One of the biggest perks of working for a nursery that specializes in organic vegetable gardening is that I get to talk to new veggie gardeners all the time. People approach me every week and say something along the lines of, “We’re new to this. We’re putting in a vegetable garden for the first time this spring, and we need some help.”
My response is always, “Awesome – let’s get started!” I love getting questions like this, because it means another family is learning about food, soil, water, and life. I know that the lost personal relationship with our food is easily restored by growing and eating some of your own plants, so I’m always happy to help people get started on the right foot.
Some people want to make sure that they know everything before they get started, so that they don’t kill their plants. I try to impress on these careful souls that gardening is an on-going, hopefully life-long process. I have talked to several wise gardeners with long gray beards, and they are never done learning. It just doesn’t happen – there is too much to learn for one lifetime. The journey is the destination, and as my good friend Linda says, “If you aren’t killing some plants, then you aren’t really gardening.”
But there are a few common pitfalls that new gardeners are prone to on their first time out. These are the top 10 tips I recommend to new vegetable gardeners:
1. Keep it Simple, and Start Small
Build your beds with right angles and don’t make them wider than 4 feet, so that you can comfortably reach the middle of the bed. 5 feet wide is OK if you’re tall and you have a long reach. Consider building a square foot garden, and use physical guides to create a 1 foot grid over the bed. You can make the grid out of string, bamboo, or thin wood. Think of the grid as training wheels. After you get the hang of the spacing for different plants, you can get rid of the grid and get more creative with your planting patterns. But, walk before you run, and use the grid for a few seasons to learn about the ideal spacing for the plants you want to grow. Wait to worry about companion planting, crop rotation, cover crops, etc. until after you get the hang of the basics.
2. Pick Some Roll Model Gardens
Visit other vegetable gardens in your area and find one or two that you really love. Watch those gardens develop over the season, and use them as a benchmark to gauge how your garden is doing. Finding a great garden to observe is valuable, but meeting the gardener is a goldmine. Experienced gardeners in your area will know a lot about planting times, regional vegetable varieties, and the pests and diseases you’re likely to run into. You might find role model gardens at community gardens, botanical gardens, garden centers, or just around the block in your neighborhood. If you are all alone, with no role model gardens in sight, look for your state university’s agricultural extension service and get as much information from them as possible.
3. Don’t Get Too Far Above the Ground
For whatever reason, a lot of beginning gardeners think that the further a garden is from the ground, the better it is. I don’t understand this, but I see it all over. I have seen some “raised beds” for sale that would actually be better described as “gardening tables.” They hold about a foot of soil, about 3 feet up off the ground. Also, when people are building raised square foot beds, they often think that the higher the bed, the better the garden will be. So, instead of buying the 2 x 6 lumber, they buy the 2 x 12 for three times as much money. I think part of what drives this is laziness, just not wanting to bend over. Sometimes there is a real attempt at ergonomics; I worked on a set of raised beds for a lady who was pregnant when she designed the beds. She had them built about 3 feet high so that she wouldn’t need to bend over much. I think she would have been better off to build the beds at a normal height and then wait to work on them until after the birth. Plants belong in the ground, enough said. There’s no need to take the plants out of the ground. Over the course of my gardening experience, my gardens have gotten closer and closer to the ground with each new garden I have built, until now they’re pretty much just in the ground. For ergonomics, get a kneeling pad. You can make gardening more comfortable and successful by getting down on your knees, a lot.
4. Double Dig in Poor Soils
Double digging is when you cultivate the soil beneath a new bed to a depth well below the bottom of the frame or border, typically to a depth of about 2 spade lengths or 1 foot. I think it’s worth it to double dig, even though it requires a little extra work up front. You only have to do the work once, but the benefits last for the life of the bed. The effect is that you improve the soil’s texture and fertility (by adding compost, fertilizer, minerals, and fungus) to a greater depth than you would get by just piling good soil on top of the compacted ground. It creates deep, rich soil for your garden; as opposed to creating a massive pot on top of poor ground. Double digging is a no-brainer for me in the shallow, rocky soil in Austin. If I lived somewhere else with deep, rich soil, I probably wouldn’t do it. I’m also a believer in no-till gardening, so I would only consider doing this when creating a brand new bed on unimproved poor soil. After a bed’s initial planting, I will probably never till it again.
