first time at making a giant vege garden

chefaid90(5)March 12, 2012

We just rented a house that has a 1/2 to 1 acre area across the street that comes with the house that I am allowed to do anything I want with. So I want to have a huge vege garden as I want to can alot of what I grow. Question. Right now it is just a grass covered area, I need to know what should I do to get it prepared for spring planting? It gets full sun all day. I am not sure what else to say about it but if you ask i will answer. I really want this to be successful. I have done small gardens before just planted plants and hoped for the best but with this much area and free range to do what I want I want to make it count.

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feijoas(New Zealand)

Firstly, I'd be very careful about trying to create a big garden; it's a massive undertaking for a very experienced gardener and I'd design a garden area to be smallish in the first season and easily expanded once I was familiar with the conditions.
Do you know the grass variety? It can make a big difference in building a bed.
Any local wildlife that could be an issue? Deer? Squirrels? Digging critters?
Unless you have specific local conditions that make it a bad idea, I'd make double-reach lasagna-style beds, not raised except for extra height from organic materials, edged or not (I like edges, they keep my mulch in).
Soaker hoses for irrigation are great.
Are you composting yet? Keep an eye out for potential compost materials...

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 12:07AM
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i have no idea of what type of grass it is. i have dont vege gardens before and understand the demand it takes to keep them up. not to worried about that part of it. just wanted to do more of the vege's i have grown already. I do have to worry about deer and chipmunks thats about it for wildlife. I was not planning on using the whole space of just rows and rows of veges. I am not composting yet as we are just moving into the house now. And have never composted in my life not sure of how to compost either. I plan on doing you normal vege's tomatoes, cucs, peppers, zucc's, peas, beans, lettuces, herbs, I really want to do onions, garlic and potatoes too. would love to get into things like asparagus too. Also looking to use part of the land for berries such as strawberries, black raspberries and blueberries

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 12:35AM
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You might want to look into the ideas behind Square Foot Gardening rather then planning one very large garden.
A good, reliable soil test from your Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service can be a big help getting the soil ready, also.

Here is a link that might be useful: About Square Foot Gardening

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 6:49AM
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First of all you have to realize that as a beginner there is no way you will be able to manage that amount of space effectively, especially if you also work for a living.

Here is how to get started.

You should create a budget and stick to it. For a 4000 sq. ft. garden, $2000 would be a good place to start, ($.50/sq. ft) and should cover hiring a farmer for the initial tilling, soil test and amendments, tools and seeds and plants. In future years, that will probably remain the same, but it will cover more garden space, so the return on your annual investment will increase. A well-established and managed vegetable garden should produce at least $5/sq. ft of produce, so it will be worth it in the long run. You will need a lot more money if you also need a fence.

Get a basic soil test; find out how and where from your state extension service. This will tell you what it is possible to grow and what you need to do to make your soil best for producing vegetables. You can't realistically plan anything until you know what you are working with, so do that ASAP.

Make a list of what you want to grow, then cut it down to 10 crops. Choose things that will be realistic to preserve, if that is your focus. There is no point in going to the labor and expense of most berry crops - they take several years to get established, and in a rental property that may not be a realistic investment.

Read John Jeavons' book. This will give you the basics of design and composting. Don't worry about double-digging yet, it's too much space. Instead, hire a tractor to rototill the area you want to grow on for this year - about 4000 square feet should be a good start. Half of that should be planted to potatoes, pumpkins, and winter squash, and a green manure crop. The remaining 2000 square feet should be divided into a grid system of wide beds with equally wide paths between them. In following years your paths may get smaller, but it is best to start with wide paths because they are easy to manage in your war on weeds.This will give you a reasonable amount of growing space (about 1000 square feet) with another 3000 square feet being prepared for next year. If 1000 sq. ft. proves too much to manage, at least you haven't lost all the labor and expense on the other 3/4 of the space.

