Gardening is a fun and rewarding experience. We all know vegetables are good for us and when you grow your own they are even better. You are more likely to eat your vegetables if you have grown them too (and so are your children). And knowing a few vegetable gardening tips will help you start off on the right foot.
When you are building a new house, you don’t just go out and start nailing boards together. First you need a plan. You decide what kind of house you want. Next you draw it out on paper so you don’t forget something like closets or a bathroom. Then you plan the site, clear it and level it. After that the infrastructure goes in, the septic, the well and finally the foundation. All that before you even begin the house itself. Gardening is a bit the same way. If you want a successful garden it usually takes a bit of planning before you ever put your first shovel into the ground. So where is a person to start when building a new garden? There is a lot to learn, in fact you can garden for a life time and still learn new things. So we will start off with some basic vegetable gardening tips that will help make your new garden a success.
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A Chinese proverb said; The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is today. Same with your garden, it doesn’t matter if it is the dead of winter or the dog days of summer. Start now. There is much you can do anytime of the year.
Think about what you and your family like to eat. If you don’t like beets or brussels sprouts, don’t grow them. Pay attention to what you buy at the grocery store. Then make a list of what you already like to eat. Get some seed catalogs to see what is available.
You need to think about where you want to garden. Do you want a tilled garden or a raised bed. Do you want that raised bed to have borders such as wooden boards, rocks or bricks? Maybe just a kitchen garden or an herb garden. No space? You can grow your veggies in containers. Or grow a few herbs on a sunny window sill. Maybe you only have room for sprouts or microgreens. There are so many options.
The biggest mistake new gardeners make is making their first garden too large. Remember you will need to tend it, weed it, harvest it and prepare/preserve all that food. Think about the time you have to do all that. It’s a lot easier to scale your garden up than to keep up with one that is just-too-big.
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The advantage to purchasing plants at the nursery is both convenience and time. You can bring home seedlings, pop them into the ground and voila, instant garden. It will also cut a lot of time off the wait for your first harvest. The disadvantage to nursery plants is cost. You have to pay for all the labor that went into producing that seedling. There also is a small chance of introducing a disease or pest into your garden that wasn’t there before. It’s also very difficult to find organic seedlings.The biggest advantage to starting your own seeds is cost. You can buy a whole pack of seeds for the price of one nursery plant. The other big advantage is variety. Often there is only one or two choices for each type of vegetable in the nursery. And a lot of vegetables are not even available. There can be 10’s to 100’s of varieties for each type of vegetable in the seed catalogs. Many you will never see in a nursery.
Every vegetable plant has it’s own set of needs. Some like the weather cool (cool season plants) and will wilt and die in the heat of summer. Some won’t do a thing until it gets toasty warm (warm season). Some like full sun and won’t produce much without it. Others can take a little dappled shade just fine and in warmer climates may even prefer it.
Some are annuals (last only a year) others are perennials (last several years). You generally don’t want to mix these in the same bed. Some are heavy feeders and are always hungry, Others will be happy with a well prepared bed at the start of the season. You will also want to determine what kind of spacing each plant needs, how much water they need and when they need it.
A lot of this information is available on the seed packet. To have happy plants you need to know what they prefer. How long they take to produce food is another consideration. Not everyone can grow eggplant as it takes a very long, warm growing season. Learning what they all like is another reason to start with just a few types of plants.
You need to test your soil to know how fertile it is. If your soil already has a fair amount of the major nutrients in it, you won’t need to add much and in fact you can burn your plants with too much fertilizer. But, on the other hand, if your soil does not have enough nutrients you can starve your plants. You should also test your soil to see what the PH is (how acid or alkaline). Some plants like it more acidic than others. Some nutrients are not even available to your plants if the PH is too far out of the normal zone.
Unless you are growing in pots and using potting soil you will need to prepare your soil. All soil can use improving. In fact the more organic mater you mix into your soil in the form of compost or worm castings the better. Organic material helps both the fertility of your soil and the water holding capacity of your soil. It also makes air spaces in the soil making it easier for the roots to grow through. You are not just feeding your plants, you are feeding the soil which in turn feeds your plants.
Start Composting Today! The best thing you can do for your garden is to compost. As your vegetables use up the nutrients in the soil you will need an ongoing supply of compost to replace them.
No matter how careful you are you will have weeds. The more you prepare for them in advance the more luck you will have staying ahead of them. It’s important to keep weeds to a minimum as weeds rob your plants of nutrients and water and they will shade your plants out.
