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Wouldn't it be amazing to be able to pick some vegetables off a vine in your backyard rather than off a grocery store shelf? Does it seem like a dream to be able to eat food that you know exactly what was put on it and how it was grown? You can have a garden that produces food for you and your family with a few key ingredients. Be prepared for all of the benefits your garden will bring you. Here are my top 10 tips for beginning gardeners.
1. Planning is key
I can tell you from past (and present) experience that planning is one of the most important aspects of gardening. Lack of planning can leave you disappointed, and that can lead to giving up. Plan ahead to give yourself the best chance of success. If you can start planning in the fall before you even start picking your seeds and plants, you will have a huge advantage. Fall is when you can pick your garden spot and start working on the soil or build a raised bed garden to have it ready to go for spring.
During the winter, plot out what you want the garden to look like and order your seeds if you are growing from seed. Grab my free garden journal and planner here. Late winter is a great time to start seeds indoors. You don't need a fancy greenhouse to start seeds. Just put them in a window and make sure they get enough heat. Follow the directions on the seed packs to determine the best dates to start seeds. Use an online frost date calculator like this one (https://www.almanac.com/gardening/frostdates) to determine the first and last frost dates for your area.
2. Soil is life
You can do everything else right, but if you don't have good, healthy soil, your plants will not thrive. Start amending the soil as far in advance as you can. If you aren't sure what your soil needs, buy a soil test kit or send a sample of soil to your local extension office. You can amend your soil based on the tests. Generally, you want the right Ph, Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus levels. There are natural amendments you can add to your soil, but don't let all of the options bog you down, because another way to make sure you have great soil is to add plenty of organic material. Adding manure, compost, or worm castings to your garden bed will ensure that you have healthy soil. If you start your garden in the fall, adding plenty of organic material will have your soil ready to go in the spring. Mulching with hay, straw, or wood chips can also be beneficial for your soil. As the mulch breaks down, it feeds your soil, giving it nutrients it needs to make your plants healthy and strong. Mulching also helps your soil retain moisture so you can save some time watering your plants.
3. Pick the right plants
You can order any seed from anywhere in the world in a variety of catalogs or at the garden center, but not all seeds are the same. Some germinate easily. Some need to be started indoors. Some need to be seeded directly into the ground. If you're curious about the differences between different types of seeds (heirloom, organic, hybrid, and GMO), see this post. Figure out a few plants you want to start with and do some research to see how those plants grow best. If you're anything like me, you will want to jump in and plant hundreds of plants of different varieties, but this isn't necessarily the best, most productive way to do things.
If you're not quite ready to start all of your plants from seeds, that's okay. Go to your local garden center or big box store and choose plants that look healthy and strong. Make sure the leaves are not yellowing and that the plant doesn't look spindly. Plants that are compact and full are usually stronger than tall, spindly plants. Also check the roots if you can to make sure that they are not root bound. You want to see healthy roots but not roots that wrap around and around. Another important thing to keep in mind is that you don't want to buy plants that are already blossoming and have fruit on them. During transplant, they may not keep the blossoms and fruit and will have to take more time to establish themselves.
Choose plants that you know you and your family will enjoy and go with a couple of each to start with. You can start with a couple of early spring plants like broccoli and radishes and then move onto some summer plants, like cucumbers and tomatoes. Or plant a greater variety with less of each plant. Make sure that the plants you choose are plants that are ideal for your area and climate.
Take a look at Susan Vinskofki's book "The Art of Gardening- Building Your Soil" to find more information about planting all types of plants. It also includes lots of useful information about creating the right type of garden for you as well as how to build the best soil for your plants. It's full of useful information!
4. Let the sun shine
Most vegetables require at least six hours of sunlight per day. There are some vegetables that do well with partial shade, but make sure you research the plants you intend to have in your garden to make sure that they will tolerate the amount of sun or shade in your chosen garden area. One year I grew celery and put it in a spot in the garden that I thought would be great, but I didn't research beforehand. I planted the celery in full sun. It was not happy. It withered and died. If I would have placed the celery in a different area of the garden, I probably would have had a much happier outcome.
The easiest way to check on the sunlight in your chosen spot is to head outside multiple times throughout the day to see where the sun is and which parts of the garden are in shade. Make sure that you check the sun in the summer or early fall before the leaves fall from the trees to get a true picture of how much sun you have in your chosen spot.
