Lesson Four: Design your Organic Oasis be it an earth-friendly landscape, organic garden beds, or natural market farm.
Is it gardening season?
• Are your stores loaded with gardening supplies?
• Is it the middle of winter with sleds and shovels staring at you in the aisles?
Depending on the time of year is going to make a difference on your next step.
- Can you get some potting soil and seeds? Plant your beds today? Are starts available in the green house? Is your local nursery open this weekend?
• Or do you have snow? Frozen ground? Saturated rain? Are you in the south and temps are climbing past 100º? Are you beds full of deep hot clay or packed dry soil?
• Do you already have a bed of strawberries? An herb garden? A half dozen tomato plants? Are you looking to expand?
• Are you looking for land? Renting? Working as a WWOOFer?
Whatever your weather it’s time to start designing those beds.
THE FUN PART!
In Episode 68 I talk about starting small. What I would do if I had to start over without Mike’s help. I made a list of the things I eat the most, that I find easiest to grow, and that are easy to care for.
Granted, I almost always end up at the nursery buying things on sale at the end of the season and put things everywhere and that’s great but to be really successful you need a plan and a strategy so you don’t put a lot of energy into something that’s not going to flourish!
Mike’s goal is to grow as much of our produce is possible each year that we don’t have to buy food at the grocery store. That way we are eating the best possible healthy nutritious food available, we’re keeping our carbon footprint down as locovores and we’re providing a bountiful garden full of food for pollinators to abound that is beautiful and peaceful to be in.
Ive gone through lots of stages there was a time I thought I would make a great flower farmer and I still may someday. I listened to an episode of Chicken Thistle Coopcast where they talked about what makes a good CSA customer and I realized right away that’s not for me. I loved my interview with Jean Martin Fortier and that has me thinking someday the Farmer’s Market might be my thing when we have enough produce but so far that’s gone over like a led zeppelin.
So basically what I have decided is my garden goal for now is to be a painter kind of like Claude Monet and Mike can be my personal gardener. We’ll see if this comes true or not.
Mike had this peace sign made for me for my graduation in 2003! I love all the paths and rock borders that make our landscape unique.
I feel like it’s time for an honest talk about time.
One of the biggest barriers people tell me is that Time is preventing gardeners from completing their ideal organic oasis goals.
So I am here to help you take that worry off your list. By helping you make a S.M.A.R.T GOAL for your garden instead of just aimlessly saying I’m going to do this and this and this. Then in the middle of August when you get back from your 2 week family reunion, all of your hard work from spring won’t be overrun with weeds or dried out from lack of water, or worse yet, spoiled produce that wasn’t harvested in time! Your S.M.A.R.T GOAL will ensure your garden oasis success!
As Joyce Pinson remarked her least favorite activity was picking okra on a hot rainy afternoon and when I asked, why couldn’t you wait till it stopped raining? She replied, each individual piece of okra was only going to be market ripe one day a year.
That being said, Tara Austin Weaver sings the praises of fruit trees and berries in her books because it allows you to be a loved “Aunt or Uncle” who shows up for graduations and birthdays (aka pruning and harvesting even some processing days) but for the most part allows you to live a life filled with hiking, camping, and other summer recreational activities as compared to parents who must nurture the garden from dawn till dusk.
So when you think about this garden season coming up, fill in the Time Commitments Chart with all the time you WILL NOT be in your garden next summer.
- Hiking club on Tuesdays?
- Tennis Thursday mornings?
- Community garden M,W,Sat?
- Beach with family Sunday mornings?
- Camping trip 4th of July weekend?
- Vacation to coast in August?
- Family reunion during harvest over Labor Day weekend?
- Work Mon-Fri/8-6?
Then think about how much time will you have realistically each day?
- Will you have time to water before work?
- Is your garden at your summer home and only going to be visited on weekends?
- Do you work full time and will be lucky to see it several nights a week?
- Are you finally retiring and ready to enjoy your garden full time?
- Do you teach and have time in the summer but not a day before July?
- Do you work nights and have lots of time right after you get off in the early morning?
Fill in the bottom of the chart with time you will be able to weed, water and most of all enjoy your oasis!
Are you wanting to start selling to market?
- Have you reached out to potential customers?
- Talked to the market farmer?
