Unlock the Secrets of Successful Food Growing and Garden Design

Unlocking the secrets of successful food growing and garden design can be the most rewarding experience for anyone. Growing up on our farm in Novi, Michigan I always saw my grandfather tending to his garden every day, often all day. That was his little piece of heaven. We had a small orchard of various fruit trees by the house and apple trees in the back horse pasture.

When he was done, he would take care of all his bee hives, producing his wonderful honey. He produced clover honey (the taste was incredible – not like today for some reason), buckwheat honey, and even the honeycomb, which my mother loved!

I preferred waiting with a spoon for it to go into jars so I could eat that delicious honey. He would often give vegetables to people including the people at the police department. They loved his honey but couldn’t wait to eat fresh vegetables.

Those memories stuck with me all these years. When it comes to growing your food and designing your garden, it can bring great memories for you as well. It can also be your little piece of heaven. Being able to tend to my garden is something I have always loved and find very relaxing.

Click here to see how to put the Vegega beds together (coming soon)

Expanding Our Garden 2024

This year we expanded our garden and after some extensive research – a month-long, checking everything from design, durability, metals used, toxicity, and reviews, a clear winner came out on top – Vegega Raised Beds!!! We ordered 3 beds at first (they had a great sale) and after putting them together, we fell in love. We still have our original 3 wood beds which will now be for all the tomatoes I grow. But these new beds are fantastic and we ordered 6 more. The Vegega beds come in a variety of shapes and colors and can be configured in different ways. So our new 30′ x 30′ expanded design looks like this:

The new area was expanded to 30′ x 30′ (approx) with the new beds being 8’L x 2’W x 17″H!! The wood beds we had previously (which we still have) were two 4′ x 10′ x 18″ and one 4′ x 8′ x 18″. For me, they were a pain being so big. If you look at my other garden photos further down in this post, you will see how large my plants get. My tomato plants get over 6′ tall easily and I have a difficult time trying to get the ripe fruit in the center. We feel the new sizes will be perfect and spaced better. Not to mention these beds are guaranteed to last 20 years! That is a winner in my book.

An important tip to Unlocking the Secrets of Successful Food Growing and one of the most important things to keep in mind is watching the sun for several days in the spring and early summer. You will then be able to determine the best place for your beds by where the sun hits. I also laid our beds out the way it is pictured on the design because the sun comes up from an angle to hit one side, and continues up and over the other side. Always look at how the sun goes across your yard. For my lettuce and cabbage, I’ll be adding some sort of sunshade.

One reason we chose Vegega is because of the customization. Vegega has several color choices and our favorite was the beautiful blue, which happens to closely match the siding on our house and garage. We found them incredibly easy to put together, the protective film on each panel was VERY easy to remove. All are now full of compost and plants.

Let me add one thing – the way these are built is incredible. Now keep in mind there are other “knockoffs” similar but they are NOT built the way these are. We ordered 6 more and are now in the new garden. One of the best things about these beds is that they can be configured in different ways, as well as come in different sizes. We wanted to get the “L-Shape” ones but they are out of stock. Either way, our new plan will be exciting, and rewarding, and I will certainly enjoy being in my garden more. I even designated a small area for a chair and table in the corner to sit and take in all the beauty of these Vegega Beds and all that is growing.

Before we go into putting the beds together, let’s talk more about your garden. You’ll want to ask yourself several questions:

  • How large or small do you want your garden to be? Lay out the dimensions on paper.
  • Where does the sun hit in your garden? Does it travel across the entire garden?
  • Do you want to start with growing from seeds indoors or purchase seedlings?
  • What plants do you want to grow?
  • What type of soil “in the ground” do you have or will you be growing in raised beds?
  • Do you want to grow organic?
Growing my own food in raised beds. 
Pictured are potatoes in the front and tomatoes in the back of the garden beds
The results of our previous garden. Growing tomatoes in the back and potatoes in the front.

