If there’s one thing to keep in mind as a beginning gardener, it’s that plants want to grow. You’re just there to help them along a little bit. Most of the work goes into planning and preparation. And if you plan well and start small, you won’t have to do too much to grow your own first crop of fresh vegetables.
In Vermont, when spring planting weather finally comes around in May, plants burst out of the ground in a massive hurry to make the most of the short growing season. Growth is violent and unstoppable; it’s part of life. And being a gardener isn’t about forcing something out of the ground. It is about making life excellent for the plants you’ve chosen. Along these lines, I’ve put together some tips from experts and added a few of my own.
Choosing the right plants and location
Before you buy your seedlings, find out if what you want to grow will flourish where you intend to grow it. For example, tomatoes like a lot of sun and don’t grow well in the Pacific Northwest.
Search online to find out the growing season for the region where you live. Then, look up the vegetables you have in mind. Are they suited to the climate? If so, how much sunlight and water are they going to need? You’ll see a lot about soil and pH, but don’t let that concern you if you are using a planter or raised bed.
Then, consider where you can put your garden. When you’re home for an entire day, check your potential spot a few times. Track about how much sunlight the area gets. Do the trees overshadow the area during the afternoon? Some plants need sunlight all day. Observe whether the area is higher or lower than the surrounding landscape. If it’s lower, does the rain pool there? You want your plants to have moisture, but too much will kill them.
I ended up putting my first raised bed on my front lawn on a tip I got from a more experienced gardener.
“If you see it, you are less likely to overlook it or forget about it,” he said.
It was good expert advice. I’d pull in the driveway after work, exhausted and cranky. If the garden had been in the back, I’d have left it to nature. But there it was and all I had to do was pause for two minutes. Pinch out a few weeds. Observe the moisture level and any damage from critters. In the morning, I watered the bed, as needed, before I left for work.
It was also a good tip because the front lawn got better sunlight than anywhere else on the property. I might have been too embarrassed to put my raised bed out there if I hadn’t had encouragement from an expert.
Your first garden: keep it simple
During my first few years of gardening, I was extremely ambitious. I wanted to start from scratch and germinate my own seedlings. Seedlings are what we call a young plant that has recently sprouted. It was a lot of trouble for bragging rights.
With variable New England weather in April and early May, I was taking trays of seedlings in and out of the house to strengthen them for outdoor planting. I worried constantly about overnight temperatures and every strong breeze. It’s a lot of work, especially if you’re not committing to becoming a full-time gardener.
My advice if you are just starting out is to purchase young plants at a local garden store. In fact, I’ve found a local garden supply store that has heirloom tomatoes plantlings, so I’ve taken to making my life easier by leaving all the stressful germination to professionals. I purchase all my organic seedlings there. And it’s nice to chat with the staff, who are well versed in all things gardening.
And, for those of you who have the cost-saving Victory Gardens of your great and great great grandmothers in mind, I do still end up saving money on organic produce every year even if I purchase my plants. There’s no shame saving time and frustration. (And for those of you curious what a Victory Garden is, the term was coined during WWI when people began planting small gardens to reduce the stress on the global food chain. Supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables were limited again in WWII and amateur Victory Gardeners were once more called to action.)
There is something community spirited about gardens, whether you are growing just for yourself or an extended network, like in a community garden.
My last pre-planning tip is to keep your first garden relatively small. A 3-by-6-foot raised bed or even several planters will yield more than you think. You don’t need to plant a field of corn. You aren’t feeding an army. And if you grow summer squash, I assure you that you will only need two vine plants to have enough to share with the neighbors.
Planning for predators: on thwarting bugs
I learned from a local organic farmer, whose family had been on the land for generations, that planting marigolds is a great natural deterrent for garden pests. Beginner that I was, I wanted to find out if that was accurate, so I looked up marigolds. It turns out she was right.
The scent from some types of marigolds can repel blackflies, mosquitoes, and even rabbits, according to some sources. It’s inexpensive to buy a whole tray of the fragrant flowers to plant as a border or intersperse with your vegetables.
Be careful though. Stores do sell unscented marigold varieties, so make sure you know what you’re buying. And, if you want to mix things up, there are lots of other ornamental flowering plants that can liven up your raised bed and repel bugs like petunias and chrysanthemums. Ask a local gardener or just do a quick search online.
