PLANNING & STARTING A FOOD GARDEN
1. Choosing Your Food Growing Site
2. Soil Types & Testing
3. Making a Vegetable Bed From Scratch
4. Water Capture & Use
1. CHOOSING YOUR FOOD GROWING SITE
In choosing your food site there are several things to think about:
1. Adequate Sunlight – ideally the vegetables and fruit trees need to receive a minimum of six hours sunlight each day. Shady areas are not suitable for vegetables and fruit growing. If the land is sloping, make sure the slope faces the sun.
2. Protection from Strong Winds – strong winds can damage plants, especially taller plants such as broad beans, climbing beans, sweet corn, Brussels sprouts and fruit trees.
3. Frost Pockets – some areas of your section may receive more frost than others and the best site for your vegetable garden is the area where less frost occurs, for example on the higher, sunnier levels.
4. Trees – Nearby trees may create shade and their roots steal food and water for quite an area around the tree as they spread into the vegetable garden in search of richer soil.
5. Access to Water – It is easier to water the garden if there is a tap nearby, or a water tank, and a hose that can reach the vegetable garden. There are methods for increasing the water-holding capacity of the soil and the use of ‘berms’ and ‘swales – see: WATER CAPTURE & USE below. 6. Proximity to House – Ideally grow vegetables, like salad greens and herbs that you harvest regularly, close to the house. Your main vegetables can be grown further away from the house because they need less attention. Larger fruit and nut trees can be even further away. These are called ‘Zones’ in Permaculture design (see Section: ‘Different Approaches’ in the sub-section – PERMACUTURE), which is well worth referring to when designing your garden. Also use the sun facing walls of the house to train climbing fruit and vegetables up, as well as providing more tender sub-tropical fruit with the protection and the heat radiation that comes from a sunny wall.
2. SOIL TYPES & TESTING
First, it is a good idea to test the soil you have. This will give you an idea of whether you need to increase the humus in the soil, whether your soil is heavy or light, when deciding what will grow best in the soil you have. For this test you will need one flat-bottomed glass jar and lid.
Fill the jar with:
- 1/3 soil
- 2/3 water
Put the lid on the jar and shake vigorously then leave the jar to stand for 24 hours. After 24 hours the layers will settle
SANDY LOAMY CLAYEY
0 – 10% clay 10 – 30% clay 50 -100% clay 0 – 10% silt 30 – 50% silt 0 – 45% silt 80 – 100% sand 25 – 50% sand 0 – 45% sand
The heaviest material, such as gravel, or stones will settle at the bottom, then sand, then silt, then clay and finally the organic material will be at the top. This will give you a very good idea of the constituents of your soil, in what proportions and what type of soil you have, and especially how much organic matter there is and how much more you will need to create a healthy living soil. This is also a good time to buy a simple pH tester kit to find out how acid or alkaline your soil is – the ideal pH for most crops is a slightly acid 6.5 pH.
3. MAKING A VEGETABLE BED FROM SCRATCH
I am assuming that you have a patch of grass that you wish to make into vegetable beds, or an overgrown weedy patch. Either way there are various options to think about.
- Dug Beds
- Double-dug Beds (Deep Beds)
- No-dig Beds
- Flat Beds
- Raised Beds, no Edge
- Raised Beds with Edging
- High Raised Beds
- Rectangular Beds
- Shaped Curvy Beds
- Keyhole Round Beds
In this version, take off 3cm (1in) of turf where you are preparing the new vegetable bed and stack them upside-down, in a corner to rot down into good quality loam, which will be very useful for making seed and potting compost mixtures in the future.
First, mark the edge of the bed with a planting line, allowing a 1.2 metre (4ft) width for the bed, so that you can reach the middle comfortably without having to tread on the soil. Do not make each bed too long – 6m (20ft) maximum – otherwise you have a long way round to the other side when gardening.
Having marked out the bed with pegs and string lines, or ‘site-marker’ white spray; sharpen your spade with a file, but only file the inside (front) edge into a chisel edge. Then press the spade through the grass turf into the soil below with your foot, cutting it all into oblong shapes about 30cm x 20cm (12 x 8in). Then slide the spade underneath each cut turf to about 3cm (1in) thick. The trick with this is to place the hand holding the handle up against your knee and when you push the spade, lean forward using your knee, for an extra push.
Next, dig out the soil beneath the first and second strips, one spade depth, and place the soil in a wheelbarrow, moving it to the other end of the bed, so you can fill in the final trench.
