Gardening from scratch - a beginners guide

A beginners guide to Gardening.

Have added several 5' x 13' plant beds to a garden.  Starting from scratch using only the minimal of tools, a shovel, rake and a home made soil sieve.  Also using kitchen scraps to make a compost heap, along with grass cuttings and any spare soil from different areas of the garden. 

This is where the sod was  taken off and placed in different areas of the garden.  The soil has never been worked, and had to be dug by shovel to turn it over.

next, the soil was dug up and passed through a sieve to aerate it and get rid of any surface weeds.


and the next stage was to add other top soil which had been sitting out for a couple of years, the three types of soil used was the original, which is slightly grey in colour (yellow card) and the compost (green card) and the top soil ( blue card)

The tools used were rudimentary, and because there wasn't any wheel barrow, have used a plastic flower pot instead.  This works quite well, and builds up muscle.the sieve was put onto two upturned containers and worked through with the hands or a garden trowel.  the sieve was made of four pieces of wood and really find wire mesh about 1 cm diameter holes.  The garden centre thought it strange to ask for a 2 foot square piece of wire... but it was cheap and didn't want the whole role. 

The completed garden bed with a loose stone wall and loose brick planters.The total time it took from start to finish was approximately 12-14 hours of work with minimal equipment. This is half way through the process, the three extra beds took two weeks. Two other beds are done and are 13 x 5 as well.  Each bed will be fertilized with kitchen food, and compost from the compost heap at the end of October trenches will be built in each one and food waste will be placed in the shallow trench.  This will be covered once the frosts start freezing the ground and then covered over to break down over the winter.  Once Spring comes the beds will be turned over once more.  With the addition of extra soil in the fall to each bed they will be about 6 inches above ground so any settling will keep the beds at ground level or there abouts rather than sinking into the ground - at least that is the general idea...

Here are the beds half way through...


And here are the finished beds - all material was found on site, the only thing that was bought was the material to stop the weeds from growing up through the gravel.

some trees in the back ground are only a year old, everything seems to grow really fast during the summer months.  We have one tree that grows 6 feet in one year and is notoriously hard to get rid of, its Carraganon, and grows wild here on the prairies.  It's invasive but excellent for fencing, coverage for just about anything else except eating!


The beds are planted on the sides with what ever was found in the garden, the first bed has concrete breeze blocks excellent for using for potted plants as well, the second is made from stones found in the garden, and the third is made from lumps of sod from the beds ithemselves.  These are laid out at an angle and laid on top of the weed sheet and built into an informal wall about 6 to 8 inches high. Over the winter it settled and produced a hard surface along the edge of the bed.

Three extra beds were made and using the same process as above.  The beds have the hoola hoops and tomato cages to put the plastic over them to help prevent the seedlings from dying if the weather changes suddenly.  Branches can also be used.  In the new beds the soil was mixed with potting soil and sieved to reduce the grass, roots and dandelion roots.  Established beds were dug up and airated and left for a week, and then had a fork passed through them to get out the roots from the grass and dandelions.  All beds had kitchen compost dug into a trench in the early fall (September/October) and was buried to break down over the winter, then worked through the soil then left for a week before being raked over and then planted with seed.  As soon as the seeds were planted, took a journal and made a note of where the seeds were in the garden.  (in our area we have a short growing season, normally from May to end of August/September) then it starts to get cold again mid September to October.  After that it's anyone's guess as to when the snow falls!) All seed this year is short term, (maturing between 50 and 60 days.) because of the long winter and not sure of how long the good weather will last... but if there is a possibility, the seed can be planted twice.  Have also planted several types of squash, the leaves and flowers can be used in most cases, especially if it is pumpkin.  (seeds have been used from last year's crop)

Have also used containers to plant herbs and lettuce and will also be making a raised bed for herbs and other plants.

The seedlings are now coming up after 3 weeks, we planted fast growing seeds, raddish, swiss chard (2 different varieites), carrots, spinach and beetroot.  The tops can be used in a variety of ways almost immediately after showing especially the raddish.  They have a spicey peppery taste and good in sandwiches or salads.

Also added in other beds peas, tomatoes, bok choy, coriandar, several varieties of potatotes and squash.

