Farm Fresh For Life

7 Secrets to a Successful Garden

Candi Johns

Full home garden

I've gardened in several homes and in several cities. Although the locations were different, the recipe for success was always the same.

Having a successful garden isn't hard. I believe that anyone can grow their own food, and it can be done most places (as long as there is a cooperative climate). But there are a few things you'll need to do right in order to be successful.

Here's my Top 7 Secrets for a Successful Garden:

SECRET #1 for a Successful Garden: Start with Good Soil

Raking garden dirt

This was my nemesis when I began gardening. Kentucky soil is one of two categories: lush, dark, and fertile or miserable, red clay.

Unfortunately, my neck of the woods was almost completely clay. And clay is either in the form of concrete or soup. I'm not kidding. When it is dry, it is as hard as cement. When it's wet, it is practically liquid.

I managed to transform this clay nightmare into some great garden soil. Really. Here's how:

Greensand, manure, and compost.

1. Start with the greensand; sprinkle it right on that hard clay.

2. Next, add a layer of manure. Just ask someone who has animals if you can muck out the stalls or clean out the barn or scoop a field/pasture. They'll probably kiss you and bake you cookies.

3. Once the greensand and manure is down, just spread some compost on top. You can make this yourself, buy it, or go to a recycling center and get a truckload for free.

4. Once you have the greensand, manure, and compost in your beds, the worms will do the rest.

SECRET #2 for a Successful Garden: Variety

Full home garden

Plan to grow several different vegetables in your garden. Here in Kentucky, I usually grow up to 50 different varieties. Growing a large variety will offer palate change, food diversity, and interesting new dishes at mealtimes. Planting lots of different veggies will also ensure you have something to eat even if you have a crop failure (or several). If you have a nice variety of plants growing, chances are that something's gonna do well. You've got luck and numbers on your side.

By planting a larger variety of crops, you also may discover some plants that grow well and easily in your area.

SECRET #3 for a Successful Garden: Start Early

Homegrown asparagus

The sooner you get your plants in the ground, the sooner you'll be eating your yard. As soon as the ground is workable, get those crops in the ground.

SECRET #4 for a Successful Garden: Succession Planting

Planting seeds closeup

To get the most food out of a limited space, succession planting is key. I think I have been able to get loads of food from a small space because I am a nut for succession planting. I never leave a bed empty. Never. If it's not winter and I have open garden real estate, it's growing me food.

Succession planting is easy. Whenever you harvest a crop (like your spring broccoli, lettuce, peas, onions, and garlic), immediately plant a second crop in that space (like squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, or beans). Then when those crops are harvested in late summer, plant more crops for a fall harvest (like cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts).

SECRET #5 for a Successful Garden: Consider Height

Think about where the sun shines on your garden and plant accordingly. You don't want your tallest plants casting shade on your shortest plants. For vegetables to do their best, they need as much sunlight as possible. In order to give the shorter plants plenty of sun, plant sweet corn and other tall plants on the north or west side of the garden so they won't shade everything else.

Taller plants include the obvious ones like corn and tomatoes, but also can include cucumbers and small gourds if you grow them on trellises.

SECRET #6 for a Successful Garden: Make it Fun!

Full home garden

I think one of the reasons I find such pleasure in my garden is because I think it's beautiful.

A vegetable garden doesn't have to be a barren, empty, patch of dirt in your yard. You can add interest and beauty with trellises, raised beds, pots, and even flowers. Many flowers make great companions to vegetables. Marigolds keep the insects away from the tomatoes. Nasturtiums keep the squash bugs off the gourds.

Anyone can have a beautiful garden. It certainly isn't necessary. A garden will give you glorious free food all year no matter what it looks like, but the pretty ones are my favorites.

SECRET # 7 for a Successful Garden: Plan to Work

There are some tricks and tips that will keep your weeding and watering down to a minimum, but you are going to have to get out in your garden and work.

Mulching will stop most weeds and hold in moisture. Raised beds will prevent you from needing to weed your walking paths. A rainy forecast will nurture your plants so you don't have to water.

But there is still going to be work to do. Like:

• tying up tomato plants
• harvesting vegetables regularly
• pulling up plants and replanting the space (remember succession planting)
• hilling up potatoes (or covering them with straw)
• and even using organic methods to prevent bugs and diseases

Plan to visit your garden at least two times a week. This will allow you to know what is going on and stay on top of problems.

Weeding is easy when the weeds are small. The squash don't get too big if you harvest them regularly. Bugs can be defeated if you get on top of them before they start raising families.

