There are so many wonderful things about gardening. Reconnecting to nature and the earth is relaxing, rewarding and rejuvenating. I love to spend a couple of hours in my garden on weekend mornings and in the evenings after work. Because we use raised beds and no dig beds, I spend a lot more time just walking around and admiring the beautiful plants, stopping to pick a ripe eggplant or a basket of strawberries, than I do actually working. We also benefit by not having to shop for fruits and vegetables very often. And of course, we eat a wide variety of produce that we cannot even find at our local grocery store.
There is mystery to gardening. A tiny seed contains life that is perfectly stored and ready to grow, given the right conditions. Eventually, with just a little attention and luck, the tiny seed offers a perfect tomato, a firm squash, a crispy head of fresh lettuce, or even a tree loaded with ripe, sweet figs. Amazing, isn‘t it? For newcomers to gardening, there is mystery, also, in how to get started. What is needed to make a successful garden? It’s really pretty simple. I break it down into five essential requirements–setting, soil, seeds or seedlings, saturation and sustenance!
One of the most critical elements of vegetable gardening is to select the right spot to site your garden. Most vegetables require 6-8 hours a day of full sun. Spend some time out in your yard, and locate the sunniest spot. That’s where you should plant your garden! If you do not have a spot where you are getting 6-8 hours of sunlight, you are probably going to struggle with veggies, but if you do a little research, there are a few that will grow…cherry tomatoes and some herbs are good examples.
If you want to minimize gardening chores and maximize yields, get your honey to build you a raised bed or two! Raised beds can be as simple or as complicated as you like. We have a dozen or so that surround our gazebo, so that we can enjoy the beauty of the garden while we have an evening cocktail. We even throw the veggies right on the grill for al fresco dinners. Raised beds are best built with 2 x 8 cedar, redwood or other weather-resistant wood. We use pressure treated lumber, because redwood and cedar are not in our budget! Contrary to popular belief, our research says it is okay to use pressure treated lumber for veggie gardens. Since 2003, pressure treated lumber no longer contains the dangerous chemical, CCA. Pressure treated lumber that is available at your home improvement center is safe to use. If you do not have any tools or building skills, you can even use cement blocks to build a raised bed. No tools required! Do not use railroad timbers to build veggie gardens, as the creosote can leach into the garden soil. All of our beds are either 4 X 4 or 4 X 8 boards that are screwed together on the corners and set in place. Size matters. Why? The gardener must be able to easily reach into the center of the garden from all sides in order to tend it. Start with just a couple of raised beds. You can plant several different types of vegetables and fruits in a single bed. Mix lettuce and strawberries with a few herbs and a sprinkling of carrot seeds and see what happens!
When I first started gardening a few years ago, I thought it was really important to feed the plants. And I actually used commercial fertilizer products and we enjoyed our first fresh produce. But after reading and studying and observing my garden, I began to change my methods. What I learned is that if you feed your soil, the plants will thrive! I began to compost and feed my soil with lots of organic matter such as hay, organic fertilizers, and worm castings. The results are amazing, and I don’t spend money on chemicals. As our family started to eat more and more from the garden, it became more important to me to avoid fertilizers and pesticides. I can buy that stuff in the supermarket! And pay a lot more money for it! Plants grown in healthy soil are naturally resistant to a lot of the diseases and insects that attack chemically treated plants.
In a raised bed, as in any garden, good soil is really important. We use a blend of loam, mushroom compost, organic fertilizer (I like Espoma and Fox Farms products), peat moss and our own compost. We lay it down in layers, starting with several layers of newspaper, wetted down and placed directly over the sod. Add a 3-4 inch thick layer of hay, then 2-3 inches of compost/soil, then a couple of handfuls of fertilizer. Continue layering until you reach the top of your raised bed, finishing with a 2-3 inch layer of soil. Do not pack the soil down. You want it to be light and fluffy so that the plant roots can grow down deeply into the rich soil. One of the advantages of a raised bed is that no one ever steps in the garden and compacts the soil. Almost ready to plant!
3. Seeds or Seedlings
Another critical element for successful vegetable gardening is to grow identify fruits and vegetables that do well in your particular area and season. A good gardening book will help (see our suggestions at http://www.cowlickcottagefarm.com/booksandstuff). Go to garden centers nurseries and observe what seedlings they are buying and selling locally. Chances are that what they are growing in the garden center will do well for you too. Order a few seed catalogs–many are loaded with good information on how to plant each seed, how long they take to mature, and so forth. When I order my seeds for my spring and summer gardens, I always look for crops that stand up well to Florida’s heat and humidity. If you live up north, you may want to look for varieties that have shorter growing seasons. There is nothing more disappointing than having a bunch of tomatoes freeze on the vine because they didn’t have time to ripen!
I always try to grow crops that I know my family loves. We never waste a strawberry, or a head of broccoli or crispy romaine, because we love them. Garlic is one of our largest crops, and it never goes to waste either! Grow what you love. At the same time, don’t be afraid to branch out and throw in a few new veggie seeds. It’s an inexpensive way to learn about and taste new foods. Until I had my garden, I’d never tasted arugula, parsnips, fresh turnip, kale, or even fresh figs. I can’t imagine not eating them regularly now! A packet of seeds costs less than a cup of coffee, and may introduce you to a new favorite. So talk to local vegetable gardeners, and find out what they recommend. See what’s available at your farmer’s markets and roadside stands. If they can grow it, so can you!
Another important thing to note is that if you are growing your crops in raised beds with rich soil, you can plant your seeds or seedlings much more closely together than traditional row farming, so the yields per square foot are much greater. Don’t go by the planting distance on seed packets…refer to a book like Square Foot Gardening, or do a Google search on Square Inch Gardening or Intensive Gardening Methods. Intensive planting methods–as well as raised beds–almost eliminate the need for weeding. I knew that would make you happy!
Another critical element in successful gardening is irrigation. If your garden doesn’t get watered regularly, it will not thrive. Because we are basically lazy gardeners without a lot of free time to worry about the gardens, we installed a very inexpensive micro-watering system that we bought at our home center. It hooks up directly to the outside faucet. Because the sprinkler heads can be set up exactly where needed, there is no wasted water. Micro-watering systems use about a third less water than conventional sprinklers, but they are more efficient and effective. We love to turn it on in the evening while we are sitting outside, because the mist on the gardens is beautiful and cooling.
Save yourself a lot of time and worry, and pick up a starter kit for less than $40. If you travel or don’t spend much time outside, you can even purchase a timer to make sure the garden gets watered whenever it needs.
Sustain your garden, and it will sustain you. Feed it gently, but regularly, with compost, worm castings, and a good quality organic fertilizer. Compost tea and liquid seaweed are great to sprinkle on your plants when they look a little tired or droopy. Try to avoid inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. In the long run, they do the garden more harm than good. As you continue to build your soil, your garden will get better and better. In no time, you will be enjoying the fruits and vegetables of your labor!
I hope these little pointers encourage you to start dreaming about your own vegetable garden. Please feel free to leave questions or comments, or to e-mail me if you have questions. Happy garden dreaming!