Gardening Is Hard
But I'll Make it Easy
Gardening is hard. With so many things to learn, ranging from what to plant when, what plants work for your "hardiness zone", what needs how much water, which plants need what minerals added, it can all be very dissuasive for those who aren't already gardening.
This article will give you everything you need to get started as soon as you're done reading it, I guarantee it.
Some people, myself included before I researched the topic, don't understand why others grow food for themselves, especially when we have bountiful amounts at stores less than 10 minutes from our homes. There are literally too many to list, but here's the top reasons to grow as much of your own food as possible:
1) Nutrition and Health: Vegetables at the grocery store are grown solely for weight using nitrogen based fertilizers to pump out as much marketable biomass as possible. While they usually look amazing, they very rarely have nature's real nutritional value. This is due to the soil quality. As farms continually farm the same plots year round, nutrients become more and more scarce, leaving less nutrition for the plant, and less nutrition and flavor for you.
2) The Environment: Most of the tomatoes you eat come from hydroponic farms in Texas, or Oklahoma when grown out of season. When grown in the winter, these massive greenhouses must be heated, then packed onto giant 18 wheelers to ship them to your grocery stores, possibly hundreds of miles away. It's easy to see how this is an unnecessary stress, and this is just one vegetable. Producing your own food lets the environment breathe, every little bit helps.
3) Financial: Once your personal garden is cranking out your favorite produce, you'll see a dramatic difference in your expenses, especially if you weren't big on eating produce before. Once you taste home grown vegetables, you'll be surprised how you develop a craving for them overtime, which will cut out other grocery expenses. While it does cost some money up front, the cost to maintain it is literally water, and the occasional bag of compost to enrich the soil once per season - about $3-5 per 20 square feet of garden.
A Modern Approach
The easiest way to manage your crops is using a square foot gardening method. This is a method based on planting a certain number of plants per square foot. However, my spin, is to use buckets, specifically the standard 5 gallon buckets from Home Depot, they cost about $1.30 at the time of writing, and are just under 1 square foot. They hold just the right amount soil for any vegetable out there.
The benefits of this are:
1) No Construction: You don't need to build a raised bed. I'm personally no carpenter, and any attempt by me to build a raised garden bed would be a massive eyesore. And when compared to out of the box solutions, or even hiring someone to build a bed for you, it's about a tenth of the price. You also do not need holes at the bottom of the bucket, but if you have a drill handy, a few small holes at the bottom will allow excess water to flow out from over-watering, and possibly allow some helpful wormies to get into your buckets.
2) Crop Management: You can move a plant to another part of your yard based on the season/crop that's inside it. With a raised bed, it is where it is. This is awesome because depending on the plant, it's going to flourish in different levels, and different time frames of sunlight. This means that you can have a couple of stalks of corn in a bucket out in the sun one season, then move it to a more shady part of your yard for some lettuce the next season.
3) Pest Control: While it certainly isn't going to save your vegetables from getting munched on, I've found through my experience that many of the ground insects tend to stay away. Either because they're so high and don't know they're their, or because they can't climb the buckets. I'm not sure to be honest, but it's most definitely helped. Adding onto this, you can sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the base of the buckets, when bugs walk through it, it rips their exoskeleton apart, leaving them to die shortly after. It's technically organic, and safe, but I wouldn't use this with a raised bed, because watering will pull it into the soil, meaning your plants will suck it up, which I doubt is very healthy to be eating, but don't need to worry about your plants soaking it up because they're in buckets!
The one con of this:
It Can be Ugly: If you have buckets scattered all over your yard, it's going to look trashy. However, there are two quick fixes for this: Keep them in neat, symmetrical rows, and get a solid colored bucket, making sure all of them match. The Homer bucket is just a recommendation, as it's the cheapest, but if you're concerned with aesthetics, by all means get some plain colored buckets, just be sure they aren't opaque, as sunlight on the roots is bad news.
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Making Premium Soil at a Low Cost
To make awesome food, you need awesome soil. The important qualities for a great soil are: water retention, being airy/light in weight, and nutrient density. While you can use whatever dirt you've got in your backyard, unless you've had several dogs pooping in it, and never raked your yard, allowing it all to build the soil over the many years, I highly recommend mixing your own soil. Don't worry, it's super easy, and isn't even that expensive.
The recipe is: 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss/ and 1/3 compost.
