Building a Garden in 7 Steps – a Layperson’s Guide

Chrysanthemums in our spring garden.

Marigolds in our spring garden.

For those of us lucky enough to live in a climate where we can grow food year-round, we should do our best to take advantage of this reality. Growing food is primal…elemental. It’s what we’ve done for centuries and centuries as wanderers and settlers across the globe. But today, even with an abundance of resources at our fingertips, most of us fail to engage in this most fundamental of acts, including myself.

Recently, with a few friends and some new found inspiration, I set out to change this. Let me be clear –  I am by NO MEANS a garden expert. The following steps are intended to provide a basic (and lighthearted) framework for getting your garden up and growing. Key elements to our process was fun and laughter, not science. Yes, we intend our garden to produce food and for our circle of friends to do our little piece in building be a more ‘food secure‘ community, but this post is not intended to offer professional garden advice. If you need details on compost-to-square-foot ratios, nitrogen/phosphorous/potassium (NPK) characteristics, etc., you’ll need to consult an expert (which we did in planting our own garden). With that said, continue reading if you’d like. Here goes!

Steps to Planting a Garden

Step 1 – Find a plot. The first step is to find a plot where your garden can grow. While I was lucky enough to find some friends who wanted to rehabilitate their old garden on a a 10’x25′ plot, not all of us are so lucky. Ask around…you’ll be surprised at how many friends have some space in which to grow food. And because tending a garden is easier and more fun with more hands, it makes sense to form a little team. In many communities, community garden programs exist, often maintained by the city, county, or a local non-profit organization. So if you can’t use a friend’s backyard, find a community garden plot.

Step 2 – Prep the Soil. Once you’ve found some friends and a small chunk of land, it’s time to prep the soil. No matter what the quality of the previous soil on-site, its always a good idea to amend the soil before you get started. You’ll need:

Compost from local nursery

Compost from local nursery

Compost – Ideally, you’re using compost that you or your friends produced from kitchen waste. But, you can also ask around. Check with farmers at your local farmers markets, look for municipal sources of compost from green waste, or buy compost at your local nursery (when buying compost, make sure you’re buying the GOOD stuff and not some industrial compost blend that may contain toxic/harmful waste, metals, etc.). Note- I went to Facebook and asked friends if anyone had home grown compost. They did! This, mixed with store bought compost (above) did the trick beautifully. We even scored a home composter…stoked!

Mulch from the County Transfer Station

Mulch from the County Transfer Station

Mulch – You’ll want mulch with which to cover your garden bed once planted (last step). Again, check for municipal sources of mulch. You can usually find free sources from the city or county. At right is our free mulch pick-up from the local transfer station.

Additional amendments – Bat guano, kelp, fish emulsion, etc. You can find all of this stuff, but its also commonly found in compost blends that you can purchase at the store. Add to your garden as desired and necessary.

Get to your plot and loosen up existing soil. In some cases, you may want to dig soil out. We simply loosened up the soil, weeded the plot as best we could and added compost into existing soil, making sure that the new compost blended completely into existing soil. Could we have done more to supplement and enhance our soil? Probably. But because one of our garden goals is to build our soil’s health over time under a process that we directly control, we sided with adding less amendments than more. Once our soil was completely mixed, we added a border of cinder blocks. These will help contain our garden and also serve a dual purpose as herb/seed containers.

Clearing weeds in an old garden bed.

Clearing weeds in an old garden bed.

Step 3 – Lay out your Garden. With the cinder border in place (see below), we started assessing how we would lay out our spring/summer garden. An open plot that has access to plentiful sunlight is ideal. We were lucky enough to plant a garden that has full sun most of the day, with the sun moving from east to west across the sky. Take sun direction into account when planting your garden. Consult a local gardening expert to make sure you’re planting the right plants for the right season, and in the right location.

Placing plants on our garden plot.

Placing plants on our garden plot.