Planning for predators: chipmunks and other pests
Unless you have a greenhouse, you’ll have to get used to some predation by fuzzy pests. However, there are a few options that do not involve poison, which is a caution if you have children or pests.
Having a raised bed helps to discourage rabbits from nibbling away your tender plant leaves. They like to dine unseen. But other garden pests — including moles, voles, and chipmunks — can and will try to slip in underground. I planned ahead and lined my raised bed with wire mesh before putting in topsoil. They couldn’t get in from below, but it was a constant battle to keep them out from above.
After losing too many tomatoes to rapacious chipmunks and squirrels, I put chicken wire around my raised bed. It helped. Nothing is perfect, but there’s only so much time and money a hobby gardener can invest in a garden patch.
Gardening tip: on soil
I remember asking a local expert at the community gardens what I needed to do for the soil. Remembering my dad gardening with a big jug of EZ-GRO, I thought I needed to add some kind of growth enhancer or fertilizer.
The local expert asked me what I needed it for. I shrugged. He said if I really wanted to enrich my soil, I should let the plants decompose in the bed at the end of the season and think about beginning to compost, so I’d have something to add to the soil before planting next year.
Letting the plants stand in the soil over winter is just about the easiest thing to do in the world: nothing. But, if you are partial to your garden looking tidy, you will have to break down the plant matter and turn the soil before you plant again.
I thought about what the expert told me, but I really wanted to be a success with my first garden. So, I went to the local garden center and got a truck bed full of their organic gardening soil, which was premixed with manure and compost. Every year I go back to get at least a sack of the stuff to till into my beds before planting.
Gardening tip: on tools
The tools I used most often are a bucket, a shovel, a till, a hand rake, a spade, and a weeder. These are the most basic functional tools you’ll need for your garden. There are a lot of fancy options out there, but you really only need the least expensive brands to get the job done.
And, a pair of gloves is always nice when you are doing dirty work. I chose to get leather gloves, even though they were a little more expensive because I had some vines to wrestle back in my side yard.
What’s it all for? Can’t you do everything you need with a shovel and a spoon? Tools are made for specific purposes. People invented them because they are helpful.
A shovel turns the soil and spreads it evenly throughout the bed. A till breaks up the soil and any dense plant matter, like roots. You want to plant your seeds or plants in loose soil, not clumps. A spade is good for digging small holes for planting. You can use your hand rake to draw the soil over your newly planted roots. You can also use it to pull and shake out weed roots before planting. The weeder looks like a long metal stick with a prong at the end, which is exactly what it is. Those dandelion roots will be no match for your weeder. Slide it down and under your weed and use the prong at the end to break it out of the ground without harming nearby plant roots.
Gardening tip: on water
The bucket, mentioned above, is for watering your plants. You might have a hose, but your hose might not be long enough to reach your garden. You don’t want to shoot water into your garden, you’ll dislodge your plants!
When you first plant, make sure your seedlings are watered every day, if not twice a day. They need to grow roots and get accustomed to their new home. Don’t drown them and don’t pour water on the plant itself. Get enough water into the soil so that it penetrates down, but not enough to cause rot.
Then, in a week, stand down. Give the plants a break for a day. Give them space. They know what to do.
What to do about gardening maintenance?
After planting and until harvest, you don’t need to do much. The plants do all the heavy lifting. But you do need to protect them. If you see something you didn’t plant growing, pluck it out so that your plants don’t have to compete for resources. Make sure to water when it’s not going to rain. If that squash vine looks like it needs somewhere to go, give it a trellis. Do a little reading about best practices or chat up a local community garden expert.
I learned the most from listening to the people around me who knew about our region’s quirks, like water levels and soil composition. All the details went over my head at first, but when I took their advice, I had really good outcomes. That is, things went well when I figured out what they meant.
For example, I kept hearing something about pinching back the tomato blossoms. I couldn’t understand how that could be a good idea, because surely you’d want all the tomatoes? It turns out pinching back some of the blossoms allows the remaining tomatoes to grow better. They’ll have more water and nutrients without the competition.
After a month or two of chasing off squirrels and providing water, hopefully, you’ll see some true natural magic in the form of vegetables. It’s so satisfying to go outside before dinner and grab something from your garden. It tastes better too.
There’s nothing quite like a mid-July cookout with a slice of zucchini fresh off the grill.
–By Nic Desmet