Nothing inspires gardeners quite like the act of growing healthful, luscious vegetables.
This guide will address a whole variety of gardening styles; Square Foot, Raised Bed, French Intensive, Biodynamic, Double Dug, Organic to name a few. I combine all these methods to one degree or another in my garden. I must admit, this involves a great deal of strenuous labor, which I enjoy. But as my years advance, I find myself looking for less labor and more enjoyment. I will show you the labor intensive way and some easier methods as well.
Although I have gardened all my life, the most enjoyable period for me was when my best friend Dave and I gardened together. We each had our own gardens, but we would collect compost materials together, share sources and head out to the garden center on the weekends. Dave is just about 10 years older than me and while I would toil away in the summer heat turning massive compost piles, he would be stockpiling bags of grass clippings. This is going back to the late 70s and 80s when homeowners and lawn services still collected grass clippings. Sometimes we would get them in bags, sometimes just bulk. Dave preferred the bagged which was just fine with me since I usually mixed mine into the compost pile. In the fall when we generally prepared our gardens for planting, I would take all my prepared compost, carefully lay out raised beds, digging down a spades depth, turning over the last seasons beds and creating a nice, fluffy raised bed for planting. Dave, on the other hand, patiently bided his time. When planting time came, he would simply lay out the bags of grass clippings (which had been cooking and fermenting down nicely all summer without any effort on his part) along the perimeter of his garden, cut a slit or two in each bag, shove a tomato seedling in each slit, then go about emptying last years tomato bags into his raised beds before planting out the rest of his garden. Still a good amount of work, mind you, but no double digging for Dave.
Now much as I would love to tell you all my extra labor paid off big in terms of out yielding Dave’s garden, that just wasn’t the case. Sure, I had a triumph here and there, but so did Dave. The competition was definitely part of the fun, and the old man always took pleasure in the fact that I worked so much harder than he did. I could never quite grow a decent cucumber and he lost as many tomatoes as he got. But letting the tomatoes just run all over the garden, and the high nutrient content from the grass clippings yielded an incredible amount. He could well afford to let the bugs and birds and whatever else have their share. Of course my double dug, raised bed garden always produced abundantly too. Even though I will never catch up to Dave age-wise, I have gained respect for the old guy’s garden strategy. I know that while I was turning that pile in my 30s, he was feeling some of the early middle age aches and pains in his 40s. Now that I’m in my 50s, I still enjoy the physical aspect of my garden, but the body doesn’t seem to share my enthusiasm.
The point of all this being;
This is not meant to be a step by step garden guide.
You may pick and choose, you may adapt techniques, you may totally ignore this guide and do your own thing. Gardening is like that. I have often heard said, “the only rule of gardening is there are no rules.” Do what works best for you. Make mistakes. Learn from them. Or not. Have fun. You can always buy another packet of seeds and there is always next year.
Organic or Not?
I have always gardened organically, I think mostly because as a kid I could barely afford seeds let alone fertilizers and pesticides. I learned to love the process as much as the results. For me, watching the compost materials blend and cook down into rich, fertile “garden gold” is a very enjoyable part of gardening. Over the years I have come to realize the most important thing I got from organic gardening was the emphasis on preventing problems before they start. I’ve watched as organic principles have gone from “hippie-spiel” to mainstream acceptance. Many of the commonly accepted horticultural practices today are long time organic principles. ( I might also add that prior to the early 20th century, all gardening and farming was “organic”) Practices such as Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, rely heavily on organic pest control principals. Organic gardeners have always relied on mulching to prevent weeds and promote soil health. In short, since organic principles are now mainstream, this question isn’t really as pertinent as it used to be. You may choose to use chemical aids in your garden, or go all natural. But the chances are, you will want to use a lot of organic techniques not so much out of principle, but because of their effectiveness. I use strictly organic techniques in my vegetable garden not only for environmental reasons, but because I like the health aspect as well. Since I have very little knowledge of many chemical products, I will leave their use out of this guide. You may still choose to use an occasional chemical fertilizer or pesticide, but using the other techniques outlined here should make the garden fairly self sufficient with little need for them.
