My top ten steps for starting a new veggie bed…maybe it will help a few dreamers?

Beginning any new task is very daunting for me.  I like to know what I am getting myself into and I like to know all the steps before I begin.  I don’t mind adjusting on the fly, but flying blind is not for me. After writing about a few of our successes, trials and plans in seeding, gardening and lighting I received a request for a specific post – How do I get started on a small veggie garden without getting overwhelmed?  I am certainly no expert in this area – but this is how I started laying down roots, how I dreamed and triumphed and of course how I could have done it better.  I hope it helps a bit.

MY TOP 10 STEPS FOR STARTING A NEW VEGGIE BED

10 – SUCCESS! Site Selection – The soil in my yard is quite heavy with a lot of clay.  I also have a lot of trees that cast weird shade.  We started by finding a flat site and staked out a 10×20 foot square.  We watched where the shadows were throughout the day and adjusted the location of our square to make sure we had as much sun as possible throughout the day.  We also made sure the hose and sprinkler would reach. I use a lot of planters on the deck and patio and fill them with veggies – even my 2×2 planters produce a pile of tomatoes and chard and are very pretty when planted with a few annuals or herbs for a splash of colour. Added bonus – planters can be hauled inside during summer hurricanes!

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9 – FAIL – Could have done better….Soil Preparation – The first year, we dug out the sod (we needed it in other places anyways…), pulled as many big rocks out as we could and turned the “soil” (it was really clay) with shovels.  We added bags of peat moss and compost and had 2 yards of garden soil dumped in the back of our truck and dug that all in too.  I did buy a soil test kit and a pH tester, but I am not sure they were ever very accurate and never repeated the process out of laziness and distractedness.

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The start of year 3.

What we have since done better – in subsequent years of expansion we borrowed and then purchased a root-tiller to till the original plot – soooo much easier than hand-bombing it with shovels. We also lost the rock and clay battle and chose instead to have more garden soil or triple mix delivered to “build up” our soil.  Instead of cutting out the sod, I laid cardboard down in the area to become the garden.  We then dumped 10-12 inches of soil on top of the cardboard.  By the end of the summer, the cardboard had broken down the sod and the garden soil was much more productive than our natural soil even with the amendments.

Better still – 2 years ago we bought composite raised bed kits.  We placed a few inches of crusher dust and gravel underneath the boards to level them, lined them cardboard and then filled with garden soil and triple mix. Each bed is 4×8 feet and 12 inches deep. They were much more expensive, but by far the best approach for us.  After we clean up the gardens in the fall, I cover the beds with straw to keep weeds down and turn it under in the early spring with a fresh top up of organic fertilizer and compost – less weeds, more yield and no boulders to be dug!  SCORE!

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A lot of work to set up, but so worth it!

8 – SUCCESS! Hilling my rows – We get a lot of rain and I found that in the main garden, I lose less soil and seedlings to run off and drowning if I create hilled rows. I mark where my rows should be (they are pretty set now after 6 years and it reduces work and soil compaction by keeping my rows in the same places.) I make my rows approx 2-3 feet wide by 10-12 inches high with a hoe so I can plant a few rows of treats in each hill or plant in clumps.  The water runs off into the lower paths between rows and it seems to keep the roots watered while keeping puddles in the actual rows to a minimum.  This doesn’t apply to my raised beds as the drainage is really good and we don’t walk in them anyways.

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7 – SUCCESS!! 2 foot paths between rows – just enough space to kneel in and get the wheelbarrow through! Enough said…

6 –SUCCESS!!! Weed barriers – I HATE WEEDING!!!  We almost plowed down the dirt and seeded the plot with grass a few summers ago because the weeding was becoming all consuming!  They were shading out veggie babies, providing hiding spaces for slugs and bugs and smothering everything edible (as well as smothering my desire to garden anymore….) With two busy girls, a full time job and the desire to do something other than pull weeds every non-scheduled waking moment, I caved and bought weed barrier. AND THE ANGELS SANG – AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! (That was supposed to be angels singing in harmony with the sun shining brightly and me frolicking in a long shimmery dress with flowers in my hair! Yup, the result was that good!!)