5. Don’t Over-Plant
Many square foot planting recommendations say that you can plant one tomato plant, or one pepper plant, per square foot. While a square foot is the right spacing at ground level, tomatoes and peppers get really big up above the ground, taking up 4 feet or more. To think that you can fit 16 tomato plants into a 4 x 4 foot raised bed is pretty much silly. Plant 2 tomatoes (or peppers) in your 4 x 4 bed, on the corners on the north side. Don’t try to squeeze in extra plants with big guys like these. Overcrowded plants make great breeding grounds for bugs of all kinds. Sun and light don’t penetrate well, so fungus and mildew are more likely as well. It’s much better to have 2 thriving tomato plants than to have 8 struggling plants with no tomatoes.
6. Plant Like with Like
Fill your beds with plants that have similar water and light requirements. A beginning raised bed is typically best filled with short season annual vegetables, herbs, and flowers. So you grow tomatoes, beans, basil, and marigolds in the warm season; lettuce, broccoli, peas, and calendula in the cold season; and you keep rotating new things in as the old things finish up. If you want to grow perennial crops like asparagus, artichokes, or rhubarb, you would be better off planting those things in the ground or in a different bed. Herbs that want to stay dry, like rosemary and lavender, are better kept in pots outside the garden bed, or in a bed of their own. Don’t plant mint or brambles in your raised bed, they will take over and dominate the bed. Plant mint in a pot next to the garden and water it all the time. Plant brambles like blackberries in the ground, several feet from the raised bed.
7. Plan the Shade in Your Garden
Your average beet gets about 1 foot tall when it’s big. Your average tomato plant gets more like 6 feet tall. If the tomato is in the shadow of the beet, it’s no big deal. But if the beet is in the shadow of the tomato, it won’t get any light. Plan the shade in your garden, and keep the taller plants in the back, on the north or east side. If you’re going to put in a trellis for peas or pole beans, build it on the north or east side. Keep the shorter plants in front, on the south or west side. If you live in the southern hemisphere, turn this whole paragraph upside-down.
8. Don’t Forget to Fertilize
This is a big one that is a real problem for some people. Some people just don’t like the idea of fertilizing, maybe because they’ve heard bad things about fertilizer. We’re not talking about industrial chemicals here, we’re talking about ground up fish. Think about the size and weight of one tomato in your hand. All that mass was created out of water and the nutrients in your soil. How many tomatoes do you expect to see before the soil runs out of nutrients? Not very many. You have to replenish the nutrients in the soil for the plant to keep making tomatoes. In a new garden, you should fertilize your plants and your soil regularly. Use a light, well-balanced organic fertilizer – there are lots of good options out there. You can get creative with this, and there are some great low-cost fertilizers available – try brewing some alfalfa tea for a healthy dose of nitrogen.
9. Start Learning How to Grow from Seed
Even if you don’t think you’re ready for this part, go ahead and start practicing. When you go to the nursery to buy plants, pick up a pack or two of seeds as well. If you’ve never done this before, try beans. Using seeds is an economic decision for me. A single lettuce starter plant is $1.50, while a pack of 100 lettuce seeds is $3. You control the care of the plant from day one, so you don’t have to worry about what chemicals have been sprayed on the plant. Most importantly, when you get comfortable with seed starting then you will be ready to begin saving seeds. [7 Tips to Start Seed Like a Professional Grower]
10. Use Compost Tea
Aerobic compost tea is sort of like cheating. You take all the various microscopic critters out of healthy compost and multiply them in a big tub of water with lots of microbe food. Then when they’ve multiplied several thousand times, you take that water full of critters and pour it on your garden soil. The organisms in the water transition in to your soil, and start doing the same things they were doing back before you took them out of the healthy compost. Compost tea is not fertilizer. You don’t see an immediate impact in the size or quantity of food coming out of the garden. What you do see is a long, steady increase in the overall health of all the plants grown in your soil.
Best wishes for your new garden. Pray for rain, and always remember that “if you’re not killing some plants, you’re not really gardening.” Good luck!