Thursday, September 11, 2014

How to Garden for free & Comprehensive list of my top 20 gardening tips

1. Hoe soil into short, wide rows for root vegetables and greens. The wide rows appeals to crowding greens and root veggies and allow for wide walking paths (like I have done in the picture below). The "crowding" method seems to prohibit weeds from growing. Also Short rows have also been effective for preventing pests because too much of the same kind of plant in a grouping attracts bugs.

2.  Create trenches in between sets of plants. When planting Peppers or tomato plants, or any plant-- hoe wide rows so that two plants grow side by side. The trench in between the plants will collect water like a chamber. This will allow the tips of roots to stay moist even if the sun has dried out the top of the dirt mound. For example, in the picture above, I have grown my lettuce in large wide mounds with wide walking paths (where water collects after heavy rainfall). 

3. Root vegetables, peas, and greens can be crowded. Despite what the instructions say on the back of seed packets, many plants do not need much spacing. Greens benefit from crowding because it  prevents weeds from sprouting in between. If I had a small amount of radish, turnip, peas, etc, I will squeeze all of these into one row rather than spreading the seeds for apart into different rows. The idea is that, you want to allow space for growing more variety of vegetables. See tip #4.
Side note: Root vegetables, peas, and greens (even cucumbers) can be grown in shadier locations of your garden during the Summer. Tomatoes, corn, peppers, and melons must get direct sunlight.

Crowding method with lettuce

4. Vegetables do not need much spacing. Aside from tomatoes and corn, most vegetables and fruits can be crowded. Here is a good rule: when sewing with seed directly in the garden, do not try spacing any more than 2-3 inches apart; however for Fruits and vegetables you are Transplanting, space these plants no more than 10 inches apart. Considering beans, cucumbers, melons and vining plants can be grown on a trellis, there is hardly any need to space these plants far apart.

Remember to continue to hoe (or add) extra soil/mulch around plants to allow roots to spread.

5. Root vegetables, beans, peas, greens, zucchini, squash, and cucumbers should not be started indoors. These fast growing vegetables can be directly sewn into the ground. Peas, root vegetables and greens can be planted in March through April, depending on your zone. Zucchini, squash, cucumbers, and beans can be directly sewn after the last threat of frost, usually first week of May. 

6. Tomatoes, peppers, and melons should be started indoors because of their long growing season. Allow tomato plants to grow 1 to 2 feet tall before transplanting to garden, then bury nearly the whole stalk (leaving top branches above ground). Use method #7 for proper tomato, pepper and melon growing.

7. Plant tomatoes 12 inches apart from each plant, be sure to tie your plants to post once they reach 2 feet in height. Continue to tie the main stem as the plant increases in height. In the following pictures I have demonstrated a technique that grows large tomatoes: first, plant two rows of plants close together for support, while leaving 2 foot wide walking paths in between. This technique prohibits weeds and bugs, allows drainage when dealing with floods, and creates an overall professional appearance. The wide paths in between the sets of rows allows for easier picking, hoeing, and tilling. By continuing to hoe dirt up around the tomato plants will promote larger and healthier stalks.

Paths for walking

8. Make your own soil (compost) with food scraps. Compost is the most nutrient rich soil, and will boost your plants like fertilize. For more compost ideas and information go to two of my posts here, "Compost your food scraps..and get food back for free" and "What you need to know about compost". Compost is a versatile and can be used for starter plants, growing in buckets or pots; and use compost to fill a raised bed (go here for raised bed and container garden construction).

Particularly compost that is not completely decomposed, Tomato plants, peppers, and squash will always sprout and flourish in my raised beds I have full of compost. Actually, I wish I had about twenty raised beds full of food scraps because I would not need to sew seeds, I could just hope for the volunteer Tomatoes, peppers, and squash to sprout. Last year in one of my Strawberry beds, I had one volunteer Butternut Squash plant that exploded with 20 Butternut Squash fruits! I truly believe the location and compost within the strawberry bed made the Butternut Squash flourish. This year in a different Strawberry bed full of compost, one volunteer Cantaloupe plant produced 10 Cantaloupe fruits! I never have that much yield in a typical garden. From now on, I want to experiment by making additional raised beds, filling them with food scraps, and enjoying the ease and simplicity without tilling and hoeing, while enjoying the high yields of the food that Compost produces.

Along with creating your own soil, dry out grass to make your own Straw/mulch. Simply Mow your lawn, let the chopped grass dry out for a couple of days in the Sun, and collect the grass once it turns into straw. Collect leaves as well to use for mulching.

