A well-tended, 400 square-foot garden will feed a family of four. The trick is planning, planting, tending, and harvesting that garden right. Below, you’ll find everything you need to know to maximize your garden’s production—everything the experts don’t tell you!
How to Grow From Seeds
- I like to use natural topsoil to start my garden seedlings in. I usually don’t use potting soil, because it generally does not produce the results I want.
- I fill a large, deep baking pan with top soil and bake it for thirty minutes at 350 degrees. This sanitizes the soil and ensures that no unwanted weeds or grass will come up in your soil. I usually start on this project in the winter, and I fill up a couple of large plastic barrels with lids with the sanitized soil.
- After I have planted the seeds in the sanitized top soil, I sprinkle the top with powdered cinnamon. This keeps away fungus that can cause damping.
- I cover each seedling with a clear plastic cup that I wash and reuse. This protects the seedling and keeps the moisture in. It also keeps away cold and wind. I do my seed starting on a screened-in porch.
- If you plant your seeds outdoors, sprinkle flavored powdered gelatin in the soil with the seeds. This will feed beneficial bacteria and provide needed nitrogen to your plants as they come up.
Starting From a Clipping
If you want to root a plant or cutting in water, add an aspirin or two to the container. Buy a cheap bottle of aspirin and grind it up before you add it to the water. This will aid in water absorption and will help the cutting to start roots.
You can easily start plants from cuttings from roses, saliva, and geraniums. Just dip the cuttings into a rooting hormone, then put them into potting soil. Spray the cuttings several times a day with water until you are sure they are rooted. Hibiscus are also easy to root this way.
How to Plant or Transplant Tomatoes or Peppers
Try it this way and I promise you that you’ll be rewarded with faster growing and healthier plants:
- When planting any type of tomato or pepper plant, pinch off all but the top leaves.
- Dig a deep hole. Always add a cup of water to the prepared hole and then set the plant into the hole and put a tablespoon of powdered, unflavored gelatin in the hole as near to the roots of the plant as possible. A teaspoon of cinnamon also goes in. The gelatin will feed and encourage helpful bacteria and the cinnamon will keep away fungus and cutworms.
- For sweeter tomatoes, put two tablespoons of baking soda in the bottom of the hole. Cover the baking soda with an inch or two of dirt before you put the plant in the hole.
- Carefully fill the hole with dirt and pack the dirt down tight.
- Use tomato cages or wooden stakes and garden twine to tie your tomato plants up and give them support to keep them from getting blown over by the wind. If they aren’t supported, they won’t produce nearly as much and may develop fungus diseases if the plant is laying over on the ground.
Note: I suggest that everyone learn everything they can about heirloom tomatoes, which have much better flavor than modern ones.
How to Keep Deer out of Your Yard
If you follow the below tips, you can keep deer out:
- Purchase motion-activated sprinklers. If the deer or other animals go near them, the sprinklers activate automatically and run them off quickly. Deer and most other animals don’t like to be sprayed by water.
- Sometimes something as simple as hanging up tin pie pans around the garden can keep the deer away. You will want to hang the pans so they swing freely and make noise. Move them to another spot about once a week to be sure the deer don’t become used to them and just walk around them.
- Human urine works great as a deterrent. Bring a container full from the bathroom and pour it around the edges of your garden. Put down fresh urine as often as you can and the deer will stay away.
- Hang up noisy wind chimes. As with the pans, you’ll want to move them every week or so.
From Garden to Kitchen and Back Again
- When you boil or steam vegetables, don’t throw the water away. After it’s cool, use it to water the plants you are growing in containers. You’ll be surprised how plants respond to this type of water.
- Always put leftover tea, tea bags, and coffee grounds under your azaleas. You will end up with healthy plants with bright flowers.
- The quickest and best place to dry herbs is on a few sheets of newspaper on the back seat of your car. The herbs will dry out quickly, usually in one or two days.
- Don’t be afraid to grow your own kitchen herbs. Most herbs are easy to grow and you’ve never tasted anything as good as your own homemade pesto sauce. I grow purple heirloom sweet basil and it is so delicious. It also gives a wonderful smell to my garden. Don’t forget to compost what you don’t use.
- Do you stir fry? You should if you don’t. If you do, try using things like immature broccoli, baby squash, and tiny eggplants. You won’t believe the wonderful flavor of these tiny baby vegetables. Don’t be afraid to pull baby green onions to add to the mix. You can come up with some wonderful flavors this way.
