Gardening is a key ingredient of the simple lifestyle Marc and I have chosen. Since 1981, we've devoted a ton of our time to growing, harvesting, storing, and eating our own produce. Our vegetable garden was small at the start, but it now measures some 10,000 square feet. There are over a dozen fruit trees and at least as many flower beds scattered about, plus a raspberry patch and a homemade greenhouse, where I start everything we grow from seed.
We're not entirely self-sufficient, not by any means, but know we could be, which is very comforting in these tough times. We're not purists, either, although this January was the first time in over a decade we had to buy a jar of tomato sauce, and that was only because we extended our winter road trip on the spur of the moment, and ran out. Wherever we go, Marc and I lug along home-canned tomatoes, salsas, jams, and produce, as anyone we've ever visited will attest! (I'll pack extra next trip.)
The good news is you don't need to commit to a lifestyle like ours to get all the benefits gardening can provide -- great food, exercise, and stress relief -- plus fun, hands-on learning about how things grow, and a taste of what it takes to meet the basic human need for food.
At first, I used to spend hours every winter planning the garden based on "companion planting" (putting plants near each other that will supposedly benefit from the contact, while separating plants that supposedly hinder each other's growth). Since I also took the notion of crop rotation very literally, it was a real challenge to figure out where to put each type of veggie we planned on growing, which in a typical year means everything but rutabagas, beets, turnips, and salsify.
Then there were the directions on all the seed packets, which I took too seriously -- although even I drew the line at giving the plants enough room so you could drive a tractor between them! Since a path wide enough for a person with a wheelbarrow is the most we need room for, we've learned to use the space much more efficiently.
Now, there are some permanent paths, and lots of raised beds, which warm the soil in the spring and make it easy to get the most from the organic fertilizers we add whenever we can. And while we do rotate crops, we no longer move every crop, every year. Tomatoes, for example, grow very nicely in the same area for at least two years. That means dismantling and rebuilding the monumental support systems Marc creates for the dozens of tomatoes we grow doesn't have to be an annual event.
Even though I've stopped obsessing about companion planting and seed packet directions, we're careful to put tall crops, like corn, toward the north, so they don't block the sun from smaller plants. We've picked up a few other tips along the way, and share our best ones here to help and encourage you to grow a great garden this year, and get a real taste of what self-sufficiency is all about.
Strike the Right Balance
Most vegetables like to grow in neutral soil, not too alkaline or acidic. Since our house was built on a limestone ridge, we assumed that both the soil and well water would be very alkaline. But we tested anyway, and recommend you do likewise. There are home test kits you can purchase, or you can have samples analyzed by experts. Ask at your local Cooperative Extension Service or plant nursery.
Knowing our soil and water are so sweet means we can add organic fertilizers like wood chips and leaves with abandon, both of which make the soil more acidic. In most parts of the country, though, we'd need to also add lime. Find out what you should do, if anything. It'd be a shame to invest the time and energy, and then have the plants not thrive because of something you could have easily remedied.
Mulch Heavily and Often
We regularly surround plants with hay, grass clippings, compost, cow manure, wood chips, and leaves. Mulch enriches the soil, while keeping moisture in and weeds out. Ideally, I'd like to have a foot of mulch around every vegetable we grow. That was the key recommendation in one of our favorite gardening books, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book (out of print)*. Ruth believed fervently in the idea of very heavy mulching. She sure convinced us!
Many gardeners are mulching with plastic these days, which has zero appeal to Marc and me. But we do whip out a couple of huge black tarps when we want to kill off the weeds in an area we've yet to plant, or when we want to warm up a spot -- say, before we put in our first crop of corn.
Let 'Em Go!
While we collect more and more seeds every year to plant again in our garden and to share with other seed savers, we let a lot of plants go to seed just to come back on their own. We're especially partial to the dill and lettuce that come up hither, thither, and yon every year, invariably stronger than any we sow in the spring.
We also let lots of flowers come up this way throughout the vegetable garden, including beautiful double pink poppies, dark blue larkspur, and old-fashioned single hollyhocks in a multitude of colors. Once they're done flowering, we pull any that are in the way, but let others go to seed, to repeat the cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth.
Practice Benign Neglect
Don't feel as though you must have a totally weed-free, perfectly manicured garden. It's not worth the time or energy, especially since some weeds act as trap crops, appealing to various bugs more than vegetables do, while others are edible, like the lamb's quarter, amaranth, and purslane that make it into the salad when Marc's the one preparing it.
Accept Nature's Help
Thanks to the birds who eat some at our bird feeder and relocate others in their travels, multi-headed sunflowers come up all over our vegetable garden. Every year, I promise myself that I'll pull more of them out, but then I can't. They're so beautiful and it's fun to watch the birds dining on them. So the sunflowers and I have compromised -- I remove some of the lower leaves when they're blocking the light, but otherwise, I leave most of the randomly planted sunflowers alone.
What's Good for the Plant Isn't Necessarily Good for the Planter
Too much sun is bad for us, but fruits and veggies need as much as they can get. We're fortunate in that most of our garden gets a full day's worth of sunshine. No matter what else you do, if your plants don't get a lot of sun, they're not going to do as well as they could.