The cost is not prohibitive – less than $60 per season.  I place cardboard or wet newspaper between the rows, then place black bio-film over my prepped rows as tight as I can, staking it with ground stakes or rocks.  I then cover the newspaper or cardboard with clean straw (not hay!!!) In order to seed, I use an exact-o knife to cut slits or small holes and plant seedlings or seeds through the holes.  The black film does triple duty – it heats the soil, prevents run off and SMOTHERS THE WEEDY INVADERS!!!!  It is the rock star of my garden.  I haven’t had to use it in my raised beds yet because the soil was relatively weed free, but I will as soon as I get overrun again.  The prep work is a lot more but last summer I spent less than 10 hours total weeding the veggie beds.  FREEDOM!!!

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5 –Success, partially –  Electric fencing.  This was a must for us.  The deer were eating the veggies faster than we could grow them.  A simple electric fence made for small animals was cost-effective, not too unsightly and keeps the deer out magnificently! It does not keep out racoons or rabbits….that is a battle for next summer….If your garden is small, a fence would be ideal.  Mine is 40×24 and it would far too expensive to do a pretty fence.

4 – SUCCESS (after a few years) – Bird netting, frost blankets and hoop tunnels – These little beauties did not come until 2 years ago, but I wish I had started from the get-go with them.  They can be easily thrown up quickly and protect veggies and berries from animals, frost, hail, winds and sun.  I found frost blankets at the Dollarama last year – JACKPOT!

Hoop tunnels are just 6 foot long sections of 3/4 inch PVC pipes. I slide them over 1 foot rebar stakes that I pound into the ground on each side of the row. They act as mini greenhouses and allow me to plant much earlier and later than the frost dates. I use 4 hoops for a 14 foot row.  As a cover, I bought 6 mm vapour barrier plastic, laid out 18 feet of it (it was 8 feet wide) and stapled 14 foot decking boards down the two long sides.  I rolled the boards in the extra plastic (since the hoops were 6 feet wide – the extra is nice as it keeps the staples from being pulled out).  Hubby helped me carry the boards and plastic to the garden and laid a board in each path on either side of the row, with the plastic resting on the PVC pipes. I can easily lift one board up and over the hoops to uncover or recover as necessary for picking or airing out. I found green plant clips at the dollar store that clamp the plastic to the hoops nicely. Niki Jabbour’s book, The Year Round Vegetable Gardener has some easy instructions for making these.

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3 – FAIL – High quality sprinkler – cheap ones just don’t cut it. I have spent more in cheap sprinklers than I would have had I sucked it up in the first place.  In ground drip irrigation would be lovely….someday maybe!

2 – SUCCESS! Strong vertical supports – for peas, poles beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.  I use everything from cages to bamboo to saplings.  Vertical supports make the garden interesting, pretty, save space and keep produce off the ground.  Plus there is nothing neater for a little kid than a pole bean teepee or a squash house to hide in!

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AND MY NUMBER 1 STEP FOR STARTING A GARDEN….drumroll please…..

1 – Minions for planting!!!! The more hands, the better!  Little hands are capable of so much and bring so much joy, excitement and fulfilment to the garden, as long as I am willing to have a few crooked rows and a few surprises!

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I have made lists of veggies that have worked well for our family in Nova Scotia.  I use calendars to remember when to plant what – you can find them in O-Seed-D if you’d like to take a peek.  I found the best way to decide what to grow is to figure out what we will actually eat and ask other gardeners around me what varieties  have worked best in our area.  Nova Scotia is full of great resources, I only listed a few in Borrowed Wisdom, but I go back to them all the time – I learn something new every time I read the same old books!

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” ~Marcus Tullius Cicero

Best Laid Plans…Ironically, Version 2

IMG_1387I am a planner. I really, really like spreadsheets, notebooks and lists. I especially like the feeling of checking things off my list.  I am ashamed to admit that sometimes I even add points to my lists just to get extra check marks. (Make list, check!  Complete first item, reward yourself with a cup of coffee, check! Do that thing that you actually already finished but are adding it to the list just to cross it off, check!) I can be impulsive, don’t get me wrong, but I like it when a good plan comes together. Despite my best efforts, life has thrown many curveballs at my plans. Career starts, start overs and changes, long commutes and time away from my family have taught me many hard lessons. New additions to our family have tested me and taught me things about myself I may never have known otherwise, wonderful and not so wonderful. Losses have proven to me how strong I actually can be. Moving around Canada has led me to appreciate home and family more than I could have ever imagined. What I have learned most is that despite my best laid plans, the experiences of actually “doing” are never what I had anticipated.

