The Power of a Well-Planned Potager

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

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

I didn’t water.

I didn’t weed.

I didn’t stake or trellis anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Annatto, Achiote, or the Lipstick Tree

Bixa orellana

Is it a beautiful ornamental or a possible invasive pest? Where I live now, with many below freezing days of winter, this lovely tree has no chance of becoming invasive because it’s not cold hardy. So, I am going to rate it as a beautiful ornamental. In fact, I have to grow it in a pot that I can cart in and out of my greenhouse on a mover’s trolley as needed.

Until recently, it never even occurred to me to try to grow this beauty in my mountainous region of North Carolina. However, I have set upon a journey to grow as many spices as I can, understand their uses, and appreciate the cultures that first brought them to our attention.

The annatto tree and spice is a great place for me to start my journey because it is one of the few spices native to the Americas. No, it doesn’t come from the part of North America where I live. But it did grow like a native in the landscape of my childhood.

Stained Sidewalks

I first encountered this tree growing up in Southern California. My dad used to take me walking along the sidewalk-lined suburban streets of our Orange County neighborhood. The area we lived in was “well-established”. That’s a nice way of saying it had a lot of older homes that weren’t as eye catching as the McMansions beginning to pop up in tracts on all the empty lots nearby.

Personally, I loved where we lived though because every home had a variety of mature landscaping plants. There was lots of eucalyptus, lemons, oranges, avocados, olives, persimmons, figs, pomegranates, jacaranda, and more.

One house had a wall of annatto trees growing so thick across the front lawn, you had to try hard to see the house hiding behind. I suspect that was what the owner wanted since their home was on what had become a busy road as all the new shopping centers started to move in.

That area of the sidewalk seemed constantly stained red from the spiky seed pods that fell, cracked open, and then after a few rains, were ground in by the feet of pedestrians like me. A few times, I collected some seeds still intact. I remember trying to use them as my own homemade version of sidewalk chalk.

In a fit of recent nostalgia, I scoured the Falling Fruit site (a resource for urban and suburban food foragers) to see if anyone reported those edible seed pods still falling on the sidewalk of my youth. Unfortunately, no one has reported them.

It could be that my memories have outlived those trees which are only reputed to have a 20-25 year productive life. Or, perhaps, they grow on renewed by self-seeding. Maybe passerbys today still smash those seeds into sidewalk stain as I once did, never realizing the culinary value falling at their feet.

The Secret Ingredient

Despite the fact that I grew up on “ethnic foods” as a resident of Southern California and must have had more than my fair share of dishes seasoned with achiotte paste or the commerical version called sázon, I never connected that plant to its culinary applications until I became a cheese maker.

When I made my first cheddar at home, I was shocked to discover it had a pale whitish-yellow color and not the rich orange I had been expecting. A little research revealed that annatto was used a colorant to make cheddar appear orange.

After that I experimented a bit using the annatto seeds, also called achiote when used as a spice, as a colorant and to flavor rice and chicken dishes. In my experience, it isn’t particularly strong flavored on its own. Yet, it seems to somehow enhance the flavor of other things it also seems to make the fats in foods seem more supple and smooth and less oily.

Growing Your Knowledge of Annatto

In yet another phase of my appreciation and understanding of this sidewalk-staining, spice-emphasizing, cheese-colorant, I recently learned that those towering trees that turned a California lawn into an impenetrable forest, can also be kept compact and grown in containers.

As such, I now have a specimen growing in my greenhouse. In the not to distant future, since this plant is purported to grow quickly, I’ll know a lot more about how to use it and why it is so deserving of a place of honor in the home spice rack.

In the meantime, here are some articles I have found helpful in my quest to better understand this beautiful spice plant.

General Information

Growing It

Using It

Note: That beautiful feature image came by way of JoaoBOliver from Pixabay.

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Thai Basil

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.

Leaves

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).

Blooms

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.

Growth Habit

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.

Planting Details

  • 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

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.

Leaves

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.

Blooms

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.

Growth Habit

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.

Planting Details

  • 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.

Plant Your Homestead Potager

Now that you’ve constructed your homestead potager, it’s time to plant. Well, almost…

There are two more things I suggest you do before you put plants or seeds in the ground.

Pre-Planting Step 1: Start Compost Tea

The first thing I recommend is that you get a five gallon bucket, fill it with rain water (if possible), and drop a bag of 2-3 cups of vermicompost in your bucket. You can use an old pillow case, a flour sack towel, or an official compost tea bag to hold your castings.

Let this “brew” for 7 days. This is basic compost tea. Twice a week, use one cup of your tea to every 1 gallon of water you use to water your garden. I keep a 2 cup measuring cup by my bucket and use a 2 gallon watering can, so that makes it easy to figure out my dosages.

No Additives Please

Please do not add molasses or kelp or any other additives to your compost tea. It’s not necessary and may occasionally encourage not so beneficial bacteria when used in passive compost tea.