Here's an easy way to let in more light: Cut off the lower branches of any trees that are blocking those nourishing rays from your garden.
Important: Always wear a hat and sunscreen when you're puttering around in the garden. And if there are ticks where you live, check yourself over carefully every night.
Vegetable and fruit scraps can quickly be recycled into the best fertilizer for your plants and soil. There are lots of "recipes" out there for how to mix contributions from the house with layers of grass clippings, leaves, etc., and directions on how often to turn your compost pile(s). You can also find lots of diagrams for how to build a compost bin, as well as gadgets and potions you can buy that will supposedly cook the compost quickly.
As you might expect, given our laid-back approach to gardening, we simply pick an out-of-the-way spot in the garden, and dump our house scraps there. Every now and then, we cover the heap with some hay, old corn stalks, etc., and start dumping in another spot. When we want some compost, we find an old pile and a wheelbarrow, and fill 'er up.
Sprinkle Sparingly ... No, Make that Smartly
It can't be helped, no matter how much mulch we use, water is always a concern. Seeds and transplants need to be watered frequently until they're well on their way, especially when it's hot and their roots are tiny. Then they'll need, on average, an inch of water a week.
To waste the least amount of water, drip irrigation systems are frequently recommended. They're very pricey, and for a garden like ours ... well ... we'd need to strike it rich. Fortunately, Marc came up with an ingenious substitute. He's attached six or seven adjustable sprinkler heads to the tops of tall poles, which in turn fit onto broken pitchforks. To water where and how I want, I move the nearest sprinkler to best take advantage of the wind, and step down on the pitchfork. Then I can adjust the water's distance and force, fine-tuning to wet just what needs watering. (There are also plenty of hoses around, so I can hand water any plants that need TLC.)
Enjoy the Rites of Succession
We know someone who used to plant a huge corn bed every Memorial Day. The corn would all ripen at once, forcing her to make corn-this and corn-that for days and days and days. Instead, we suggested that she plant an assortment of corn varieties, each ripening ten days apart.
You haven't tasted corn until you've eaten it raw, right off the stalk! Our favorite corn, a variety called "Precocious," gets planted here every ten days or so. We also succession plant salad greens, spinach, and peas.
The Perfect Feline Foil
Whenever we put seeds in the ground, that's invariably where one or another of our cats choose to ... go ... if you know what I mean. Not caring to have them put their bathrooms where we just carefully planted, we cover the seed beds with old screens. By the time the little plants are up, the cats have found another spot.
Better Late than Early
We've never found a benefit to early plantings of tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, basil, or even cold weather crops like cabbage, onions, cauliflower, and broccoli. Be it cold weather, an onslaught of insects, or the harsh winds that blow here in the spring, plants we put in early don't do well. So we transplant later and later and our crops thrive.
That notwithstanding, every year, we always follow this little piece of advice:
Gamble at the Get-Go
Even though it doesn't make sense for us to put plants in the ground on the early side, we have had luck with many an early seed sowing. When the early corn bed works out, for example, we really appreciate being able to savor the flavor so early in the growing season.
Tip: Since early sowings are risky, plant a smaller bed than you will later. That way, you won't lose much if the seeds you've gambled with don't make it.
Perennially Yours, Only If You Plant Them
Even in upstate New York gardens, there are crops that come back reliably, year after year: asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, Jerusalem artichokes, horseradish, and strawberries, plus herbs like sage, thyme, and savory. Depending on where you live, you may have even more perennial possibilities. If you don't have any planted, put some in this year. It's wonderful to see them every spring!
The list of perennial flowers we can grow is astounding. Every year, I try to put in a few more of them. And I'm always eager to plant annuals and biennials that'll re-seed.
I'm sorry we took so long to put in our first strawberry plants. They're surprisingly inexpensive, multiply like crazy, and the berries are much more delicious than any at the store. There is one downside ... strawberries are very, very weedy. Our strawberry patch is invariably the weediest part of our garden, so weedy that even we weed there!
About a decade ago, neighbors who had just pruned their raspberries gave us some cuttings. Now, every June and October, we get to enjoy more and more of what would be budget-busters if we bought them at the supermarket.
Most of the fruit trees we've planted are heirloom peaches we started from pits that we received from members of the Seed Savers Exchange. Another favorite tree started out as an apple seed that germinated inside a Granny Smith apple I was eating.
Even if you don't plan on being in your current house for long, plant some fruit that's appropriate for your area. If nothing else, you'll increase your property value, and you may get to eat some delicious produce before you move.
Crew-Cut Your Salad Greens
When we first planted lettuce, we followed the seed packet directions, and although the plants grew, we didn't get to make many salads. (Lettuce quickly goes to seed and gets bitter.) Now, we plant lettuce, cilantro, arugula, etc. very heavily in wide rows. Once the plants are a few inches tall, we cut back handfulls here and there with a knife, almost to the ground. This keeps those particular plants from going to seed, gives more room to the greens we'll cut for future salads, greatly extends the season, and produces enough, again and again, to make many a salad.
