The Simple Joy of Gardening

How to Start a Garden from Scratch

One day’s harvest from our garden last year

This post will tell you how to start a garden from scratch. Even if you are a beginner to gardening, you will be able to learn enough to start a garden. My husband and I have learned from experimenting with different crops, and techniques, what grows best in our garden. It may take a few years of trial and error before you learn how to grow healthy crops, but it is worth the effort.

There’s nothing better than eating fresh produce that you have grown yourself. Knowing that it’s been grown without the use of pesticides or other dubious additives and has only been handled by yourself adds to the pleasure of eating fruit and vegetables that haven’t been transported many kilometers or stored for months.

My husband and I usually grow our crops between Autumn and Spring because the Summers in Queensland are far too hot. Temperatures are mild here, rarely dropping to frosty levels, and there are fewer bugs around to eat everything before we do. Be sure to check locally to find out when the best time to grow is. If you’re lucky, you may live in an area where you can grow crops all year around.

This is last year’s garden in it’s prime with many of the vegetables ready to harvest.

What You Need to Start a Garden from Scratch

Start With The Basics – the requirements for a healthy garden:

Your new garden will require the following to grow well:

  • Soil that is well drained, full of nutrients and has loose texture
  • Few weeds and bugs
  • Water
  • At least a few hours of sunlight

If you live in an area without ideal conditions like us, you need to create it. That is why we use raised garden beds. Our soil is very sandy and of poor quality so we fill the raised garden bed with the following:

Steps to start your garden from scratch:

Step 1 – mix the correct ingredients – cow manure, organic soil mix and compost (see photos below)

What you need to start a garden from scratch - cow manure is one of the ingredients.
Cow manure – you can buy by the bag like this. You can use any manure as long as it has been mixed with soil and allowed to settle
What you need to start a garden from scratch - organic garden soil is one of the ingredients
Organic garden soil – you can buy it by the bag like this or have a truck load delivered if your garden is large enough
What you need to start a garden from scratch - compost is one of the ingredients.  You can use your own compost or buy it from landscaping supplies
This compost is ready to be used. It has composted down to half the depth it was at the beginning, and there are very few large pieces of uncomposted material.

Step 2 – These ingredients are added to the garden bed and stirred and turned over with a garden fork.

Steps to starting a garden from scratch.  Mix the compost, soil and cow manure with a garden fork
Mixing the compost, soil and cow manure with a garden fork

My husband does all the heavy work because I suffer from arthritis in my back, but once the plants have started to produce, I can look after them.

Step 3 – Plant seeds or seedlings

We generally plant seedlings to save time. You can also raise seeds yourself and then plant them out when they’re mature. Instructions are on the seed package or seedling tags as to what favourable conditions to grow them in. Our beans grow from last year’s crop – we save some of the last beans to dry out then just plant the seeds straight in the ground.

We have also grown cherry tomatoes using seeds taken from the previous crop. Our pumpkins grew wild from the compost. It’s interesting to see what crops up each year from our compost!

Steps to starting a garden from scratch - plant seedlings or seeds
My husband planting the seedlings. They will come with instructions on how far apart they need to be planted, and other requirements

Daily Garden Tasks

After you start your garden, you will need to attend to it at least every second day, especially at the start. Daily watering is a must except if you have really rainy days. A daily routine would include picking out weeds and squashing bugs before they get out of hand. Remove plants that have died or gone to seed because they attract bugs and disease.

Regularly fertilise your garden. We use our own liquid fertiliser that we make from our worm farm. Read about it in this post. Alternatively choose a commercial product that uses organic ingredients only.

Pick plants as soon as they are ready to eat. Living them to die in the garden only attracts bugs and weeds to take over. You will find that fresh vegetables will keep much longer than store bought ones because they haven’t been stored and transported for weeks or months.

What if you don’t own a garden?

Two garden beds is enough for our needs. If you don’t have a backyard, you can grow most vegetables and fruit in containers. My brother lives on a houseboat and has an impressive array of vegetables and herbs in containers. Another alternative is to grow sprouts in jars. I have easy directions here.

What to Grow

Your choice of what to grow should be based on what crops grow best in your area. Your local landscape supplier or garden supplier should stock a good range of seedlings. Have a conversation with the staff – they are usually very willing to give you local know-how on what the best plants to grow are. Other than that it’s trial and error. In general, don’t grow anything that you don’t enjoy eating!

A selection of seedlings ready to be planted
A selection of seedlings ready to be planted

This year we are growing beans, snow peas, bok choy, baby spinach, parsley, onions, Kent pumpkin, beetroot and cos lettuce. My husband made trellises for the beans and snowpeas and you may need stakes for some of the taller plants. We also have a chilli plant and cherry tomatoes and a range of herbs.

Times vary from when you start the garden to harvest, but generally we’re eating our produce within a few weeks. One of my favourite pass-times is picking the ripe vegetables and making them into beautiful fresh meals.

Our vegetable garden three weeks after initial planting.
Three weeks after initial planting. We have added a few more seedlings to ensure a continuous supply of our favourite vegetables

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How to be Self-Sufficient as a Sustainable Future

The Goal is to become Self Sufficient

My husband and I have a goal – to become self sufficient by the time we retire. We have been researching how to be self sufficient, and what we need to consider before we can regard ourselves as self sufficient. Considerations for self sufficiency include how to meet our basic needs: water, food, energy and shelter.