Dig out the turfs from the first strip, then the second strip – saving the turfs
Next spread 2 buckets of garden compost, or composted horse manure, on each square metre of cleared land and fork the plot over. That is, push a spade into the soil with your foot and flip over the soil incorporating the compost, braking up any lumpy bits with the spade. Repeat the process of removing turfs and digging over with added compost up the bed in the same way, until all the soil and compost (manure) is turned and levelled.
Stack the cut turfs upside down in overlapping layers in an odd corner to rot. Moisten each layer with water as you build the stack. After two layers add a layer of horse manure about 4cm (1½in) thick if you have some, alternatively a sprinkling of blood and bone mix. Add two more layers of turfs then sprinkle with garden lime. Add two more layers then more horse manure – and so on until the stack is complete. Add a final watering, then cover with a black plastic sheet, or better still a 150mm (6in) layer of wetted spray-free (or organically grown) straw, or grass clippings to hold the moisture in. Make sure the stack does not dry out. If the stack is made in autumn, the grass should be rotted and the loam ready by spring. For use, break up the rotted turfs and pass the loam through a 9mm (1/3in) grid garden sieve.
Ideally, this is the time to buy a garden pH test kit to find out if your soil needs some garden lime to correct the pH to around 6.4, which is ideal. The testing kit should have instructions on how much lime to apply to reach pH 6.4. If the pH is higher than 6.4, then no lime is needed.
Finally, rake the soil reasonably flat and you’re ready to start sowing or planting.
Single-Digging + Burying Turfs:
Alternatively, cut the first two rows of turves and soil to a spade depth and dig them out, placing them in a wheelbarrow to fill in the trench at the other end of the bed. Then spread a 5cm (2in) layer of compost into the bottom of the trench and turn over the second two rows of sods, with the grass upsidown into the trench previously made on top of the compost. Continue to the end of the plot, spreading compost and using the sods in the wheelbarrow upsidown to fill in the last trench.
Double-Dug Rectangular Beds:
Having marked out the size of the bed, as in the previous section, cut two 60cm (2ft) lines of turfs across the bed at one end and dig off the turfs and stack them at the other end of the bed. Next dig out the soil where the two rows of turfs were, one spade deep, and place the extracted soil in a wheelbarrow. Clear the loose soil in the bottom of the trench with your spade; then break up the exposed sub-soil in the bottom of the trench with a digging fork, by pushing the fork into the subsoil every 10cm with your foot and pressing the handle down half way to lift and loosen the subsoil.
Measure the second 60cm (2ft) wide trench next to the first and mark out, then start digging up the turfs as already described, placing them upsidown in the bottom of the trench. Cover these with a 5-8cm (2-3in) layer of well-rotted manure, or better still garden compost. Then turn the soil from the second strip on top of the manure and turfs. Clean out the bottom of the newly made trench and break up the exposed sub-soil in the bottom of the trench as before. Repeat this process the whole length of the bed, finally placing the turfs taken off the first trench upside down into the last trench and a layer of compost, then fill with the soil from the barrow.
By digging deeply, breaking up the sub-soil and incorporating plenty of organic matter, a deep root zone is produced which allows plants to draw nutrients from a much greater depth. Aeration is improved and the water holding is increased. Because roots are encouraged to grow downwards, crops can be planted closer together than otherwise possible.
This process is a one off. From now on regular feeding with compost and loosening the soil with a fork once a year will maintain and keep open a deep soil. Deep forking will open up the soil and stop it from getting compacted. The best way to do this is to use a ‘U-Bar’ as already described in the section: ‘Different Approaches’ – sub-section BIO-INTENSIVE GARDENING & MINIMUM TILLAGE FARMING.
For those who prefer not to dig, but still want to create vegetable beds, see the section – NO DIG GARDENING & ZERO-TILLAGE AGRICULTURE for a detailed description of why and how to use the no-dig method.
You do not need to surround your vegetable beds with wood or other siding. The traditional veg beds were flat with paths and none the worse for that. Flat beds can be Dug beds, Double-dug beds, or No-dig beds.
An Example of Flat Beds at Motueka Community Garden, New Zealand
Raised beds, no edge:
Mark out your beds and paths as before, stripping of the turfs where the paths are to be, then either: Double-dig the beds burying the turfs, or strip the turfs off and fork over the soil. Then dig out the precious topsoil where the paths are, to a depth of 100mm – throwing the soil onto the beds on either side, thus raising them up. They will have flat tops and rounded sides. The paths can then be covered with a layer of corrugated cardboard or weed mat – then topped with bark chips.
Raised Beds with Edging:
The advantages of raised beds are:
- The soil warms up more quickly, enabling both earlier and later crops.