The good news is that working in a garden can be a pleasure. It is also wonderful exercise. Lastly, it will be well worth the work you put in when you eat all that food year 'round!

Happy Gardening!

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Chicken Advice You Won't Find in a Book: Part 3

Candi JohnsIf you would like to know the good, bad, and ugly of owning chickens, this article is for you. This is actually the 3rd part in a three-part series called "Chicken Advice You Won't Find in a Book." Here are the links to the first articles:

Chicken Advice You Won't Find in a Book: Part 1 — It covers why you need to collect the eggs every day and how we feed our chickens for free (mostly).

Chicken Advice You Won't Find in a Book: Part 2 — This article gets a little deeper in the land of chicken ownership. Here I discuss predators, illnesses, and why we don't keep water in the coop.

Today, I'm going to tell you why you should put the chicken food in the coop (if you provide the food), and try to set some realistic expectations about the lifespan of your girls (and boys).

First, let's talk about the average life of a chicken.

SIX: All your chickens are gonna die.

Man holding a chicken

I am so sorry to break it to you. It's true. They are all going to die. Some sooner than others.

I always advise people to start out in spring with twice as many chickens as you would like to have this winter, because half your flock will manage to kill themselves in the next nine months.

Why? How? What is wrong with your chicken keeping skills?

It's not me. It's just a fact. Chickens look for ways to die. We've tried everything to keep them alive. We've kept them fenced in, we've let them free-range, we've put out a guard dog, we've used motion sprinklers. For eight years we have had the same experience: We lose half our flock in winter. It's OK. Just plan for it, buy some extras, and don't get too attached. It's a chicken, not a cat.

We have experienced more bizarre chicken deaths than I care to discuss. If you would like read all about them and decide for yourself if I am a chicken murderer, go here.

SEVEN: Put the food in the coop.

As I mentioned in this article, we offer free-choice food during winter for our chickens. In the past we have filled our king feeder (holds 50 pounds of feed) outside the coop, but every night some local varmint would show up, eat most of it, and dump the rest all over the ground. Ugh.

Since I don't have unlimited funds, this consumption of feed had to stop. I am not trying to feed the local wildlife; I am trying to provide sustenance for my chickens. We tried two solutions.

1. Move the feed into the coop. This was my first thought. It worked, kind of. It kept the nighttime visitors from eating and scattering all the chicken food ... but it didn't stop the daytime consumption. Dang it. Dang, stupid, gross, mangy-looking opossums are eating all my chicken food, and eggs! The good news is that this family of opossums doesn't like chicken. They are just eating all my eggs and chicken food. And the chickens don't seem to mind. Come on, cocks! This is why you are here! Can we please get some crowing when a non-feathered critter enters the coop?

2. Ration the stores. Since the opossums are BFFs with my chickens, they are happily sharing their food and eggs with them, and I can't catch them to save my life, we've started scattering a day's worth of feed on the ground each day. The chickens love scratching and pecking at the food, and the opossum can't eat it all. This doesn't stop them from eating eggs, but my feed bill is lower.

Opposum in a trap

Speaking of opossums. I have a story that may or may not have happened last week ...

We were visiting with family and out past dark. DH got home before the kids and I did. If it's after dark, the general rule is: First one home put the chickens to bed. "Putting the chickens to bed" means "go out to the coop and close the door to the hen house."

So, DH heads out to the chicken coop to close the door and saw some sort of commotion scooting away from the coop. It was Mr. Opossum. Probably the one eating my chicken feed and eggs. Busted.

Well, DH owns a pawn shop. You can see it here. Which may as well be called a "gun shop," because that's the majority of what we do. DH always wears his gun — his 1911 .45 caliber.

If you don't speak "gun," I'll explain. A .45 is quite the pistol. It easily fits in a holster on your hip, but it's a pretty powerful handgun. I'm pretty sure you can stop King Kong or a T-Rex with a .45. So DH was at the chicken coop, and he was armed and dangerous — especially if you happen to be an opossum.

DH saw him scurrying away from our coop, where I'm sure he was partaking of all my eggs and feed. Being the loving cowboy he is, DH secured the chickens in the coop first before giving Mr. Opossum his full attention. DH knew which way the varmint went, and he knew what opossums do when they run away: They climb. And one of the great things about iPhones is the flashlight feature. Need a light? You got one in your back pocket! DH used his phone flashlight and quickly spotted Mr. Opossum in the trees.

Varmint vs. .45. Let's just say if you lived in my county, you may have heard a couple of loud gunshots at about 8:00 last Tuesday night. And I have one less critter to deal with.

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