Hello world! This is my first instructable and first real garden experiment, I hope you enjoy my garden and find my experiences (and difficulties) helpful. My overall goal for you is to have created an instructable that anyone, with no garden knowledge, could pick up and grow some delicious foods from. Please let me know how yours turns out!
After searching instructables I came to realize that there were no complete how-to's on a simple, some what cheap, vegetable garden that would be suitable for the suburb. Naturally, a few thrift store books later I had a plan and here are the fruits (pun totally intended) of that labor!
Two books I would highly recommend looking at before starting:
-"Reader's Digest Illustrated Guide to Gardening" (a very good reference book-$5 at thrift)
-"The Victory Garden Companion" (overall good and very "pretty" book that covers all gardening aspects- $9 at close out store)
This instructable is in four basic sections:
1. Bed Preparation
3. Growing and Watering System (including problems experienced and Fixes)
4. Harvest and the Long Term
1 pair of gloves-$2
Dirt/compost x7 or more - may end up about 60 dollars!
Garden Stake- < $10
Plants-$2-20, $40 -60 total
PVC and Fittings- $10
Tape Measure- Free
Rocks, stolen from bottom of one of my trees- Free
Paperclips to hold drip irrigation hoses- Free
Jeep-Free when borrowed.
On one last note before you begin, the whole goal of this project was to grow some healthy, good food as cheaply as I could manage, while leaving my yard mostly in-tact and with as little maintenance for my mom as possible while I am away at school. I have kept these ideas present in my design as seen by the simplicity of the final product. P.S. this instructable is entered in the Get into the Garden Contest and all votes are much appreciated!
Step 1: Plotting Your Garden
So, first things first, do you have room for a garden? Of course! For myself I have a medium sized suburban home as I assume most people do, and as such you have room for a small garden bed. While having a potted garden can be good and allow for plants to be all over the place, I wanted to have a nice little spot of my own. I also don't have room to just use half my yard and produce food on a large scale, rather, as most suburbanites, the garden is on the small size.
As I am starting with a limited space, I have a few common plants that I want to grow, but the bed is the real decider of what will be planted. Hence, this instructable will start with the bed. In general there are two choices: raised bed, or, an in ground bed. Raised beds are good in that they provide great drainage and are not really affected by poor natural soil because they are above it. I have very sandy soil and as such will be mixing it to a limited extent with bought soil and compost to have a semi-raised bed.
You want an area that will be receiving at least 6-8 hours of sunlight every day. To get a general idea of what size area in my yard I would be dealing with, I used Google Earth, and the "Path" ruler to find the dimensions of my planting bed.
After an actual inspection of the garden I settled on the same rectangular area viewed on the map. It is important to take into account the slope of your land, as it will affect how your soil holds or loses water. A slight slope is ok, a steep one may mean you need to level the area which can be tough if you do not have a ton of time.
Step 2: Mark the Area
In this step you will mark out the exact area that will become the bed. To do so I bought the cheapest twine and plastic garden stakes I could find at Home Depot. It only cost me a few dollars for both, with more of each than I needed.
To begin your bed marking you will need to use four garden stakes (one for each corner of the garden) and have twine strung taught between each.
We found it easy to just eye-ball the first two stakes, planting first one and then the other (fig. 1). The twine was tied at the first stake then strung to the second stake which is placed exactly how long you want your garden to be. Then, measure over no more than four feet (our garden is 12' x 4'). To get the right angle, we simply used the handle and back of the shovel (fig. 2), placing the long handle parallel to the four foot line and making sure that the first 12' string lines up with the top of the shovel. Once lined up the stake was set (fig. 1.)
Another 12' line was measured using the same right angle method from the stake seen being tied in the first image below. once measured out and the final stake is tied to this line, all you need to do is measure 4' out from the first stake, where the 4' line and 12' lines meet will be the location of the last stake. You may double check angles if you like using the shovel as we did.
Step 3: Breaking Ground
Once we had our area staked and roped we needed to remove the top layer of grass. To do this a regular rounded shovel was used.
I'd recommend wearing boots or tough shoes of some kind because the grass can be hard to get through. We aimed from outside the twine to make the edge along it. I found it easiest to come in at a near vertical angle to cut a hole into the grass. Then, place the shovel more along the ground and kick it under the grass. Using this method I was able to pull up big chunks of intact grass while leaving most of the good soil behind.
If done in this way you can also transplant your grass into another area (I moved mine to where I took my rocks that became the border of the garden).
Step 4: Placing Rock Border
Placing the rock border is easy, just pick 'em up and place them. You might want to be a bit artistic about it and place rocks evenly and of similar sizing, but really, they are just a physical boundary to keep out grass and to hold in dirt.
