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22 March 2009

Preparing your vegetable garden for planting

I was delighted to see Michelle Obama on the news yesterday planning an organic vegetable garden for the White House. I really like how the Obamas learn valuable lessons from people who stood in their stead well before them, notably Abraham Lincoln and the Roosevelts, and even when they could easily afford to buy organic produce in the White House, they choose to grow it themselves. It is a wonderful and valuable example they're setting for their children and their nation.

Many of you know we grow food in our backyard all year long, but we wind down at the end of summer, which we've just passed through, and rejuvenate the beds before planting out for the new season. March is our main planting time. What we plant now will do us through until about November and as we eat our way through it, we'll plant patches of fill in plants to help us with our aim of self reliance.

Our days are busy with planning and planting so today I thought I'd post about how to get a garden started. This is a very long subject so I think it will probably spill over into another post. There are a couple of things you need to think about before you start - like how much time do you have to spend in the garden? and what will you grow? Know this - a garden will cost money to start, and time and effort to keep going. If you can't, or won't, put the time into it, you'd be better off looking for a source of cheap organic vegetables close to your home.

But let's say you want to try your hand at gardening, how do you start?

Check the soil
The first thing is to check the soil where your garden will be located. If it's an old cow pasture you probably have the best site possible, but if you want to grow vegetables in soil that's never grown anything before, and it's clay, sand or rocky, you'll have a lot of work to do before you start planting. To see what kind of soil you have, wet some soil, scoop it out into your hand and roll it into a sausage shape. If the sausage stays firm and doesn't fall apart, you've probably got clay. If the sausage won't hold its shape, you probably have sandy soil. If it holds its shape but as you roll it in the palm of your hand, it breaks apart slightly, it's probably good loam, the best of all soils. The solution to problem soils is to add compost. It helps clay soil and sandy soil. If you have rocks, you'll have to dig them out. Let me be very clear here. If you have poor soil, you'll have to enrich it. You will waste your time and the money you spend on seeds or seedlings if you plant into poor soil.

My how to make compost post is here.

Organic vegetables
To grow organic vegetables, you need to grow your plants naturally, using no artificial fertilisers, wetting agents or chemicals. If your garden beds have timber edges, it must be non-treated timber. Your soil will also need to be full of organic matter - this retains the moisture, encourages worms and will give the soil a much better structure. You add organic matter to the soil with compost - the decomposed remains of your lawn clippings mixed with your kitchen scraps, paper and garden waste. A useful side benefit of gardening is that it will help you recycle a lot of that waste you used to put in the rubbish bin.

Seasons and climate
While we see vegetable gardening as a very natural pastime, you would never see the assortment of vegetables that are commonly grown in a backyard growing naturally side by side in nature. To do that, you have to give them good conditions and continue to look after them. So after you plant your seeds and seedlings, you will have to give them some time during the week to look after them and water them. And please consider your seasons and the time of season you grow. No matter how much you want it to grow, planting a pineapple into ground that has been snowed on, will not give you a fresh pineapple. I would dearly love to grow apricots here but I know the limitations of my climate, and I leave them to those gardeners who are in a colder climate. Also, planting corn late in the season will give you a corn plant, but no corn because it won't have enough time to grow the plant and the cobs. So be guided by the times on the seed packets or on the seedling pack.

Apart from good soil, seeds, seedlings, compost and natural fertilisers, you'll also need tools. If you intend to dig, you'll need a spade and maybe a fork, you'll also need a rake and a trowel. None of these tools needs to be new. You can buy perfectly good tools from the secondhand store or at markets and often the older tools are very good quality, they just need a clean up.

If you want to grow climbing vegetables like beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers etc, you'll need stakes and climbing frames. Again, you can probably pick these up from your dump shop or secondhand store.

Check out your garden in the morning and evening and see where the sun rises and sets. Your vegetables will need between six to eight hours of full sun per day, except if you're in the tropics, then you'll probably be looking for a bit of afternoon shade or a shade tunnel. Don't plant your garden over the roots of large trees - the tree will rob you of the moisture and you won't have the success you deserve. If possible your garden should be fairly close to the house, close to a tap and if you have dogs or chooks, you'll need to fence it off.

