Starting a new vegetable garden is exciting, but it can also be intimidating. Just jump in and get growing! Whether you are starting a vegetable garden on a rooftop in the Big Apple, or a country garden in the backyard, many elements are the same. Here are a few simple steps to get your garden off on the right foot. Start Small – The biggest mistake new gardeners make is that in their enthusiasm, they tend to start too big and then get discouraged and overwhelmed. Start small and then add new sections as you get comfortable with your vegetable garden. You will be surprised at how much food can be produced from a couple of raised beds. We started with just four beds, and we have about 14 now. We add a little more space to our garden each year. Location – Make sure that your garden is getting at least 6-8 hours of full sun each day. Most fruits and vegetables need a lot of sun to be productive. In addition, make sure that you have easy access to water for your vegetable garden. We use a micro-sprinkler system that we purchased for about $30 that is easy to set up and is still working perfectly 4 years later. It uses about a third the water of conventional sprinkler systems, so it is very efficient, and it is convenient to use. Raised beds – Raised beds have a lot of advantages, regardless of where you garden. You can control the composition of your soil, water and feed just where you need to, and plant more intensively than you can in a traditional row garden. Raised beds also make weeding a breeze. When you are designing your raised beds, make sure that you don’t make the beds too wide. You want to be able to comfortably reach into the center of each bed so that you may tend the plants. No more than 4 feet wide is recommended. We use 4 X 4 and 4 X 8 beds, and they work perfectly. Make sure your beds are at least 6-8 inches deep so the plants’ roots have room to grow…the deeper, the better! And don’t forget to leave at least 2 feet between garden beds. You’ll want to be able to maneuver easily around the beds while you are working in them and giving guests a tour.
Soil – Great soil is probably the most important component of successful gardening. Make sure you use a rich, light soil with lots of organic matter. This will likely be the biggest expense to getting your garden growing, but good soil is worth every penny. In the past several years, we’ve amended our beds almost entirely from a blend of loam and mushroom compost as well as compost we make from yard waste and kitchen scraps. You can also buy aged cow manure, chicken manure, and worm castings to nourish your soil. Avoid purchasing soils that have chemical fertilizers in them. I regularly feed my plants and my soil with a natural soil conditioner to keep it at optimum health. Plant selection – This is the fun part! For instant gratification, you may want to start by purchasing “starter plants” or seedlings from a nursery. I buy my starters from Bonnie Plants, which are available almost everywhere that plants are sold. Fresh herbs are a perfect choice for a new gardener that loves to cook. Purchase your favorite herbs, and space them about a foot apart in your beds. I like to soak mine in a light compost tea before I plant them to give them a head start and help reduce shock. After you plant them, give them another soak of water to get them settled. In addition to herbs, there are myriads of vegetables to grow. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers started at a nursery are fun choices for beginning gardeners.
Squashes are also fun and easy to grow, even from seed, as are beans and lettuces. And you can grow heirloom varieties that are hard to find at market. This year we are growing Chinese Red Long Beans and Tromboncino squash from seed (among many other things!). Make sure you find a good quality source for seeds. Poring over a seed catalog is educational and fun. When you purchase seeds, make sure you read the packets. At a minimum, they will tell you when it’s safe to plant outside in your zone, how deep in the soil to plant the seeds, and how far apart to space them. Feeding your garden – Fruit and vegetable plants need a lot of energy to produce all their wonderful offerings, so make sure you are sustaining their growth by nourishing them. I like to use a good organic fertilizer when I get my beds started and then I feed them with compost tea, which is excellent for both the soil and the plants. My favorite compost tea is specially made by my friend, Annie Haven. She makes Authentic Haven Brand Moo Poo Teas by hand on her ranch in California from perfectly aged manures from grass-fed cows. The little tea bags make five gallons of tea at a time, and you can re-use the tea bags if you dry them out after using them. Perfectly balanced, you cannot burn or damage your plants like you might with chemical fertilizers. Plus, who wants to eat chemicals?
Finally, don’t forget to make a special spot to rest and enjoy your garden. A little bistro table with a chair or two is all you need. Spending time admiring the fruits of your labor is one of the most rewarding aspects of gardening. I hope these simple tips will encourage you to get started building and planting your first garden. Please feel free to post questions or comments here so that others may read them as well. Good luck with your garden! Love, Carolyn