and did I mention that I only I spend about 1 hour a week tending the garden. Every couple of weeks, during hot dry periods, I spend an extra hour clearing up weeds and deep watering. I have picked off a few cabbage moth larva and I’ve had a little flea beetle and slug damage to a few leaves. But I’ve had no losses to pests and haven’t done anything to control for pests.
I owe all of this success, not to my own incredible intelligence (I wish), but to nature’s. Using nature’s method of adding fertility, in the form of top applied compost to encourage thriving soil life, this first year garden is doing amazing.
To maintain this kind of performance, I’ll need to add several inches of compost annually.
Making compost is an incredibly satisfying act of environmental love. Knowing that you are putting what would otherwise be treated as “waste” to work in your garden is both soul and soil enriching.
There are endless ways to make compost. Before you get carried away by all the exciting compost bin plans out there, though, I want to make sure you know that you don’t need an elaborate system to make compost. You don’t need to spend a lot of money. You also don’t need to spend more than a few minutes every so often to make a whole lot of compost.
Compost is nature’s gift to us. Nature doesn’t care if you have a 2 bin system or a 3 bin system. Nature doesn’t demand that you use a multi-tiered vermicompost tower or inoculated bran and and an anaerobic container to do your composting.
Those things are tools that we choose to make compost on our terms. Depending on your circumstance, some tools may be useful or they might be a waste of your time. That’s for you to decide.
Nature, though, only needs a few things from you to convert your waste into something useful in the garden.
This is a website devoted to simple homesteading. So, I am not going to be covering all the complicated ways to make compost. Instead, I am going to share some very simple, minimal work ways to help nature do what nature wants to do anyways.
Make a first layer with a few inches of twigs and branches to elevate your pile off the ground for good drainage.
Step 2: Add Browns
You’ll be alternately layering 2 to 3 parts dried browns to 1 part greens until your pile is 4 feet tall and wide. But, you want to start with a good base of browns to absorb excess moisture from your greens.
For browns, I prefer straw or mulched leaves collected in fall. Shredded paper and bits of cardboard also work.
Step 3: Alternate Greens and Browns
Now, you’ll start the layering process by adding 1 part greens to every 2-3 part browns. Keep your greens layers no more than 2 inches deep for good airflow.
Greens are things like kitchen scraps, animal manure, grass clippings, or crop residues from the garden. As a rule of thumb, any plant parts harvested when they were green and actively growing or any animal by-products are counted as greens.
If you are using bokashi to expand your compost options, add that between layers of browns. Also, put it toward the bottom of the pile to discourage pests (just in case it’s not fully bokashi-ed).
Note: Your collection buckets might contain some browns like paper towels or junk mail. If you have lots of browns in there already lean toward 2 parts browns. If you have very few browns in your collection buckets, go for 3 parts browns.
Step 4: Repeat Until Complete, Then Water
Keep the top of the pile covered with a tarp, or other water proof protection, so it doesn’t get wet until it reaches full-size. Make sure the sides are not covered because you still need airflow to keep your pile from becoming anaerobic.
When your pile is about 4 feet tall and wide, water the entire pile until it feels like a wet but not soppy sponge. This will activate composting.
Step 5: Cover and Wait
After watering, top your pile with several inches of dry browns as a moisture barrier. Then, let the pile sit for uncovered 4 weeks.
If you happen to have heavy rain in the forecast put the tarp back on before it rains and remove it after the rain. Otherwise leave the pile open for good air flow.
Step 6: Turn and Burn
Now you need to turn your pile. This requires using a pitch fork to move the contents of the pile, fork load by fork load, to a new location.
Usually this new location is adjacent to your pile so you don’t have to move your pile very far. Also, you’ll want to layer some branches and browns on bottom like you did in steps 1 and 2 before you start forking to promote good drainage.
Try to fold the outsides of the pile in so they get to be on the inside in this new pile. You may also need to water your pile again so it feels like a wet but not sopping wet sponge.
Within 1-2 days of turning your pile, put your hand near, but not inside the pile. (Your pile could get to 160ºF, so don’t touch it!) Make sure you can feel lots of heat emanating from the pile. If not, then pour some fresh urine the pile as you can and check again in a day or two.
Step 7: Have Patience
Now, you just need to let your compost sit around for a year before you use it. That will allow any pathogens to time out. It will take care of some toxins such as minimal quantities of pesticides and herbicides that might have drifted into your lawn when your neighbor used those chemicals.
That time also gives all your compost critters a chance to decompose most of what’s in your pile without you having to sift a lot later.
