The Most Productive Way To Grow Vegetables In Any Climate
While we're still in the first stages of our off-grid homestead -- tying up loose ends and getting our ducks in a row to move to the wilderness and start searching for property -- I've been reflecting on my years of experience homesteading and imagining how I will go about things in this totally new climate of northeastern Washington State. My previous homesteads were in Kentucky and North Carolina where there's an abundance of water and defined seasons. Now that we're moving out to the inland northwest, there are long snow-packed winters, hot dry summers with cool nights, completely different soil landscapes, and wildfires to contend with. It's going to be a whole other ballgame!
That said, I don't think my gardening plan is going to differ all that much from the extremely productive raised bed gardening I did in Kentucky.
My approach blends several different methods of gardening, namely: hugelkultur, permaculture, raised bed gardening, and square foot gardening. It utilizes a hoophouse setup which can be removed or setup in a minute or two (in the case of unexpected weather changes) and is terrific for extending the growing season. Not only did I grow insane amounts of organic vegetables using this technique, but I experienced ZERO pest problems. It's also important to note that almost all of our vegetable intake came from the garden! I hardly had to purchase anything from the store and if I had planned better, I see no reason why we couldn't ONLY eat veg from the garden and not buy at all as long as the season lasts.
Here are the key components of my customized approach to organic gardening, hopefully you'll be able to glean something from all of this to implement into your own garden design to reap beauty and abundance!
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Step 1: Building Raised Beds
We used cinder blocks for our DIY raised beds. The reasoning for this was that we wanted them to last a long time. I've also used stones and wood to build raised beds in other locations, sourced from the land. While cinder blocks aren't very aesthetically pleasing, they are sturdy. Depending on your location, your goals (do you plan to sell your property in the future?), and the resources available to you, you can choose from a plethora of building materials for your raised beds. If you're a purist like me, be mindful of treated lumber which could leach into the soil and ultimately into your crops.
Make sure your raised beds are deep since you will be filling them with all sorts of things and you want to be sure plants have plenty of room to root and prosper. Our raised beds ranged from 1.5 feet deep on one end, to 3 feet deep on the other (accounting for slope of the land). Generally speaking - the deeper, the better.
Step 2: Fill the raised beds with a layer of logs
This is where hugelkultur concepts come in. Hugelkultur is essentially just buried wood. These buried logs (twigs, branches, etc.) help out in a lot of ways:
I learned about this method of growing food (and soil) from Sepp Holzer, my favorite permaculturist, who manages to grow citrus trees way high up in the cold mountains of Austria. Here's a link to his remarkable book, chock full of knowledge and inspiration.
Step 3: Mix soil and fill raised beds
This soil mix formula comes from a book I read called Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. "Mel's Mix" is three parts: 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 compost.
Making sure to keep the equation 1/3, we would mix the soil using buckets full of each ingredient dumped onto a large tarp. From there, we'd each grab two corners of the tarp and do a swooshy dance (real technical, I know) until everything looked good and mixed. Pro tip: Make sure to breathe through your nose, inhaling any of this can damage your lungs.
Aside from building the beds, this is where the real work comes in. We sourced vermiculite and peat moss from a local garden shop and composted manure from a farm about 30 miles away, so there was a lot of shoveling and hauling. This is a situation where you put in the work upfront, and enjoy the payoff over years. Building these beds and the soil to go in them is a really fun winter project. Then when Spring arrives - you're ready to go with your new garden!
Step 4: Build square foot grids (Optional)
To grow as much as possible, you might find it very helpful to build a wooden grid. I used simple 1x1 untreated lumber, screwed together in a grid that fit the measurements of my raised beds. You'll have to measure your beds and do the math, of course, but the goal is to lay the grid over each of your raised beds so that you have square foot planting areas from one end of the bed to the other.
The purpose behind this is to optimize growing space. Without this grid, you might space seeds further apart and not grow as much as is possible. For example, in a single square foot you can grow 16 radishes, 16 carrots, 9 cilantro, or 16 onions! Here's a comprehensive list of what you can grow in one square foot, per vegetable.
Step 5: Install hoops
For hoops, we used simple PVC pipes in a length that worked well for our raised beds. The wonderful thing about cinder blocks is that it was very easy to stick the PVC pipes into one wall through the holes in the blocks, then bend the pipe over to the other wall, creating a hoop without having to dig into the ground.
As a general rule, a hoop every three feet is a sturdy setup.
We purchased plastic sheeting for each bed. You can secure this plastic sheeting over the hoops and hold it down with stones or stakes (depending on your setup) to extend the growing season in either direction and to protect from unexpected environmental concerns (i.e. wildfire smoke, severe winds, unexpected frosts, etc.). In the middle of summer, we would fold the plastic up and store away in an anccessible area in case it was suddenly needed.
I ended up making use of the hoops for netting as the season progressed and birds and cabbage moths began frequenting the garden. You can purchase a roll of netting for each bed and put it over the hoops in the same way you would to construct your plastic hoophouse. Amazon has a great deal on netting with this 65-foot roll, which should be plenty to cover several raised beds. Rain and pollinators can still get in, but pests are kept out - no toxic chemicals needed. Consider it a natural organic pest control remedy ;)
Step 6: Sow seeds!
Now for the fun part: it's time to sow seeds. What you plant is entirely up to you, just make sure you refer to the square foot planting list so you optimize your space and grow lots of healthy food!
This isn't a requirement, but I recorded my layout in a notebook, keeping record of what was planted in each grid, for each raised bed. When those sprouts start to come up, you can grab your notebook, point to it, and level up your botany and horticulture knowledge! My favorite part of gardening (other than eating the delicious organic vegetables freshly plucked from the earth) is watching the daily progress and noting subtle changes. One of the best ways to spend a morning is to go out with a hot cup of coffee and walk through the garden while the dew is still fresh on the leaves, noting the smallest of changes. What beauty! What reward!
Step 7: Composting
This is an ongoing step, but a vital one for true self-sufficiency.
You've put in all the hard work of getting your food growing system up and running, now to be sustainable and to build soil you'll need to start composting.
This can be as simple as designating an area in your garden and tossing all organic matter there. Everything from leaves to straw to animal manure and of course - your vegetable waste. What works best for me is to keep a small container in the kitchen for all vegetable scraps. Anytime you're chopping vegetables and have remnants, or instead of throwing away veggies past their prime, just add them to the compost bucket. Then, once a day, empty the bucket onto the compost pile. The more often you can turn your pile and add water, the faster it will transform into rich usable soil. To prevent any funky smells wafting through the house, I'd recommend a compost bucket with a charcoal filter like this stainless steel one.
These are great ways to get exercise (turning a compost pile is a decent workout!) and to make sure you're eating plenty of veggies (if there isn't something to add to the compost pile every day, you might need to consume more plant food!).
After the growing season ends, add this compost to your beds and let sit all winter. This is how you sustain your food growing systems and continue building soil so that you don't have to buy anymore.
And that's a wrap! Hopefully I didn't leave out anything. Let me know if you have any questions, I'm happy to help in any way I can! Happy bountiful gardening!