Water is another essential element for growing any plant. Whether you set up a sprinkler, a drip irrigation system, or just water by hand, it is important to make sure your garden gets enough water. Some sources say to water 1-2 inches per week, but that can be hard to measure, so try to use your judgement by feeling the soil, sticking a shovel down a couple of inches and seeing if the soil is moist, or using a moisture sensor. Some plants will need more water than others. If plants start to look wilted, you can water them to see if that helps. If the top inch or so of soil feels dry, it might be a good time to water. It is better to give plants a deep watering less often than a shallow, more frequent watering.
There are many sources that say you should only water in the early morning or late evening to avoid the water droplets burning the plant leaves, but there is research that shows that this is mostly a myth. It should be safe to water any time of day; although hairy plant leaves may burn if water droplets are left on them in the sunlight. Observe your plants and your soil to see if it's time for a watering. Use mulch to ensure that moisture stays in the soil for a longer period of time. Water will evaporate much more quickly without the use of mulch. And remember, mulch can be things such as hay, straw, or wood chips.
6. Keep critters out
I love looking out the window to see a deer bounding through the trees behind the house. It makes me feel so connected to nature! But, when that same deer is munching on my green beans, I don't feel quite the same loving connection. I work too hard to lose all of my harvest to deer, rabbits, squirrels, and whatever other little critter loves tomatoes as much as I do. If you can, build a fence. This is the best and most natural deterrent that I have found. There are sprays and tricks to keep animals out, but a fence is a permanent, foolproof solution to keep most animals out of the garden. Your fence doesn't have to be elaborate. You can hammer some fence posts in the ground and zip tie some netting to the posts. If birds are your problem, use the netting overhead as well. The other option is to just plant enough for your family and for the animals.
Insects are critters that can't be kept out of your garden no matter how hard you try. There are dusts and sprays that kill bad bugs, but they also kill beneficial bugs. These broad spectrum sprays and dusts are the ones that you want to keep far away from your garden. If you notice insects that are harming your crops, try waiting a week or so to see if any beneficial bugs will come to take care of the harmful ones. I know it's hard to wait and you don't want your entire crop wiped out, but try to be patient. If you are still having issues, look for an organic soap or spray that is specific to the type of insect that is affecting your plants. Some insects, like squash beetles and Japanese beetles can be removed from plants by hand. Wear your gloves if you are squeamish and throw the beetles into a cup of soapy water. There is something satisfying about protecting your plants with your own two hands.
7. Give your plants space
We all need some space of our own, even plants! I am guilty of planting things too close together. It would make sense to think the more you plant, the bigger the harvest, but if plants don't have enough room to grow, they will be competing for light and nutrients and will not produce as much, so it's best to use the recommendations for spacing to get a full harvest. If you don't have a lot of space, there are ways that you can maximize what you have. Containers and straw bales can be used for planting and take less space and maintenance than a garden plot. They can also be placed on porches or driveways. There are also things like vertical gardens and window sill gardens that you can experiment with to get as many plants growing as possible.
8. Keep records
It is important to keep track of how your gardening year went. You can use a garden journal, a calendar, or a notebook to record things such as which plants grew well and which plants didn't, any weather related issues or anomalies, when and how many plants you planted, where you planted, soil amendments added, and any observations you may have. Make sure that you have a drawing or a picture of your garden so that you can rotate your plants the following year. I know you're thinking it won't be hard to remember. You are out in the garden all the time. How would you be able to forget where you picked the peppers? But trust me, memories fade more quickly than we realize and you will start questioning whether you planted the squash in that particular spot last year or the year before (or maybe that's just me getting old….). Either way, play it safe and keep track of what you grew where.
9. Keep trying
Remember, each year will be different, and even if you have a year that was bad for tomatoes because of the weather or insects, the next year could be the best year ever for tomatoes, so don't give up on a plant if it doesn't do well in your garden one year. Some years, your garden may just not do well at all, but that’s an opportunity for learning and growing your inner gardener. Of course, make sure that all conditions under your control are right for the plant, but always be willing to give it another shot! Just like everything in life, it takes time to master the art and science of gardening, and there is always more to learn.
10. Have fun!
Gardening should be fun. I love to get outside in the sunshine and watch my plants grow as I nurture them. I love to research to find out what's going on and solve the problems that may arise in my garden. And finally, I love to pick the ripe fruit and vegetables that I grow and taste how fresh and delicious they can be. Even better is giving some of the fresh produce to friends and family and watching their enjoyment that is possible because of all of the hard work I have put into my garden throughout the season. The opportunities for learning and spending time together are endless as your kids and friends want to become a part of your gardening adventure. Gardening teaches us lessons about ourselves and about the earth and all it has to offer. Take advantage of this joyful pursuit!
Try these tips and let me know how your garden grows!