Now that you’ve constructed your homestead potager, it’s time to plant. Well, almost…
There are two more things I suggest you do before you put plants or seeds in the ground.
Pre-Planting Step 1: Start Compost Tea
The first thing I recommend is that you get a five gallon bucket, fill it with rain water (if possible), and drop a bag of 2-3 cups of vermicompost in your bucket. You can use an old pillow case, a flour sack towel, or an official compost tea bag to hold your castings.
Let this “brew” for 7 days. This is basic compost tea. Twice a week, use one cup of your tea to every 1 gallon of water you use to water your garden. I keep a 2 cup measuring cup by my bucket and use a 2 gallon watering can, so that makes it easy to figure out my dosages.
No Additives Please
Please do not add molasses or kelp or any other additives to your compost tea. It’s not necessary and may occasionally encourage not so beneficial bacteria when used in passive compost tea.
Note: Down the road, if you want to buy a $60 pump and run it for 3 days every 2-4 weeks, then you can add those extra ingredients to make actively aerated compost tea (ACT or AACT) which does need those additives to encourage bacteria and fungi. For now though, let’s start with simple, safe, passive compost tea with worm castings only!
Keep it Going
Start a new bucket as needed so that you always have compost tea that has brewed for at least 7 days ready to use when watering during the growing season.
The reason for doing this is that bacteria and fungi are what make the compost in your garden effective as a fertilizer. If you bought commercial or bulk produced compost, it was made quickly and often does not have the same quantity of microlife as slow-processed, homemade compost. Also, many of your fungi and bacteria only wake up and start working when they come into contact with plant roots.
So, at the outset, your garden soil is more of a growing medium than a nutrient factory. Depending on your starting conditions and the quality of your compost, it can take 1-2 years for compost to be a sufficient fertilizer for vegetables.
By putting your worm castings in water, you extract the water soluble nutrients and make them immediately available to plants. You also add small quantities of bacteria and fungi direct to your root zone as you water so they can quickly form beneficial relationships with your plants.
Think of compost tea as a compost activator and short-term plant health booster.
Pre-Planting Step 2: Add Fertilizer
Many gardeners swear by compost as the only thing needed to grow a great organic garden. In the long-term I agree that it can be if you add enough slow-made, well-aged compost and keep your garden continuously planted.
In the short-term though, most soils simply do not have enough humic content for compost alone to grow a densely planted potager garden. Also, most new gardeners aren’t experts at crop rotation and cover crop use which are both also important tools for growing a garden without additional fertilizer.
So, while many organic gardeners frown on adding fertilizer beyond compost, for the health of your new garden I suggest you incorporate some “meal-based” fertilizers into your compost before you plant. Meals are plant or animal material that have been ground up into a powdered form.
Option 1: Use Organic Meals
My two favorite meals to work with are feather meal as a nitrogen (N) source and bone meal as a phosphorous (P) and calcium (Ca) source. They are both slow release with only a small portion of their nutrients being available when you first apply them. But, over the growing season, they deliver a fairly continuous supply of N, P, and Ca. They are also usually the least expensive organic fertilizer pound for pound of nutrient delivered.
These are by-products of the commercial poultry and meat processing industries. Although I don’t generally support the way those industries operate, those by-products would simply be landfill waste if not converted to useful garden nutrients. They are not perfect from an environmental perspective but they are so beneficial to a new garden and do help solve a waste problem. They are also much better and safer than the synthetic alternatives.
For potassium, I use wood ash from the hardwoods we burn on our landscape. There can be a lot of variance in potassium quantity in wood ash. But they tend to be higher if you use the ash from hard woods only. Wood ash also contains some calcium and other trace minerals.
Ashes should be kept dry until applied in the garden and sifted to remove any large coals that might bind nitrogen in your soil.
Simplestead Fertilizer Recipe
My new garden fertilizer formula is:
- 4.5 pounds feather meal
- 4.5 pounds bone meal
- 1 pound wood ash
I coat the top of my garden beds with this mix at a rate of about 1/2 pound for every 10 square feet of garden area. So, you’ll use 5 pounds for a 100 square foot garden to start.
For plants that require lots of nitrogen like lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, and others, I will reapply the same amount of fertilizer again in about 3-4 weeks as plants start to really size up. If those high-nitrogen needs plants take more than 80 days to grow, I’ll also reapply again at the 6-8 week mark.
For light feeders, I’ll only reapply fertilizer if my plants seem to need it. Then, I’ll reapply a 1/2 pound per 10 square feet whenever I start new plants.
Note, I only do this for the first two years after starting a garden. After that point, the power of compost usually kicks in and you run the risk of overloading your garden using a generic formula like this. From that point on, I use plant specific fertilizer mixes as needed. (We’ll cover more on that in much later posts.)
If you don’t want to mix your own, you can also buy 4-4-4 organic fertilizer mixes from makers like Down to Earth, Jobes, Dr. Earth, or others.
Avoid all synthetic fertilizers. Also, in general, avoid applying any fast-release fertilizers to your garden even if they are organic. Also, be careful not to apply a quantity that is greater than 5-5-5 at any one time. For the health of your soil, it’s better to apply more only when you need it than too much at one time.
Here’s why. Synthetic fertilizers eventually bind nutrients and limit microlife. Strong fertilizers, organic or not, can burn plants and cause biological life in the soil to go dormant. These also pose run-off risks during rain and watering because plants grown in compost heavy gardens simply do not need all those excess nutrients and won’t use them quickly enough.
How to Incorporate Fertilizer
For the Simplestead mix or store-bought organic fertilizer, sprinkle it on top of your soil. Then, use your finger tips to work it into the top 2 inches of your compost. Watering, soil life, and plant roots will work your fertilizer deeper over time. After incorporation, water your entire bed area to activate the fertilizer and settle it into your compost.
