It is still cold here and my garden is definitely on my mind.

This will be the fourth year I will be planting a garden at this location. My soil is just about there, nice and fluffy. Even though I live on some of the best soil on the planet we still have to "work" on it to get the microbial life moving and the fertility up. We live in zone 4 and, as you may know, each zone has its own challenges. If you don't know your zone you can use this link to figure it out because it is important to have that information. It will help you to be able to pick appropriate fruit trees, berry plants and everything else that will come back year after year (perrenials - a topic all of its own!).

If you are are a first time veggie gardener you need to take some time and figure out the following:

1) What is the purpose of my garden?

Are you gardening to just ad some freshness to your family's diet. If that's your goal, then a few tomato plants in containers and some lettuces just may do the trick.

Are you actually supplementing your food budget. Then the size of your garden will really matter. I will be going over how much food you will need to grow to make an impact in your budget a little later.

2) What foods do my family like to eat?

This may seem like an odd question, but if your family won't eat spinach, then don't waste the space in your garden. The lure of exotic varieties of tomatoes is almost irresistable, but if your family members don't love tomatoes - don't waste the space and time because tomatoes can be work. So you can see where this question will take some thought.

3) How much space do I actually have for my garden?

We have a 1600 sf garden (40'x40') and there are two of us. I find that this isn't enough garden space to grow enough food for us. My goal is to grown enough food so that we don't have to buy ANY vegetables year round. We are lucky that we live on a farm and I have additional land that I can dedicate to growing our food, but you may not have that luxury. So, your goals will be different from ours.

If you do not have space to have a nice sized garden, then I want to urge you to go to your local farmers' market and develop a relationship with a local farmer. You may have read how easy it is to garden and that all you need to do it plant a few plants, sew a few seeds and magically almost you will have food. That IS NOT TRUE. Growing vegetables is difficult, and growing nutrient dense food is even more complicated. So, if you don't have the time, money or energy to dedicate to a garden, then a local farmer is your best answer. Local farmers spend all their time growing vegetables and they need your support to keep doing it. The "buy local" movement is a good thing and these farmers need your help to make a living and to keep farming.

I have a good friend here who spent 3 weekends and nearly $500 to make raised beds, they did it wrong, had a poor crop the first year (which is NOT unusual in a garden), gave up and never planted again....... $500 down the drain! So think about it before you invest in raised beds, potting soil etc. You may be wasting your money and your time!

4) How fertile is my soil?

Wow, that's a big question. And finding a good compost is part of the answer. Much more to come......

If you are just starting out, you need to be very patient with the concept and practice of vegetable gardening. It will take 2-4 years to get your soil right and to find the varieties of vegetables that will grow well in your area and that your family will like to the taste of. Yes, each variety will be different in subtle ways at least. Some varieties will do great in zone 4 and not in zone 8 or 9. There will be a lot of trial and error when you begin, so don't be too hard on yourself and expect to make mistakes.... I certainly have and I have 40 years practical experience with plants and my partner is an agronomist!

Okay, I'm going to stop for now..... hope you will find this thread interesting and so feel free to chime in!


SueN's picture
SueN 6 years 47 weeks ago

I envy you. I'm between gardens at the moment, so no veg, just a handful of herbs on the window sill.

Alberto Ceras 2's picture
Alberto Ceras 2 6 years 47 weeks ago

I have fresh, heirloom tomatoes year round. No, not greenhouse, outdoors in the sun thanks to my high altitude tropical location. The very best aid that I've found over the years is John Jeavons and "Ecology Action." Here's the Internet address:

The outfit is located in Willets, California. By all means buy the book, maybe the CD as well or, better yet, If you have the time and the money the workshops are the best and quickest way to become an adept. Click on "Home" for more info.

northlander 6 years 47 weeks ago

Alberto, so you are in Mexico?

Are you growing any unusual fruits or different types of veggie?

Alberto Ceras 2's picture
Alberto Ceras 2 6 years 47 weeks ago

Nothing unusual, although just about anything will grow here. A few years ago I tried a lovely heirloom pumpkin but fungus did it in. Friends and relatives keep us supplied with corn and squash (pumpkins) so I don't plant either of them anymore. This year I'm going to put up a fibreglass cover for the tomatoes to cut down on summer's rainy season hail and fungus damage. Prime enemies are slugs, hail and fungus although insects and larvae are good eaters.. Slugs favor the beer. As for fruit, I have apple, peach and apricot, all fine producers. I had a couple varities of plum as well but the family didn't much like them so I did away with them. The apricot is the earliest and most prolific and by far everybody's favorite. By the time the apricot is gone the apples are at their peak followed by the peaches. Pomegranate and avocado we sponge off our neighbors. Our town sports a huge farmer's market every Saturday located just a short walk from the house so we enjoy a rich variety including fresh tropical fruits - bananas, oranges, papaya and more - just about year round.

northlander 6 years 47 weeks ago


From what you are saying about slugs and fungus here are a couple of things you might consider:

- Make sure you have good air circulation around your plants. You may need to space them out more and spread things out more. The fiberglass cover is a good idea as long as you can not block air circulation.