This is the most basic soil mix that exists, and it's super cheap. The peat moss makes the soil nice and fluffy so the root system can develop for maximum nutrient and water uptake, the vermiculite acts almost as a tiny sponge fragments that hold tons of water by weight, and the compost adds a ton of nutrients to the soil for the plants to develop to the best of nature's intentions.
A sack of vermiculite will cost around $20, and will be enough for 25-30 buckets depending on how stingy you are/aren't with it.
Compost is around $3-5 per sack depending on the quality, brand, and area. A typical sack will be enough for 2.5-3 buckets in my experience.
Peat moss usually comes in a huge, compacted brick for around $15 bucks, and should be enough for around 15 buckets.
So, some math:
For 30 buckets (roughly 30-120 plants depending on the types) we've got $30 for peat moss, $30 for compost, and $20 for vermiculite, equaling 80$, plus ~$40 for the buckets, so the true total is $120.
Hold the phone: $120!! That's ridiculous!
I understand it's a hard number to take in, but look at it this way: building your own raised bed, the smallest, cheapest one (a simple 6in high box made from 2 2inX6inX8ft planks = $10/per) is going to cost $40 for the same square footage as well, plus the $80 in soil same as with the buckets, with none of the benefits from using the buckets, specifically the mobility.
And again, once you have all of this, you don't need but a few sacks of compost per year.
This is the part that scares most people off from even attempting to grow there own food, but with the right resources (I've got your back, yo), it's super simple.
Firstly, you need to know what you Hardiness Zone is. Once we know this, you can look through your Zone's recommend planting schedule for your favorite vegetables.
Use the map below to find your zone number.
Hardiness Zone Maps
Keep your hardiness zone number in mind when you head off to the local garden center. When picking seeds, check out the back of the packages, they will all in some way or another let you know what you can plant sucessfully based on the time of the year and your area. Some even have a similar map like the one above with the dates next to it.
An Important Note On Seeds
Many of the seeds you might buy will be "standard" seeds. These seeds will produce great crops just like any others, however, when the plant "bolts", or "flowers" the seeds it produces will be sterile. Meaning they wont produce new plants, and you'll have to buy new seeds next year.
Look for "Heirloom" seeds. Not only will the seeds from your crops be fertile, and produce many new offspring for your to chow down on, but they've also been bred throughout the generations to have specific, desirable characteristics, such as: disease resistance, temperature hardiness, exotic colors, unique flavors, and so on. Heirlooms typically cost more, but not by a significant amount. And by saving seeds for one season, you'll cover the cost and then some, because once you produce a crop, you've made seeds to plant it next season.
Honestly, brand doesn't matter so long as it's heirloom.
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Water and Sunlight
There's four places to screw up when it comes to gardening: bad soil, poor timing, too much/too little sunlight, and water.
We've covered the first two, so let's wrap this up. Luckily, if you've made it this far, you've already got the hard parts down.
On the back of your seed packets, it gives you clear watering instructions for each plant.
However, for the most part, if the top of the soil is damp, then you're golden. Where most people go wrong with their gardening is by drastically over watering them. And since we don't have holes at the bottom of our buckets, this is doubly dangerous. After the first major drink you give your seeds, you wont need to water it until the plant begins maturing at a really fast rate.
If the top looks a little dusty, give it a nice drink, if the plant begins wilting, give it a good drink and be patient! If you're new, it very well may be wilting due to over watering! Over a short amount of time, you'll develop an intuition of what needs water and when. There's no direct answer to "How often should I water plant X", it really just comes down to weather of not the soil is moist or not, and that's going to be a factor of heat, amount of sunlight, and how much water the plant is using.
As for sunlight
It depends on the plant. Read the seed's packet to find out. Keep in mind, very few plants go by a "More is better" mindset. Most plants do perfect with 5-7 hours of direct sunlight per day.
A rule of thumb for sunlight is:
South side is going to be 10-12 hours of direct sunlight.
North side is going to be 4-7 hours of direct sunlight.
East/west are going to be around 6-10 hours of direct sunlight.
However, the positioning of your house, and other houses is going to drastically impact this. It's best to just view where the sun rises, and sets, then check where the sun is at every 2 hours for a day to get a good estimate of what parts of your yard get how much sunlight.
You now have everything you need info wise. Just on a closing note: fertilizers aren't necessary, and most of what you see in the gardening section panders to those that don't know what they're doing. Now that you do, you should be able to start a healthy garden at a healthy price to supply you with the best food on earth.
If you've made it this far, go start! I wish you all the luck in the world! Feel free to like this article, and share any thoughts down below.