Monday, March 7, 2016

Growing a Garden: Where Do I Start?

You. Guys. I opened my windows today and I heard birds singing. I let the chickens out and they pecked at actual, real-life grass. I walked to the mailbox in my socks. It's happening. Spring is upon us.

I could not be more excited to start this next blog series. I've spouted sonnets about creating maintenance-free food gardens and growing what you eat for quite some time. While writing my self-sufficiency post about food, I realized most people, myself included, simply don't know where to begin.

I'm finally taking the opportunity to break down the creation, maintenance, and harvest of your very own food garden.

But before we begin, a few little tidbits for your reference pleasure:
  • I live in a suburban area on a 0.5 acre plot of land
  • I am zoned residential
  • I am in growing Zone 5A - Northern Illinois. Our summers are hot and humid and our winters are cold and windy.
  • I have two kids, both picky little eaters
  • Dancing Feathers Farm, as I like to call my backyard, very recently became a female-only operation - so single ladies, this series is most definitely for you!
  • I am dedicated to organic practices
So with those things in mind, let's jump in, shall we?!?

Choose your own adventure
I've said it before and I'll say it again ... no point to growing tomatoes if you can't stand eating them. Gardening is work. It can be fun work, but it's work nonetheless. Don't bother wasting time with plants that look pretty but don't serve you and your family. I once bought a whole crapton of flowers because I was swayed by their gorgeousness in a magazine. Guess what? They cost me an arm and a leg, died within a year, and didn't do anything to "pay me back" for my money and trouble.

Grow plants that pay you back. They don't necessarily need to reimburse you by providing a food can plant perennials for pollinators, for example, or herbs for tinctures and salves, ground cover for nitrogen-fixation...beneficial plants come in many shapes, functions, and forms. 

Are you looking for food? List your favorite veggies. Don't even worry about feasibility at this point, we're just exploring your preferences. 

Are you trying to attract butterflies? Google some butterfly-loving plants, choose the five that look prettiest to you, and put them on your list. 

Bees? Do the same. 

Need to spruce up your front yard? Consider planting some bushes and flowers for the birds. These bird-beneficial plants will provide habitat, food, pest control, and best of all, a distraction from your fruit and veggies. 

Think about what you need - it's the easiest place to start!

Choose your zone
You want to grow plants that will...well...grow. You may love blueberries, but if the particular bush you're looking at is only suited for southern climates and you live in the north, you are going to be out of luck. 

The best way to narrow down which plant varieties you should try and grow is to purchase varieties that are proven/known/hypothesized to grow well in your climate or hardiness zone. 

I don't like the USDA, namely because they are owned by corporate chemical companies and do not function as an independent operating body intent on providing safety for our nation's citizens and farmers, so I will not link to their hardiness zone map in this post. I will, however, link to the Arbor Day Foundation's super simple zip code zone finder. These zone indicators are based on averages and estimations, mind you, so they are not perfect. Not all plant varieties are sold with suggested zone regions, either. So here's another little trick:

Choose varieties you see in the nature preserves around you, the gardens around you, at the farmer's market in your hood, or varieties named after/originating from regions similar to yours. If you live in a hot climate, for example, a tomato variety grown in the south of Italy would likely work very well in your region. I love Russian veggies, Slavic flowers, and anything that is both cold and heat tolerant. My location and weather is similar to that in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan, so I grab any varieties originating from those states. 

Until you get some trial-end-error germination (growth) under your belt, planting varieties suited for your climate is the best way to get a leg-up against mother nature's complexities!

Choose heirloom
Once you pick your varieties, it's time to get the seeds! That's right, I said seeds. Growing from seed is absolutely possible, doesn't take that much work, and is more cost-effective than buying grown plants. 

Heirloom seeds are the best. They are old, time-proven varieties of plants that are passed from generation to generation and kept safe from chemical manipulation. Heirloom seeds are almost always sold by organizations that function independently, free of any Monsanto ties or support. Speaking of Monsanto, if you don't know who they are and why they are the devil incarnate of the gardening/environmental/food safety/healthcare/agriculture world, check out this article. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one

My two favorite heirloom seed organizations are Seed Savers Exchange and Baker Creek. They send you deliciously beautiful, free seed catalogues each year. Be prepared to be blown away. You will want everything. Everything. 

