Vegetable gardening is not for the faint of heart: I have learned the hard way.
For several years I tried to raise my own vegetables by researching what I thought I needed to know. Each time I applied what I learned, I was then thwarted by something totally unexpected.
Take my broccoli and cabbage patches, for instance. For two years, I planted broccoli and cabbage, and each year the plants grew beautiful leaves but no heads. After the first year, I changed seed companies, so I was frustrated the second year when I had the same results. After digging in with research, I discovered that the stress of extreme temperatures from planting too early or too late can result in beautiful leaves and no heads.
Not knowing what questions to ask until something fails is frustrating, time consuming and expensive.
Planning everything well in advance — from where to plant, how to prepare soil, what to plant, what not to plant near what, what kinds of seeds to buy, and when to plant what — is key to getting off to a great start. Here are some gardening tips for beginners.
Where to plant a garden
The actual spot you choose for your garden is not half as important as what you do with it. Choosing an area in the fall saves you time and money in the spring; when you prepare your garden soil in the fall, you can add nutrients in less costly ways. For instance, in the fall you can add matured compost with animal elements — like fish and dried horse or cow manure — on top of your garden area. This gives them time to break down sufficiently before spring tilling. At the same time, you can mulch fall leaves into the garden to add carbon and trace minerals to balance all the nitrogen.
All you need is a place that is relatively flat. It can’t be constantly shaded or swampy for long periods of time. The flat and swampy problems can usually be fixed with hard work, but the area must have full sun for most, if not all, of the day. Planting in long, narrow, rectangular beds from east to west usually gives you the best sun exposure for the longest periods of the day. This shape also lets you tend your beds without stepping on the soil.
Grass, weeds and good soil drainage can be handled by enclosing your garden bed areas with untreated wood, or bricks and stones. Place cardboard or newspaper inside the garden area to kill the grass several weeks before you trench or fall till, and then put your dried manures and fall leaves over your prepared garden. This all breaks down by spring and can then be easily tilled or hoed for planting.
For landscaping and practical concerns, if you put plastic down in between your bed areas (or around the outside of a single garden area) and cover it with straw or a large coarsely chopped mulch, grass will have less opportunity to interfere with your planting areas. This also will make it easier to walk around the area to weed after it rains, and it looks good, too.
Also, do not forget to use a grass bag on your mower to keep grass from flying through the air and reseeding your nicely fertilized garden bed.
Doing all this in stages gives you time to budget and plan the work in doable increments. For me, that meant scheduling everything when my children were most available to help.
How to prepare soil
Soil preparation is the major factor in good plant growth. Without proper prep work, you lose everything you worked for.
According to Mini Farming, Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre by Brett Markham, you should prepare your plot in the fall or winter, when your fertilizers and nutrients have time to break down into the soil. Fresh organic fertilizers, like manure, can burn newly planted plants or spread parasites, worm eggs and Escherichia coli (E. coli). When manure has broken down properly in composted materials like plant debris, it no longer poses a threat.
The hot composting process in a well-maintained compost pile kills parasites in the manure, making it safe and effective. Simply top-dressing a garden plot or field and waiting for the fresh manure to decompose does not guarantee that any bacteria will be destroyed.
Whenever you choose to prepare your soil with fresh organic fertilizers and your own composted materials, give your garden no less than 40 to 60 days before you plant.
Decide on a garden structure
Next, decide on a structure, or lack thereof, for your vegetable garden. A raised bed is the most often recommended garden plot method these days. It is hard work and time consuming, but well worth all the time and effort. There are many approaches to planting a raised bed. I found trenching to be the most practical and economical without a tiller.
Trenching is an old, accepted form of digging up your raised bed, as is double digging. You also can use deep tilling, as Edward C. Smith talks about in The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, if you have access to a deep-digging tiller.
According to Brent Markham, there are three types of trenching: plain digging, double digging and true trenching. Plain digging should be used in good soil that is not hard, rocky, or heavy clay. It requires using a garden spade to dig down the depth of that spade, lift out the topsoil, place the soil in a wheelbarrow, add compost into the newly dug trench and then place the top soil from the next trench on top of the compost. In the last trench, you place the top soil you put in the wheelbarrow from the first dug trench.
Double digging should be used in areas where the top soil has been previously removed, or in tough soils, like heavy clay. When double digging, after you have removed a spade depth of soil, you use a digging fork to work your compost down into the next layer of soil the depth of your digging fork. This is the method I used because our topsoil had been removed when our house was built.
