Don’t make the same absent-minded mistake I made when I dug and shaped the rows in our small vegetable garden.
Which Way Do Your Vegetable Garden Rows Run? (and other tips)
And who would have thought the directions of the rows would make a difference? Well, to be honest, I did. But then I went and forgot all about it when I was building the vegetable garden (a fact I’m correcting now).
Use these organic vegetable gardening tips in your own garden
Here are ten organic vegetable gardening tips to consider for your own garden. If you follow all ten of them, you’ll: • Have better soil so your harvests will be larger. • You’ll do less hard work than more traditional gardeners. • You’ll lower your costs dramatically. • You’ll know when to water and when not to — saving money on water bills. • Your frustration level will go down. And that’s always a good thing in my world. • You’ll feel better, physically and spiritually, after a garden session.
#1 It’s All About The Soil
There’s an old adage in the organic gardening world that you don’t feed your plants, you feed your soil. If you have a healthy soil, your plants will grow a ton better than if you’ve killed off the microorganisms by using chemicals and/or excessive amounts of chemical fertilizers.
Add organic matter such as compost or peat moss every year to your garden. The alternative is deep mulch. Both of those things will keep the organic matter content of your soils high. Vegetables thrive on high organic matter soils This is the number one thing to do. Here’s a simple way to prevent weeds in the vegetable garden and improve the soil at the same time
#2 Use Compost
Compost is one of the last stages in organic matter decomposition and it’s the lifeblood of any soil.
How much do I need to add?
The simple answer is as much as possible. But let’s say you read a book that says, “Put 1/4 inch of compost onto your garden every year” • To apply 1/4 inch of compost to 1000 square feet of garden you’ll need .75 cubic yards of compost. • 3/4 of a yard per 1000 square feet will give you 1/4 inch. • If you need 1/2 inch, you’ll need 1.5 cubic yards of compost Now we’re starting to talk about a lot of compost. In the real world, you put on what you can afford and you apply it using the easy system right below.
How Do I Put Compost Onto The Garden?
I use a very scientific approach. I take a shovel full and toss it around the base of the plant. • Small plant, one shovel. • Big plant — several shovels See, I told you it was scientific. 🙂
I don’t dig it in. It just gets tossed onto the soil or in our case, on top of the deep mulch that covers every square inch of my gardens. The rain and worms will drag it down.
# 3 Put Down A Deep Layer of Mulch
I read about this in an old garden book by Ruth Stout back when I first started gardening seriously. I’ve done it — more or less — ever since. A deep layer of mulch does some very interesting things:
It saves water by reducing evaporation.
It reduces weeding. A 4-inch layer of mulch reduces weeding by as much as 90%. This is a very good thing in my world.
It provides food for all manner of insects and soil microorganisms. And all these creatures help keep your plants healthy and growing well.
Yes, you can use straw or hay or leaves or anything you get locally. I personally prefer straw because it has fewer weed seeds than hay and it doesn’t mat as much as hay but I know folks who prefer hay. Use what you can find and afford.
No — you don’t want to use a mulch on your gardens that doesn’t decompose. The objective here is to provide an ongoing supply of decomposing organic matter to feed our soil. Rocks, ground up rubber tires etc just don’t cut it.
Deep mulching is (imho) the single best thing you can do for your garden to reduce work, reduce water use, increase fertility without work, and get bigger harvests.
#4 Save Your Own Seeds
This is one of the easiest of gardening techniques (we save all our own vegetable seeds) and all it takes is a bit of work in the late summer/fall. Plus you’ll be able to save the plants you like, save money and have seed to share with friends and neighbors. There’s a lot of “mystery” about this but it’s really, really simple to save your own seed. Here’s a quick ebook written by my better half Mayo Underwood — a recognized expert on heirloom seeds. She does all our vegetable seed saving and I take care of the flowers. For the most part, you simply have to take the seed out of the mature plant, dry them (space them well apart on a plate) and then store cool and dry for the winter. Do NOT freeze vegetable seeds.
#5 Get Your Plant Spacing Right
Too many gardeners crowd their plants. The gardens, plants, and gardeners suffer as a result. For example, tomatoes are best grown on 4-foot spacing. That means 4 feet between plants and 4 feet between rows. But gardeners insist on bringing that spacing down so the vines twine together and the plants compete for food and water. And we’re not even considering how diseases are worse when plants are crowded (no air ventilation drying the leaves out). Get the correct spacing and everything else follows from that. I have all the spacing info in my ebook on Vegetable Gardening in the North available here on Amazon. • Do your research on this and plant vegetables at the right distances apart. • Hint: it’s often on the back of seed packages or on labels. This isn’t quite what we mean by vertical gardening but…
# 6 Garden Vertically
When you have a smallish garden, going vertical is the solution to getting a ton more plants in a small space. For example, staking tomatoes will give you far more fruit in a small space than allowing them to flop on the ground or even growing them in cages.
You’ll get more tomatoes per square foot of garden space by staking than by allowing them to grow on the ground. The yield per plant won’t be as high but the yield in your small backyard garden will be higher if you stake.
This is the same for almost every crop. Try growing cucumbers, trailing squash, pole beans vertically. We now eat almost 100% pole beans instead of space-hogging bush beans) and even grow watermelon and pumpkins vertically.
