Getting Started with Organic Vegetable Gardening

Episode 7
Sustainability Book Chat

getting started with organic vegetable gardening

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If you are looking for ideas on getting started with organic vegetable gardening, we are talking about everything you need to know! Which vegetables are the best for beginners? How do you actually start to plant? What size should your garden be? What can you do with container gardening?

Gary Pilarchik, author of The Modern Homestead Garden, is sharing his gardening wisdom with listeners today. In addition to his personal gardening experience, Gary also has a garden shop, so he has plenty of experience helping new gardeners get started and avoid common pitfalls, which we discuss in the show.

Whether you live on 50 acres or in a condo, Gary has information that will help you to start growing at least some of your own food. And he even talks about creating beautiful landscaping that just happens to be edible.

Learn more about Gary Pilarchik online:

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Deborah Niemann 0:04
Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever size your living space, you can do more than you think to lead a greener lifestyle. In the “Sustainability Book Chat,” we are talking to authors and experts about all the different ways that achieving sustainability is within your reach.

Deborah Niemann 0:28
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. This is really exciting, because we’re gonna be talking about one of my favorite topics. I’ve said this lots of times in my books and other writing and stuff, that gardening is going to give you a better return than anything that you could ever invest in in the stock market. And on top of it, it’s going to help you eat healthier, and get you some exercise, which you can’t find on any stock market investment. Today, I am talking to Gary Pilarchik, who has a YouTube channel called “The Rusted Garden Homestead,” and he just wrote a book called The Modern Homestead Garden. Welcome to the show today, Gary!

Gary Pilarchik 1:09
Thank you so much for having me.

Deborah Niemann 1:11
This is such a great topic that is near and dear to my heart. My first book, Homegrown and Handmade, I talk about getting started with gardening, because I just feel like it’s something that, like, everyone should do, even if it’s on a small scale. And I said, if you don’t have anything else, like, you can at least grow sprouts in your kitchen. And my first successful crop I ever harvested was a jar of alfalfa sprouts, and everybody has to start somewhere. So, there are a lot of books on gardening. And, I love the fact that you are focusing on the homestead garden. And so, I was wondering, just right off the bat, like, why is it that you decided to focus on the homestead garden? And how exactly do you define that?

Gary Pilarchik 1:52
So, it’s not by size of land, but my hope is to get people started with sprouts; I usually say, “Let’s start with herbs,” but sprouts is even better. That’s even something you can do in your kitchen. And get people to kind of get the gardening bug, and then progress to, you know, 1 acre, 2 acres, 5 acres, or 10 acres. But, the homestead is really about the home being more than a place to sleep, go out and buy food, go to work, come back, and rinse and repeat. It’s using your space for your mind, your body, your soul. I like what you said about the return to the stock market, because gardening does, of course, give you fresh vegetables; it gives you exercise. But it’s just such a good routine to be in, and go out, and hear sounds, and interact with nature, that it pays dividends, you know, down the line. So, the “modern homestead” is really blending our need to work nine to five, have health insurance, do all that, but looking at our homes a little bit differently, and trying to grow food, be more self-sufficient, on whatever a little bit of space we have. But, learn as you go. And, as you get into a different place, you can expand your homestead to larger gardens, to livestock, to fruit trees, but you don’t have to, you know, go off-grid and disappear. You can just start with what you have.

Deborah Niemann 3:09
Yeah, exactly. So, it’s not all or nothing, you know? You can have a nice happy medium there. So, if somebody doesn’t even have a yard, where are some of the places that they can grow?

Gary Pilarchik 3:22
So, a couple things—and I was just talking to some friends about this the other day. There are a lot of people that have yards, but don’t want to garden. So, one thing you can do is check with family members, friends, look for people that may have space, and you can strike a kind of relationship with them, where you can build the garden, share the produce, they give the land, and it’s a nice way to start. You can also look in certain areas for community gardens and get space that way; a lot of them are really, really inexpensive. If you’re not able to find anything like that, sometimes talking with your church, with your schools, they want gardens for, you know, their places. And you can do that. Or, you know, you can start with sprouts, or you can start with herbs on the window sill, and just begin growing and learning how to do all that and progress again as you get more space down the line.

Deborah Niemann 4:12
Okay, great. And, if somebody wants to start gardening… This is one of my challenges, even after doing it for so many years. You get a seed catalog, and you have thousands of choices. What do you recommend? Like, what are some of the best vegetables for a beginner to start with?

