The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Self-Sustaining Garden
Finding the right nutrition for my kids is a non-negotiable for me. With three kids at home, I really have to spend some extra time and effort to ensure that my kids eat right and stay healthy. But I could have never guessed that it would be so difficult.
The Struggles of a Mom
As a kid, I was all about the candy! I couldn’t help but load up on sugar every opportunity I got, and from cupcakes to marshmallows, I could stuff anything in my little belly given enough time. As I grew older, I started making healthier choices in food.
But choosing food for your kids is a whole different ball game.
I was scanning through aisles of “healthy” and “nutritious” food only to find out that they were filled with corn syrup, corn starch and sugar. I started making peanut butter and jams at home and bought exclusively from farmers’ markets. While it was the best decision I could take for my family, there were two small problems –
- Lack of time
- Organic is expensive
The Start of My Self-Sustaining Garden
While I struggled to ensure that I don’t end up buying sugar, starch and carb-laden food for the kids, I was exhausted with the whole process of ‘trying to be healthy.’ It was then that I discovered self-sustaining gardens on Pinterest and thought about giving it a try.
In the beginning, I wasn’t too excited. I just learnt that few veggies could be regrown in your backyard or in a potful of soil with ease. I first started with a rotten tomato! Yes, you read it right. I took a tomato going bad, sliced it up and just threw it in the backyard only to conveniently forget about it. After about two weeks, I noticed that I actually had a small tomato plant.
I was more excited than my youngest kid. This was my aha! Moment.
Then Came the Struggles…
As soon as I found that I could actually grow tomatoes in my backyard, I was running around the house in a frenzied state simply because of the ravishing nature of my discovery. I scanned through every website about sustainable farming that I could- from backyard gardens to kitchen gardens to permaculture farms, you name it, and I searched for it.
Just like any overexcited newcomer would do, I ordered at least 25 different varieties of seeds alongside gardening tools, soil nutrition and began planning all of the nutritious breakfasts and salads filled with tasty self-sustaining garden ingredients that I’d be able to make. My monthly budget was almost on the tipping point. I was frantically making up soil beds to sow my seeds. By the end of one week, I was anxiously waiting for my garden to sprout up overnight.
Of course, it didn’t happen.
The Mistake Every Beginner Makes
I had made a mistake every beginning makes- in my excitement I paid less attention to the details. I just wanted to buy every kind of vegetable seed I could find, sprinkle them in my backyard and hope for it to magically provide me with food all year long. Some seeds went bad, some never sprouted and I was honestly disappointed with how slowly my tomatoes were growing.
As I sat on my patio, blaming myself for acting like a foolish kid who just received candy money from her aunt, another thought suddenly struck me- the resources I was reading were not enough. I was just reading about sowing seeds and harvesting plants while I should really be meeting and talking to real people who have self-sustaining gardens and learn more about the basics.
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that I had my true Eureka moment!
Relearning and Finally Doing Things Right
Here is what I learnt from my failed gardening experiment- even if you are growing a small bunch of herbs in your kitchen garden, you need to devote time and patience. You have to provide enough love, attention and care to your garden so it could bloom well and provide you with everything you need.
Key takeaways for your self-sustaining garden:
- You need to devote time and have patience – gardening doesn’t have shortcuts
- You need to grow only those plants that can sustain your climatic conditions
- It is good to have evergreens and some seasonal vegetables
- Never grow too much of one plant
- Devote at least 2 hours every week to your self-sustaining garden
- Focus extensively on signs of distress in your plants
- Don’t try to grow it all in your first attempt
Now that you have understood these basic principles let’s focus on a step-by-step process to creating a truly self-sustaining garden.
Self-Sustaining Garden – Step by Step
Study, Meet and Learn
Don’t start anything before you have gobbled up enough information about the subject. If there is a level 0, start from there. Learn basic stuff like the climatic zone you are in, the acidity of the soil, the basic soil nutrition, the planting and growing process, identifying diseases in plants and finding remedies, saving seeds and a self-sustaining watering system.
