"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" - Mary Oliver
Grow a garden of course, and plant in there delicious food and flowers. Create a landscape that would be a part of nature and beneficial to the surrounding ecosystem. Build an outdoor environment that gives back to pollinators and the soil, making it better than it was before. Grow enough food to save for later and to share with friends and family. Those are responses to how I would answer that question into my adult years.
When in the planning stages of your homestead, there are important things to consider ahead of time. You should first focus on growing and producing things that are a part of your diet already, but you can also experiment with growing a few new things that you may want to try as well. I have always found that this balance keeps you both grounded in what you know will work for you and progressing into new areas. It can help you to continue refining your growing techniques and practices. You may also find certain things produce well for you in your growing space, that you may not have previously considered planting in your garden. You could play it safe and just grow exactly what you want to eat (that will grow and produce in your climate and zone), but experimenting with other varieties can also help you learn as a grower. Your 'trials' area of your garden, should always be smaller and more limited than your main production area. I would say a 80/20 or 90/10 split would be preferable. Your 'trials' may simply be just growing a different variety of pepper or tomato that you haven't already grown, or it could be growing something new to you like turmeric or ginger.
I have created a sample garden layout sheet that you can use to help plan out your garden. This includes some basic companion planting concepts. You can print, cut, and paste the blocks onto your own garden sheet to start planning and creating your garden based on how much space you have available. You want to place your garden in an area that receives a bare minimum of at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day. The blocks on this garden chart are meant to represent a 2 foot x 3 foot space, and are meant to just give you an idea of where you can start. The blank spaces are for you to fill out however you would like, based on the correct spacing the crops will require. A quick internet search can help when wanting to find out the specific plant spacing that is recommended for each crop or companion plants that will work well together, when companion planting you can push the limits and sometimes get things closer in their spacing than if you are planting in a traditional row. You can also find out on seed supplier websites or seed packets how many weeks ahead of time before transplanting you will want to start your seeds and if it is recommended to either direct sow or transplant. There are endless ways to layout a garden, including planting both annuals and perennials.
Some of the easiest things to grow and get great production on your homestead (in zone 6) are:
- Direct Sow - Carrots - April
- Direct Sow - Beets - April
- Direct Sow - Beans - May
- Direct Sow - Summer Squash - May / June
- Direct Sow - Zucchini - May / June
- Direct Sow - Cilantro - April
- Direct Sow - Radish - April
- Transplant - Kale - April / May
- Transplant - Swiss Chard - April / May
- Transplant - Lettuce - April / May
- Transplant - Basil - May / June
- Transplant - Parsley - May / June
Direct sowing means you are seeding it right where it is intended to be grown for it's life until harvest. Transplanting means you are starting the seed in trays ahead of time and letting them mature over a period of weeks before planting into the garden.
We have never grown the majority of our vegetables in one large area (besides garlic, because it requires a long season taking months to mature and is much easier to manage/harvest this way - even then we interplant our garlic with clover to maintain biodiversity), but instead we prefer to combine our shorter season annuals along with some perennials in order to create microclimates and get the most out of our planting space. I will break down more details about creating microclimates in another post, because this way of building and layering your growing area can be highly beneficial especially in an open area that isn't already protected by some trees from wind and sun. The basic concept of creating a microclimate is creating an area that can help protect a crop by providing a little shelter throughout the day. For instance, last season we planted strawflowers (which also helped the pollinators) and they grow about 3 feet tall, right next to lettuce rows that only grow a foot tall at the most. This helped to shelter and protect our lettuce from direct afternoon sun and also heavy wind. By companion planting like this, you are also putting less stress on the soil to provide specific nutrients. When you plant an area only with one specific crop and do not companion plant or interplant, you are also taking from the soil all the nutrients and micronutrients that one crop needs and that can deplete your soil, by interplanting and companion planting you are minimizing that effect by spreading crops out and never taxing the soil too much because you are growing multiple things in one area. This is also why crop rotations can be important, but they don't seem to matter as much when you're heavily focused on interplanting, since your soil doesn't become depleted or worn out because you are creating diversity and polyculture (many crops), instead of the traditional way of growing crops in a monoculture (one crop). When you look at a farm field, and see one large crop planting together, just know that area will need special attention to make sure it doesn't become depleted.