The first fall frost always appears here way too soon. Often, we get ours as early as on my birthday, September 24th, which is a real bummer until I remember how thankful I am to have lived (with cancer) for another year, able to garden and grandparent so actively.
Of course, we don't give up without a good fight, because we know that when we get the tender plants like tomatoes, peppers, and basil through that first frost, we can extend the growing season by some three weeks, which means a lot more ripe tomatoes and peppers!
We pay very close attention to the forecasts, dreading those words, "chance of frost." We cover plants with old sheets, blankets, cartons, flower pots, buckets, and plastic sheeting. But what works best for us is water.
The night before we think frost is possible, we drain the hoses so they won't be frozen in the morning, dig out our winter boots, coats, and gloves -- ugh -- and set the clock for about 5:00 AM. If it's around 32 degrees or lower, we bundle up. Then, until the sun hits the plants, we hose down the ones we most want to keep going. Sprinklers targeted to frost-sensitive crops take care of the rest.
The results have been truly amazing. We've seen plants we were sure had frozen to death come through just fine, thanks to a good, long hosing. It's something to do with water crystals and the sunlight, I think. Whatever, it's miraculous!
Tips: If early frosts are a problem for you, grow tender plants near each other, so that simply turning on a sprinkler in the middle of them will buy you some extra growing time. Also, plant plenty of veggies that aren't frost-sensitive, like broccoli, which we can harvest here into December.
Been Gardening for Years?
Try something new. We'll be trying kohlrabi and currants. But if you've never grown Brussels sprouts, do give them a shot. They're delicious, tasting nothing like their store-bought cousins. (It's like comparing home-grown, vine-ripened tomatoes to the typical supermarket offerings in the middle of winter.) We start harvesting the sprouts soon after the hard, killing frost, which usually occurs here in mid-October. Then we eat them almost every night until the snow is too deep to find them ... mid-January, this year. Marc dug out a few in early March, and if we're lucky, when the snow finally melts, we'll get to enjoy more.
Plant a Tree or Two
As you may know, we aren't homeowners, yet we happily plant trees. We enjoy the fruits of our labor in so many ways, and like the idea that someday, others will as well. We've got our fingers crossed for the supposedly hardy filbert trees we planted last year, and this year, we plan on planting a few willows. They're cuttings we took (with permission) from a wonderful old tree we came upon last summer, when Marc and I were on vacation with seven of our nine grandkids. They had such a great time on a hammock under that tree. They grow fast (both the trees and the kids), so we'll all appreciate these trees for years to come.
Tip: Put a cutting from a willow tree in some water, and use that water when you: put a transplant in the ground, dig up a plant to give away, re-pot a houseplant, or want to feed a favorite plant. Our willow water lives out in the greenhouse, where I keep the mosquitoes at bay by using it up every few days, then refilling the bucket with fresh water.
Remember, There's No Right Way to Garden
While we've shared our approach here, we know that pretty much every way works. We prefer wide, raised beds tilled where necessary by hand and nourished with heavy, organic mulches, but know that roto-tilled gardens full of long, unmulched rows fed only inorganic fertilizers grow, too. Whatever any of us do or don't do -- more often than not, plants will grow. The easier we make it for them, though, the more we get to eat and enjoy. Bon appetit!
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*You can buy Ruth Stout's "Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy and the Indolent" which is still in print, published by The Lyons Press.
(Photo Credits: The top two pictures are of Nancy & Marc with their garden's bounty and a picture of their greenhouse & garden from Marc & Nancy. The third picture of sunflowers is by Jane Sherry & the rest of the photos in the article are from clip art)
Note from Jane Sherry, Satya Center Founder: Curtis & I were the lucky recipients of so many wonderful cuttings and seedlings from Nancy & Marc's garden when we were putting in our garden here, including our delicious spearmint, our lovely (now 6 foot tall lilac tree, from which we have given several neighbors baby lilac trees), our garden showcase heliopsis (at the top of the page in that link) and many many more! We have in turn given many cuttings, seeds, and 'babies' to our friends and neighbors, so that Nancy & Marc's hard work, continues to grow and delight people in several counties! Thank you Nancy & Marc!!)
This article reprinted with the kind permission of the author. Originally Reprinted at Satya Center on 3-10-2005.
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Nancy Castleman & Marc Eisenson, Personal Finance Experts, Authors, Editors, Gardeners & Grandparents
Marc & Nancy have worked together as partners for over 19 years, teaching people how to save money, get out of debt, and live better on less. They have been writing best selling personal finance books, articles, radio, magazine & TV stories and their wonderful newsletter "Pocket Change Investor" published by their company Good Advice Press. You can read informative articles and newsletters at their website of the same name, some of which are reprinted here at satyacenter.com.
Their very down to earth, easy to implement, simple financial advice will help you save money on your mortgage and credit cards and help you get rid of annyoing telemarketers, junk mail and cyberspam. Their most recent work "Invest in Yourself: Six Secrets to a Rich Life" tells you how to "live better on less money and save at the same time" according to USA Today.
Check out the Good Advice Press Archive for other articles at the Satya Center website.