Do I have to tell you that if you’re growing large fruit you really need to ensure the trellis is strong. 🙂 Heck, my tomatoes have broken strings, bent poles and been blown over in high wind storms. Overbuild your trellis systems. It will only take one tomato-plant-on-the-ground to make you into a believer of strong systems
You can also grow your vegetables in containers if you don’t have a garden plot.
#7 Control Weeds
Yeah, every garden article you’ve ever read gives you this bit of advice but if you read the point above about mulch you’re on the right track.
A four-inch deep layer of organic mulch will cut your weeding by 90% (give or take a few percentage points)
Using mulch is a no-brainer in my world — and now you know why every one of my gardens has a deep layer of mulch.
Planting at the correct distances as in the picture below will also help control weeds because there’s no light getting to the soil (and it’s cooler in the shade) so weed seeds are not encouraged to germinate.
#8 Water Properly
The normal recommended amount of water to put on a garden is 1.5 inches a week (3.1 cm) but that’s a generalized recommendation that may or may not work depending on your soil type. I follow a simple alternative system in my own garden. I pull the mulch back and touch the soil. If my finger comes away “damp” I push the mulch back and don’t water. If it comes away without visible dampness on it, I soak the garden.
To ensure I soak the garden, I put a yogurt container down in the sprinkler pattern so it gets the same amount of water as the plants. And then I measure it. Normally an inch to two inches in the container will be fine to get down through the mulch and into the soil.
But then I test the next day again — and every day in different parts of the garden.
I don’t turn my garden into a swamp by overwatering because of the finger test — and I don’t allow it to dry out either.
This consistent attention to watering — which reduces plant stress — will make a major difference to your garden yields. It will also save you money on water bills and increase your vegetable harvest. It’s a good thing to do. I note this is another great feature of mulch. It reduces water evaporation and while it costs money up front to buy, it does all these great things.
# 9 Use Organic Problem Control Methods
The reality is that too many home gardeners believe that if a little bit of chemical insect stuff is good — then a whole lot is better.
Let me state this very clearly. We use organic insect controls, have for years and our gardens are doing just fine.
We get all the food and flowers we need and we know we and our kids (and now grandkids) can eat anything out of the garden without any concerns about washing it first. It’s healthy food.
Earwigs (for example)
For example, earwigs are one of the most ferocious of predators who eat other insects and they also consume decaying organic matter. A deep layer of mulch gives them lots of food and a hunting ground for other insects. I have lots of them in my gardens and rarely see them on the flowers as they’re stuffed from eating other insects and resting below the deep mulch.
But too many gardeners blame them for plant damage when they’re simply the ones found (resting usually after a night of slug eating) This is particularly true when a slug digs a hole in your tomato and the earwig goes in there — eats the slug and stays because it’s dark, moist and a good place for rotting food now the slug has exposed the inside of the tomato to air. You don’t see the slug but you do see the earwig. Guess who you blame for the hole in your tomato?
The Biggest Problem Used To Be…
Getting peas out of my garden has been a lifelong challenge. On the farm, my kids would harvest them like snacks, filling their pockets regularly throughout the day. The day I saw one of my daughters with a hat stuffed full and the hat perched precariously on her head was the day I almost gave up hope of ever eating one.
The day I did give up hope was the day I saw one of our Old English Sheepdogs stealing them as well (the kids had given them to the dogs and the dogs learned what they looked like and how to get them for themselves).
Now, with my kids grown up I thought my time had come. Only to discover my sneaky partner loves the darn things as much as my kids did… And my grandkids… well…
Seriously, it’s gardening. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s not rocket science and it’s not (for most of us) life or death. So when something goes wrong in your vegetable garden (and it will) then take a deep breath, learn something and move on. Life is far too short to get yourself upset about some critter taking a bite out of your plants. And that’s the end of that sermon.
Remember. If you’re not having fun in the garden, you’re doing something wrong. Those nine organic vegetable growing tips — and this one bit of personal advice — should get you started in the right direction.
You’ll never meet an old gardener. You may meet an aged gardener but no real gardener ever gets truly old
My Last Thoughts On Learning Organic Vegetable Gardening
• Vegetable gardening and learning about it is a lifelong thing. I learn something new every year in my garden and I want you to keep this in mind when you wander into yours. • This isn’t a competitive sport. The insects will get their fair share no matter whether you spray noxious products or not. Individual plants will die — no matter what you do. Stuff will go wrong but more stuff will go right. It’s not about beating the neighbours, it’s about sharing with the neighbours. • It’s about feeling good after a garden workout knowing you didn’t have to go to the gym to get exercise It’s about looking back at a garden when you leave knowing you’ve accomplished something really good for your body and spirit. • Being in the garden is being close to nature, being close to the really important bigger things in life. It’s a spiritual thing for many of us. • I find the more time I spend in your garden, the more things go right. When I really pay attention, the plants will show me what they need in small recognizable and learnable ways. And it’s learning to recognize those small ways — like a baby has small ways of letting you know what they need — that makes a gardener. • Your vegetable garden need not be utilitarian. You can make it look great too.