Vegetable Gardening for Beginners — Expert Advice

Derek Fell gives vegetable gardening tips to beginning gardeners.
By Derek Fell
January/February 1977
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Prepared correctly, using nutrient-bearing materials and compost can be a good soil conditioner and fertilizer.
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Vegetable gardening for beginners can be downright confusing. And no wonder: Just look at the myriad books on the subject that have recently flooded the market. Some of these texts are so technical and long-winded that you have to be a Ph.D. botanist to understand them...while others are so general and superficial that they fail to teach anything of importance to anyone! And there seems to be little between the two extremes!

So this article will be a little different. It will contain no theory and no generalities. Instead, I'm just going to tell you how to garden. Mind you, I didn't go to school to learn gardening...rather, I asked a lot of good gardeners a lot of questions, so that — over the years — I've been able, gradually, to develop a "system" that gives me a good deal of satisfaction. It's that system I want to outline in this piece.

A Horror Story

My first garden was a disaster. I spent three days hand digging a 50-by-50-foot plot of ground...planted it with an assortment of vegetables (including melons, sweet corn, and the largest-fruited tomatoes I could find) that were too tempting to pass up...and waited.

The results were underwhelming. Most of my tomatoes contracted blossom-end rot and matured too late to be of any value. (Besides which, their outsides were hideously distorted, their insides almost hollow, the yield dismal, and the flavor terrible!)

Likewise, not an ear of corn was worth eating. Even the raccoons didn't venture into the patch to steal a bite, since the cobs were either too small to bother with, or else heavily infested with smut disease.

Not a single one of my cantaloupes grew bigger than a grapefruit...and they all tasted like cucumbers at that! Even such easy-to-grow fare as radishes, beets, carrots and lettuce were hopeless failures.

I was so discouraged by this performance that I nearly gave up on vegetable gardening then and there. Nearly, but not quite. Because, for some reason, I persisted. I asked farmers and friends to tell me the secrets of their successes (and failures). And, over the following seasons, I began, — bit by bit — to achieve encouraging results.

Less is More

My first mistake in gardening — if you haven't already guessed — was starting too big. For a beginner, a 50-foot by 50-foot plot is a lot of ground to take care of. I'd have been much better off, as a raw novice, tending a patch just 10 feet wide by 15 feet long...and I'd certainly have done better to stick with such “tried and true” vegetables, such as snap beans, zucchini squash, tomatoes, beets, carrots, radishes and lettuce. (I had been extremely foolish to take on melons and corn that first year! It's always smarter to master walking before you try to run.)

With a small first-time garden, instead of an over sized plot, you can:

  • Pay more attention to conditioning the soil
  • Keep weeds in check easier
  • Learn more about pest control

Thus, my first tip to the beginning vegetable gardener is: “A small area well cared for will yield more than a large plot that is neglected.”

Soil Preparation

Good soil (light, fluffy, and well-drained) is the foundation of any successful garden, no matter how large or small. I'd estimate that 75 percent of all problems encountered by beginner gardeners — whether the problem in question is disease, pests, lack of vigor, poor germination or poor flavor — can be traced directly to the condition of the soil.

When you begin a garden, you need to prepare the earth in three ways:

  1. Dig it up (and dig deep)
  2. Remove tough weed roots, stones, and/or other debris
  3. Work lots of well-decomposed organic matter into the ground

Many books recommend peat moss as the organic matter to spade into a vegetable patch...but that can be terribly expensive. Compost made from kitchen and/or garden wastes is far better, as is well-rotted manure from a barn or stable.

(I've never had any trouble locating animal wastes to use as compost. Cities and suburbs are surrounded by farms with stables and cow barns that give rise to tons of manure. What's more, farm owners are usually glad to see an enthusiastic gardener put these wastes to use. Once you've found a suitable supply of manure, arrange to go in with a pickup, or else plan on carting the goods home in bag-loads.)

No matter what kind of soil you have, compost will work wonders for it. (It wasn't until I spread well-decomposed horse manure over my garden — and spaded it in to a depth of five inches — that I started to see a difference in the performance of my plants.) Compost lends body and water-holding capacity to sandy earth, and helps to break up cold, sticky, clayey ground.

And, of course, do be sure your garden area is well-drained. If the soon-to-be vegetable patch is water-logged or difficult to dry out, for heaven's sake put down a layer of crushed stone and build a raised bed! 

Benefits of Composting

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what a compost can and cannot do. For instance, some “experts” maintain that, while compost is a good soil conditioner, it has little or no value as plant food. Actually, it all depends on how the compost is made.

If a compost is prepared from nutrient-bearing materials, it certainly can act as both a soil conditioner and a fertilizer. Manure-supplemented compost, for instance, generally contains plenty of nitrogen (necessary for leafy plant growth). And fireplace ashes mixed into a compost heap can supply a garden with an abundance of potash (for good plant grooming and resistance to disease).

