I remember when I first decided I wanted to plant a garden and grow my own food. It seemed like a daunting task and I was unsure where to start and was worried I was going to kill everything.
Here's the top 10 pointers that I wish I had known when I first got started.
1. Start small. I decided I wanted to try making my front yard into an edible landscape one year. This because a massive project of sheet mulching my front lawn, bringing in compost and soil, planting a variety of fruit trees, berries, herbs, and vegetables. That first year I spent countless hours just watering, tending on the plants, and getting the garden established. Then when the garden started producing a harvest, I had way more veggies than I could ever possibly eat! I ended up giving away vegetables by the garbage bag full to anyone that would take them among my friends, family, and neighbors. This is a great way to make new friends, but also way more work and stress than necessary starting out. I should have started with one or two 4'x 8' raised beds or garden plots and focused my attention on a smaller area. Not only would it have saved me labor, but it would have produced a healthier garden that I could manage.
2. Plant what you eat. Here's one that seems like a no-brainer, but I fall prey to it every year. Stevia, celery, rhubarb, parsley, chamomile, etc...the list goes on. I love growing new plants I've never grown before, but for my garden I need to work on focusing on growing things I will actually be willing to harvest and eat. Think about what it is you buy in the produce section of your grocery store. Lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, beans....you can save a lot of money by growing your own vegetables and they will taste better and be healthier too.
3. Water wisely. Here's where knowing your local weather is important, as well as paying attention to how your plants look. In general, you will water more frequently immediately after planting or transplanting, as the plants are still establishing a root system. Typically you want to water every 2-4 days depending on how warm the weather is and if it has rained recently. It is better to water deeply so the water penetrates down a couple of inches, rather than just sprinkling the surface with a small amount of water. If you can automate your garden through a drip system or sprinkler system it will save you money. Other options worth exploring are Oyas or Hugelkultur as well.
4. Get a soil test. Invest the $25 it costs to get a standard soil test from Logan Labs. Follow their sampling instructions and then you can take that information to a local garden center or KIS Farm to get it analyzed. The advantage of a soil test is it tells us what nutrients are in the soil so we can amend it properly. You will probably end up saving money on fertilizer, even with the cost of the soil test figured in, and your plants will be happier too.
5. Invest in your soil. This is probably the most common experience I come across in my line of work. Customers will spend tens of thousands of dollars on a landscape or setting up a garden, and then put in the local municipal compost or potting soil that costs $20-40/yard. The soil is where all the magic happens and by far the most important investment you can make. Think of vegetable gardening as soil farming, where the goal is to always be improving your soil over time. With this mentality, you will find gardening becomes simple and once you have great soil in place, your inputs to maintain that are minimal. There's nothing more frustrating than trying to fix poor soil. In addition, some of these municipal composts or potting soils could potentially contain plastics, heavy metals, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides, and much more.
6. Think about the growth habits of your plants, exposure, and days to harvest. Tomatoes are a great example of this. There are two types of tomatoes, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes will stay shorter and bushier, approximately 3 ft in height and width. Indeterminate tomatoes will grow as high as you allow them too, up to 15' if they have the space. These will require more staking and also shade out a portion of your garden. Plants that grow taller should be planted on the North side of your garden because the South side gets the best sun exposure. Take a moment at different points during the day to stand in your potential garden spot and get a feel for how much direct sun hits that location on a given day. This will tell you what you can grow successfully. Some plants have much higher sun exposure needs than others. Lastly, look on the seed packet or plant tag when buying plants to see what the "days to harvest" is. This will tell you how long you will have to care for that plant before it produces a crop. With tomatoes, this can range for 50 days to 90+ days. That's a big difference when you consider the length of our summers here in the Pacific NW.
*photo courtesy of permaculturenews.org
7. Ask your gardener friends what they like to grow. This is a great way to find new varieties and cultivars for your garden. If your friends have grown them, they can comment on the taste, disease resistance, and growth habit of that plant. For example, I won't grow the Indigo Rose tomato even though it is a beautiful purple color and higher in phytonutrients than other varieties. In my garden, it has never yielded well and I didn't like the flavor of the tomatoes as much. In contrast though, I plant the Taxi variety every year due to the prolific abundance of tomatoes it produces and great flavor as a slicing tomato for sandwiches.
8. Check out your neighbors. Do they already have apple trees or blueberry bushes? Many fruit trees such as apples and pears require a 2nd variety to be planted nearby for pollination. If you neighbor had a Gala apple tree for example, you could do some quick research to find out what cross pollinates with Gala and then plant an apple tree accordingly. This is a great way to save space by not having to plant 2 trees to get fruit in your yard. Here's a link to a good pollinator chart as an example. FruitTreePollinatorsChart
9. Use a mulch. Mulching reduces weeds, insulates the plant from extreme temperatures, reduces evaporation of water, and much more. Here's a good article on different types of mulch for your garden.
10. Don't try and reinvent the wheel. There are some excellent gardening books already out there. My two favorite at the moment are Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon. I also help run an online forum at www.logicalgardener.org that's free to join and has great information. You can also post questions. There are also apps for your phone that can be helpful. I use a weather app called "Dark Sky" that tells me when it's going to rain and sends alerts if the temperature is dropping below freezing. Another app worth mentioning is called "When to Plant" and it uses your location to tell you when you can start plants from seed.
Have fun! Gardening should be enjoyable as well as providing you with healthy food. In addition, studies have shown that certain soil bacteria can help improve happiness and treat depression. So don't be afraid to get your hands dirty to take your shoes off and experience what soil feels like between your toes like you used to as a child. Experiment with new plants, different gardening ideas and products, or whatever tickles your fancy. I learn more from my failures than I ever did from my successes. Every year is a new adventure as I plan out my garden.
Violeta Cauliflower from my garden
Speckled Roman Tomato at KIS Farm.