- Just because you like being in the garden are you sure you can provide consistent crops?
- Can you harvest and be at the market with top quality produce?
- Can you deliver to the florist at the grocery store every single Tuesday?
- Clean the buckets when you get home?
- Do you have the business piece locked in? Websites? Social media? Email capture?
- Do you own your own land?
This is the time to be honest with yourself so you don’t bite off more then you can chew.
So what are your garden goals?
From sketch to reality it does look like a park but once was rocky forestland.
I always start each year with my journal and sketching out our different areas. Of course I would be remiss not to mention my new My Garden Journal
I feel like a garden is very much like a painting except your canvas is always changing depending on the weather and the different seasons. Each year volunteers come up in different places, crops get rotated to build soil health and new seeds and plants become available. Get ready to be creative and yet trust that Mother Nature is by your side.
What is a garden bed anyway?
I feel like we need to define what exactly is a garden bed and what’s a deep raised bed. To me, a garden bed is basically any space you put dirt and plants in. When I refer to a deep bed, I’m talking about a bed that has a strong border around it like wood or rocks. Some farmers raise the soil in their farm. But when I refer to a deep bed, I mean some kind of container. Otherwise I’m talking about a bed you just dig directly in the ground.
Start by imagining who
- Do you know what your plans are?
- Who will be with you?
- What will you do in your oasis to relax and enjoy?
- Gardening is way too much work to never enjoy it.
- What can you do so you enjoy your garden journey each and every day?
A word about container gardens.
I understand living in an apartment and wanting to start small, but I just want to advise you containers take a lot of care and watering. They require more attention then anything put in the ground, deep beds will be similar.
The smaller the container the faster it will dry out. That being said, the herbs on my windowsill get lots of water because they are closest to the sink. So again location is key. If you put a pot on your porch next to a spigot it might be your easiest garden spot.
In my classroom where I didn’t have running water I frequently dumped the leftover coffee I never seemed to drink directly on my plants and they seemed to thrive.
A super plus is you can bring small pots in during cold winter months.
Water • Water • Water
One thing I feel that is a very important consideration for any garden design is water! I think it is most important that you have a convenient water source close to any garden or landscape that is easy to access. We have hauled more then our share of 5 gallon buckets and hauled water out of a 1500 gallon water truck for many years.
We have rain barrels that catch water off the roof and use as little water as possible but it’s definitely crucial in vegetable growing success. So make sure you keep your water source in mind. Watering can be time consuming and even though it is often therapeutic to stand out on a hot summer eve and shower your plants with some love convenience and consistency are still key!
In episode 268 I talked with Casey O’Leary from Earthly Delights Farm and Snake River Seed Coop about being a profitable farm and she talked about how it would be almost impossible using city water in most climates.
Natural Earth Friendly Landscape
Are you interested in a natural earth friendly landscape that takes little work and looks good each season? A yard that brings in pollinators that make your neighbors wonder why you have more blooms then anyone else on the block?
One of my favorite interviews on this topic is with Montana Wildlife Gardener David Smetterling. David and his wife have created a natural oasis in the middle of a 100,000 person city that requires no water. They save all of their watering for their vegetables and the garden is full of local native plants that thrive through Montana’s dry summers with just the natural rainfall.
A lot of my listeners live in the suburbs or even rural areas.They work full time, keeping busy schedules running kids to swimming lessons in summer, art classes or drama camp, soccer matches and T-ball, so having a yard that requires little work is great.
But they’re also very passionate environmentalists who don’t necessarily want lots of yard to mow, and dandelion killer sprayed on their edges.
Secrets to caring for an organic lawn include keeping your mower as high as it will go. Taller grass retains moisture and reduces strain on turf in late summer. It also reduces weeds. I recommend mixing a heavy dose of clover to your grass mix. Along with dandelions which are often the first flowers for bees in spring. Clover attracts beneficials and pollinators. As a bonus fresh dandelion greens in the early spring are a nutritious addition to salads.
I know for a fact where our lawn gets watered regularly, and a fresh layer of manure or compost each year it’s healthy and lush, where it’s stressed for water and nutrients it’s covered in invasive weeds. With 20 acres and limited water we strive to keep it as healthy as possible.
Let your clippings lie instead of adding them to your compost. That will add organic matter and nutrients to your soil.