Carbon to Nitrogen Calculations
Down the road, when you want to get a more balanced compost to control nutrients in your soil, understanding carbon to nitrogen ratios can be really helpful. However, I recommend you use this basic method based on parts of “browns and greens” a couple of times before you move up to fancy compost.
When you are ready for using carbon to nitrogen calculations to make even better compost, then head over MorningChores.com and look for the compost calculator I helped create.
A Few More Thoughts on Composting
Now that you know how easy making compost can be, there are a few other things for you to think about.
Turning The Pile
If you want to make compost quickly, you can turn your pile more often. The problem with doing this is that you attract mostly high-temperature loving compost bacteria to your pile. Those bacteria are great for decomposing things in a hurry. But since your soil temperatures are not going to be that high, they won’t do much for your soil and your plants when you put fast-made compost in your bed.
I normally turn a pile only once. Sometimes if stuff doesn’t seem to be breaking down or I don’t get noticeable heat when I turn the pile then I may turn it a 2nd or even 3rd time for good measure. Overall though, less turning and longer aging tend to be more beneficial for plants in my experience.
I might shock a few people by saying this. But here goes.
I don’t sift my compost. Ever.
Usually the bits that aren’t fully decomposed after a year of aging disappear within a few weeks of spreading compost on soil. So, I’ve just never worried about them.
Every so often I’ll come across a clump of stuff in a compost pile that just didn’t break down because it stayed too wet. In that case, I break it apart and throw it into my next compost pile or I’ll give it to my worms for expedited processing.
You’ll notice that I only had you check for heat after you turned your pile. Other instruction sets have you check it each time, which is fine. But, I know lots of first time composters who don’t get heat in their first pile. It may be too wet, or wet only in certain places, the layers might be to light or too heavy.
By the time that stuff has sat around and melded for a month and attracted bacteria and fungi, then when you turn the pile and moisten it a second time, it almost always ignites. So, that’s why I don’t worry about a temperature check until I turn the pile.
– Compost Thermometer
Also, if your pile feels hot when you hover your hand near it, then it’s doing it’s thing just fine. However, if you want to be precise, get yourself a compost thermometer and take a reading. Temperatures between 135-165ºF are ideal.
– Moisture Meter
If you like the idea of using a thermometer, then you might also want to consider a moisture meter too. Aiming for about 60% water content in your pile is also ideal for active decomposition.
Bins are totally optional. However, they can be beneficial if you have neighbors who don’t want to see your unsightly pile, or if plan to compost things that rodents and raccoons might love to eat too.
If you are going to the trouble of setting up a multi-bin system, I suggest that you use hardwood or paint your parts so they last a while. Put roofs on them so you can better control moisture. And give yourself room to store lots of browns so you can make use of all your neighbors leaves too.
Skip the elevated bins that you have to turn daily. They seem simple. But I assure you a pile like the one described above will save you lots of work and frustration while making you more compost.
I’ll cover some more composting information in upcoming posts. But, now between vermicompost, bokashi, and basic compost, you have a great repertoire of tools to start really improving your soil.
Now, go perform your own act of environmental love by turning your waste into garden goodness!
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!
When you see past the pretty flowers and profuse plantings, you’ll discover that every garden has bones and secrets buried beneath. A garden’s design and its underlying infrastructure dictate how well it works and how much work it takes to maintain that garden.
The Beaten Path
For example, when I visit a garden that has large pathways that have been mowed practically to the ground, I see more work than I would ever want to do.
I see a lawnmower that has to be maintained with regular oil changes, blade sharpening, spark plug replacements, and cans of gas stinking up my car when I haul them. I see the necessity of a large storage area to hide and protect that unsightly and overly loud machine.
Those wide, shorn walkways also tell me weeds must be rampant because the soil is compacted from constant mowing. The operator of the machine must mow often to maintain the illusion of uniformity with weeds erupting at erratic rates. Either that, or they are spraying weed killers that poison the soil.
Paths like that also imply precarious health for the plants that grow along the edges. Those poor path-bound plants can only expand their root system away from the paths and not into them. That means, the garden beds themselves are the only source of moisture and fertility to support plant growth. That inevitably leads to more work caring for the plants.
Yes, I also see an orderliness that does seem attractive at first glance. But the deeper you look, the more you realize those paths aren’t just well-maintained. They are tamed and tortured. They are beaten into submission for an aesthetic ideal that undermines the health of the rest of the garden.