Note: Down the road, if you want to buy a $60 pump and run it for 3 days every 2-4 weeks, then you can add those extra ingredients to make actively aerated compost tea (ACT or AACT) which does need those additives to encourage bacteria and fungi. For now though, let’s start with simple, safe, passive compost tea with worm castings only!

Keep it Going

Start a new bucket as needed so that you always have compost tea that has brewed for at least 7 days ready to use when watering during the growing season.

The reason for doing this is that bacteria and fungi are what make the compost in your garden effective as a fertilizer. If you bought commercial or bulk produced compost, it was made quickly and often does not have the same quantity of microlife as slow-processed, homemade compost. Also, many of your fungi and bacteria only wake up and start working when they come into contact with plant roots.

So, at the outset, your garden soil is more of a growing medium than a nutrient factory. Depending on your starting conditions and the quality of your compost, it can take 1-2 years for compost to be a sufficient fertilizer for vegetables.

By putting your worm castings in water, you extract the water soluble nutrients and make them immediately available to plants. You also add small quantities of bacteria and fungi direct to your root zone as you water so they can quickly form beneficial relationships with your plants.

Think of compost tea as a compost activator and short-term plant health booster.

Pre-Planting Step 2: Add Fertilizer

Many gardeners swear by compost as the only thing needed to grow a great organic garden. In the long-term I agree that it can be if you add enough slow-made, well-aged compost and keep your garden continuously planted.

In the short-term though, most soils simply do not have enough humic content for compost alone to grow a densely planted potager garden. Also, most new gardeners aren’t experts at crop rotation and cover crop use which are both also important tools for growing a garden without additional fertilizer.

So, while many organic gardeners frown on adding fertilizer beyond compost, for the health of your new garden I suggest you incorporate some “meal-based” fertilizers into your compost before you plant. Meals are plant or animal material that have been ground up into a powdered form.

Option 1: Use Organic Meals

My two favorite meals to work with are feather meal as a nitrogen (N) source and bone meal as a phosphorous (P) and calcium (Ca) source. They are both slow release with only a small portion of their nutrients being available when you first apply them. But, over the growing season, they deliver a fairly continuous supply of N, P, and Ca. They are also usually the least expensive organic fertilizer pound for pound of nutrient delivered.

These are by-products of the commercial poultry and meat processing industries. Although I don’t generally support the way those industries operate, those by-products would simply be landfill waste if not converted to useful garden nutrients. They are not perfect from an environmental perspective but they are so beneficial to a new garden and do help solve a waste problem. They are also much better and safer than the synthetic alternatives.

For potassium, I use wood ash from the hardwoods we burn on our landscape. There can be a lot of variance in potassium quantity in wood ash. But they tend to be higher if you use the ash from hard woods only. Wood ash also contains some calcium and other trace minerals.

Ashes should be kept dry until applied in the garden and sifted to remove any large coals that might bind nitrogen in your soil.

Simplestead Fertilizer Recipe

My new garden fertilizer formula is:

  • 4.5 pounds feather meal
  • 4.5 pounds bone meal
  • 1 pound wood ash

I coat the top of my garden beds with this mix at a rate of about 1/2 pound for every 10 square feet of garden area. So, you’ll use 5 pounds for a 100 square foot garden to start.

For plants that require lots of nitrogen like lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, and others, I will reapply the same amount of fertilizer again in about 3-4 weeks as plants start to really size up. If those high-nitrogen needs plants take more than 80 days to grow, I’ll also reapply again at the 6-8 week mark.

For light feeders, I’ll only reapply fertilizer if my plants seem to need it. Then, I’ll reapply a 1/2 pound per 10 square feet whenever I start new plants.

Note, I only do this for the first two years after starting a garden. After that point, the power of compost usually kicks in and you run the risk of overloading your garden using a generic formula like this. From that point on, I use plant specific fertilizer mixes as needed. (We’ll cover more on that in much later posts.)

Pre-Made Fertilizer

If you don’t want to mix your own, you can also buy 4-4-4 organic fertilizer mixes from makers like Down to Earth, Jobes, Dr. Earth, or others.

Avoid all synthetic fertilizers. Also, in general, avoid applying any fast-release fertilizers to your garden even if they are organic. Also, be careful not to apply a quantity that is greater than 5-5-5 at any one time. For the health of your soil, it’s better to apply more only when you need it than too much at one time.

Here’s why. Synthetic fertilizers eventually bind nutrients and limit microlife. Strong fertilizers, organic or not, can burn plants and cause biological life in the soil to go dormant. These also pose run-off risks during rain and watering because plants grown in compost heavy gardens simply do not need all those excess nutrients and won’t use them quickly enough.

How to Incorporate Fertilizer

For the Simplestead mix or store-bought organic fertilizer, sprinkle it on top of your soil. Then, use your finger tips to work it into the top 2 inches of your compost. Watering, soil life, and plant roots will work your fertilizer deeper over time. After incorporation, water your entire bed area to activate the fertilizer and settle it into your compost.

