Welcome to your first week of Urban Homestead Boot Camp. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing the goods on what you need to get your own homestead up and running in 2012. This is the quick and dirty version. No holds barred, take no prisoners; these are the very basics.
This week, the vegetable garden. Every homestead needs one. Be it your whole back yard converted to raised beds or your balcony covered in pots, growing food is the cornerstone of any homestead. I’ve decided to divide this into two parts since we have a lot of ground to cover. For the beginners out there, we’re going to keep it simple. Part one covers site selection, soil prep, and deciding what to grow.
You need a place that gets full sun. For us here in North America that is somewhere that has Southern exposure. Gone are the days of a backyard garden. In the city, you take what you can get. The side, the front, the roof, whatever. It just can’t be in the shade of a tree or building. At the Schell Urban Homestead, our gardens are in a side yard and along a strip of driveway.
One you’ve picked your spot, measure it up. The size of your area is probably going to determine, to some extent, what you can grow. It’ll be tough to grow corn if all you have is 32 square feet, unless that is all you want to grow. It takes up a lot of room and is tall. But if you are willing to buy your corn at a farmers market instead, you can do a lot with a 4 x 8 bed.
Some considerations when selecting a site:
- Will you grow in the dirt or buy soil for a raised bed or pots?
- Can you get water easily to to area?
- Is there anything nearby that will interfere with sun exposure? Keep in mind that in summer, the sun is almost directly overhead.
- What about site security? Does the mailman usually walk there? You might need a border or a mini fence. If you are growing where the neighborhood kids can see, consider that you might lose a tomato or two (but that’s actually a good thing in my opinion).
Prepping the Site:
Once you’ve selected your garden site, you’re going to need to do some prep work before you can plant there. If you are planting in pots, you get off easy, labor wise, but will have to spend some money for the pots and the soil. Check thrift store for pots if your funds are limited. Or consider buckets.
So, what is at the site now? Grass? Other plants? Rocks? Or (please say it isn’t so) concrete? If the site is concrete and you don’t want to bust it out, which we have done – it’s tough work, consider pots or very deep raised beds. Keep in mind that concrete will hold heat in the summer though; you’ll need to water more frequently.
Otherwise, to plant in the ground or a raised bed, this is probably going to be the physically hardest part of getting your garden ready. Start by clearing away any competing plants and rocks. If you plan to plant in the ground, a soil test can be helpful, but is not be any means necessary unless you have concerns about lead or other toxins leaching into your soil (such as if you are in an industrial area). If that is a concern, it may be simplest to build a raised bed and buy soil for it.
If the existing site has grass, that is easy enough to remove. You have a couple of options, you can use a grub hoe or rototiller to remove or till under the grass. Or you use a layering method of composting the grass into your garden space, like the method demonstrated in this video.
Mark the edges of your garden space. If you want to spend a little or are concerned about aesthetics, you can buy timbers, railroad ties, fencing or many other materials to build your edging and borders to your heart’s content. To do it on the cheap, use rocks, boards, brick, string and stakes, whatever you have. Or check craigslist. Basically – anyone can garden. This doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, though it can, if you want. But really, you just need to know where you are planting stuff.
Your beds should be about 4 feet wide, but not wider. Longer is fine. Four feet is about the farthest you can comfortably reach across; if you keep it within these limits, you can avoid stepping on your planting soil to keep it from compacting.
If you are doing raised beds, you are probably going to have to buy soil. You’ll want soil for gardening, not fill dirt. Fill dirt is hard, dry, grayish brown and has no organic matter in it – you’ll be hard pressed to get anything to grow in it. Soil dark brown or black, moist, soft, and is rich in organic matter with lots of nutrients to feed your plants. If you do the layering method, you’ll be using built-in compost, but you may want to add some soil to your layers as well. If you are planting in the ground where only sod has been growing, you’ll definitely need to amend the soil.
You can certainly buy soil and compost at a garden center. But you might also consider these sources: local farmers and ranchers for decomposed manure, tree trimming companies for mulch or wood chips, or check with your local Whole Foods around earth day for free finished compost. If you are starting in the fall, you can get the ground prepped pretty well for the spring by digging into the area and layering dead leaves, grass clippings and dirt to decompose over the winter.
Deciding what to grow:
Keeping in mind how much room you have and how many people you are feeding, think about what you like to eat. What are your gardening goals? Do you want to get the kids excited? Plant things that grow quickly (beans, sunflowers, radishes) or that they will be excited to eat (my boys love carrots). Love cooking? Plant lots of herbs. Do you want to avoid mealy grocery store tomatoes? Then you’ll want to make room for your star heirloom plants. Want to avoid the grocery store all together? Better convert the whole yard or enlist a neighbor.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Plant what you like, but don’t be afraid to try something new. If you know you hate broccoli, don’t plant any. But try to remember that homegrown veggies taste about a million times better than what you can get at the grocery store. My sister was forty before she learned that she did like tomatoes, as long as they came from the garden. If you want to try everything, get a seed catalog.
- How many people are you feeding? Don’t plant four hills of summer squash for two people. And vice-versa.
- How much room do you have. Corn and potatoes are notorious space hogs. If you have limited space (most of us in the city do) really consider what you want to grow vs. what you can get at a market.
Check out Erica’s post on How to Plan Your Harvest Based on What You Eat.
Next we’ll talk about layout and crop rotation, the planting, and garden maintenance. Now drop and give me fifty…