- They have a deeper layer of topsoil, with compost concentrated in the growing area.
- Better drainage.
- Makes crop rotation simple.
- Easy to attach cloche hoops (or strong wire supports) to create a micro-climate, e.g. shade-cloth in summer and clear plastic in winter.
- Easy to manage, including the pathways in between.
- Beds are never walked on and weeding is done without standing on the soil, protecting the soil structure and soil life.
Make your beds and paths as above, or leave the paths grassed. Then line the edges with planks – preferably untreated Eucalyptus, Macrocarpa or other long lasting durable hardwood – 20cm x 5cm (8 x 2in), or bigger if you want, held in place with 5cm (2in) square posts knocked into the ground at intervals along the inside edge. Then finish by screwing the planks to the posts and screwing the corners together. Finally level the soil inside.
Raised vegetable beds in our garden
High Raised Beds:
I would only bother with these if they were to be used by the elderly, or the disabled. They require a lot more work and extra soil brought in, but they can be very useful and productive for those who need them.
I’m old fashioned about beds; I generally like mine rectangular, I just find them easier to work with. For example, when applying organic fertilisers, garden lime or gypsum etc., it is much easier to work out the square metre area. It is also easier if you want to grow rows of crops, but hey, don’t let me stop you from making yours any shape you like, so long as you keep in mind that they need to be practical.
Shaped Curvy Beds:
These can be fun, imaginative and creative, and for some people they are closer to natural forms. Here are some ideas:
Plan for Raised Stone Curvy Veg Beds
Two-tier Block-Work Curvy Veg Bed
Keyhole Round Beds:
Keyhole beds were developed out of one of Permaculture’s basic principles – ‘Use Edges & Value the Marginal’. The keyhole bed utilises space in the most ergonomic way. The keyhole path allows you to reach all parts of your round bed, easily reaching from either the outside or from the middle. The best size is shown below:
Keyhole Garden Plan
Block-Work Raised Keyhole Bed
A More Complex Design
If you have rectangular or oval beds, or rows of fruit trees or bushes, it is best to orientate them North/South. This ensures that the sun catches all parts of the beds and the crops during the day. Facing them East/West can lead to the plants, trees or bushes on the sunny side, shading the ones on the opposite side. The best place would be a row of trees, bushes or permanent crops running along the south side (southern hemisphere), north side (northern hemisphere) of a section, capturing the sun but not shading other crops.
4. WATER CAPTURE & USE
a) Increasing Water-holding Capacity
b) Increasing Plant’s Access to Water
c) Capturing & Storing Water
Increasing Water Holding Capacity:
Although we will discuss how to capture, store and use water, the most important thing to start with, is how to improve the water holding capacity of the soil. Around the world soil organic and humus levels are being systematically destroyed by modern methods of agriculture and horticulture. Instead of curing the problem, more and more irrigation is required to keep crops alive.
A study report showed that when the soil humus is increased by just 1% there is a 4% increase in the water stored in the soil (Morris, 2004). As rainwater enters the soil the humus swells up like a sponge and 1 part of humus holds 4 parts of water (Wheeler and Ward, 1998). That means that if the soil humus is increased to an ideal 5%, the water holding capacity will increase by 20%! Another way of looking at it is if you have a 1 square metre patch of top soil, 150mm deep (1 square yard, 6in deep) with a 4%-5% content of humus, it will hold between 273-323 litres (72-85 gallons) of water, or the equivalent of 10-15cm (4-6in) of rain!
Not only that, in dry periods the humus slowly releases the water over time, reducing the stress on plants. Without the humus, water and nutrients are not held as well and run through and out of the soil, there is also an increased evaporation from the surface.
- So, first, before anything else, take all steps necessary to increase your soil humus levels, otherwise you will need to collect and use much more water than you need to, as well as experiencing an increased leaching of plant nutrients out of the soil.
- Secondly, use mulches extensively, especially throughout the summer months. This will greatly reduce evaporation and soil surface desiccation.
- Thirdly, cover any unused soil throughout the winter months with either green manure crops, and/or compost crops, to increase the holding of water and nutrients until spring.
For more information on the subject see the section: ‘How to Build Soil Fertility – Practical Methods’.
Increasing Plant’s Access to Water:
When a soil is fertile, and the plants are well fed, their roots grow more vigorously and grow deeper, enabling the plant to access water from the subsoil. Create a fertile soil, and the plants growing in it will suffer less from water shortage.