- Blood, fish, and bonemeal are great organic fertilizers. Apply them throughout the growing season to your vegetables and flowers. Blood and bonemeal will also keep rabbits and groundhogs out of your garden and away from your plants.
- If you grow an abundance of cayenne pepper, keep it picked off green and keep adding it to a gallon ziplock bag in the freezer. If you wish, go ahead and cut the stems off before you freeze the cayenne. (Don’t forget to use those stems to enrich your soil.) You can add a tablespoon or two of fine diced green cayenne to soups and stews to add spice and flavor.
- If you’re going to be growing a garden every year, you should learn how to can as soon as possible. Growing and canning tomatoes is easy and very satisfying. Do some research and learn everything you can about canning and preserving what you grow in your garden.
- If you don’t have one yet, purchase a food dehydrator to preserve your vegetables. You can make wonderful sun-dried tomatoes this way. You can dry almost any kind of fruit or vegetable and if you do it right, you’ll end up with delicious treats. Store them in a tightly-covered container or freeze them in a large ziplock bag. If you make a dried mixture of tomatoes, peppers, squash, and onions, you’ll have the perfect soup mix. Add the dried vegetables to chicken or vegetable stock and you can quickly have a delicious soup. Add pasta and fried hamburger for a delicious stew. Be sure that you carefully read the instruction book that comes with the dehydrator.
- Save all your banana skins and let them dry outdoors. Plant them at the base of your tomato plants: It’s like giving your tomatoes a pick-me-up and will encourage growth. You can speed things along by pureeing the banana peels with water in a food processor or blender and then pouring this around the base of the tomato plants.
- You can use chamomile tea to prevent fungus on your seedlings. Spray it on before sunrise or after sunset for the best results.
- Canning is the preferred method of putting up your garden veggies because cans don’t need refrigeration and won’t spoil if the power fails. The next best solution is to dehydrate as many of your fruits and vegetables as you can. And if you plan to store a lot of fruits and vegetables you should have a small chest freezer. You can make things like squash casseroles or zucchini bread to freeze for later use. Make sure that you date and label each item so you know what it is and how old it is.
Use Leftover Fruit and Vegetable Peelings
Take all of those peelings and vegetable scraps and run them through your food processor, then sprinkle this in your soil to feed your growing plants. Peppers especially love this and will grow and produce bumper crops when you feed them this way.
Use Newspaper and the Lint From Your Dryer as a Mulch
Instead of throwing away the lint your dryer filter collects, save it in a tightly-sealed container and till it into your dirt to help hold moisture in your soil.
You can also shred your daily newspaper and add the shredded paper to your compost bin. It will help you to have healthy compost and will help to retain the soil’s moisture.
When you plant things like tomatoes, peppers, and squash, put a fist-sized piece of dryer lint in the bottom of the hole. The dryer lint will hold moisture in and around your just-planted plants, insuring that the water stays there at the roots where it is needed.
Marigolds as Pest-Deterrents
Always plant marigolds, especially near tomatoes and cabbage, to keep garden pests away.
What Expert Gardeners Know About Planting
- Go on the Internet in the winter and very early spring and order all your seeds.
- Plant the vegetables that your family likes to eat. Why plant asparagus if no one likes it?
- The easiest plants to grow include beans, tomatoes, radishes, Swiss chard, peppers, corn, cucumbers, and potatoes. Anyone should be able to grow these.
- Plant your cucumbers so they can grow up a fence or trellis and you will grow far more cucumbers.
- Plant pole beans around the base of a tee-pee bamboo frame and the plants will grow up it and you can easily pick and enjoy your beans.
- Grow cherry tomatoes in hanging baskets—they will grow well there and will be easy to pick. Be sure that you keep them well-watered. Keep them picked off and they will keep producing.
- Be sure that you don’t try to grow things too close together. Read the backs of seed packs so you’ll know how far apart your various plants should be. If you plant them too thickly, they won’t produce as well
- When planting rows, measure off three feet on your garden hoe with a permanent marker so you can measure this distance off between each row. If you’re going to use your garden tiller to keep the weeds down, you’ll need to have at least three feet between your rows.
- Before you plant, always draw a plan out on paper. Put taller plants towards the back of the garden and shorter plants at the front so you can see everything from a distance.
- Keep your plants healthy by anticipating the plants’ nutritional needs. You’ll most likely need to add fertilizer while your plants are growing. This is where research is important. Always keep a journal with detailed notes that you can refer back to later.