- Make sure you have good drainage in your soil. You can solve that by fluffing it up with organic material like straw (NOT HAY), adding a little sand, or if it's really poorly drained, put in a french drain. There is also a product you would probably be able to get called a Rootwell that's a flexible perferated tube that you will with gravel and allow the top to be able the soil line... it gets more oxygen into the root area. You should be able to do an internet search and find it with no trouble.

- You need to up your fertility on the tomatoes and reduce any synthetic nitrogen use which will help the plant itself fight off the fungus.

- You could look for a different variety of tomato that is more disease resistant.

- Last resort..... there is a registered organic fungicide call Procedic. It is kick ass stuff, but very expensive. You would probably be able to get it down there.

Hope this info is of help!

Thanks for sharing about your gardening.

Alberto Ceras 2's picture
Alberto Ceras 2 6 years 46 weeks ago

Thank you, northlander , for your advice although it doesn’t fit in too well with my particular situation.

The group that I worked with in Mexico’s southern highlands has as its primary goal breaking the cycle of debt and poverty that poor subsistence farmers suffer, principally from reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seeds that must be bought afresh each year. These villages can only be reached by foot or pack animal, they have no electricity, no running water, no plumbing. The group’s volunteers live with the people, eat their meager food, sleep on their ground and dig in the dirt alongside them. We learn from them as we in turn show them how to select and save open pollinated seed for next year’s crops, how to compost, how to terrace their hillsides in order to prevent erosion and to conserve water, how to make and use certain essential tools from available materials, how to construct sanitary outdoor toilets, even how to fabricate efficient cook stoves. The efforts of 30 odd years have been remarkably successful.

I can no longer climb the hills nor wield pick and shovel. Several other groups continue the work. What little gardening I do these days is for pleasure. I use no chemicals, no tools or materials not readily available to the poorest of farmers and I experiment with open pollinated seeds. When I find vegetables that seem to thrive with minimal care under our local conditions I save seeds and share them with others.

The idea I suppose is to try and work with nature although nature seldom works with the farmer.

northlander 6 years 46 weeks ago

Well, that's very interesting... my partner has spent time in Mexico working with farmers with large amounts of land. Good luck in continuing your good work.

We do biological farming....... no herbicides, only registered organic insecticides and fungicides. NO GMO's at all. We work with large farmers and dairymen in the midwest helping them get out from under the "yoke" of big AG.

Everyone has their own work to do!

northlander 6 years 46 weeks ago

Sue, you have a garden in your heart! That's what matters!!!!!!

Alberto Ceras 2's picture
Alberto Ceras 2 6 years 46 weeks ago

For those who might be interested Steve Solomon provides excellent information on where to obtain open pollinated (non hybrid) seeds suitable for particular geographical regions:

Steve founded Territorial Seed in Oregon but sold it to a young couple who carry on his work. I volunteered there soon after Steve sold the outfit before moving on to Africa.

Democracy Now reported this today:

Outcry Grows over "Monsanto Protection Act" Weakening Regulation of GMO Crops

In the United States, outrage is spreading over a rider dubbed the "Monsanto Protection Act" that was attached to a spending bill signed by President Obama last week. Critics say the quietly passed provision weakens regulation of genetically modified foods and undermines the ability of federal courts to block potentially dangerous crops from reaching consumers. Because it was attached to the bill averting a government shutdown, members of Congress may not have realized they were voting for it. On Wednesday, food activists protested the rider in front of the White House. More than a quarter of a million people have signed a petition against it.

mjolnir's picture
mjolnir 6 years 46 weeks ago

The cabbage you and I discussed in our initial encounter are looking a little sick this morning. I've never had frost damage to cabbage before but two days ago here in Western Ky. we had near record lows (23-24) and a very hard frost. Today the plants have a few wilted leaves and many small, white spots interspersed with a few healthy leaves. Hopefully they will pull through.

Garlic I planted last Fall is about a foot high. I planted an area in the same raised bed that harbors the cabbage with some onion seed I saved from last year but none have yet sprouted. I've never direct seeded onions before so I may have to go back to sets.

I have another small 8'x8' raised bed ready to plant if I can get it dry enough before rain moves in this weekend.

northlander 6 years 46 weeks ago

Cabbage is pretty cold hearty, if it didn't get the roots you will just probably have that foliar damage.