Picture of my compost two years ago. I finally used it for my
strawberry bed.
9. Transplant your fruits, vegetables, or bushes/trees in the evening. Sowing seeds during the Sunniest/hottest part of the day isn't harmful to the seeds, but transplanting your starters in the middle of the day in the Summer will scorch your plants and possibly kill them.

10. Watering plants during the evening. Following up on Tip #7, the most optimal time to water plants is during the evening, after 5pm because the water will not evaporate and instead the moisture will be retained during the Night. And considering plants do most of their growing during the night, it is optimal to water right before dark. Remember to water plants every other day until hot Summer temperatures--then I would suggest watering everyday, maybe even twice a day depending on your climate. Go to tip #18.

Bean crawling up posts
11. Trellis Vining plants, such as Melons, cucumber and Beans. Allowing the Melons, cucumbers, Peas and Beans to crawl up tall Poles or trellises. Trellises will enable you to see & pick the Vegetables much faster, and you don't hurt your back bending over.

12. To Prevent pests, avoid growing Plants that attract the most bugs. Every time I plant cabbage, broccoli, collards, and kale, the bugs eat the entire plant. I had success with Kale this year, no bugs have demolished them, however I grew up to 200+ Broccoli plants in the garden, and something (bug or animal) ate the tops off every single one. Altogether, I avoid growing these vegetables, but my collard greens have been doing fine thus far.
Another method to avoid pests, by planting onions, basil, other herbs, and hot peppers around most vulnerable plants. As mentioned in Tip #1, too much of the same kind of plant in a grouping attracts bugs unlike a variety of plants in one grouping.
I had a small problem with Squash bugs eating my Zucchini plants, so every day I sprayed Vegan dish soap diluted with water, onto each plant for a week. This kept the bugs from eating the plants, and once the plants grew large enough, the bugs subsided.
This Summer I needed to prevent birds from eating my Strawberries, so I placed a Turtle and Snail figurine beside the Strawberries. This method absolutely has kept away the birds for weeks, and I have finally been able to harvest many more.

13. Tomato, Corn, and Beans do not require Fertile, rich soil. These three foods are the garden's staple-- at least in my home state of Kentucky. Tomato, corn, and beans will perform much better with nutrient rich soil, however they produce well growing in clay soil with no compost, mulch or or any nutrient supplement. Fortunately, these three foods are also the easiest to grow because they require little maintenance.

14. Tomato, Corn and Beans are the easiest to grow. Tomatoes will grow out of anything, anywhere, and at any time; and almost always produces higher yields than any other plant. I have had Tomatoes sprouting out of my windows!! If you are a first year gardener, tomatoes are the number one vegetable for a beginner...Tomatoes do not require much maintenance, as well as Corn and beans. No need to compost, mulch, or add any nutrients, as mentioned above. Some hoeing around Tomatoes will be beneficial but hardly necessary for corn and beans.

15. Peppers and Melons require Nitrogen rich soil. Not only do these plants and many others need nutrient rich soil, they require much more watering than tomatoes, corn and beans. Plants that need particularly more fertilizer are peppers, cantaloupe, watermelon, eggplant,and fruit trees. Fertilize once every two weeks until plant begins to harvest. Refer to Tip # 19 on making your own fertilize.

16. The best conditions for your starter plants. Begin by filling compost into starter trays, such as the 100ct or individual containers, or Styrofoam cups. Compost usually contains more nutrients than commercial soils, so this will give your seeds a much needed jump start. Making your own compost with food scraps will become your own free resource. 
While germinating the seeds, keep the soil moist by watering every other day (or more). Before the plants sprout, keep a lid on top of the plants to retain heat and moisture. Seeds/plants respond well to warm damp environments. My grandmother also tells me to keep the containers of seeds in a dark location or keep a dark lid over top of them during germination. Germination will last until the seedlings pop up, usually with 1-2 weeks.
After seedlings have popped up, take the lid off and keep in a sunny location. Seedlings will require at least 6 hours of indirect sun. When starting seeds indoors during Winter and Spring, use lamp lights or other artificial lighting if necessary, that may aid in the plant growth.
After several weeks to a month, transplant seedlings into the garden or a wider container. I ended up transplanting my Melons into three different containers until I finally transplanted them in the garden, but that is unnecessary if you start off by sewing seeds in a large container.
Unlike greens, squash, peas, beans, and corn that can be directly sown-- the plants that prefer to be started in a container to be transplanted are Tomatoes, peppers, and melons, eggplant.

