How To Get Started
Many people in the prepping world often ask me how to get started producing products local to their own back yards. Good news? It’s easier than ever in history to get started with a garden! The vegetables and fruits you grow not only will provide nutritonal benefits for you and your family, but also provide an excellent stress reliever from your hard day at work.
First, I completely understand that some folks live in apartments or condos and simply cannot garden to the extent that the garden will provide enough. I suggest that if you fall into this area, try your best to use large pots, hanging baskets that attach to the railing of your patio, or maybe a community roof-top coop garden with your neighbors if permitted.
Let’s start with size. Gardens can be all kinds of sizes, shapes and designs, but a rule of thumb is 200 sq. ft. for each person being fed, year around. A family of 4 will need roughly 800 sq. ft. — or a 40′ x 20′ ft. plot. Not terribly big really and should fit even in a smaller home’s backyard. We are very into gardening and the two of us have about 2,500 sq. ft. set up, but, like I said, we’re a bit crazy and also like to can. You can divide up this area however you wish! It doesn’t have to just be a big, huge box.
I am going to recommend raised garden beds unless the soil where you live is incredibly fertile. Save yourself the time and energy of planting in a non-raised area the first year as you will quickly understand the benefits of raised beds. Raised beds provide a lot of advantages as you can custom tailor the soil to the plants you’re going to grow. Some like a high pH, some like a lower pH, for example. You can also put in substrate before your soil such as garden rock to provide drainage for your bed, which is crucial if you have poorly-drained soil. Not very many garden plants like to be wet at the root all the time. Another huge advantage of raised beds is they’re raised! When you get a bit older, not bending over to the ground or crawling around on it is very nice.
What kind of raised bed or box should I make? Honestly, it’s up to you and the area you have to work with. I have done what amounts to looking like fishing piers with grass in between each row. I also have some beds that are tiered, some skinny, some wider and some in a stacked effect. Be creative! Do what comes to mind that you think will be cool. Keep it fun and take your time building them as, if done properly, can last 10 years or more.
What do I make my boxes out of? Well, that depends on your time constraints and cost considerations. If you’re truly short on time, big box stores sell pre-fab boxes, usually make of some kind of plastic. Sometimes they look very nice. If you want to make your own DIY boxes, there are a variety of woods to use and each cost a bit more or less. Generally, cedar is a preferred wood to use as it’s relatively cost-effective and has a decent longevity of about 8 years before it starts to rot out. Cedar also has the added benefit of being a natural bug deterrent. Many species of insects that can be harmful to your garden do not like to be near cedar, helping your plants to remain insect-free. Redwood is also very popular due to it’s durability, but also can be very pricey. Pine is also very popular with gardeners that do not mind rebuilding their boxes every 4-5 years.
Personally, I have chosen to use rough-cut cedar boards, 2 in. thick and 8 in. tall. Using 4×4 cedar for the corner posts, they can be assembled using 3 in. deck screws. Dig your 4×4 post holes about 16 inches deep and make to account for that when doing your measuring and cutting. The tools used for this project can be as simple as a hand saw, a cordless drill, a level, shovel and rake. I used a chop saw to help not make my arm fall off with a hand saw.
One of my favorites is a box in a “U” shape. I can walk around the outside of the “U” or in the middle of it to get to the plants on both sides. My “U” box is 18 inches tall (3 boards tall) so it’s not hard to bend over to manage.
Alternatives to wood are also stones, bricks, and sometimes just earthen mounds around the growing area. I have some beds made of left-over bricks from a patio remodel that we did. They look very nice, but leveling the ground out and stacking the bricks was certainly more effort. Regardless of the material that you choose to make your boxes out of, make sure and till up the ground/break up with a shovel and then level the area.
Box placement in your yard is also a big consideration. Some plants like a lot of sun, so have some boxes in full sun, all day. Some plants enjoy cooler temps, such as onions and do well in a partial shade environment. Sometimes the easiest way to do this is to simply go outside every couple of hours and see where and how long roughly the sun is in each area. This will change some over the growing season and eventually you might need to relocate a box to a better spot the following year or do some tree trimming to get the desired sun results.
Lastly, you might want to incorporate a trellis/lattice-type setup in your box (as seen in the photo above). I have tried stakes, plant support poles, you name it and finally settled on a relatively cheap and easy solution used for thousands of years. Bamboo. Bamboo poles are sturdy (people still use them for scaffolding in large construction projects in Asia) and have a good durability to harsh weather. Bamboo is also versatile as you can construct a trellis in nearly any way you wish. I use a “teepee” style design with a pole on one side of the box, another pole on the other side and then the top of the pole leaned into each other and then secured with a zip tie. A support pole is used as a brace for wind, attached halfway down the upper pole with the other end of the support stuck into the ground. I have also toyed with using garden twine, string of various gauges and wire to hold the bamboo together. But in the end, zip ties are best as they hold all growing season and are easy to remove in the fall when you may want to remove your support to allow easier tilling the following spring.
A top pole is finally secured across the top of the side support poles (see above photo again). This horizontal pole is used to support your plants. Taking tomatoes as an example, a piece of garden string is attached to the horizontal pole going down to the tomato plant and attached to the plant with a plastic plant clip. As the plant grows, you simply wind the string up at the top on the horizontal pole, keeping the other end attached to the plant. Alternatively, you can use tomato cages, but that’s for another volume of discussion as this gets into the differences between determinate and indeterminate tomato plants.
Now that you’ve made your boxes, you almost surely will want to fill them and get those plants in the ground! Take your time, it’s not going anywhere. If you have heavy clay soil with poor drainage, then start with a substrate, which is the bottom layer of your box. White garden stones/rock work nicely and are not very expensive. A lot of plant nurseries carry this in bulk for a cheaper purchase. Spread out about 2 inches depth of rock in the bottom evenly across the box. Next comes your soil. Make sure you read up on soil conditions for the plants you want in there. For example, strawberries like a nice rich soil, but also some sand added for great results.
General soil recipe:
I usually just mix this in a normal-sized wheelbarrow.
- ½ Good garden or potting soil. Don’t cheap out unless you are on a budget. The richer, the better.
- ¼ Compost. You can buy good compost in bags or make your own. Composted manure also works.
- A few handfuls of worm castings and/or bat guano.
- A few handfuls of peat moss.
- A few handfuls of Perlite. This will help retain moisture and keep your soil loose and workable.
- A sprinkling of general, 8-8-8 fertilizer.
Mix all of this thoroughly until blended well. Keep making more until you’ve filled your box 1 in. from the top of the bed. This will settle some over time, slightly lower. Lastly, once your plants are in and established, using gorilla hair mulch around your plants and across the bed will provide stress relief for your plants from drying out too quickly, weed control and is also another bug deterrent. Another option for mulching can be straw, which is very affordable. Ensure when purchasing your straw that you get a brand that touts a weed-free, non-chemical treated hay/straw so you do not introduce extra weeds into your garden or nasty chemicals, which could leach into your vegetables. I chose gorilla hair mulch because it lasts a very long time and when it decomposes, works nicely into your soil and keeps the soil loose.
This should get your started on your new garden. That first year can be a little frustrating as you want those plants in now, but spend the early spring making your boxes and by planting time, you’ll be ready. Just takes some time and effort to give you and your family those foods that help you stay healthy.