Gary Pilarchik 4:33
Well, first of all, I love seed catalogs, and you’re right, it’s overwhelming. You end up ordering more than you’re ever going to grow or that you have space for. But gardening and using catalogs does give you a whole new world of things that you don’t find at the big box store, so they’re nice for that. But start with what you like. You know, most people like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers. You can go with kale, collard greens. Peas are wonderful vegetable to start with. Pole beans. Those are all really easy with the sense of that you can grow peas when it’s cooler; you can grow pole beans when it’s warmer; you can grow them out of the same container—which I recommend about a 20-gallon container, which is shoulder-wide, you know, a nice big hole. The biggest mistake people make is planting into smaller containers. But, get a nice large container. You can start with peas and with beans. You can also grow determinant-type tomatoes. They get to a set height, maybe 3 feet; produce flowers and fruit; and then they die off. That’s a nice, contained tomato that you can grow. And peppers are wonderful to grow in containers, too; you don’t need a lot of space. You can put two in that larger container, 10-gallon container, 20-gallon container, and see if you like it, you know, and start from there. Also, you can throw in basil, cilantro, your herbs that a lot of people love and enjoy, and incorporate that into your cooking and stuff like that.

Deborah Niemann 5:51
I’m so glad you mentioned peas, because if someone has not ever had fresh peas right off the vine, they really have no idea what they’re missing.

Gary Pilarchik 6:01

Deborah Niemann 6:02
When we visited Monticello—Thomas Jefferson’s home—a bunch of years ago, I remember the gardener saying that they always grew lots of peas, because that was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable. And I thought, “That man was crazy.” Because all I had ever had were those mushy peas in a can. And then, for some strange reason, one year I decided to grow peas in my garden. And I had no idea when they were ripe. And so, I was standing in the garden, I pulled one, I popped it open, I threw a couple peas in my mouth, and I was instantly hooked. The light came on. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, they are delicious!”

Gary Pilarchik 6:39
I say the same thing. And that’s the example I use a lot, too, is you don’t know what homegrown is until you grow peas. And when you get them and they’re, you know, just right or a little bit immature, they’re like garden candy, because they’re so sweet. But not, like, the green starchy stuff that you buy that’s mushy. Even frozen peas, you know? They’re just loaded with sugars. And as soon as you pick them, they start breaking down, and by the time they get to us, they have a different flavor. So, picking a pod right off the vine is, you know, like eating sugar.

Deborah Niemann 7:11
Yeah, exactly. I called them “the garden candy” after that.

Gary Pilarchik 7:14

Deborah Niemann 7:14
Like, I don’t think we ever cooked any peas from our garden. Like, we just ate all of them raw. Most of them in the garden, like, that was a snack. You know, while you’re out there working in the garden, like, “Oh, I think I want some peas.”

Gary Pilarchik 7:26

Deborah Niemann 7:27
So, another thing, too, that can be kind of overwhelming for somebody who’s just getting started, is again, like, if you’re at the garden center or something, and you see, like, this whole wall of fertilizers and plant foods and all that kind of stuff. And I know, we just use compost. If something seems like it needs a little extra boost, we’ll give it some fish emulsion. When somebody is getting started, what do you recommend is the best way to feed their plants?

Gary Pilarchik 7:55
So I agree with you, like, you know, when I make videos and stuff like that, if I just said “Use compost,” I would be cutting out a lot of people, because they can’t make it. But if you get to the point where you can really compost, and break down manures and your weeds and grasses and stuff like that, that’s wonderful. And that will take care of your garden. And then you have the granular organic fertilizers that are slow-release. And most of those ingredients are usually, like, bone meal, blood meal, chicken manure, feather meal, and stuff like that. So, when you look at the granular organic fertilizers, read the ingredients, and buy what is least expensive or fits your budget, because they have the same things in there. And then, fish emulsion I do talk about a lot, too. That’s the watersoluble that I use primarily. And it’s a 5-1-1. So, it’s got the nitrogen, which really greens up and get your vegetables going. So, that works really well. But you’re right, when you go to the big box stores or whatever, it’s just overwhelming with fancy packaging and all these things. Like, I think it was BUYERZONE C where it has, you know, these good microbes or this bacteria in it. That’s true; the products aren’t lying to you. But, good garden soil already has that. So, you’re just looking for a basic granular fertilizer that fits your budget. And fish emulsion is a great way to get started.

Deborah Niemann 9:13
Okay. Now, when somebody actually decides to start building their garden, how do you recommend that they actually get started with planting? Like, digging in the dirt, or lasagna gardening, or raised beds…?