Most likely, Your plants will need some water during the growing season. Plan to set up your irrigation system before you plant. You don’t want to crush young seedlings or knock precious tomatoes off the vine trying to snake a hose through the garden. Drip irrigation or a soaker hose are the preferred methods to use as you want to keep water off the leaves of your plants as much as possible in order to cut down on fungus. Using an Olla Irrigation Pot is a great option. It keeps the water where the roots can use it and reduces weeds. Watering first thing in the morning is the most useful for your plants and conserves the most water.
If you are going to grow plants like beans or tomatoes you will likely want some type of trellis or fence for them to grow on. This needs to be put in at the very start as you can damage the roots trying to put it in the ground after your plant is up.
You may need to fence your garden, especially if you have roaming neighborhood dogs. Check your garden every day or so for insect damage. Check for holes in leaves or debris on the leaves. Look at the bottom of the leaf too. Many bugs can just be picked off and disposed of or fed to the chickens or ducks if you have them. A spray of water will make quick work of aphids. Repeat for a day or two and you will mess up their life cycle. Diligence usually keeps pests in check. If the insects get too bad in your area, row covers are a great organic option.
Most Plants don’t like to be frosted. Me either actually. Your seed packet will let you know when to plant according to your frost dates. You can check with your County Extension Office for an average first and last date. Or you can check your planting zone. You will want to make sure your plants are harvested before that first frost in the fall, so you need to have them in the ground in time to do that. Take that first frost date and count backwards to determine when you should plant. Of course these are averages. Nature doesn’t read the charts. A late or early frost can pop up and mess up your plans, but counting backwards is a good rule of thumb. Those row covers can help a lot for those unexpected cold snaps.
When making out your plan you need to know about crop rotation. You don’t want to plant the same type (family) of plants in the same place you last planted them. If you harvest your lettuce, don’t replant with lettuce in the same place. If you do you will be encouraging pests and diseases not to mention soil depletion.
Join a gardening club or check with your county extension office or even a good local nursery to find out what plants and varieties of plants grow well in your area. For example, squash are a real challenge in south Florida where I live. But I have found a variety called Seminole Pumpkin that does not succumb to the fungus that other varieties do. In fact, I planted it too close to my neighbors fence last year and I spent the whole season corralling it back to my side of the fence. It did so well it wanted to take over the whole neighborhood.
If this is your first garden, choose plants that are easy to grow. This may vary from place to place, but here is a short list of some of the easiest plants for most places. Green Beans, Carrots, Romain Lettuce (cos), Sugar Snap Peas, Radish, Zucchini, Chives, Basil, Parsley, Nasturtium, Greens (swiss chard, mustard greens, tyfon, bok choy), Peppers and Cherry Tomatoes.
Flowers not only make your garden prettier and more peaceful to look at, they also draw in pollinators to help your plants. They encourage beneficial insects to take up residence and help you combat the pests that you don’t want in your garden.
One of the biggest mistakes of gardeners is forgetting to fertilize during the season. Most plants will do much better with a little side dressing (putting fertilizer along the side of the plant, but not touching the stem). Compost, worm castings or even fish emulsion or compost teas are all very useful for this. Long season plants and heavy feeders will especially appreciate this.
It’s easy to start a garden when you are excited about the newness of it all. But following through to harvest, cooking and preserving it all, is just as important. Then when the harvesting is finished the old garden plants need to be pulled out and the garden beds need to be prepared for next season. If you leave the old plant in the garden you leave the habitat for pests and diseases to overwinter in your garden. Now is a good time to add compost and any amendments you need to add. Your garden should never be left naked. You should cover it for the winter, or whatever your off season is. Options are to plant a green manure, mulch or solarize. If you leave your garden bare, the soil will either erode or cover itself with weeds making the next season all that much harder. A green manure or mulch will improve your soils fertility for the next season.
By the end of the season you will not remember which was the one tomato that did really well or which variety of eggplant you want to make sure you grow again next year. And remembering where things were planted is crucial to properly rotating your crops for next years garden.
If everything goes great. Wonderful! If there are a few set backs, don’t give up. Even the most experienced gardeners have bad years, or at least a bad crop once in a while. And don’t think you will learn it all the first year. Gardening is an endeavor where there is always something more to learn. The more time you spend in your garden the more you will learn and the more you will enjoy this thing we call gardening.
May your garden be “Just Ducky”!
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