Most people are going to carve out a little section of the lawn to grow vegetables in. You should find a spot that receives abundant sunshine. For the most part, vegetables require full sun for most of the day. If you are growing a good patch of grass on the spot, that probably means you are getting enough sun for a vegetable garden. Some shade, particularly late afternoon, is acceptable. Too much shade will slow growth, increasing the likelihood of pests and disease and decreasing yield. Of course, you must work with what you have available to you.
If you are starting with a grassy patch, you have a couple of choices. You can dig it up or you can cover it up. If you have the time, a heavy layer of mulch will smother the grass and allow you to create a bed without first digging it all up. It may take a while though. This is a good strategy if it is spring or summer and you are planning a fall garden. You can use any number of things to cover the grass; newspapers work well as does a thick layer of hay or leaves. You can use them all together too. The thicker the better. You can “solarize” the grass by stretching a sheet of clear plastic over the desired area. Weight down the corners with bricks or anything heavy and give it a few months to cook. This will also help to kill root knot nematodes. (but it must be repeated every season)
If you want to get your garden in for the current season, digging is the only option. I like to use a square spade with a d-handle. I first mark out the area, with string, paint or a garden hose. (or just eyeball it) Then I cut the perimeter with the spade. I then cut rows about 12″ or less wide. It is just a matter of undercutting the sod with the flat blade, cutting them into manageable sections. If you have good sod, these pieces can be reused. If the pieces are too flimsy or you just don’t need them, flip them upside down in a pile and let them compost. A layer of mulch or a tarp over them will prevent the grass from growing. Once you have the sod or vegetation layer removed, you probably have a nice patch of gray sand to work with.
Creating a Rich Garden
Traditionally at this stage you would lay out rows, plant your seeds and call it a garden. This is still a viable method. But it is by far, the least productive. Row planting wastes almost 50% of the garden space. If you have a lot of space available to you, this may be fine. But for most backyard gardeners it will be advantageous to utilize every square foot of garden space productively. This is where the aforementioned garden techniques come into play. They are designed to make the most out of every square inch of garden space. They vary slightly in style, but in general they all work on the principle that you create rich, loose beds that accelerate growth and allow close planting. The planting beds are separate from the garden paths. You never walk in, or on, the planting beds. The fertility comes from adding organic matter in copious amounts. This can be supplemented with fertilizers, preferably organic. If you haven’t already started to compost, it is a good idea to get started. I have already created a guide on composting here. If you don’t have any compost you can use a commercial product. Locally, we have available to us a product called Planters Mix. This costs less than $20 cu. yard and is a pretty decent garden soil. I am sure similar products are available in other areas. Nothing is as good as compost. If you have access to compost, get it and use it. I have used horse manure directly in the garden, but you must be careful with manures, they can be too hot for direct application before composting. But if it has been aging long enough, that is an excellent product to make your beds from. I would suggest you avoid commercially available bagged products for the most part. I have seen some organic garden soil products, and they may be OK, although very expensive. But the less expensive products labeled “topsoil” are most often heavy peat products. In Florida with our heavy rainfall, too much peat can lead to sogginess. We want well drained beds in our garden.
Raising the Beds
Planting in raised beds brings a number of benefits. I mentioned root knot nematodes earlier.This pest is indigenous to most, if not all of Florida. It is present in small numbers in most soils, but because of the sandy nature of our soils, it thrives in great numbers here. Compounding this is the fact that it’s main predator, another nematode, thrives in moist soils rich in organic matter. These two factors make the root knot nematode a pugnacious pest here where in other areas it scarcely has any effect. Raised beds affect the nematode population two ways. First of all, raising the planting medium up takes the root zone above the nematodes environment. Of course, it won’t take them long to enter the new planting medium. This is where the compost works it’s magic. By increasing the organic matter and creating a moist environment, we produce an ideal habitat for the predatory nematodes while also being less beneficial to the root knot nematode. It is also possible to buy and introduce the “good guys” into your garden, but by creating the perfect environment for them they will thrive and move in on their own. This is not only the best solution to our root knot nematode problem in Florida, it is really the only one. (although the previously mentioned solarization also works, it must be done after every crop and there is nothing to stop the nematodes from reinfesting the area after it has been treated) Chemical treatment for root knot nematodes is no longer allowed by law.