All of these things are important to determine what you will do with your garden. Growing your own food is one of the most satisfying and relaxing things you can do – plus it allows you to choose and experiment. I love being able to produce our food so I started them indoors. I was not able to get the seeds from my usual source as I was ordering them too late so I made do with other purchased seeds (Burpee, Ferry-Morse, Baker Creek, etc). Heads up, you should order your seeds in December or January at the latest to make sure they are not sold out. The two best seed companies are Baker Creek and Twilleys.

You want to be sure that the seeds you purchase have an excellent germination rate. I only buy from certain companies because of their germination. Seeds I have purchased from Burpee, Ferry-Morse, etc. more than half did not germinate.

If you are starting seeds indoors, you’ll want to have a couple of germination seedling trays. Start planting the seeds about 6-8 weeks before the last frost (I live in Michigan so I start mine in early March). Using a good compost mixture, (I have also used coconut coir in the mixture) fill your trays to the top and press down on each opening to compress the mixture, adding more if needed to be at the top. If you are using one of the seed dispensers (see below), insert the seeds into the proper depth and cover. I also have a propagation tray I use which goes under the germination tray so it will catch the water.

After your tray is filled, gently water it with a watering can that has small holes. Keep the seedlings moist but do not overwater. It’s a good idea to use a humidity dome to help keep everything moist. Make sure you remove it when the seedlings come up and are 1″ high. These domes help keep everything moist and warm (see below).

The secret to growing vegetables and fruit that are produced all or most of the season is to plant the seeds in stages. This means if you plant 4 seeds for squash (or whatever you are growing), you can thin them out after they start growing and are about 2″ high. Next week plant 2-3 more, 2 weeks after that, seed maybe 2 more, etc. This way when they go out into your garden, they will produce in stages so they do not all harvest at once.

When it comes to lighting, you want to use the LED grow light that you can switch between blue and red light. Use the blue on seedlings first until they get about 4″ tall. Then you can switch to the red to help your seedlings continue to grow properly and to flower indoors before going out. Full-spectrum grow light mimics the UV rays from the sun, which helps your plants grow better due to more light reaching them. These types of grow lights can emit light with a different wavelength that makes it invisible to the naked human eye.

You can also use a common “warm white” color temperature, as the “ratio” of wavelengths is ideal for plants. 3000K/4000K (warm) LED spectrums happen to have an ideal amount of blue light and a good amount of yellow light for growth power.  Make sure you adjust the height of the light above the seedlings for the proper bulb wattage. The best place to buy grow lights and growing supplies is at a hydroponic store, including the Coconut Coir. They will be able to help you. Use the chart below for the proper placement of lights over the trays.

1W Bulbsat least 12″ (30cm) from the seedlings
3W or 5W Bulbsat least 18″ (45cm) from the seedlings
Distance of lighting from the top of plants

When your plants reach 4″ tall, and if the weather has been warming up with no frost, you can then start taking them outside every day to “harden” or acclimate for 1-2 weeks, bringing them in at night. At that point, you can plant them outside.

After your tray is filled, gently water it. Keep the seedlings moist but do not overwater. I also use a humidity dome to help keep everything moist but you need to remove it when the seedlings come up and are 1″ high otherwise they can become “leggy”.

If you are starting seeds indoors, you’ll want to have a couple of germination seedling trays. Start your seedlings about 6-8 weeks before the last frost (if you live north start in early March). Using a good compost mixture, (I have also used coconut coir in the mixture) fill your trays to the top and press down on each opening to compress the mixture, adding more if needed to be at the top. Use one of the above dispensers, insert the seeds into the proper depth and cover. I also have a blank propagation tray that I use to put under the germination tray so it catches the water.

