One of my favorite summer activities is gardening. My favorite types of gardening are vegetable and herb gardening. I grew up helping my parents with their garden and participated in 4H where I completed gardening activities and competed in the county fair. As a 12-year old I even had my own herb garden! One of the main reasons I enjoy gardening so much is because I love cooking and eating great-tasting food. Even if you live in an apartment there are ways you can still garden even if on a smaller scale. Container gardening or participating in a community garden are great options! In the following post, I will share some of my personal reasons for maintaining a vegetable garden and tips on how to get the most out of your garden. All the pictures that follow were taken from my garden this year. This is our first year gardening at our new house so we converted a field filled with grass and weeds into our garden. It is still a work in progress but even with a challenging rain-filled spring and early summer we have managed to produce a good number of fruits and vegetables.
My Top 5 Reasons to Vegetable Garden
Reason 1: Taste and Nutrition
One of the main reasons I love vegetable gardening is that fresh produce straight from the garden just tastes better. A sun-ripened tomato has so much more flavor and nutrition than one from the grocery store that was picked green and allowed to ripen on the truck, at the distributor, or at the store. Green tomatoes are often ripened via ethylene gas that is sprayed on them. Tomatoes naturally give off ethylene gas so there is likely nothing unsafe about this practice but it does have a huge effect on taste. Another reason I prefer fresh vegetables from the garden is that the time from plant to table is generally minutes to days whereas vegetables from the grocery store can be significantly older by time they make it to your plate. This dramatically affects the taste and nutrition of your food.
Roma tomatoes ripening in the sun
Reason 2: Saves Money
The second reason I love vegetable gardening is that it is cost effective. If you are new to gardening you will have to spend some money up front for the proper tools and supplies. However, much of the equipment can be re-used and will last for many years. You also need to buy seeds and/or plants to transplant each year but if your garden is successful you will make that money back many times over. If you have the room to start your own seeds indoors to transplant you will also save a significant amount of money. Finally, if you are trying to eat healthy or even organic it can get very expensive very quickly. Eating local is a great idea but not everyone can afford to do all their shopping at the local organic farmers market or grocery store. Growing your own vegetables, even if you do not use completely organic methods, does allow you to eat healthier even on a budget.
Reason 3: Mental and Physical Well-Being
The third reason I love gardening is because I love spending time outdoors. It is great for mental health and as a form of strength-building exercise. As an introvert, I absolutely need time outside away from crowds and people. Even a half hour working in my vegetable garden relaxes me, reduces anxiety, and keeps me grounded. I am also prone to joint and tendon issues so I need to be really careful about how much and what type of exercise and activities I participate in. Gardening allows me to stay active and increase my upper (and lower) body strength although it is very easy to overdo it!
Reason 4: Passing it on to the Next Generation
The forth reason I love gardening is because it allows me to raise my daughter in a manner that increases her activity, nutrition, and love of the outdoors. Heading out to the garden reduces screen time and keeps her moving and exploring. She absolutely LOVES picking vegetables and usually eats the tomatoes, carrots, peas, and green beans straight off the plants. It is also slowly teaching her patience. I have to remind her over an over that we need to wait to pick many of the vegetables until they fully mature and ripen. In my opinion one of the biggest problems (among many!) in America is the disconnect between the food supply and our dinner table. Most Americans do not know where their food comes from or how it is grown and produced. I love teaching my daughter that our food does not come from a grocery store! This is an even bigger problem with our meat supply but I will save that for another post!
Reason 5: Self-Sufficiency
My last reason to garden is to increase self-sufficiency. It is virtually impossible these days to be completely self-sufficient. Ideally my family would be completely self-sufficient in regards to food, energy, finances, etc. However, this is generally not realistic for us or most other families. The time when you could make a living and provide for your family on your family farm is gone. However, food is one area where it is much easier to become at least partially self-sufficient. Growing your own fruit and vegetables and then learning proper preservation techniques is one of the best ways to become self-sufficient. I will focus another blog post in the future on preserving your harvest.
