When I was 8 years old, a neighbor gave me a johnny-jump up. I planted it alongside our house, watered it, weeded it and marveled at it. When it “died”, I pulled it out and was scolded by my neighbor/mentor. I thought I was taking care of things, but that was my first gardening mistake. I’ve made many. I’ve put together some info here for beginning gardeners so that, perhaps, you’ll make a few less than I.
Location: Vegetable gardens need full sun, so locate your garden where it will get at least 8 hours of sun. Cooler weather crops such as lettuce and spinach don’t mind less sun and may not bolt (go to seed) as quickly when the weather warms. A spot close to your kitchen should be your next consideration. I frequently run out to the garden for herbs or another tomato for the salad, etc., when I am cooking. Having it close by is a convenience.
Size: I recommend that you start small and work your way up over the years. Like a new exercise program, if you overdo it in the beginning you will likely become discouraged and quit. A small weed-free garden will produce more than a large, weedy mess.
Style: There are many ways to plant a garden. Choose one that suits your needs.
- Traditional “dug” garden: Each year you turn over the soil in your garden plot, amend the soil as needed and plant. (I’ll talk more about amending in the section on soil). My main recommendation if you choose this method is to incorporate paths into the garden and walk only on these paths. Walking on soil where you have planted compresses the soil. Roots thrive better with airy soil.
- Raised bed garden: The garden is built on top of the ground with sides to hold the soil in place. This is filled with soil, usually purchased and soil amendments. Raised beds warm up earlier in the season, extending your growing season, have good drainage, and prevent soil compaction because you never step into the bed. It is best to keep the width of each better under 4 feet so that you can reach all areas from outside of the bed. In addition, yearly digging is not necessary.
- Lasagna gardening: With this method, organic materials are layered on top of the ground. No soil is added and no digging is involved. For more information on this method, see my previous post.
Soil: When we think of starting a garden we usually think of the “fruit”. But I encourage you to think, instead, “soil”. Soil is the foundation of your garden; your vegetables and your garden will only be as healthy as your soil. A soil test is recommended to see if your soil has any deficiencies and to see if the ph needs to be adjusted. Soil test kits are available from your local extension service. Ph refers to the soil’s acidity or alkalinity. Most vegetables prefer a soil which is near neutral. Nutrients in the soil become unavailable if the ph is not correct. Soil is composed of inorganic matter like sand or clay and contains minerals needed by plants. For a healthy garden, your soil should also be composed of at least 20% organic matter, which comes from decomposed soil organisms and plants. Organic matter makes your soil porous so that air and water can easily penetrate it. Thankfully, soil can be improved by amending it with organic matter. Adding compost, well-rotted manure, or decayed leaves will go a long way in improving your soil. At least 2 – 3″ should be added the first year, and an additional 1″ each year thereafter. It will likely take several years to build your soil.
Composting: I can’t stress enough how important it is to build your soil and composting is a fantastic way to do that. I’m fanatical about composting! Years ago, as a “poor” gardener, we never spent the money to test our soil. That garden in Scranton started out with soil that had lots of coal ash in it from the previous owner – not exactly conducive to gardening. We amended with manure and over the years, lots of compost and mulch. The first time we had our soil tested, we were told that our soil was in great condition and that we did not have to add any fertilizer. We had built up our soil primarily with scraps that otherwise would have gone into a landfill. That’s a win-win! Compost is a dark, crumbly, earthy-smelling form of decomposing organic matter which builds soil and promotes healthy plant growth. For more information of composting, see my previous post.
What to Grow: Grow the veggies you enjoy eating. Keep in mind that some vegetables, such as corn and potatoes, take a lot of room, so may not be appropriate for a small garden. Squashes and pumpkins can take a lot of room, as well, but compact varieties are available. These are often referred to as “bush” varieties.
Planting: Each variety has different requirements in terms of when to plant, how deep, how far apart, etc. Cornell University has Growing Guides available for just about any plant you wish to grow in your garden. All of the information they provide is research based. For some vegetables, it is best to plant seeds directly into your garden. For others, it is best to transplant seedlings. I’ve put together a Vegetable Seed Planting Guide for Northeast PA with common garden vegetables that indicates whether to direct sow, when to plant, and other information. If you choose to begin your own seedlings, the information may be found on my posts Starting Seeds for Your Garden and Seed Starting Pots From Newspaper. If you choose to purchase seedlings, be sure to choose healthy plants. The leaves should be uniformly green. Yellowed leaves indicate stress of some sort. Silvery leaves mean the plant has not been properly hardened off (moved from a sheltered indoor environment to the outside). Look for plants that are stocky, not spindly. Taller does not mean better. Be sure there is only one plant per pot. Trying to separate plants will damage the root system. It would be better to pinch off one of the plants at the soil, than try to separate them. Do not buy vegetable plants that are already in bloom or already have fruit (ie. a small tomato). It would seem that this plant would produce sooner, but transplanting is a stress on a plant and it will likely drop the blossom or fruit and may even kill the plant. Another consideration when purchasing plants is to buy from a local nursery which is starting their own seeds. This, of course, supports your local economy, but also helps to prevent the spread of disease. Large chain stores generally purchase from the same source, mostly in NC. If that one source sends out diseased plants, that disease is spread over a very large geographic area. We had just this situation two years ago when late tomato blight was a huge problem all over the northeastern US.
Watering: It is better to give one deep watering a week as opposed to several light waterings. Deep watering encourages your plant to grow deep, healthy roots. Water until the top 5 – 6″ of soil is wet. To conserve water, be sure to water the soil, not the leaves. It is best to water early in the day. This prevents evaporation and allows any leaves that do get wet to dry. Wet leaves at night may cause fungal disease.
Mulching: Mulching prevents soil from drying out and conserves water. It helps to prevent weeds from sprouting and reduces the need to spend time weeding. Just be sure to weed the area before laying down the mulch. It encourages earth worms and feeds the soil as it decomposes. Some good mulching materials include straw, leaves, grass clippings or even newspaper. Do not use any grass clippings on which herbicides have been used and wood chips do not make good mulch for vegetable gardening. Mulch keeps soil cool, so mulch plants like broccoli and brussels sprouts, which prefer cool conditions, early. Wait until the soil has warmed to mulch plants like tomatoes and eggplant which love heat. Mulch should be 2 – 4″ deep.
Staking/Trellising: Many plants, as they mature, need support to help them grow. This would include tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, squash, and pole beans. Staking them saves space, provides better air circulation and disease prevention. Put in the stakes while the plants are still young to prevent root damage. Place tall and trellised plants on the north side of your garden so that they do not shade the shorter plants.
Disease/Pests: The best way to prevent disease and pests from destroying your garden is prevention. Having healthy soil will provide healthy plants and healthy plants are less prone to attack. The Growing Guides mentioned above contain information on dealing with problems specific to each variety. In addition, Cornell’s Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management is packed with research based information on organic disease and pest control.
Hopefully, you will find the information I’ve provided helpful as you garden. Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll do my best to help. Happy Gardening!!