raised bed made of logs and bricks
17. You do not need to till, hoe, or shovel to have a garden. In fact, I would suggest gardening in contained areas with plenty of rich compost and mulching will be easier on your budget, physical strength, and potentially will grow better quality of food. Also tilling breaks up the intricate microbes of the soil. It's easy to destroy homes of frogs, spiders and other things when you're disturbing the soil. There are plenty of techniques to avoiding tilling, shoveling and hoeing. 
Using straw bale with compost, or containing compost within a rectangular raised bed will allow you to grow food without tilling. You can also use buckets and pots to contain soil. Almost all vegetables and some fruit plants will produce/grow in pots/buckets. For more information about no-till methods, go to my post here: How to build a raised bed for gardening (No-Till methods)

18. Water garden everyday. When planting greens, root vegetables and herbs during the Spring, generally you're not going to need to water your plants because there is usually heavy rainfall during this time. However during the hottest part of Summer, you will want to water the plants every day. I would resort to watering two times a day (during the early morning and late evening). I will do this for plants that I recently Transplanted because they are more susceptible to Sun damage. Of course, it's not necessary to water Tomatoes, corn, potatoes, and beans with much frequency. However melons, greens, and peppers benefit from heavy rain. Cucumbers and squash also prefer constant watering.

rain barrels
The frequency with which you water plants will depend on your climate, the time of year, etc. The main point I wanted to make was, most people in the world are not allotted with enough water for growing plants. By implementing rain barrels against your house, you will be able to collect enough water to cover large gardens. Water can go along way, so even sitting out bowls, jars, cups, and any plastic container, buckets etc, you will be able to collect water for all your gardening needs. For more info on saving water, go to my posts:  How to save water 1 and How to save water 2. Tap water simply keeps the plants alive, but rain water makes plants thrive.

19. Make your own fertilizer with your body. Human urine is rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate, which are all essential for healthy plants. Compost soil acts as a fertilizer because of the nutrient density and it's always best to use compost for starting plants indoors and also spreading compost around plants in the garden. Although I used compost on many of the plants in my garden, I wasn't able to spread all the compost onto every plant. In this case, I began urinating on plants that needed fertilized, like weak Pepper plants or weak Tomato plants. Remember to dilute your urine because it may be too high in nitrogen and salts. Even my watermelon mounds received some urine fertilize throughout the growing period. I haven't experimented with my own feces, but I will bring this up in a future post about composting toilets.

20. Cover plants with cloches in threat of overnight Frosts. Cloches are row covers or something that protects plants from cold temperatures. It's not unusual to start vegetables outdoors early in the season if you want to give your plants a head start. I usually grow greens, peas, and potatoes at the end of March and beginning of April, but these vegetables do not require covering unless if you're starting them at the end of February and beginning of March.
It may be perfectly warm and sunny during February's days, but most likely freezing at night. You can use recycled plastic containers of all kinds to cover individual plants overnight. You can also use plastic sheeting to create long row covers. In the morning, uncover the plastic container or sheeting to allow plants to breath (do this until no threats of Frost).
Many plants benefit from growing during the cool Spring weather, like Spinach, cabbage, Brussels, Swiss Chard, Kale, Collards. 
The earlier you plant seeds indoors or transplant outdoors, the earlier you will harvest food.

I skimmed other gardening websites for their Top Tips, and I found that they were the least helpful. Most of the tips I found were vague suggestions, and spoke too much about gardening tools. I wanted to provide specific suggestions that will answer all of the questions of a beginner. Also my intention was to provide options for people that have little to no money, for example: collect rain water, make soil with food scraps, and implement no-till methods. One last tip I suggest trying (another free way to grow food), is to sew seeds from fruits you bought from the grocery store or farmer's market.
For instance, if you purchased cucumbers, squash, melons and tomatoes to eat, eat the food and save the seeds from these fruits. Dry out the seeds, store in paper envelope in a cool and dry location of your home, then use them when you're ready to plant.

This extensive list of my Top 20 Gardening tips will continue to grow throughout the years. Maybe if I took another couple of days to write, I could have come up with 50 Gardening tips. My main message is to think of plants like ourselves, Focus on the basic needs of plants: food, water, sun (heat & light), oxygen, and sleep.

Practicing Permaculture methods will allow you utilize your creativity in growing food with little effort and no money.
For the last three years of growing food, I have made lists of my mistakes, which you can find here Gardening Mistakes 2013 and Gardening Mistakes 2012.

If you're an experienced gardener that would like to make corrections to this list or add suggestions, please leave a comment below.

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