If I have managed to convince you to maintain a vegetable garden then read on for some tips on how to garden most effectively. These tips are mostly designed for people just starting out but even if you are an experienced gardener you may find them helpful.
Tips for Vegetable Gardening
Tip 1: Location, Location, Location!
The first thing you need to think about when starting a vegetable garden is where you want to place your garden. If you are in apartment with a balcony obviously you would want to start there or in containers at a window. Whether you are gardening indoors or out, one of the biggest requirements is light. A south facing garden is best as most vegetables need a significant amount of light. If you are indoors you can always supplement natural light with fluorescent bulbs or grow bulbs. If you have a garden outdoors, the closer to the house the better. You are more likely to maintain your garden if it is easily accessible. Another consideration for location is soil quality and drainage. If you have many places to choose from you may want to get your soil tested before deciding on a location for the garden however even if the soil is not the best you can slowly amend the soil over the years to optimize growth. You also do not want to pick a very low-lying area where water tends to sit as good drainage is important for the growth of most plants. If you live in a dry arid climate you probably want to maximize drainage into your garden to decrease watering requirements. Our garden in Wisconsin is not limited by space or light unlike our raised beds when we lived in NY. We are lucky enough to have plenty of space and light but do have drainage issues in parts of the garden.
Vegetable Garden in the Middle of a Field
Tip 2: Start Small!
Once you have decided on location you need to pick a size for your garden. If you are new to gardening start small! It is very easy to get overwhelmed with a large garden and it is also more expensive in regards to time and money. You also need to buy less equipment with a smaller garden. You may be able to get away with just hand tools or a small hand-held rototiller. Larger gardens will likely require a walk-behind tiller or tractor with a roto-tiller. I am in the process of exploring no-till garden options but it can take many years to increase the quality of your soil to where this is a feasible option. As you can see from the above picture we did not take our own advice. We fenced in a half-acre, however probably 3/4 of the space is or will be dedicated to fruit and nut trees, grapes, and raspberries and other bush fruit. The last 1/4 is our vegetable garden which currently houses 2 raised beds but will hopefully have 4-6 in the future.
Tip 3: Raised Beds!
If you can afford it I would recommend at least one or two raised beds. You can fit more vegetables in a small space this way because the soil quality is usually better. If you make your own they may cost $100 or so each depending on the type of material you use, the soil you add, etc. This is an easy way to get a well-drained garden that isn’t too big and has high quality soil. I recommend adding in top soil, compost, and peat moss. If you are planning on many raised beds getting a dump truck load of soil and compost is much more economical than buying them in bags. 4’x8’ beds are optimal however I have tried 5’x10’ beds which worked but for a smaller person or child it is hard to reach to the center of a 5’ span. In addition to drainage and soil quality raised bed are great for any plant that you want to keep contained and prevent from spreading such as asparagus, horseradish, mint, etc. I currently have 3 raised beds, one for garlic, one for asparagus, and one for annual flowers. We hope to add one or two more each year. Ideally any smaller plants would go in raised beds although you can plant larger ones as well. In the future, I would love to grow onions, lettuce, spinach, peas, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peppers, and more in raised beds. The bigger plants like squash, pumpkins, and corn generally grow well and are easier to maintain directly in the ground. A great resource for raised bed gardening is Mel Bartholomew’s “Square Foot Gardening” book. Although he crowds his plants in a little closer than I do for many of mine it is still a great resource if you are just getting started.
4x8 Foot Raised Asparagus Bed
Tip 4: Don't Plant in Rows!
The traditional way of planting involved straight rows of plants. However, you make better use of your space if you plant using the square foot method where you utilize all available space. Just remember to leave rows or spaces where you to need access to pick. For example, vine plants like winter squash and pumpkins easily overtake any rows you may try to maintain. However, these plants require very little maintenance throughout the growing season so I like to leave 6 or 8 feet between plants but designate an entire quadrant of my garden to them without any rows. For vegetables like leaf lettuce or spinach and beets and carrots I simply disperse my seeds into a quadrant that is small enough for me to reach into to weed if necessary. By skipping the rows I fit more vegetables into a smaller space. Although this does often require more thinning depending on how thickly the seeds are dispersed.