Paths like that, and the kind of thinking that underlies them, are the crux of our current climate crisis and our poor preparation for ever-increasing extreme weather events. Those paths aim to subdue nature, not cooperate with it.
The Simple Path
If you want to grow a simple garden, that produces abundant, nourishing food and beauty, you need to leave those beaten paths out of your design. Instead, you want paths that nourish your soil, connect spaces, discourage soil compaction, and invite life into the garden.
Now, this is your garden and you can have whatever kinds of paths you want. So, if you have your heart set on low cut grass and broad aisles, that is entirely your prerogative. The point of this website, though, is to offer you solutions that help you create a simple homestead that will get better with each simple step you take.
If you want to take the simple approach and use your paths to improve the natural health of your garden over time, I suggest these options.
Option 1: Nutrient Swales
A swale is basically an indention in the soil that causes water to flow into it. Most of the time, you make these “on contour”. On contour simply means that you create them in such a way as to catch and keep water in place, rather than directing downward like a water slide. The opposite of on contour swales are gullies that cause water to rush downhill.
On contour swales are kind of like long thin ponds. However, unlike a pond the goal of this kind of swale is to help water percolate into the ground. You don’t want to actually have standing water in your swales for more than a short period of time.
In the garden, we can use this idea of an on contour swale to make our paths. In dry areas, those swales will collect water and send them into the soil to be saved for later use. In wet areas, those swales offer a place for water to drain off the beds and be moved below the level of the more tender plant roots.
In our gardens though, we don’t want to be walking through pools of water or mud to get to our beds. So we need to use a slightly modified version of the on contour swale. I call these nutrient swales.
Here’s how I make them.
Step 1: Make the Swale
You start by digging out the top soil from your paths and putting it on your garden bed. Dig across slopes so swales become like bowls to catch the downward flowing rain.
This process increases the amount of soil you have in your beds. But it also creates that indentation to catch water. The beds get higher and that paths are a few inches (or more) below the level of the bed. That creates the water catchment zone.
Note: If your paths aren’t quite on contour, e.g. not quite level, you can fix that by how you dig your swale. In areas where water might start to run like a water slide, dig the uphill side deeper. Then leave soil in place where the water would normally start to run faster. That creates a bit of a speed bump in the swale that holds the flow in the deeper area.
Step 2: Fill with Uncomposted Organic Matter
Next, backfill the paths with uncomposted organic matter. If you have a lot of topsoil and your paths are deep (e.g. at least 8-12 inches), you can start by backfilling with all your kitchen scraps and whatever you have been saving in your compost bucket. This essentially becomes a compost trench and is one of the easiest ways to make compost and improve soil quickly.
If you don’t have a lot of food scrap waste, and you need to fill deep swales, you can also use branches and decaying woody material. Then you can cover this with the other compost materials you have. It works as a kind of in ground hugelkultur, breaking down over time and feeding the soil for a few years.
For the top six inches, backfill with whatever greens and browns you are able to source in large quantities. Old hay or straw, mulched yard leaves, grass clippings, newspaper, shredded office paper, cardboard, paper bags, and more all work well.
If you already have livestock, dirty litter works perfect filling in your paths. In my case, I use the litter from my goat barn because it has a mix of hay, straw, goat poop, and urine that cover my paths and nourish neighboring beds as they compost.
If you don’t have livestock, some farmers are happy to have you clean out their barns for them and let you take all that organic matter. Some cities or civic organizations also offer free leaf litter or municipal compost at certain times of the year.
Worst case scenario, you may have to buy some inexpensive filler such as straw bales and composted cow manure. This is an absolutely worthwhile investment in a new garden.
Step 3: Cover the Organic Matter
After I have filled the swales back up to level with all that good organic matter, I wait a few days until the materials settle. Then, I top the paths of with some kind of wood mulch.
The mulch you can get free when the electric company cuts trees in your area is awesome for paths. Shredded hardwood, bark, wood chips, and more all work well for this.
If you don’t have access to free or inexpensive wood mulch, you can use pine shavings, bark, or needles. Saw dust is another possible option. Even old carpets turned upside down and cut to the size of your path will work.
You just need to create a permeable surface that will slow down weed growth and be comfortable and safe for you to walk on. Ideally this material will last at least a year before it decays into compost.
Maintenance: Top off Your Paths
As needed you can top off your paths with new organic matter to bring them back up to level with the beds. I tend to fill mine annually in late-winter before I start preparing my beds for planting. This has the added benefit of increasing the temperature of the soil if the paths start to heat up from composting activity.