The main problem with using compost as the sole source of fertilizer for one's garden, however, is that the decomposed material usually is deficient in the phosphorus which is essential for early fruit formation. You can get around this problem, however, by mixing bone meal or rock phosphates (two natural sources of phosphorus) into your compost pile, or by applying them directly to the soil.

Garden Soil Testing: pH Soil Levels

In my opinion, there's a lot of gibberish going around these days about the importance of soil tests. (Here, I'm talking about testing to determine the pH — or degree of acidity — of a piece of earth.)

For example, I believe that the way in which some books give long lists of flowers and vegetables, along with the precise pH that each plant prefers, is ridiculous. I guess that's OK for the agribiz farmer who specializes in one particular crop and who must — to protect his investment — have all the factors in his favor...but how can the average home gardener ensure a different soil pH from one row of the vegetables in his backyard to the next? He can't, obviously.

The best you (or I) can do is strive for a happy medium, meaning a neutral or slightly acid soil. If you don't know what kind of earth you have, ask a nearby farmer (or a gardening neighbor). Then, if you're still concerned about your soil, send a sample of the earth to your local state soil testing service. They'll tell you what — if anything — is missing from the dirt and how to “tailor” its composition to the particular crop(s) you wish to grow.

Easy-to-Grow Crops for the Beginner Vegetable Garden

For many beginners, the selection of what to grow is the most confusing aspect of gardening. Catalog descriptions all seem to read the same (“super!”, “best!”, “most productive!”), and those seed packets you buy from the local nursery aren't really very valuable when it comes to helping you choose one particular variety of, say, lettuce or cucumbers over another. Yet, for the experienced gardener the selection of seeds is perhaps the most important part of gardening! It's important for beginners to start with easy-to-grow varieties of easy-to-grow vegetables because a little success goes a long way toward one's understanding of the essentials of plant growth.

In my experience, the easiest-to-raise crops are loose-leaf lettuce (especially Oak Leaf), radishes (Cherry Belle is my favorite), zucchini squash (Burpee Hybrid), carrots (Royal Chantenay), snap beans (try the new bush Romano's), tomatoes (Supersonic is tops), peppers (such as Tasty Hybrid), parsley (any kind), and cucumbers (Marketmore 70 for disease resistance).

I planted each of these varieties — except for the cucumbers — in my own 12-by-20 foot vegetable garden in southeastern Pennsylvania last year, along with the following varieties (which I also consider easy to grow): Boston Bibb head lettuce, Yellow Bermuda onions, a new All-America spinach called Melody, a hybrid broccoli with the appropriate name of Premium Crop (one head measured 10 feet across!), Fordhook Giant Swiss chard, Stone-head cabbage, Detroit Dark Red beets and Goldcrop wax beans.

You'll find information on which varieties of which crops can and cannot safely be planted before your last frost date (and which seeds must be started indoors) in any good mail-order seed catalog or in MOTHER EARTH NEWS' Seed and Plant Finder. 

Peat Pellets and Indoor Vegetable Planting

I've found the widely available peat pellets invaluable for starting healthy seedlings indoors. These peat disks — which expand to something like seven times their original height when you add water to them — offer an excellent medium for the germination of seeds.

You can sow tomato, pepper, cabbage and other seeds directly into the moistened peat patties and easily fit them (by the dozen) along your windowsills. Provided you follow a regular watering schedule so that the peat doesn't dry out, you'll very quickly have whole sets of hardy seedlings that you can then transplant directly into the garden.

The only drawback to peat pellets is that they come encased in a plastic netting which must be carefully removed before you set each seedling into the ground. I've found that if I leave the netting in place it'll often restrict root development and create a “pot-bound” plant. For this reason, I'm happy to report that new peat pellets do not have the net stocking, and that the few I've used to start pepper seeds have given commendable results.

Sunlight and Water

All vegetable gardens need sunlight and moisture. Six hours of sunshine per day should be considered minimum, and the more the better. (If shade falls on your garden during the peak daylight hours, the maturation of the plants will be slowed and the garden's yields drastically cut.)

Likewise, a little too much moisture — in my opinion — is better than not enough. Even one week without a good drenching rain will dramatically stop the growth of moisture-loving crops, such as peas, beets, celery and carrots, and lack of moisture at the time of “tasseling” can cut sweet corn yields by 50 percent . On the other hand, this certainly doesn't mean that you should go overboard and keep your garden completely saturated all the time, either. Most vegetables cannot stand to have their roots permanently surrounded by water. There is a happy medium.

At the slightest sign of a dry spell, give your vegetable patch a good soaking with the garden hose and, if possible, keep the ground moist for as long as the drought lasts. (An ordinary lawn sprinkler set in the garden overnight is an excellent way to provide adequate moisture during dry weather, and — of course — a thick mulch always helps to conserve water.)