What to Plant in a First Year Potager

I know everyone wants to jump right in and start growing giant heirloom tomatoes. Unfortunately, that usually ends in disappointment. Do yourself a favor and buy those at your local farmers market. Then instead, focus on things you will be able to grow well in a first year garden.

I can’t give you specific suggestions because every climate is different. But, I do have some broad, general principles to share that should help you have a bountiful harvest in your first year.

1. Focus on CONTINUOUS Harvest Type Vegetables

Plants that can be planted once and harvested for a month or more are wonderful for a potager. They help keep the garden looking full and beautiful while giving you something to use in your meals each day. They also tend to be terrifically nutritious and low calorie.

Here are my favorites.

  • Leaf Lettuce Mixes
  • Chard
  • Arugula
  • Mustard
  • Mizuna
  • Kale
  • Collards
  • Turnip Greens (e.g. Seven Top, not Root Turnips)
  • Green Onions (cut greens, leave roots in place to regrow tops)
  • Basil
  • Cherry or Grape Tomatoes
  • Sweet or Hot Peppers
  • Salad Cucumbers
  • Green Beans

2. Choose Fast-Growing, Direct Seed Varieties

I highly recommend that new gardeners also focus on plants that can be harvested in 75 days (or less) and are easy to grow. Also, focus on plants that and can be started by putting seeds directly in the ground.

Quicker time to harvest means you can plant 2 or 3 times the quantity in the same place. Also, shorter time in the garden limits risk for pests to come and find your new location and spoil your crop before your soil has time to improve.

Here are some of my favorites fast-production vegetables. Make sure to choose varieties that specifically have time to harvest of 75 days or less.

  • Beets
  • Turnips
  • Radish
  • Kohlrabi
  • Carrots

3. Plan for Cool And Hot Season Crops

Cool season plants tend to bolt when temperatures warm up. So, you need to consider your number of cool days when planning for cool season vegetables. Until you have tried and true season extension and container seed starting methods, consider buying your early spring transplants. Country stores and farmers markets are great places to get them for less cost than the hardware store.

Warm season plants also need sufficient time to grow and ripen before harvest. So, make sure to allow enough hot days for good growth.

Easy to Grow Cool Season Plants
  • Peas
  • Rapini
  • Baby Pok or Bok Choy
  • 65-80 Day cabbages (e.g. Early Jersey Wakefield, Red or Green Acre)
  • Dill
  • Cilantro/Coriander
Easy to Grow Hot Season Plants
  • Summer Squash or Zucchini (Choose compact varieties for best use of space)
  • New Zealand Spinach
  • Okra
4. Practice Growing Storage Foods

You probably don’t have room in your first year potager for a lot of long-storing foods. But, you can get some practice by growing a winter squash at the end of a row, a few potato plants, or a couple sweet potatoes plants.

Drying beans are also a good use of vertical space, such as along the north side of a garden fence. Shell them while watching a sun set or catching up on TV shows during bad weather.

Down the road, you may want to grow more of these as you expand your compost capacity and garden area. But for now, dabbling with them can be a satisfying experience.

What Not To Grow In Your Potager

Like I said at the outset, skip the large-sized heirloom tomatoes for year 1. They require rich soil, good staking, and active fungal management for good results from year to year. Save these as a challenge to master later.

I suggest skipping the corn too. It’s easy to grow. But it easily cross pollinates during the growing season. So without advanced planning, you can end up growing GMO corn in your homestead potager. Plus you need about 20 plants grown in a dense patch for good pollination. That means it will take a lot of soil fertility management for good production.

Long-storing cabbages are also better grown after a few years of soil improvement. The longer maturing varieties really need deep, rich soil to be able resist seasonal stresses and create their own defenses against pests like the cabbage moth.

Watermelon is incredibly easy to grow. But it will swallow your garden if you are not careful and give you almost no calories in return for all that space. Buy those at your farmers market too and save your space for the stuff above.

Tips On Organization and Planting Procedures

Now that you have a few plant choices to consider, here are a few tips to help you plan, plant, and encourage a healthy garden.

1. Intermix your continuous harvest vegetables with your one-time harvest vegetables. Potagers should be pretty and productive. That means you don’t want to be harvesting everything all at once. By mixing it up, your garden will never looks empty even though you’ll harvest regularly.

2. Stagger your plantings. For example, start beets every 2 weeks rather than all at once. Also, use heirlooms, they tend to have more varied germination rates than hybrid seeds. Throw in small radish as filler when needed.

3. Over seed on all things with edible plant parts. Beets, turnips, kohlrabi, mustard, lettuce, etc. can all be cut with scissors at the baby stage and eaten in salads or tossed into omelets. Thinning your seedlings is basically your first harvest.

