Tips, and Tricks
There is an infinite amount to know about growing food. This can be very overwhelming and stop us before we even get started. At atplanta, our approach is to break things down into simple, digestible parts, to never get too much up in the weeds, and in general to deal with and learn about problems as they come up for us. This is the philosophy that guides all the DIY resources, tips, and tricks on this page. We hope you find it helpful!
If you don't see what you're looking for on here, we highly recommend looking on www.gardeningknowhow.com. Their information has a reputation for being both accurate and accessible. Also, if you think there's something that should be added below, contact us to let us know!
Table of Contents
(click on a section to skip to it)
Siting Your Garden
There are three main things vegetable gardens need to succeed: sun, water, and soil. By making sure your garden is set up in all three departments, you’ll be off to a great start.
Most vegetables want full sun, meaning 6+ hours a day, to thrive. The number one mistake most gardeners in Atlanta make is gardening in places that are too shady. We live in a city of trees, which is a wonderful blessing, except when it comes to vegetable gardening.
We do not recommend attempting to vegetable garden in a spot that gets 3 hours or less of direct sunlight per day. We’ve found 5 hours is sufficient, and anything more than that only improves garden success.
The easiest way to determine how much sun a certain spot gets is to use an augmented reality app, such as Sun Tracker AR or Sun Seeker. Using your phone’s camera, these apps will show you the path of the sun throughout the day on your phone screen in a curving line. If something impedes the path of the sun, such as a tree or building, you know the spot you are standing in will be shady at that time. But if the sun line falls on open sky, you know the spot you are in will receive direct sunlight at that time. Again, you are looking for a total of 5 or more unobstructed hours.
Note that the path of the sun changes throughout the year, getting lower to the South in the winter and higher towards center-sky in summer, so you will need to play around with the app’s setting to see how much sun the spots you are testing get at different times of the year.
Everyone knows gardens need water! We are fortunate to live in a fairly wet climate with frequent rains, as well as have clay soils that hold water well, so we don't need to water nearly as much as other climates.
Furthermore, we recommend building gardens in ways (such as hügelkultur, for example) that improve their ability to retain water. However, chances are that some times you will need to water your gardens beyond what nature provides, and you need a plan to do so.
So as you site your garden, ask the questions: does the spot I am considering have a hose hook up nearby? If not, am I comfortable transporting water by hand in buckets or watering cans? Or am I able to use rain barrels?
Note that rain barrels are great for capturing "soft" rain water, but they do not provide enough gravity-fed pressure to use with a hose, so you will need to fill watering cans for hand watering, which can be tedious and time consuming.
You can have an ideal amount of sun and plenty of water, but if your soil is no good, your garden will be stunted. From soil, plants get all the micro and macro nutrients they need to thrive, and soil science increasingly shows that the organic life that happens beneath the surface do wonders for our plants.
Simply put, better soils are abundant in broken down organic matter— that dark brown or even black stuff you find in forest topsoils or fresh compost. Organic matter for your garden can come from any number of places— broken down wood chips or leaves, compost, manure, or even your own homemade compost. Below you can see where we recommend getting compost or how to make your own to use in your gardens and improve your soil.
Because we live in such a hot and humid environment that breaks down organic matter extremely quickly, most of the work of having good soil is adding new organic matter frequently. The plants we are growing and the simple act of time passing take from the soil, and so we must give back. This is as true if you are using raised beds with all new soils, or you working with the native soil already in the ground. For all garden types, we recommend working in 4-6 inches of fresh compost or other broken down organic matter to the top of your soil each year
1. Planting in your native soil
Unless you have reason to believe you have a high concentration of heavy metals in your native soil (mainly if you are on an old industrial site, or very close to a structure that contained lead paint), you'll save yourself a lot of money and the earth a lot of resources by using the soil already in your yard. In the Piedmont region in which we live, organic matter and topsoil are quickly consumed by a natural environment which is hot, humid, and rainy. This means most native soil has only an inch or two of topsoil (if that), and below it, the the famous Georgia red clay. Though clay soil gets a bad rep, it actually has a lot of nutrients and very high water retention abilities. It simply must be amended to reach a state ideal for gardening.
There are many way to use the native soil in the ground, but here are our favorites. What they have in common is an emphasis on disturbing the soil as little as possible (often called no-till agriculture) and adding lots of organic material.
