Becoming a Garden Guru pt.2

Getting down and dirty


So Kim it seems as if the  grey days and cold are giving way to a little more sunshine and warmer days, gardening is on my mind. We learned a lot from the first questions posed to you about gardening- so here is round 2.


How do you set up your garden?

We have set our gardens up around our property. Growing food is really important to us, so we try to use as much space as we can for food production.
When setting up your garden, sun exposure is important. I often suggest new gardeners take some time to track the sun where they want to grow food to make sure it gets enough sunlight. It is definitely time well spent; you really don’t want to get all the set up work done to discover later that the spot you choose doesn’t get enough sun.
And then you have to decide what kind of beds you will have. You can certainly prepare the earth, and plant a lovely garden plot, but I much prefer raised beds, and they take a little prep work.
After all that you need to decide what you will plant where, and with what. Some plants do well growing with others and some don’t mix well. You also need to consider crop rotation, how will your crops move from space to space with each season so that your soil does not become depleted and so that harmful bugs, who can overwinter in the soil, won’t take out your crop the following year. It isn’t an easy process, but it is worth it for the best growing conditions.
There are a lot of resources out there, so take some time to research, ask questions, and then give it a go. The best lessons come from getting your hands in the dirt.

Have you tested your soil ?

We have never officially tested our soil. We have, over the years, done an at home test to determine acidity or alkalinity. It is pretty simple, and while it doesn’t give you a definite answer it is a starting point, and it’s free. If the test shows high on either side, then I would consider an official test, but as of yet we haven’t had to do that.
If you want to check the acidity or alkalinity of your soil simple at home, here’s an easy way.
Grab two mason jars and fill them with a cup of soil. Add a little water to thoroughly soak the soil. To one jar add a cup of vinegar, to the other add a cup of baking soda. You may find that one of the jars bubbles. If the vinegar jar bubbles your soil is alkaline, if the baking soda jar bubbles your soil is acidic. If neither of the jars bubbles your soil is neutral.


I see that you have raised beds- is there a reason?

 The main reason is because I like the way they look J They keep the garden tidy, I find it much easier to pile on compost and manure, and then work it in, the soil gets less compacted as I am not walking on it all the time as I would be in a traditional row garden, and when starting out I find they are much better for weed control.
We choose logs to edge our raised beds, but really any material could work. I have seen concrete blocks used, rocks, and regular old wood. We are big fans of using what we have, and the trees were available, cut down when hydro was doing some clearing around the area where we live, so we used them.

How do you wake up your dirt preparing it for a good harvest?

For us that starts in the fall, we add compost and/or composted manure and then a good layer of leaves. In the spring I work the leaves into the soil, and then we are ready for planting.
I do have plans this year to do a little work with cover crops. Cover crops are basically green manures that feed the soil and all the lovely creatures that live in our soil. Through the process of growing the cover crop and then turning it over into the soil before it goes to seed nutrients are returned to the soil that may have been depleted during the growing season.

Do you turn or till your soil? If so what do you use, shovel or tiller any tips?

We don’t till, not something you really need to do with raised beds. When we built them, we basically covered the grass with cardboard and newspaper and then filled with compost, some composted manure, and once it was planted we added some mulch.
Most of our raised beds have been created in the spring, but a few have been created in the fall and it makes the spring gardening season so much nicer to have all that work done, not to mention all the little creatures that create healthy soil will have had time to move in.

Any amendments; fertilizer, compost, manure?

We add compost and/or composted manure yearly to the beds, again usually in the fall, and cover them thickly in leaves. This spring we have had to amend the two beds that we tunneled for the winter before planting spring crops.
Fertilizer, I use an organic kelp fertilizer, applied throughout the season as needed to help promote plant growth, fruit set, disease resistance and resilience to environmental stressors. It's also a great soil conditioner.
I also grow comfrey, and while my main reason for growing it is to infuse it in oil to make salves, the leaves also make a great fertilizer, when the leaves are soaked down into a “tea” and then applied to the garden.

I have a bit of a phobia for seeding- not sure when or how to start.
One year I was very successful and started them on the sunny porch in egg cartons and reused milk cartons...but it was so much work.
How do you do it - any tips would be helpful.