4. Over seed on other plants like tomatoes, peppers, etc., too. But don’t eat the greens! Just cut the weaker seedlings back to soil level with scissors and let your strongest plant survive.

5. Make a key of your plantings. Labels in the beds are awesome, but also keep a paper map of everything you planted and when.

6. Add flowers and herbs. Flowers like marigolds, borage, nasturtium (dwarf) and herbs like basil, cilantro, and dill also have beneficial insect-attracting and pest-repelling benefits. Work them into any empty spaces you have for beauty and utility.

7. Water daily. Unless it rains or your soil is waterlogged, you really need to water daily. This regulates soil temperature, activates seeds, and nourishes the biological life in the soil so they can sustain your plants. Water slowly until the moisture pools on top for a few seconds.

8. Plant in uniform configurations like rows or squares. This makes it easy to see bare spots when your seedlings come up so you can re-seed if necessary. It also makes it easier to tell what’s a weed and what’s a seedling until you learn to recognize your plants in juvenile form.

9. Weed carefully and regularly. Use your finger tips to uproot baby weeds and expose their roots to dry and die. If you get them early on sunny or windy days, this is all it takes to weed a garden. Be careful not to uproot seedlings by accident.

10. Grow 10. Choose ten things to grow at a time at most. Research the growing requirements for each plant. Then, try to give them the custom care they need just as you would livestock or household pets.

11. Cull weak plants. If a plant is not doing well, remove it and put it in the trash. Do not compost it! Later when you’ve learned how to identify plant problems and fix them, you can. For now, though, get rid of anything potentially diseased or pest-attracting for the health of the rest of your garden.

Conclusion

Plants will grow slowly at first. Then suddenly one day you’ll look out in the garden and barely see your paths through your plants.

Your skills in the garden will grow like this too. At first, you’ll second guess everything you do, then one day you’ll realize you’ve become a gardener. Simple steps, done with loving care. That’s all it takes to grow a successful potager and a gardener!

Plan Your Homestead Potager Garden Location

A potager garden is a place to grow food, skills, and beauty. You can make one just about anywhere, in a lot as small as a few hundred square feet. However, when you spend a little time carefully considering your location and planning your design, your job as a gardener becomes a whole lot easier.

I have no idea what your land looks like or how much space you have to work with. So, I can’t give you specific recommendations on the best location for your garden. However, these are the considerations I prioritize in my garden planning.

1. Obstacles

Most homes have underground power, cable, other lines, or plumbing features (well, septic tank, etc.) that need to be factored into garden planning. Additionally, many properties have zones of easement (e.g. sidewalks or meter reading access) that can impact your choice about where to situate your garden.

Some communities or home owners associations have regulations that might dictate the location of your garden. Check with the appropriate parties to identify any of these regulatory obstacles.

Potential pest problems are another kind of obstacle to consider. Planning your garden in an existing deer path, near heavy squirrel activity, or where household pets tend to potty will necessitate extra measures to secure your garden. Choosing less traveled areas to locate your garden gives you a better starting point to make pest prevention easier.

Don’t forget those potentially pest-like neighbors too. If you happen to live near to someone who might take umbrage or derail your gardening efforts, try to plan around them to keep the peace.

2. Sunlight

For me, sunlight is the one resource I can’t reasonably or sustainably create in a vegetable garden. The sun is 93,000,000 miles away from us. By the time its rays reach us, it has already pierced through the darkest, deepest space.

It bridges that distance in about 8 minutes and 20 seconds, soaring toward us constantly, at the speed of light. Even on cloudy days, though filtered, its presence can be felt. That’s some incredibly powerful stuff!

Sunlight is not only a heat and light source, but also a food source for plants. Plants are designed to absorb the sun’s energy and convert it into sugars to feed themselves and the fungi living in the soil.

You really need full sun to get good food production in your potager garden. There are some edible plants that grow in partial shade. But you aren’t likely to be able to grow large amounts of vegetables that way.  (You can grow other food sources like mushrooms, but we’ll get to that later in the series).

Don’t just guess whether your site has enough sun. Bathe in the sunlight of your potential garden locations. Do this as if you are a plant, eating up those rays, to make sugars to send to your roots.

Feel the sun at first light, high noon, late afternoon. Lay down on the ground, at the level of a plant to fully experience it.

Does the sun feel strong in the morning? Is it limited at certain times of the day by your house, a fence, a tree, a hedge, your parked car? Does it become scorching mid-day even when it’s chilly out? Try different locations and note differences.

Try to imagine which plot plants will be best for your plants.

Shade calculator

The angle of the sun is also very different from summer to winter and in between. If you aren’t sure what your sun and shade patterns are like during different seasons of the year, then you may also want to use some online tools to make sure you’ll have full sun year round.

– Online Sun/Shade Planning Tool

I most recently used Sunearthtools.com.  You enter your address and choose “Sun Position” from the menu.  Then, alternate between the shade path and sun rays mode. Update the dates to see what your sun and shade patterns will look like at various times of the year.