A. Fork and add compost:
by far the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way to start gardening is to remove the sod or plant matter from your desired area and use a spading fork to loosen up and turn over the soil about 6-12 inches down into the ground. Doing this should nearly double the volume (as seen in height) of the native soil. Follow up the initial loosing with the fork or a digging )pointy) shovel to break up any large clumps that remain. Now, add 4-6 inches of compost to the top of your forked soil, and gently mix it in to the loosened, native soil below. That’s it! You’re ready to plant, and the mixture of clay and compost will provide a great environment for your plants.
B. Sheet mulching
(aka lasagna gardening)
This is considered the golden standard of no-till vegetable gardening, letting nature do all the work without disturbing the soil through tilling or digging. Layer cardboard or thick painters paper to smother weeds, then add layers of organic matter, building up vertically with least-to-most broken down. For example, when we’ve done this in the past, we’ve layered wood chips, then manure, and finally finished compost. After layering, you should ideally let several months pass for everything to break down before planting (as well as to avoid nitrogen burn from fresh manure), but if you are in a time crunch you can go for it and plant right away!
This is an old-school German technique of burying wood underneath soil. The buried wood both releases nutrients and also increases the ability of your garden to hold onto water tremendously. While a true hügelkultur involves building a hill, we have found great success in this in ground version adapted by Beech Hollow Farm.
2. Raised beds
Raised beds are resource intensive! They use a lot of soil, plus they need lumber, metal, bricks or other materials to form the border wall around them. On the up side, however, they allow you to start gardening with 100% good quality soils of your choice without having to do the work of improving your native clay. Furthermore, they have that clean, neat, intentional look that many people find aesthetically pleasing, and prevent you from having to bend down quite so far. For these reasons, raised beds are the most popular way to garden in the US.
The first big question with raised beds is what you will use for the border of your bed to hold all the soil in place. We've mostly used untreated wood. Though some sources say treated wood has been safe for organic gardening since 2003 when the EPA banned the use of copper arsenate in it, we have opted to play it on the side of caution and steer clear of these chemically woods. That has left us with untreated pine as the most affordable commercially available option, with an life expectancy in our climate of 2-5 years. Untreated cedar has much greater natural rot resistance, giving it a lifespan of up to 10 years, however you'll pay three times as much for it.
On the extremely affordable side, we've also found great success using 100 gallon fabric grow bags (see photo below). These bags each hold half a cubic yard of soil, so two of them equate one standard wooden raised bed.
In general, whatever material you are using, you want raised bed to be at least 6 inches high, but ideally one foot, tall to give roots plenty of room to grow. (Stay tuned for a forthcoming guide on how we build our wooden raised beds.)
The second big question with raised beds is, of course, what soil you will use. And take caution, because there are a lot of bad soils out there! See the soil section for our recommendations on what soil to get in the Atlanta area.
Cedar Raised Beds
100 Gallon Grow Bag
Any of the in ground growing methods above can be combined with a frame (wood, metal, etc.) to give them both the aesthetic and organizational benefits of a raised beds without having to purchase so many materials. For this, simply throw a 6 inch frame around whatever kind of in ground bed you've made.
4. Growing in Pots
Frankly, we don’t recommend this method for growing full sun vegetables. Pots contain such a small amount of soil, that they dry out quickly in the Atlanta heat, needing constant watering and putting undue stress on your plants. However, if you do decide to go this route, we recommend using containers that are 10 gallons in size or larger. These large containers will hold enough soil and moisture to keep your plants in good shape. See the soil section for our recommendations on what to fill your pots with.
Soil is the foundation of a healthy garden; it is the food you feed your plants. Creating your own soil is the most affordable way to go, and it also let's you know exactly what is feeding your food (see section below). However, few of us can produce enough compost ourselves to meet our garden needs, leading to a need to buy it elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are a lot of crappy soils out there! We recommend getting your compost in bulk from the following places:
Free DeKalb County Compost. DeKalb county produces a pretty decent compost product, which you can pickup from several location for free, or if you are a county resident, have delivered to your home in large bulk for a small fee.
Flower Mix. This is the product we use in all our garden installs. It is a mix of top soil, turkey manure, and granite sand (which provides micronutrients that plants love). This is available from several metro Atlanta locations. The closest intown are:
Big Yellow Bag Soil 3 Super Sod: This is the top of the line, and you pay for it! For $200, Big Yellow Bag will deliver this mix of wheat straw, grass clippings, and cow manure to your house in a cubic yard bag
Where To Get Soil
Compost at Home
Composting is great! It keeps food scraps out of the landfill and creates amazing, nutrient-rich soil you can use in your garden. There is a lot of information on the internet about different ways to compost, and thousands of products you can buy to assist you. But, as always, we like to keep it simple, and as close to free as possible.