Step 5: Soil!!
So now you need to prepare the bed to be usable for plants. First, look at your own soil to see what kind you have. Is it sandy? Is it hard and full of clay? Both are lacking organic matter, but clay can be a real issue. It is much less effort to make a deeper bed on top of a bunch of clay than to attempt to improve it. If the soil is sandy, you can mix it with your added compost and bought soil to give it the organic and nutrient components it is missing. Once you have decided your course of action it is simple to figure out how much soil/compost to get. I was inspired to use my *free* rocks in a semi raised bed by the colony gardens at Plymouth.
Our garden is 12' x 4', we wanted to add another six inches of good compost and nutrient rich soil to it. Thus, 12'x 4'x .5' (aka 6 inches) = 24 cubit feet of compost/soil. The local Home Depot sold them in 2 cu. ft. bags as well as 3 cu. ft. bags.
Once obtained the bags were emptied one at a time into the garden, mixing it into the natural soil as we went. You want a soil that will hold together when grabbing a handful, but that still crumbles easily (this will ensure moisture retention and good drainage).
A thing to keep in mind is that your garden should be as level as possible. I didn't want to hassle with the water level developed centuries ago. So naturally i just stuck a level on a long handle from a broom and let that work like a really long level to rough check my bed. As most rakes are flat, you can also use an upturned rake laying on the bed instead of the broom handle.
Some terms to know (these are basically the bags of stuff you'll find at the store):
Mulch -agriculture and gardening, is a protective cover placed over the soil, primarily to modify the effects of the local climate. -Wikipedia
Compost-The decayed remains of organic matter that has rotted into a natural fertilizer -Wiktionary
Soil-The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants. -Wiktionary
Step 6: Planting
So now you are ready to plant, I would recommend giving the soil a good misting over with some water to allow it to be dug into nicely. DO NOT STEP IN THE GARDEN. Compacted soil is bad because it doesn't allow air or fluid flow.
We assumed one plant per foot or so, and just went nuts buying squashes, peppers, tomato, herbs, melons, and cucumbers. I would suggest you be careful of plants that vine out like the melons; they are taking up a ton of ground room now that they have grown in. Research the plants you want and give them some room to grow, that is of course unless you just want a delicious mess in a section of your garden like we do. Down sides to said mess are seen in the next section.
Use a trowel to plant each plant in a hole that is of the depth recommended by the books, or your internet research. Some plants like to be on top of a mound (like cucumbers). Be careful to not compress the dirt with your hands as you dig. Make sure to water A.S.A.P. as well as be quick about the planting. Some roots may be sensitive to light. All of our plants were planted in a hole a couple of inches deeper than their root system and a few inches wider. Watering while planting keeps the soil you are moving the plants into from being too dry in relation to the soil surrounding their roots. This ensures that you do not sap the water away from their roots into the drier dirt, harming your plants.
Additionally, most plants have certain pests that they are commonly affected by; naturally there are other bugs that prey on such critters and yet other plants that attract said bugs. It would be wise to look into what plants may bring beneficial insects into your garden. Predatory wasps in particular are good for squashes and related plants as their larva eat the tiny caterpillars known as leaf miners. Bottom line, research is key to knowing your area and what your plants may be subjected to.
tomato- "better boy" (hybrid variety), persimmon (heirloom variety)
squash- patty pan, yellow crook neck
melon- honey dew, cantaloupe, pumpkin (planted in another spot outside the bed)
herb- lemon basil(awesomely delicious), cilantro, parsley
peppers-serrano (hotter than jalapeno and good for salsa), sweet yellow
Step 7: Ahhh Problems!
Now that you have planted your garden and are watering every morning (or night if you are busy early in the day). You may notice you have a few problems. For us, your most immediate issue was that our dog decided to dig in the garden. To remedy this we bought 10' sections of wire fencing that is something like 14" tall for about ten dollars a piece. Use your garden dimensions to figure out how much fencing you need to outline the garden.
Birds can also be a problem, using some ribbon and pie tins that were strung up between the tomato cages the birds can be frightened off by a small breeze moving the shiny metal.
Our third issue was that of powdery mildew on our squashes. This can occur from over watering, especially at night (doh!). The water lingers and the mold grows on the leaves. This can be fixed by not watering at night, as well as not getting the leaves wet. Humidity is another reason for mildew growth; better air circulation can help and is usually achieved by pruning dense areas in the garden. Overall I fixed this issue by setting up drip irrigation and using it only in the mornings. I bought Drip Irrigation for Dummies. BAAAD IDEA. The kit is cheap ($17) and you can expect similar quality. I destroyed both of the manifolds it came with that allowed the water to go from the hose to the small tubing. I ended up making my own rig from PVC and fittings found walking around Home Depot for all under $10. I use 1/2inch pvc.
