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Educational content and resources to empower, uplift and inspire.

  • Writer's pictureMelissa Lareau

5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting a Home Garden

You have visions of walking through your yard harvesting fresh apples, walnuts and kale for dinner. You dream of what it would be like to pick your own cucumbers for face masks in the summer or pinch mint from the garden to make fresh tea.

You feel excited to grow your own food! Congratulations! It is an awesome experience and I am so excited for you to enjoy the rewards of growing, tending and harvesting food in your own front, back and/or side yards.

Inspired to realize this dream, you search the web and find many websites that show how to create raised beds, how to lay down weed barrier and tell you that you need to truck in ‘better’ dirt from an outside resource. This is not the best path forward.

These are outdated ideas based on antiquated systems of land use.

You deserve food that is toxin free and it’s fairly easy to do. I’d like to share with you the things I learned over the last fifteen years in my own garden and professionally while working on farms and with commercial and residential landscapes.

1. Skipping Step One: Soil Testing

First things first- remember to soil test. So many people forget or don’t even know that they should soil test. After you test, use the results to create a remediation plan that you complete before planting your food. I know you want to have those walnuts so bad but don’t you want to know that you aren’t eating arsenic as well? Or feeding them to your Grandma in the beautiful pie you just baked? Don’t feed Grandma arsenic disguised as a pie!

We live in a polluted environment, so it is likely you have some toxins in your landscape. The only way to really know which ones and how much is to test your soil. When the results come back, plant specific plants which neutralize the toxins. Test after each planting cycle and replant until the level of toxins and heavy metals are non toxic. Simple, easy and pretty affordable. No excuses.

If you have more money than time, please check out Dirt Revolution’s service listings for these offerings and we are happy to assist you in getting on track towards food security and a toxin free landscape. If you have more time than money, please use our tutorials and how to guides to do this for yourself. This must come first in the priorities for your new garden. Test your soil!

2. Raised Beds

Raised beds do not protect you from the pollutants in the environment or the dirt. Like washing your fruits and vegetables, raised beds will only provide an illusion of protection. In reality, raised beds provide a little more growing matter for the plants and more area for water to be absorbed. These are great things but they don’t protect you from toxins.

Yes, heavy metals such as lead are heavy and should stay underneath the barrier that you made. But I do not accept that covering up the problem is the best solution. Especially since there are better solutions like phytoremediation and mycoremediation.

In some cases, they even cause more pollutants to go into your food. Weed barriers are made of plastic and like all things in the soil, degrade over time. As they break down, they leach into the ground and your food. The thing that is meant to protect you from the toxins creates an additional source of it. Also, weed barriers don’t really work or really apply in the instance of a raised bed. Weeds don’t tend to sprout up out of the Earth from a foot deep. Weeds are typically small and have shallow surface roots, unless the garden has been grossly under managed or neglected.

3. Bringing In Outside Dirt

Current best practice in soil remediation is to remove the toxic soil and bury it somewhere else or burn it and then bring in what is considered new ‘good’ dirt. Bringing in dirt from outside sources requires fossil fuels to run the machines that extract the soil and then the fuel for the vehicles to transport it. If the soil is packaged from a commercial soil producer, then there is an additional fossil fuel aspect of the plastic that is wrapped around the soil to transport it in smaller proportions.

In addition to the intense fossil fuel usage of bringing in ‘new and better’ dirt, this process disrupts the environment and habitat where the soil is sourced from to be trucked in. These destructive and hidden environmental costs are not sustainable.

I think of this as a ‘good enough’ issue. Mother Nature did not make crap. The dirt you have is good enough. Say it with me- “My dirt is good enough.” It may need some care and attention before you have a toxin free, flourishing microorganism community that supports any plant life that you put in it but I promise you that whatever dirt you have is good enough. Your dirt is good enough! Let’s just help it go through some positive changes to produce outstanding results.

4. The Seduction of Using Fertilizers: Just Say No

We know that advertising affects us. We are constantly bombarded with messaging and unfortunately most of it does not have our best interest at heart. The seductive lure of being guaranteed a wildly productive garden with little to not effort can be strong for many. Also, people don’t always know that there are alternatives.

My blog post “We Know Chemical Fertilizers are Bad for Your Garden, but Why?” I go into more detail. In essence, chemical fertilizers disrupt the natural symbiotic relationship between microorganisms and plants. They also create a dependency for the plants on the nutrients they receive from the fertilizer. This means two things. You will be paying for this indefinitely with not great results and you have created your plants to be drug addicts. Just say no! Mother Nature is a lot smarter than any chemical company.

5. Forgetting to Plant Trees: Avoid the Seasonal Silo

Seasonal fruits and vegetables are great but they do not represent the full range of food that is possible for you and your loved ones to grow. Being food security is not about growing something in a single season; it is about reaping the rewards of energy investments over time.

Food security is: having systems in place that support sustainability,the time and energy invested in the development of trees and herbal medicines in addition to annual foods which need to be seeded every year into the garden. It is about having the food that you and your loved ones want to eat available regardless of what is happening with the rest of the world. That is security to have everything you need regardless of anything else.

Food security is not typically achieved in a single season. Think the long game and I urge you to include fruit and nut trees in your planting plan for food security. Most trees take on average 2-5 years to mature to fruit production stage and go up in cost exponentially as they reach those more mature stages.

As they mature, you are paying for the time it took the nursery or tree farm to care for the tree. An organic fruit/nut tree approximately 2-3’ in height costs ~$25, whereas a mature tree can start at hundreds of dollars and go up. Mature palms go for as much as $30,000. A mature walnut tree can cost $20,000. Think compound interest savings.

Some people do not consider planting trees because they think they need to own acres of land. If you were planting a commercial orchard with hundreds, even thousands of trees, yes you would need considerable acreage. But food security is more accessible than you think. I have lived in urban areas for my entire adult life. For the last nine years I have lived in the Bay Area (San Francisco and Oakland) and have over twenty different trees in my parking lot urban garden. I maximize the space and water by building multi-tier beds. I bought two kumquat trees 5 years ago and have had consistent multi-season harvests for the last three years. Trees just need a minute to get into their stride; get yourself a fruit or nut tree today.

Creating a home garden can be one of the most fulfilling activities to engage in. If you avoid these common mistakes you will create a garden that feeds you and your loved ones for years to come. Now you know what not to do, let’s review.

1. Remember to Soil Test FIRST. Soil Testing will tell you what toxins and what quantities exist in your soil so you can make a plan to remediate. Plant the appropriate plants/trees as needed to remediate until toxins reduce to a non-toxic level.

2. Raised Beds do not protect you from polluted soil. If you choose to have raised beds for increased surface area and a little extra soil for your plants, great. Just remember, that the plastic weed barrier will degrade and become toxic as well so better to just forget that step altogether.

3. The dirt you have is good enough. Bringing in outside dirt disrupts other environments and habitats and just pushes around the problem. If you work with the soil you have, you greatly reduce your carbon impact and also help to restore natural cycles. Microorganisms are a gardener’s best friend.

4. When it comes to the promise of a guaranteed garden that involves chemical fertilizers, just say NO! Chemical fertilizers disincentivize your plants to feed carbon sugars to microorganisms and in the long run will cost you money and time.

5. Tree-Vesting. Invest your time, energy and resources into the growth of trees as part of your local food forest. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are great but you also want to plan for the long term access to great food for you and your family.

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