Dig or no dig?
We dig. We've tried no dig gardens in the past but they never produce the quality of food we get when we dig. We use slight raised beds that we dig and add compost and manure to year round, particularly just before our big plant out in March and when we plant anything new.

Plan your garden on paper
Draw your garden plan on a piece of paper, making sure that the taller plants like corn and tomatoes don't stop the sun reaching the shorter ones nearby. You'll need to walk around the area you plan to dig and make sure the plan you've drawn will work. Don't make your gardens too big because you don't want to be walking on them. You're better off making long, narrow gardens that can be accessed from both sides.

I hope I haven't scared you off but I do want you to know that vegetable gardening is not a walk in the park. It's wonderfully enriching, it's good exercise, will give you cheap, fresh, organic produce, it's madly entertaining and productive, it's will help you on your way towards independent and self reliant living, but some of it is hard work. Know, really know, that you'll be able to carry if off before you start. If you don't think you can construct garden beds and dig, ask someone in your family to help, or see if there is a teenage boy in the neighbourhood who will do the hard work for you for a few dollars.

Having the ability to grow some of your own food is empowering and it's a great skill to pass on to your children. If this is your first garden, start with a small crop and add a few more things each year until your garden gives you what you would usually buy. If you're unsure about how you will cope with a garden, and if you're young and fit, challenge yourself, and work slowly towards it. It is hard work, particularly starting the garden from scratch, but if you can do this, if you decide that a bit of hard work will be good for you, if you step up to the challenge and work through the season to its end, you will harvest more than vegetables. Your bounty will include satisfaction, knowledge, independence and the ability to produce food from a seed. And that, my friends, is a skill worth having.

Tomorrow I'll write about seeds and seedlings and how to plant them.


  1. Very informative, Rhonda Jean! Thanks for sharing your gardening secrets. I'm sure they will come in quite handy for me this year. :)

  2. Great post. Onr thing that really helped me in begining of the vegitable garden was locating the ZONE.
    The Zone telling us hat to grow when.
    On line I found a wonderful few sites on soil prep. Then by studying the seed company adds I learned what plants need each type of soil and such.
    The thing I have yet to learn more about is the 00-00-00 and so that is what I am studying now.
    Fertilizing the soil with natural sources.
    Great thing your sharing here Rhonda. So glad you do.

  3. Hi Rhonda,

    We just started preparing our patch and the neighbours cat came to visit and left a poopoo there.
    How can we keep cats away from ou garden?
    Thank you.
    Best wishes,

  4. Thank you for this post--it is very timely, as I consider how to supplement our grocery budget with homegrown.

  5. Thnaks for a great post Rhonda, we are putting in a new no dig garden where there is more winter sunshine here at the moment, got some great soil from the chook farm down the road (well rotted they haven't ahd chooks for about 19 months now) so hopefully it will produce well.


  6. Hi everyone!

    Daisy, the only way I know of is to wait in hiding until the cat comes in again, then wet it with the hose. Other readers may have suggestions but if a cat thinks you've given it the biggest kitty litter box, it will use it.

  7. daisy,

    i've had good luck using citrus peels to keep the cats out of my garden beds. i've used lemon, lime, orange and tangerine peels all with equal results. when the kids are done snacking, i tear up the peel and toss them around on the surface of the bed. even my own cat now skirts the area rather than crossing through it.

