This mega-post will be a 20,000 foot overview of my gardening experiments from this year. I’m writing it as a single post that you can bookmark to remind yourself what you want to try next year (or even this winter). Early in March 2020, when my MMA gym closed, I needed to find something productive to do with my time and energy. I was reasonably sure we’d have supply chain distributions, and have always enjoyed prepping and growing my own food. This was just an excuse to dive into the deep end and see what I could do. As a result, I bought a few chickens, some seeds, and started researching gardening methods that I could try. This post is the culmination of 7 months of learning and note taking. This is only what I’ve tried, and doesn’t touch all available gardening methods.
My History of Gardening: I’m a relatively new gardener. I’ve only tried to grow food for a few seasons in the past and none recently. In fact, I only decided to try again this year when there were supply chain interruptions resulting from Covid. I had a container garden when I lived in the city that did reasonably well. I live in zone 7b. This year I felt helpless in the world, and so I sought to control what I could physically touch and manipulate, because the rest of the world was obviously outside my control. As was always the case, this year just reminded me. I’ll break it down into sections which will include an explanation of the method,pros and cons of the method, and results. After all that, I’ll post a resources section that will allow you to dig in for yourself and find more details. Here we go!
Methods Attempted and Results
5 gallon, self-watering (bottom watered) containers
I’ve used these 5 gallon bucket self watering planters for about 10 years (off and on as I feel like growing some food). The basic premise is a container with a water reservoir below the growing media, along with an air gap that allows the roots to breathe. There is some sort of ‘wick’ made of either soil or cloth that allows capillary wicking of water up into the soil. You can see that I simply got a food-grade 5 gallon bucket, a 24” segment of PVC, and used milk jugs with holes drilled in it that the PVC rests in as the water/air reservoir.
They usually have a water overflow hole drilled at a level that preserves a given water level and an air gap to make it fool proof. They’re great for small spaces, patios, and for being able to move to find appropriate light conditions or when a frost is coming and they need to be covered or relocated. They can go quite a while without daily watering (up to 2 weeks in my experience) and the process is foolproof. You water into the pipe that passes into the water reservoir, and fill it until water flows from the overfill port.
I had reasonable success with cherry tomatoes, and good success with chili and serrano peppers. I think tomatoes do better with more space for the roots. I will be using this method for herbs and chilis next year, for sure. Soil nutrition is key. I believe the soil I used was lacking adequate nutrition and that held back my production a bit. My chicken composting system will solve that for next year.
- Ease of use/transport, you can follow the sun if you’re not sure how your light tracks
- Resilient to negligence
- Not enough space for a tomato plant to thrive, does best with hot peppers and herbs.
- Success depends on soil prep and nutrition.
Straw Bale Gardening:
This was a new one for me. It’s also simple. You get a bale of straw, and condition it with high Nitrogen fertilizer to begin the composting process and prepare it for planting. I failed to properly condition my bales, and it slowed down my production.
In case you don’t know, the basic premise of composting is piling Brown stuff (carbon source) with Green stuff (nitrogen source, usually green colored plant matter/leaves) and it accelerates the rate of the process of aerobic breakdown of the materials.
With straw bale gardening, you’re buying a brick of carbon in the form of straw, and then watering nitrogen into it over a couple weeks, and then once the hot composting slows down, plant into them.
The relative failure of my straw bale gardening can be directly attributed to improper conditioning of the bale. I didn’t have the high nitrogen pelletized fertilizer (urea or similar), and just planted into the bale. This made for a poor outcome in my strawberries and okra, though my watermelons did well. I’ll give this another shot next year, probably with tomatoes and I’ll see how it goes.
- No permanent structure required.
- Acts as a raised bed of sorts, keeping management easier.
- Relatively inexpensive. No beds to build or buckets to buy.
- At the end of season, you can compost the remaining straw and have rich soil for next season.
- Builds soil. I planted right on top of my lawn and the soil has been tilled by the worm activity and nutrition has gone into the soil.
- Improper conditioning leaves the straw devoid of nutrition, thus stunting your plants.
Instant Garden/Lasagna Garden:
This one was a big surprise. This method was second best from a production standpoint, and totally free to set up. The process is as follows. Get some discarded cardboard from behind a grocery store or from FB marketplace from someone trying to get rid of moving boxes. Remove tape and labels and lay it down DIRECTLY on top of your existing lawn. On top of that, pile up whatever organic matter you have available. I used magnolia leaves, mulch, grass clippings, and whatever else I could find. Make it about 4-10” thick all the way down and cover it so you can’t see any cardboard.
The cardboard is a biodegradable weed barrier, and the mulch holds water and keeps the plants watered. This also is inviting for worm activity, which leaves worm castings (poop) that is like super fuel for plants. When you’re ready to plant, scrape a little hole in the mulch, punch through the cardboard, and plant your plant. You can drop some rabbit pellets or compost in the holes to give the plants a little early nutrition.
I’m planning out how I’ll do this next year on a larger scale. I don’t have an HOA, so I may turn my whole front yard into a production. I couldn’t believe how well this did. I was able to grow 5 monster okra plants and several squash varieties. All within a 2’x15’ row.
