Freedom from the state and self-sufficiency go hand-in-hand. One of our latest projects here at Voluntaryism in Action, “Rooted in Voluntaryism,” aims to assist more people to increase their self-sufficiency through gardening. A VIA follower and volunteer, Roger Perry, is a master gardener with a lifetime of experience. Below, he offers some basic tips for beginners. We hope this will be a helpful accompaniment to your seed starter kit if you signed up for our program, or that you’ll share with friends interested in starting their own vegetable gardens!
Before beginning your home garden let’s take a look at some of the basics.
There are two main organizations that have developed a series of climate zones covering the entire country. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Publishes one list, and The Sunset Western Garden Book (Sunset) publishes another. They are based on different information and so their zones do not overlap—you must be sure that you know which one you are using and which one a catalog, store, or label is using. They are both widely available at garden stores, libraries, online, seed catalogs, and other sources. These climate zones give you general guidance as to a particular plant’s adaptability to your general area. Along with your climate zone you should also be aware of your microclimate—the things affecting your specific garden location. Will the garden be on the north side of a building? Is it shaded by trees? Is it at the bottom of a hill? Is there a river or lake nearby? All these factors can influence a plant’s ability to grow in a specific location.
This is basically the number of days above freezing weather. It starts with the average last day of frost in the spring and ends with the average first day of frost in the fall. This is just a guide; there are plants that will survive in freezing weather and others that cannot tolerate any cold. The growing season can be extended by starting seeds indoors, using plastic or blankets to cover plants, using plastic to cover the soil, or by using raised beds.
Soil is dirt, plain and simple. You can plant your vegetable garden in almost any common soil and get good results. There are a few things to watch out for—heavy clay soil, boggy wet soil, extremely sandy soil, acid/alkaline imbalance, lack of basic nutrients. Clay, boggy, sandy soils can be improved by adding organic material—compost, sawdust, lawn clippings, purchased garden soil. With boggy soil look for the source of the water to see if it can be diverted. The general acid, alkaline, or nutrient status of your soil can be checked using a simple soil test kit purchased from a nursery or plant store, or you can send or take a soil sample to a soil testing lab. These can be located through plant nurseries, local college/universities, or online.
Quality of water is not usually a problem. If you want your water tested, most municipal water providers, local college/university, or testing labs can do so at a minimal charge. A bigger concern is with managing the water to ensure it is in the right place at the right time and the right amount. This is called irrigation. Plants require regular watering. Newly planted seeds or plants should be kept slightly damp, but don’t soak them. After they have become established, water deeply and then do not water again until the soil begins to dry out. Small gardens can be watered using a watering can, a bucket, or a common water hose. Larger gardens need a water hose or a system of pipes, hoses, sprinklers that all may be hooked up to an electric timer. A system of ditches, dams and pools can help collect and direct the water. Mulching can help keep the soil moist.
Mulching is the process of adding organic material (Lawn clippings, leaves, sawdust, bark chunks) around plants growing in the garden. The mulch helps retain moisture, keep plants cool, blocks weeds from growing, and adds nutrients and organic material to the soil as it breaks down. As decomposing mulch takes nitrogen from the soil, it is a good idea to add nitrogen when you add the mulch.
Plants need nutrients (chemicals) to help them grow. These can come from inorganic (chemical) or organic (natural) sources. Both types can be purchased to meet specific needs. Organic fertilizers can also be found at home, although quantities and qualities are less precise. Coffee grounds, eggshells, banana peels, and other kitchen waste (but no meat, fat, or bones!), leaves, lawn clippings, sawdust and other organic compounds can add some nutrients. There are three main chemicals in fertilizer—Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). Every fertilizer label lists the percentage by weight of these three ingredients (NPK) and then any other nutrients included. If you use a chemical fertilizer, look for a balanced one. These contain equal or nearly equal amounts of NPK fertilizer (10-10-10 or 15-10-8).
Composting is the process of breaking down organic material into soil. This is done by building a compost pile (freestanding or enclosed). Gather materials to be composted (lawn trimmings, leaves, kitchen waste—no meat, fat, or bones—and other organic material). Shred or chop. Dig a hole. Put material in hole, cover lightly with dirt, mix it up, add some water, cover lightly with dirt. In a few days dig the material, mix it up, water it, and add another light coating of dirt. Continue this process until the composted material is no longer visible. Now it can be added to other soil, used as mulch, or used for planting seeds. If you don’t have the time or energy to turn it all the time don’t worry, it will eventually decompose on its own. A simple way to compost small amounts is to take the daily kitchen scraps and bury them among the growing plants in the garden. Be sure to remember where yesterday’s scraps are buried and stay away from plant roots. Another easy way to compost is in the spring and fall when the garden is not planted, start at one end of the garden, and dig a hole. When you have enough organic material, bury it in the hole. Dig another hole and continue the process. By the time you get to the end of the garden you can start again.
Organic or Chemical?
Many people, especially those growing their own food, feel that organic is the way to go. Others feel that proper use of chemicals is safe and easy. The choice is yours. There are organic fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides. They may not be quite as fast or effective as chemicals, but they will not harm the environment, they allow for biodiversity, they provide “clean” crops, and they encourage you to be active in your garden.
Good luck in your gardening adventure! If you can’t afford starting seeds, be sure to visit VIA’s Rooted In Voluntaryism page to request help.