Investigating Self-sufficiency as a Retirement Goal

My husband and I are in our early 50s so we’re not at the official retirement age and won’t be for over 10 years (67yrs in Australia for those of us born in the mid 60’s). The prospect of working for the next 13 years is daunting for me. I have chronic back pain caused by several back injuries and general wear and tear from over 30 years as a nurse. I’ve already reduced my work hours but the writing is on the wall – I know I won’t be able to work as a nurse for much longer.

I have been looking towards retirement for the last few years. Our current situation is that we have a large mortgage on a big property in a very busy city. It’s a rat-race and we feel like we are just rats in a wheel, chasing our tails – working long hours in jobs that aren’t easy, often not seeing each other for days at a time. Quality time together is limited. Our overheads and cost of living are huge. Living here is not sustainable in the long term, either financially or practically. So we must look at alternatives to our current lifestyle.

Downsizing is our First Goal

We have been considering downsizing as the first obvious choice. Once my older son leaves home and there’s just the two of us, continuing to live in our large house would be silly. It’s not designed so that we could create a self-contained unit to rent out so that’s not an option. So our first step would be to sell it and buy a smaller house on a smaller block – one that is easier to maintain.

We would still have a mortgage, however. To be able to buy a house mortgage-free we will have to sell up and move to a regional area where the cost of housing is much lower. The drawback is that we would probably be too far from medical services to be able to do it. That is why we are looking into becoming self-sufficient.

Being self-sufficient to us would mean being able to provide for most of our needs ourselves. It would mean that we would have to set up a property with energy, water and food supplies so that we didn’t have to rely on outside sources.

How to meet our basic needs

Our basic needs are shelter, energy, food and water. To be self sufficient we would need to provide most of them ourselves, and have the necessary resources in place to reduce our living costs. Using sustainable resources is another goal because we would like to reduce our carbon footprint.

Basic needs for self sufficiency - water, food, energy, shelter.
Basic needs for self sufficiency – water, food, energy, shelter.

Here are our most important considerations for self sufficiency:

Shelter – a small house on a small block. If we can afford it, a separate dwelling to rent out for income.

Energy – solar power, with a generator for back-up. Sustainable energy such as solar is cheaper in the long run. We may even earn money by feeding the excess back into the grid.

Water – rain tanks, with town supply as a back-up. Another sustainable choice.

Food – gardens with a variety of food such as vegetables and fruit. Chickens for eggs. A beehive for honey. Any surplus can be sold, or swapped with other gardeners. Any food that we can’t grow ourselves would be bought in bulk from bulk food supplies, or from local producers to inject money back into the economy. We love fishing so we could catch our own fish. I’ll be learning how to make my own preserves, bread, etc. – going back to skills my mother had like bottling fruit, making jam and sauces and cooking everything from scratch. It’ll be healthier as well as cheaper.

Other Considerations for Self Sufficiency

Waste – Recycling and reusing everything we can. Septic tank for waste. Compost and worm farm to use our garden and food waste up and improve the growing conditions for the soil in our garden. We already have those in our current property.

Community – You need to have a network of people who are willing to share their expertise when you are starting on this type of venture, especially if you’re moving to a new area to set up your self sufficient household. Our future plans include being close to my brother so that we have support and can help each other. Getting involved with the local community is also important – being self-sufficient doesn’t mean isolating yourself behind a wall. Just the opposite – you need to be connected to the community in which you live. We’re no doomsday preppers!

A suitable property

Suitable property – My brother has been researching self-sufficiency for over 30 years and much of his knowledge stems from our parents. They researched much of this in their life-time, incorporating vast knowledge of using your property to provide most of the food you will need. They were avid gardeners and often experimented with alternative growing techniques – the first hydroponic system in New Zealand was set up by my father. I’m lucky to have this knowledge base to assist me.

He has stressed the importance of choosing land that is rich and fertile and slopes or faces North. We currently live in an area where the soil is very sandy and doesn’t hold water or nutrients which poses a huge problem for growing plants. We’ve dealt with this by having raised garden beds and containers, and choosing the right type of plants for our climate.

Our raised garden beds.  We grow a variety of vegetables every year
Our raised garden beds. We grow a variety of vegetables every year

Town planning / Council Restrictions – we would have to ensure that the property we buy is in a Council area that allows us to use tank water, keep chickens etc. Most Councils have restrictions on keeping animals, dwelling size and use of the dwelling for commercial purposes, for example.

The Benefits of Becoming Self-sufficient

Self-sufficiency makes a lot of sense to me, both financially and as a way of being more environmentally friendly and reducing our footprint globally. It comes as no surprise that it’s a cheaper lifestyle and it appeals to me to not have to pay large energy bills and rely on the government to supply our every need.

Other considerations for self sufficiency are the costs of setting ourselves up. The initial costs will be the house and land, solar system, water tank, gardens, and septic tank. If we purchase a dwelling that has the basics, we can supply the rest initially or over time.

Comparing ourselves to our parents, my husband and I will probably have at least 30 years of retirement because most of our predecessors lived to at least 80. Our superannuation will not stretch that far and the Government pension will not be enough to live comfortably on, so reducing our cost of living is essential. Providing most of our own needs will save money in the long run, even if the initial set-up costs are high.

I’d love to hear other ideas that my readers may have for self-sufficiency or reducing their living costs. Please feel free to comment.

Our goals for retirement include being as self-sufficient as possible in order to create a sustainable lifestyle
Our goals for retirement include being as self-sufficient as possible in order to create a sustainable lifestyle

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