The major goals for this year should be building your soil and eliminating weeds. If you think growing lots of vegetables should be first on that list, you will be disappointed. You will likely have more vegetables than you can deal with, but if the weeds get ahead of you or you don't concentrate on the soil, next years' garden will be a bigger disappointment, because you will have just as many weeds and even less fertility.

You will be buying tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and onion sets to transplant. Everything else will be from seed. Buy the seed for fall crops now as well, because the selection is limited the longer you wait.

This may seem discouraging, but it is better to have a realistic idea of what you are getting into than to start big and quickly be overwhelmed. For an experienced gardener with the right equipment, 4000 square feet is manageable, but it means a few hours of gardening every day, and more than that on the week-ends. For a new gardener, 200 square feet can be more than they can manage. It's good to start big in terms of space, since you have it, because that will be more ground that is ready to use as your skills and interests evolve, but trying to do too much is self-defeating from the start.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 11:22AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

I won't repeat the warnings about how much work this is going to be. If you're going to do it, consider hiring someone with a tractor (or a big lawn tractor, minimum) with a tiller to till it up. I would do it in strips leaving grass in between for walkways. This should work as long as the grass is not a very aggressive type like creeping fescue or Bermuda, which would not only resprout from the tilled remnants but also reinvade from the walkways.

You could till more than you plan to use this season, and build compost piles on part of it. Next year, plant there, and improve the soil on this year's growing areas.

With perennials like berries, you have limited options to improve the soil after you plant them. You can mulch and side dress with compost, but you can't really dig anything in later.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 1:07PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

If I found myself in your situation, I would be asking:

1. How long do I plan to be in this house? If I was not realistically going to be in this house for a long time, I would cross asparagus and berry vines off of my want list. Asparagus take 2-3 years before being harvestable and berries likewise are a long term investment. The answer to this question would also influence my next question.

2. How much do I really want to spend on this? Around here, tractor work is around $50-60 for an hour. I would probably have the entire area tilled just to have that done. I would then determine how much I have available for soil amendments (I would probably just focus on compost). After the amendment budget, I would see how much ground I could cover with that. Any other area could be planted with cover crops to begin improving the soil fertility for next year. In my budgeting I would also include water costs if that is something you need to pay for.

Good luck and happy gardening!

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 1:55PM
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darth_weeder(z7 NY)

the first thing I thought of is, How are you going to water it?
Dragging a hose accross the street isn't going to cut it but the vehicles going down the road probably will, cut the hose I mean.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 2:28PM
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ok i will try to answer some questions and see if i can follow up on the others.

1. i dont have much cost in the planting as my uncle owns a place where i get my plants cheaper than dirt.
2. have someone willing to til area for dirt cheap too.
3. gonna do a soil test this weekend.
4. i dont work so i have all day to tend to my garden
5. we plan on being in this house for more than 10yrs. we signed a long term lease (5yrs)
6. this is a very rural area and the road i live in isnt traveled on hardly at all so a house across the road wont be harmed.
7. what would be the best cover crop?
8. billme i like your layout.
9. very grew potatoes before any help with that?
10. my last vege garden was 50x80 was really easy to care for so was looking to more than double that.
11. already have the fencing.
12. plan on leaving the berries to next year
13. my biggest things i want is
a. tomatoes
b. peppers- bell and hot peppers
c. cucumbers- eating and pickling
d. zuccini
e. beans
f. corn
g. lettuces
h. herbs- basil, oregano, parsley, chives, mint, cilantro
i. onions
j. garlic
k. potatoes- a good canning potato and sweet
l. pumpkins
14. concerning the water i do have a tank in my truck that i have a pump in that we plan on using mostly for the watering, so water cost isnt a concern.

i hope this helps if a question is still unanswered please let me know.
thank you all for all the help you are giving me.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 4:11PM
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scotty66(8 Hutto TX)

Don't over think it... gardening is a "just do it"!

Most of the plants you named are very hardy and will grow in almost anywhere.

