Start Your Food Garden, 101

You’ve got your piece of dirt picked out. Perhaps it’s still covered in sod, or weeds? Spring is definitely sprung though, and if you’re still dithering over what needs to happen and when, let’s sort that out right here, so you can get things going!

Start with the dirt! If there’s sod, till it under. Or hoe it under or shovel it under, if you need cheap methods. There isn’t an easy way to do this, it just has to be done. Weeds, especially seedy ones, if you can remove and burn them, you might save yourself from some fraction of those weed seeds. Gloves are good for this, and sharp shears. As you are finding that dirt, inspect it. How does it move? How does it look? How wet/dry is it? Think about those characteristics and as you are planning the space, amend the soil in sensible ways. Carrots need it dry and loose. Tomatoes need lots of space for their extensive roots, steady water levels, and calcium, (crumble them up some egg shells.)

Measure your patch. Know what you’re working with and plan appropriately . Give enough space for everything.  Write it all down before you plant it, then write down what changes as you plant it. Dates, varieties, and planting depths.

Give it some good bones. Climbing vines of beans and peas need support. If you live somewhere that gets wind, or even windy storms, you’ve got to make sure you don’t wimp out on that support. You can climb cucumbers and squash too, but they’ll need 10-15 feet of support, build it strong so that all of those vines don’t come crashing down on your head in a gust of wind.  If you plant INDETERMINATE tomatoes, they can grow upwards of 7 feet long. Those cute little 3 foot tall cages won’t cut the mustard.

It can seem like a lot of work. And sometimes it is.  But good work can be satisfying. And what could be more important than feeding your family? Get out there and get it done. Holler in the comments if you have questions!

– Calamity Jane

8 comments… add one
  • Prepared Associates April 17, 2014, 9:42 am

    I can’t speak for the rest of country, but up here in the NE, it’s recommended to have your soil tested for lead and other contaminates.

    If present, people usually do raised beds with clean soil. When I did my garden, that’s what I did just to be on the safe side.

    Your tip about planning is key. I went crazy on the jalapeño peppers and ended with enough for a lifetime.

    • irishdutchuncle April 17, 2014, 2:36 pm

      … if they are good peppers, they can be canned. if they aren’t some hybrid, you really can have a lifetime supply by saving seeds. how deep does your raised bed need to be over contaminated soil?

  • PreparedAssociates April 17, 2014, 3:35 pm

    As I recall (it was a couple of years ago), the beds were enclosed in 8″ tall boards.

  • indigo April 18, 2014, 10:40 am

    With time and foresight I found that mulching has been the least labor intensive for me. We use leaves, cardboard, pine needles, wood chips, straw….basically any carbon-based material. Do some research on whatever you have because each has different properties. Cardboard has glue and binders in it and colored paper has dyes. Sawdust will cause a huge nitrogen deficit. Wood chips take forever to breakdown. Each type, though, will add more tilth and nutrients to your soil vs. tilling/spading which
    only moves material around and destroys the micro-organism communities. AND if you can keep from walking on your planting soil and compacting it (we use logs or dedicated paths), it will also make a big difference.

  • Steve suffering in NJ April 18, 2014, 9:49 pm


    Can I use oak leafs for compost? I’ve been told there too acidic for use? How about ash from a wood stove?


    • Calamity Jane April 21, 2014, 9:22 pm

      You can compost the oak leaves. I see the same cautions online about acidity. But, some things like the acidity. Blueberries love it. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans and onions will all grow in acidic soil, especially if there is a good amount of organic matter in the soil to increase the nutrient profile.
      Wood ash is fine, it does effect insects, so be careful where you place it. Wood ash contains 10-25% calcium, 1-4% magnesium, 5-15% potassium and 1-3% phosphorus.

  • gardener April 19, 2014, 12:17 am

    I have generally let my tomatoes spread out on the ground, but after being hit with blight pretty bad a couple times I’m trying to decide the best way to keep them off the ground. I’m in Canada, so I don’t know if the Florida Weave method that I see in the southern USA is practical here.

    Other factors to consider:
    -I will be growing 100-150 tomato plants, so I want to keep the material costs down.
    -Environmental impact is a consideration, so I would like to avoid plastic sheeting.
    -I also rotate my tomatoes to completely different areas each year, so I need to disassemble any structure and reassemble elsewhere next year.

    Any advice?

  • Steve suffering in NJ April 19, 2014, 10:03 am


    You grow on a much larger scale than I do. However I grow all my tomatoes in pots. My garden is fenced in due to critters. I out all the pots along the top of the fence ( wood). I cut square holes in the side of the pot and plant my seedlings horizontal with the plant out the square hole. The tomatoes grow down like vines. Very low maintance plants grow well. Only problem is watering with the hole cut in the pot. If your not carefull the water washes the dirt out. To combat this I put empty coffee containers on top of the pots with small holes punched in them. I fill the coffee containers with water and it slowly trickles out the holes.

    I generally grow about 40 plants with this method.


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