Another benefit of raised beds is that there is a better exchange of gases and water. That’s a fancy way of saying it is fluffy. The plant roots are able to easily move through the loose soil of a raised bed and can grow many times bigger and fuller than in normal soil. The rich environment coupled with the lack of compaction can grow plants bigger, faster and healthier with less effort on the plants part. The higher beds have less chance of becoming waterlogged, also reducing stress on the plants.
I would also mention that raised beds mean a little less bending. Much as I love working in the garden, I can do without the bending.
Solid Sides vs. No Sides
I don’t care for rigid sides on my raised beds. I like the flexibility of not having anything permanent. I just build the beds up using compost or Planters Mix. I usually mulch the beds with hay or something similar, and as much as it rains down here, I never have them wash out on me. That is the advantage of using a good compost. It is light and airy enough to absorb a lot of water without washing out. That’s personal choice though. I know many people like to have permanent beds and just refill them with compost every planting.
One of the reasons I don’t care for sides is I like to double dig. This is a technique where the gardener loosens the soil to an even further depth than just the raised bed. I take my trusty spade, push it down as deep as it will go and turn over a spadeful of soil in a row next to the trench I am digging. I do this for the length of the bed and repeat the process for the next row turning that soil over into the trench I just dug. I repeat this until I have done the width of the bed, then I take the first pile of soil and turn it into the last trench. This is possibly overkill, but after several seasons of this, you will have doubled the depth of rich, loose, black compost. You will have increased your fertility zone while decreasing your root knot nematode zone. You also keep your beds somewhat free of invasive roots, if you have a tree nearby.
After double-digging (or not, as the case may be) it’s time to build the raised beds. As I said, I prefer free form beds that I can change when the mood strikes me. This gives me the opportunity to not only rotate crops, but change the configuration of the garden accordingly. For instance, corn needs a large area, so if I wanted to plant some corn, I would create a long, wide bed. Or possibly several blocks of square beds. Long narrow beds would not be conducive to growing corn. I like to grow potatoes in a wire bin. That way I can pile on mulch, instead of soil, as the vines grow, ensuring my potatoes stay fairly clean. This would be a tall round bed. I grow vines and even tomatoes along my fence. I have attached remesh (concrete reinforcing wire) to the posts and can grow many things vertically, a long narrow bed. You get the idea.
Whether you choose to make boxes or free form your beds, there are a few guidelines that will make gardening easier. You should have your beds as close together as possible, thus minimizing wasted space. You need enough room to navigate a wheelbarrow from one end of the garden to the other. I like my little homeowner model. It is a 4 cu. foot capacity and has a steel tub. It is very small and easy to maneuver in tight spaces. It’s capacity is adequate for my needs. I find about a 1′-2′ wide path is sufficient. You should make the beds as wide as you can comfortably reach across without walking in the beds themselves. For most people this will mean a bed no wider than 4′ if it is accessible from both sides. If it is bordering a fence or is otherwise only accessible from one side, you should keep it under 3′ or less. This will vary greatly from person to person. You should adjust this for your comfort level.
There is no reason you can’t be a little creative with the layout of your garden. After all, gardening is an art! I like to use flowing curves and irregularly shaped beds. But you may find it easier using a grid type layout. It’s strictly personal choice.
After figuring out the layout of the garden, you can go ahead and build your boxes if that is what you chose, but if you want to do freestanding beds you can start by piling and spreading you compost or soil. I find I can easily make my beds 12-24″ high, that seems to be a good working height. Of course with enclosed beds, you can go as high as you want. I make piles and work the beds until I have the shape I want. I used to have a tool which was wonderful for making raised beds, it was called a Dutch Stable Scraper or something of that sort, but it has been long gone and now I just use a rake. I smooth the top and groom the sides so they have a slight taper. The idea here is to leave the soil as loose as possible, so I never tamp. After creating the beds, you might want to throw a layer of hay down. Mulch helps retain moisture and keep weeds down, but in this case it will also help maintain the integrity of the bed.