If you have large trees, sheds, fences, or other obstacles in your landscape, move the center yellow bubble on top of those obstacles.  That will allow you to see the shade profile for those objects relative to locations you are considering for your garden.

When you have a good idea of your sun and shade patterns, then ask yourself this.  Will my future plants thrive in the sunlight of this location?

3. Wind

Once you have narrowed down your some ideal garden locations based on your availability of sunlight, the next consideration is wind. Wind can severely stunt and slow plant growth. Strong winds can even pull young transplanted seedlings from the ground before they have a chance to anchor into the soil.

There are things you can do to mitigate wind, such as put up a wall or plant a shrub windbreak. However, if your wall or windbreak would then shade your garden, that’s not going to work.

Choosing a location that is already protected from wind is ideal.  Alternatively, choosing a location that allows for planting or erecting a wind break without obstructing sun can also work well.

4. Microclimates

Every property has microclimates.  Slopes, timing of sun, hardscapes, water surfaces, and more all change the climate near to the surface of the soil.

Sometimes microclimates are beneficial.  For example, I grow my rosemary bed on the south side of my house, close to our gravel driveway.  This helps keep the rosemary warmer in winter so I don’t get so much damage during our cold weather.

I wouldn’t want to grow lettuce there though. Since it can be as much as 15 degrees warmer on a hot spring day, it might make my lettuce bolt.

In general, for a vegetable garden, you want to avoid things like frost pockets. Try to  take advantage or morning sun. Some shade in late afternoon usually isn’t an issue if you’ve already had 6-8 hours of full sun.

Save hot spots for your Mediterranean plants. Choose cooler, frost-free locations, if you have lots of ups and downs in your weather in spring and summer.

5. Access to Water

For ideal growth rates, plants need soil that is consistently moist. Growing in compost and using mulch will minimize the need for watering.  However, there will still be times such as when planting seeds or extended droughts when watering is necessary.

Choosing a garden location with access to water will make your job easier. This doesn’t necessarily need to be from a house hose.

If you have structures with roofs and gutters on your property, you can harvest rain water. If you have a spring, that also makes a potential source of water.

If you have or plan to build a pond, siting your garden down hill from your pond allows for gravity fed water systems. If you have enough room, and won’t shade your garden beds, you could even consider a roof over your compost area to harvest rain water.

Planning for water collection or access will make gardening much less work in the long-term.

6. Drainage

“Good drainage” is a term we use often in vegetable gardening.  It essentially means water doesn’t pool and stagnate.  It also means water doesn’t run through like a faucet and wash away soil.

– Too Flat

Completely flat locations are often zones for water pooling in extreme rain. However, you can use techniques like creating mounded or raised beds to help promote better flow on flat surfaces.

– Too Steep

Overly steeped slopes move water too quickly and often erode soils.  In that case, you need to create terraced beds to help catch water and prevent erosion.

– Too Low

Bottom land, such as the low point between other slopes, is often good to use in extremely dry climates.  However, the risk is that big storms will over-saturate that area and create boggy, conditions.  If I have a choice, I prefer to build a garden a bit upslope from the bottom land.

– Just Right

For me, the ideal garden location is on a slight slope. That way I can use my garden paths and gravity to move excess water through the garden and harvest it when and were I need it.

7. Proximity to the Kitchen

The closer you can get your potager to your kitchen, the easier it will be to harvest vegetables when you need them. If your potager starts right out the door nearest to your kitchen, then you can dash out when you need to and collect herbs, fresh cut lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and more.

8. Soil Quality

I put soil quality low on my list because I know I can rapidly improve soil using compost. However, if you have a location which meets all the criteria above and already has some good, loamy top soil, then you are in luck!

If you have toxic soil, that would be a factor to consider. There are things you can do like building raised keyhole beds, even over toxic soil. But that takes more work.

9. Beauty

To the extent possible a potager garden should also be integrated into your landscape to enhance the beauty of your home. If you can locate it near to some beautiful flowering trees, against a backdrop of mature evergreens, or where you have other existing landscape features, that can enhance your experience while gardening.

If you have to start it in the middle of what is currently a boring lawn, that works too. But you’ll probably want to do some things to soften the edges later, like maybe add some pollinator plots all around.

You can always create beauty as you go. But, integrating your garden into your existing landscape can get you there faster.

The Simplestead Potager

Future Site of Simplestead Potager

The location I chose for starting the Simplestead potager garden currently has a view of our parking area. It’s a bit more sloped than is ideal. But, the sun is perfect. Our house  blocks much of the wind.

We have a house hose for watering. We also have rain barrels on the house gutters that can be in this garden.

There’s a peach trees growing between the cars and the garden. That can form the start of a plant hedge to help integrate the garden into the landscape and hide our vehicles.

