Getting started with organic vegetable gardening can feel overwhelming, but if you are looking for an excuse to get outside and be more active, then gardening is a step in the right direction. Whether you have 1/2 an acre or upwards of 20 acres, planting a garden to provide you with healthy delicious food surprisingly only takes a bit of planning with a pencil and paper plus some (much needed) time in the sun tending to it. In this post, I’m going to show you how I got myself organized to try my hand at organic gardening. Are you ready to plan your pants off?!
I am self-admittedly a land-pimp, meaning if I have the land then I am dang well going to make every last inch of it work for me. Something that always grinds my gears is the amount of time people spend on their lawns year round, but those lawns don’t even yield them anything edible! So if you are taking the time to make your indigestible grasses look like a golf course, then you should take a moment to consider the pay-back if you took the time you spent on your pristine lawn and spent it instead on a veggie garden. If you aren’t a part of a dreaded home owners association that has intense lawn-care rules, consider taking up some of that turf and plotting out a garden…and then maybe ditching the mower and planting some bee-friendly wildflowers instead.
Alright, lawn-care rant over. I promise.
Where You Live = What You Can Plant When
The first and last frost date are your bookends of the growing season. Where you live affects when you can start and stop planting for the year. Of course, there are tricks to extend the gardening season, but since we're beginners we will save that information for another blog post.
In southeastern Wisconsin I live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 5b. You can look up what zone you are in by visiting the USDA website here by entering your zip code. Or you can consult the map above. Being in Zone 5b means that our coldest temps get down to -15 degrees, our last frost occurs mid/end of April, and our first frost occurs beginning/mid of October. These are averages, of course, and there are years that break the mold.
One of the best things you can do as a beginner organic gardener is to start tracking your local weather on a weekly basis. I keep a Google Spreadsheet updated throughout the year and it helps me understand how our local weather patterns play out annually. I simply set a weekly reminder on my phone to take stock of how the weather was and jot down a few notes. Here's an excerpt from my weather log:
As you can see, I track when certain native flowers and plants are blooming, precipitation, and wildlife activity. You can get as detailed as you like, but the main things to focus on are temperature and major weather incidents (like late-in-the-year blizzards). By tracking, you can start to pick up on certain patterns in nature which signal when it's time to start planting. An example being, when I notice the red breasted robins are poking through my lawn for earthworms, it is probably warm enough to start working the soil!
Speaking of tracking...
Keep A Gardening Journal
The next task when it comes to planning is get yourself a gardening journal and use it. Even if the first entries in your journal are dreaming of all the lovely things you want to plant, having a journal to track your progress is imperative. This doesn't have to be a physical journal either, it can be another Google Spreadsheet if you want. Journals are aesthetically lovely and a physical reminder to stay updated, but a Google Spreadsheet is keyword-searchable when you can't remember what date you started your tomato seedlings. It's up to you and your learning style with what works best!
Personally, I keep both a physical journal and a Google Spreadsheet. I love having this cute journal to write my thoughts down in and plan ahead for the year, and then use the Google Spreadsheet to log when things actually happen. The physical journal sits on my desk and when I have an idea or thought on the garden, I quick jot it down. I'll write down what seed varieties I'm curious to try, what cover crops might be nice to add, and throw out some potential dates for big garden projects. Manifesting my ideas through handwriting (and sometimes doodling!) brings me a lot of joy. Again, the choice is up to you, but you have to at least start jotting down and dating your garden activities.
Here are the key things you'll need to track:
I like to dedicate a page per plant variety and reference that specific page throughout the year. For example, my plum tomatoes have their very own page in my journal where I list when I transplanted, when I fertilized, any pests I've dealt with, when they start producing, and when they stop. This last year I also started jotting down how I used the vegetable or fruit - i.e. fresh, for jam, or frozen in bags. As you track your garden throughout the years, you'll fall in love with certain varieties for certain reasons. It's nice to have a reference to understand what worked and what didn't.
What Can You Plant?
Next on your to-do list is figuring out what to plant in your hardiness zone. There are numerous websites that give you a run down of the vegetables, herbs, and flowers that do well in your climate, but my favorite one is this one because it is so straight forward. There are only veggies listed here, but herbs’ zone preferences can be researched on their site as well.
Here's the kicker though, what you can plant is not nearly as important as what you want to eat. Just because you can grow broccoli where you live doesn't mean you are going to eat it when it's ready to harvest! Once you figure out what zone you are in, go through and find the vegetables and herbs you and your family actually likes to eat on a weekly/monthly/seasonal basis and write them down, much like a gigantic grocery list.
As an example, here is our list:
Yukon Gold Potatoes
Yellow Summer Squash
Catnip (for our three kitties)
Chamomile (for tea)
Echinacea (for tea)
Lavender (for all the good smells)
Those are all the edibles we are planning to plant this year. With us following the Paleo diet, we adhere to much more veggies and potatoes per meal. Maybe you want to take the plunge and incorporating more fresh vegetables into your diet too - you go and make it happen! Take a moment and think about your cooking habits, and make a judgement call for yourself and your family on what you want to plant. When that garden starts producing you will have no choice but to gorge yourself on fresh vegetables every single day to keep up or give them away!
Companion Planting For Your Organic Garden
I also employed companion planting my first year of organic gardening and fell in love. What is companion planting? Our next post in the series is going to dive in more with this facet of organic gardening. To give you a basic understanding for now, companion plants can enhance the flavor and growth of their neighboring plants. Some companion plants can act as a natural insecticide and fungicide to protect their neighbors. It’s one of the safest and most effective ways to protect your garden organically. Check out the list below to see my personal choices for companion planting.
Protective and Flavor Enhancing Companion Plants
Planting Pollinator and Chicken Friendly Plants In Your Organic Garden
There are additional vegetables and flowers we plant for our chickens, plus local bees. Some are doubled up from my list before, but it’s worth mentioning again so you can get a grasp for all the bee friendly plants there are at your fingertips. These do not necessarily relate to feeding ourselves organically, but they are a part of my garden nonetheless. See below for the list.
Chicken Friendly Plants
Excess Beet Greens
Sunflowers (for the seeds)
Bee Friendly Plants
Bachelor Button (Cornflower)
Now that you have a planned list of everything you want to grow, the next step is plotting it all out in your soon-to-be organic garden. Click here to read the next step in getting started with organic gardening - plotting!
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to composting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we turn the 80 acres we call home into a farm that serves its community and a homestead that nourishes us throughout the seasons.
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Favorite Books of 2020
2. Braiding Sweetgrass
3. As Long As Grass Grows
4. The Small Scale Poultry Flock
5. The Zero Waste Solution