Now, We Plant
This is where the Square Foot and/ or French Intensive gardening comes in. They both follow about the same planting philosophy, which is to grow as many plants as possible in the least amount of space. Leaftip to leaftip. Many seed packets give instructions for planting this way, but some still give planting instructions for rows. If the seed packet only gives row planting instructions, you can usually plant the distance between plants and ignore the distance between rows. Square foot gardening is merely planting on a grid. Mel Bartolomew is a well known garden author who popularized this method in the late 70s early 80s. We have some of his videos in our Video section if you want to explore this further. I find my pinkie to thumb to be a pretty good guide for planting. (8″) Some people have planting boards, which have various measurements notched into the side. You usually want to plant 3 seeds per hole, to the recommended depth. In a raised bed, you should allow at least half the planting distance to the edges.
- Companion Planting ~You can mix different plants in individual beds. Many herbs,vegetables and flowers compliment each other when grown together, this is called companion planting. You can find an excellent guide at Mother Earth News.This technique not only benefits the plants, but has the potential to create a more attractive garden. Flowers are often used as pest deterrents, especially marigolds. They are thought to suppress the dreaded root knot nematode. Whether or not they actually do may be arguable, but they will add beauty to the garden.
- Going Vertical ~ A good space saving technique which will allow you to grow more in a small space is giving plants a vertical support on which to grow. I like to use concrete remesh, which is a sturdy wire mesh with 6″x6″ square grid. It can be used in a variety of ways and the 6″ grid allows for easy access. There are many other materials that can be used, everything from bamboo to twine. The important thing is to give your plants adequate support. A mature tomato vine can be quite heavy. There are 2 basic types of support, the trellis and the cage. The trellis is usually constructed of sturdy posts driven or buried in the ground with horizontal supports. I have a wood fence straddling my garden and I staple the remesh to the posts. It comes in 5′ height, which works well with a raised bed and 6′ fence. Lattice, eye bolts and wire, bamboo or many other wire work as well. You can either tie the plant to the support or weave it between the supports. The cage can also be constructed of remesh or fence wire. You merely construct a tube and secure the two ends. I cut the bottom wire from the remesh or fence wire to allow a row of spikes to embed the cage into the ground. This works equally as well in a garden bed or pot. I like large nursery pots with a cage that fits inside the pot. Tomatoes and all vine crops can be grown this way, although larger crops may need additional support. I have seen old pantyhose used as a sling for everything from squash to watermelons.
- Crop Rotation ~ It is essential to practice crop rotation in order to prevent diseases and pests from ruining your garden. This is nothing more than avoiding planting the same crop in the same bed year after year. It is a good practice to follow one crop with a different crop. This not only prevents the establishment of crop specific insects and diseases, it can also help your soil to maintain a higher level of fertility. As mentioned in the article on composting, many crops can be grown to improve the soil. Legumes fix nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the soil. Beans, peas, clover and many other crops are leguminous and can be used as either an edible crop or solely as a cover crop which is grown and then turned under to improve the soil. Either way they are valuable crops for rotation. You should avoid rotating crops in the same family. These would include not only different varieties of the same crop, but also related crops. Cole crops include cabbages, collards, kale, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi. Nightshade crops include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and tomatillos. Cucurbits would be cucumbers, melons, squash and pumpkins. Avoid following any member of these families with another member.
- Watering ~ Florida is tough on plants. Most of us will be doing our vegetable gardening in the fall and winter months when our climate is a little gentler. This also coincides with our dry season. One of the advantages of compost is it’s ability to soak up and retain moisture. Ample use of organic material in the forms of compost and mulch will go a long way towards conserving moisture in the garden. Our goal is to grow vigorous, healthy plants in as little time as possible. Ample water applied before the plants need it is crucial. They will recover from stress due to uneven watering practices, but stress always makes plants more susceptible to pests and disease. The best way to determine the moisture level of the garden is to take a small amount of soil into the palm of the hand and gently squeeze it into a “meatball”. Open your palm and examine the ball of soil. Poke it with your finger and if it stays together it is adequately moist. If it crumbles apart easily it is time to water. If it is soggy, you may want to lessen your watering.