Your garden is only as good as the soil it grows in. If growing inground, you will need to test the soil for what is lacking. Another reason why I love raised beds – you control everything. Make sure the soil you are using has some peat moss (or coconut coir) with compost mixed in. Some places sell special soil for starting seeds you can use. Fill your growing trays with the soil mixture (I prefer coconut coir), then press down with your thumb to compress it so you can if you need to add more soil you can add at this point. Using a seed dispenser, you can sow the seeds (I purchased mine from Gurneys and it is worth it, or you can purchase one from Amazon. The 2nd one has a dial that you can turn for the size of the seed which is extremely helpful. I actually have both because of the different sizes of seeds.

Putting the Vegega Beds Together

Stay tuned for more info, photos, and how-to videos. Please check out their site – I know you will fall in love with theirs as much as we did! http://www.vegega.com

From start to finish, you can have a beautiful new bed in just 32 minutes!! So now that you have ordered your wonderful Vegega beds, here are a few snapshots of what to do. One thing I found is some people said they had a hard time peeling off the plastic. You will see in one of the photos above that if you look at any corner, you will see where the film is – start there, peel, and pull. It is that easy. Both Jeff and I did it together. We both pulled off the film, then we both started adding the screws, washers and nuts. When we were halfway through, Jeff then went behind me and tightened each one up, while I continued to insert the screws, washers, and nuts.

So our first 3 Vegega beds are now set up and the 6 we ordered and arrived. They are all put together now – so we will have a total of 12 beds. I LOVE these beds. We did all the research for you – just head over to their site at www.vegega.com to order yours. Be sure to let me know how much you like them. We will be uploading videos of putting it together soon.

The secret to having vegetables and fruit produced all season is to plant the seeds in stages. This means if you plant 4 seeds for squash (you can thin them out after they start growing if 2 seeds are planted together), next week plant 2-3 more, 2 weeks after seed maybe 2 more. This way when they go out into your garden, they will produce in stages so they do not all harvest at once.

Proper Lighting

When it comes to lighting, you want to use the LED grow light that you can switch between blue and red light. Use the blue on seedlings first until they get about 4″ tall. Then you can switch to the red to help your seedlings continue to grow properly. It also helps them to flower indoors before going out. Full-spectrum grow light mimics the UV rays from the sun, which helps your plants grow better due to more light reaching them. This type of grow light can emit light with a different wavelength that makes it invisible to the naked human eye.

You can also use a common “warm white” color temperature, as the “ratio” of wavelengths is ideal for plants. 3000K/4000K (warm) LED spectrums happen to have an ideal amount of blue light and a good amount of yellow light for growth power.  Make sure you adjust the height of the light above the seedlings for the proper bulb wattage. The best place to go to buy grow lights and growing supplies is at a hydroponic store, including the Coconut Coir. They will be able to help you. Use the chart below for the proper placement of lights over the trays.

1W Bulbsat least 12″ (30cm) from the seedlings
3W or 5W Bulbsat least 18″ (45cm) from the seedlings
Distance of lighting from the top of plants

When your plants reach 4″ tall, and if the weather has been warming up with no frost, you can then start taking them outside every day to “harden” or acclimate for 1-2 weeks, bringing them in at night. Then you can plant them outside.

Creating Your Garden Space

Growing your own food and designing a garden will Depend on the area you have available, whether it be large or small you can do something similar. My goal was to be able to grow our own produce and not rely on store-bought. Too many recalls, produce not looking good, or they are sold out. This way I can control what to grow. My original 3 raised beds were wood. One was for growing potatoes. The measurements for the center bed are 8′ x 4′ x 22″ high. After I harvested the first batch of potatoes I think this bed could have easily been 16-18″ high as long as you have a good mix of soil. The two outer ones on each end are 10′ x 4′ x 18″ high, one specifically for tomatoes but I needed more room (mine get huge). We wanted to utilize the original raised beds so we moved them along the back to give me 28′ of growing space for all my tomato plants. As you can see by my garden design above, I will be able to grow a variety of vegetables, and even room for blueberry and raspberry bushes.

