In February of 2013, my husband and I bought our first home in Brevard, North Carolina. Brevard is a cozy small town with an active slow food movement, supported strongly by its local Cooperative Extension Agency. I soon found myself surrounded by seasoned experts in all manner of gardening, and I quickly wanted to make my own yard a small haven of organic sustenance.
Like any first time gardener, I had some doubts. Would my garden really save me any money? Would my plants grow or would they be overcome by pests and disease? And finally, did I really have enough space and time to make this worthwhile?
Working full-time, I had little free time for yard work. Being a brand new home owner, I also did not have much extra spending money or any stockpile of gardening equipment.
What I did have was a handful of large shade trees and a yard full of wet, heavy clay – not ideal conditions for a garden. In fact, the most sunlit section of yard had been filled in with gravel and the occasional scrubby bush by the previous homeowners. I still haven’t figured out why they did that!
Instead of being discouraged, I spent the remainder of the winter educating myself on organic gardening techniques. I read books like Mini-Farming: Self-Sufficiency on a ¼ Acre by Brett Markham and The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe. I corresponded with our local Cooperative Extension Agency and signed up for Sow True Seed’s newsletter to get local advice. Most importantly, I made a plan.
Step One: Assess & Prepare Resources
It was easy to see what I didn’t have available: time, money, and good soil. However, it was more important to assess what resources I did have. Those included:
Potential garden beds in the sun. Even though my beds were filled with rocks and scrappy bushes, they received sunlight through most of the day and they were already bordered with brick to keep out grass and weeds. I had three of these beds, each at 30 square feet.
- Free mulch. The City of Brevard provides mulch as part of its services. Check out the municipal services in your area to see if you have a similar program.
- Gardening Friends. I can’t tell you how many times I posted on Facebook, “Does anyone have a pitchfork I can borrow?” Sure enough, I was able to borrow the tools I needed every time, even if I did have to deal with some jokes at my expense.
- Improvisation. Whenever possible, I found ways around spending money. I used toilet paper tubes for seed starting and milk jugs for containers and water. I made trestles from scrap wood and rain barrels from trash cans. Anything I could do for free, I did.
As weather allowed, I began preparing the three beds by digging out the gravel and sifting the hardened clay with a homemade sieve. Sifting the clay aerated the soil and allowed me to easily mix in a mixture of peat moss, organic composted cow manure, and organic top-soil. I used a hand-me-down shovel & wheelbarrow, and I made the sieve with scrap wood and wire mesh from the hardware store.
This was the most intensive, expensive, and time consuming work in my garden. I was, in essence, replacing the entire top foot of soil using only hand tools. Grand total, I spent two weekends and $60 for this part of the project. Once completed, I layered free mulch on top of the beds to keep out the weeds until it was time for planting.
Step Two: Selecting Crops
Despite this onerous beginning, I was excited to continue with my plan – the second step being one of the most fun steps for gardeners everywhere: selecting the garden crops.
First, I made a list of garden foods I regularly ate, because my priority was having a garden that saved me money on my grocery bill. Next, I got the Sow True Seed Catalog. I picked Sow True because I knew that just about everything they offered would grow in this region and I would be able to save seed from my own garden for future seasons. Additionally, I knew that growing plants from seed, rather than starts, would save me more money.
I quickly crossed off any catalog offerings that were not on my list. I narrowed my selection down further by choosing only one variety of each vegetable. Whenever I was faced with a choice, I went with the plant that needed the least space for the most produce, like vine beans instead of bush beans.
In the end, I spent about $35 on seeds, including seeds for companion flowers and herbs. I was also able to pick up a few seeds for free from our Cooperative Extension’s seed library.
Step Three: Map It Out
The third step in my process was to plan when and where to plant my crops. To this end, I made a spreadsheet of when to start seeds (indoor or out), as well as to expect a harvest. I based this spreadsheet off of "The Squarefoot Gardener" by Mel Bartholomew, Brett Markham’s book, and the Farmer’s Almanac.
In addition to my planting spreadsheet, I made sketches of my garden space. As I planned on gardening organically, I knew I would want to practice crop rotation, so I designated different plant families to each of my three garden plots. Then, I did some math to figure out how many plants of each crop I could fit in that space.
This may sound like a lot of work, but it really only took one rainy afternoon of daydreaming. Once created, these documents saved me hours of rethinking later in the season.
Step Four: Grow!
Finally, full spring arrived and I was able to plant my garden. Once in the ground, my garden required little attention. Most weeks we had enough rain that I did not have to water, and what watering was needed I managed to handle it with our rudimentary “rain barrel” system, so our water bill did not increase. Because of the mulch, I never had to weed. And because I started out by replacing all of my heavy clay and gravel with high quality organic soil and manure, I rarely needed to fertilize. I enjoyed a full season of yummy goodness straight from my own yard.
Step Five: Assess for Next Year
It’s impossible to say whether the success of my garden was due to good planning or beginner’s luck. Perhaps it was a bit of both. I did see a couple of Japanese beetles – a major pest in our area. But they were easily dispatched through handpicking and never became a problem. I did lose my zucchini plants to Downey Mildew, but thanks to good crop spacing and the quick removal of the affected plants nothing else was infected.
I kept a record of how much I spent for the garden as well as what the garden produced. After getting prices from the grocery store on in-season organic crops, I am able to say that my first year garden saved me over $50 on my grocery bill for the summer. However, that does not include my fresh herbs or any of the extra plants that I donated to other peoples gardens.
Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a lot of money for the bottom line, but for me it was definitely worth it. I learned a lot about what to do (and what not to do), and I know that my initial investment will continue to reap additional rewards with less and less input needed on my part. An organic garden is a long term investment, but it’s great to know that even in the short term and on a small scale it is has some excellent immediate rewards.