In our family, gardening is a family affair. Gardening drives togetherness, education, fun times, healthy bodies and much more. But we haven’t always had such a green thumb.
About seven years ago, we stumbled on the book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. It was a quick read, and within a few hours we were more than intrigued at the thought of starting our own garden.
Our first garden, measuring 3’x6’ was a complete failure and huge success all in one. We got two cucumbers, a couple of tomatoes, and a handful of green beans in that first summer garden. The cucumbers were bitter and the green beans over-ripened and wretchedly tough.
The success?! We grew real food, all by ourselves – and that’s just cool!
We want you to experience the same success. Make it a family affair, and you will surely reap the fruits of your labor.
Before we get into the steps of building your garden, let’s talk about why we garden organically.
I want my kids to eat wholesome, safe food. It’s important to note that not all organic stuff is safe. You still have to do your research and decide what works for your family.
Organic gardening is a hands-on opportunity to learn about science and nature, which is a perfect addition to our homeschool. When we take out the chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, we are more in tune with the Earth and can make decisions that are the best for people, plants, and the planet.
5 Steps to Start an Organic Garden
Starting an organic garden can seem daunting.
If you’re starting from scratch with zero knowledge like we were, hopefully this guide will get you started on the right foot.
In starting your organic garden, you’ll need to decide on the structure where your plants will grow, use a good soil, water properly, fertilize, and choose the right plants.
Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these topics.
Whether you live in a tiny apartment or on a 100-acre ranch, you can definitely start an organic vegetable garden.
Use the space you have and find a structure that works for you.
There are many choices of what to grow your veggies in. Each choice may require different types of soil and care:
- Pots – consist of numerous choices such as plastic, fabric, metal, or bio-degradable
- In-ground beds – you just grow food directly in the ground
- Raised beds – a purpose built enclosure (wood, brick, stones, etc.) in which supplementary soil is brought in as the growing medium for your garden
We don’t live in an area where in-ground beds are possible. We’ve done some container gardening, but have found the most success with raised beds.
You can purchase pre-made raised beds at some of the big box stores, but this is a great DIY project to take on. A single 4ft x 8ft garden bed would be a perfect starter size to give you a satisfying amount of produce without overwhelming you.
We built our beds out of cedar boards purchased from a big box store. Avoid pressure-treated boards to avoid the chemicals penetrating into your food.
A 4ft wide garden bed is ideal because you can reach into the middle from either side. The height of your bed will depend on the type and quality of your natural soil. If you have good quality, loose soil, your bed can be as short at 6 inches.
But if you’re on rocky or poor quality soil, your bed should be at least 10 or 12 inches. Our property is located on a limestone slab and no soil to speak of so our raised beds are 16 inches high.
Ideally, the long side of bed should run north to south to allow for maximum sun exposure across the bed.
Avoid putting bed on top of turf grass, especially Bermuda or St. Augustine varieties.If you must grow on top of grass, dig up as much of the grass, especially roots, as possible and then layer 4-6 pieces of cardboard on the bottom.
Garden soil should be comprised of:
- a blend of top soil (50-70%)
- sand (10-15%)
- compost (25-35%)
You can buy good quality bagged garden soil from a local nursery. You can also purchase garden soil with manure-based compost in bulk from a soil distributor which is usually a much less expensive option.
Compost will largely degrade within 3-4 months so overfill your raised bed a bit, making a small mound in the middle.
After good soil and compost, don’t forget about fertilizing.
Use a good organic, granular fertilizer 2-3 times a year. We use Medina Growing Green, but it’s a locally produced/sold product. If it’s organic, it’s a safe bet because nearly all organic, granular fertilizers will be manure/animal based.
After putting new/fresh fertilizer on your garden, add a 1-2” layer of pure compost. The compost-fertilizer combination is like magic in a garden.
Using organic fertilizer pays off big time.
Organic fertilizer will never burn your plants because it’s naturally slow releasing. Chemical fertilizers are typically water soluble and will burn your plants root system if overused.
Organic fertilizer will naturally (cationic exchange) bond with soil. This means it won’t generally wash away. Phosphorus contamination in our water systems is a real threat to our environment, and overuse of chemical fertilizers is the most significant cause.
Organic vegetable gardens need adequate watering on a regular basis.
Hand watering is of course the simplest option, but it’s time consuming and not the most effective. You must water slowly to saturate soil.
Uneven watering, which is almost inevitable, can lead to shallow root systems that can cause problems down the line. Constantly wetting leaves may also lead to fungus and mold issues in the garden.
The best alternative to hand watering is a simple, automatic drip irrigation system to effectively water your garden.
Setting up a drip irrigation system off of an existing hose bib is a relatively easy DIY project that can be completed in a few hours. Blog post on setting up your drip irrigation coming soon!
Plant & Seed Choice
Some plants grow really easy from seed. If you have young kids, seeds are extra fun. They’ll experience so much wonder throughout the process of planting the seeds, seeing them sprout, grow to be big plants, and ultimately harvest food.
Some veggies that are easy to grow from seed include the following:
- squash (yellow, zucchini, etc.)
- green beans
Refer to your local agricultural extension agent for guidelines on specific varieties and when to plant. Be aware that big box stores will sell plants weeks and often months ahead of the ideal time to plant. Don’t be deceived!
Grow, baby, grow
And that’s everything you need to get started! We’ve come a long way from our starter garden bed. When we decided to start an organic vegetable garden, we had no idea how much it would impact our lives.
Our garden is a place to work, play, celebrate, and learn. From the garden to the table, our veggies bring us so much joy.