IMG_0656If everything happens for a reason, then I am so grateful to have met some truly amazing people, encountered sheer beauty and joy and been touched in ways no list or spreadsheet could ever capture.  When faced with challenges that were nowhere to be found in columns a, b or c, I have had to learn to let go, give up my plans and embrace what God has laid out in his plans for me. As long as I have faith in myself, my family and God, I am never disappointed in the outcome, even if at the time the experiences have been painful or confusing.

imageGardening has been no exception to the rule of “best laid plans….”! Each winter I plan out how our main growing season will look.  I calculate the amount of compost or triple mix I need to order and I draw out planting diagrams based on last year’s crops (I try my best to rotate crops). I sort seeds collected and left over from last year and I start watching for sales on weed barriers, mulches and plant supports. I test soil pH levels and nutrients when the snow melts. I fill out calendars with planting dates and set up my indoor lights for seedlings. But I live in Nova Scotia!  Anyone who lives on the east coast needs no explanation on why this is the main reason my plans need to be fluid.  We have heat, we have cold.  We have long periods without rain followed by hurricanes and hail in July.  We have hungry wildlife! Each and every season has been different from the last for both veggies and flowers.  Things pop up that I have IMG_1472no recollection of planting and some prized perennials never seem to reappear. Kids happen! Plants get picked, trampled, nibbled and drowned. It is all part of the experience.  Regardless of the outcome, whether as planned or as complete surprises, my gardens and the time shared planning them and caring for them with my girls bring me growth, serenity, joy and clarity that I could never plan for; nor would I wish to.  It amazes me what life brings when I unplug, go outside and just be present in the moment, watching plans unfold.

This is the “plan” for this year’s main veggie garden compared to last years – this is very fluid:

Ironically, after posting this memoir, a comment triggered me to have a second look.  I realized that I had been so distracted by my wee girl that I completely missed carrots, beets and a whole bed in the 2015 plans!  Here is version 2....best laid plans!

Ironically, after posting this memoir, a comment triggered me to have a second look. I realized that I had been so distracted by my wee girl that I completely missed carrots, beets and a whole bed in the 2015 plans! Here is version 2….best laid plans!

2014's plans...not everything went exactly according to plan!

2014’s plans…not everything went exactly according to plan!

*** I have used some great online planners in years past, though I find it easiest to just do it by hand.  The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Mother Earth News and Garden Supply Company have some great plans! Niki Jabbour from Nova Scotia has also written a great book called Groundbreaking Food Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change The Way You Grow Your Garden, that I can’t wait to read…

I will need this much compost and extra soil to make sure I have 12 inches of good soil in most of the beds***:

Triple mix – Width – 16 feet x Length – 30 feet x Depth – 3 inches = 4.44 cubic yards for main garden

– Width – 4 feet x Length – 16 feet x Depth – 3 inches = 0.60 cubic yards for garden beside shed

Garden soil – Width 2 feet x Length 40 feet x 12 inches = 2.96 cubic yards for additional section to be added to finish the raised beds at the back of the main garden

***I use the soil calculator on Kel Ann Organic’s website

Other supplies:

– 24 feet of 3/4 inch PVC to complete raised bed tunnel for early greens, I already have lots of 6mm vapour barrier left

– Bird netting/rabbit barrier for blueberries and strawberries

– Trellis wire for grape supports (last year’s snapped…)

– 12 x 6 foot bamboo stakes  for pole beans and tomatoes

– 1 roll chicken wire to attach to frame of squash house

– 4-5 bales of clean straw

– 3-4 rolls of black bio film mulch

– 1 bale of peat moss for blueberries to raise acidity slightly

– Some form of posts and 3 feet of barrier to keep out racoons and bunnies….hmmmmm…..not sure about this one yet. These cute little critters give us all nightmares!

Next Step…Seed planning.  But that is a whole ‘nother story!!

“If plan A fails, remember that you have 25 letters left!” ~ Author Unknown