There was a time in our lives when we perceived gardening as a daunting, difficult task that was no longer necessary in a modern world filled with “cheap,” plentiful stuff that is often labeled as food. We now realize that nothing could be further from the truth. As we’ve come to find out through studying (and practicing) organic and permaculture gardening methods, gardening is an incredibly fun, socially-oriented science lesson that can require surprisingly little money and work from the human side. As we’ve learned to start working with nature rather than against it, nature has started doing a lot of the difficult “work” for us, and its work continues to produce delicious food that is as good for our health as it is for our pocketbook.
Have you ever noticed that nobody has to plow, fertilize, water, or spray deadly chemicals on forests for them to do just fine without our “help”? Well, your garden can ultimately work as efficiently and effectively as a forest, and yes, it can be stunningly beautiful too (far more beautiful than a monoculture grass carpet in our opinion). In case you’ve never heard of it, permaculture is basically systems thinking applied to organic agriculture. Under the permaculture approach, the gardener’s job becomes that of a steward, setting up and tending the natural ecosystem in their yard so that the ecosystem will continue to improve its output year by year with less and less human input required.
So… how to start your garden?
While each garden and person are unique, here are 10 Key Tips & Principles that we hope will help you get started on your garden—a natural ecosystem that will continue to feed you and your family delicious, wholesome food year round:1. The Best Time to Start Is Now We’re not permaculture or organic gardening “experts,” we’re simply curious, tenacious life-long students of these disciplines (and of nature, the ultimate teacher). Beyond reading and watching videos, we’ve learned the most by making countless mistakes and accidentally killing numerous plants. In this regard, gardening is like learning to ride a bike. Fall down? No big deal. Figure out what went wrong, get up, and start pedaling again. The hardest part is working up the nerve to ride the “bike” for the first time. So, start your garden now (or as soon as you’re done reading this blog post).
2. Start Small A lot of people make the mistake of taking on too much too fast, and getting overwhelmed. The most effective gardeners we know (and the approach we take), is akin to “agile development” in the computer software world. Basically, get started fast and small, and make changes constantly/iteratively as you learn and interact with your garden. If converting a single bed in your yard to an edible landscape feels too daunting a task (or you don’t have a yard to begin with), start with a single window pot. The most important thing is to start getting your hands dirty as quickly as possible and moving forward. Momentum and experience are the best seeds for future success.
3. Be a Social Gardener For us, gardening is always better when we do it as a couple and when we share what we’re learning with other people (ideally over a plate of fresh food and a good homebrew). While gardening can provide great opportunities for quiet, isolated reflection, it can also be one of the most social activities you can engage in. Get your family and friends involved, especially if they have some experience under their belts. Also, your brain rewards SHARING, so teach others what you’re learning as you go. Studies show that people retain more information from teaching, than from any other learning style.
4. Remember: Sun, Soil, Water These are the 3 primary factors that plants need, and not all plants need these three factors in equal amounts. The more you garden, the more intimately familiar you’ll become with every inch of your yard—what spots get the most/least sun, where the wettest spots are, what parts need the most soil amending, etc. The more you know your yard, the better you’ll get at selecting the right plant combinations for these areas. There is a delicious, beautiful edible plant for any possible condition your yard may present. So, think of your yard as a big, fun biological puzzle… don’t worry, you’ll get as many chances as you want to come up with great solutions, and there are no wrong answers, only opportunities to learn.
5. New Seasons = New Opportunities Virtually every state in the contiguous United States has distinct seasons where you can grow and enjoy different varieties of fresh, delicious foods. Contrary to popular belief, gardening is NOT just a warm-weather activity. Some of our favorite, most nutritious foods are cold weather plants: kohlrabi, beets, chard, etc. These foods can only be grown in cool/cold weather seasons—not to mention choice foraged foods like maitake and blewit mushrooms that only fruit when the weather turns cold. Most people live in regions where they can eat wonderful fresh food from their garden 365 days per year.
6. Grow Seeds For Your Future From Your Past There are literally millions of edible varieties of foods that you can grow from seed regardless of where you live. When deciding what to grow, please consider choosing as many open-pollinated/heirloom seed varieties as you can (also organic non-GMO seeds). Heirloom seeds are vital to maintaining the biodiversity that people have depended upon for survival for eons. These seeds have been passed down from your ancestors over hundreds or even thousands of years (by planting them, you’re grabbing the baton and continuing a great tradition where previous generations left off). You’ll almost never see heirloom varieties of produce at a conventional grocery store, because mass produced agriculture tends to favor hybridized varieties that are chosen more for their ability to ship and store than for their flavor — nobody hates ’em, but nobody loves ’em either (at least people who have tasted the real thing). Unlike hybrids, most heirloom plants are open-pollinated, so a single seed can produce tens of thousands of viable seeds within one growing season. Use these seeds in your garden next year and share them with people you know. Some of our favorite, most trusted seed sources are Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Peaceful Valley, and others that you can read about in our Resources: Seed Supplies post. *Since writing this post, we’ve also started our own heirloom Seeds of the Month club:each month, you’ll get five new varieties of heirloom seeds sourced from organic farmers/growers + expert growing instructions, so try us free for 30 days!