This can also be subjective to the growing methods as well, in a traditional mechanical rototilling situation the soil is already being worked and the soil microbes will become out of balance (because tilling is not a natural practice) so your soil becomes more susceptible to becoming depleted and also increases diseases and pests for your plants, but when you're using permaculture no-till methods to produce your crops and leaving the soil undisturbed while also adding things like compost / organic matter, it will continue to build the soil's ability to provide for crops while not becoming depleted because you are letting the soil microbes and life continue to naturally replenish the soil. It's all about creating systems that work with nature, and that do not disturb the environment or existing ecosystem.
We focus on intensively growing crops together, which is why a tractor doesn't fit well into our planting and growing system. Instead we use a small selection of hand tools. Crops are planted tight to maximize production, close the canopy helping reduce weed pressure, and to also help benefit each other and the soil, this helps you grow and produce a lot of food in a smaller area as well. We use plantings of clover to provide nitrogen to the soil, and cover the soil with roots to help prevent soil erosion. We are doing our best to work with nature, while also growing and providing food. I would recommend planting your area in this way too, and not using a rototiller to prepare your growing space. Using a tiller will create an imbalance in your soil, and also awaken the weed seed bed creating more issues for you in the long term. Our preferred method to prepare a bed is to deep mulch with straw, wood chips, and compost. Or you can also use a digging fork / broadfork to gently loosen soil and manually remove perennial grasses and weeds by hand, then rake with a steel rake to smooth your planting surface. We either produce our compost an wood chips on site, or source straw from local organic farms. Mulching will help to suppress any grass or weed growth when establishing your beds, and it will also help to keep the soil moist making any remaining grass easier to remove by hand because it is much easier to weed from moist soil than from dry soil. When we initially deep mulch to create a new bed, we go 12-18" deep on our straw, after your beds are established after a season or two we will mulch about 6-8" deep. You can use un-composted wood chips for your pathways, and use compost in your garden beds along with the straw. You want to source from a local farm that has organic weed free straw if possible. All of these growing and production methods are subtly nuanced, and while they can be forgiving of small errors, you also have to be aware of what each method being used is meant to do and this will help you know when and how to apply them. The basic concept behind the deep mulch, is you're attempting to get nature to believe it is going into succession (like the forest), and by creating this compost rich environment and suppressing weeds and grass, along with hand pulling them out, you are gently modifying your environment naturally. We are always looking to add more back into our soil then we take, as the straw breaks down it will create organic matter which will feed your soil and the beneficial microbes in your soil as well. The straw mulch will also help to retain moisture as well for your crops.
Companion planting also increases biodiversity, which is the amount of different things being grown in a specific area. Even on organic farms, large plantings of one type of crop can be found, because it is easier and more convenient to plant crops this way on a large scale since most farms are using transplanters on the back of their tractor to plant their crops. But when you focus on biodiversity and interplanting / companion planting, you don't need as large of an area to produce the same amount of crops (or possibly more), plus from focusing on soil health through using permaculture no-till methods your soil is healthier overall and will require less inputs (fertilizers and amendments) over the years.
When we are planning and planting an area, we think about how will this impact this area 50-500 years from now. Everything you do in your growing area, should be thought of the long term effects on the environment and ecosystem. If you are leasing or renting a home and growing in your backyard, this may mean that you focus more on annual crops (that only produce for one season) and possibly some small perennials (like flowers or herbs) that could be dug up later if needed, because your plantings should be less permanent. This also means that if you are planting in your own backyard homestead of an area that is yours, you could plant more permanent long term things like trees and fruit. You can plant either way with endless different combinations, and still be able to grow a good amount of food throughout a season whether you focus on annuals, perennials, or a selection of both.
Below is a photo of one of our main production beds that we grew last season. In the foreground/middleground of this photo we are growing: lettuce, swiss chard, beans, strawflowers, clover, zinnias, snapdragons, kale basil, yarrow.