The compost heap was originally placed at the back of the garden.  It had been added to over 5 years but needs to rest.  It will be turned over this year, if there are no squash growing in it.  So we made a second compost heap using only kitchen scraps no meat as this would attract vermin and it would stink.  We placed the scraps on a piece of dirt that had been cleared of grass.  Then cordoned off to show where the compost needs to stay.  We added soil ontop of kitchen scraps over the winter to help with the breaking down of the food and then when spring started we added more.  We also add grass cuttings.  In previous years we have used the dandelions and spinach for salads.

After two months, the spinach is starting to flower and go to seed.  Will be keeping one row for seed and will harvest the rest.  The spinach when it's starting to flower is still good to eat either raw or cooked Believe the plants with the yellow flowers are swiss chard.  Have kept a garden journal of what seed has been planted in each bed.  But, these came up from last year when it went to seed.

And here is the Spinach...

And the chives.

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An important part of gardening is watering! Below is an article which goes into detail on when to water - what to look for and how to water.  It seems somewhat trivial, but this is what can make or break a successful garden.

When is the best time to water plants?

Many of the biggest problems vegetable gardeners have stem from watering problems.  I get it, there is a lot to learn and worry about when you are learning how to grow your own food.  But learning when is the best time to water plants in your garden is key to your success.

When is the best time to water plants?

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The Best Time to Water Plants in a Vegetable Garden

Morning is the best time to water plants

Early morning is the best time for you to water your plants in your vegetable garden.  In the summertime the few hours before and after sunrise are the prime time for watering, usually between 5 am and 9 am.  There are several reasons for this:

  • Watering in the morning when the temperatures are cool allows the water time to soak deeply into the soil before the heat of the day causes it to evaporate
  • Early morning watering also means any water that gets on the leaves will evaporate quickly once the sun comes out.  This helps prevent rot and fungal diseases
  • A good drink of water in the morning will prepare your vegetable plants for the upcoming heat of the day.
Morning is the best time to water plants

Is it OK to water plants in the evening?

I understand, some of us just don’t have the time to get out in the garden and water in the mornings.  Morning can be a busy time for many of us and watering the vegetable garden just isn’t going to happen.  If you can’t water your garden in the morning, early evening, before the sun goes down, is the second best time to water.

  • Watering in the early evening avoids the heat of the day so the cooler temperatures allow more water to soak deeply into the root zone without evaporating
  • The less intense sun means there will be less evaporation 
  • Be careful to keep water off the leaves, wet leaves won’t dry for a long time if you water in the evening, opening up the possibility for rot and fungal diseases like powdery mildew

Do not water in the middle of the day!

For years we were told not to water in the middle of the day because water sitting on the leaves of plants could magnify the rays of the sun and burn the leaves.  Science has long since proven this to just be a myth.  But there are still good reasons to avoid watering in the middle of the day and they all have to do with water conservation.

In the heat of the day water is going to evaporate much faster.  This will prevent the water from penetrating deeply into the soil and will promote shallow root growth on your plants.  Shallow roots will cause your plants to be much more susceptible to heat damage and the drying effects of the sun on your soil.

Also in many areas of the world winds will be more intense during the day and if you are watering using overhead sprinklers more water will be lost to wind drift.

Watering plants with a watering can

Watering late at night is also bad timing

Watering your garden at night is much better for water conservation with no sun to cause evaporation and less wind.

But watering at night has its own set of problems.  Night time watering will cause your leaves to be wet and without the sun to dry them the chances of rot, fungal problems, and other disease issues are greatly increased.

This is especially true if you live in a more humid climate, you don’t want leaves being wet for extended periods of time.

Is it better to water at night or in the morning?

So to summarize the best time to water is a few hours before or after sunrise and the second best time is early evening before sunset.  Try to avoid watering at midday or at night.

How often should I water my vegetable garden?

The next biggest watering question is, how often should I water my vegetable garden?  

Conventional wisdom says most plants need 1 inch of water per week.

I’ve always found this a bit problematic. How do we measure 1 inch of water?

Water demands are also very different from plant to plant, and at different times of the year.  I have found the finger test to be a better measure of how often to water your vegetable garden.

The Finger Test

This test is so simple it will seem silly, but it really does work.  Here’s how the test works:

  1. Stick your pointer finger into the soil as far as you can (hopefully to the second knuckle)
  2. Do you feel moisture at the tip of your finger?  Did soil stick to your finger when you pulled it out?
  3. If you felt moisture or the soil stuck to your finger, then you don’t need to water.
  4. If your finger is dry it’s time to water.
Press your finger into the soil to your second knuckle to test for how moist the soil is.