Capturing & Storing Water:
The best water for plants is rainwater, or spring water, so you will need to capture every drop you can. I have not included taking water from streams and rivers that run beside or through a property, because that is a whole new ball game and involves legislation and laws, and anyway is a poor substitute for the methods outlined below. There are several ways of capturing and reusing water:
- Berms & Swales
- Water Tanks
- Greywater Recycling
- Flow Forms
- Irrigation Methods
1. Berms & Swales:
For those who have not heard of these before or no very little, let’s start with definitions.
a) Berms in this context are long banks running along a contour line.
b) Swales are ditches that run in front of a berm along a contour line.
Berms and Swales are literally as old as the hills and have been used to control water flow for centuries. Today they are still used around the world but have been all but forgotten in a lot of ‘developed countries’. An old version is grassed pasture fields divided into raised ridges, separated by dips. The raised ridges ensure these areas largely remain well drained and not waterlogged. The water in the dips slowly releases water into the sub-soil as a store, instead of channelling the water away in a ditch with an outlet, or land drains, that also draw the water away.
Another way of using berms is to build a series of berms running along the contours at intervals down a slope, each one channelling the rain water into the subsoil, rather than running off.
Swales and berms are an excellent technique in rainwater harvesting. They capture surface runoff and increase ground water, both nourishing trees and reducing erosion. The berms in front of them can also be used to crow crops on, and best of all, swales and berms can be dug by hand and cost you nothing. Berms and swales are most suitable for sloping land and especially in areas that are more prone to drought, although they can be used on flat land and heavier soils and areas with more rainfall as well.
To build a berm and swale on sloping land, you need to dig a ditch running along a contour, piling up the resulting excavated material to build your berm down hill in front of it.
Water from the swale flows into the soil under the berm
To work out where your contours are, you will need to make an ‘A’ frame. The ‘A’ frame helps to find the contour line by finding points along the contour that are at the same level. The individual points can then be joined up to make a contour line. For how to simply make and use an ‘A’ frame level to mark the contour lines, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjE-6B13hkQ
You can leave the Swales open, but a better idea is to fill the swale with permeable material, such as gravel, rocks or better still, course untreated wood chips that will filter the water and stop the sides of the swale collapsing over time. The swale can then be used as a path.
Swales can also be use to capture storm water. Rather than directing the storm water out of the property, the swale allows the water to penetrate gently into the subsoil, replenishing the ground water, such as the ‘dips and ridge’ system in old pastures, already described.
Swales can also be used to capture runoff from rainwater tanks when they overflow, rather than losing the water to a drain.
Especially on steeper slopes, terraces not only help to capture rainwater and cut down runoff, but also allow ease of working on a flat surface. They should follow the contours, the same as berms and swales.
One of the advantages of terraces is that when it rains, instead of washing away nutrients in the soil, the nutrients are carried down to the next level. The nutrient rich water from the top terrace flows down to the next one, and so on, helping to feed and water the crops in succession when it is dry.
3. Water Tanks
Ideally every down pipe off all roofs on a property should lead to a tank of some sort.
2 water tubs linked together
Our 5,000-litre (1,000 gallon) tank with automatic pump
Our 5,000-litre (1,000 gallon) rainwater tank, shown in the picture, has an automatic pump that comes on as soon as the tap is turned on and turns off when the tap is turned off. If your tank is up above the land that needs water, then you can rely on gravity alone.
To calculate the size of tank you need, first calculate the surface area of your roof or roofs; look up the average annual rainfall in your area and multiply by the surface area of the roof to find the amount of collectable rain in cubic metres, per year – 0.001 cubic metres = 1 litre, so it will be easy to work out. To work out US gallons – 1 gallon = 0.133681 cubic feet, and 1 imperial gallon = 0.160544 cubic feet.
Obviously you will not need a tank to hold a whole year’s worth, because you will be using the water throughout the year, topped up whenever there is rain – so calculate the size needed to collect winter rain when you will be using very little water – that should be adequate. If the tank is smaller than that, then think of how you can utilise the overflow – maybe into a swale soak away, as described above.
4. Greywater Recycling
In New Zealand grey water has to be wastewater from showers, baths, and bathroom sinks, but not from kitchen sinks and washing machines, or of course toilets. And it must not be used for watering vegetables.
- Reusing water that would otherwise be wasted
- Reducing fresh water collection
- Possible contamination from soaps, surfactants, fats and disinfectants, etc.
And this is where I get concerned. For example: Triclosan is an antimicrobial commonly found in soaps, shampoos, toothpastes and many other household items. Triclosan is a skin, eye and lung irritant. It has been associated with chronic health concerns and has the ability to persist in the environment and bio-accumulate – and worst of all it will kill soil micro-organisms! Then there are disinfectants, disinfectant liquid and solid soaps, harsh detergents, softeners and whiteners, bleach or cleaners with chlorine and cleaners containing boron, which are also damaging to soil life.