Deciding Which Plants To Grow

Start planning and deciding on what you want to grow. Where you live and the room you have will dictate how you will grow your own food. For instance, if you live in an apartment or Condo with a balcony or patio, you can do container gardening provided you have enough sunlight coming in that area. If you are fortunate to have more room, stretch out and expand your horizons!

What plants do you want to grow the most? Tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, strawberries, lettuce? For strawberries, you need quite a few plants to produce a good crop but even 3-4 plants will give you some fruit to eat. Do you like to pickle? Then you can plant pickling cucumbers and you will need to let it either spread out or let it climb on some sort of a trellis. For pickles, I prefer the Boston Pickling cucumbers. Generally, squash and cucumbers can take up a lot of room but there are a few smaller varieties. Make a list of what you want to grow.

TIP: And always plant a little marigold in spots by your tomatoes to help ward off pests. Onion bulbs work as well to repel pests.

growing my own food - green spaghetti squash
Green Spaghetti Squash

Now that my garden has been re-designed, the entire back of the original wood beds will be all my tomato plants. I plan to grow Peppers (different varieties), onions, garlic, lettuce, celery, beets, radishes, cabbage, carrots and herbs.

I did have 1 bed previously for potatoes that produced about 25 lbs of potatoes, this year it has become another bed for my canning tomatoes (Amish Roma tomatoes are spectacular).

Previously the other bed held several varieties of tomatoes. Since I am experimenting with several different kinds, I wanted to see how they did in a raised bed. In addition, I wanted to see how they compared not only in taste but growing time, diseases, etc. For Roma tomatoes, the Amish tomato scored a 10! Not only in abundance but in taste as well. Brad’s atomic tomatoes were a wonderful treat. They are more like grape tomatoes in size but the color is a wow factor. Celebrity and Big Boy won out over the other “large” tomatoes. Plus the celebrity does well against diseases. I also tried a “chocolate” tomato that was interesting. A little hard to find unless you grow from seed.

I also have strawberries. Everbearing strawberry plants produce fruit throughout an entire growing season rather than just in June. Beginning in spring, with intermittent crops throughout summer and early fall. They are a delicious source of fresh fruit in the home garden. They are also perennial and will come back year after year. The best ones are Ozark and Quinalt. They are bigger and very tasty. There is another variety I tried called Merlin but it did not test out well. The fruits were small and did not spread out like the Ozark or Quinalt. You should be able to find the plants at places like Home Depot, and Menards. My #1 favorite is Quinalt. Check your

Growing your own food can be very rewarding in many ways. You even get to experiment with different types of vegetable plants. For tomatoes, and after reviewing the various plants/brands and testing them, Beefmaster and Beefsteak were good (as they always are). Celebrity was fantastic – not as big but well worth it. The only problem with Beefsteak, Beefmaster, and other large tomatoes is they are susceptible to diseases so I prefer the Celebrity and Big Boy. As far as cherry tomatoes go, by far, the Husky Red Cherry tomato was a 10 for taste and the huge amount it produces. I happened to find these at Home Depot and they are Prolific in bearing tomatoes. They do have a dwarf variety you can get for smaller spaces. The taste of these was sooooo good.

When it comes to Roma tomatoes, Both the Roma and the San Marzano were good! But the #1 producer is the Amish Roma. Oh my goodness – they were so meaty and the plants were loaded with fruit. They all produced well, and the taste was slightly different. San Marzano is loved by many and I found the Amish roma slightly sweeter and produced far more.

Now if you want something really different in cherry/grape tomatoes – Brad’s Atomic Tomatoes were incredible. They mature a little later and watching them grow and turn into several colors is amazing. Most of the insides of them are green with some slightly different.

When planting tomatoes, make sure you get tomato cages that are tall enough. I would not advise getting the shorter ones as mine have gotten as high as 6.5′ tall. Tomato cages sell out quickly so get them early. Anything over 54″ should be good. You may have to order them online. The first and second year we were caught off guard as to how high they reached. We couldn’t find tall cages anywhere and most places were sold out online. That year we actually had to find a very tall tree branch that broke off to support it. It was crazy.