- Mulching ~ As mentioned above, the garden will benefit greatly from mulching. Your beds will retain moisture longer, you will have fewer weeds and a good organic mulch improves both soil texture and fertility. Hay is usually the mulch of choice for the vegetable garden, but pine needles, shredded leaves, grass clippings and compost all make great mulch. You can either wait until your seedlings have sprouted, or just clear a space in the mulch and plant your seeds there. Be careful not to smother your seedlings. If you are growing potatoes, you should use a good mulch to mound around the vines instead of soil. This will lead to clean, easy to harvest spuds.
- Fertilizing ~ Depending on the crop, you will most likely want to apply some supplemental fertilizer during the season. Some plants which are notorious heavy feeders such as corn will require a good deal of fertility to make it to harvest. Manures and compost are probably the best, but a good quality balanced fertilizer will help to give the crop a boost. My favorite is Black Hen, a chicken manure product from the same company that sells Black Cow, but there is an increasing number of good, natural fertilizers now available from many retail outlets. You can also supplement the needs of your garden with liquid fertilizers. I used to have a 55 gallon plastic drum on a stand which I used for manure “tea”. I took a 5 gallon bucket with a lid, drilled some holes in it, filled it with (usually horse) manure and would let it steep. I had a hose bibb installed on the barrel and would take the hose from bed to bed and give my plants a good soaking. I would swear you could watch the plants green up! Fish emulsion is also a good liquid fertilizer. I also use kelp extract, although it’s fertilizer value is low, it is rich in micronutrients and promotes biological activity in the soil. The reason I prefer organic fertilizers over the chemical alternatives is quite simple, they are fairly gentle, complete products. It is still possible to burn your plants with them, but the continual use of organic fertilizers generally create a beneficial buildup of humus, soil organisms and other goodies. Chemicals are a viable and readily available alternative. But I have always felt they lack a lot of the side benefits of organic products.
Okay, so we’ve got the beds built, supports in place, seeds planted, now we can relax and wait for the harvest, right? Um, no……
Florida is a paradise for most of us. Everything thrives here, unfortunately that includes pests. What we are striving for in the vegetable garden is fast, sustained, stress free growth of our crops. This means we have to prevent problems rather than take measures after they have happened. We know pests are an inevitable part of gardening. But the presence of pests in our garden is not entirely a problem for us. The presence of an unsustainable number is. The sight of a worm gorging on our tomatoes is cause for concern, but before we haul out the spray gear we should evaluate the situation. The heel of our shoe is just as much a cure for a few worms as is drenching our entire garden with pesticides. Organic or not. On the other hand, knowing when it is appropriate to bring out the spray is crucial to avoiding an all out assault and potential loss of our crops. Closely inspect your crops regularly. Look for eggs, and if found, destroy them. Either take the whole leaf and dispose of it outside the garden, or possible just rub them off. But take heed of their presence. It means something has found your garden and is posing a threat. Aphids are one pest I deal with harshly at first sign. If spotted the first thing I look for is the presence of predators. Ladybugs and their larvae can keep a moderate infestation under control. Most people know what ladybugs look like, but their larvae actually are voracious little predators and should be encouraged to prey on the aphids as much as possible. However, any treatment to kill the aphids will also take out the larvae. It is a difficult judgment call sometimes. It seems like certain pests are more active during dry spells and others thrive during the wet season. Generally speaking, soft bodied sucking insects such as aphids, mealy bugs, spider mites and scale do better in the dry season. A good blast from the hose can very often dislodge them, but will need to be repeated often to be effective. If it is determined that stronger measures are needed, soap and oil sprays are very effective against these types of pests. My basic pest control spray consists of a horticultural soap or oil, thuricide or bt (bacillus thuringiensis) for control of most caterpillars, and a mild fertilizer like kelp or fish emulsion to help replace nutrients lost to the pest. It is best to spray in the cooler parts of the day, evening or morning. Again, pest control is a necessary part of gardening, but there is a delicate balance between protecting our gardens and harming the environment. Even organic pesticides can have an undesirable impact. Use caution and remember, diligence is our best weapon against pests.
