5 Gardening Basics for Beginners
Growing veggies is actually pretty simple. Last year, my 4-year-old daughter and I spent some time learning about what plants need to grow. Our conclusion? Soil, water, sun, care, and time.
Whether you're thinking of putting a few containers on your patio, building a raised 4x4 garden box, or tearing up half of your yard, here's a few tips to get you going.
1. Prepare your soil
If this is your first year gardening, you have a few options available to you. You can purchase and add top soil, compost, peat moss, and other amendments straight into your new containers or garden beds. This is an easy solution, and will leave you with light and workable soil. The main downside of this approach is the cost.
The other (cheaper) option is to dig straight into the ground. This is how I've done my own gardening. To go this route, you will want to:
- Till your soil. Either by hand for a smaller garden, or rent a roto-tiller from your local hardware store for a larger location.
- Analyze your soil. Most garden centers sell affordable kits to help you determine which nutrients your soil has in abundance, and which ones are lacking. This will help you decide how to fertilize.
- Build it up. Each year, I do 1 or 2 things to improve my soil. It might be adding peat moss to lighten the heavy, clay-ish soil that I have to work with. Compost or composted manure are always good bets for increasing soil nutrients, as well as creating a more workable soil that will hold moisture well. Some high quality, organic/ecological topsoil is another option.
2. Watering matters
If there is one thing that I have learned in regards to watering my garden, it's this: less is more.
Over-watering leads to plants with shallow, immature root systems, incapable of reaching down deeply to find water of their own. It also creates more work for you, as your plants will come to depend on regular watering.
When plants are required to extend long roots to obtain their water, rather than getting it the easy way (aka the hose), they'll be stronger plants overall, and you'll have less work to do keeping up with their H2O needs.
So, when should you water and how much?
- When you have newly-planted seeds. Germination requires steady moisture, so light but consistent watering is key during this time. Keep the soil moist, but not soaking.
- Once or (maybe) twice a week. This is my regular watering schedule, though sometimes I water even less. When doing a regular watering, take the time to give each plant a really good, long drink. Ideally, you should water long enough for 6 inches of soil to be saturated.
- During dry and hot spells. If your plants are really wilting in the heat of some particularly hot afternoon sun, pamper them a little more than usual. Same with periods of drought.
Be sure to keep your watering only to mornings and evenings. Watering that is done in the afternoon will quickly evaporate before the plants have a chance to get what they need. Try to water before 10am and after 4 or 5pm, or even later.
3. Let in the sunshine
The ideal garden location will offer your plants a good 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. When selecting a spot for your new garden, this is one of the most important factors to keep in mind. However, some plants are more shade-tolerant and others are more sun-loving.
Partial Sun (4-6 hours a day): Lettuces, Swiss Chard, Kale, Spinach, Collards, Root Vegetables (carrots, radishes, turnips, beets, etc.), Peas, Parsley, Cauliflower
Full Sun (6+ hours a day): Beans, Cabbage, Broccoli, Cucumbers, Squash (winter and summer), Corn, Eggplant, Melons (all kinds), Tomatoes, Peppers
Consider the sunlight available to your garden as you choose not only which crops you will grow, but how much of them you will be able to grow and where they'll be planted. Even gardeners without a full sun location can grow a very respectable and varied amount of food!
4. Care for your garden
Yes, this is the part where I tell you that you need to weed your garden. You knew it was coming, right? The happy thing is that it doesn't need to be an all-consuming or back-breaking task.
The keys to keeping the weeding work minimal?
- Plant thickly. With crops like beans, radishes, peas, carrots and more, you can scatter your seed very thickly. When the plants come up, they'll create a natural canopy to help shade out any weeds that are feeling ambitious.
- Mulch! By adding a layer of organic material like dead grass or leaves, hay, or even newspaper and cardboard, you cut down on the weeds ability to get much traction.
- Weed little, but often. Keeping up with weeds when they're small and easy to pull is key. Just a few minutes each day, or a 15-minute block several times a week will help to keep the invaders at bay.
We can't forget fertilizing in a discussion of caring for a garden. Best bets are homemade compost, or composted manure from a trusted source (like a local, ecological farmer). Here's how to make your own compost bin.
If those options aren't available to you, there are some excellent brands of organic and ecological fertilizers out there, completely sans nasty chemicals.
When to fertilize? Some key times are building up the soil before planting, and during important stages of development, like once your plants are a few inches tall before they really take off, or when they first start to set out flowers or fruits.
5. It all takes time
Proper timing makes all the difference when it comes to planting your garden.
Learn how long each plant needs to grow to maturity, what time of year it should be planted (early spring or summer, or even fall), and when to begin your seedlings. Knowing these details is the difference between a successful and unsuccessful garden. Here's a zone map to know your location's hardiness.
Make it easier by creating a garden binder or notebook, where you record these kinds of details. You can sketch it out by hand, or use free gardening software.
To learn the needs of each crop you're thinking of growing, here's a few resources I find helpful:
- The Old Farmer's Almanac- You can enter your own location, to find precise dates for your gardening zone
- All New Square Foot Gardening- An old standard for beginners, this has excellent charts to help you determine when and what to plant
- You Grow Girl
Now go grow something! If you've been putting off gardening because you're unsure of how to go about it, or worried about the time commitment, just jump in and give it a go. What's the worst that can happen? It doesn't have to cost much.
My final advice for beginners?
- Start small.
- Grow what you love.
- Keep it simple and have fun.
- Don't let it stress you out.
- Enjoy the fruits of your labors!
p.s. — 20 ways to savor springtime.
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