I say get the guy out there and till the ground and get the crops in. Here in Texas it's past time for spring gardens to be in.

be very careful about the mint!!! It will spread like wildfire and takeover EVERYTHING. Probably best to grow in containers. An old neighbor I had planted some along a fence we shared and next thing i knew half my St. Augustine yard was mint. smelled great when i mowed but didn't look great.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 7:56PM
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darth_weeder(z7 NY)

well Chef all I can say is good for you and keep us posted on how things go.
As for a cover crop you have enough space to plant several, some for nitrogen like alfalfa which can be cut several times and left for several seasons, rye for biomass and maybe buckwheat for weed suppression. It all depends on your needs and budget(or what you can get cheap).
Also thanks for making my 1000 square foot garden seem less daunting.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 8:33PM
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For a project of this scale, "just doing it" is not as easy as it sounds, and failing to plan is roughly equivalent to planning to fail. Your answers clarify a lot, and make it much easier to create a multi-year plan that will increase both the odds of success and your yields annually. In zone 5 (PA mountains?) you still have a bit of time to get things going, so don't rush into anything.

Next questions:

What is the site like in terms of topography, orientation to the sun, and existing vegetation? You can tell a lot about soil conditions by what is already growing there, and if it was a hayfield, or over-grown and then bush-hogged, or lawn, the soil will have different characteristics.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 8:55PM
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it is flat and in full sun all day. existing vegetation is just some grass and some weeds. its mainly just grass. we are in PA mountains surrounded by farm land but that is about a mile away. we are sort of set in a small valley if you look up seminole pa that is where we live. I cant thank you all enough and thank you billme.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 10:06PM
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Okay, that explains the zone 5 designation.

Lets proceed on the assumption that you will double the size of your last garden, as you planned, and call it 50 x 200. 200 feet is a long way to walk to get to the end of a row, so you should make your beds a reasonable length... lets say no more than 50 feet. Think about how far you want to carry a 60 pound pumpkin, or a bushel of cucumbers, and you'll see the logic behind this. Divide the space into four quadrants, separated by a road down the middle that is wide enough to drive your truck-load of water down, that will make irrigation much easier. On one side of that road, in the middle of the garden, you will create the first compost pile. That will make it easy to add large quantities of material without having to haul it long distances by hand, and the soil beneath the composting area will be your richest soil next year, where you will be growing tomatoes and corn.
Don't wait too long to get the tilling done. As soon as you can get a tractor on there without damaging the soil, you should do it. Once you have the results of your soil test, you can start to design your garden. Some crops, like blueberries and potatoes, prefer a more acidic soil. If that is what you are starting with, you will avoid changing the pH in those areas. In acid soils, potatoes are a good first crop, because you don't have to adjust the pH for the first year, and when you are hilling and harvesting them you will be removing rocks and perennial weeds from the soil. Following the potato crop, you will adjust the pH and plant a quick green manure or a winter-killed cover crop or a short-season fall crop.Most annual vegetable crops prefer a slightly acidic soil; 6.5 to 7.0 is a safe range for most of them, and that is what you will be amending most to the area to get to. By designing the garden with permanent paths and beds, you will reduce the expense of adding amendments to any area that will be a path or a road. If you design your beds and paths to be the width of the tiller, you can eliminate some labor as well, but a tractor-mounted tiller may be wider than you find comfortable to work - most people end up with beds that are 3 or 4 feet wide, because it is easier to reach the middle. I build my beds only 21/2 feet wide, because it is easy for me to step over that width or straddle the bed without stepping on the soil. Either way, you should do all of your designing with the size of your body and the size of your tools as fixed elements - how long your stride is, how far you can reach while crouching, how long the trip is back to the house if you are being chased by a swarm of bees. Your wide paths should be as wide as the garden cart or wheelbarrow that you will use to spread compost, or load the bushel baskets into to take to the kitchen. Narrow paths should be as wide as a flat-bladed shovel or two times the width of your hoe or as wide as your iron garden rake - in other words, an efficient size for the tool you will use to maintain the path. In subsequent years, if you want more garden space, you can make the paths narrower and use the same footprint, or make the garden larger. Either way, you will need more tilling, more pH adjustment, and more compost. If, on the other hand, you find it is large enough for your needs, and you have managed the weeds properly, you may not need to till anything but cover crops.

