Join me for a multi-part series discussing the most important things you need to know about keeping a family garden! From planning a garden, keeping a kitchen garden, casting a long-term vision, how to handle weeds and bugs, managing the harvest, and tips for gardening with kids!
Meals do not get much fresher than when you grow your own produce right in your yard! Food not only tastes better the fresher it is, it’s also much better for you!
We have been sporadic gardeners over the past several years due to pregnancies and life with newborns. I am, however, so excited and ready to jump back into gardening and growing some of our favorite fruits and vegetables.
Because I am not a gardening expert, I have outsourced this series to one of my closest friends. My friend Kallie and her husband Matt are incredibly knowledgeable about all things gardening and homesteading. They have a dairy farm, chickens, and their own family garden. They are working towards pursuing farming full time in the (hopefully) near future!
Kallie is my go-to for advice on many subjects, from Charlotte Mason homeschooling insights, to parenting perspective, and now, to family garden tips. I knew that I would be asking her plenty of questions as we started our garden this year, so instead of selfishly keeping all her wisdom and experience to myself, I am sharing it here with you!
This will be a multi-part series in which we will cover a variety of topics, from planning a garden, keeping a kitchen garden, casting a long-term vision, how to handle weeds and bugs, managing the harvest, and tips for gardening with kids!
Part one is all about planning your garden before planting. I’m sure you will want to pin this to refer back to, and please do share this series with all your gardening friends!
Now I leave you in Matt and Kallie’s capable hands!
My favorite time in the garden is the early morning. This is why my Rule #1 is where I start.
A garden is a kind of living miracle where all kinds of life interacts and you get to orchestrate.
If you keep the rules in mind, plan from observation, and source the best seeds and plants your find, you will eat from the work of your own hands.
(And remember that all seasoned gardeners know the plan doesn’t always go as planned!)
Planning Before You Plant
Gardening successfully is at least half in the planning.
A good plan is a map to the harvest and it’s best if written down. But seasoned gardeners also know that growth does not always go according to plan– this is good to remember when plants die, hail comes, or squirrels eat your ripe tomatoes.
Planning comes down to two main considerations: siting and sourcing, which I will discuss in more detail below. If you’re new to gardening, make your plans simple and attainable.
Pro Tips for Planning Your Family Garden:
- Keep it close to home—the closer the garden to your house the more time you’ll spend there.
- Plant what you eat not what you think you might eat—look at your grocery list and plant what you can from that
- Plant the best seeds and the best plants you can find—this usually means avoid the big box stores
- Plant for losses—you can always weed some out but not all seeds germinate, not all plants live, and the squirrels (and groundhogs for us) like their share
- Keep the garden small—plant extra seeds and plants but a smaller garden space is easier to manage
Siting Your Garden
The quickest way to garden blues is poor siting! In order to find the best location for your family garden, you will need to consider:
1. Siting for Sun
Does your garden site get full sun? A garden with the typical summer produce needs 8-10 hours of full sun per day.
You can have a successful garden with less but you will need to adjust what you plant accordingly. For example, tomatoes and peppers will need full sun but lettuce benefits from shade in the summer.
Siting for sun, particularly in an urban context, can be tricky. The best way to start is to set out a tarp or sheet(s) roughly the size of the garden you want in your first choice location. Then, watch that spot throughout the day. Does it get sun all day? What time does it start to get sun? What time is the location shaded? All of this is critical data to make your decision.
If you don’t have enough sun to grow what you want to eat, you’ll put in the work but be disappointed with the harvest. Once you’re satisfied with the sun time of your location there are two more site factors to consider.
2. Siting for Water
Is your garden site easily accessible to water? New seeds and plants need consistent water to start and depending on where you live, may need water throughout the growing season.
There are several methods to water. The main two main methods are overhead and soil level. The least expensive to start is a garden hose but your garden has to be close to a spigot and you need a high quality nozzle or wand.
I would avoid sprinklers for a small garden because they have limited versatility. A good watering wand can water overhead and gently as the soil level. Think of watering time as observation time.
3. Siting for Drainage
Does your garden site drain? The best way to know for sure is to observe your site on a rainy day.
