Today I picked up the first (of many) organic seed packets. A vital step in cultivating a garden that can provide you enough food for a year is preparing. Preparing to me means figuring out where the garden will go, if the soil is good shape for veggie growing, and what you need to build the basic structure of the garden. Today I’m going to go over our plan to put in a 2250 sq. ft. garden, what materials we are using, and when we are going to break ground. Preparing here we come!
Figuring out where to put a vegetable garden comes down to three very important factors - getting the most amount of sunlight every day, the quality of the soil, and how convenient is the spot. For a while we were thinking we would put it in the back corner of our property, but it would be a TREK to get gardening tools back there every day. The soil and sun were perfect, but convenience trumped both of those factors. Having a garden close to your back door or a garden shed is so much easier.
In the backyard we have a 70’ x 60’ open plot of land that gets ample sunlight from sunrise to sundown and is 100 feet from our back door. Unfortunately it’s covered in an undeterminable amount of gravel (thank you frozen Wisconsin tundra). So in this case, soil is something we were willing to work with. Our plan is to use our neighbor’s bobcat to dig up the top layer of gravel, add top soil instead, and then level everything out. The spot is incredibly level now thanks to the previous owner’s attempts to put in an ice rink. Having a level surface allows rainwater not to pool in one spot causing plants’ roots to rot, or run off and leave your plants thirsty. By bringing in a layer of top soil, we are able to start with a blank slate.
There are three factors to starting your garden out with great soil - drainage, pH, and soil texture.
Drainage is something you can easily observe without any fancy tools or tests. All you need is a shovel, a gallon of water, a broomstick, and a yardstick. Start by digging a hole that is at least 12” wide and 12” deep. Fill the hole with the gallon of water and let it sit overnight. By letting the water saturate the soil for one day, you are able to get a more accurate reading the following day. The next day lay your broom stick across the hole horizontally, then fill the hole up with a gallon of water, and set the yardstick inside the hole vertically and rest it up against the broomstick. From there just measure the drainage every hour. Ideal soil drainage is 2” every hour, which keeps most roots from being wet long enough to rot. If your drainage is less than that, you are going to have to make some amendments to the soil in order to improve its drainage. Topping of the soil with 2” - 4” of organic matter like leaves, mulches, and compost can help poor draining soils. The other alternative is to build raised beds and fill them in with purchased top soil. This all boils down to your budget and how much work you are willing to put in.
The next factor in getting prime garden soil is pH. Soil pH is a measurement of the acidity or alkalinity of soil. Remember those cool colored test strips from biology class? I do! On the pH scale a measurement of 7.0 is neutral, which is a great place to be for nearly all plants. Below 7.0 is considered acidic, and above 7.0 is considered alkaline. Why is soil pH important? Soil pH affects the nutrient availability for your plants. In soils that are alkaline (over 7.8pH) iron, phosphorus, and zinc deficiencies are serious problems. In soils that are acidic (under 6.5pH), calcium and magnesium are much less available to your plants. This can make for some spindly lettuce and lethargic green beans, directly affecting your harvest yield!
There is an extremely simple, albeit rudimentary, way to test the pH of your soil. All you need is vinegar, baking soda, distilled water, a sample of your soil, and two glass cups. Start by collecting 1 cup of soil from three different parts of the area where you plan to put your garden. Equally separate the soil sample between the two glass cups. In the first cup of soil pour 1/2 cup of vinegar. If it fizzes then you have alkaline soil with a pH between 7 and 8. If it doesn’t fizz, add distilled water to the second sample of soil until it is muddy. Then add 1/2 cup baking soda. If it fizzes then you have acidic soil, with a pH between 5 and 6. If your soil doesn’t react at all then you have soil with a pH of 7, lucky duck!!
If you want to create a more hospitable environment for your veggies, the easiest thing to do is to add lots of organic matter. This means a healthy blend of pine needles, mulch, compost, and animal manure (hey chickens I’m looking at you!). What this does is increase the nitrogen in the environment, which decreases the pH over time by increasing the bacterial population. It’s best to do this a season in advance so you give your soil time to it all break down. This method can lower your soil pH by half a point, which could be all you need.
