Would you like to grow food for your family, but don’t know how to start? Here are 6 mistakes the new micro-farmer makes and 6 ways to ensure your success.
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Six Mistakes NOT to Make (Or The New Micro-Farmer’s Commandments)
As a new gardener, you’re all starry-eyed with visions of beautiful, productive gardens, right? The thing is, starting off on the wrong foot could make you loathe gardening, and that’s NOT what you want. It shouldn’t feel like a chore. Tending to your backyard micro-farm should be fun!
Here are a few things NOT to do:
- Thou shalt not plant a GIANT garden your first year. Unless your goal is failure, then be my guest.
- Thou shalt not overestimate how much time you have to dedicate to a garden. Will you *really* be available every evening and every weekend?
- Thou shalt not plant all the vegetables your family *should* be eating. “No one’s getting up from this table until all of this (slimy, cooked) spinach is gone!”
- Thou shalt not assume you can learn All-The-Skills right off the bat. Unless you’ve mastered other unbelievable feats like learning how to play the guitar overnight or climbing Mt. Everest without training.
- Thou shalt not go overboard with the vegetable crops (ignoring other types of crops).
- Thou shalt not claim to be a natural plant killer. 🙂
So now that we’ve got those covered, let’s talk about what you SHOULD be doing. The following tips will ensure that you’re the reigning micro-farmer over your own super-successful, productive, and enjoyable micro-farm.
Six Tips to Be a Successful Micro-Farmer
1. Start small.
Many of us tend to go all in when we’re starting something new. Ready to get in shape (again)? We’ll buy new workout clothes, new shoes, the latest activity tracker, and gym membership. When we lose steam, we feel like big failures. We’re left with a credit card bill and the recurring costs of those programs reminding us of our bad decision.
A wise man once said, “The secret to happiness is low expectations.” —Barry Schwartz.
See, the mistake wasn’t that you wanted to get in shape. The mistake was that you set the bar too high. There are going to be days when the kids need chauffeured to kingdom come and back, and days when you can’t get out of the office before dark.
Low expectations mean you can be successful every day, no matter what. What if your expectation was to do 15 minutes of focused exercise a day? Speed-walk around the parking lot while waiting for your kid’s soccer practice to get over, or stay at the office an extra 15 minutes and run up and down the stairs. Low expectations and high flexibility (creativity) means success.
The same goes for the garden. This should be fun and rewarding! Rather than till up your whole yard in the first year (high expectations), start with one raised bed, a collection of pots on your patio, or plant a low-maintenance kitchen herb garden. Trade in those high expectations for that high creativity.
You can always scale up as your success and enthusiasm grow.
Grow a garden that’s both productive and manageable with my Complete Garden Planning System, which includes practical tools for planning your season from seed to harvest.
2. Commit to 15 minutes a day.
It’s true that the more time you commit to doing something, the more you get out of it. But it’s also true that if you feel completely overwhelmed, you might not even start. The 15-minutes-a-day gardening strategy empowers you to get out there and do something every day, even if you don’t finish it all.
Plus, it’s 15 minutes of non-negotiable time you get to spend on yourself. You’re getting outside, breathing fresh air, observing the daily changes of a garden, and you get the satisfaction of sticking to your goals. For some extra fun, take your 15 minutes with your morning coffee or with your favorite after-work happy hour drink. The more enjoyable it is, the more you’ll stick with it!
And hey: You can always scale up. Do you have the 15 minutes down pat? I see your 15 minutes and raise you 30!
Need more tips for preventing overwhelm? See my article 7 Ways to Start a Homestead (Without Being Overwhelmed).
3. Plant what you love to eat.
Do you have visions of forcing the whole family to sit at the dinner table until they’ve eaten the broccoli you worked so hard to grow? Save yourself the agony and make a list of the fruits and vegetables that your family loves.
From that list, figure out what grows in your climate AND GROW THAT. You can force your family to expand their palate in the future, but for now, go for the easy wins.