- Inexpensive (free)
- Simple setup. A 20 foot bed took about 30 minutes to lay out, and that’s because I had to rake leaves for some of that time.
- Builds soil over time. The compost and cardboard breaks down and the worm activity aerates and feeds the soil.
- Effective. My front yard here in GA is nothing special, and all of the plants I planted did very well. Your mileage will vary, but I’m confident this will beat opening up a bag of potting soil and planting into that.
- Since it’s on the ground, there’s a lot of pest pressure. I had vine borers kill the squash plants before they were done producing.
Raised beds are good for several reasons. They are a clear demarcation for your planting area, allowing easy care and weeding. They are higher so you can service and harvest easily from them. If your soil sucks, you can customize and amend the soil in the raised bed however you want to accommodate what you’re growing. I used garden corner bricks I bought at Lowes. They stack on each other, and allow a piece of rebar to be driven through them to keep them in place. You use untreated 2×6’s cut to desired length to form the beds and then fill with soil. I also encourage you to put cardboard under the bed to discourage weeds. I planted malabar spinach and squash in mine and they have done amazingly well.
- Depending on chosen material they can be reasonably affordable, but you can spend as much as you like.
- Easier servicing and maintenance due to height
- Easier garden demarcation
- Less ground insect pressure, but bugs will still find it
- Can be expensive
- Easier to do on flat property, my backyard has very few flat sections, otherwise this would probably be my primary method.
Felt Bag/Container Garden:
This method is pretty standard. Buy a bucket (or felt bucket) with drainage holes, fill with soil and compost or nutrients, and plant. I’d say this is sort of the gold standard of gardeners in the suburbs. I also used this method for sweet potatoes and potatoes this year. I even grew corn in a felt container. Herbs and peppers also do well. It’s very similar to the bottom watered (self-watering) 5 gallon buckets, they just need more care because they don’t hold as much water. As with all methods, nutrient and soil health is the biggest key.
- Easy to find buckets and containers
- No dedicated garden space needed, can be done on a patio or driveway
- Easy to move or organize
- There can be drainage problems, depending on how you fill the containers
- Often containers seem to stunt the growth due to lack of root space
- They dry out much faster than other methods because they’re exposed to the air on the top and sides
Hydroponics (Kratky Method):
Hydroponics can be expensive and complicated. This method is decidedly NOT those things. The method was devised by a professor in Hawaii named Dr. Kraky and is as follows. Use a complete hydroponics nutrient blend and fill up an appropriate sized bucket (between a mason jar for lettuce, or a trash can for tomatoes) with the properly mixed solution. Plop a net pot with a seed or plant so that the nutrient just touches the roots. As the solution is absorbed and evaporates, the root structure will grow and ‘chase’ the solution downward. The air gap provides the oxygen so the plant won’t suffocate. No pumps required. It can be done in batches where no additional solution is needed, OR you can create simple float valves to replenish the solution if it gets too low. I didn’t bother with float valves this year, but I may next year.
You can do this method inside or out. I set up a greens growing station in my basement and can sustainably make more lettuce/chard/spinach than my family can eat. All winter long. I also used a tomato sucker in a 32 gallon trash can and it has done extremely well.. I’d say that the kratky method really excels at leafy greens, though.
- Only requires a container, nutrient solution, net pot (or similar)
- Hands off other than monitoring water level. If you size container appropriately, you won’t need to add any water over the grow
- No pumps or complicated electronics
- Indoor or outdoor friendly
- Small space friendly
- Not sustainable like gardening, because you need nutrient concentrate
- Not resilient. If the water level goes too low, the plants will die within a couple of hours.
- Not ideal for fruiting plants without additional components
Check Log Terrace Garden
This is the most recent experiment. Basically, my backyard is very sloped. I wanted to find a way to plant on the hill without renting heavy equipment to build retaining walls, or spending thousands on brick to make terraces. Instead, I drove a series of wooden stakes and rebar every 2-4 feet along the contour line, then rolled a length of 4-6” diameter logs against those stakes. I then backfilled with soil, and then added another stack of logs and backfilled again. Now I have a wooden terrace that I can plant into. I intend to establish perennials like strawberries and biennials like asparagus that will keep the hill from eroding, as well as a rotation of potatoes and garlic over the winter.
So far it is working wonderfully. Once again I am learning the importance of soil nutrition. I filled the beds with the wood chip/chicken poop compost that my chickens have been working all summer. The vigorous growth of the potatoes is showing me how rich that soil is. Thanks chickens!
- If you live on a wooded lot, you can cut logs and the materials are free. If not, check FB marketplace for people who are offering free logs and limbs , and take what you need.
- Allows planting on an aggressively sloped yard
- Eventually the logs will rot and need to be replaced.
That’s the big overview of 2020’s gardening season. I intend to further break down each method in its own post and share the sources I consulted, as well as the equipment I needed for each. I’ll likely start with the Kratky Hydroponics systems, because you could grow greens in a spare room or basement all winter long.
Thanks for reading!