You will notice that many people, including me, put a strong emphasis on compost. That is because it is the best way to build all of the good things you need for the garden with the least expense. It will make your soil more fertile, easier to work, both better draining and better at holding water simultaneously, will stabilize pH over time, reduce insect and disease issues because the plants are more resistant to them - it's pretty good stuff. Since it is made from plant material in various forms - including plant material that has gone in one end of an animal and out the other - it helps to replace all of the soil nutrients and minerals that you will be removing from the garden whenever you harvest something to eat. For these reasons, you'll want to have a good composting system in place. For this size garden, you will want a few small piles (in this case small is a relative term) that are about 4 feet wide, four feet long, and four feet high. These will be made of smaller materials as much as possible - shredded leaves instead of whole, grass clippings instead of hay, rabbit poop instead of cow - you get the idea. Because you will be moving this stuff a few times, smaller bits are easier to manage. Don't bother with bins or fencing or frames, just build piles. Once you have a pile that big, stand next to it, stick a pitchfork in it scoop up some of the material, turn around 180 degrees, and dump it on the ground. The distance between the little pile you just made and the edge of the big pile is wide the space should be between your compost piles, because that will be the most comfortable distance to move material. You should try to build and turn a pile every week, until you have six piles, each 4x4x4. By the sixth week, the first pile will have been turned twice (on the second and fifth weeks) and will be starting to look like rich potting soil. Let it sit for a few weeks more, and you will have your first "hot" compost.You will spread this on any bed that you harvest a crop from during the main growing season, so you will want to have more compost every time you plant a new crop. You will also have larger materials - a truck-load of horse poop, hay bales that get rained on, bags of leaves that your neighbors raked, or a barrel of spent mash from the still up the road a piece, (western PA was big moonshine country at one time) these will go in a long pile called a windrow, and they are just going to sit there for a year, and maybe get turned once if your tractor guy has some time and a bucket loader - or maybe it doesn't get turned. This will be your "cold" compost, and you will use it for large-scale applications in the fall, after your primary harvests are done. It will be along one side of the big bed of potatoes you will be planting - that bed may stay potatoes next year, or it may have a pH adjustment and be used for an early crop of peas followed by broccoli or kale or cabbage next year (I know they're not on your list but you will be ready to expand, and these are all "good keepers" as far as storage crops go, plus, there's sauerkraut). So how do you get all the stuff to build your compost piles? First, you use what you have, which is basically a field of grass. You want to harvest as much of that as possible, starting with the area you want to make a garden. Before the tiller gets there, mow the garden area, starting with a straight line down the middle with the mower deck at the highest setting. That will be the middle of the road that you will drive your truck full of water and manure and compost in, and truck-loads of vegetables out. After mowing a 200 foot long straight line, from east to west, turn 90 degrees, so the clippings get blown into the garden, not out, and mow 5 feet. Now turn 90 degrees again, so the clippings are blown towards the strip you just mowed, and mow another 200' strip parallel to the first till you are back to where you started. Turn 90 degrees, and mow 10 feet parallel to the 5 foot strip on the other end. At the end of the 10 feet, turn 270 degrees, and PULL the mower 200 feet, so the clippings are blowing AWAY from the first cut you took. This defines the width of the access road down the middle of the garden (I'm assuming your truck is less than 10 feet wide). When you get to the end of the third 200 foot strip. Turn 90 degrees again, and blow the trimmings into the center, and just keep cutting into that rectangle until you have a long mowed patch with a pile of grass clippings in the middle. That will be the beginning layers of your first compost pile. Now cut a path down the middle of the garden on the north south axis. This is your primary access path for the ends of the beds. You can make it as wide as you want, depending on what tools you want to use on it - wide enough for a truck, or just enough for a wheelbarrow, whichever works for you. follow the same procedure until that rectangular section is mowed, perpendicular to and bisecting the first. These are the four quadrants of the garden; one of them will be potatoes, a fairly easy crop to manage that stores well in a cool cellar - you will have food all winter that requires very little labor to keep, unlike tomatoes or corn, which must be canned, or frozen, or dried. After the potatoes you will plant a fall cover crop, or a quick fall crop like salad greens, and then in October that bed will be planted to garlic. Potatoes will help to remove rocks and weeds as you cultivate them, but they are not heavy feeders, so you can spread a bit of compost and start sewing seeds. The second quadrant will be for pumpkins and squash, which need lots of room. This bed will be potatoes next year if you decide to move them, or it could be peas and corn, or short-season rotations. The inside edge of the potato bed will be the long cold compost windrow, and the inside edge of the squash and pumpkin bed will be the hot compost piles which you will build starting with the grass you just mowed. The other two quadrants, north-east and north-west, will be this years' annual crops. You should mark where the roads and paths are, and then start mowing the quadrants,cutting rectangular spirals, and blowing the clippings toward the center. When the pile of clippings gets too large for the mower to handle, move the mower inside the pile of clippings and continue cutting inside the original rectangle. Eventually, you will have mowed the entire garden area, and will have some long low windrows of grass clippings, some brown, but some also green. These will be the bulk of your first "hot" pile, in the northwest corner of the southeast quadrant, closest to the center of the garden. You will do a subsequent mowing of the entire garden area at a much lower setting, and this will give enough material for the second pile. You should build the first pile 4x4x4. Measure the width of the comfortable space you need for turning the pile 180 degrees, and that is the western edge of the next 4x4 space. on the eastern edge, add the comfortable turning width and that mark another 4x4 space. This will be your second pile, and the 4x4 space between them will be where you turn the first pile, on the third week after you built it.