In true trenching — which should only be used for depleted, overused soil that has previously been double dug — you dig out the top two layers, putting each in separate wheelbarrows. Then you use your digging fork on the third layer with your compost. When you have your second trench dug out, you put in the top soil from the first trench first, then cover it with the subsoil from the first trench. Because you are exchanging subsoil and topsoil, you need to generously add well-aged compost to the top layer.
If you choose not to do this in the fall, and therefore use already enriched soil or soil additives you have purchased, the quickest you should plant is two weeks. The ground needs time to incorporate all the nutrients, settle for proper drainage, and for creatures like earthworms to return.
Trenching or deep tilling in the fall gives the natural compost more time to replenish the soil where the roots of the plants will be growing in the spring. Your soil is more likely to need less assistance in the spring from fall prep than if you waited until spring to begin your beds.
Spring, then, is the time to test your soil. No matter how much you prepare your ground, if you do not know what the acidity (soil pH), nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels are, you still can be inviting disaster. Why? Because your plants grow using the nutrients in the soil, particularly nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Just as important, each plant only thrives within a certain pH range. Soil testing is the only accurate way to obtain this information.
Assuming you have chosen to prepare your soil in the fall, you should plan to plant no sooner than three to four weeks after your soil test results are in. This gives you time to add whatever is necessary to the top of the soil to ensure healthy plant growth.
Markham recommends LaMotte soil testing kits, which can be purchased online, but Consumer Reports recommends using the resources from your local extension office (which are usually free). I chose LaMotte because my local extension office isn’t “local” and takes several weeks to send and receive the materials.
No matter what you decide, labs will always be the most accurate, and kits are never to be handled lightly. They have serious chemicals that can cause injury, so read all instructions carefully and use all precautions in administering and storing. Keep the kit away from children and pets.
With results in hand, determine what changes need to be made to the soil to accommodate your specific plants. If you have already planned what to plant where, it is time to determine what nutrients or pH adjustments will be needed in each part of your garden. To be successful, work on the areas individually, and consider the needs of the plants to be grown there, including spacing, growing time, nutrients, sun and water. Also keep in mind the health and drainage characteristics of each patch of soil, and the pests and diseases that you might encounter with each plant.
What to plant
The fall is a good time to decide what to plant in the spring. Make sure you take into consideration what you eat on a regular basis. One year I planted a wonderful patch of yellow squash that yielded plentifully. But only three of us eat summer squash. I should have used part of that bed for something more popular with my family.
Plan to plant some bee-attracting plants. I learned the hard way that pollination of certain vegetable blooms is an essential component in having a good crop. When I planted cucumbers, the plants grew large leaves and many vines, but very few cucumbers, and none were edible. That’s when I learned about male and female flowers. Now I know I need bees to pollinate those particular flowers to get a good crop.
Make sure these pollinator-friendly flowering plants are not ones that will take over your garden, or conflict with what you are growing. Pollinator Partnership has useful information on selecting plants for pollinators and much more.
Now is the time to think about bugs, yellowing leaves and shriveled veggies on the vine. Your area will have its own pests and common diseases that can be controlled by planting wisely. Learn as much as you can about them before you plant.
I found that nasturtiums act as a trap crop. They keep aphids, worms and a few beetles off your veggies by providing something more attractive to munch on. Mosaic viruses are usually caused by aphids and leafhoppers that spread these viruses from plant to plant. Stave off the bugs, and the viruses are less likely to be a problem.
If you plant rosemary as a companion plant to beans, cabbage, carrots and sage, it will deter not only bean beetles, but cabbage moths and carrot flies as well. Even though some people have had good results with a few marigolds around a large bean patch, rosemary is reputed to handle a wider variety of pests. While there are many good solutions for each problem you will encounter, if you do your homework in advance, you’ll be more likely to find one that is perfect for you.
What not to plant where
In The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control, authors Barbara W. Ellis and Fern Marshall Bradley explain how natural plant and insect-transmitted diseases can be avoided by selecting the right spot in your garden plan for your plants.
Some plants pick up diseases from soils previously planted with other plants. Strawberries cannot be planted in a bed that has recently held broccoli, potatoes, eggplant or tomatoes – to name a few. The strawberries will likely get verticillium wilt.
Plants can get gray mold because they are placed too close together, while others get powdery mildew for the same reason. Avoid these problems by spacing plants properly to give them enough air circulation. Each seed packet has this information on the back.