Choose a location
Do you have a yard? A balcony? A window? A rooftop? Where's the easiest location for you to access? The hardest location to access? 

Do you have pets and kids that could potentially get into your garden? How about nosy neighbors? Natural wildlife like deer, rabbits, and chipmunks? 

Take the sun into consideration, too. South-facing areas are always optimal because the sun shines in that direction the longest. Be conscious of big trees and shadows, awnings and porch umbrellas, or fences and neighboring homes. 

How about water needs? Do you have a hose hookup nearby? Will you be hauling water? Are there steps to fall down take into consideration? 

And lastly, if you're considering planting in the ground, think about getting a soil test done to determine your soil quality. It might not mean much right now, but once you start planting and needing to diagnose problems, knowing what your soil's pH level is could mean the difference between quitting in frustration or simply adding some eggshells and coffee grounds to your dirt.

Choose your supplies
If you're planting in pots, grab some pots from Craigslist or the resale shop. If you're building raised beds, consider recycled materials or materials that do not break down easy. I have a keyhole raised bed made of untreated cedar fence planks, raised beds made of cinderblocks I purchased new from a hardware store, and an herb spiral made of bricks I found in my backyard. Get creative! People plant in old boots, for cryin out loud, and it looks awesome. Go nuts.

Don't forget to stock up on your planting medium. Dirt can be expensive! If you're building raised beds, think about filling the bottom half with something cheap, like compost, rocks, leaves, or wood ash/shavings. Then you can fill the bed up with half as much dirt, but still have a great planting surface. I typically start buying my dirt in March, long before I can plant outside. Pre-buying like this helps me divide the cost up real nice and manageable-like. 

We'll talk about starting seedlings indoors next week, but if you're hoping to start seedlings, keep an eye out for sales on wire shelving units, shop lights, and little containers to start your plants in. Some people are recycling pros and use things as simple and innovative as toilet paper rolls or emptied yogurt containers, others splurge on peat pots and special trays. 

Get some great gardening gloves and a weed knife. Find an old bucket and make it your gardening bucket to help haul tools around and store them in one convenient place. I purchased a large wheelbarrow to help me with my weeding, but you may only need a recycled grocery bag, Try not to shop for your supplies by simply browsing the garden aisles....make a list ahead of time and stick to it. Way too easy to go broke looking at all the cool gardening inventions out there!

So whaddaya think? Five simple little steps to get you started in the right direction. They don't sound too daunting, do they? And that's the goal for this entire series - gardening broken down into easy, accessible, and affordable steps that even the craziest Jens can understand :)

Stay tuned for next week - Seed Starting 101!

What is your biggest gardening insecurity? Do you struggle with a particular part of the planning or growing, or do you have a nemesis plant variety? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading :)

Did you enjoy this post? Check out the rest of the Growing a Garden series by clicking the links below!

**Can't get enough homesteading? Check out the Homestead Blog Hop, hosted by some of the best and most beautiful bloggers in the self-sufficiency world. This post, and many of my others, are shared on the Homestead Blog Hop each week. From breadmaking to seed selection, home-grown recipes to herbal health, the Homestead Blog Hop has it all! Enjoy! :)


  1. This is my first year having my own vegetable garden. I relied on my sister's rather impressive garden for the last four or five years but now that we moved away I'm on my own. I started my seeds last Tuesday and already have some impressive seedlings. I'm doing a container garden because we're renting and our landlord would like his lawn kept intact. I never thought to search CL for pots and containers. Thanks for the tip!

    1. That is awesome Jennifer - I am so excited for you to start!! You have to tell me how it goes! Container gardening is awesome because it's soooo flexible...not enough light or water? Move them. Too cold? Bring 'em in. It will be awesome!

  2. I want a garden! And chickens! and We aren't zoned for that...sigh. I SO wish we could have a garden, but we live in a subtropical climate. Sorry I've been MIA lately, building my corporate website and moving away from the parenting site. Hope you are well, I'm stalking your chicken posts!!!

    1. Girl I've told ya - you CAN grow stuff in your subtropical climate! You just need subtropical food plants! And I totally get you - I've been working like a maniac and miss our blog buddy visits!! Have a good one, Kristen! :)