Deer graze nearby. However, it’s far enough out of their normal path that I should still be able to keep them out of the garden. I used to keep Pekin ducks in that area, so I already have a 40 inch fence around the space.

The fence is just made of chicken wire and has large gaps at the bottom. I can use it to start, but I’ll need to make some improvements for it to be useful for pest prevention.

Also, the gate is at the farthest end from our house door. So, I may want to move the gate to save some steps between the kitchen and access to the garden.

Homework Assignment No. 2

Consider the factors explained above. Spend some time studying your landscape.  Determine a suitable location to start your potager. Make sure to include a little extra room for some flowers and herbs, a place to sit, and your compost pile.

Then, mark off that area using posts, chairs, buckets, or whatever you have available. Visit the site of your future garden several times a day. Start to imagine how your garden will look there when it is mature.

When you are sure the location you’ve chosen is the right home for your new homestead potager, then you’ll be ready to move on to the next simple step in making a potager garden.

The Perfect Place for Your Potager

Very few of us will have the perfect place for our potager. Most of us will have to make the best choice possible given the conditions we have to work with. Once you have made a careful, conscientious choice though, then know in your mind and your heart that you can make that place absolutely perfect for your needs.

Less Trash + More Bokashi = Garden Love

I hate to take out the trash. It actually makes me sad when I see all the stuff I send (or used to send) to the landfill. That’s because I know the place I send my trash is in the middle of a rural, residential zone.

Property is cheaper over there. I suspect that’s because most people don’t want to live near a landfill. So, there tends to be a lot of young families just starting out and retired folks on fixed incomes in that area. Sending my garbage off  to their neighborhood just feels inconsiderate.

Luckily, homesteading is a way of life that can lead to zero waste in the long-term.

Making compost is one of the easiest and most beneficial ways to immediately reduce your landfill load. Starting a vermicompost bin and using that to grow a compost-driven  garden, is something you can do in just a few simple steps.

Unfortunately, people who are new to composting are often told to only compost certain things. In particular, they are warned to keep dairy, fish, meats, oils, fats, and prepared or processed foods out of their compost bucket.

Doing this cuts down on potential problems like bad smells or houseflies invading your compost bucket. However, it also severely limits the amount of compost you can make. Plus, you still end up sending a lot of unnecessary waste into other people’s backyards.

Overcoming the Limited Approach to Composting

Quite frankly, you don’t have to limit what you compost – indoors or out – as long as you use compost methods designed to deal with potentially stinkier and more pathogenic compost materials.

We’ll get into outdoor methods of composting everything in future posts. Today though, I want to tell you about a simple tool called “bokashi”. This process allows you to prepare all your food waste so that you can safely compost it using your indoor vermicompost bin.

Benefits of Bokashi

The word bokashi is Japanese for “fermented organic matter”. This fermentation process minimizes harmful bacteria in higher risk foods like meat and dairy. It also fast tracks the growth of beneficial bacteria to expedite composting later.

It can even improve the rate at which your worms generate compost because it makes your raw compost materials even healthier for them to eat. Like humans who enjoy lacto-fermented sauerkraut, worms who eat bokashi materials may be better able to digest those fermented foods. They also ingest beneficial bacteria which may improve their health and productivity.

Bokashi is done “anaerobically” which means without air. So, it limits the potential for bad smells in the early processing. Also, flies, gnats, and such can’t survive airtight containers. So, even if they get in, they don’t get out!

How to Make Bokashi at Home

Bokashi is very simple process. Well…it is once you establish a simple system for doing it. Here are the basics.

1. Fill Your Bokashi Bucket with Layers

Bokashi involves putting a few inches of compost materials (e.g. kitchen scraps and leftovers) in a container, covering them with a light dusting of inoculated bokashi bran or splash of bokashi liquid.

Then you add a few more inches of compost material with another sprinkle or splash of bokashi inoculant. You repeat this layering processing until you have filled your container.

2. Compress Your Materials and Limit Air Flow

Because this process is anaerobic, you also need to compress your scraps to push out the air between your layers.  I use the bottom of a mason jar as a tamper to squish everything down.

You keep your container tightly closed between each application of compost materials. Then, once your container is full, you close it up tight for 2-3 weeks to keep all air out while the fermentation happens.

Side Note: Incidentally, this process is very similar to making fermented foods like sauerkraut. Instead of compressing compost materials and sprinkling with bokashi bran, you compress shredded veggies or herbs and sprinkle with salt.
I’ll get into more details on fermenting foods later. But, as I explained at the start of this series, homesteading is all about simple skills. Once you know the basics, you’ll start to discover lots of different applications around the homestead!

3. Strain Out Fermentation Liquid Often

Bokashi works best when moisture levels are about 60%. Most of the food scraps we collect have more than 60% moisture. So, there is one more trick to bokashi.

You have to remove the excess moisture during the fermentation process, without letting in air. To do that, you need the right kind of container.

