Eager to get started growing your own food? Start garden preparation now with this step by step guide for beginners.
It's that weird time between Christmas and the New Year. You know that odd week where it feels like you're living in Leonardo Dicaprio's Inception? Just us?
Anyways, we lucked into some really warm weather here in Oklahoma, and we've been itching to get a head start on our garden for the spring. Obviously, it's not quite planting season yet, but as newbie homesteaders we have a lot of garden prep projects to keep us occupied.
If you're a relatively new back yard veggie grower too, then we hope you'll find something helpful in our process.
But first, to all those trying to prepare a garden with little ones in tow, a little encouragement.
Benefits of growing food with kids
Growing food with kids is TOTALLY worth the effort. Here are a few of the benefits of keeping a family garden:
- Helps children understand where their food comes from, making them more likely to eat new foods and be responsible consumers/purchasers
- The daily work of a garden teaches responsibility, diligence, and persistence
- Seeing a seed grow from nothing to a plant that feeds your entire family is one of the best lessons in faith
- Kids who can grow their own food will never go hungry, and are more likely to pass on their skills to future generations
- Being outside and tending to the garden is great for their little bodies
- Gardening is a lesson in biology, ecology, chemistry...and much much more
- Last but certainly not least, you'll have more food to feed those ALWAYS hungry mouths.
Our kiddos are pretty small, but we like to involve them as much as possible in every homestead/ DIY project. If you want to hear more about how we do this, definitely check out our DIY with kids video on Youtube.
First up, choose a spot for your garden
Okay, it may seem simple to choose the right spot for your garden, but we definitely messed this up when we were first started out. Here's the skinny:
Pick a spot with full sun
We have a lot of trees in our backyard. Everytime we've planted there, our garden flopped. We now plant our veggie garden in an open field a little distance from our house. When in doubt, choose a spot with more sun when preparing your garden.
Pick a spot near your water source
If at all possible you do not want to be carting water in a watering can over long distances every day. If you can prepare a garden near a water pump or close enough to use a long hose, do it! Thankfully, we have a second water pump on our land near the garden.
Pick a spot on high ground
If at all possible, do not plant your garden in a valley where water pools or floods. You want a spot on a hill or level ground where water drainage is good.
Choose a spot near your house
The closer your garden is to home, the more likely you are to tend it regularly. Not to mention, the proximity to humans might keep critters away. Personally, we aren't able to keep a garden right near our house because of the trees, but we've gotten in the habit of walking to the garden every morning and evening with the dog as a part of our daily routine.
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Next, decide on a raised bed or ground garden
We decided to build taller raised beds for our garden for a few reasons:
- More control over the soil
- Easier on the back
- Can be easier to keep weeds out
- Pretty aesthetic, since we'll be in this home long term we figure our garden might as well look nice.
We have friends who have a very successful ground garden in their backyard. They've created a system that works great for keeping weeds out which we'll talk about later. This option also has less start-up expense, and it might be the way to go if you don't plan to stay in your current home longterm.
Once you've decided which route to go, it's time to prepare the ground.
Prepare the ground for your garden
To start, you'll want to mark out the area for your garden. If you're using raised beds, get them in place first, but don't fill them with dirt yet.
We chose to give ourselves about 2-3 feet between each of our beds, just enough room to work, but not so much that we'd have to run our water lines too far. The gap between your beds will depend on your space.
Once the beds are in place, use a pointed shovel to make an indention all around your beds. Next, move the beds out of the way (we simply scooted ours to the side). In the space marked out, use a pointed shovel to dig and scrape off the top layer of dirt and grass. If you're planting a ground garden you'll just want to measure and mark the perimeter of your plot.
Next, use a hand tiller like this one (or rent a fancier one from your local hardware store) to break up the ground in between your marks.
Set up weed control
Now that you have the ground prepared, it's time to lay down some landscaping fabric to block out the weeds. If you're using raised beds you can cut the fabric to size to size and staple or nail it to the bottom of the bed.
If your bed is shorter in height (12 inches or less), your plant roots will need to go into the ground soil, so you may want to wait to add landscape fabric until planting time. Simply cover the soil with the fabric, and burn a hole in
If you're bed is shorter in height (12 inches or less), your plant roots will need to go into the ground soil and you don't want the fabric stealing water from the roots.
Instead of using fabric, you can add mulch around your plants once they've sprouted for weed control
Alternatively, if you're planting in the ground, then come planting time, you'll simply cover your plot with landscaping fabric, using rocks, steaks or soil to keep the ends down on the edge. Then you can use a lighter to burn holes in the fabric, planting your seeds in the holes.
Prepare garden soil
Here's maybe the most important thing you can do to prepare your veggie garden ahead of time. Make sure you have awesome, nutrient rich soil! And if not, doctor it up, so it will be awesome come planting time.
Starting with a good soil mix
If you're planting in a small box, it makes sense to fill your bed with a good bagged soil like this organic raised garden mix.
If you're filling a lot of beds or recovering a large plot of ground, bags won't be as cost effective. You can look in your area for a bulk dirt supplier, or call around to your local nursery to see where they get their dirt. We found a company that hauls the dirt to your house. We were able to fill 5 beds this way at just double the price of filling one bed with bags.
Testing soil PH
Once you have your soil, you'll want to test the pH. You can usually get your local agricultural department to do this for you, however for the size of our garden we found it easier to spend the 10-15 bucks on a home meter/testing kit. We picked up this multi-purpose pH meter and it worked like a charm.
Ideally, your soil will have a pH between 6.0 - 7.0, since most plants thrive in this (slightly) acidic environment. If your soil falls outside of this range, you still have time to make amendments to get it in the right place.
Adding soil amendments
If you're like we were and you have no idea what a soil amendment is, it's just something you add to the dirt to increase or decrease the pH (acidity). Depending on your pH reading, you may need to decrease the acidity (bring the pH up) or increase the acidity (bring the pH down) to get it in the optimal range. We'll give you some fast ideas for each:
Amendments to bring the pH up
If you need to raise the pH of your soil up (decrease acidity) consider adding wood ash, baking soda or limestone. The first two will raise the pH quickly and may be more appropriate if you're doing this 2-3 months from planting, however they will not have as lasting an effect as limestone. Limestone takes closer to 6 months to take full effect, but again, lasts longer.
Whichever you choose make sure to follow directions carefully, so you don't over do it!
Amendments to bring the pH down
If you need to bring the pH of your soil down (increase acidity) your best bet is to use organic compost! We had enough composted chicken manure/bedding to cover one of our beds at the end of November, but assuming this is you don't have this on hand, there are plenty of other options including sulfur, and store bought compost and even coffee grounds. Again, do some research on your preferred route and follow directions carefully.
Okay, there you have it. Next stop, planning, seedlings, and outdoor planting. We. Can't. Wait.
But just to recap:
How To Prep Your Garden this Winter
- Choose a spot with full sun and good drainage, close to water source and home
- Decide on raised beds or planting in the ground
- Prepare the ground, scrape out grass and weeds and till your plot
- Set up weed control with landscape fabric staples to boxes or directly on the dirt
- Prepare the soil, choose a starting mix, test the pH and make amendments