Given the size of your garden, and the diversity of crops, in addition to John Jeavons' book you should get The New Organic Grower or Four Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman. You may not be planning to be organic, but either of these books do an excellent job of explaining how to think of the garden on the scale that you are contemplating, and like Square Foot Gardening, take a remarkably complex system and break it down into a series of comprehensible practices and manageable tasks.

This is intended primarily as a design exercise, not a hard and fast blueprint to build your own garden, but I hope that you see where I'm going. This is the beginning of the process I go through when I'm designing a market-garden system, but the principals aren't that different for any garden, except for the difficulty of what it takes to gather the resources and stamina for a project of this size. As you flesh-out the details, some things will change, but if you adhere to principals of function, efficiency, and aesthetics, the design you do in your mind will make the realization much easier to accomplish. Good design takes into account your abilities and your existing resources. It solves a number of problems at the same time. It serves an immediate function and a longer-term one. It works efficiently, and because it follows a set pattern of rules and measurements, it is pleasing to look at as well as to work in. The more time you spend thinking about how and why you design things in a certain way, the more likely it is that you will come up with an efficient system that makes it possible to manage a large garden effectively. Bad design will result in having to redo certain aspects - there are some advantages to that, as well - but it will also be less pleasant to work in, less pleasant to view, and less productive, all serious issues if you are going to be spending that much time in the garden. I haven't even addressed most of the crops you mentioned.

Here is a link that might be useful: Seminole planting guide

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 9:56AM
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Here's a picture that may better describe the process of mowing to collect the clippings for compost. You may have to make several passes at progressively lower heights so the mower doesn't get overworked. You want to finish at the lowest possible setting, to collect as much material as possible and to make it easier to rototill. You will want to do the entire garden this way, and you will want to mow a grassy border around the outside of the garden to make it pleasant to walk around and reduce weed seed production and places for animals to hide. Anything else you can mow will also be a valuable addition to the compost. Eventually, the large space outside of the garden can be planted to crops specifically intended for compost making, which is the "gold standard" for sustainable gardening, and a luxury few gardeners have.

Here is a link that might be useful: mowing for compost

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 12:52PM
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wayne_5 zone 6a Central Indiana

I remember my first garden of my own...about 4,000 sq. ft. I just plowed it, disked it, and planted it. I had some pretty good gardens for the expense. I think I would have been choked up with so much advice in one day or two!!!

