If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “I’d wish I could grow my own vegetables, but I just don’t know how,” I’d be in a higher tax bracket. But I understand the sentiment—I’ve been there myself. Then I discovered the most amazing secret: gardening is all about practice. If you want to become a gardener, the most important thing you can do is, to borrow a well-worn advertising slogan, just do it.
To further encourage fledgling gardeners, I’ve compiled a list of tips from my own just-do-it decision. You’ll also find links to a number of helpful websites if you’re ready for more in-depth research.
You don’t know everything there is to know about gardening? So what? You’ll learn as you go. Every skilled gardener was once a novice. It’s been said that farmers are scientists in overalls. Gardeners and farmers alike experiment, observe, and evaluate results just like the scientists in lab coats. Gardens are outdoor laboratories that feed both body and soul.
The first word of advice seasoned gardeners typically give to first-time gardeners is to start small. It’s a hard one to follow. Most people, once they develop an interest in something, jump in with both feet. You’re full of energy and enthusiasm. But that energy will soon flag when your garden demands more time than you have to give it, and your enthusiasm is sure to wane when the weeds start to overtake your carefully planted veggies or a few gardening problems present themselves. Best to start with just a couple of raised beds or few short in-ground rows.
Likewise, it’s important not to get carried away with one particular vegetable. Two or three tomato plants will go a long way. The same is true of cucumbers, zucchini, and yellow squash. If you’re not careful, you’ll have more of these foods than you can possibly eat, especially if your family is small.
In addition to learning by doing, you can spend cold winter days and warm summer evenings researching good gardening practices. Find out the best way to build your compost. Learn about side dressing and companion planting. There are some great books and websites to help you out. And remember seed catalogs. Some provide in-depth information all the way from indoor seed starting to harvest and storage. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is the most comprehensive one I’ve come across.
Many seed catalogs are chock full of helpful growing tips.
A few vegetables will grow in shady spots, but most need a good six hours of sunlight. Once you’ve selected a potential garden space, check it at different times of day throughout the growing season to be sure it gets enough sunlight in all corners. Likewise, you want to place your garden in a spot that has good drainage.
Given these factors, the single most important consideration in locating your garden is convenience. You’re much more likely to pick supper from your garden if it’s just a few steps from the kitchen door than if it’s a quarter mile away and up a steep hill. You also want to site your garden where it has good access to water. You’ll have to water seeds daily until the sprouts emerge, and your plants will need regular watering during dry spells.
Protect Your Garden
Nothing is more disappointing than going to the garden to pick corn for dinner only to find that night marauders beat you to it. A deer fence is your most secure protection, but it may be too big an investment for beginners. However, netting and row covers placed atop your plants are easy and practical. Dogs and motion-activated sprinklers are also proven deer and raccoon interventions. Spray deterrents work but only if you use them religiously. Look for cruelty-free ones. You can find more tips for deterring deer from Savvy Gardening.
In addition to installing a deer fence, we added a solar-powered electric fence to guard against garden intruders.
Row covers help with pests such as cabbage worms. Barbara Pleasant of Mother Earth News has an excellent article on natural pest control.
A seed catalog is a dangerous thing in the hands of a gardener. Every newly introduced seed is a temptation. But it’s important to know what you and your family actually enjoy eating—and how much of it you’re likely to consume before the next gardening season rolls around. Even if your family is committed to eating dark, leafy greens, you may have a mini-rebellion on your hands if you grow mustard, kale, chard, collards, and turnip greens.
Even in the plant world, some things are just plain high-maintenance. To give your inner gardener a quick win, start with some of the easy kids such as cucumbers, zucchini (just one or two will do), and Swiss chard. Radishes and salad greens are not only easy, but are some of the earliest to sow and to mature. Strawberries are practically effortless as well as being both prolific and yummy. You have to wait a couple of years to harvest rhubarb, but it takes care of itself year in and year out.
Cherry tomatoes are subject to fewer issues than standard-size tomatoes and add a tasty punch of color to summer salads--if you can keep from eating them all as you pick them.
Unless you get a kick out of being frustrated, stay away from celery, artichokes, melons, broccoli, and cauliflower until you’ve gotten your gardening sea legs. For different reasons, each of these presents gardening challenges.
Before you prepare your garden in early spring, you need to do some planning. Winter is a great time to get started. Determine the size of your garden and how much space to allocate to each vegetable variety. Select seeds or plants based on what’s known to work in your climate. Different plants have different growing requirements.
Become familiar with your average last frost date (spring) and first frost date (fall) to see how many growing days you have. Just remember that even within zip codes there are microclimates and that every year is different.
To learn when to sow your seed—indoors or out—and when your produce will likely be ready for harvest, look no further than this chart from Mother Earth News. It’s specific to your zip code.
Think about what seeds you’ll plant and where to plant each type. Some plants produce better or worse when near certain others. When dill and carrot cohabitate, they’re likely to cross-pollinate. On the other hand, onions or leeks near carrots might keep carrot flies at bay. For a good companion planting guide.
You can get a more in-depth garden planner here.
So your tomatoes got blossom end rot and vine borers destroyed your squash. Even the experts have bad years. Be that scientist in overalls and learn from your experience. Pull out your gardening books, get on the internet, talk with other gardeners to find out how you can solve those problems next year. Try new methods—and keep records so you’ll know what works best. Before you know it, you’ll be an expert, too.
Here are a few other websites that can help ensure success for the new gardener.
Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following this link:. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.
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