7. Top Dress Your Garden, Perhaps Even For Free
Our first year of gardening we made a big mistake: we didn’t “top dress” our garden with wood chips, so we spent a bunch of time unnecessarily weeding and watering our plants. We’ll never make that mistake again. Top dressing means putting a thick layer of organic matter (rough chopped wood chips with leaves is our favorite medium) on top of a garden bed. Twice per year, we now add abou 6″ of wood chips to all of our beds. This practice has virtually eliminated unwanted plants (aka “weeds”), and drastically reduced our watering needs (probably by well over 75%). Where do you get your wood chips? Virtually every town has a tree removal/pruning company, and the bigger companies have huge grinders that shred tree limbs, bark, wood, leaves, and all into “wood chips” (which is different than mulch). In composting terms, wood chips provide a potent combination of “greens” and “browns.” Many tree removal companies have huge piles of wood chips that you can haul for free or have the company deliver to your house for a nominal drop fee. Call around! Also, when we started learning more about dirt and permaculture, we began to understand how important top-dressing is to a garden from an ecological standpoint. We used to think gardening = plowed dirt left exposed to the elements. The reality is that this style of gardening/agriculture—even if “organic”—is NOT good for your soil’s health. Dirt, at least healthy dirt, is quite literally alive (and healthy for you to be exposed to). A teaspoon of living dirt contains billions of beneficial soil microbes and over a million species of fungi. By plowing their dirt, the gardener, is:
- Severely impairing/destroying the “mycelial web,” the underground network of mushrooms that are crucial to healthy soil (the mushrooms people see above ground are just the organism’s “fruit”). If you could actually see the mycelial web, it would look like a dense spider web (or a map of the internet) just below the surface of the earth… a single fungal organism can be miles wide on a healthy forest floor, which might give you a better idea of why the world’s largest single organism is actually a four square mile wide mushroom!
- Leaving your plants exposed to extreme temperatures. According to Cornell University, “In one study comparing various mulch materials with bare soil, soil moisture percentages in mulched plots were approximately twice as high, summer soil temperatures were reduced by 8 to 13 degrees, and the average amount of time required to remove weeds was reduced by two-thirds.” 
- Vastly increasing the soil’s dependency on additional inputs (i.e. fertilizer, pesticides, water, etc). If you pay attention when you’re taking a hike in nature, you’ll notice you never see exposed dirt on a healthy forest floor. To nature, exposed dirt is akin to an open wound on a human. A forest floor is a closed biological system that doesn’t just sustain itself, it improves itself year after year, becoming healthier and healthier over time. If you begin to mirror these biological systems in your garden, your soil’s health will continue to improve year after year with less and less input from you. You can just stick your seeds (or seedlings) directly into your healthy dirt without plowing or fertilizing, then go relax.
- You can read more about the how-to’s and many benefits of top dressing with wood chips from Cornell University here.
8. Fertilizers, Pesticides, Herbicides… Oh My!
You can vastly reduce, if not completely eliminate, the need for fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides in your garden over time. The healthier your soil becomes and the more you learn, the less of these things you’ll need. If you do need to use these inputs, there are tons of solutions that don’t require use of synthetic chemical cocktails that are known to be harmful to people, pets, and the environment. We highly suggest you use these safe alternatives instead of things like Sevin, which is a pretty horrific combination of deadly chemical compounds that you do not want to ingest or inhale (or get anywhere near beneficial insects like bees that pollinate a huge percentage of the staple crops that humans depend upon). A quick targeted google search will help you find lots of great alternatives. One of our favorites is Diatomaceous Earth.
9. Learn, Grow, Repeat We love learning in general, but learning about gardening/nature is a special joy that can become an addiction for the serious home gardener. There is an ever-increasing bounty of online and offline resources that we use to learn more about gardening. The more you grow your knowledge, the more (and easier) it will be to grow your garden, so make it a point to read educational literature from trusted sources during your spare time. We think permaculture provides the most thoughtful, holistic approach to food production, so we’d highly suggest you learn what you can here. As advocated in permaculture, growing a lot of perennial plants (fruit trees, berries, nuts) helps make the gardeners life a lot easier as well. Also, there are likely to be a lot of great local resources near you such as permaculture groups, master gardening associations, home gardening networks, or close personal gardening friends who can also provide a ton of on-the-ground help as you’re getting started.
10. Refer to # 1 Remember, the most important tip is #1 above, so go start your garden—even if it’s just a few seeds in a window pot—right now!