Here is a list of some of our favorite varieties to grow and the spacing we use, and planting details:
- Lettuce - New Red Fire - 1' - Start seeds 4-6 weeks before planting date
- Lettuce - Green Star - 1' - Start seeds 4-6 weeks before planting date
- Lettuce - Magenta - 1' - Start seeds 4-6 weeks before planting date
- Tomatoes - Italian Heirloom (slicing tomato) - 2-4' - Start seeds 6-8 weeks before planting date
- Peppers - Hungarian Hot Wax (Hot) - 1' - Start seeds 6-8 weeks before planting date
- Peppers - California Wonder (Sweet) - 1' - Start seeds 6-8 weeks before planting
- Tomatoes - Bumblebee - 2-4' - Start seeds 6-8 weeks before planting date
- Basil - Italian, Thai Basil, Cinnamon, Tulsi - 6-8" (up to 1') - Start seeds 4-6 weeks before planting date
- Swiss Chard - Bright Lights - 1' - Start seeds 4-6 weeks before planting date
- Kale - Curly Roja, Lacinato, Red Russian - 1' - Start seeds 4-6 weeks before planting date
- Scallions - Parade Bunching - Start in 72 or 128 cell trays (4-6 seeds per cell), trim tops after reaching 4+ inches down to 3 inches, and transplant 4-6 weeks after establishing good growth 6" apart
- Beans - Royal Burgundy, Dragon - (We prefer bush over pole beans) Direct sow seeds 6-8" apart
- Carrots - Atomic Red, Dragon, Nectar - Direct sow in rows 14" apart (cool season) - thin plants to 2-6" apart once germinated
- Peas - Sugar Daddy, Cascadia - Direct sow seed 2" apart (cool season), in rows 16" apart
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, we grow a lot of other things as well, these are just some of the easiest and most productive varieties for growers that are just getting started. Below is a general list of seeds to direct sow vs. seeds to transplant. Direct sowing means to plant the seed directly where it is meant to grow, and transplanting means to start the seed ahead of time and then transplant into it's final growing location.
You can order gardening supplies online and the cell tray sizes we use the most are 72, 128, and 50. You want cell trays and a lightweight basket tray to put under your tray to support the weight of it, once filled with soil and watered. We are lucky to have inherited a lot of trays when we started our farm, so we didn't have to purchase any. We do everything we can to avoid purchasing plastic if possible, and you can also use soil blockers or even build your own trays out of untreated wood planks. You could also use a paperpot transplanter (but a startup system is very expensive when you're just getting started). Or you can an OMRI listed wood fiber and peat pot, which is completely biodegradable and can also be purchased from a supplier like Johnny's Selected Seed.
For products you use in your garden, if you look for the OMRI label, that means the product has been approved for use in organic growing. Some of our favorite products and companies that offer OMRI products are: Coast of Maine, Happy Frog, and Neptune's Harvest. For a soil source, you could use the Coast of Maine seed starting mix (if you search online you can find places that sell and ship it), you can also find it locally at CountryMax, which also offers curbside pickup. We also like to mix into our seed starting soil a little Happy Frog all purpose fertilizer with mycorrhizae. It helps give your seeds a jumpstart by increasing the roots ability to uptake water and nutrients as soon as your seeds germinate. The best option is to be able to produce all your inputs and fertility right on site and not have to buy in any outside inputs. You can achieve this through composting and vermicomposting (with a worm bin indoors for a home grower), or even raising chickens and composting their bedding material. There are a lot of ways you can increase the self-sufficiency of your growing production by creating your own inputs, but if you are doing what you can to continuously lessen the amount of outside inputs you are using to the absolute minimum then you are headed in the right direction. Just like how we plant the clover in our fields to provide fertility and prevent erosion, and it naturally comes back each season without any human intervention. And just like how grazing animals will eat grass and provide fertilizer for the soil. There are many natural systems that you can implement on your homestead. It does take time to refine and learn methods, so just be patient with yourself and keep striving to do the best you can, while using only organic growing methods to grow your food.
We hope this information is enough to help you get started, if you're looking to start growing your own food we recommend ordering your seeds and supplies ASAP and starting now. You can start seeds and direct sow currently in zone 6a, where we are located in Western New York. And don't be afraid to jump in and just start. Our typical last frost date is May 1-15th, so we are approaching that quickly, so there are plenty of seeds you can (and should) start immediately. We will continue to provide as much information as we can to help you use the same methods we do to grow and produce food!