Is it a standing puddle or does it drain well? If the other two siting factors are great but water puddles on rainy days, there are ways to lessen the collection of water:
- Raised beds
- Planting on contour with a large swale on the uphill side of the garden
Neither of those two methods is difficult but the second requires figuring out the contour, which can be done with a simple homemade A frame level.
4. Soil at Your Site
Soil health is as important as sun. Although plants can live in poor soil, they will not thrive.
Thankfully, in a small garden there are good inputs that can be added to rapidly improve soil quality. This is easier to adjust than sun and water access.
Now is a good time to determine the type of garden you want: direct in ground, raised bed, container, or grow tower. You might even be considering a garden share with a neighbor or community garden plot.
Raised beds, containers, and grow towers will require sourcing more soil to fill the garden space than in ground gardens. Many municipalities make compost and private companies sell it in bulk delivered as well. Local recommendations are best followed from those who have actually planted gardens in these growth mediums.
PRO TIPS FOR RAISED BEDS:
- Untreated wood and stone are good beginner options
- 4′ x 8′ is a good starter size
- Add more beds as you progress
- Till the grass or cover it with newspaper or cardboard before you fill the bed with soil if you are putting the raised bed over an existing lawn (this reduces the grass growing up through the soil)
PRO TIPS FOR IN-GROUND GARDENS:
- Three ways to test your soil to determine if you need to add soil amendments: (1)Put a shovel in the ground at your garden site. Does the shovel go in 6-8 inches with minimal force or do you have to jump on the shovel? (2) Soil ribboning. (3) Soil sampling & testing through a state or private lab.
- Add some 8-5-5 fertilizer, organic is preferable, or composted manure.
- Add worm castings if possible– a little goes a long way!
- Spraying compost tea and raw milk on the garden site are also helpful to increase microbial life.
If it sounds like the siting stage is a lot of observation before decision-making to you then you nailed it.
It can be difficult when Spring garden fever comes on strong to pause for a few days to a week and observe. But, if you can resist planting for those few days, you’ll be thankful when harvest time arrives!
Sourcing Seeds and Plants
Remember: before you shop for seeds or plants make a list of what your family eats.
You can find a list of some seed suppliers we use and trust at the end of this post. There are very few independent seed suppliers available.
PRO TIPS FOR BUYING SEEDS:
- Generally, seeds that are sold to the consumer are lower grade which typically means smaller and lower emergence rates.
- I prefer to use smaller, independent seed companies and companies whose seed has been successful over several seasons in our garden.
- It’s best if your seed supplier sources and test seeds in the climate close to where you live.
Sourcing plants is a little different than seeds.
I like to source plants at the farmer’s market or local nurseries. This is mostly as a support to the local economy, not necessarily because the quality is better.
Inspecting the plants carefully before you buy them for visual evidence of health. Do not buy sick looking plants!
PRO TIPS FOR BUYING PLANTS:
- Plants should be well leaved and green with a proportional height to width.
- Don’t buy fruiting plants that already have small fruits; primarily tomatoes and peppers. This usually reduces yield once in the ground.
- It’s best not to by plants that have already set flowers but this is better than plants with fruit. Pluck off the flowers, however, before you plant.
- Long, spindly tomato plants that are barely green with a handful of leaves at the top means they have strained to get enough light.
Starting a garden with plants is usually a little more productive for the beginner than with seeds. Planting seeds requires a little experience but the only way to get that experience is to plant seeds so I recommend doing both.
Seeds, relative to plants, are cheap so I like to seed liberally and weed out extra plants that emerge. Some plants, like carrots, have to be direct sown from seed.
- Rare Seeds :: Heirloom Seeds
- Sow True Seed :: Open-Pollinated, Untreated & GMO Free Seeds
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
- Johnny Seeds
- Common Wealth Seeds :: Farmer-Direct Seeds
- Seed Wise :: Organic & Non-GMO seeds directly from the grower
- Gardens that Matter :: Excellent resource for gardening families!
Be looking for the next part in the family garden series next week. Part two will cover the kitchen garden– herbs & annuals. You don’t want to miss it!
Do you plan to keep a family garden this year? What will you be growing?
Sharing is caring! Don’t forget to pin and share. Thank you!