Gardening was once a normal part of life for most people, and in almost all parts of the world, we still have the ability to grow some of our own food, at least part of the year. Yet, statistically, many of us don’t (especially in the US).
Back to a Backyard Garden…
As the population has moved away from agriculture and into more urban settings, gardening is not as necessary and there isn’t as much land to grow on, but it is certainly still possible.
In war times, families were encouraged to grow “victory gardens” to help prevent food shortage and at their peak, there were over 20,000,000 of these gardens in the US.
With rising food & gas prices, droughts, and issues with the food supply, perhaps it is time to bring back the backyard garden.
Growing some of your own food, even in small containers on a patio, will let you have fresh, organic produce at a fraction of the cost. If you have the room, a medium to large garden can produce enough food to feed a family, especially if you have time to devote to preservation and storage.
Decide What To Grow
The first year especially, it can be tough to know how much of each variety to plant. When I started gardening, we often ended up with too many tomatoes to use and wished we had more cucumbers. This website has a good list with an average of how much to grow for a family of four.
My strategy now is to grow foods that (a) we eat the most of and (b) are the most expensive to buy organically. For us, this means lots of spinach, strawberries, winter squash, tomatoes (which are canned or fermented), herbs, cucumbers (naturally fermented to preserve), blueberries, sweet potatoes and peppers (usually dried to preserve).
To help figure out how much of each plant to grow and when to plant, check out GrowVeg.com. They offer a free 30-day trial of their garden planning guide, which lets you see visually how many of each variety to plant.
Here’s a picture of what our spring garden looked like one year using this garden planner:
They also give you a great chart of planting dates for your climate:
Start Seeds Indoors Early
Starting seeds indoors lets you get a head start on the garden and a longer growing season. For plants like tomatoes and peppers, starting them inside is almost necessary for a good growing season.
To make it easy, get small seeds starter trays that can be kept on a kitchen table or counter. They even make organic versions of these! Start tomatoes and peppers about 4-6 weeks before you plant them outside, so for us that means starting early April indoors and transplanting outdoors in mid-May.
To speed up the process, you can pre-germinate the seeds in unbleached coffee filters or paper towels in unzipped plastic bags. To pre-germinate:
Just place about 10 seeds with space in between on 1 unbleached coffee filter.
Put another coffee filter on top and get damp with warm water.
Fold in half and put in a quart size or larger plastic bag, but don’t zip it!
Place the bag on a plate and put on top of your fridge or in another slightly warm place
In 2-3 days, you should see tiny sprouts coming from the seeds.
At this point, plant seeds in small pots indoors using tweezers.
Gardening in Any Backyard
I know many people who are fortunate enough to have a huge backyard with plenty of room to garden, but many of us live in the city and have limited space that gets enough sun.
Even a small backyard can produce a lot of food:
Grow beets, radishes, lettuces and some greens on a balcony or patio
Vines like beans, peas, and cucumbers do well in hanging baskets or in barrels on a deck or patio
Peppers, tomatoes and beans need more sun (6-8 hours per day) for optimal growth
Just make sure that any container plants get enough sun and water, and that the container has proper drainage.
Here are a few simple ways that I’ve personally tried for backyard gardening…
DIY Planter Box
I shared the instructions for my simple cedar planter box before, and this is one of the simplest ways to grow a small backyard garden.
This planter is only three feet long, so it will fit on almost any patio or porch. We are currently growing Kale, herbs and a few microgreens.
Natural Container Gardening
If you aren’t the DIY type and don’t want to build a container for gardening, there are many pre-existing natural containers that will work:
Old Barrels (cut in half)
Metal drums or planters
Just make sure that any container has adequate drainage and water container plants often.
Square Foot Garden
This is one of the first types of backyard gardening I tried when we moved into our first home. The basic concept is using a 4×4 raised bed (or several of them) in a very calculated way to maximize the amount of food that can be grown. The 4×4 foot bed is divided into 16 one-foot squares and each square is used for one type of plant (based on size).
For instance, you might plant one tomato plant in one square, four basil plants in another and nine spinach plants in another.
This site has some additional information about how to plan a square foot garden, but to get started, you just need:
A 4×4 raised bed kit (or materials to make your own)
Optional: a square foot gardening grid
Soil + sunlight
An extension of the square foot garden is a larger raised bed. The square foot method can actually be used in a larger bed as well to optimize production.
We have permanent raised beds in our yard and they are big enough for us to grow most of the seasonal vegetables for our family.
By using companion planting and succession planting, we are able to grow food from April-October in our climate.
Prepare the Garden
Figure out how much space you can devote to a garden and plan accordingly. If you just have a few containers on a patio, make sure to get quality soil and use organic fertilizer to maximize production.
If you are growing an outdoor garden, consider using raised beds to maximize space and production.
Once you have the space for the garden reserved, you need to make sure you have decent soil to work with. Many county extension offices offer soil testing at very inexpensive prices. Getting your soil tested will help you pinpoint what, if anything, you need to add to the soil to make sure your plants grow well.
We tilled in several truckloads of organic compost over the last couple of years. While this was a little pricey upfront, it paid off in the long run. Our soil is naturally very acidic dense clay that doesn’t drain well. Adding the compost gave us beautiful, black soil that produced veggies in abundance last year!
Making the Most of Your Space
You can easily maximize your growing space and often prevent pests with the same methods. To make sure you get the most production from small spaces, practices like intercropping, companion planting, and succession planting can really help.
Companion planting allows you to grow multiple plants that help each other in the same area. A classic example is the Indian custom of planting corn, beans and squash together. The corn provides a structure for the beans and squash, and the beans add nitrogen back into the soil to feed the corn and squash.
Another example is planting basil under tomatoes. Besides tasting great together, these two help deter pests from each other and improve the growing quality of each other. Check out this list for a chart of good companion plants.
My favorite plants to plant together are:
Basil with tomato to promote growth and keep pests away
Marigolds throughout the garden to deter pests and reduce nematodes
Dill with cucumber
Catnip, mint and chamomile in brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) to deter pests
Beets under cabbage to maximize space
Cucumbers with mammoth sunflowers- the sunflowers act as the trellis
Planting a variety of crops in succession will give you more yield from your garden and extend your harvest season. For instance, right now, my garden has young cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, chart, spinach and lettuce. Once those are harvested, the same beds will become a space for melons or winter squash.
Growing some plants up rather than letting them sprawl can reduce the amount of space they need and actually increase yield by reducing disease exposure.
Trellises and cages are great for tomatoes, cucumbers, vining squash and others. Here’s an informative article that explains more. I’ll be posting soon on the system we use to grow tomatoes that gives great airflow and maximizes production (its also very easy and inexpensive!)
So far, our garden is on track to produce lots of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach, lettuce, strawberries, beets, radishes and others in the next couple of months. In the next few weeks, I’ll be putting plants in the ground for summer crops of tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.
Natural Pest Control for Organic Gardens
It is so frustrating to spend hours working on your garden only to have plants destroyed by pests. With organic gardening, many of the normal pesticides are off-limits, but there are still many great ways to keep the pests out! Check out this post for a variety of natural pest control options.