Evaluating Your Soil

The only definitive way to know your soil quality is to have it tested. Your local Cooperative Extension Service likely provides this service for a nominal fee. Many nurseries also test soil. The soil report you receive will give you a wealth of information on your soil’s texture, pH, and nutritional composition. It will even offer recommendations on what amendments to use, and in what quantities, to correct any deficiencies.

You can make a guesstimate of your soil quality by looking at your plants’ health. If they are thriving, don’t fix what isn’t broken. But if your plants are yellowing or otherwise looking sickly, it could be worth testing your soil. It’s best not to guess when it comes to amending your soil because it’s difficult to identify exactly what it needs. For example, what appears to be a nutritional deficiency calling for fertilizer might turn out to be a pH issue.

Adjusting The Soil

Adjust the Soil pH. Soil pH is critical because plants can’t properly take up nutrients unless the acid/alkaline levels are in their ideal range. If a soil test shows your pH is off, you will get a recommendation to add either lime to raise the pH or sulfur to lower it. In an existing garden, this should be done in stages, so you don’t shock the plants.

Adjusting the Soil Texture With Organic Material

When I started creating my own garden, I received a lot of great advice and questions from my sister Barbara, who has her degree as a Master Gardener. With our soil here, there is quite a bit of sand. And since we were not going to go in-ground due to the multiple residences of the pesky moles, our gardening is done in raised beds. You will first want to evaluate your soil to see what you have unless you will be growing them in some sort of a raised bed.

Proper soil texture is essential. It allows roots to take up moisture and air. Dense, clay-type soils can remain too moist, which in turn causes roots to drown, while sandy soils can drain too quickly for roots to absorb moisture. The soil where I live has a lot of sand. So I needed to bring in good soil/compost mix. The best way to improve soil texture is by adding organic material, such as compost or peat moss. Decaying organic matter helps sandy soil by retaining water that would otherwise drain away. And it corrects clay soil by making it looser, so air, water, and roots all can penetrate. Plus, for all soils, it encourages beneficial microbial activity and provides nutritional benefits. I use a base plant-based compost, then add worm castings, peat moss, & mushroom compost. (see Where to Get your Materials and What to Do” below.

Common forms of organic material to amend garden soil:
More Organic Way:
  • Plant-Based Compost: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! Compost makes an excellent amendment, and it’s free if you’re composting your garden waste and kitchen scraps. Or you can call your local nursery to see if they sell a plant-based material compost as we did.
  • Peat moss: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! Peat moss is cheap and works well to loosen soil. It’s also very dusty, so wet it first to make it easier to work with.
  • Worm Castings: 100% pure Organic – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!  Worm Castings are the rich digested soil that red wiggler worms leave behind. Savvy gardeners know them to be chock-full of organic plant food, plus beneficial microbes that aid plant growth and help fight off disease. What makes worm castings so great? It’s the worm. As it digests the organic materials it consumes, it refines them. Nutrients, including minerals and trace elements, are reduced to their most usable form. The castings have a neutral pH of 7.0. The process of making worm castings is commonly known as vermicomposting or vermiculture.
  • Mushroom compost: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! It is a type of slow-release, organic plant fertilizer. The compost is made by mushroom growers using organic materials such as hay, straw, corn cobs and hulls, and poultry or horse manure. Since the mushroom growing process varies slightly between individual growers, mushroom compost recipes may differ here and there. For instance, additional materials like gypsum, peat moss, lime, soybean meal, and various other organic items may be added to the compost as well. Mushroom compost is generally sold in bags labeled as SMC or SMS (spent mushroom compost or spent mushroom substrate). It is available at many garden centers or through landscape supply companies. Mushroom compost is also available for purchase by the truckload or bushel, depending on its use in the garden.
  • Grass clippings: You can work grass clippings and other plant debris directly into a garden bed to decompose slowly. Be sure whatever you put down is free of seeds and hasn’t been treated with pesticides, herbicides, or any fertilizers.
  • Manure: You often can obtain manure from local farms and stables. It should be composted until it turns dark black, crumbly, and odorless. Besides the smell, fresh manure has too much ammonia and can burn your plants. If growing organic, you do not want to use manure. I do not use manure for other reasons. I try to keep my vegetables growing as clean as possible.
  • Happy Frog Soil Conditioner – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! I can’t say enough good things about this product. It is very good and helps your plants. Its not necessarily organic as it contains bat guano.