There are also strict planning laws in New Zealand and other countries about the plumbing and distribution involved, including seepage pipes buried in the ground.
I think that greywater use is really only appropriate for country properties that are largely off the grid and need some way of dealing with their wastewater. I would suggest a reed-bed system to filter and treat the greywater by using the bacteria living around the roots of the reeds, fed by oxygen transferred down to the roots by the plants. This has been shown to be a very efficient way of neutralising and de-contaminating wastewater. Using a reed bed in conjunction with educating the members of the household into using safe eco household products, would be the best strategy for dealing with greywater.
Treatment of Collected Water
Treatment is not essential, but worth looking at.
The way Flowforms work lies in the unique design of the vessels themselves. The forms are shaped internally so that the flow of the water swirls and creates vortices similar to a mountain stream. Water entering each form, flows rhythmically left and right between the two vortices. This swirling figure-of eight movement re-oxygenates, revitalizes, and rejuvenates the water, suppressing bacteria and pathogens, as well as imparting a powerful dynamism to the flowing water, enlivening it. This enlivened water benefits both plants and livestock.
Flowforms can also be used to activate Biodynamic preparations.
The water flows from one Flowform to another
They can also be used to oxygenate liquid manures or animal slurry, thereby assisting the aerobic bacterial breakdown of organic matter.
6. Irrigation Methods
- Tap and Watering Can
- Hose – (gravity and pump)
- Water Wands
- Soaker Hoses
- Sprinkler Systems
Rules of thumb:
- Don’t water in the heat of the day, water in the early morning, but even better in the evening allowing the plants to absorb the water gently overnight.
- Water the soil around the plant, not the leaves – especially in full sun as the droplets act like magnifying glasses and will burn the leaves!
- If you water at midday when it’s sunny, especially if you are using sprinklers, you will lose a lot of water through evaporation.
- Always try to use collected rainwater, tap water contains chlorine, which kills beneficial soil micro-organisms. If you have to use tap water, fill a container and leave overnight for the chlorine to evaporate off before using.
- It is much better to water thoroughly twice a week, making sure the water has penetrated to the subsoil; this will encourage the roots to go deep. Light watering everyday will only encourage surface roots, which will be vulnerable to drought and will most likely only soak the top couple of centimetres.
Tap and watering can:
Watering Can: I know it’s so yesterday, but great for spot watering of newly planted seedlings and small areas, use a fine rose for gentle watering and take the rose off for spot watering.
Hose: To get descent pressure, the tank needs to be uphill if you want to use gravity alone, alternatively use a soaker hose. As our 5,000 litre (1,000 gallon) tank is on the flat, gravity alone does not provide the pressure we need, so we have a built-in pump that works on back-pressure. In other words the mains supply to the pump is permanently switched on, but if the tap is closed the back-pressure switches the pump off. As soon as the tap is open the pump comes on. This creates enough pressure that allows us to use a water wand, or sprinklers if we need to.
Water Wands: These are great inventions. Buy one with fine holes in the rose head for gentle watering. Ours provides a steady gentle but full on stream of water. Easy to hold, and turn on and off. It is very easy and quick to water larger areas, concentrating on the plants and areas that need watering, and not wasting water on areas that don’t need watering, unlike sprinklers.
Soaker Hoses: These hoses are usually made of recycled plastic and the water drips out of very small holes. We use these especially for fruit trees and bushes, where the hoses are permanently in place, covered with mulch. The end has a hose-lock fitting, which an ordinary hose can be plugged into.
See the water seeping out –
They can be used in vegetable beds, but only if you are growing in rows, so we do use them for some crops, but usually with the backup of a water wand. The hose can be pegged down with U-shaped pegs made of thick galvanised wire.
Sprinklers: Sprinklers can be very wasteful by spreading water where it is not needed, and through loss of evaporation in hot weather. If you do use sprinklers, then use the bar type which directs the water in a rectangular area and can be adjusted to cover only the area you wish to water.
Whether you use soaker hoses or sprinklers, it is a good investment to buy a water timer that you can attach to your tap, to control and save the amount of water you use.
Review: Increase your soil humus content to hold water in the soil and release it slowly as the plants need it. Collect as much rainwater as possible; it’s amazing how much you will use in a year growing vegetables and fruit. We have a 5,000 litre (1,000 gallon) tank + others and that is not enough. By spot watering, drip watering and using a timer, you can save a lot of water.