There are four ingredients needed for composting to work:
1. Nitrogen rich materials (sometimes referred to as the "greens")-- this is your food scrap material from the kitchen
2. Carbon rich materials (sometimes referred to as the "browns")-- this can be leaves collected in fall, woodchips, or shredded paper
3. Oxygen-- if you are composting outdoors in an enclosure that has plenty of openings for air, you are covered here
4. Water-- again, if you are composting outdoors in an exposed container, rain will take care of this for you
The basic process is incredibly simple: layer your load of food scraps from your kitchen with an equal volume of dried leaves, woodchips, or shredded paper. Make sure to have all food scrap materials completely covered by your brown material. This ensures your compost will not be smelly, as well as keeps pests away. With every load of food scraps from your kitchen, repeat this process, dumping new greens on top of the pile, then completely covering them with the browns.
We recommend you compost in a simple cylinder made of metal fencing or hardware cloth. This is extremely inexpensive and is able contain all the material while letting plenty of air in. You can also compost in an open, uncontained pile, or buy a more attractive compost bin (we make some nice ones!).
Simple compost pile
Composting in a cylinder of wire fencing (recommended)
Composting in a slated bin made by Atplanta
Once you have created a sizable pile or filled up the container you are using to the brim, simply let the compost sit for 3-6 months, letting nature do the hard work of breaking down everything into a rich, nutritive soil. When you reach your hand into the center of the pile and pull out dark-brown-to-black soil which contains no discernable pieces of food matter, your compost is ready to use!
Below are guidelines to keep track of what is and is not safe to put in your compost. Feel free to download the document here.
This is the rubric we use to know what to plant when.
In Atlanta, the spring and fall growing seasons mirror each other; for the most part the same cool weather, heat-inteolerant crops can be planted in early spring (February and March) and early fall (September and October). On the other hand, the long summer has a unique list of possibilities that can be grown in the middle of the year
Most vegetables can be grown successfully by planting seeds directly in the ground. With Atplanta, we have focused on planting 4-6 week old plants started in ideal greenhouse conditions (generally called "seedlings," "starts," or "transplants") to help guarantee our gardeners' success. Thus, the below calendar is based on transplanting, not starting from seed.
Don't see a vegetable that you want to grow on here? That might just mean we don't have experience growing it. But a number of crop types have been left off specifically because we have found them to be finicky and hard to grow in our climate at the organic, home garden scale: Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, and Spinach.
Feel free to download the document here.
Potting Soil and Seed Starting
The handout below covers the recipe for the potting mix we use at Atplanta, as well as helpful tips and tricks for seedling care. Feel free to download the document here.
Planting Depth and Spacing Guide
Most of the time you can get away with planting things too deep, too shallow, too close to each other, or too far apart. Still, it's nice to create ideal conditions for your seedlings and plants so you have the best chances for success. The first page has information for cool weather crops, and the second for hot weather.
A general rule of thumb for seed planting depth is: plant twice as far down as the seed is big.
And when you're planting seedlings, you have to remember that while the plants are small now, they will get much bigger, and you want them to have ample room to reach maturity and not constrain one another's growth.
Feel free to download the document here.
Purchasing Organic Seedlings
If you aren't interested or able to start seedlings yourself, you may be interested in purchasing some. Big box stores like Home Depot and Lowes often have abundant, affordable seedlings, but we warn against purchasing from these places for two main reasons. 1) These seedlings are rarely organic, and from anecdotal reports from friends who have worked at these stores, we know that these seedlings are indiscriminately sprayed with pesticides and pumped with chemical fertilizers--not a great start for our ambitions to grow our own healthy food. 2) Unlike local growers, these stores will sell plants both before and after the ideal time to plant. This means you might be tempted to buy and plant tomatoes too early, only to have them freeze to death, or too late and not have enough time left to get a harvest. Local organic growers neither use harmful pesticides nor sell things outside of the appropriate season to plant them (see our Planting Calendar).
If you aren't getting them from us, we recommend checking out vegetable seedlings from:
- The Wylde Center (Decatur)
- Oxford College Farm (Covington)
In Atlanta, we are blessed with warm weather and long growing seasons. However, the same wet, warm conditions that our plants love, are also ideal for all manner of pests, from fungus, to bacteria, to insects. Below is a pest guide that covers our pest management philosophy, as well as information on the pests you are most likely to run into here.
Feel free to download the document here.