Constructing Your Homestead Potager

With all the hard work of gathering inspiration, choosing a garden site, deciding on our paths and bed design, and formalizing your plan done, it’s now time to break ground. This is the moment when the dream – a thing that lives in the world of ideas – becomes tangible. This is when the seed sprouts.

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.

Make Nutrient Swale-Style Paths

  1. Dig out paths and flip soil onto beds.
  2. Backfill paths with organic matter.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.

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Starting a Homestead Potager

I strongly believe that all in-ground homestead vegetable gardens should be “potagers”. Potager is a French word that embodies the idea of both a functional kitchen garden and a beautiful space that allows for creative expression and cultivation of your gardening skills.

Potagers have lots of vegetables, of course. However, they often include plants to make tea, culinary herbs, flowers, fruits, nuts, perennial edibles, medicinal plants for health and immune support, and more. They are also designed, not just for function, but for the pleasure of being in them.

The Lure of the Potager

So many of us “homesteader types” are attracted to this kind of garden because we don’t just want to grow food, we want to cultivate beauty all around us. Yet, I think there are deeper, more naturally-driven reasons why we dream of potagers and not just endless rows of high-calorie field crops.

Even when we are new to gardening, some part of our intuition recognizes that vegetables grow better in a community of other plants and wild life. Our souls and our soils don’t like barren, disturbed landscapes that give way to machine-planted monocrops.

We want a diversity of color, leaf-texture, heights, widths, states of growth – new, ready to harvest, continuously giving plants – and the sounds of birds, frogs, and insects singing. We want decorative features like a bird bath, raised beds, pollinator houses, colorful containers, beautiful and functional trellises and arbors, and color combinations that compliment each other.

Somehow we also just know that gardening does not require expensive, complicated equipment that takes more time and money to maintain than a hand-cultivated garden does. We long to step back in time to simpler methods, using our hands, our hearts, and our brains instead of machines, manipulated seeds, and manufactured goods.

What we want, is to grow our gardens in such a way that each year our soil gets better, we produce more bounty  with less work, and our food production become more manageable over time.

The Practicality of the Potager

These are all beautiful and realistic desires for your homestead potager. The concept of a potager pre-dates the industrial revolution. It relies on human, hand-scale work, using a few quality tools, and simple garden innovations. The emphasis is on beauty and productivity, in balance.

Yet, there’s also another practical reason for making your garden not only a place to grow food, but a potager-style paradise of plenty.

Nobody wants to cook in a dirty, disorganized kitchen. So, we order our kitchens in ways that work for us. We add decorative details to make us feel at home. We pick plates and pots that do their job, but also make us want to use them. We paint our walls, put up pictures, use interesting containers to hold our tools.

Well, the same should hold true for your garden. Yes, a garden has to function, just as kitchen does. We can’t sacrifice utility for the sake of charm. Yet, within reason, a garden must also be beautiful and inviting to its owner. It must draw us in and make us want to stay awhile.

Planning your garden to be a potager is not only attractive, but imminently practical because its beauty will entice you to it. And your gardening skills will increase in direct relation to the amount of time you spend enjoying your potager.

The Self-Sufficient Garden

A lot of people, particularly in the country, will just till up some earth in a sunny spot, spread some fertilizer, and plant some seeds. They might put in a few rows of tomatoes, a bit of lettuce, some summer squash, maybe some pumpkin, watermelon, okra, or corn.

There is a certain beauty and utility to this kind of gardening at first. Yet within a few years, the soil depletes, the pests move in, the weeds win. The yields go down, the ground gets harder, and gardening stops being worth the time it takes to do it.

That is not the kind of garden I want for you. I want something enduring, that gets better and better each time you grow it.

A Simple Garden Path

The new garden I am starting for the purpose of sharing the experience with you here on Simplestead will be a “no till” garden. I will borrow some top soil from my garden paths to add to my garden beds. Otherwise, I will not dig up my garden beds.

– The Virtues of Not Tilling

  • I will not release the years and years of wild, dormant seeds just waiting to see the light of day and feel a hint of rain.
  • I will not unnecessarily disturb the unbelievable diversity of lifeforms that live happily in my tiny bit of top soil.
  • I will not expose all my soil nutrients to air and water and cause them to wash away before my plants are large enough to access them.
  • I will not cause my soil to become dry by digging up all the moist under parts and letting them be deprived of water by the wind and sun.
  • I will not waste my time doing something that is unnecessary, overly complicated, and will end up making me dependent on things like weed killer, fertilizer, and pesticides long-term.

– Nature Assisted

Instead of tilling, my simple garden will be built upon what nature has started. I’ll use the lessons nature has taught — only more intensely applied — to grow food in just a couple months.

In particular, I’ll be using compost applied on top of beds and mulch (e.g. uncomposted organic matter like grass clippings or old hay) on top of paths. Any other garden amendments applied will also be made with organic matter that promotes soil health.