That container is usually called a bokashi bucket. When you buy the pre-made versions, they are about 5 gallons in size with an airtight lid.

The bokashi buckets usually have a spigot at the bottom that allows you to drain the moisture without opening the lid. Better versions also have a strainer over the spigot opening inside the bucket to keep it from clogging up.

I’ll include buying options at the bottom of this post if you are interested.  But you can also make your own bokashi buckets at home for much less than you can buy them.

DIY Bokashi Bucket Systems

Here are some simple container ideas to help you get started making bokashi for very little investment.

– Bucket with a Drain or Spigot

Bokashi Drain

If you have a hole saw or a spade drill bit kit, you can make a hole in the base of your bucket and insert a 3/4″ PVC bulkhead or a  1″ to 3/4″ PVC male adapter as a drain. Then, you’ll also need a threaded PVC end cap to close the drain.

Note: If you use the adapter not the bulkhead, you’ll also need to use silicone caulk to hold the adapter in place and prevent leakage. 

This concept costs about $6 in parts at the hardware store. It takes about 5 minutes of work to make. You’ll also need to buy or free source a bucket with a tight-fitting lid.

You could also use a spigot as a drain. They cost more like $10 for a good one that won’t clog. But they make draining your bokashi liquid easy too.

– The 3-Bucket Systems

If you don’t have a a hole saw or spade drill kit, you can also just drill a few drainage holes in the bottom of a bucket just like you did for the vermicompost bin. Then you can set the bucket with the holes inside another bucket (with no holes) to catch the liquid that drains out.

When using this method, it’s nice to have two buckets for catching the liquid. That way to remove the liquid, you just lift the inner bucket from the outer bucket. Then you immediately put the inner bucket into the second outer bucket.

After that, you can then use the bucket that has the bokashi liquid to make fertilizer (see “Using Bokashi Liquid” below for details).

For this three bucket system to work, the inner bucket must have a very tight fitting lid to create the airless conditions for making bokashi. Also, the other two buckets (that catch the liquid) must fit snugly around your inner bucket. Similar to the lid, the snug fit between the buckets helps maintain an airless environment for bokashi.

Warning: If you don’t have a second outer bucket (e.g. you use 2 not 3 buckets), then you have to put the inner bucket on something else when you empty the catch bucket. Otherwise, your bokashi bucket drips out all over the place until you put the catch bucket back.

Multiple Bokashi Bins

Similar to vermicomposting, you really need at least two bokashi bins for this to be an effective tool on the homestead.  That way while one bin is fermenting, you can be filling up the other.

Using the 3 bucket system, you’ll always need to keep one bucket under your bokashi bin to catch the liquid. However you really only need one extra catch bucket for transfers.  So, if you wanted 3 bokashi bins, you’d need 6 dedicated buckets (3 inner, 3 outer) and 1 extra catch bucket for transferring. In that case, you’d have a 7 bucket system.

Side Note: As you can probably tell by now, buckets are a pretty incredible tool on the homestead.  so free source and stash them whenever you get the chance.

Where to Keep Your Bokashi Bins

Bokashi bins, like your vermicompost bins, should be kept at temperatures suitable for  human comfort, out of direct sunlight, and in a place that is convenient for you to access regularly.

Also, when using a bucket with a drain, you’ll want to elevate it (e.g. sit it in a phone book or stack of old magazines) so you can get a cup under your drain to catch your liquid.

Finished Bokashi

Most bokashi instructions say it takes 2 weeks to ferment your scraps. I am not so great about cutting my scraps up into tiny pieces. Sometimes I put large bones, like poultry drumsticks and pork ribs, into my bokashi bucket. So, I usually just let the bokashi bucket sit for 3 weeks to make sure things are good and fermented.

When you open the bucket, if it is finished, it should have a slight vinegary, almost sweet smell. It may also smell a bit musty and sour. However, it shouldn’t smell like rancid, rotted meat. If it does, add a lot more bokashi inoculant and close that sucker up for another 3 weeks!

Using Your Bokashi Liquid

The bokashi liquid that comes out during fermentation can be diluted at a rate of 100 parts water to 1 part bokashi juice. Then you can apply it to house plants, non-edible flowers, your lawn, or mature perennial plants as a short-term fertilizer.

If you use the 3 bucket method, then just add the water to your bucket and use a jar or cup to dip out what you need for plants. I usually go for about a cup of diluted liquid per square foot of soil around the roots.

Avoid using this liquid directly in the vegetable garden as it may still contain some food-borne pathogens.

Vermicomposting Bokashi Solids

Once your bokashi is fermented, then you can add those solids from your bokashi bucket to your vermicompost bins and let your worms convert it to compost for you.

Feed your bokashi-ed goodies to your worms just like you do your un-fermented composting materials. Add a few inches to your vermicompost bin to start. When your worms eat most of that, replenish it with more bokashi solids.

Make sure you never overload your worm bin or you can suffocate your worms by creating an airless environment like your bokashi bucket!