Benefits of Nutrient Swale Paths
These paths promote good drainage. They feed the soil in your garden beds because soil inhabitants move between the paths and the beds transporting nutrients into the beds. They store water and offer your plants additional room to expand during drought or if soil nutrients in the beds are lacking.
They do require a bit of work up front. However as long as you go heavy on the organic matter and covering, they offer wonderful weed control and reduce the need for watering your beds. They also give you an easy way to compost large quantities of materials without having to build or turn a pile.
Overall, this method saves tons of time on gardening throughout the year while improving your soil. I use it in all of my gardens.
Also note: For things you bokashi, your deeper garden path swales make a great place to bury those bokashied items too!
Option 2: Permeable Rock Paths
For some of my wider paths that I can’t source enough organic matter to fill, I still dig out the topsoil and use it on beds. Then I cover those beds with rocks that I dig out or collect from other areas of the property.
Rocks, contrary to popular belief, do not reduce weed pressure. Those rocks are a perfect hiding place for soil life and weed seeds. Each time it rains, any dust or soil that has accumulated on the rocks, gets washed into the crevices where soil inhabitants turn those bits of dirt into gummy, growth-promoting goodness.
In fact, in areas with too little soil to dig, I love to cover those places with rocks to build soil. Then a few years later, I move the rocks somewhere else and plant cover crops where the rocks were.
The thing rocks are really good for is making weeds stand out. If you see them and pull them early, before the deep tap roots get established, you can reduce work. Also, since the rocks help hold moisture in the soil, those weeds are easier to pull than in dry, compacted soil.
Those rocks warm and dry faster. They also shed water and promote drainage. So, they melt snow and become walkable sooner than grass does.
I never put weed mat under my rocks any more. Weed mat simply gives aggressive weeds something easy to anchor to. It creates more work than it’s worth.
Also, if you don’t have rocks, things like oyster shells gleaned from seafood restaurants and corks from wineries also make for interesting permeable paths. The oyster shells stink at first, but that dissipates quickly.
Option 3: Weed to Meadow Paths
Yep, you read that right. I also like to use weeds in my paths. If you steal the topsoil from your paths to put on your beds, weeds will eventually come. They will grow quickly to help heal that disturbed land.
I let them grow, but I mow them with a push mower weekly to keep them from flowering. I do pull out any of the branching grasses, like crabgrass, since those can quickly become more work than they are worth in terms of healing your soil.
If weeds start to get too aggressive in any particular area I cover them with a piece of old carpet, the leg of a pair of jeans weighted with rocks, or plastic bags (careful plastic can be slippery). That keeps the weeds from seeding into the garden beds and creating more work long term.
Once you get a bit of topsoil back in those rows (thanks to the weeds doing their healing work), you can plant lawn clover as your grass substitute. When you get a bit more soil back from the clover, plant meadow grasses. Try to find perennial grasses that are native to your area or that grow well in your climate.
Keep your paths narrow to reduce maintenance. If using a push mower, paths should be as wide as your mower so you only need to make one pass on each row. If using a weed trimmer or hand scythe, then make paths only as wide as you need them to walk and squat comfortably for gardening.
Also, except as necessary to prevent weeds from flowering and seeding out, do not mow your paths lower than 4 inches tall. Taller top growth, and less frequent mowing, promotes deeper roots. Deeper roots allow water to percolate into the soil and promote better drainage.
This option is lowest on my list because it does take a bit more work on a regular basis than the other two. Yet, its still a lot more simple than trying to maintain lush lawns using chemicals, motorized mowers, and more as you see in more conventional gardens.
Homework and Your Next Simple Step
Take some time to think about the kind of paths you want in your homestead potager. Determine if they support the overall health of your garden. Consider the materials you have available or can free or cheaply source near you.
Hang on to that information and those ideas for the next post on garden beds. Beds and paths must work together to create a cohesive environment for plants to thrive. So, in our next post, we’ll cover some bed designs that work well for a simple homestead potager garden.
Then, in the post right after that, we’ll finalize our design so we can get to work building a potager garden!
I strongly believe that all in-ground homestead vegetable gardens should be “potagers”. Potager is a French word that embodies the idea of both a functional kitchen garden and a beautiful space that allows for creative expression and cultivation of your gardening skills.
Potagers have lots of vegetables, of course. However, they often include plants to make tea, culinary herbs, flowers, fruits, nuts, perennial edibles, medicinal plants for health and immune support, and more. They are also designed, not just for function, but for the pleasure of being in them.