Gary Pilarchik 9:28
Right. So, they all work, you know? You end up at the same place, you know, at the end of the day. What I do recommend is going to whatever space you want to grow in, going there at 8:00 in the morning 10:00 AM, 12:00 PM, 2:00 PM, and watching the sun. You want to make sure you get that full 6 hours minimum—but full sun, where the sun is beating down—but really 8 hours of sun. So, that’s the first thing is to pick a place that gets the sunlight, and if you’re doing this in spring before the leaves come, you gotta pay mind to the trees and stuff like that. And you want a place that drains pretty well.

Gary Pilarchik 10:05
But, I would recommend just starting with the size of the garden that doesn’t overwhelm you. So if it’s a 4-foot-by-4-foot raised bed, that’s great. If it’s a 4-foot-by-4-foot, you know, square on the ground, that’s good. If it’s a big fabric pot, that’s okay, too. If you just want to do a row, they’re really effective—you just mound the soil up—you know, start that way. Lasagna gardening is great, too, because sometimes… Let’s just say you build, like, a raised bed with 12-inch sides. It can cost money to fill it with store-bought soil. So, if you’re able to put in different materials in there and just kind of sandwich it up like lasagna, that will work. But I would recommend doing that more in the fall and letting it kind of cook over the winter. And then come springtime, you’re ready to go. If you’re going to start in the spring, you know, fill it with what you have, you know, your local soil, some store-bought stuff if you need it, but don’t over-stress about it.

Deborah Niemann 11:01
Yeah, that’s really good advice. And to stay small. I think so many people initially make their gardens so big that they get overwhelmed by the middle of the growing season, and then the whole thing just gets overgrown. What about, like, if you have a balcony or a deck or patio? Is there anything people need to keep in mind in terms of container gardening?

Gary Pilarchik 11:24
I think the most important thing for the container garden, which I was maybe alluding to earlier, is that you want to match the pot size to the mature plant. Because when you get, like, a little tomato plant and pepper plant, they look cute, and you’re like, “Oh, this could just fit, you know, in this little pot.” But very quickly, they get massive root systems; they get really tall. And you might be able to keep them alive, but they’re just not going to thrive. So, the first thing is really looking for, you know, 10-gallon pots, 20-gallon pots, something that’s a little bit bigger than you think, and planting into that. The other thing you want to keep in mind is the sun, how it tracks, and stuff like that. If you’re going to plant in containers, maybe getting rollers, because some people may move their pot, you know, from one side of the patio to the other side if they need to. That’s the biggest tip—container size—and then keeping in mind the watering. That when the plants are small, and in spring, you may only have to water every couple of days. But once full summer rolls in, and those plants are larger, you may have to water two times or three times a day. You just don’t want that root system to dry out, because it kind of wreaks havoc on the plant. If you can manage that, you can grow just about anything.

Deborah Niemann 12:34
Yeah, that is a really good tip about the containers. And that’s one of the things, like, you think, “Oh, it rained yesterday. It’ll be fine.” And if it was in the ground in your garden, it would be, but even I have trouble… I started, like, setting so many reminders on my smartphone now, it’s just crazy, to remind me to do things like “Water the tomato plants on the deck.”

Gary Pilarchik 12:57
Yeah. Right. It’s easy, it’s you know, human to get busy, and you miss a day, or you miss a day and a half. But it might just be that day when it’s 98, and your tomatoes just got to that size, and the water’s gone.

Deborah Niemann 13:10
Yeah, exactly. So, is there anything that people need to keep in mind in terms of pests? Just on a basic level?

Gary Pilarchik 13:20
Yes. So, there’s a myth that if you feed your plants right, and you do everything right, then your plants are strong and you don’t get problems. It’s partially true. You know, stronger, more vibrant plants can fend off the diseases, but you will get pests and disease no matter what you do. And it’s gonna vary on location to location and zone to zone. So, what I recommend is, one, keep a journal, and kind of write down when you see pests and problems rolling into your area. Or, talk locally with people that have been gardening; they know what comes into your area. The best way to deal with them is to do preventive spraying. So if you know you get something like leaf spot, or early blight, or fungal diseases that get your tomato plant, or powdery mildew that gets your cucumber plant, they tend to show up at the same time, because the conditions of weather, humidity, warmth, pretty much are consistent over the year. So, you start spraying two weeks early; you prevent those diseases from taking hold. Same thing with pests. You can use peppermint oil, which I’ve found to be really effective against spider mites, soft-bodied insects, at repelling them under the leaves of my bean plants, my cucumber plants. And again, if you wait too long, those spider mites roll in, and then you’re fighting off an infestation. If you use the peppermint oil early, they just don’t show up. So, prevention and preventative spraying is the key for those pests and disease.