What to Plant in a First Year Potager
I know everyone wants to jump right in and start growing giant heirloom tomatoes. Unfortunately, that usually ends in disappointment. Do yourself a favor and buy those at your local farmers market. Then instead, focus on things you will be able to grow well in a first year garden.
I can’t give you specific suggestions because every climate is different. But, I do have some broad, general principles to share that should help you have a bountiful harvest in your first year.
1. Focus on CONTINUOUS Harvest Type Vegetables
Plants that can be planted once and harvested for a month or more are wonderful for a potager. They help keep the garden looking full and beautiful while giving you something to use in your meals each day. They also tend to be terrifically nutritious and low calorie.
Here are my favorites.
- Leaf Lettuce Mixes
- Turnip Greens (e.g. Seven Top, not Root Turnips)
- Green Onions (cut greens, leave roots in place to regrow tops)
- Cherry or Grape Tomatoes
- Sweet or Hot Peppers
- 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.
3. Plan for Cool And Hot Season Crops
Cool season plants tend to bolt when temperatures warm up. So, you need to consider your number of cool days when planning for cool season vegetables. Until you have tried and true season extension and container seed starting methods, consider buying your early spring transplants. Country stores and farmers markets are great places to get them for less cost than the hardware store.
Warm season plants also need sufficient time to grow and ripen before harvest. So, make sure to allow enough hot days for good growth.
Easy to Grow Cool Season Plants
- Baby Pok or Bok Choy
- 65-80 Day cabbages (e.g. Early Jersey Wakefield, Red or Green Acre)
Easy to Grow Hot Season Plants
- Summer Squash or Zucchini (Choose compact varieties for best use of space)
- New Zealand Spinach
4. Practice Growing Storage Foods
You probably don’t have room in your first year potager for a lot of long-storing foods. But, you can get some practice by growing a winter squash at the end of a row, a few potato plants, or a couple sweet potatoes plants.
Drying beans are also a good use of vertical space, such as along the north side of a garden fence. Shell them while watching a sun set or catching up on TV shows during bad weather.
Down the road, you may want to grow more of these as you expand your compost capacity and garden area. But for now, dabbling with them can be a satisfying experience.
What Not To Grow In Your Potager
Like I said at the outset, skip the large-sized heirloom tomatoes for year 1. They require rich soil, good staking, and active fungal management for good results from year to year. Save these as a challenge to master later.
I suggest skipping the corn too. It’s easy to grow. But it easily cross pollinates during the growing season. So without advanced planning, you can end up growing GMO corn in your homestead potager. Plus you need about 20 plants grown in a dense patch for good pollination. That means it will take a lot of soil fertility management for good production.
Long-storing cabbages are also better grown after a few years of soil improvement. The longer maturing varieties really need deep, rich soil to be able resist seasonal stresses and create their own defenses against pests like the cabbage moth.
Watermelon is incredibly easy to grow. But it will swallow your garden if you are not careful and give you almost no calories in return for all that space. Buy those at your farmers market too and save your space for the stuff above.
Tips On Organization and Planting Procedures
Now that you have a few plant choices to consider, here are a few tips to help you plan, plant, and encourage a healthy garden.
1. Intermix your continuous harvest vegetables with your one-time harvest vegetables. Potagers should be pretty and productive. That means you don’t want to be harvesting everything all at once. By mixing it up, your garden will never looks empty even though you’ll harvest regularly.
2. Stagger your plantings. For example, start beets every 2 weeks rather than all at once. Also, use heirlooms, they tend to have more varied germination rates than hybrid seeds. Throw in small radish as filler when needed.
3. Over seed on all things with edible plant parts. Beets, turnips, kohlrabi, mustard, lettuce, etc. can all be cut with scissors at the baby stage and eaten in salads or tossed into omelets. Thinning your seedlings is basically your first harvest.
4. Over seed on other plants like tomatoes, peppers, etc., too. But don’t eat the greens! Just cut the weaker seedlings back to soil level with scissors and let your strongest plant survive.
5. Make a key of your plantings. Labels in the beds are awesome, but also keep a paper map of everything you planted and when.
6. Add flowers and herbs. Flowers like marigolds, borage, nasturtium (dwarf) and herbs like basil, cilantro, and dill also have beneficial insect-attracting and pest-repelling benefits. Work them into any empty spaces you have for beauty and utility.
7. Water daily. Unless it rains or your soil is waterlogged, you really need to water daily. This regulates soil temperature, activates seeds, and nourishes the biological life in the soil so they can sustain your plants. Water slowly until the moisture pools on top for a few seconds.
8. Plant in uniform configurations like rows or squares. This makes it easy to see bare spots when your seedlings come up so you can re-seed if necessary. It also makes it easier to tell what’s a weed and what’s a seedling until you learn to recognize your plants in juvenile form.
9. Weed carefully and regularly. Use your finger tips to uproot baby weeds and expose their roots to dry and die. If you get them early on sunny or windy days, this is all it takes to weed a garden. Be careful not to uproot seedlings by accident.
10. Grow 10. Choose ten things to grow at a time at most. Research the growing requirements for each plant. Then, try to give them the custom care they need just as you would livestock or household pets.
11. Cull weak plants. If a plant is not doing well, remove it and put it in the trash. Do not compost it! Later when you’ve learned how to identify plant problems and fix them, you can. For now, though, get rid of anything potentially diseased or pest-attracting for the health of the rest of your garden.
Plants will grow slowly at first. Then suddenly one day you’ll look out in the garden and barely see your paths through your plants.
Your skills in the garden will grow like this too. At first, you’ll second guess everything you do, then one day you’ll realize you’ve become a gardener. Simple steps, done with loving care. That’s all it takes to grow a successful potager and a gardener!