Spacing plants advantageously also is important for good root growth. Some roots grow deep like parsley. I planted parsley in a container and did not worry about spacing because it grows well close together. I was thrilled at its progress until it began to die prematurely and pulled the soil away from the edges of the container. My research taught me that parsley has long roots and needs lots of root room. So even though it could be somewhat crowded on top of the soil, it needed root room underneath. To solve the problem, I transplanted the surviving parsley to a part of my garden where it would have room to expand.
Rotation of crops also is important when trying to maintain a healthy garden. As a rule, when one vegetable has been planted in the same patch for more than a couple of years, it depletes the soil of the specific nutrients it thrives on and attracts pests that have learned its yearly home.
After planting tomatoes for a while it would be advantageous to plant beans in that spot instead. Why? Because tomatoes use up nitrogen, and beans return nitrogen to the soil. So after a couple of years of beans, you can plant cabbage, cauliflower, kale, etc. — leafy vegetables. These leafy vegetables will use the nitrogen and leave phosphorus. This gives you reason to plant root crops next — like carrots, beets and turnips — which in turn leave extra potassium. This means your soil will not need as much work each time to prepare for your next crop.
The bottom line is that more planning equals less work.
When to plant what
Find out which of the plants you’ve decided on are early growers, which are late growers, and which have long growing seasons in your area of the country. When I planted cilantro and basil, I had no idea that cilantro is a cool-weather plant and basil a warm-weather plant. I planted them both at the beginning of our growing season. The cilantro thrived at first, while the basil struggled, then the cilantro died off and the basil came back in abundance.
Ask gardeners in your area what methods they use to prolong their growing seasons. Here in the mid-southern United States, many home gardeners use row covers to protect early crops from late frost in early April. The covers are used again in the fall to keep the last plants from freezing during the first frosts.
Best seeds to buy
Now that you have planned everything and prepared your soil, don’t immediately run down to the local garden center to buy plants. This is a good way to lose the first crop. So how do you find good plants? You start with good seed. Starting your own plants can save you money, extend your growing season and give you healthier seedlings.
There are many reputable seed companies. I recommend you look up the terms GMO and non-GMO, organic and heirloom, if you aren’t already familiar with them. Read reviews and articles that name seed companies where people have had successful results. You also can ask local gardeners for their experiences with local plant nurseries. Once you have some information, decide what’s most important to you and go from there.
You can start your own plants early in the year indoors by using potting soil and recycled paper cups (or peat pots or those made with other plantable materials) with holes poked in the bottoms for drainage. Set them in your best sun-exposed windows with mats on the floor to catch water drainage, and watch them grow. Check the packet information to see how long it will take the seeds to germinate. That way you can plan appropriately according to when you need to transplant the seedlings outside in your prepared beds.
Research tickling and hardening off plants. Doing so prepares plants to leave the comfort of your home and be ready for the shock of outdoor living.
All of these elements are vital to the success of your gardening venture. Do not give up. Every problem creates an opportunity to learn. Every answer gives more information to be explored. Every successful plant grown is a testament to what you have learned. Armed with this information any novice can produce a great garden. Grow … produce … teach. To a fruitful next year!
Michelle Richardson gardens in north Mississippi alongside her husband, seven children and three grandchildren, who always keep her excited about learning new gardening techniques.
Garden insects: friend or foe
Before I started gardening I knew that bees were beneficial to flower gardens. That was all. I had no idea that those frightening red wasps I killed so fiercely around the outside eaves of my house were killing those big green hornworms that tried to devour my tomatoes. When I researched hornworms and found out about the wasps, I changed my tactics. Now when I see wasps in my garden, I steer clear and let them do their job.
Many insects are beneficial to our gardening cause. A local nursery relies on ladybugs and praying mantis to keep their young plants bug free. You can even buy the beneficial insects online and set them free in your garden.
The latest surprise is finding out that there are detrimental bugs that look like good garden bugs. I found this out trying to help my lima beans because the leaves were riddled with holes. My research took me to a picture of a Mexican bean beetle, which looked devastatingly like a ladybug. Then I discovered that the Mexican bean beetle and the squash lady beetle are ladybugs of a sort. These ‘ladybugs’ are deadly to your plants because they are not carnivorous — busily eating aphids — they are plant eaters. This was very helpful.
So keep your eyes open. When something does not seem quite right or does not give you the result you want, then dig deep and you’ll find the answer.
GRIT’s Food Garden Planner recommends these seed companies:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
High Mowing Seeds
The Tasteful Garden