There’s Gotta Be An Easier Way
I’m sure by now many of you are thinking this all sounds good, but it’s more work than you are willing to invest. As of this writing, I am a little on the topside of middle age or maybe the young side of senior citizen. I am in pretty good shape due to the physical nature of my work, but I am also feeling the little aches and pains more and more. Yes, it is a great deal of hard work. I really enjoy the process of taking materials and turning them into compost. But then again, I am a real garden geek.
I promised to share some low labor methods with you. Remember Dave? A good part of the fun we shared by gardening together was the competition. I would tease him about being too lazy to even open the bags of grass clippings and he would shoot back that his garden was always in before mine. Well, I would venture to say that Dave and I both had gardens that produced abundantly and were worthy of the pride we took in them. Truth is, I filed away most of Dave’s techniques for the day I became as old as him. (just kidding, Dave)
I actually took a lot of Dave’s ideas and integrated them into some of my gardens. Since bagged grass clippings are mostly a thing of the past, that particular method is no longer feasible. But one thing I used to do that is similar was to take a bale of hay or straw, (buy the cheapest you can get) and set it in the garden with the “grain” side up. That is to say, the side of the bale without the baling twine wrap. I would then put compost (or commercial mix, if you prefer) on top and water as much of it in as I could. I would leave a layer on top and plant in it. This grows great tomatoes, squash, melons, etc. At the end of the season, the hay has broken down leaving a nice batch of compost.
Another low labor method is container gardening. Containers take many shapes and forms. There is a person here in town who plants out a dozen or so 5 gallon buckets with tomatoes every year. I am not sure how long they have been doing this, but it has been many years that I know of. They seem to have a pretty good harvest and it takes a minimum of space beside their carport. 5 gallon buckets are easy to come by, many restaurants are more than happy to give them away. Just fill them with a good quality potting mix and plant your favorite crops. They can be easily moved to get more sun, or to avoid cold or wind. They might require a bit more fertilizer than a raised bed, but you can grow a wonderful garden that takes a whole lot less work. I have access to a near unlimited supply of nursery pots and make use of some 25 and 15 gallon pots in my garden to grow tomatoes in. I fill them with compost, throw a generous amount of Black Hen in, then stick my homemade tomato cage (remesh) in and plant the tomatoes. Keep it watered, fertilized and monitor for pests and you have a high yield, low labor garden that will fit in any sunny spot you may have.
Another technique Dave employed was to plant directly in his compost piles. Like I said, Dave wasn’t one to do a lot of turning. But by planting right in the compost heap, he could use pretty raw compost and then after their season was done, just spread it out. This works real well with sprawling plants. It’s also possible to simply spread the compost into a raised bed without first digging the bed. With our sandy soils, after a couple of years you will have deep, rich beds without the extra labor of initially digging them.
Ruth Stout (sister of author Rex) was a well known garden author who championed “no work” gardening. The testament to her method is the fact that she gardened by herself well into her 90s right up until her death. Her method was very simple, she would scatter her seeds on the surface, and throw a mulch of hay over them. As the season progressed, she kept a thick mulch of hay on the garden. Equally important, she kept a thick layer of hay on the garden when it lay fallow. This is especially a good technique here in Florida where many of us garden primarily in the cooler fall/winter/spring months and leave the garden bare all summer long. A heavy layer of hay will not only keep your plot weed free all summer, but will decompose into a rich, black layer of compost. You can read more about her technique in the Ruth Stout No Work garden book, she was a very interesting woman and her book is entertaining. But her method is fairly simple and straightforward.
If you pick and choose from this article, I feel certain you can adapt a style of gardening that will produce abundantly for you while maintaining a comfort level of labor. There is no doubt about it, gardening in general, and in Florida specifically is hard, but fulfilling work. By understanding what makes the garden grow, will enable you to provide ideal conditions for your crops and maximize production. You should be careful to never overextend yourself. It is easy to strain yourself without realizing it until it’s too late. Take it slow, build the garden up over time and never forget to enjoy yourself. Incorporate a little beauty, fun and whimsy into your garden. Try new things as much as possible and remember, there’s always next year………..