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Especially if you are new to gardening or farming, the preceding sections may seem to contain an overwhelming amount of information about a million things that you have to keep track of all at once in a delicately orchestrated dance: crop rotations, cover cropping, insect and disease prevention, seed starting, planting dates, and so forth. In a sense, it is finely choreographed, but there is a way to deal with all of this so that everything falls in place: Start small.
The easiest way to get the hang of all this while gaining some benefit and keeping expenses in line is to start a small garden composed of only three 4-foot × 25-foot raised beds--a mere 300 square feet. Within that space, all of the techniques described in this guide can be practiced and fine-tuned to the individual circumstance, and minor mistakes are easily corrected. Also, and we are not kidding, by using intensive agricultural methods, you will easily grow more vegetables in 300 square feet than most people do in gardens seven times the size. Your problem won't be with gardening-it will be with storing everything it produces! To give you an idea, in one 4-foot × 14-foot bed from April through September , my family harvested 22 pounds of broccoli, 8 pounds of cauliflower , 16 pounds of cabbage, 90 pounds of tomatoes, 23 pounds of pole beans, 40 pounds of cucumbers, and 15 pounds of potatoes, not to mention onions, beets, carrots, spinach, and Swiss chard in prodigious quantities. That is just from 56 square feet-so imagine what you can do with 300 square feet! The point here is to start at a small and easily managed level while you get the hang of things and then expand from there.
Expand as you gain confidence and ultimately start a small commercial enterprise as well.
The Garden Year
We count the garden year as beginning in fall, and we believe that you should as well. Fall is when all the activity from the prior season draws to a close with all of the garden refuse and leaves finding their way into the compost pile and cover crops being planted for the winter . Because things are somewhat rushed in the spring, fall is the best time to dig new beds and expand the space in use.
Through early winter in the northern United States there isn't really much to do except plan the garden and look through seed catalogs while staying warm. Now is the time to decide what you will grow and order the seeds. If you wait until spring to do this, you will be too late since many plants-like onion seedlings-need to be started in late winter to be ready to plant in the spring. Chilly fall and winter evenings are likewise a good time to separate out and prepare your own seeds from the prior season's harvest.
By the time late winter arrives, it is time to start seedlings for onions, leeks, chives, and many herbs. Shortly thereafter , the cole crops get started along with annual flowers. Then come the tomatoes and peppers. Around this same time, the onion and cole crops are being planted out, followed shortly by seeds for spinach and lettuce. Soon, carrots, beets, peas, turnips, and parsnips get planted. After the last frost date, the tomatoes, peppers, corn, and beans get planted, followed by squash. About the time the tomatoes are planted out, it is time to start seedlings for the fall planting of broccoli. And you will be harvesting the long-growing winter cover crops like winter wheat and vetch for the grain and to put on the compost pile.
You get the idea: Gardening doesn't start on the last-frost date.
Instead, it starts in the fall! If you start in the fall and follow the timing charts in this guide, you will most definitely collect a tremendous amount of food even if you start small.
Help around the Corner
For a variety of reasons-lifestyle, economics, philosophy, and you name it-small farms are springing up all over . Many of these new farmers are first-generation farmers, and they have already encountered a lot of what you will be experiencing. Unlike other industries in which everybody jealously guards trade secrets, farmers come together to help each other out. As a result, there are many initiatives filled with people ready and waiting with advice and wisdom that would otherwise require a PhD to obtain.
Such resources can be found on the Internet via a simple keyword search and via links from Cooperative Extension Service Web sites.
Here in New England, there are a number of farming organizations-including one sponsored by the state-intended specifically for beginning farmers! Similar groups exist all across the country.
Speaking of the Cooperative Extension Service, every state has at least one so-called land grant university. These universities were originally established under the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 with primary missions to teach agriculture, classical studies, mechanical arts, and military tactics. The Hatch Act of 1887 established agricultural experiment stations at these universities to advance the state of agricultural science, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established the Cooperative Extension Service to disseminate the data gained at the experiment stations. As a result, there is a branch of the Cooperative Extension Service associated with a land-grant university in every state; many of these services have branch offices in every county within a state.
The Cooperative Extension Service can provide, either in person or via publications or Web sites, a wide array of information. The available information ranges all the way from how to safely can foods at home to the specific varieties of apple trees that will grow best in your area. The amount of research and information available via the USDA, various state departments of agriculture, and Cooperative Extension Services is impressive and represents a valuable resource.
State governments also have their own agriculture departments under various names. These departments often have research grants available. Some do organic certification far less expensively than private organizations; many administer a plethora of programs designed to enhance the progress of agricultural endeavors in their respective states. They also, of course, publish a lot of regulations, which also should be examined, particularly regarding handling of livestock, creation of value-added products in the kitchen, sale of seeds, and so forth.
A number of private, semiprivate, and quasi-governmental agencies have a lot of information available as well. Heirloom Seeds has a bulletin board where people help each other with ideas and advice. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service offers a number of informative workshops and symposiums. Ecology Action offers self-teaching modules by mail order . Regional organic growers associations also hold workshops and annual events for information and networking.
So there are a lot of places to turn for help and advice-most of them at minimal or no expense. Millions of dollars are spent every year to establish the infrastructure that will help make you successful, so it makes sense to take advantage of it all.
The Final Analysis
Starting a backyard farm can provide you with the safest and most nutritious food available while saving more on the food budget year after year . The superior nutrition combined with outdoor exercise will make everyone healthier , and the economic benefits of selling excess production can enable any number of personal or family goals.
This guide is a tour of everything you need to know to get started, but don't stop here! Go to the bibliography for a list of other recommended books. Knowledge is power in that it increases your odds of success in any endeavor.
From the our family to yours, we wish you all the best!