Create the Space
The next thing you need to do is decide the space where you will create your beautiful self-sustaining garden. My mistake was that I thought my entire backyard was free for gardening. This couldn’t be far from the truth. You have to make spaces to move, create raised beds and ensure that you have enough space to move around. You also need to check which areas of the space get the most sun and which get only partial sunlight. This is an important checkbox that you can’t forget.
Create Raised Bed Gardens
Instead of sowing seeds directly into the soil, it would be helpful to create raised bed gardens. They are much easier to maintain and help you in controlling temperature, plant height, as well as nutrition more easily. Raised bed gardens are also very easy to make, and if you know woodworking or metalwork, then it would be even easier. If not, consult your local self-sustaining gardening community for creating these raised beds.
Creating the Soil
“What do you mean creating the soil? I already have plenty in my backyard.”
Believe it or not, the soil in your backyard is not adequate as far as growing a self-sustaining garden is concerned. Depending on the quality of soil in your area, you will need to add extra nutrition to the soil alongside compost and mulch. It keeps your soil healthy and ensures that you experience good growth and better produce. Though my personal favorite is vermicompost, you can get any compost you want. I have started making my own compost now with the help of some soil and fresh produce leftovers which is working wonders for my garden. I am essentially using my own produce to enrich the soil once again. These small and simple steps make your garden truly self-sustaining.
Watering your crops is a big headache if you haven’t done this before. At first, trying to water every single raised bed will take ages, and you will consider gardening as the mistake of your life. However, you can create quick self-watering systems for your garden. For instance, it is easy to collect rainwater in big tanks connected straight to your gutter. Initially, this water can be given to your plants manually, but as your garden grows big, you can create an entire watering system connected with the main tanks via smaller pipes. It is actually a very simple arrangement.
Another trick that I have learnt from permaculture farms is to buy some clay pots, fill them with water and bury them at strategic locations in the backyard. This is especially good for hot and sunny days when you want the garden to replenish its water supplies. You won’t have to water daily, and these pots will slowly leak their contents into the soil without harming your plants.
Natural Fertilizers and Quality Sprays
Diseases and pests are very common for backyard plants and if you are like me, using pesticides laden with chemicals is simply a bad idea. I also don’t like to use unnatural fertilizers for my plants. I buy only natural fertilizers and make sprays at my home. They not only help me save money but also ensure that my veggies are always healthy. I would prefer a small and healthy squash over an overgrown hybrid variety that could be harmful to my kids.
Save Your Seeds
Now that I am an experienced gardener, I have also learnt to save seeds for the next season. The heirloom plants (also known as open-pollinated plants) are the best to pick seeds from. Note that the more natural a variety, the better your chances of eating healthy produce. I have noticed that some plants like potatoes, garlic, tomatoes and even some varieties of berries get better with each season and sometimes even develop distinctive look and tastes. One of my oldest self-sustaining gardening buddies has a 25-year old berry in her garden that tastes fresher, more natural and juicier than any variety I have ever bought.
Important Things to Remember
1) Take Baby Steps With Your Self-Sustaining Garden
When you have just started gardening, I would suggest growing some staple crops or some herbs. This is especially true for people like me who never showed any interest in gardening before. Take baby steps while starting your first garden and then move on to more complex crops with higher maintenance needs. Herbs are the best- oreganos, rosemary, thyme, lemon thyme and basil are my personal favorites. They grow really well, and you can always pick some leaves fresh to add the right zing to your food.
2) Start with Potatoes for Planting Bigger Crops
If you are ready to start planting bigger crops in your self-sustaining garden, start with potatoes. Remember, we want to produce that could form a staple part of your diet and doesn’t take too much care. Potatoes are hardy plants, and you can easily have at least full harvest of potatoes in a year. In some regions, you can even get two harvests. You don’t just have to try white potatoes. Try the purple varieties and even sweet potatoes. Dedicate at least 1/10th or your garden to this crop because potatoes are used heavily in our cooking and they also store well. You can also grow potatoes and squashes in the beginning as both are easy to grow.
3) Dedicate 2/10th to Continuous Harvest Crops
The next 2/10th of your self-sustaining garden should be dedicated to continuous harvest crops. This includes the likes of carrots, radishes, beets and turnips. These plants are very hardy, grow easily and can be harvested continuously throughout the year. You should make sure that you don’t grow these plants too densely or you will end up with 1-2-inch-long carrots (I had this experience) which wouldn’t be a fruitful use of space.