Turnips that are Dispersed, not Planted in Rows
Winter Squash, Gourds, and Pumpkins without Rows
Tip 5: Mulch is your Friend!
One of the best tips I have heard recently was to use cardboard boxes or newspaper to mulch your garden and prevent weeds. Spend the winter months collecting your newspaper and extra boxes or find free ones online. Remember to remove any plastic tape or metal staples from the boxes. The ink in newspapers is almost always soy-based so it is safe to use in gardens. Then when you plant your garden in the spring lay the boxes and newspapers out flat on the edges of your garden, in any rows, or between plantings to prevent weeds from growing. You’ll likely need to weigh your boxes and newspaper down with either mulch or rocks if mulch is in short supply. You can also use mulch directly without the boxes such as leaves from the fall, grass clippings, compost, etc. This will dramatically cut down on the amount of weeding you need to do and make gardening much more pleasant.
Cardboard Boxes Dramatically Decrease Weeds
Tip 6: Hill your Crops!
My last tip involves drainage. If you cannot afford raised beds or don’t want to use all raised beds, drainage can be a huge issue depending on your location. This year we planted some of our vine crops in hills and others we just planted straight into the ground. Unfortunately, this spring and early summer we received 6 to 8 inches of rain above average for a three-month period. The squash planted in hills grew much better than the squash that was planted flat into the ground. Most of our crops that weren’t hilled such as some squash, onions, and peas rotted in the ground because the water didn’t drain well. So, if your garden is in a low-lying area, you have a high clay soil that doesn’t drain well, or you are prone to a wet spring/summer you may want to hill or mound many of your plants. It’s much easier to water your garden when needed then try to remove too much water.
I’m sure there are many other tips and that I could come up with but please feel free to send any comments or questions to me, either in the comments section below or via my contact page. Also, if there is any topic that you wish me to cover in more detail please let me know. Other topics I would like to discuss in the future include fencing, composting, growing vegetables vertically, seed saving, preserving, and lots more!
I have recently starting drying both wildflowers and cultivated flowers to sell on my Etsy and eBay site. I love gardening but have very little experience with ornamental gardening and flower gardening. I much prefer vegetable and herb gardening (mostly because I like cooking and eating). When we moved into our home last summer we had so many flower beds that were only partially or not at all maintained. We did what we could last year to improve the flower beds and this Spring we bought a load of mulch to help reduce weeds and bring the beds back to life. Some flower beds have received more attention than others but hopefully over the next few years we will get them all back to their former glory. I have also slowly begun filling in the beds with herbs that are multi-purpose. Herbs are beautiful in flower beds and most can also be used in cooking or teas. I have also begun the long task of identifying all the bushes, shrubs, flowers, and ground covers in our beds. In addition we have tons of wildflowers growing on our property some of which I am familiar with but many others are unknown to me. Pictured below are some of the wildflowers on our property which I have managed to identify.
Oxeye Daisy Yellow Tansy White Yarrow
Thistle Goldenrod Daisy Fleabane
The flowers and herbs below are some of the ones we cultivate on our property. Some like the black-eyed susan and Echinacea (coneflower) we find wild as well. Other flowers and herbs I have added to my collection this year but may need to wait a year or two before harvesting.
I currently have white astilbe which dries beautifully and have planted several more colors to add to my collection. Last summer when we moved in our hydrangeas looked great but did not flower this year (our zone is iffy for most hydrangeas). I also planted lavender which I absolutely love but most varieties do not overwinter well in my zone. I purchased a hardy variety but still made sure to plant it on the south side of our house. I also planted sage, tarragon, thyme, lemon thyme, mugwort (Artemesia), catnip, more Echinacea, bee balm, zinnias, bachelor's buttons, sunflowers, Nigella (love in the mist), and pumpkins on a stick (eggplant family but the fruit looks like tiny pumpkins). Some of these are perennials and should return each year (assuming they survive our harsh Wisconsin winters) but others are annuals and need to be re-seeded each year. Some like the Violas (Johnny Jump Ups) are annuals but release so many seeds that will germinate the following year you generally never need to plant them again.