The number one questions I got last summer was how do I create an organic lawn and what do I put on it?
Mike and I started with very rocky sandy soil. Over the course of several years we planted grass seed and spread as much manure as we could get our hands on over it. Each spring it would fill in more and more creating a strong fire barrier around our forested home.
Another David, David Salman down in New Mexico made a nice living with his nursery that not only sold plants but educated locals about native choices. He found he liked them better because not only were they less expensive but his customers were more successful when they chose native plants.
“some of them are starting to understand our traditional lawn care methods, are just poisoning ourselves and our immediate environment and a lot of things are beginning to shift when it comes to lawns and how can that part of my landscape be used more productively …the best thing to do is to … convert to organic lawn care people will save water and save money, it’s just common sense lawn care gardening” ~ David Salman
Sun vs. Shade
So in Montana’s hot summers and by hot I mean anything over 90º which is enough to make me wilt, it’s important to design place in your garden that will offer shade to visitors. My plants may love that warm afternoon sun, but it’s not very comfortable for sharing tea or a picnic with guests.
That’s the difference between an organic oasis and hot garden focused just on growing produce.
My plants might perk up after a cool drink in the late afternoon or early evening but humans will want cool places to sit and relax.
I always recommend to people building a new home or moving to a new spot to pay attention to where the sun hits during each season. After living here for 25 + years, I’m sure either Mike or I could give a pretty good estimate of where the sun would hit on any given day throughout most of the year.
So I want you to really focus in on what would it mean to enjoy your oasis this summer? What one action would make the most difference?
Miriam Goldberger author of the book Taming Wildflowers. did a great interview with me about their product called Eco-Lawn™ that is designed to be low maintenance. “Eco-Lawn™ is a blend of 7 different fine fescue grasses. These are grasses that are the same kind of grasses that you find throughout much of North America when you go into the woods, and you see these beautiful rich green clumps of grass growing in the shade. We took 7 different kinds of these fine fescue grasses and created a blend that grows believe it or not in full sun, part shade, deep shade and even under pine trees.
Eco-Lawn™ has really deep roots that go down 9 inches in clay soil and 12-14 inches in a sandy, sandy soil and it has very fine blades and it’s wonderful to walk on barefoot.
And because it has these deep roots, and fine blades, it’s need for water or nutrients is minimal, because it knows how to source them, itself. So that means you don’t automatically have to fertilize this lawn, there are occasional circumstances where a top dressing of compost is a nice idea but in general this is a super low maintenance lawn that doesn’t need very much from you.”
You certainly don’t have to use Eco-Lawn™ to have a successful earth friendly lawn but the principles are the same.
Deep roots, tall blades, compost, mulch with clippings, and the right seed for your soil make the best organic yards. A lot of our lawn is comprised of the fescue grasses that became lush from mowing and mulching. It definitely thrives in
August more when it is taller.
Miriam’s book has lots of great lessons on how to grow native plants, create a wildflower meadow that attracts birds, butterflies, and other beneficial pollinators.
Miriam also drops a great tip for cutting flowers for bouquets “if I’m harvesting in a utility bucket, I’ll put a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of bleach. That provides nutrition and a disinfectant at the same time, making the flowers last longer. It works really well.”
Another secret Mike has used to build a healthy lawn is to rake it in the spring, clear up debris and aerate the soil with a sturdy rake, then apply a nice layer of compost or manure.
You will probably want to read more on the difference between perennials and annuals below before you start designing your native landscape.
Small Garden Beds
Ever since Mike showed me what deep beds can be like I can’t imagine doing anything different. Bending over harvesting or weeding vegetables on the ground seems so impractical to me now. Sitting on the edge of a deep bed while I weed lettuce, thin carrots or harvest some arugula is blissful garden therapy!
But I’m sure beds in the ground have their place and I certainly loved harvesting all the swiss chard I could last summer and broccoli grows so tall it doesn’t require any bending over at all. Peas grow good in either place as they grow up a trellis and garlic, beets, carrots and potatoes you have to dig up no matter where they are.
So are you going to build some deep beds? Mike has recycled lots of tubs and other objects for deep beds. He used an old boat, a wheelbarrow and even a water bed frame for one. Deep beds require more fresh dirt then raised beds in the ground but you will still need to add compost or manure.