Where to get your materials and what to do

I brought in a plant-based compost mixture from our local Landscape supplier which consisted of good topsoil, mixed with plant matter, and small pieces of bark. I then added bags of worm castings, peat moss, and mushroom compost. The ratio is 2:1 of soil and whatever you amend it with or what I do is 1/3, 1/3, and 1/3 of what you use (1/3 Compost & top soil mix, 1/3 Worm Casting, 1/3 Mushroom Compost). This year I will be adding another mixture “Happy Frog”. It is a great soil amender. For a protective “top layer” – I use fine straw as a mulch in all the beds. Don’t use regular straw, try to find the fine straw.

Constructing Your Wood Beds

The next step after constructing the beds was to line the bottom with a type of wire fencing where the holes were very narrow. If you do not have a mole problem you can skip this. The narrowness of the wire is important if you have residents such as moles. I cut each piece to come up on the sides about 3-4″ and nailed it with a plastic 1″ “Plasti-Top” (or something similar). This is a nail that has a plastic round cap attached to it (see photo below).

Then use a weed barrier, laying it on the bottom and again coming up 4″ on the sides and nailing it as well. You will need to cut it and lay it down in sections. This has prevented the moles and weeds from coming up in the garden. After that was completed, I could then fill it with the topsoil mixture. The beds were then hosed down twice to thoroughly saturate the soil so it settles before planting. I waited 24-48 hrs before planting the seedlings and plants. It was now time for the plants to be planted. Keep in mind, after a year, your soil will compress more so you will need to top it off and amend it.

Fencing It Off

The final part of the garden was to fence the perimeter off. After doing quite a bit of research, the best and one of the most recommended ideas was to use chicken wire. It seems most squirrels do not like chicken wire. In addition to our mole population, we have quite a population of squirrels. A few love to come to the side or front door and look in begging for nuts! Some try to keep climbing up the shepherd’s hook (pole) to get at the bird feeders – but once I put up a slinky on the pole, they can’t reach it now. It is fun to watch them try and the slinky just goes up and down! Squirrels love gardens and I watch them jump in my beautiful flowers and break them. Watching them eat my flowers was not fun (ugh), so this needed to be done well.

We purchased two large rolls of tall chicken wire. Then a trench was dug all around the garden. Bury it 3″ into the ground and use fencing “T” posts to hold it. There are a variety of ways to secure the fence. Zip ties worked great as you can really tighten them to help make the fencing tighter. Make sure you measure a portion so you can make a gate that you can open and close as well that gives you enough room to go through with a wheelbarrow or a garden wagon. This has been a huge success. There are no squirrels, moles and so far no birds. Success!

Harvesting Your Crop

You will enjoy watching your garden grow and anticipating your first harvest. All in all, gardening can be so therapeutic and relaxing. Whether you have a large or small garden, each harvest will bring smiles to everyone! Below are pictures of what I harvested from my garden. I hope you enjoy your little piece of heaven!

Michele Wallace

Entrepreneur and author of A Plant-Based Revolution.com. Michele has also earned her Plant-Based Nutrition Certification from eCornell University. The book is an easy and complete guide for those wanting to get healthy and offers step-by-step instructions, including over 85 delicious and healthy recipes.
A Plant-Based Revolution is dedicated to whole food plant-based nutrition.

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