 Honestly, I don’t. We have a very small home, and there isn’t space to set up a seed starting operation. So pretty much everything we grow is direct seeded in the ground, and those things that we can’t direct seed, tomatoes for instance, are purchased from a friend who is an organic farmer. You see the key when you don’t have space is to have good connections J
For those of you what have some questions about starting seeds indoors, I turned to a gardening expert and blog friend Isis from Little Mountain Haven. Here are some little tidbits of seed starting information for you:

 - Air flow is super important! Fungus is more easily spread when air is stagnant. (see more below with dampening off).
- Most seed starter soil is sterilized but doesn't have any nutrients for the seedlings growth. You need to use worm castings, liquid starter food or make a compost tea. Don't use a powdered fertilizer, it will often create mould on the soil.

- Keep your seedlings watered but don't overwater. The dampness will be a breeding ground for fungus (especially with the lack of air flow). Dampening off is a very common problem from a fungus and can cause all your plants to die overnight. 

- Lights aren't necessary if you have a bright window but otherwise the light and heat is useful if you don't have a window. We've invested in the Sunblaster lights that use 50% less electric than standard fluorescents. We've never bothered with heat matts but we have a little indoor greenhouse. 

- I've personally found that the heat loving plants like tomatoes and peppers to be easier to grow than the brassicas or cool weather plants like lettuce. Maybe the house is too warm. 

- If your plants are too far away from the light source they will get 'leggy' with a big long thin stem and won't be strong. You can re-pot your plants up to the first leaf if this happens but try and put some wooden planks or something to move your trays closer to the light source. 

Do you use cold frames or the little starter boxes they offer at the garden center or do you plant seed directly in the dirt outside?

We use cold frames to extend our growing season in the fall, and then again in the spring to get a jumpstart on the season.
As I stated earlier, pretty much everything we grow is direct seeded right into the dirt.

We have a saying here in on the 48th parallel in Montana, " plant as soon as the snow melts off the mountains or after Memorial day whichever comes first".
Do you have any tips or pointers when the right time is.

For the most part, that is our rule here too, nothing before the Victoria Day weekend (as we call it in Canada). But there are always exceptions to the rules. Cold hardy vegetables can be directed seeded as soon as the soil can be worked…kale, Swiss chard, lettuces, and peas. I experimented this year with some beets in the cold frame, so I will let you know how that works out soon. I also threw in a row of marigolds in our tunnel, just as a little experiment.

Watering- do you use a sprinkler or drip line any suggestions here.

We rely on Mother Nature for most of our watering, either through rainfall, or from water collection in our rain barrels. If she isn’t cooperating we use the hose. We do have a drip irrigation system in the plans for the garden this year, and will hopefully get it all laid out in the next few weeks. Fingers crossed.

And finally any thoughts for us that are starting out this season that might be helpful?

 Don’t get too excited and plant things too early. It is always hard to wait, especially when we are gifted beautiful spring days early in the season. Mother Nature always throws us a curve ball, so be patient, plant some cold hardy vegetables and wait for that long weekend marker in May before you plant anything that can’t survive a frost.

Thanks again so much for taking the time to offer some encouragement and helpful tips.

My pleasure!



  1. I am really enjoying this series, it's fun to learn how gardening is done in other parts of the country.

  2. It's really interesting to read about gardening in other parts of the world. Being further North 54.5° I have to start almost everything in seed trays in our polytunnel. I plant out in June. It is a lot more work but it works for us!

  3. I agree with Tracey... this series is going to be great. Happy gardening Camilla

  4. Great post, such a weath of information, Kim has a wonderful enthusiastic way of talking about gardening, makes me want to get outside right now and dig my hands in the ground despite the fact that it’s pouring down here.
    will be doing that soil test with my kids tomorrow.
    Happy gardening to you in Montana, Hope your getting better weather than us.

  5. It's so wonderful to read more of Kim's gardening and special thanks for including me :)
    I'm new to this blog, it's lovely! I'll be back for sure.

  6. Oh I love this series - our garden operation is tiny by comparison - well it's tiny full stop - but I've picked up some great tips, thank you :)

  7. Awesome tips Kim, you make it sound so simple. You know, I've never tested my soil. I might try that basic test.
    We have started working out in our garden - and like you said above started some cold hardy vegetables (lettuce) already, before Victoria day! Here's my blog post if you are interested http://theplaceunderthepine.blogspot.ca/2015/05/garden-2015-update-2.html

  8. I really love Kim's gardening and loved this insight into her growing methods!! Thanks :)

  9. Oh I can't wait to watch your garden grow! Oh and mine ;)

  10. I am in the process of setting up my garden and am making boxes to grow veg in. I have never thought about testing my soil but after reading your article I think it is something I would consider. Your garden looks great. Thanks for all the top tips about how to get seedlings to grow. I hope my garden does as well as yours this year.

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