Learn how to grow and harvest and tend to your vegetable garden. This guide, pulled from the Homestead Handbook, will teach you how to get that vegetable garden in tip top shape on any homestead, with square foot gardening. This is Chapter 6 of our 11 part series on backyard gardening.
Growing & Harvesting Your Vegetable Garden
Your garden is planted and now it’s time to begin the regular—if minimal—maintenance of your square foot garden. Unlike in the past, you will not need a huge garage or shed full of tools to take care of this garden. In fact, you will only need three tools, and a handful of rules, to have a successful and bountiful harvest.
What are the three tools you need? A trowel, scissors, and a writing utensil—that’s it! Every gardener needs a trowel of course, but you do not need to spring for any fancy or high-priced towels. You will use this tool for several purposes, including adding and mixing soil when you replant a square, or for loosening soil. Your scissors will be used to keep your garden tidy by cutting off dead leaves or blooms, trimming extra seedlings that have taken root in a single hole, or even harvesting leaves for use in the kitchen.
One type of maintenance you will rarely have to think about is probably the most dreaded: weeding! Because you have done the work of using landscaping fabric under your garden boxes and in the aisles, and because of your use of peat moss and vermiculite in the optimized soil, any weeds that do find their way to your garden will have a very tough time making themselves at home. The visual tidiness of your garden will immediately betray any weeds that have blown in from a sour wind. They will be easy to spot and even easier to pull out, thanks to the loose optimized soil—you shouldn’t even need to use your trowel to pull them out. You will vary rarely see a weed in your square foot garden.
However, no garden is completely safe from the onslaught of pest problems. The pests you will run into will vary widely depending on where in the country you are living, and so this guide cannot cover every possible problem in detail—for such in depth analysis, consult your local horticulturalists or university resources. There are quite a few pest problems that are already solved by the nature of the square foot garden. By planting different crops next to each other, it discourages some plant-eating pests and diseases which often do not transfer from crop to crop. But there are some additional measures you can take to help protect your garden.
Floating covers, for example, are a great way to keep your young garden safe from becoming nurseries for pests. These are fine mesh nets placed on top of the garden, while it is still young and not growing up above the boundaries of the wooden box. This net prevents pests from entering but allows the garden to still receive light and water. You can also build a cage out of wood and chicken wire, which is placed like a “lid” over your more mature garden. This cage will prevent larger wildlife such as birds, rabbits and deer from making a meal out of your produce, and will also protect your plants from any accidental crushing.
Snails and slugs are a problem in most every region of the country. Crushing eggshells and creating a perimeter around each of your plants is an effective way to keep these slimy guys from your garden. You can create an effective, organic pest-control spray in your own kitchen to further protect your plants. Boil a mixture of garlic, water, and cayenne pepper, then funnel it into a spray bottle once it’s cooled. Use it particularly on the underside of the leaves of your plants, which is where bugs typically lay their eggs. Another option is neem oil, a non-toxic product which can be found at your local garden store. Physical removal of leaves damaged by disease or pests is also highly recommended and one of the easiest methods—that’s where your scissors come in handy.
An eggshell perimeter is an effective defense against snails and slugs.
Now let’s discuss the important act of watering your garden. Plants can die from too much or too little, so it is vital that you understand just how much your garden is going to need to thrive. One way of better controlling the amount of water your garden receives is to actually change the way in which you water. For example, it’s much more difficult to control the amount of water a garden receives when you’re using a typical garden hose to do the job, as opposed to a watering can. One of the best methods is to scoop water and apply it directly to the round depression in the soil where the plant is growing from, meaning the root system will immediately receive the water. We also recommend this water be sun-warmed by keeping your watering jug outside. It may seem like this is going to take up a lot of your time, but you’d be surprised how quickly it is done when your garden is 80% smaller than the typical single-row garden! This also prevents you from wasting water, a smart and responsible activity for families regardless of their location. Some states may even have additional water-use regulations due to drought—this method of gardening means you can still maintain a healthy garden even in the face of such regulations, because it is so efficient.
And here’s the big, wonderful secret about the optimized soil: you have almost zero chance of overwatering your garden when you use it! Remember earlier, we discussed how this specific mixture was optimized to hold as much moisture as it can, while draining any excess. This means the soil will never hold more than it should—the excess will simply drain away. You do, however, need to make sure your soil does not dry out, which is still a risk with any soil. This will be easy to do with your square foot garden, which you have hopefully built in a great place in your yard that you will visit daily. You may need to water more often than with a single-row garden, but you are not actually using more water. As the weeks continue, you will be able to recognize the signs of dehydration in your plants, and be able to fix it immediately with a few cupfuls of warm water if you keep it right in your garden.
Harvesting your crop is perhaps the most rewarding part of the gardening experience—it is the tangible proof of all your hard work and dedication to your garden. (And a tasty one at that!) The square foot garden has removed one of the troublesome parts of the harvest, and that of course is because it will have reduced the amount of crop you are harvesting at once. Because you opted against the traditional single-row garden, you don’t have to worry about spending an entire afternoon bent over, pulling an entire garden’s worth of lettuce from the ground that you will have trouble getting your family to finish eating. Instead, you can use your scissors to do a quick walk around your square foot garden even as soon as half an hour before dinner time, snipping off the greens and pulling up just a few veggies you may need for the meal. Some veggies like radishes or carrots do not even need to become fully mature before they are ready to eat. If you are snipping leaves as-needed from leafy plants like lettuce, you can harvest more or less throughout the season, until the plant has completed its life cycle.
Once any square foot on your grid has been fully emptied, all you need to do to make that square ready again is to prepare it with more optimized soil—which you hopefully have a small surplus of waiting in your garage or shed—and plant a new crop using the same methods outlined in previous pages of this guide. Make sure you remove any debris that has gathered in the square in the meantime, such as dead roots, fallen leaves, etc. Any debris such as this can be put in your compost pile. Replanting of a square can take as little as one minute!
One of the best things about the square foot garden is how little time you will need to dedicate to harvesting or maintenance your garden—yet you will receive so much bounty and beauty from it. You won’t need to get sweaty and dedicate entire afternoons to the labor. The maintenance can be done as you pass the garden on your way to the car in the morning, or while you’re waiting for other things such as your washing machine or dishwasher to finish their work. And because of the nature of the garden, you will be practicing the important activity of crop rotation just by virtue of having a square foot garden. The process of crop rotation is important in the single-row process, as it helps replenish the depleted soil. Luckily because you’re using the optimized soil recipe, this isn’t as big of a worry for your garden—it’s already chock full of nutrients and minerals for your garden’s health. Still, it’s a positive for your garden regardless, and it will help prevent the passing of any diseases your plants may catch, as well as discourage insect pests. By rotating crops, you are preventing any species of insect from taking up permanent residence in your garden since they won’t be able to “predict” which plants you’re planting after you harvest.
That was Chapter 6: Tending Your Vegetable Garden from our Homestead Handbook: How to Grow All The Food You Need In Your Own Backyard