Other Garden Watering Tips

Be consistent

Your vegetable and fruit plants will appreciate consistency.  Get on a schedule and stick to it.  It is also important to realize that you will need to be flexible, especially in the heat of the summer.  If a big heatwave arrives, then you may need to water more often. In the spring and fall, you will likely water less.

Containers are a whole different beast (or veggie)

Containers can be a great way to grow vegetables, especially if you don’t have a lot of space for a conventional garden.  But remember that containers will require a lot more attention than in ground or even raised bed gardens.

In the heat of the summer, containers will often need to be watered twice a day, morning and evening.  Your plant health will tell you if you are watering enough.  Plants that are lush and thriving are getting enough water, but container-grown plants that seem to look healthy but also seem to have stalled in their growth probably need an extra watering each day.

Containers full of strawberries need special attention to keep them wet.

The age of the plant matters

Newly transplanted vegetables will need to be watered more often than established plants.  The same applies to perennial berry plants and fruit trees.  They will need more water until the plants have had time to establish their root systems.

Water your vegetable garden deeply

A good long soaking of water once every few days will put moisture deep into the soil.  This will promote deep root growth and stronger, more heat resistant plants.  

The best way to water deeply is with a drip irrigation system.  Drip irrigation systems save water and put the water soaking deeply right at the base of the plants.  You can read more about the advantages of a drip system here. 

Watering Strawberry plants using a PVC drip irrigation system.

Drip irrigation systems come in 3 different methods:

  1. Soaker Hoses
  2. Tube drip systems
  3. Homemade PVC drip systems 

Learning the Best Time to Water Plants is Important

I once read that as much as 80% of all gardening problems are related to watering, and I believe it.  Figuring out when to water your plants and how often to water your vegetable garden will make all the difference in your garden.

You are the key to making it all work.  In order to have a successful garden, you need to be outside in your garden EVERY day!  Check on those plants, stick your fingers in the soil and you will be 80% there already!!

We are still in the grip of winter, even though it is March here at 52 degrees North.  We like to plan ahead and have a gardening journal where we put ideas for the garden, whether it be a new bed or where the seeds will be sown in what area of the garden - to the trimming of trees and established plants like the raspberry canes.  We also put reminders down for trimming the wild roses, raspberry canes and protect the onions, spinach and celery that grow wild in the garden from lawn mowers and booted feet!

This year because of the seriousness of food shortages looming, we are looking for plants that will grow quickly and stay longer.  Sunflower seeds can be eaten when just sprouting, Swiss Chard comes up quickly and stays for the whole summer and the leaves can be harvested well into the fall and even during mild frosts.  The same with Beetroot greens, chives and most herbs.  What does grow quickly are the radishes, mustard plants and spinach.  Look on the back of the seed packets for planting instructions and for how long it will take to germinate.  

If a person is planting in a cooler climate like we have, we wait until the may long weekend, sometimes a little earlier depending on the weather.  With the wobble as it has been these last few months, we will be using protective covers for the seedlings/plants as they come up.  

For this a gardening journal helps where we have planted and in what plant beds.  We have used wooden sticks in the beds to identify the plants but they got tangled up with the weeds and were pulled up, the seed packets would blow away or would fade with the sunlight.  

This year we will be going with the same formula as we did last year, but rotating the potatoes, corn and beans to the horseshoe bed and the potatoes to the wooden raised bed.  We will be using the raised brick bed for herbs and the western bed for root vegetables.  The numerous containers will be used for quick growing plants such as spinach and beets.  Peas and lettuce will also be placed in containers.  Our garden we feel this year, will turn from a semi-serious garden into a serious one.  We will probably add more beds for vegetables.  

We are looking forward to this years gardening challenge as the wobble becoming extreme and the weather more unpredictable.  

Some useful tips on how to use plain brown cardboard in the garden.

Some useful tips on how to use plain brown cardboard in the garden.  Use it as mulch, to suppress weeds, as a potato box or as a temporary raised bed.

With the weather and supply chain creating havoc on the next gardening season, we have thought about cardboard boxes as containers.  We are not sure if we're supposed to use the plain brown ones, or the produce boxes from the stores.  Either way we will be using them to grow our stuff in this year.  Over the years we've been able to get plastic containers as well as the terracotta ones.  But, the terracotta pots are hard to find, and most are now plastic and break easily.  We had several plastic pots this winter break or shatter due to the extreme cold, and the cost is becoming prohibitive. 