4. Farm out the work.
You *could* start out in the spring by sowing seeds, keeping them carefully watered (but not too moist), and thinning the delicate seedlings as they grow. Or, you *could* acquire a bunch of equipment and start your own seedlings indoors under grow lights.
Do you know what both of these scenarios have in common? They both require some measure of experience, as well as extra time to raise your plants from birth.
If you’re just starting out, give yourself a leg up. Skip the infant stage and instead adopt seedlings from the farmers’ market or local plant nursery. If you’re wondering why, see the 4th New Micro-Farmer’s Commandment above.
(Experienced gardeners: See my step-by-step guide to starting seeds indoors.)
Would you like to grow more food with less effort? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Vegetable Garden.
5. Grow Perennials.
As new gardeners, we can sometimes have blinders on when it comes to our garden. All we see are vegetables. And we tend to go overboard. We plant tomatoes in the garden, in pots on the patio, and in the front yard landscaping. I encourage, no—implore—you to expand your horizons for your own benefit.
Annual vegetables are a lot of work. And it’s unnecessary to give ourselves so much work, when there are so many low-maintenance crops that can help us feel successful without being overwhelmed.
Give perennials a chance.
Perennials are those plants that come back year after year, producing delicious food without much work on your part. Some examples are asparagus, fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, strawberries, and herbs. If a low-maintenance garden is your top priority, perennials are your friend.
6. Don’t give in to the ‘green thumb’ myth.
The term ‘green thumb’ implies that one has a natural skill for growing things. Unfortunately, it also implies that you can’t become a green thumb; that you either have this innate ability or you don’t. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you’ve had a gardening failure (which is every gardener, ever), you may be tempted to chalk it up to the color of your thumb and call it quits.
But I humbly request that you don’t throw in the towel just yet. The key to becoming an expert at something is simply a matter of practicing a task, again and again. This is how you gain confidence and improve over time.
You wouldn’t expect to be able to play the guitar after one lesson, would you?
Instead, bust through failure and doubt by becoming a detective and making observations about what happened: Did your cucumbers succumb to a disease or pest?
- What were the symptoms?
- What could you try next time?
Google is your friend! Search for clues, like those found in my article Grow the Best Cucumbers with These 12 Steps.
One of the worst mistakes you can make as a gardener is to think you’re in charge.” ~ Janet Gillespie, author of The Joy of a Small Garden
When you start with low expectations, plant what you love, get help, plant low maintenance crops, and approach gardening with the curiosity of a scientist, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a successful micro-farmer, and you’ll have fun doing it.
Were you a beginning micro-farmer once? What helped you get through the beginner phase?
Oh how I wish I would have read this years ago… after many huge (and failed) gardens.
Well… somewhat failed. I remind myself I learn each year!
We learn through failure. Life is a journey!
Hello — thanks for your insight and advise; even though I have been gardening for over 25 years, I never discount suggestions and counsel from younger gardeners. Its a different world now than when I started gardening in the 1990’s and I like to be current! Thanks again
Oregon Squashking says
Don’t be hard on yourself I’m a commercial market grower with years. Under my belt and a college degree. In ag science. I’m a farmer…I grow vegetables. I specialize in squash I do not get 100% successful planting. I hope for 65% or 70% success here’s a helpful tip.start with easy to grow. Stuff like. Grow cherry tomatoes. Instead of indigo blue beefsteak. Grow acorn winter squash instead of Tahitian crook neck. Don’t try celery. Grow stuff That’s easy. And do what you dare with a few things then you will have success
Love this post. Thou shall not plant a GIANT garden in the first year. So apt advice. This post is different from your other posts in the sense of witty style of writing.