One warning about planting new flowers and herbs is that many can be invasive. Do your research before planting and make sure the plants you choose are native or at least not invasive. If they are or have the tendency to be invasive you may want to plant them in pot or container. For example, most members of the mint family can easily get out of control. I grow my mint and catnip in pots to keep them from spreading. However, if you allow them to go to seed they may spread around the pot. I also grow mugwort in a pot as it also has invasive tendencies. Finally, if you have plants that will not overwinter well you may wish to plant them in pots as well as they can be brought in during the winter so you do not need to start from scratch the following year. I am trying this with one of the less hardy varieties of lavender that I bought.
Black-eyed Susan Bee Balm Zinnia
Viola Peppermint Echinacea
How to Dry and Preserve Flowers and Herbs
If you would like to enjoy flowers and herbs all year long, the next step is to preserve them. The easiest method is to air dry them while hanging upside-down. There are several other methods which I have not explored yet including using a desiccant, pressing, and even the microwave. Here I will cover air drying only. Some flowers preserve very well with air drying however other flowers require one of the other methods if you wish to preserve the structure of the flower. In general, the more delicate flowers like daisies, black-eyed susan, echinacea, and violas will not air dry and keep their structure. The petals will crumple up as they dry. This still however makes beautiful flower potpourri.
Flowers that I have air dried well include hydrangeas, astilbe, and bachelor's buttons (all three not pictured), goldenrod, yarrow, tansy, and most herbs (some exceptions include parsley which freezes better). The best plan is to see what information you can find on drying your particular flower and then experiment with various drying methods. I listed the steps for the air drying method I use below.
Step 1: Harvest when the flowers have just begun to open. If you harvest too early the flowers will remain closed. If you harvest too late the flowers may be less brightly colored and the petals may fall off. This can take some experimenting to get right. Or you may wish your flowers to include a range of maturity in which case harvest at a variety of times.
So, it has been a really long time since the last blog post. The reason for this is that spring and summer is the busiest time of year on a farm especially since this was our first spring on the property. We had a ton of stuff that we wanted to get done and we’re still slowly working down that list.
To start we had ordered 6 bare root fruit trees, 25 red wine grapes, and 75 baby trees (spruce, fir, and white birch) all of which were delivered in April. Bare root plants need to go in as soon as possible so my husband dug a lot of holes in a short period of time! We planted 4 apple trees, a cold-hard peach tree, and a sour cherry tree and hope to add 4-6 more fruit and nut trees each year until our orchard is complete. Our biggest concern is our zone; we are in zone 4 which limits our selection of fruit trees that will grow well here. If anyone knows of a sweet cherry tree that grows in zone 4 please let me know!
The 25 red wine grapes that we bought are suited to our harsh Wisconsin winters. We chose the Marquette variety as these are cold hardy and although they are a new variety developed by the University of Minnesota, appear to make a nice dry red wine which we prefer. In subsequent years, we hope to add more grapes including a white variety (likely Itasca) well suited for our climate.
Before we could plant the grapes however we needed to get the sod in our field tilled under. We also wanted to put in a large vegetable garden this spring and summer so we also needed the sod tilled under for that as well. We do not have a roto-tiller attachment for our little 955 John Deere tractor however a neighbor with a much larger tractor agreed to roto-till our plot in exchange for haying our field this summer for his horses. He has also provided lots of horse manure for compost!
My family and I recently moved from the New York City area to small town Wisconsin. Our move, this website and blog, and our Etsy store is the result of our desire over the past several years to simplify our lives, increase our quality of life, reconnect with nature, and enjoy a more self-sufficient life. I grew up as a country kid in central PA working on my grandfather's fruit farm and as a corn "de-tassler". My background is in biology where my love of nature originated. I used to work as a research scientist and professor and have now transitioned to a part-time stay-at-home mom, self-employed tutor, and small business owner. Thank you for taking the time to check out my site.