– Initial Purchases for Long-Term Self-Sufficiency

I will buy a few things to get my garden started. For example, I’ll buy a whole bunch of compost to start my beds. After this initial investment, though, I’ll manage the beds using just the compost I can make.

I’ll also buy a few soil amendments until I can get my own nutrient production systems in place. Most soils are so eroded and deficient in nutrients that you need to give them a jump start for the first couple years.

Seeds, a few hand-tools, one-time investments in infrastructure (e.g. storage shed, cold-frames, personal decorative items, etc.) may also take up some financial resources in the early years.

Within 3 years, though, the garden will grow on homestead resources alone. I will nourish my garden with the compost and amendment production systems I put in place. In return, my garden will nourish me with food, beauty, good health, and entertainment.

Other Ways To Garden

There are lots of other ways to garden successfully. Square foot gardening, hydroponics, straw bales, aquaponics, and more are wonderful, efficient ways to grow vegetables. They generally use fewer resources and cause much less environmental harm than conventional farming does. They also grow lots of tasty, healthy food, with minimal work.

Here at Simplestead though, simple self-sufficiency is the goal. Those other gardening methods are simple to create and to use. However, they rely on complex supply chains and continuous inputs from outside the homestead.

In other words, there is hidden complexity in them. I do think they are wonderful for many people. I also really appreciate that they introduce so many people into the joy and beauty of growing your own food at home.  They just don’t quite fit the mold for long-term self-sufficiency.

For that reason, our next several posts will revolve around no till, compost and organic matter driven, garden creation. Later in the series, I will also cover container gardening using homestead fertility systems. And don’t worry, we’ll also get into perennials, orchards, and livestock in future posts too!

For now, though, let’s recap what we’ve covered so we’re ready to move forward with creating a new potager garden!

Simplestead Review

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

– Garden Size

You probably have a good sense about how many square feet of garden space you’ll be able to support with your current compost capacity. (Remember, each 5 gallon bucket you fill earns you a square foot of garden space.)

– Observation and Resource Identification

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

– Seed Germination

You may have even sprouted a few seeds on your counter to get a sense of how seeds grow. Now, don’t worry if all those grocery store beans you tried to start didn’t all sprout.  That too was an important lesson!

Seeds for growing food have to be carefully stored and used within certain time frames so that they are viable for planting. The fact that any of your “seeds” from the supermarket sprouted (and I am sure they did) is a testament to your care and the power of plants to find ways to survive.

Once we get our garden planned and break ground, we’ll get a lot deeper into seed starting, seedling care, and eventually seed saving in the series.

– The Homestead Dream

Even if you didn’t sprout actual seeds, the most important thing is that you have sprouted your homestead dreams and are now growing them into reality.  All of these early exercises and tasks have been simple. Yet, your efforts have already prepared you for the next phase of your homestead creation.

Starting a Homestead Garden

keyhole garden

Starting a garden is just a series of simple steps, one after another. I am going to be starting a brand new garden and sharing the experience with you to help you through the process.

Your garden will be different than mine because it will be a reflection of your tastes, climate, landscape, and available resources. Still our techniques, processes, and considerations are similar despite our regional and aesthetic differences.

If this is your first time starting a garden, I invite you to start your garden, step by step, as I do. I am an experienced gardener and I am an pretty good physical shape. So, I expect it will take me about 8-10 hours to plan, prepare, and create a 150 square feet of bed space, plus prepare my pathways.  However I won’t do this all at once, but in phases so that it doesn’t take up too much time all at once.

For new gardeners, it may take you a bit more time to make your decisions and do the physical work of making a garden. But even so, I think you’ll be surprised how much you can get done in a short time, if you do it using simple steps.

Here’s what I’ll be covering in the next few blogs.

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

As we move forward, I recommend that you read one post and then take the recommended action before going on to the next post.

As I mentioned earlier in the series, many people do a lot of intellectual learning but then fail to do the legwork to connect their mind and body in the process. By treating the action items from the posts like “homework” and doing that before you come back to “class” to read the next post,  you will bridge the gap between knowing and doing.

Homework Assignment No. 1

For your first garden preparation homework assignment do these three things.

1. Gather Inspiration

Take a little time to reflect on this idea of “potager”. Gather inspiration from established vegetable gardens either from images and descriptions online or in your area.

Notice the design details that appeal to you, bed shapes, materials used in construction, path spacing, and other features that make you want to spend time in those other people’s gardens.  Make notes in your observation journal and cross check the resources in your area to see if there are things that might help you achieve a similar feel or result.

2. Identify Vegetables For Your Climate

Also, find out what vegetables grow well near you. Your local agricultural extension office can help, universities with agricultural departments, or vegetable gardening writers that garden near to where you live are all good resources.

3. Find Your First and Last Frost Dates

Finally, find out your first and last frost dates. You can plant somethings before and after these dates. Your primary food production though, will fall between those two dates.

See you in the next “class” when we choose our garden location!