  8. Rhonda,
    Thanks once again for an informative post. Although I've been gardening for many years I've never thought of gardening as "madly entertaining"!!! LOL I'm beginning to 'look' at things in a much different light whenever I read your posts. Well, it must of been madly entertaining yesterday when I planted 90 feet of garden peas and 100 onion sets. I got my 8yo son to help with the onion that was very enter-taining!!! I hope they all grow, after I spent some time teaching him which was the root end that went down! LOL Will try to get some potatoes, beets, salad
    greens, carrots and radishes in during the next few days (if the rains hold off long enough)! Still fairly cool here in my part of the world so can't plant tomatoes, squash, or beans. Oops!
    I can hear the rain coming down..
    guess that ends the planting for today! Guess I'll go bake some-
    thing yummy. Have a great week!
    Hugs, Aunt Bea

  9. Thank you! This is so helpful and exactly what I needed.

  10. This is great information Rhonda for anyone wanting to start gardening. I learned to garden as a young girl and it's something I really enjoy and do it year after year..very therapeutic! Bonus..cheaper produce!!
    I chuckled at Aunt Bea's remark about planting the bulbs upside down..guess what they grow anyway..maybe just a tad longer till they peek through the soil.

  11. Another fantastic and timely post, as we just move into our new house, with heaps of room to set up vege gardens, but a gentle reminder is needed to keep me from rushing in and building big beds, buying equipment & planting out heaps, then not having time or energy (with returning to work & small kids) to follow through... slow and steady is the way for us!

  12. Great post! I'm looking forward to your next one on seedlings, too. I had a good start with seedlings but now am really not sure what to do next! Several of my peppers & marigolds just died when I put them out. Maybe they were too small?

  13. Another great post, Rhonda Jean. I especially liked your last sentence...most definitely a skill worth having.


  14. Thank you for this post. We are just getting ready to start our garden and since it will only be our second year I still feel unsure of what to plant where and how many of each plant do I plant etc? but we really enjoyed last year and were really exited every time we came outside and saw our food growing. It is very satisfying.

  15. We have just started our March/Autumn planting too, which is our second vegetable garden. My husband used wooden builder's pallets turned on their sides and wired together to create three long raised beds which stand on concrete, easiest garden I've ever owned and the most productive.This garden is closer to the house than our first which is next to the chook house; we are keeping it for the rambling veggies such as pumpkins and ceylon spinach but salad veggies go into our new garden, not so far to trek now! We used rotten straw bales from a local dairy farm to fill the beds and own compost enriched with blood and bone was dug in. The bales were free and the farmer was happy for us to take them away. Our summer harvest from these beds with the same rotten bales was amazing considering we are surrounded by tall trees and do not get full sunlight. You have now inspired me to go and take some photos for a future post and to dig over the third bed for garlic. What varieties do you grow? We want something with a bit more zing than the Russian garlic that most people seem to grow. I should go and check your archives!

  16. I love your blog and read it often. I am busy preparing my vegetable garden but today I discovered tons of little flies and eggs of little fly type bugs with white/clear wings in my soil. They were everywhere, with every load of dirt I turned over as I was preparing the soil. Their eggs looked yellow and the flies were tiny. What are they? Are the harmful? Are they from the manure I put into the soil last fall? I can't find any information online and thought you might be able to offer some insight? I don't know whether to keep planting or do something to get rid of these flies?? Thank you so much for your blog and inspiring works. You are a blessing!

  17. Kelly, pour boiling water onto the ants. You may need to do it a few times - once a day for three or four days.

  18. The Backyard Vegetable Factory (I can't recall the author's name at the moment) is a great resource for U.S. gardeners. There are wonderful charts at the back of the book giving frost dates and planting times based upon your location along with a guide as to how many plants are needed per person.

  19. Rhonda,
    When you say you dig, do you actually pull the blocks back and rototill the soil or do you just turn the soil over in their beds. How far is necessary to dig?

    The reason I'm asking is that this is the first year we will begin raised beds over top our existing soil. I have wondered what we should do to the top of the existing ground before we start our beds - lasagna layers over top of it or rototill a spot then place the blocks around it and fill with compost and such?

    Any advice would be welcomed!

    Thanks again, Rhonda, for your beautifully written articles. I read every time you post.

  20. Rhonda,
    Great post, just what I need now that I have started my little vegetable bed. We are just doing a small bed this year to start. I had asked you about your blocks and thought we would use those however we had some 2 X 6 boards so that was a no-brainer!! We are getting good soil for the bed but should we dig up the dirt where we put the bed before we put in the new soil? Was that what you meant in the "dig or no dig" section?