If you’re starting from scratch I personally recommend one long bed, one short hip high bed, one bed for fruit like raspberries, strawberries or blueberries, and a flower/herb bed that can go in the ground.
Brand New Vegetable Gardeners
If this is your first garden ever I recommend you start with these 3 main crops and one cherry tomato plant and maybe a fruit tree/bush or plant in summer. Lettuce, Carrots and Peas ~ They can all be planted as soon as the ground can be worked at the beginning of April in Montana. Spring rains reduce the need to do much watering and hopefully you’ll be celebrating your first harvest of peas by the 4th of July!
You can keep the lettuce growing throughout most of the summer, harvesting a basket full of lettuce at least once a week but if you only eat homegrown salads for a month this year you’ve still been successful! Once you have the carrots thinned, weeded and mulched, all they should require is regular watering. The cherry tomato will provide lots of delicious tomatoes too! If you put a tree or some berry plants then you’ll reap the benefits for years. Some plants even produce a crop the first season! If you have energy for more, focus on your favorite veggies, herbs, flowers and perennials, and celebrate anything else you grow that year!
I think this is a good place for a mini lesson on Perennials, Biennials and Annuals.
They’re really easy to learn once you start putting them into practice and this is going to determine what goes where more then anything else. For the most part annuals need to go in different beds then perennials and biennials because your annuals will get dug up for harvest each year and your perennials will stay where they are permanently.
Edible weeds. Orach (the bright red plant) in Montana grows like a weed, comes back all the time and has leaves that taste like spinach.
Annuals are flowers or vegetables that have to be planted from seed every year.
Examples of annuals are:
• spinach (although this will reseed nicely)
• spring mix
• swiss chard
After Any Danger of Frost:
• beans – green or yellow wax or purple stripped dragon’s tongue
• egg plant
Potatoes in the mini farm definitely take a bit of room.
So let’s say you decide to put in some deep beds. You will need to decide what you are going to make them out of, are you using recycled wood? and old tub? Are you going to go to the store and purchase wood? Are you going to use rocks? Are you going to just pile up soil and make a deep bed right on the ground?
Even if cover crops are perennials, you want to harvest and turn them into your soil before they seed.
- Oil Seed Radishes
- Sunn Hemp
- Sweet Potatoes
- Winter Wheat
My Buckwheat Crop this summer went to seed so we could save some for next year!
Companion Bonus: Did you know buckwheat attracts parasitic wasps that will kill cabbage worms?
- calendula (altho they often reseed themselves and pop up around the garden too)
- snap dragons
- sunflowers (for bird seed, for bouquets it’s best to use pollen free seeds)
- dill (although it generally just comes up in different places every year)
- garlic (bulbs you plant in the fall)
A key to keep herbs thriving is to keep pinching them back, over and over, they like a haircut the more you eat the more they grow.
Perennials are flowers, fruits or herbs that come back year after year.
Examples of perennials are:
FLOWERS – bulbs
- daffodils and narcissus
One of the best things about flowers bulbs is that they usually can be spread out every couple of years to double or triple in size.
- butterfly flower
- hare bells – campanula
Daisies fall into both perennial and annual categories. Some come back some have to be replanted each year.
The most important thing is to find flowers that are native to your area and grow well in your type of soil and climate.
FRUITS and VEGETABLES
Fruit Trees and bushes
Biennials take two years to complete their life style and tend to bloom every other year.
- Biennials take two years to complete their lifecycle and tend to bloom every other year but they are gorgeous and make incredible bouquets.
I think Biennials are a perfect solution for people who work and don’t want to have to pamper their garden all summer long. Starting a lot of these seeds takes some major TLC including lights and warm pads to get started on their own. It might be easiest to get starts at your local nursery, but once they’re in the ground they return year after year.
Carrots take 2 years to produce seeds – these white clusters will produce carrot seed for 2018 and were planted in summer 2016. Parsley and Fennel are also biennials.
Daisies fall into both perennial and annual categories. Some come back some have to be replanted each year.
So that’s just a short primer in the basics of perennials, annuals, and biennials.
I highly recommend you plant as many perennials as you can get away with. Annuals are known for their bright colorful blooms so it’s always good to throw a few of those in the mix, but getting perennials in the ground will help your garden bloom and grow for years to come.