We'll be placing boxes of choice in the garden where we feel they would be best suited, then adding paper to the bottom to prevent weeds from growing through the holes, but allowing drainage.  Then adding a layer of shredded paper or straw, compost from the kitchen and then soil.  We will let it sit for a few days to a week, then add more soil so it is within 2 to 3 inches of the top of the box.  Then we wait for another week while the soil settles in the container and the kitchen waste for want of a better word rots under the soil.  Hopefully by the time the May Long Weekend arrives, and the weather cooperates, we will plant what is needed in the boxes.  

This will also be easier for a no dig garden, since there are disabilities involved and hopefully weed control as well!

Due to varying factors this year, we were not able to attend to the garden as we would have liked, but we decided to go small and allow others to hone their gardening skills!  

We planted potatoes, squash and some leafy greens, mostly swiss shard and carrots.  for a beginner gardener, these are ideal as they are forgiving when not watered regularly, put into a shady spot or poor soil, and with the swiss chard and squash produce prolifically when picked regularly.  They can also be used as wraps as a gluten free alternative, or used as normal greens throughout the summer and fall depending on where a person lives.  

We decided to put a lot of kitchen compost down on the soil in the early spring and allow it to break down on top of the soil, then turn it over into the soil then plant.  Planting took place in mid-June, which we thought was not ideal, but Spring was late this year in this part of the world at 52 degrees north.

Once everything was planted, it was covered with a healthy layer of top soil.  The potatoes certainly benefited from the warmer soil and the extra layer, and as they grew, we put more soil on them.

We used the wooden raised bed for the potatoes, the western facing bed for the squash and the brick bed for the swiss chard.  Once everything sprouted, we watered, or let the rain do its part.  

Now the fall is here and so are the cool nights, we decided to bring in what harvest we had.  A lot of potatoes, 6 squash and a handful of swiss chard.  The potatoes are enough to help with seed for next year as well.  For a first practice garden - would say it was successful and a good educational experience for those involved!

We planted the garden here at 52 degrees north, using the same plants and seeds as last year - which proved to be successful for beginners.  We planted squash, potatoes, peas, beans, carrots and swiss chard at the end of May.  In the centre of the garden in what we call a horseshoe bed, which we left fallow last year, was turned over and used for potatoes.  What grass clippings we had, went on top of the emerging potatoes and next will be some soil.  The grass clippings we hope will keep the moisture in the ground as summer heat and wind dries out the garden quickly.  

On a ground west facing bed, we had squash planted in it last year - we dug up the soil and turned it over with the compost we'd collected over the years and filled the new raised bed we place in that area.  The new raised bed is larger than the one we made previously being 5 foot square on both sides, it will eventually have two separate raised beds of the same size, but it also has a platform for containers in between - so no bending for people - there is also no weeding which is an added bonus.  

This year we wanted to try a new composting method.  We are using old cat litter containers - these are plastic with lids that allow for a certain amount of access, and close firmly.  We filled them 3/4 of the way with kitchen scraps.  (No meat) and placed them within easy access of the back door to allow for extra items if needed to be put in once most it has broken down.  We put in old soil from house and garden containers.  Let it settle down over the summer and then add more kitchen waste as needed to the containers.  These containers are 5 gallons and so far have stood up to some rough weather.  If a person has a smaller garden that does not allow much room for a composting bin or sectioned compost area, something like this may be ideal.  We will post updates and hope the compost will be ready to put onto the garden by early to mid fall this year.  

To help squash become healthy and have air flow between the leaves is just as important as watering them.  Squash can grow in shade, or full sun, in the ground, containers or a raised bed, they are a versatile plant.  Pruning for airflow and preventing mould build up on the leaves (that white dusting on the leaves pple see on their squash plants) is the result of over crowding.  Here is a link to help with the pruning process - - taking out healthy leaves throughout the growing process - these can also be eaten, use them like vine leaves, taco shells or cabbage leaves, they are entirely gluten free and can freeze quite nicely.  Also another bonus to having squash are the flowers, these are versatile, and many recipes suggest stuffing or making soups.  Use them the same way as making stuffed vine leaves.  The flowers have a unique delicate flavour and goes well with equally delicate flavours.  Many suggest using both the female and male flowers, the difference is that the female flowers have a fruit forming at the base of the flower and the male does not.  Also the vines can support several squash fruits at the start of their formation on the same vine, but as the fruit matures they fall off giving the bigger one a chance to mature.  Before they fall off/turn brown etc, these baby squash can be cooked in the frying pan, soups or summer vegetable medleys.  

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