All of your above advise is so relevant. Next year, since I am planning to grow commercial with a few vegetable crops, I have to devote more than 15 minutes a day. And I have to focus on vegetables only because that’s what I plan to sell. Except those two points, most of your advise hear is apt for a small scale commercial grower too. This yr was my first year gardening and although I wanted to sell my excess produce, I realised reaching markets for business is a whole different ball game and requires more planning and finacial input than I thought. I made some mistakes this year while I was growing vegetables but i am glad I learned.
Keep writing wonderful posts.
Congratulations on becoming a commercial grower! It isn’t for the faint of heart, and you’re right, once you’ve scaled up to this level, you’ll certainly spend more than 15 minutes a day. All of this learning is good exercise for the brain 🙂
Catrina Powers says
I got through the beginner phase because although everything didn’t grow, some things did! That encouraged me to try it again, to learn more, to plan better. I talked to other gardeners about what they were doing and from there the love of the craft grew!
It is a labor of love. I’m glad you didn’t quit!
i’m your neighbor julie and ed’s niece. she directed me to your blog today because i just posted about my remodeled raised bed! this blog post came at just the right time! i am excited to start this spring. the suggestion about perennials and adopting seedlings were my favorite pieces of this post! as a fellow cincinnatian where do you suggest that i go to adopt my seedlings?! thanks for the help! i will be a repeat visitor to the blog.
Hi Lauren! Thanks for visiting!
My best source for chemical-free seedlings is the farmers’ market, so I would be on the lookout for when your nearest market opens in the spring. You could even send the market organizers a message and ask if they expect to have a plant vendor. Outside of that, Findlay Market or Pipkins would be good places to try. If you’re not picky, most greenhouse/garden shops will carry seedlings, but they probably won’t be chemical free. Good luck 🙂
I overcommitted this year and planted 60 tomato plants and 75 peppers plants. I just had my 2nd baby! And it was way overwhelming. But I made it through and put it all up. But it was HARD! I probably won’t take all that on again.
Wow, you are brave! I think I might have cried in my tomato sauce a few times, LOL. Great job making it through!
Jo / The Desert Echo says
Great tips. The start small and buying seedlings instead of trying to grow everything from seed are ones I learned the hard way.
I learned a LOT this year! Despite the voles eating all my sweet potatoes and aphids attacking my kale ( I didn’t think anything ate kale!) and broccoli, my successes encouraged me! The 15 minute suggestion was a huge incentive to stick at the garden and not get overwhelmed. Thanks, Amy!
Those are some setbacks, but I’m glad you are encouraged to keep going! Gardening is a fun learning experience, with no two gardens the same 🙂
Yes, #5! I fail in my veggie garden every year, but my strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and now currants grow like gangbusters. It really takes the sting out of another failed veggie crop.
I love this! Way to go!
Michelle Bradley says
After starting with lots of failure a few years ago, I realized a great way to curb my gardening enthusiasm is to write down how I want to expand my efforts in future years: we are in the city with limited sun and space, two young kids, and travel a lot for jobs and camping/rock climbing weekends, so large projects just don’t happen very often. Last spring we added raised beds, which meant shifting our previous beds so they were easier to walk around. Access on ALL 4 sides is a must for me. This coming year we will add frames that can support plexiglass for the shoulder seasons (early starters and late fall kale, etc.) and also support chicken wire walls to keep out the hungry squirrels who live in our oak tree. I fear it will look like Fort Knox! (insert visual of large tomato pushing up against jail bars…Ahhh!)
Sounds like you’ve found a way to be a successful gardener on a limited schedule. Nice work!
Vanessa Gibson says
Hi I’m from England and have a 7 acre plot of land that I have been struggling to decide what to do with it.
Your website is the perfect inspiration for me. Thank you.
For a long time, I have wanted to start community planting and a micro-farm is the perfect solution to bring together children and neighbours. My three children, Ellie 19, Will 15 and Barnaby 11 adore gardening and can’t wait to get this started!
Never been successful with planting myself, but to start something within a group of neighbours, making new friends and learning as we all go along is a fantastic project for 2017.