- Be sure to use tomato cages or sturdy stakes to provide support for your tomato plants. If you don’t, your plants won’t produce nearly as many tomatoes and they may catch diseases.
- Radishes, Swiss chard, beets, and carrots can be planted up to four weeks before the last frost. They are quite hardy.
- It’s important to plant only the varieties of vegetables that grow well in your area. At your local farm or garden center, ask what varieties do well.
- Lay down sheets of newspaper before you put down potting soil or top soil. This will help to keep weeds and grass from coming up in your garden. You can also lay down sheets of newspaper before you put down mulch.
- You can use foam packing peanuts in the bottom of large pots to save on soil and to help with drainage. This keeps them out of the landfill and it will help to keep potted plants well-drained.
- Plants like rhubarb and asparagus will come back year after year. All you have to do is fertilize and keep the weeds out. I add heavy mulch once they are up and growing and this keeps the weeds out. Rhubarb pie is so delicious. I like it mixed with just-picked strawberries.
- When you plant things like radishes or carrots, mix the seeds with powdered, unflavored jello. Add three tablespoons of gelatin to one pack of seeds, then plant. The gelatin will provide the seedlings with needed nitrogen. If you don’t believe it, you can try an experiment: plant some with and some without. The ones planted with gelatin will be much healthier than those planted without.
- Plant one long, wide row with crops like radicchio, white beets, bok choy, bulb fennel, celeriac, and escarole. This way, you can get to experiment with a wide variety of tastes.
- You should plan to grow crops that store well, like dry beans, garlic, onions, sweet potatoes, and butternut winter squash. You just harvest and store these items in a cool dry place and they will last through the winter. Butternut squash and shallots allow you to enjoy food from your garden all winter long.
- You can use a small greenhouse or handmade cold frame to grow and harvest radishes and lettuce all winter long, especially in the American south.
- Keep in mind when laying out your garden that tomatoes and peppers must be planted where they receive 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day. You cannot grow tomatoes or peppers even in partial shade.
- Ideally, your entire vegetable garden should get at least 8 hours of full sun a day. Most vegetables won’t do well even in partial shade, so be sure to plan your garden where it will get as much sun as possible.
- For corn, do like the Native Americans did and plant pole beans near each cornstalk as soon as it is a foot high. When the beans come up, encourage them to grow up and around the stalks. You can plant pumpkins down the middle of your corn rows—this way, you can use the same ground to grow multiple crops.
- If you want to grow really huge pumpkins, remove all but one or two pumpkins per plant and be sure that your plants get an abundance of water and nutrients. I use miracle grow potting soil for this. I use post hole diggers to dig holes that are two feet deep for the pumpkin plants. I usually end up with healthy plants with huge pumpkins on them.
- Did you know that you can grow luffa gourds and have your own natural sponges that are better than any dish sponge you can buy? Plant them in full sun and allow them to mature completely. In the fall, dry out the gourd and cut the shell away. You’ll end up with luffa sponges you can use to wash your dishes with (or your body in the bathtub). And they are environmentally friendly.
- You can easily grow birdhouses in your garden. All kinds of birds will make nests in gourds, and your kids will love the fact that you’re growing birdhouses in your garden.
Expert Tips on Watering, Tending, Composting, Harvesting, and Storing
- If you want to harvest your vegetables early, plant radishes, sweet peas, beans, squash, and cucumbers.
- If you find your green onions developing seed pods before the onions are mature, cut them off with scissors and the onions will keep developing larger onions.
- Never add mulch to plants your going to winter over until after the first frost has occurred. If you add it sooner, you may be providing insects with warmth and shelter from the cold.
- Put a ball of gardening twine in a clay flower pot with a hole in the bottom. Bring the end of the twine out the hole and turn the pot over. Put it in a convenient place in the garden and you’ll always have gardening twine available when you need it.
- Try to plan to harvest your vegetables in the morning when the veggies are packed with nutrients. You can preserve the flavor and nutrients of leafy green vegetables by chilling them in the refrigerator, but don’t put onions or tomatoes in there. If you do, they will lose some of their flavor.
- You can of course build bamboo teepees and grow pole beans up and over them. Make them really large and well-secured at the bottom and you can step inside the bean teepee to pick your crop.
- You can grow and enjoy a mixture of baby greens. As soon as they are a few inches high, harvest them with scissors.
- If you harvest your squash on a regular basis, when they’re still small, you’ll be rewarded with twice as many squash as you would have if you allowed the squash to mature. They are so delicious when the seeds in the squash are very small.