If you want go full fledged Bill Nye on your soil, you can get a soil test kit and follow the more intense and quick methods of changing soil pH organically at this article.
The final thing is your soil’s texture. Texture refers to the size of the particles that make up your soil. Unfortunately, texture isn’t something that is very flexible when it comes to working with your garden. What you do have control over is selecting the proper plants that do well in the specific state your soil is in. By planting vegetables that prefer the state your soil is in, you make it easier on your expectations and your veggies!
So now you need to find out what texture your soil is! There is this amazing resource called the USDA Web Soil Survey, which has a national database on soils across the USA. You can use the Web Soil Survey Database to find your address and see the soil texture of where you live. It’s amazing! Be sure to follow their directions on that first page so you use it properly, it is a bit picky and not the most intuitive system. Here is a picture of the land around our property.
Where I plan on putting the garden the WSS tells me that the soil is a Blount silt loam texture. I googled this term and found a ton of info on this soil. Mostly that is isn’t the best draining soil, it’s tillable soil, and biggest use is for corn, soy, and small grain crop. Do the same for your soil and see how it stacks up! Again, if the texture of your soil isn’t conducive to growing veggies at all, there is always the option of adding a layer top soil. The issue is that top soil can be extremely expensive. Paul and I plan on add a couple inches to our garden plot after we dig up all the gravel and we’re looking at almost $400 worth of soil! So you can see how advantageous it is to work with your soil and make cost effective amendments. Again, the basic remedy for poor soil texture is to add organic material such as compost, manure, and peat moss.
Alright, now that we’re through talking about the importance of soil quality, let’s discuss the preparing the area for gardening.
First we will get rid of the top layer of gravel. Then we are going to fill in the top layer with top soil, compost, and mulch. All of these materials will increase the quality of the soil’s drainage, pH, and texture. From there we are going to plot out our garden with and make sure everything is going to fit that I’ve included in our plan.
As you can see we have the chicken coop sharing a fence wall with the garden. This is to save on the cost of fencing and posts. Why the 8ft tall fence? Seeing as we live in a much less populated area, deer are a huge issue. We need to build a fence high enough to keep them out of the garden at night so the little buggers don’t munch up all our food. By having 12’ fence Douglas Fir fence posts, we are able to submerge the post 4ft below the surface to stabilize and have the remaining 8ft above to keep the deer out.
From there we will be using 6’ tall welded utility fencing with a mesh size of 2”x4” to keep bigger critters out. We plan on submerging it 6” below the surface of the group to keep rabbits and gophers from digging their way in.Then along the bottom of the fence I am going to install 1/4” hardware cloth to keep mice and weasels out. Then along the top of the fence we will be installing 12’ beams at the 8ft mark that will keep deer the jumping over the 6ft utility fence. Can you tell we aren’t taking any chances with critters ruining our crop? Not on my watch!
Paul is going to build me a double wide door to the entryway of the garden so we can back up a truck or bring in a tractor if needed. He’s so handy! The chickens will also have their own personal entry way right from the coop to the garden on the west side of the fence. I’ll just slide a door up and in they go! I plan on doing this once the vegetables are established so no baby greens get smashed or devoured. The chickens will only have access when I’m there to supervise, and the only feeding they get to do will be of the pest control variety.
We will measure everything out according to our plan and see if any changes need to be made. From there we will mark our fence post spots and beginning digging post holes. My dad has an earth auger
that we will use to get the job done. This is a tool that you can rent from Home Depot on a day rate if needed. Once the holes are dug, we will pour cement into the post holes and play the waiting game. Then it’s getting the utility fence up, installing the hardware cloth, and attaching the top beams.
The next two months are going to be busy. We will be breaking ground on March 12th with the bobcat if the soil is not frozen. The next post on planting a garden to feed yourself for a year will be on, you guessed it, planting! In the meantime I’ll be adding photos of our progress so stay tuned!
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to orchard planting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we strive to live a toxin-free life and turn these five acres from just property to a fully functioning small-scale homestead.
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