Bokashi Inoculant

Now, that you have the basics down, we must talk about the all-important bokashi inoculant.  This stuff is basically like adding yeast to bread dough or wine must, except instead of yeast, it adds the bacteria that ferment organic matter in airless conditions.

Just to get started, I recommend you buy your dry bokashi bran ready-made. This will give you a chance to see how the inoculant is supposed to work. However, this stuff is pretty expensive to buy.

So, just a little further down the homesteading road, you’ll want to make your own bokashi starter. (I’ll cover that in a later post, too.) By then, you’ll have made a few batches of bokashi using the commercial bran. You’ll know what the process is supposed to look like. And that will make it easy for you to confirm that your homemade bokashi is working equally well.

In the meantime though, you don’t have to bokashi everything. You can continue to put your “limited list” compost materials into your worm bins fresh. Then you can use your bokashi bran just for your meat, dairy, fats, prepared, and cooked foods.  That way you won’t burn through your bran in a week.

Bokashi Pointers

Different bokashi inoculants have different application rates. So, I can’t tell you exactly how much to apply.  You’ll need to read the instructions on your bokashi inoculant for exact measurements.

Personally, though, when I buy bokashi inoculant, I prefer to use dry bran. It’s easier to store and holds up longer on my shelf.

– Compost Base

I start my bokashi by putting some finished compost in the bottom of my bokashi bucket (about an inch). This helps keep my drain from clogging and acts as a kind of biofilter for the liquid that comes out at the start of the fermentation cycle. (It tends to be stinkier than the stuff that comes out later.)

-Extra Bran for Bigger Bits and Bones

I sprinkle on about a tablespoon of dry bokashi bran over the compost. Then, I add 2-3 inches of food scraps. I add another tablespoon or so of bokashi bran, and repeat. If I am adding primarily meat or lots of bones, I add 2 tablespoons of bran instead of just 1.

Also if I am putting in large chunks of stuff, I also up my bran input. It takes longer for the bacteria to work their way through bigger bits.  So I figure by adding more of them, many bacterial buddies will make lighter work.

– Bone Meal Beginnings

Because I do put bones, large and small,  in my bokashi, later after my worms have composted my bokashi solids, I pick those bones out of the worm castings. The worms eat up all the meat residue and leave me with just bones. Then, I air dry those bones and save them to use for bone meal fertilizer (more on that in later posts).

– Lacking in Liquid

Also, since I don’t bokashi all of my kitchen scraps, sometimes I even have to add some water to my bokashi to get to the 60% moisture level that is necessary for the bacteria to be active.  If you aren’t getting any liquid run-off from your bokashi bucket, open it up and make sure your bokashi solids feel squishy but not oozy.

Bokashi is Love

We all learn to sort our recyclables, to flush the toilet, to put the seat up or down, to wrap up stinky stuff or take it direct to the outside trash bins, and so on. We take out the trash, haul it to the curb, etc.  These are all habits that we have normalized in our society to keep things nice.

Bokashi and vermicomposting are no different. You are simply sorting a different way.  Then instead of taking out the trash and sending it to someone else’s backyard, you are turning it into compost for your own.

Bokashi to me is an act of love. It’s love for my community because I am not sending my stinky mess away for someone else to live next door to. It’s love for my soil because the ultimate end product — more compost — will increase fertility for growing plants. It’s love for myself and my family because that compost ultimately grows things that nourish us and our planet.

Don’t let anyone tell you this is too hard, or too much work, or any other iteration of poo-pooing your efforts to do the right thing. This is easy, basic stuff that you can do with the same amount of effort as sending your garbage off for someone else to deal with. Yet, it is profoundly better for you, your family, our society, and our planet.

Also if you have cats or dogs, bokashi can make their poop useful for non-edible plants too. I’ll cover that in more detail in future posts. But, wouldn’t you love to not have to use toxic kitty litter? Or put your pup’s poop to good use making your homestead beautiful?

Buying Options

Just in case you need to buy some things to get your bokashi started,  if you click the images below to buy, I’ll get a small percentage of your purchase price at no extra charge to you.

This is how I support this website. However, I totally understand if you prefer to make your own or find different suppliers.

Here is an easy to use dry bokashi bran. It costs $13 for 2.2 pounds. You can also buy larger batches if you want to have a supply for a while.

If you prefer a pre-made bokashi bucket, instead of making your own, you can get one that includes 2.2 pounds of dry bokashi bran for about $47 (first image).  You can get also fancier version that includes a counter top compost bucket and cup for the liquid for $55 (second image).

 

Also note, your purchases will likely come in packaging. Save your cardboard for the garden or your worm bins as extra browns. Hang on to your plastic bags for use later to make a plastic quilt to use in the garden.

Also, if they happen to send you those puffy air pillows or Styrofoam, those are great insulation around plant containers. More on these ideas in later posts too!