As much as I love couponing, what I love even more is having the opportunity to provide my household with some of our grocery needs, without paying out the wazoo for quality local goods.
The problem with grocery store produce, is that unless you can afford to shop exclusively organic or at your local farmers markets, you have no idea what kind of conditions and pesticides your food has been exposed to. Mainstream media is now bringing a lot more information on how our food supply is produced than we have ever had access to previously, and what we are seeing can be frightening sometimes.
Many of us are so disconnected from our food supply, we lack even basic gardening experience. But, with all the information so easily accessible online, it is a skill worth learning again, as it is very beneficial to both your health and your budget.
Establishing Your “Kitchen Garden”
Somewhat contrary to the name, a “kitchen garden” doesn’t involve growing a miniature garden in your kitchen. The name originated from the United Kingdom years ago, but really means having one or more small plots of land in your backyard that are reserved for gardening.
We had the luck, as renters, to find a decently priced main floor apartment in a house. It does have a small grassy backyard (30’ x 30’) with 1 large white pine that shades the house. When we first moved in, I wasn’t sure I would be able to do much with the yard and still have space for the kids to run around a bit.
There a lot of things to take into account when planning your own kitchen garden, such as:
- How the space you have can be efficiently divided to maximize yield.
- The amount of sun and shade your garden will get.
- The type of plants and food you want to grow.
- How aggressive each plant is and how well they coexist.
- How good the plants are at withstanding colder weather.
- Where and how to source all the supplies you will need.
- The overall cost in time and money of setting everything up.
I’ll share my experience with each of these in more detail below to help you get started!
Planning Your Plots
When gardening for fresh food for your family with minimal space, you’ll want to look for ways to maximize your yields There are other ways to garden besides the row technique that work well in small areas and still provide you with plenty of edibles!
Vegetable gardens don’t produce optimally with any more than four hours of shade per day, so I had to keep the gardens close to the back end of the lot. I couldn’t have one big garden, or half of my yard would be off limits to the kids for playing (although they were in the gardens plenty helping me out). It required some planning to establish a good layout to produce a substantial amount of produce that would save me more than the initial costs of setting it all up.
We are lucky to have many great flower beds at the front of our house, with some well established perennials. Without disturbing the roots of these plants, I used the space in between them for my herb garden. Herb plants don’t generally take up lots of space, but some varieties can reseed vigorously and take over the whole area, such as mint or summer savory. Research and grow these types in containers to keep them in check. Some great cold hardy perennial herbs to plant are thyme, chives, winter savory (a small shrub) and sage. Rosemary is also a good herb to grow, but will need to be brought inside during cooler temperatures, as it cannot withstand our harsh Canadian winters.
In the back yard, I decided to keep my gardening areas along the fence. There was already one small tilled garden area along the right side of my yard. I expanded this area by two more feet on one side, and a foot at each end. It was too large to be used for raised bed gardening, so I kept it for trench gardening. This garden ran almost to the back corner of the yard.
Then, I turned over another small garden against the back fence for my rhubarb and asparagus plants. I didn’t want to place my perennial garden plants in the bigger garden to prevent the roots of these plants from being disturbed by tilling every spring. Also, make sure to provide adequate spacing between perennial vegetable plants. I made this mistake because I didn’t figure my rhubarb would triple in size after the first year! It quickly began to take over the whole area and I don’t believe my asparagus will stand a chance.
I cut my third gardening area out of the sod along the fenceline on the left side. This was to be my raised bed garden, and because of this I left a grass walkway about two feet wide behind it. Raised bed gardening involves elevating the area above the rest of the yard. This serves to extend the growing season of that particular garden by keeping it warmer than the rest of the yard when it is early or late in the growing season, or at night. Raised beds that are no wider than arms reach to the center will give you the added benefit of never having to compress your soil by walking on it. Without needing pathways, you won’t have to space rows, and your root growth is optimized due to lack of soil compression.
Deciding What To Grow
What you decide to grow is entirely your decision, based on your soil type and the kinds of vegetables you tend to consume most in your household. For example, my kids love pumpkins but we purchase maybe 4 per year. Pumpkin plants can take up a tremendous amount of space, a bad idea when you only have a small area. Plus when they are in season, they are rather cheap to purchase. So, as much as I love my two kids, I had to say no to the pumpkin plants and we left that job up to the farmers.
One vegetable my son absolutely loves, especially straight from the vine, is sweet green peas.The last time I saw those on sale they cost more than two dollars a pound. They also grow vertically, taking up very little garden space. The first row of seeds we planted were peas, and we put them in a row along the back of my large garden against the chain link fence. The garden was dug to meet it, and as a result I did not have to place trellis in my garden for my peas to climb. I took so many peas from that row (besides what my son ate while playing out back), that they lasted us for the rest of the year stored in my freezer.