Thankyou and continued good luck with your website
Janet Lawson says
I would love your input and advice on what is actually the opposite problem of a new gardener. I am older and an experienced gardener, specializing in herbs, medicinal plants and edibles. I have a small suburban property (probably a tenth of an acre!) that is intensively planted from the parkway area to the back wall. The parkway area is landscaped with stone paths and a Mediterranean herb garden and medicinal garden.
I have advanced, degenerative arthritis and just cannot maintain the work, which I have loved. What to do? Even hiring a helper is not sufficient to get the garden going. I have spent 6 to 8 hours a day for the intense spring clean up and planting in years past and then an hour or two a day to maintain. Something’s got to give. I would like to alter the parkway garden into a low to no maintenance garden. Maybe fruit trees? I need design help and advice. Can you or your readers offer some ideas or resources for me? Trying to be open minded as I make this transition. Thank you.
Your garden sounds like a lovely place to be; one that you’ve lovingly designed and created over the years. Transitions are always hard, aren’t they? I’m sorry that you need to think about new alternatives. I recognize how hard that is for a space that you’ve lovingly maintained on your own for so long. It’s YOUR space. I also applaud your willingness to consider that it isn’t sustainable in its current form.
This article, as I mention, is not just for beginners, but a sort of checklist for all of us. We can check in each year for ourselves. Is the garden too much for me to maintain this year? Then I’ll cover half with a cover crop and only cultivate half of it. >>> Always start small.
>>> Farm out the work. Have you considered hiring a garden team to maintain it regularly for you? Many people with lawns hire maintenance companies to maintain them regularly, so there’s no shame in hiring a professional company to help. A team makes fast and efficient work, and the right team will know the difference between weeds and plants. (I got my start working on such a team!)
>>> Grow Perennials. As you know, whether herbs or fruit trees, perennials are easier to manage, but they’re not zero maintenance. There will always be weeding, pruning, harvesting, mulching, etc. It really comes down to the size of your garden and finding the right size that works for you.
This article is designed for both the beginner and the experienced gardener to help you realize and accept your limits. Whether that’s hiring help, or replacing a portion of cultivated garden with lawn or meadow, it’s great that you recognize a realistic need for change. Though your heart aches, your spirits will be lifted when the feeling of overwhelm is replaced by a manageable garden. <3
Erika Cronje says
I have planted Elderberries, Blueberries, Cranberries and Blackberry and Strawberries and now have to start the veggie and herb planting and I am a bit overwhelmed as I realised I have too many seeds! So your suggestions are really helping and will plant what I like first and go from there, so wish me luck!
Sounds like a great plan! Good luck! 🙂
Debbie sykes says
Amy I have a huge problem in my garden everywhere I read it’s easy to grow garlic not here for me I don’t know what is wrong I have ordered garlic from reliable seed catalogs and have purchased from nursery’s no luck is it because where I live southeast Florida to hot to grow garlic I’m a bit overwhelmed and don’t want to give up as I love garlic for cooking and medecinal purposes any help would be appreciated. Thanks Debbie Sykes
Have you selected softneck garlic varieties, such as Creole, that are suitable to southern climates?
Start small is correct. Get bigger after you see your yields and what work you had to put into it in your climate.
I grew up with farm gardens that have always Fed my family. Some previous experience. I have improved my harvest by select vegetables that family and people really want.
Organic well organized vegetables and fruits are the way to go. Create your success. Use ground cover. The food is much better quality then grocery stores.
I grow enough to feed my family and pay for seed, organic ingredients, watering. Hope to make some profit to reinvest in my Farmette for coming years. The work is exercise.
Wes Bennett says
When it comes to the green thumb thing, I just buy a bunch of weekly timers from lowes to make my thumb look green. An automated garden is the only way I can keep plants alive. The only way i can have excess food production is to almost entirely take my thumb out of the equation.