4) Use 1/10th for Herbs and Seasonings
The next 1/10th of the self-sustaining garden can be dedicated to herbs and seasonings. This includes the likes of oregano, thyme, rosemary etc. You should also grow garlic and onions in this place. All these plants are very easy to grow and generally self-sustain. You will be able to harvest spring greens from onions at least twice without ever having to uproot the plant. After that, you will get a healthy sprout of seeds which you can collect for further production. I have noticed that if you just let the plant be, it will fall down, spreading seeds on the ground and giving rise to new plants. Amazing, isn’t it?
5) Don’t Forget the Leafy Greens
Leafy greens should make up for another 1/10th of your garden. The most popular plant is obviously lettuce, but I have also tried to grow spinach with great success: Collard greens, kale, stinging nettle, Malabar greens and even chicory in your garden. I am a fan of pureed greens, creamed greens and making delicious salads because of which I have dedicated 2/10th of my garden only to different varieties of greens. It keeps the food looking and tasting different each passing day.
6) Then 2/10ths for Complex Vegetables
About 2/10th of your garden can be dedicated to more complex vegetables. This includes peas, eggplants, different varieties of peppers and beans. Peas and beans will need trellis as well, but they are very easy to create and install. Cabbages, broccoli and cauliflowers are also great options, especially if you have a larger space. I can’t help but grow a lot of peppers in my garden because they add a lot of flavor to the food, are quick to grow, demands low maintenance, and my kids simply love them.
Don’t forget to add some cucumbers and zucchini to the garden. They are really good when eaten fresh, and you can actually get a pretty decent harvest even with a couple of plants. I have at least a dozen of cucumber plants because they grow really well and the kids simply can’t get enough of them.
7) And 1/10th for Growing Fruits
Save 1/10th of the garden for fruits. Strawberries are my personal favorites because they are so easy to grow and ideal for summer dishes certain to impress your guests. You can also grow lemons, pineapples etc. Raspberries will grow rather happily in containers and raised beds so you can try them as well. I have planted a fig tree also and waiting for it to fruit. Cantaloupes and grapes are amazing options to add to the garden.
If you are interested, you can dedicate about a tenth of your garden to crops like corn and sunflowers. You can also grow legumes here or experiment with different types of more complex crops. I have known some people who like to grow wheat in their self-sustaining gardens which takes a lot of time and effort but turns out surprisingly well. Corn doesn’t demand as much maintenance and grows well, so does sunflower.
8) Make Use of Leftover Space
If you have leftover space in your self-sustaining garden, use it to plant flowers. I like to grow lavender because it looks beautiful and makes my garden smell nice. Some people also like to grow lemongrass or some exotic varieties of vegetables in the leftover space. I have tried to grow Indian varieties of spinach and Japanese varieties of melons in this space. It doesn’t always work out well, but you always have some space to experiment and find out if you can add something to your garden.
9) Stay Organic
When I first started meeting people who were creating their own backyard self-sustaining gardens or homesteads, I found that they were going all-in on the organic trend. Now, I wasn’t completely sure if it is feasible to grow vegetables organically with a tight schedule. But over the years I have found this to be an amazing thing to do. All your home is grown at home without using any harmful chemicals. Not only this, you are recycling, reusing and composting your existing resources.
Should you try this?
Of course, you should!
If I can do this with a full-time job of handling three kids and maintaining this blog, so can you!
You will not just find it to be a financially viable solution but also see that it is easy to protect the environment and your health as well. I have personally found it to be a very spiritually, uplifting experience. Not wasting anything and creating an entire ecosystem is a life-changing experience. Did you know that my home also remains relatively cooler during summer these days because of all the plants?
Try it too and share your experiences with me! I’d love to see your self-sustaining garden and wonderful dishes by tagging me @foodireallylike in your creations on Instagram.
If you love healthy eating just as much as I do, why not take a browse of my 4 absolute favourite salad spinners? Perfect for crafting the most delicious lunches.