Deborah Niemann 14:46
I love the fact that you included a chapter in the book about edible landscapes, because there are so many vegetable plants that you would just never know that they could make beautiful landscaping plants. Like, I know my favorite is okra, because it looks like you have hibiscus plants—

Gary Pilarchik 15:03

Deborah Niemann 15:03
—in your yard. So, what are some tips that you have for edible landscapes?

Gary Pilarchik 15:10
So I mean, I know we just actually met today, but everything you’re saying is stuff I actually do, with the peas. So the okra I use towards the front of the house in a big circle. It has a center piece, because it does look like some exotic plant. The flowers are beautiful; the leaves are colorful; you can get red okra; and you can mix them in. So they do stand out—and you can eat the okra, obviously. I use strawberries instead of, like, using ivy, which can be invasive. Strawberry plants make a great ground cover. I like using the basic blueberry plant for my bushes, because they will develop really nice leaves, especially if you give them the acidic soil they want or the more acidic fertilizer, and they look like any bush out there, too. Except again, you can go ahead and eat those. Using clumping blackberries, in certain places, do really well. They don’t get out of control and spread everywhere; they just stay in a set place in tall, beautiful canes that, you know, actually give some winter interest, too, when winter comes and the leaves fall. But you get beautiful blackberries off of there. And start with, you know, some of the stuff that you enjoy eating, and see how you can incorporate that outside of the garden through your property.

Deborah Niemann 16:24
Awesome. So, one of the questions that I tend to ask pretty much everybody on the show is, what tips do you have to help somebody who’s fairly new avoid a common problem?

Gary Pilarchik 16:39
So, I would go back to water. And this year I’ve been practicing—even for myself, and I’ve been doing this for decades—is to really consistently water containers and my earth beds. So, I would start with “Be prepared to water,” but I would also go with “Start a lot smaller than you think.” Because you want to have the time to feed, water, tend the plants, and putting that energy into tending, you know, 3 containers instead of 20 will pay dividends for you. Because then you’ll just be rewarded with a better experience. And probably, that’s the best way to start. And then the next year, you can add a little bit more to it, and a little bit more to it that way, and kind of expand outward. But you don’t want to get overwhelmed. Because once these plants come in, they produce really, really quickly.

Deborah Niemann 17:29
Yeah, those are really great tips. And I know those are things I had problems with, too, when I was new. For the garden, we have a calendar in the kitchen, and we write on there. Whenever there’s rain, we write what the rainfall is, because you might think, “Oh, it rained recently.” And then you look at the calendar and you’re like, “Uh, no, it hasn’t rained in a week.”

Gary Pilarchik 17:49
Exactly, exactly. And a lot of people don’t know, it’s like—when you’re kind of building your beds out in the earth and stuff like that—it’s that top 4 to 6 inches that’s really, really important. Like, you can’t compost 2 feet down or anything like that. So, you don’t have to worry about having a perfect soil. That’s why lasagna gardening works well. That’s why no-dig gardens work well. You’re concentrating on that top 4 to 6 inches, but that top 4 to 6 inches of soil fills up with surface roots from your tomato plants, your cucumber plants, and that’s the soil that gets beat down on by the sun. So, you’re really watering that top 4 inches. You want deep waterings, of course, but that top 4 inches is really, really key to having a successful garden.

Deborah Niemann 18:28
That’s awesome! You’ve had so many excellent tips for people today. Can you remind us where people can find you online if they want to connect with you?

Gary Pilarchik 18:37
Sure. So, I’ve had a YouTube channel through—actually, this might be the 10th year. Ten-year anniversary. But you can find me on YouTube under “The Rusted Garden” or “The Rusted Garden Homestead.” And it’s U-S-T-E-D; a lot of people think I say “rustic,” but it’s the “rusted” garden. You can also find me on Facebook; I have a couple of groups. And if you search my name, Gary Pilarchik, you’ll find them, or you can also search “The Rusted Garden.” One of the cool things—and what I love about this—is I get to meet gardeners from around the globe. So if you follow me on YouTube, you leave a comment, I answer 90-95% of them. So if you have questions, I can interact with you and help you out there.

Deborah Niemann 19:12
That’s awesome! I love that. I wish somebody like you would have been around back when I was getting started. That’s wonderful.

Deborah Niemann 19:18
Well, thank you so much for joining us today. I think this is gonna be really helpful for people.

Gary Pilarchik 19:23
I had a wonderful time! Very much, thank you for having me.

Deborah Niemann 19:27
And that’s it for today’s episode. You can find show notes at, as well as a transcript. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. You can also find Thrifty Homesteader on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. See you next week on “Sustainability Book Chat.”

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Getting Started with Organic Vegetable Gardening

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