The Lure of the Potager
So many of us “homesteader types” are attracted to this kind of garden because we don’t just want to grow food, we want to cultivate beauty all around us. Yet, I think there are deeper, more naturally-driven reasons why we dream of potagers and not just endless rows of high-calorie field crops.
Even when we are new to gardening, some part of our intuition recognizes that vegetables grow better in a community of other plants and wild life. Our souls and our soils don’t like barren, disturbed landscapes that give way to machine-planted monocrops.
We want a diversity of color, leaf-texture, heights, widths, states of growth – new, ready to harvest, continuously giving plants – and the sounds of birds, frogs, and insects singing. We want decorative features like a bird bath, raised beds, pollinator houses, colorful containers, beautiful and functional trellises and arbors, and color combinations that compliment each other.
Somehow we also just know that gardening does not require expensive, complicated equipment that takes more time and money to maintain than a hand-cultivated garden does. We long to step back in time to simpler methods, using our hands, our hearts, and our brains instead of machines, manipulated seeds, and manufactured goods.
What we want, is to grow our gardens in such a way that each year our soil gets better, we produce more bounty with less work, and our food production become more manageable over time.
The Practicality of the Potager
These are all beautiful and realistic desires for your homestead potager. The concept of a potager pre-dates the industrial revolution. It relies on human, hand-scale work, using a few quality tools, and simple garden innovations. The emphasis is on beauty and productivity, in balance.
Yet, there’s also another practical reason for making your garden not only a place to grow food, but a potager-style paradise of plenty.
Nobody wants to cook in a dirty, disorganized kitchen. So, we order our kitchens in ways that work for us. We add decorative details to make us feel at home. We pick plates and pots that do their job, but also make us want to use them. We paint our walls, put up pictures, use interesting containers to hold our tools.
Well, the same should hold true for your garden. Yes, a garden has to function, just as kitchen does. We can’t sacrifice utility for the sake of charm. Yet, within reason, a garden must also be beautiful and inviting to its owner. It must draw us in and make us want to stay awhile.
Planning your garden to be a potager is not only attractive, but imminently practical because its beauty will entice you to it. And your gardening skills will increase in direct relation to the amount of time you spend enjoying your potager.
The Self-Sufficient Garden
A lot of people, particularly in the country, will just till up some earth in a sunny spot, spread some fertilizer, and plant some seeds. They might put in a few rows of tomatoes, a bit of lettuce, some summer squash, maybe some pumpkin, watermelon, okra, or corn.
There is a certain beauty and utility to this kind of gardening at first. Yet within a few years, the soil depletes, the pests move in, the weeds win. The yields go down, the ground gets harder, and gardening stops being worth the time it takes to do it.
That is not the kind of garden I want for you. I want something enduring, that gets better and better each time you grow it.
A Simple Garden Path
The new garden I am starting for the purpose of sharing the experience with you here on Simplestead will be a “no till” garden. I will borrow some top soil from my garden paths to add to my garden beds. Otherwise, I will not dig up my garden beds.
– The Virtues of Not Tilling
I will not release the years and years of wild, dormant seeds just waiting to see the light of day and feel a hint of rain.
I will not unnecessarily disturb the unbelievable diversity of lifeforms that live happily in my tiny bit of top soil.
I will not expose all my soil nutrients to air and water and cause them to wash away before my plants are large enough to access them.
I will not cause my soil to become dry by digging up all the moist under parts and letting them be deprived of water by the wind and sun.
I will not waste my time doing something that is unnecessary, overly complicated, and will end up making me dependent on things like weed killer, fertilizer, and pesticides long-term.
– Nature Assisted
Instead of tilling, my simple garden will be built upon what nature has started. I’ll use the lessons nature has taught — only more intensely applied — to grow food in just a couple months.
In particular, I’ll be using compost applied on top of beds and mulch (e.g. uncomposted organic matter like grass clippings or old hay) on top of paths. Any other garden amendments applied will also be made with organic matter that promotes soil health.
– Initial Purchases for Long-Term Self-Sufficiency
I will buy a few things to get my garden started. For example, I’ll buy a whole bunch of compost to start my beds. After this initial investment, though, I’ll manage the beds using just the compost I can make.
I’ll also buy a few soil amendments until I can get my own nutrient production systems in place. Most soils are so eroded and deficient in nutrients that you need to give them a jump start for the first couple years.
Seeds, a few hand-tools, one-time investments in infrastructure (e.g. storage shed, cold-frames, personal decorative items, etc.) may also take up some financial resources in the early years.