- Use a barrel and add sheep, cow, or rabbit manure to it, then top it off with water. Stir it every day for a week and then strain off the water and give it to your vegetable plants. The plants will get a boost and they will be a lot more healthy.
- Water your garden wisely. Never water in full sun. Water before the sun comes up or after it has set. Consider watering with a good quality sprinkler after the sun has set or late at night. Your garden will get a lot more water this way and it will be a few hours before the sun comes up to dry up the water.
- Harvest and freeze your garden in small batches as it gets ripe. If you do this, you will lose much less of your vegetables. You can, for example, put chopped peppers, cubes of summer squash, green beans, and cut-off sweet corn into ziplock plastic bags and toss them into the freezer. Use a permanent marker to mark the contents of each bag. You can freeze bags of mixed veggies this way and then use them in the winter to make delicious soups or stews.
- You can if you wish let your cayenne pepper turn red on the plant and then pick it. As soon as you pick it use a needle and thread and string the red pods on a long string. When you have a full thread of the red cayenne hang it up in a cool dry place and let it dry completely. You can use the dried cayenne to season foods, stews and soups with. As soon as the pods get red pick them off the plant so the plant will keep producing more peppers. You can run the dried peppers through the food processor but wear plastic kitchen gloves and a face mask while you do it. You can make the red dried cayenne peppers into a fine powder this way that you can store in a tightly covered container or you can put it into a large shaker to shake it out on foods or in your cooking.
- Most in-ground plants need one to two inches of water a week. Buy a rain gauge so you can keep a eye on how much natural moisture you’re getting. If your soil feels moist to the touch, it’s okay, but if you have dry, powdery soil, you need to water. Just be sure to water with a soaking sprinkler and do it when their is no direct sun. The ideal time to water is before the sun comes up or after it goes down.
- Every year in the late fall or winter, work well-aged manure and compost into your soil with a garden tiller. Be sure that any manure you add is very well-rotted or it will burn your plants and kill them. You can put green rabbit manure in the hole under tomatoes and peppers. I always make use of my rabbit manure this way.
- If your rhubarb sends up flower stalks, cut them off close to the plant to encourage it to grow foliage and not flowers.
- If you grow herbs like basil, cut the top third of the plant off every time it tries to bloom. This will encourage the plant to keep putting on more foliage which you can dry and use in the kitchen. If you’re going to be using dried herbs sooner rather than later, store them in a brown paper bag tightly closed in the freezer.
- If you have lots of fall leaves, don’t discard them. Instead, put them into a big compost bin. In a year or two, you’ll have ideal compost.
- You’ll need a hoe to use to chop or hoe weeds up out of your garden. The one mistake a lot of gardeners make is letting the weeds get ahead of them and then they can never get back control of their vegetable garden. As soon as your vegetable plants are large enough, put mulch around them to prevent weeds from coming up.
Controlling Weeds Naturally
- Weed early and often. And once your vegetables start growing, mulch your plants heavily to keep the weeds out. Don’t let your garden get overrun with weeds or you will lose control.
- Put down sheets of newspaper around plants before you put down mulch. The newspaper will insure that weeds and grass can’t come up.
- Vinegar is a better weed killer than most commercial products, but don’t spray it on your vegetable plants because it will kill them, too. If you have weeds or grass coming up in cracks in cement, this is a ideal place to use vinegar, which will kill the weeds and grass and prevent them from coming back any time soon.
- If you’re using a string trimmer to cut weeds, spray the string on the weedeater with vegetable cooking oil and you won’t have problems with your string getting stuck or tangled.
Natural Ways to Control Bugs and Insects
- Consider putting up bat houses and provide them with a bird bath to get water from. Bats also eat huge amounts of bugs.
- Plant mint and marigold to repel unwanted insects.
- To keep the mosquito population down, be sure to turn over and empty out anything that is holding water. Mosquitoes need water to complete their life cycle.
- Always plant marigolds in your garden, especially near tomatoes and cabbage, because the marigolds will keep garden pests away.
- Do you have a problem with aphids? Use a strong insecticidal soap to get rid of them.
- Buy lady bugs and preying mantis egg sacs from your local garden supply store in the spring and turn them loose in your garden to declare an organic war on garden pests.
- Unless you’re terribly afraid of spiders, let those like the golden orb weaver spider (aka writing spider) make a home in your garden. Believe it or not, every year spiders eat an amount of bugs that exceeds the weight of all the humans on earth.