Importance of Fertilizer

The feeding of plants seems to be a greatly misunderstood subject. Some gardeners are able to maintain a nutrient-rich soil by the use of compost alone...but only because the compost in question has been made from nutrient-bearing materials (manure, blood, etc.).

If you're using a nutrient-poor compost (one made, say, mostly from leaves or grass clippings), you're going to have to resort to the use of a commercial fertilizer. That's not as bad as it sounds, however. As long as you use a slow-release fertilizer in combination with a composting program, you should obtain satisfactory results without grossly upsetting your vegetable patch's balance of nature.

Neglect: A Garden’s Worst Enemy

Only weeds and pests thrive on neglect. Spend a few minutes in the garden every evening — before sundown — pulling weeds and looking for signs of pests, and you'll discover that the plot will almost take care of itself. Leave the vegetable patch unattended for a week or two, however, and you'll find it much more difficult to catch up later.

Mulching, of course, helps enormously to control weeds. And if you can maintain a layer of compost between the rows of vegetables throughout the season, you'll find that the decomposing material will nourish the earth, promote even soil temperature and limit weed growth as effectively as any mulch.

Pest Control

I've found that a regular daily inspection of my garden enables me to spot pest problems early. If you develop this habit (and you should), you'll automatically find yourself picking off enough potentially harmful insects and egg clusters — especially those of bean and Japanese beetles, tomato hornworms, and cabbage loopers — to prevent these particular pests from ever getting a chance to overpopulate the vegetable patch.

Last summer was a dry one for me, so slugs weren't a problem. (I had a lot of ducks around, too, and I know that they were a big help in “policing” the slug population.) The season before last, however, my garden was utterly plagued by the slimy little villains. And, as a last resort, I did have to buy — and use—some slug pellets to bring the situation under control.

In general, though, I hate to use pesticides. (I'm a great believer in protecting young seedlings with wood ashes.)

There’s More

Naturally, there's more — much more — for the beginning gardener to learn, if he or she wants to be a spectacularly successful horticulturist. (That's why people like myself have written books about vegetable gardening!) Still, I believe I've touched upon the most important of the “fine points” that enabled me — after an early disaster — to become a better gardener. Here's hoping this discussion will help you grow bigger — and better—vegetables this spring!


The Fell Family Garden

For several years now, I've been harping on the virtues of keeping gardens small and manageable to achieve high productivity. And — as a result — I've had to practice what I preach . . . by keeping my own vegetable patch to a mere 12-by-20 feet.

I'm happy to report, however, that this practice has paid handsome dividends...especially this past season, when I boosted my usually high yields even further by means of succession planting. Here's how it went:

Before sowing anything — when the garden, in fact, was still frozen — I spread some 3-year-old horse manure over the tiny plot...manure that, I might add, was so clean and powdery you could have slept in it. Then I began to plant seeds.

Hardy spinach, onion sets, and garden peas were the first things to go into the ground, about six weeks before the last frost date in my area. These were followed — in turn — by radishes, parsley, carrots, Swiss chard, beets and lettuce, all of which were direct-seeded during a warm spell that hit about four weeks before the last frost date. I also set some transplants — of broccoli and cabbage — into the garden at this time.

(Note: I confined all of these cool-weather crops to one half of the 12-by-20-foot plot, and saved the other half for those tender vegetables — such as tomatoes, peppers, zucchini squash, and snap beans — that I knew would have to be planted after the last frost date.)

Once all my seedlings were up and growing well, I mulched the entire garden with pine needles (which I gathered from the forest at the edge of my property). These needles make an excellent weed-smothering mulch, and — because they create a beautiful reddish brown background for the lush vegetable growth — are highly decorative.

Then, after harvesting my rows of spinach, radishes and beets, I planted sweet potatoes (Centennial) in their place. And — after I'd picked the full yield of broccoli, peas, onions, carrots and lettuce—I put down a row of cocozelle squash and second sowings of lettuce, beets and spinach.

Every crop came up...and each one was spectacular. To this day, I can hardly believe that I actually grew such luscious vegetables! They sparkled like jewels...and tasted every bit as scrumptious as they looked. And, they all sprang from a plot just 12 feet wide by 20 feet deep.


Derek Fell is a world-renowned garden writer, photographer and designer. His books include the best-seller, How to Plant a Vegetable Garden, and last year’s How I Planned to Plant the White House Vegetable Garden. He has also appeared on NBC’s Today Show. Fell edits seed catalogs and writes a gardening column for more than 5,000 newspapers and magazines nationwide. He was also the director of both the National Garden Bureau (an information office sponsored by the American garden seed industry) and All-America Selections (the national seed trials). 


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