For the actual tubing I recommend running several lines down the rows of plants with a drip emitter to each plant and using soaker tubing run between all of the squash, cucumber, looped around each plant to ensure they get all the water they need. Fittings for the tubing is super cheap (a few dollars for 5 fittings, a few more for 25). Emitters come in all kinds of shapes and are essentially little plastic pieces that allow a set amount of water through in a given time interval (i.e. .5 gallons per hour) Depending on your climate and how long you want to water, you can determine what emitters you use. I use the example .5 gph button emitters as well as the soaker hose. Additionally, I would highly recommend using a medium sized paper clip bent straight with one end hooked as a mini-stake to hold the small hoses in place around the bed. They work like a charm and were spares I had from school, yet another freebie.
Another way to combat the mildew is a mixture of nine parts water and one part milk sprayed onto the leaves of the plants, it is a natural anti-fungal and will help. More milk may make it smell rancid which could attract pests and you don't want that. I have also heard, but not tried, using baking soda and water and soap to alter the pH on the leaves and smother the mildew.
Our last issue was that of mushrooms, these came up from too much water (before irrigation) and very nutrient rich soil. They are not really an issue as they only look ugly and do not hurt the plants.
****Overall note on plant diseases, less crowding goes a long way in plant health. For plants that have a ton of growth like the squashes and their kin, it is important to not let them become too dense. Many leaves together prevent adequate airflow and allow for things like powdery mildew to spread around nearby leaves in the moist air held by the foliage. Similarly, any other contagious disease will spread from an affected plant most easily through direct contact and close proximity. In this regard plants are like people but without the ability to wash their hands. Pruning leaves using clean scissors can help a bunch in keeping your garden healthy. Between cuts it is good to sterilize your scissors or garden clippers in a 1 part isopropyl alcohol 9 parts water solution. You can keep a plastic cup with you to dip into.
Step 8: A Note on Weather
The weather lately has been extraordinarily hot, >100 degrees Fahrenheit for nearly a week so far with no rain and only slight moisture. Naturally the weather of your location is exceedingly important to take into account. I may construct a PVC framed cover of some sort to protect the bed from rain in the winter and from sun in the summer, but at the moment do not have the money to do so.
Also, as dealt with in the previous step, to combat the ridiculous daily heat I have resorted to the more efficient method of drip irrigation to ensure each plant has received enough water to let them survive the day. You may need to increase the rate of water release by using a higher GPH rated emitter then .5 gph as I have implemented on a few plants. Proper water use in regards to the weather is extremely important. I nearly lost my sweet pepper plant due to the heat before switching to the drip irrigation. The water from the large hose previously used had created a furrow in the soil near the plant and redirected water away from it.
As the majority of the nation has all four seasons you will need to take different precautions in maintaining your bed over winter. A cover of some sort that serves as a green house as well as mulch to keep the bed from freezing may be things you should invest in. Raised beds have the advantage of warming up more quickly in the spring and allow for plants to be started earlier. I am a snow newbie (last three winters) so that is really all I can say on the topic. I would recommend finding a zone map of the country or contacting your local garden store to find out more about winterizing your bed. While my garden may not have to face a real winter, I did find a super good video tutorial on the topic here.
Step 9: Harvest and the Long Term
Congratulations, your garden has produced something! First things first, know your plants!
As I haven't ever grown anything really before I needed to research when to pick my first squash. Patty pan squash look like UFOs and as such I had no idea when to eat 'em. A simple google search will tell you when to harvest from your garden. Be on the lookout for flowers, they are good for the fruiting plants and bad for your herbs. As I found out with the cilantro, when you let it fruit the rest of the plant likes to die. I recommend pruning buds from the herbs while watching your other plants flourish. Successive sowing of such plants may be possible to ensure a steady supply of the herb. I plan on letting my last cilantro plant go to seed normally and replant itself in the same spot. I'll let you all know how that goes.
For the long term, it is good to keep in mind that you will most likely need to fertilize again in the spring, several months down the line, to ensure that your soil is at its best for you plants. Granulated fertilizers are relatively inexpensive (under 20 bucks). You will need to prune your plants as well to keep them orderly, a messy garden can set you up for a disease outbreak and nobody wants that! Buying ladybugs to eat aphids and such never hurts either. Overall, if you keep an eye on things, water daily, and let nature be, things should pan out just fine. Now go out there and reap what you've sown!