So… You think that you can garden? Got the books, got some seeds, and you grew something once. Sure, it’s easy! Well, good for you. It hasn’t come easy for this guy. I’m the so called green-thumb in my house. House plants, no problem. Landscaping around the home, got that. Garden as if our life depends on, not so much. I managed lawn and landscaping crews for seven years during and after college. We did some major commercial work and I know more than the average homeowner about these things. I have to admit that vegetable gardening has been a whole different experience. I hope this article provides you all with some gardening lessons learned and hopefully some motivation to get moving and not wait for the apocalypse before getting some food growing.
I’ve been experimenting in the garden for eight years with some successes, a few accidental successes and plenty of failures. Failures are just lessons, right? I’ve always tried to learn from my own mistakes but more so learn from the mistakes of others. Mistakes cost time and money and I’d rather learn from the lost time and money of others if possible, in the garden and in life.
Key Gardening Factors
There are several factors when it comes to a garden. Some we can control and some can we can’t:
- Sun – Do we have enough of it where we plan to garden? Six hours a day would be a minimum.
- Temperature – Where do we live and what is the climate (what garden zone are we in). There are even micro climates within an area depending on mountains, valleys, rivers, etc… This will dictate what you can grow and when.
- Soil – Location and climate will dictate this. Some of us are lucky, others not so much. Rich/dark soil or hard packed clay, sandy loamy soil, or somewhere in between? My feelings are that the soil makes all the difference in the world and it takes time/money/energy to get it right.
- Water – Can you get water to where you are gardening? Enough of it?
- Time – Energy and effort. How much of this are you willing to give?
You have to take an analysis yourself and answer these questions of where you stand in relation to each. These answers will dictate what needs to be done and what is possible.
The Right Spot
Let’s start with the right spot. Find a place where you can meet the water and sun requirements and take a soil sample. You may need to take several samples if you garden spot is large and if you plan to garden in several spots. Do you have the time/effort/energy to tend that big of a garden? Your local cooperative (call your garden center) can help you through the soil analysis process.
Find out what you have in the ground and what it will take to make the soil right for vegetable gardening. Typically, a PH of 6.5-to-7 will be best for most vegetables. You will also want soil you can work with. We have clay and it takes a ton of work to get the nutrients right but also to add enough compost to get it where it can be worked. More on this later.
Choosing What to Plant
What to plant? What do you like to eat? Plant that. I’ve bought plenty of seed packets and grew some things successfully only to have my family say they hated it. Radish, kohlrabi and kale come to mind. What do you buy at the grocery store mostly? As for us, we eat a ton of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers (all types) and lettuces. Potatoes, corn, beans and onions as well, though I’m only in year two of experimentation on growing those. Enjoy the garden now and learn to grow what you like. If you want to experiment with some other stuff, then go for it. Don’t try to conquer the world in one summer.
There are some shortcuts to getting the soil right but it costs money. Let’s see how the comments section comes back on this article as I’m sure some folks have good ideas. As for me, I built raised beds and bought soil. I also made a separate 30’ x 15’ garden area based on the existing soil (hard packed clay). In regards to raised beds I started many years ago by reading the Square Foot Gardening method.
Raised Bed Width
I like the idea of the 4 foot width maximum as it does make it simple to work all sides of the bed without stepping in it. Use non-treated lumber and get building. I can’t build a birdhouse but was able to pull this off. Check the web site and make some rectangles (pay attention in how best to tie the ends to the sides). I used 2” x 8” in 8’, 10’ and 12’ sections.
In regards to the soil mix, that’s up for debate. The first time I did the mix of peat moss, vermiculite and compost, just like they say at the Square Foot Gardening web site. It was expensive and kind of a pain to mix it up right. It’s a one-time sunk cost so perhaps that will make you feel better when you pay the bill. The second time I did this, I just used LeafGro and local soil in a 50/50 mix from the local garden center. The second method was less expensive, yet it seemed to work fine. If you wanted to add random vermiculite and peat moss into it, then go for it.
In regards to the garden plot on existing soil, that has been a whole other ballgame. First I fenced off the area to keep critters out. I used 4’ tall chicken wire with metal T-posts as that seems to suffice for the critters near me. You may need a more serious fencing solution depending on your circumstances. I do suggest burying the bottom 3” or so of the fence into the soil and maybe tack it down with some sod stakes and then put soil over it to keep digging critters from coming underneath. Now, on to the soil. What a mess I have. It’s hard packed mid-Atlantic clay. I started with a broadfork. You can buy a cheap one, but I like to buy things once and know they will likely last forever.
I took a lot of passes forward, backwards and sideways with the broadfork. If you use the broadfork properly it really does a lot of the effort for you. Lots of rocks and roots came up and huge chunks of clay. I wanted to quit and stick with the raised beds but I’m an idiot and so I kept going. I think it’s a form of therapy. I then added some LeafGro and any other compost I could get my hands on and just kept mixing it all in and breaking it up the best I could. I tilled it a few times and planted some seeds. I grew some lovely weeds and ate lots of ibuprofen. I did it again and a few things sprouted…I did it again and even more came up. I did it again and actually had edible food. I did it again and… You get the idea here.
The Soil is Improving
My soil sucks but it sucks less now. If you have cr*ppy soil, it’s going to take some serious effort and compost to get it right. You will see the color change and the composition (how it feels) improve. You will know it as you see and feel it. If you want to test the soil again, go for it. The lesson here is: soil means everything. You have to go through the effort to get it right. Hopefully what you start with is better than what I had.
Starts or seeds, or some combination of both? Early on in my endeavors I bought starts from the local store. That’s an expensive way to go but may make sense for some first timers. I have since started most of my plants from seed. Like I said earlier, I’m an idiot and need therapy.
Do what you want, but I will give some examples of lessons on starting from seed. I started with the cute little Jiffy start trays and pellets. They worked, but they didn’t. If you want stringy little starts, then it’s great. The smaller the container/pellet tends to limit the potential of the start as it grows. I gradually moved up to 3 inch squares and 5 inch rounds. I use potting soil in the Peat Pot containers and use the Jiffy bottoms to place them in. I did this for a while and still had poor results, such as stringy long starts. So I got smart and invested in a shelving unit, some grow lights, and heating mats. This changed everything, for the better: Seedling mats.
Get the size that works for you. I wanted to place two of the Jiffy trays side by side on each mat and shelf. My shelves are 48” long and 21” wide and worked well for two standard Jiffy trays, mats and 48” lights.
Note: You will need to water every two to three days, as they dry out quickly under these conditions.
For grow lights. I used 48” hooded shop lights. I found some small chain and got some S-hooks so I could raise and lower the lights as needed. Look for specific bulbs for growing, such as T8 daylight bulbs, such as those sold at Home Depot.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2)