Within 3 years, though, the garden will grow on homestead resources alone. I will nourish my garden with the compost and amendment production systems I put in place. In return, my garden will nourish me with food, beauty, good health, and entertainment.
Other Ways To Garden
There are lots of other ways to garden successfully. Square foot gardening, hydroponics, straw bales, aquaponics, and more are wonderful, efficient ways to grow vegetables. They generally use fewer resources and cause much less environmental harm than conventional farming does. They also grow lots of tasty, healthy food, with minimal work.
Here at Simplestead though, simple self-sufficiency is the goal. Those other gardening methods are simple to create and to use. However, they rely on complex supply chains and continuous inputs from outside the homestead.
In other words, there is hidden complexity in them. I do think they are wonderful for many people. I also really appreciate that they introduce so many people into the joy and beauty of growing your own food at home. They just don’t quite fit the mold for long-term self-sufficiency.
For that reason, our next several posts will revolve around no till, compost and organic matter driven, garden creation. Later in the series, I will also cover container gardening using homestead fertility systems. And don’t worry, we’ll also get into perennials, orchards, and livestock in future posts too!
For now, though, let’s recap what we’ve covered so we’re ready to move forward with creating a new potager garden!
You probably have a good sense about how many square feet of garden space you’ll be able to support with your current compost capacity. (Remember, each 5 gallon bucket you fill earns you a square foot of garden space.)
You may have even sprouted a few seeds on your counter to get a sense of how seeds grow. Now, don’t worry if all those grocery store beans you tried to start didn’t all sprout. That too was an important lesson!
Seeds for growing food have to be carefully stored and used within certain time frames so that they are viable for planting. The fact that any of your “seeds” from the supermarket sprouted (and I am sure they did) is a testament to your care and the power of plants to find ways to survive.
Once we get our garden planned and break ground, we’ll get a lot deeper into seed starting, seedling care, and eventually seed saving in the series.
– The Homestead Dream
Even if you didn’t sprout actual seeds, the most important thing is that you have sprouted your homestead dreams and are now growing them into reality. All of these early exercises and tasks have been simple. Yet, your efforts have already prepared you for the next phase of your homestead creation.
Starting a Homestead Garden
Starting a garden is just a series of simple steps, one after another. I am going to be starting a brand new garden and sharing the experience with you to help you through the process.
Your garden will be different than mine because it will be a reflection of your tastes, climate, landscape, and available resources. Still our techniques, processes, and considerations are similar despite our regional and aesthetic differences.
If this is your first time starting a garden, I invite you to start your garden, step by step, as I do. I am an experienced gardener and I am an pretty good physical shape. So, I expect it will take me about 8-10 hours to plan, prepare, and create a 150 square feet of bed space, plus prepare my pathways. However I won’t do this all at once, but in phases so that it doesn’t take up too much time all at once.
For new gardeners, it may take you a bit more time to make your decisions and do the physical work of making a garden. But even so, I think you’ll be surprised how much you can get done in a short time, if you do it using simple steps.
Here’s what I’ll be covering in the next few blogs.
Garden Site Selection
Planning Your Garden Layout
Laying out the Garden
Building the Beds
Planning Your Plantings
Simple Cold Frames for Seed Starting
First Round Planting
As we move forward, I recommend that you read one post and then take the recommended action before going on to the next post.
As I mentioned earlier in the series, many people do a lot of intellectual learning but then fail to do the legwork to connect their mind and body in the process. By treating the action items from the posts like “homework” and doing that before you come back to “class” to read the next post, you will bridge the gap between knowing and doing.
Homework Assignment No. 1
For your first garden preparation homework assignment do these three things.
1. Gather Inspiration
Take a little time to reflect on this idea of “potager”. Gather inspiration from established vegetable gardens either from images and descriptions online or in your area.
Notice the design details that appeal to you, bed shapes, materials used in construction, path spacing, and other features that make you want to spend time in those other people’s gardens. Make notes in your observation journal and cross check the resources in your area to see if there are things that might help you achieve a similar feel or result.
2. Identify Vegetables For Your Climate
Also, find out what vegetables grow well near you. Your local agricultural extension office can help, universities with agricultural departments, or vegetable gardening writers that garden near to where you live are all good resources.
3. Find Your First and Last Frost Dates
Finally, find out your first and last frost dates. You can plant somethings before and after these dates. Your primary food production though, will fall between those two dates.
See you in the next “class” when we choose our garden location!