Just remember wherever you plant perennials they are basically there to stay so they do better in permanent beds.
That’s another great thing about deep beds is you can surround them with perennials to lure in beneficials. Be prepared to pay a little more for perennial starts then annual starts although they often are in larger containers.
My next recommendation is to plant as much fruit as you can. Fruit trees and bushes will produce for years to come and I am always amazed at how many apples, pears and berries we get from them.
I also feel like I would be remiss not to mention the Curb Appeal that adding to your garden assets like this can be. The more time you spend in the garden the more creative you will become and start to feel things. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, experiment, move things around.
A word about peas. I love sugar snap peas and they are one of my favorite crops to grow in early spring, just remember they need some kind of trellis to climb. Mike made this cute little boat bed and the peas climb up the sail! Their season ends before hot summer sets in too making them a good crop for vacationers who want August off from watering etc.
After the fruit I would get some raised beds that I could make salad garden in. Salads are the things I eat the most. I would want to grow lettuce, spinach, arugula, swiss chard, sweet peas, some carrots, and maybe some beets. But you need to grow what you want.
I have always left the broccolis to Mike, same as the peppers. They need to be started indoors and can be challenging. Same with the cucumbers but if you really like these vegetables I would give them a try.
Another thing about my list is it’s mostly cold weather-hardy veggies and they can go in the ground early and come out before it gets too hot, needs a lot of weeding or watering in busy summer.
I prefer sunflowers to carrots because of the size of their seeds. Carrots seeds and lettuce seeds are similar but carrots need thinned more and that always bothers me. It’s hard to get the carrots in the right place but then pulling a carrot fresh out of the ground can’t be beat!
As for tomatoes. I would stick to cherry tomatoes myself. They are the easiest. The others take some effort to get hem to ripen in our climate but in yours they might be fine. When they are fresh it’s impossible to pick enough I think.
The big take away here is don’t put your perennials and annuals in the same beds!
Your perennials will probably be there for many many years if not for life and your annuals will need to be planted each year usually on a rotation basis.
Take this advice with a grain of salt, like all other advice, plenty of gardeners plant a garden that mixes annuals tucked in between their landscapes, but I believe if you are after effective production especially on a market farm, separating your beds is essential.
• Peas need a trellis to climb.
• Mike plants bush beans instead of green bean tepees because they tend to freeze right about harvest time here in NW Montana.
• Most annual vegetables are going to need to be rotated and planted in different places so that the nutrients in your dirt don’t get completely used up.
- Corn grows in a square and needs large distances between varieties to avoid cross pollination if you are going to save your seeds and want a pure strain. Don’t put blue corn near sweet corn.
- Plants with vines like cucumbers, squash and melons need places to spread out.
Natural Market Farm
Are you wanting to take your garden to the next level? Believe me I know the learning curve going from backyard gardener to selling for market is huge. We are still figuring it out. A couple of things I have learned from talking to other market farmers is it starts with the market.
In episode 70, David Wolverton shared that the manager at the Missoula farmer’s market told him “Grow tomatoes and do something about the price.”
So I thought every inch of the way, “How can I do this the most economically? Obviously in December, my house is already heated, tomato plants when they start, they don’t need much space, so I just use my house to start the plants that is already heated, then I’m not also heating the greenhouse, the expense, what would you say? The unnecessary use of fuels… In Montana, David adds that although tomatoes need lots of natural light grow lights are absolutely crucial to his success. He starts 1000 seedlings in December.
David also recommends learning how to graft plants for a market farmer. Jean Martin Fortier lists greenhouse tomatoes as his number one selling crop.
In Lesson Three you started to build some relationships. Hopefully you talked to your market manager, some local farmers, a few chefs or produce managers at local restaurants or grocers, and you’ve got an idea on what your community’s needs are.
Maybe there is a shortage of fresh asparagus at your market, or local mushrooms? Maybe there’s a natural flower market that needs expanded? Maybe there’s a chef who can’t get enough lemon basil or fresh arugula?
Now that you know what the needs are in your community it’s time to start planning your beds. Market Farmers are going to want a schedule more then anyone of start dates, harvests, companion plantings, and a design that meets the needs of watering and irrigation, stays cool in the heat of the summer, and is prolifically producing all season long.