What type of fertility do you use? If you foliar with say fish, you might give them a shot once you remove the damaged foliage. Just a thought.

Being in the Midwest I don't use raised beds. Actually the first year I planted the garden I made rows like I did in Texas..... big mistake, doesn't work here at all. My first big surprise about this zone with this soil type. When you look out at the corn and soybean fields they are all flush to the ground, even the no-till fields. Very interesting place!

What are you going to plant?

The ground here is still frozen, the snow if FINALLY melting enough for the thaw to begin. It will be 2-3 weeks before we can start to work the garden..... DARN!

mjolnir's picture
mjolnir 6 years 46 weeks ago
Quote northlander:What type of fertility do you use?
This year I'm using horse manure, last year it was chicken litter from my extended family's commercial operations. I like the idea of being completely organic but, in my experience at least, it is much more complex and labor intensive than most people on this board would believe, and more effort than I am willing to expend but I applaud those who are able to do it.

The market gardening I alluded to in other threads was more hobby than enterprise with my largest garden ever being approx. 2 acres. Two hundred plus tomato plants, okra, crowder and black-eyed peas being the bulk of the summer garden. During that period I was semi-retired but then I ended up going back to work on a construction project, ten hour days, six days a wk., 90mi. round trip for a couple of years. End of garden. Stupidly I let a guy talk me into selling him my old 5000 Ford tractor and implements.

Now that I'm permanently retired (I think), my interest in raising food has rekindled and last year I found myself putting out a small garden with a tiller, spade and fork. My focus now is mostly on feeding myself and my sister and her family with the surplus going to a local charity.

I am extremely interested in the synthesis of technology (computers and robotics) to agriculture with an emphasis on subsistance farming in underdeveloped countries and survival gardens here in the event of natural disasters.

Alberto Ceras 2's picture
Alberto Ceras 2 6 years 46 weeks ago

There's no better source than John Jeavons and Ecology Action for anyone interested in organic gardening. I gave URL's in an earlier comment to this thread. Sure, it's hard work to begin with but it gets easier each year.

northlander 6 years 46 weeks ago

Went to a conference last year with some interesting tech stuff on display. It was a group selling GPS maping to farmers. Way too high tech for most farmers (my opinion). Also had tech to use "drones" on your fields to spot trouble. Since most farmers have lost their connection to the soil, they may find the drones useful.

Since you know so much about compost.... are you composting the horse manure?

You are right about organic being very labor intensive. Wish that the restriction as to what amendments you can apply weren't so ridiculous. Hard to have a comprehensive fertility program that way.

We are growing aronia berries on 2 acres right now, we are renting an additional 3 acres (5 acres in total) which we plannong on planting more aronia and expanding our small garden into next year. The 3 acres has been used to farm corn/soy beans for the last decade and the soil is pretty polluted with glyphosate and other chemicals. So, we are letting it rest (second year for that) with a grass cover crop. Going to hit it was some soft rock, humates and calcium this year to get the microbes more active.

In the summer we're going to travel up to norther Minnesota to visit a guy with a large vegetable farm (greenhouses, etc.) I would like to see his operation and get as much information as I can from him. Always good to get tips from folks with more experience.

BTW, do you grow any potatoes? We grow 5 varieties right now and when we move them into the 3 acres next year I'm going to double the number of plants and increase the varieties. May be odd, but I find potatoes to be very interesting. Did a feature article about the history of potatoes for our current newsletter, it was lots of fun to put together.

Thanks for taking the time to let me know what you're doing..... good to find other plant nuts here!

northlander 6 years 46 weeks ago

You will probably want to source them again on the new threads.

Also, I'm going to cover seed selection, I get most of my seeds from Territorial Seed, but will reference additional sources. You may want to get a list together for that thread.

Thanks Alberto!

mjolnir's picture
mjolnir 6 years 46 weeks ago
Quote northlander:It was a group selling GPS maping to farmers. Way too high tech for most farmers (my opinion). Also had tech to use "drones" on your fields to spot trouble.
It's an "economy of scales" problem. I can teach people to take a decades old computer that you could barely give away and a 20$ GPS unit and log the NMEA data to a useful form:

but the problem is that I, with a 2 ac. market garden, or you and your partner with 5 acres of berries have no need of it, we can and should be walking our fields looking for trouble, the guy with 2500 acres, a $300K combine and a $200K tractor networked wirelessly, and 3-5 full time workers wouldn't sully his image at the local coffee shop by going "low tech", the poor farmer with 100 ac. of corn and 150 of soybeans and a "day job" can be forgiven for not having the energy to try something new.

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