Garden Preparation: A Homestead Garden

Garden preparation is one of the basic homesteading skills. If your path to simple living is homesteading, learn to create an organic garden. Your life on the land will be enriched beyond belief.

“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” — May Sarton

The size of your organic garden will depend on your intentions. If, as we do, you intend to make the produce from your garden a large part of your daily fare, you will want a good sized garden. Ours is now approximately 20’ by 70’ (about 6 m by 21 m).

If you also intend to grow for a farmers market and earn extra income from your garden, you will undoubtedly go bigger.

Starting from scratch…

Because our homestead is on the edge of the Dragoon Mountains in the SE Arizona desert, we are “blessed” with a lot of rocks in our soil. Eons of rain have eroded the mountains and washed down rock into the patch of ground we use as a garden. Some of the rocks are large, 18”-24” across, and HEAVY.


We used our Terramite T5C, a small backhoe/front loader that we call our Tonka Toy, to take out mesquite roots and those big rocks. For similar soil conditions and equipment needs, you can buy, rent, or talk to a neighbor about sharing.

After removing the large rocks and roots, we began soil prep. We took manure from the ‘old’ end of our neighbor’s horse manure pile, using manure that has aged for two years or more. We dumped this on the ground where the garden would be. For our 20’ x 70’ garden, we brought over 15 loads of manure in the front loader and spread it roughly with rakes, about 4 inches deep.

Then rototilling began. We tilled thoroughly in one direction and then completely rototilled in a pattern 90 degrees out from the first passes. As we tilled, we picked out the medium sized rocks, tennis ball size and larger.

The payoff is a clean garden. This is especially important for carrots or beets – any root crop. Your root crops will distort and struggle in rocky soil.

Now, at the end of each growing season, we simply dig in a load of manure and/or compost to maintain our soil’s fertility. As long as we take care of the soil, it will continue to produce food for us.

Drainage is not a problem for our sandy-to-silty bajada soil, but if yours is loaded with clay, your plants will appreciate some sand dug in during initial preparation. If you don’t provide for good drainage, your plants will suffer from wet feet and have difficulty in extending their roots into the dense soil.

Laying out your garden…

After these two initial soil modification activities, we laid out our garden beds. We had two primary considerations: pathways wide enough to accommodate maneuvering a wheelbarrow and beds narrow enough to cultivate and harvest without walking in the bed.

We laid out beds that were 3’ wide and 15’ long with 2’ walkways between beds and a 2 1/2’ perimeter garden path. These paths are a minimum if you use a conventional wheelbarrow.

The first year, we simply raked water retaining berms around each bed. We then converted to raised beds, using 4” x 4” landscape timbers.

Final soil preparation…

Once our beds were in place and our fencing was up, we did one final soil amendment.

We still had many more rocks than we felt were acceptable for healthy garden plants. Sooo…

A screen was made by stretching 1/2” hardware cloth over a simple wooden rectangle. We built the frame (26”x20”) to just overlap the edge of our wheelbarrow.

Parking the wheelbarrow in the path, we used a round nosed shovel and dug the bed into the wheelbarrow through the screen, one shovelful at a time.

As the wheelbarrow filled, it was emptied back into the bed minus the rocks. When the bed had been completely screened a layer of manure and aged compost from our bins was added to the surface and dug in with a spading fork or a couple passes with the rototiller. A final raking and the bed was ready for seeds and plants.

Once the heavy preparation was done, we have only done routine enrichment and bed rotation for the past years. Now, we enjoy our fresh, frozen, or canned organic produce all year. It is well worth the labor of good garden preparation. For more information on new garden preparation in your unique setting, we recommend The Garden Primer, a great book by Barbara Damrosch and a great addition to any gardener's library.


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