I like the quadrant type of layout. In fact that same "59 garden in quaded. Whether one grows in rows, beds, or whatever, I prefer a wider bed and DO walk on mine a bit. I prefer narrow paths between beds....about a foot wide...or no paths for rowed gardens. That is more than enough for me and a wheelbarrow. I would not want boards and such on a large garden.

Drainage is my first consideration. Right now I agree that you need that sod turned over. If it is just tilled up and rain keeps it partly alive, it could be a headache this year.

billme, $5 per sq. ft? Wow. That must be chic produce. I have plenty of space and don't have to hump it. Things like sweet corn, potatoes, and such might be worth $.25 Sq. Ft.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 4:59PM
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Wayne - that's why I don't grow corn, and very few potatoes and onions. $5 per square foot is based on intensive cropping, year-round growing, and yes, very high-end markets. Unusual varieties, off-season availability, and table-ready quality make a huge difference in price structure. My custom salad mixes, for instance, start at $12/lb, and can be twice that for a New York chef.

    Bookmark   March 14, 2012 at 5:20PM
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You mentioned that you are in a small valley.
Flooding might be a problem if you get heavy spring rains.
I used to live in PA and I know that spring hail is definately a problem.
I have learned to grow crops that can survive a spring hail storm like turnip, okra, carrot, beet, onion, etc.
Starting squash in large pots allows me to hold off transplanting until after the worst of the hail has passed.
Crops that cannot be mechanically harvested are the ones you are most likely to be able to grow cheaper
than you could buy them at a grocery store; mainly greens, but also things like squash, okra, leek, etc.

Here is a link that might be useful: Crop Rotation

    Bookmark   March 15, 2012 at 11:56PM
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I would lay out a large garden in a way that you could start in one corner & build a little each year.
I would put fruit trees & perennial vegetables around the edge of the over all garden, soon as I had the beds worked up.
The perennials need time to grow before producing fruit.
I would put it on graft paper & have the Extension agent help me with placement & variety for the fruit trees.
I am working on a 30 feet X 250 feet for my daughter now.
I have raised beds down the North/North-West side & fruit trees on the South & East side of the garden.
My beds are 40' long X 4' wide, but 20' long would make moving around the garden much easier.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2012 at 2:45PM
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Here is what I would do. First I would spray the present vegetation with an herbicide. If you have time, I would first spray a pre-emergent and then follow up with a grass killer. Then once you have pretty good kill, I would till it and rake out any rhizonmitous grass roots. If you only till, you will have weeds and if your grass was rhizomitous you will have lots of grass coming back up.

During tilling I would purchase a large amount of compost from a green waste facility. I would also probably try to obtain a lot of some type of manure.If you are in a rural area you should be able to do that pretty easily. Depending on my soil type I might actually fertilize in addition to or in lue of manure. Thats the thing about manure, it often contains weed seeds and starting fresh you are already going to be challenged with weeds. Then I would hoe into rows and plant either started plants or seeds. For watering I would try to sprinkle with a timer. I would also probably try to obtain some substance for a mulch/top dressing to try to prevent weeds. When watering with a water truck, watering might be your biggest challenge.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2012 at 2:43PM
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Wow. Lots of great stuff written for ya. I love these forums. My advice? you spend this year 1) Building and maintaining compost piles and also vermicomposting (worm farming) 2) Planning and learning 3) scoping the direction of the sun, the weather patterns and how this will impact your plants.

You can start next year. I did the same darned thing you did. I didn't have a garden until this year but I did try, I tell ya. In oklahoma we had a serious drought. Killed everything. BUT I learned a bunch and realized I started out WAY too big. If i hadn't started so big some of my plants could have been managed and saved. But, oh well. I still had a bunch of fun. THIS year.. oh boy. Look out .... I'm ready to eat already.. hurry up plants!

    Bookmark   March 22, 2012 at 4:46AM
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