    Looking forward to reading your next post. I talked to my extension agent and he says I can go ahead and get my beets, spinach, carrots and radishes in. I'm ready to go!!

    Thanks much, Becky in WV USA

  21. We must be on the save wavelength. I just drew up my garden plan this morning and my husband and I just picked out where our compost piles will be going over the weekend. This is our first spring living on 8 acres (previously used for raising pigs, cows, goats, etc) and it has been hard not to go out and buy a gazillion plants and randomly start planting. But I decided over the weekend to spend this year "setting" up for the future by focusing on building our garden bed frames, composting and maybe even creating a few rain barrels. This is tough because I want to garden THIS year (and I will be doing a little bit with strawberries and our current apple trees), but I know if we are going to succeed with sustainable living - I have to set us up for it first.

    Thank you for being an inspiration as always.

  22. Since the Obamas themselves will hardly be working their garden, do you suppose it would cost more or less tax dollars to hire the project and maintenance, or to have purchased the same vegetables from other small family enterprises in the area?


  23. onemotherslove, your seedlings need to be a reasonable size to be planted out and they need to be handed gently. Plant out in the late afternoon if you're in a warm climate, or morning if you're in a cold area. If you can give your seedlings a drink of diluted seaweed extract if will help them over the transplant shock. Apart from that, never let them dry out. When they're bigger that can cope with a few dry days but small seedlings can't. Oh, if you're on a windy site, you might have to put up a wind break near the baby seedlings - something like a bale of hay placed next to the garden bed would do fine.

    Natalie, knowing how many to plant is something you'll learn along the way. It differs for each family, depending on its size. It's a good idea to keep records of what you plant, when, how many and how much you harvested.

    Ann, the no dig garden you described is the only way to grow vegies successsfuly if you're close to tall trees. Well done! We grow a pink garlic here.

    Simple T, I'm not sure what those bugs are. Every country and region has their own varieties of insect so it's difficult to say. They might be flying ants. No matter, you could try boiling water to try to get rid of them. Boil a kettle and pour the water over the eggs, try to find their main nest and pour water over it too. Do that for three or four days. If you think they're feeding on something in the garden, get rid of it. Good luck and good harvests.

    teresa, we dig into the soil. We like to aerate our soil and we do that by digging. Some gardeners say that destroys the soil structure but we've never found that to be true and we get good crops. Generally digging in a shape depth will do - so that's probably about 10 inches.

    Becky, you can either dump the soil on top or you can dig it in to your natural soil. You don't have to remove the soil underneath.

    Hotbellymama, that's a very good idea. Use this time to get your soil ready, to prepare compost, erect fences, etc. Those preps will pay off a lot in years to come.

    Ella, I think the example they are setting, by having their own garden, is a valuable one. I hope Mrs Obama and her daughters will tend the garden, as she said she wanted her girls to learn from the garden.

  24. You are correct that there is a bit of work involved, but might I add that it is the most natural, fulfilling work. Being outdoors, getting vitamins from the sun, exercise and the joy of watching things sprout and grow.
    A suggestion if you have many claims on your time- do just a little each day. Divide the garden in your mind and each day of the week, spend 15 minutes or half an hour weeding and tending. Move on to the next area next time. Having all of your tools handy helps you to utilise these little blocks of time.

  25. I love reading your blog! You have helpful info for those of us who are just starting with growing fruits and veggies. Your posts are encouraging, giving me confidence that I can do it too! I’ve never grown food before but feel that now is the time. It started off as an idea of a way to save on groceries, but evolved into so much more. My husband and I want to know what we’re eating and feeding to our son. We also feel it is important to teach him how to provide for himself and the rewards of hard work and patience. In the short time since we’ve started our garden, I’ve learned another advantage to gardening. It is very relaxing to go out and pull the weeds, to see the daily changes, and to wonder what will change next. It is simple living that offers so many advantages and rewards. I’m glad I’ve finally begun growing food for my family and I’m glad there are people like you who post such wonderful helpful information. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!

    Cindy @ Kightland


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