JM Fortier goes in depth in his book the The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming about the sizes you want to make your beds. His videos are amazing. His passion for flavorful nutritious food is contagious.
Mike’s goal is to grow as much of our produce as possible each year so we don’t have to buy much food at the grocery store. That way we are eating the best possible healthy nutritious food available, we’re keeping our carbon footprint down as locavores and we’re providing a bountiful garden full of food for pollinators to abound that is beautiful and peaceful to be in.
3 Pillars: Profits • Planet • People (and Partnerships)
When Anastasia Cole Plakias came on my show she talked about being a Triple Bottom Line business: balancing profits so they can stay afloat, the planet by keeping an eye on water and the importance of using strategies to remain fiscally profitable, raising money and finally partnering with organizations who excel at what you struggle with and who struggle with the things of which you excel.
Value Added Products and Events Can Make Your Farm a Success
One of the most popular episodes on my show was one I did with Ed Evanston about the new Cottage Food Laws here in Montana aimed at helping young businesses thrive. When I spoke with Tim Dooley from Young’s Farm he credited a lot of their success to being able to carry products from other local vendors. By being able to offer a variety of products their market store is very successful.
Aidan Finney their farm manager told me although it was hard to produce quality organic peaches that looked good enough to sell, the prolific trees were loaded with delicious fruit they used in the some 5,000 profitable pies sold at Thanksgiving!
Many of my guests have talked about holding events at their farms to help bring in additional revenue. Farm-to-table dinners for their CSA members, pizza night on the farm, or hosting weddings or Yoga events. Could you add this in to your farm plan?
Aidan: “My advice for someone starting off after you have your market figured out:
Having some self control in front of the seed catalog. Instead of trying to grow 2 varieties of everything. I would recommend starting off 10 or less crops and figure out how to really grow them well. Take away crops based on which ones are doing well. Simplify things. Do not complicate things. Ask yourself, what can I have a constant supply of?”
Going from family gardener to market farmer is a pretty big learning curve. The more help you can get along the way the more likely you are to be successful. But as Mandy Gerth said when I interviewed her “We need to know we are in an exciting time for food production!” There’s never been a better time to grow local!
The acronym S.M.A.R.T stands for
For each of your goals you are going to need to create a SMART strategy. Today we are just going to start with your most important goal you want to complete in 2019.
Let’s say your SMART goal is to plant a bed of lettuce every week for the first 2 months of spring. It’s strategic because you want to eat healthy lettuce while it’s growing before it get’s too hot and bolts in the middle of summer. It’s measurable because you can schedule out plantings each Saturday morning perhaps starting in April through the end of May. It’s attainable because by April you should be able to get lettuce seeds started. And if you can’t you can always adjust your dates. It’s relevant if you like lettuce. It’s time bound because it will start in April and end in May.
This might seem like a lengthy process but if you really want to achieve your goals and not just say, I’m gonna put in a garden this year, it’s much more likely to be successful.
Two New Deep Beds
Another example of a smart goal might be you want to build 2 new deep beds by Spring growing season.
Strategic – deep beds can add convenience, more space for planting, and organization to your garden.
Measurable – you have decided you want 2 new beds.
Attainable – you can create beds out of recycled materials or purchase new wood if needed.
Relevant – deep beds help grow nutritious food.
Time-bound – you can give yourself a specific deadline before June 20th the first of Summer.
S.M.A.R.T. Market Farmer
Strategic – Reach out to your market manager and 2 fellow farmers.
Measurable – Yes because you did reach out or you didn’t
Attainable – It’s attainable because you should be able to find your local market manager and fellow farmers
Relevant – it’s important because finding out about your market is crucial to your success.
Time-bound – you can give yourself a specific deadline like 2 months before the market opens.
Make sure you create a main goal for this season that you can measure and keep. One success is a great way to enjoy your garden journey without going overboard.
Lesson Four Recap:
- Know the difference between an annual and a perennial and what type of beds each requires. Keep in mind root vegetables versus the needs of plants.
- Decide what kind of Organic Oasis you want to build, whether you want landscape beds or deep vegetable beds.
- Begin with a list of what you want to grow and an idea of where you want to put what and start to sketch out your dreams.
- Remember plants need water. Keep your water source convenient!
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