We were told by our friend Oscar Carmona, a local gardening expert and owner of Healing Grounds Nursery, that due to local foggy summers in June and July, certain veggies and fruits would benefit by us adding a layer of black plastic tarp over the soil. This would keep the soil warm and would help fight off pathogens and mildew that might otherwise attack our squash, cucumbers and melons. We were also told that some of our greens like lettuce, arugula and kale would benefit greatly by adding a ‘shade’ cloth to protect them from the summer heat and sun. So we did both, adding black tarp on certain crops and a shade structure over others.

These are the types of tips you can glean from people in your community who know what they’re doing!

Everyone holla!

Everyone holla!

Step 4 – Mid-gardening celebration. Now you’ve prepped your soil and laid out your garden its important, to throw your hands up in celebratory fashion. You’re doing good work! You might choose to enjoy a cold beverage at this time (or possibly earlier).

Step 5 – Plant your garden. Now that you’ve identified where everything will go, it’s time to plant your garden! This part’s pretty easy. Make sure you’re following instructions on how much spacing each plant should have from other plants, and at what depth to plant the seeds/starts. You’ll want to leave space for walking through your garden to water it.

Placing our starter plants in the soil.

Placing our starter plants in the soil.

When planting, take your ‘start’ out of its pre-existing container (unless your planting from seed) and make sure to dig a hole deep enough for the entire base of the plant to fit into. You should not have an elevated mound at the base of your plant. In fact, you’d prefer a litte ‘dip’ so that water is sure to penetrate that plant’s soil and root area.

Plastic tarp in foreground. Mulch on entire garden, including underneath tarp.

Plastic tarp in foreground.

Step 6 – Mucho Mulcho! Now that you’ve planted your crops in the ground, it’s time to lay down a layer of mulch. Mulch is KEY in maintaining a garden. It helps keep down weeds, maintains water moisture in the soil, and helps keep out certain pathogens. We mulched our entire garden plot, leaving a small non-mulched ‘ring’ around the base of each plant. We even placed mulch under our black plastic tarp (see image of tarp at right).

Step 7 – Watering and Maintenance. At the outset, do a ‘deep soak’ of your new garden, and water every day to make sure new plants survive the shock of transplanting them. Water in the late afternoon or evening to avoid mid-day evaporation. We use a spray hose and gently apply water to the base of each individual plant, ensuring each plant gets a good daily watering. You might choose drip irrigation as well, which is highly efficient. Never use overhead sprinklers (inefficient) or water unnecessarily.

Never use pesticides. We planted beneficial plants flowers (marigolds – top picture on this post) to help with pest control and will add beneficial insects to prey on bad bugs as necessary. Ladybugs are a garden’s best friend. We’re sure we’ll be doing battle with pests in the days and weeks ahead and will have to address those issues in a non-toxic manner as they arise. Already, slugs went for some of our beans and some lettuce. That’s ok. We put out a beer bath that seems to have done the trick. Experimentation is key!

As your garden grows, you may notice the need to water less (we have – observe closely and adjust as necessary).  You’ll also notice the need to add new mulch occasionally, add new plants when other ones die or get harvested (or eaten by pests), add compost to the soil for nutrient reinforcement, and adjust your overall technique. Gardening is like working in a ‘living laboratory’ that requires constant observation, experimentation and adaptation.

photo 2

Shade structure for our greens in foreground.

 

How does our garden grow?

How does our garden grow?

 

Red Bells

Red Bell Peppers coming soon!

Step 8 – Enjoy! When it was all said and done, we had planted bush and pole beans, lettuce, arugula, kale, carrots, chives, onions, all sorts of heirloom tomatoes, jalapeño, pasilla and bell peppers, cucumbers, celery, strawberries, melon, marigolds and tons of herbs. We’ve taken great pride in watching our little garden grow over the last two weeks and can’t wait to enjoy what lays ahead. As of this writing, our tomatoes, lettuce and squash seem to be thriving the most, followed closely by peppers and the other greens.

We’re sure you’ll experience similar joys in getting down and dirty in your own garden. When you plant your garden, make sure to let us know! Post your pics on our Facebook page and comment here.

From our garden tribe to yours, happy growing!

Our gardening team at the end of a long day of planting.

Our gardening team at the end of a long day of planting.

Written by Eric Cardenas, LoaTree. Garden planted by Danni, Emma, Sarah, Matt, Jeff and Eric.

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