When choosing vegetable seeds, figure out what will save you money in the long run. Some types of vegetables are more cost efficient to buy, even when certified organic. Other types lose their flavour during shipping and refrigeration such as tomatoes, and will taste better from your own garden.
When I planted the rest of my row garden, I went perpendicular to my row of peas. I chose to go with large plants like tomatoes and green beans, beets and giant swiss chard. These types of plants either require area for individual root growth, or get large enough to shade other plants. It is better to provide spacing for these types of plants, and if you dig a trench for each row and fill it back in before you plant, your soil will be loose and promote good root growth. I lined the bottom of each trench with a thick layer of peat moss under the soil. It absorbs the moisture from a good watering, and holds it for delayed release to the roots during a dry spell. Being organic material, it also returns nutrients to the soil as it decomposes. And a thick layer will last two years before you will have to add any more. When I turned my soil in the trenches during the second year, there was still plenty at the bottom.
My raised bed garden was kept for my green leafy vegetables. When working with small raised bed gardens, you are able to plant your seeds closely together with no paths for walking. Leafy vegetables don’t have large root systems, and the uniform height and closeness of your plants will shade out weeds and prevent evaporation from your soil. There is far less watering and weeding, making it a great time saving idea. When growing leafy vegetables in this manner, the yields are huge! I have cut enough spinach and rhubarb chard to keep both us and our neighbor in good supply all year.
Sourcing Your Garden Supplies
There are costs to any garden, although the “kitchen garden” type scenario that I tried is a bit more substantial of an investment than balcony gardening, of which I may explain more in depth in a future article. There are certain supplies you will need to get started, and some may have to be procured yearly such as seeds and fertilizer. There are ways that you can obtain some of these supplies for free, but you will likely have to purchase things like garden tools.
When obtaining your gardening tools, you have the option of purchasing new or used. There is usually a good selection available on sites like Kijiji, especially at the start and the end of the growing season when people are cleaning out their sheds. Pay attention to the condition when buying used. Tools with damaged handles won’t hold up long, but a little rust on the metal can be scoured away with steel wool. Regular applications of vegetable oil before winter storage can prevent this problem in the future. If you choose to buy new, stick with quality for a longer lifespan. Cheaply made tools may be prone to breakage from heavy use.
Related: How To Extend The Life Of Your Car
When purchasing seeds or plants, try and stick with open pollinated varieties. These plants rely on wind or insect pollination, and except in the rare case of a genetic mutation, produce viable seed. When you plant saved seed from open pollinated varieties, remove any seedlings that do not resemble the parent plant to avoid contamination of your seed stock through cross pollination. Hybrid seed is produced by cross breeding between two different varieties, to provide a plant with desirable characteristics. These plants may be hardier, but do not breed true because the genes segregate into many different combinations in the second generation. Any seed saved will not be viable for planting.
When deciding upon fertilizer for your plants, you have many chemical free choices. Anyone who owns a horse or other large farm animals will usually give away the manure for free. Fresh manure however should not be added to the garden if you are going to plant right away. It should be added in the fall at the end of a growing season and allowed to compost until the following spring. If you simply don’t have the time, look for older composted manure piles or buy bags from your local garden supply for between two and three dollars per large bag. You can plant in it immediately, and apply it in smaller amounts later around the base of larger plants without nitrogen burn affecting your foliage. Try and locate a source for fresh manure before the end of your first growing season however, so you won’t have to keep purchasing it this way. You can bag it and transport it in the trunk of a car if you lack any other way of bringing it to your garden. Small plots do not require a large amount.
Manure is also very beneficial for drawing large amounts of earthworms to your garden, which will in turn produce waste called castings, which continue to fertilize the soil. Adding compost including plant waste from your kitchen will also feed your worms. In addition to manure providing needed nitrogen, the earthworms will also release more nitrogen into the soil from their burrowing. Fertilizing your garden in this manner provides further benefit in subsequent seasons from the compounded effects of a naturalized growing medium. When tilling, it is best to use a broadfork to lightly fluff your soil and avoid disturbing the layers too much. This is especially true when trench gardening, or using raised beds. Without compression, the worms will keep the soil aerated naturally.
For my raised bed garden, I purchased cinder blocks from a local garden center that was closing for two dollars each, and used these for the walls of the raised bed. You can also purchase brackets and lumber to construct the walls. The cinderblocks are more economical to use however, if you don’t mind how it looks. You can even paint them if you like. The brackets are expensive to purchase, and the lumber will decompose over time from the moisture. The cinderblocks also hold warmth into the night, which can promote faster growth during cooler temperatures.
Share Your Gardening Stories
Growing our own food is an idea that is rapidly becoming more popular, even in urban areas. I would love to hear some of your home gardening success stories.