- Encourage toads to move into your garden by providing a small pool of water and clay flower pots for the toads to use as houses. Burn a light in the garden at night and they will show up to eat the insects and bugs attracted by that light. Provide toads with a cool, dark place and they will stick around for years, helping to keep your garden insect-free.
- Put up bird houses and the birds will build nests there and help to keep your garden free of bugs and insects.
- Put your garlic and onion skins into a gallon jar, cover with water, and seal tightly. Leave the skins soaking for a week and then strain off the water. Spray this water anywhere you have aphids or spiders and it will get rid of them quickly.
- If you have a slug and snail problem, put out small saucers of beer at sunset and they will crawl in overnight and drown. Simply discard the contents of each saucer the next morning.
- Put fabric tents up over cabbage plants, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli to keep away garden pests. Sprinkle cabbage heads with cinnamon and the cabbage worms will stay away.
- You can make your own insecticidal soap by mixing two tablespoons of liquid soap into a gallon of water. This is an excellent solution to get rid of aphids.
Some insects, like ladybugs and praying mantises, are great for your garden.
How Do I Keep Rabbits and Groundhogs Out of My Garden?
If you’re having a rodent problem, try sprinkling ground cayenne pepper around the base of the plants that are getting eaten. This will keep them away like nothing else ever will.
If you’re bothered by groundhogs, pour mothballs down their holes. Every time they dig a new hole, fill it up again. You can also pour red pepper flakes down their holes.
A Recipe for Rabbit-Repellant:
Mix up the below ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree until very smooth. Spray the solution on and around the base of your garden plants and it will keep rabbits and groundhogs away.
- Two large raw eggs
- One quart warm water
- Two tablespoons Dawn dish detergent
- Two tablespoons hot sauce
Hair Works Great, Too
When you or a family member goes to the barber, save the hair and sprinkle it around the garden. This also will keep rabbits and groundhogs out.
Hair Is Great for the Garden
-Repellant for rodents, deer, and snails.
-Natural mulch that retains moisture, abets erosion, and deters weeds.
-Fertilizer that adds a significant amount of nitrogen to the soil.
How Many Squash Plants Should I Grow?
- Six to eight squash plants will provide all the squash you need for a family of four to six.
- You will need to keep the squash picked off and you’ll want to be gentle removing the mature squash. I like to pick mine while they are smaller than those you see in the store. If you do this, the plants will keep producing more blooms and more squash. If you stop picking the squash, they will get so big you can’t use them and the plants will stop producing more.
- You should water your squash plants before sunrise or after sunset. Never water in full sun or you will damage and possibly kill your plants.
- I like all varieties of squash, but I usually grow the yellow butternut and zucchini types every year. Both taste wonderful, are disease-resistant, and produce an abundance of squash.
Make Use of the Rainwater
You should set up a system where all the gutters on your house feed into a large tank that has a spigot where you can attach a hose and water your garden.
You’ll need very thin wire mesh over your rain barrels or water tank to keep mosquitoes out. It’s very important that you keep your gutters clean to prevent leaves and debris from clogging the system.
Suggestions for Growing Potatoes in a Grow Box
- You will want your potato plants to be about a foot apart in the potato grow box. This will ensure that they have room to grow and spread out.
- It’s very important to fill your grow box with a mixture of rich topsoil and well-rotted and aged compost or manure. You want to mix it at a ratio of 70 percent topsoil to 30 percent well-rotted compost or manure.
- When the plants are about a foot tall, give them more well-rotted manure or compost. Dig a hole about 4-6 inches around the plant and a foot deep and fill the hole with well-rotted manure or compost.
Gardening Tools and Tips
- In the spring, before you start using your shovels or hoes, coat them with car wax. If you do, the dirt will come off them easily and won’t cling. Repeat this about every month and the hoes and shovels will be so easy to use. You can ask for used peanut oil at local restaurants and cafes and use it for the same purpose. Apply a heavy coat in the fall to keep the tools from rusting over the winter.
- Buy a sturdy basket with a carrying handle to carry small garden tools to the garden.
- Invest in a couple of good-quality garden gloves. This will make it so much easier for you to work in your garden.
- You should know that the better your soil is, the better your garden will be. You should purchase and have a soil test kit to test your soil and know what you need to add to maximize your garden’s production.
- Always wash your garden tools and put them away in a cool, dry place. Spray the metal parts with vegetable oil in the late fall when you put your tools away for the winter.