Whether driven by the economy, the desire for fresh and untainted food, or the need to minimize your environmental footprint, beginning a vegetable garden can be a daunting task.
A life in the garden is one in which learning will never end, experience is the best teacher and next year will always be better.
It is full of rewards and disappointments – and a kind of satisfaction that is felt deep within your body, from the labor expended, the nourishment of the food you grow and the spiritual reward of feeding yourself off your own little plot of land.
Here is my attempt to weed through the excess, to toss the rest on the compost and come away with a workable plan to help a beginning gardener on the path to happy harvests.
Assess your situation: Sun, soil, space and water are the important issues. There are a lot of remedies for problem garden spots, but if the intended space doesn’t get at least six hours of sun a day, you do not have a lot of options.
A soil test is mandatory: Your agricultural-extension agent can assist with the interpretation. The most important issue is the soil’s pH, a measure of how acidic or alkaline it is. Without a proper pH balance, plants will not be able to absorb nutrients from the soil.
Soil, with its many microorganisms, eats organic matter. Beginning gardeners are often surprised how fast their hard work seems to disappear. Whether you supply organic matter from your own compost, buy it bagged or have trucked in, it is an essential piece of the successful garden.
Drainage and aeration: These are two essential qualities of soil. A raised bed can go a long way toward accomplishing both tasks.
I make it a rule never to step into a bed unless I have to, always working backward when turning the soil so that I raise what my feet have just compacted. A raised bed does not necessarily need to be contained by wood or stone sides, but it can make things easier to maintain.
Water: Make sure that you will be able to get water to your garden. Vegetable gardens generally require an inch of rain a week.
If the sky doesn’t provide it, it’s up to you.
Know your seasons: Gaining an understanding of the conditions and the lifespan of your garden plants is crucial.
There are both warm- and cool-season crops.
Lettuce, for example, is a cool-season crop. Once the weather gets warm, lettuce goes to seed and turns bitter. Gardeners call this bolting.
Tomatoes are a warm-season crop. Once the weather gets too cool, they stop producing and eventually succumb to frost.
There will be weeds. Weeds undo more gardeners than anything else.
The more effort you put into controlling weeds, the better off you will be. Anytime new ground is broken, weed seeds are waiting to germinate. The soil has an inexhaustible supply. The solution is to keep the ground covered.
On paths, this means using mulch, bricks or gravel.
In beds, weeds can be controlled by regular hoeing, mulching and planting intensively.
In an intensively planted bed, there is little room for weeds; the plants are nearly touching and form a sort of living mulch.
Know your friends and enemies: A heavy-handed approach that kills all bugs is not beneficial.
If you want pesticides and chemicals on your food, you can go to the grocery store. But there are organic or botanically based pesticides that address all of our pest problems now. Many of these are less harmful to non-target creatures and do not persist in the environment.
Then there are the higher pests like rabbits, voles and deer. Again, it is better to plan for the worst than to suddenly have your garden wiped out in a few days.
Fencing and repellents are important strategies to consider.
Start from seed: Beginners are often thwarted by seed starting. It can be tricky and is certainly time-consuming. The first-time gardener may want to start with transplants the first year. Your ultimate goal should be to raise your plants from seed. Seed starting is a miracle, and it still amazes me every spring.
Grow up: No matter how small your space, you can increase your harvest by putting up a trellis.
Cucumbers, peas, tomatoes, winter squash, watermelons and beans will not only take up less space, they will be healthier. This is because you increase air circulation and reduce the incidence of diseases when you get plants off the ground.
Start small: Many a vegetable garden has started as a wonderful new project and become an overbearing burden.
It is far too easy to let enthusiasm carry you away in the spring. A lot of food can come out of a small, well-managed plot. Include a couple of caged tomatoes, some lettuce, a few peppers, a few bush beans, radishes and carrots.
Slow down: A garden sets its own pace.
In the age of instant everything, a garden quickly becomes a slower place. Adjust to the natural rhythm of growing things. Remember, there is more to harvest in the garden than produce.