If this is the year for your first vegetable garden, congratulations! You’re about to embark on a wonderful venture of discovery and fun. You may have some setbacks – even very experienced gardeners do – but, most setbacks are very minor in comparison to the rewards that most of us get from gardening.
Here are my suggestions for all you starting out this year …
Start Relatively Small – For most beginners, smaller is better. Unless you have recently retired, finally quit playing golf or some other time-consuming hobby, or, if for some other reason you have a lot of time and want to spend it outside, start small. A 100 square foot garden – say, 10 feet by 10 feet – will provide you with ample space to experience the joys of gardening without overwhelming you. Of course, you can start with even less space – even a 4 ft. by 5 ft. garden can be quite productive and fun. Heck, you can even start your first vegetable garden in a few containers on your deck or patio.
The Basics – No matter what size garden you’re planning, there are several basic requirements. The basics include: good soil, seeds and/or plants, water, fertilizer, weed and bug control.
Good Soil – All good gardening starts with good soil. If you’re blessed with good soil, wonderful. If not, I can help you make it better. Good soil contains a mixture of small and large mineral particles, organic materials, air, water, and millions of living organisms, from microorganisms to worms. If the mineral particles are very small, you’ll have clay soil, which can make gardening difficult. On the other extreme, soil that consists mainly or entirely of large mineral particles is sandy soil, which is also a difficult medium in which to grow. If you have either extreme, the best solution is to add compost or to purchase top soil, and till it into your soil. Rent or borrow a mini-tiller, like the Mantis
tiller, to do this most effectively. Many rental stores have mini-tillers; and, chances are that a friend or neighbor might already own one.
For a more thorough discussion of garden soil, see The Dirt on Soil
, elsewhere on this site.
When You Should Start – Ideally, you should start to prepare your soil a couple of weeks prior to the best planting time for your area. The best planting time for most crops is just after your last frost date. For us in Zone 6, our last frost date is usually around April 30th. Depending on where you live, your last frost date may be sooner or later. Here’s a good reference to estimate your last frost date http://www.victoryseeds.com/frost/
However, you really can start almost anytime after your last frost date. If you start in the mid-summer, for example, you can still have a garden, but you’ll be limited in what you can plant.
Seeds and Plants – My first rule for vegetable gardening is to grow what you’ll eat. By that I mean that you should only grow vegetables that you enjoy eating, and, more importantly, grow the right quantity. Many beginners have quickly learned that a half dozen zucchini plants can quickly produce more squash than they and all their friends and relatives can handle! And, most of us just don’t like to waste food. So, grow the things that you like, and start with smaller quantities. The exception here is that some folks may want to intentionally grow a lot of vegetables if they’re sure that they can either preserve the excess or share the harvest with friends and neighbors.
Here’s My Recommended List for Beginners
Tomatoes – Two beefsteak plants will provide a lot of tomatoes for sandwiches, salads, and spaghetti sauces. One cherry tomato plant will provide hundreds of little tomatoes for snacking and for salads. They can be purchased at garden centers, nurseries, home stores, and even some supermarkets.
Lettuce – Leaf lettuce is easy to grow, especially early and late in the season. Some leaf lettuce will quickly bolt (get big and produce seed) and get a little bitter in the hot summer.
Spinach – Spinach is easy to grow, very nutritious, and is somewhat more heat tolerant than lettuce.
Bush Beans – Beans are easy to grow and very nutritional. The large seeds are easy to handle.
Summer Squash – A multitude of varieties exist, and all are easy to grow. Options range from buttery yellow varieties of squash and zucchini to the traditional green zucchini. Remember, just plant a few – they’re very prolific. And, pick ‘em when they’re small. Some zucchini can grow to the size of baseball bats, but they’re not very tasty when they’re that big.
Beets – This root crop is also easy to grow and good for you. Beginners need to be reminded that it is essential to thin the young seedlings so that the remaining plants have enough room to develop.
Water – Garden plants, like all living things, need water to survive and grow. All plants get most of their food by absorbing water and dissolved nutrients through their roots. (Some plants can be “foliar fed” by spraying nutrients on their leaves, but, generally, root feeding is much more common, and more natural.)
A good rule of thumb is that the garden (and your lawn) should have about 1” of rainfall or watering per week.
You can reduce the amount of soil moisture lost to evaporation by adding a layer of mulch to the top of your garden soil. Grass clippings, shredded dry leaves, hay and straw are excellent natural mulches.
Fertilizer – All plants, like people, need food. If your soil is very healthy, it already contains most of the food that your plants will need. A well-balanced organic fertilizer can be added, when you plant, and throughout the season. Organic fertilizers break down slowly, providing your plants with a steady nutrient source. Be very careful if you use commercial or chemical fertilizers; it’s easy to overdo it. Too much chemical fertilizer will actually kill your plants. This “overfeeding” is often called “burning” the plants. (Many chemical weed killers work by over-stimulating plants so that they “grow themselves to death.”)
Of course, the best long-term solution for creating healthy, vital soil is to continuously add compost. If you find that you really like the gardening hobby, you’ll probably want to start your own compost pile, if you haven’t already. For lots of practical information on composting, see Composting 101
on this site, or visit HowToCompost.org
Weeds and Bugs – If you garden, you’re going to encounter weeds and bugs. The best treatment for weeds is prevention – lots of mulch will significantly reduce weed growth. Just be sure that your mulch doesn’t prevent water from penetrating into the soil.
The issue of bugs is more complex. Some bugs are good, some are bad. The best overall solution is to spray a natural pesticide that will attack the bad bugs without killing the good bugs. My favorites are Pyola® and Bulls-Eye™; both are environmentally responsible and available from Gardens Alive