Master gardener Adam Weiss offers up his top tips for a successful first-year vegetable garden.
A master gardener offers his top-tips for a successful first-year vegetable garden.
by Adam Weiss
1. Keep it simple
Starting a garden does not require building a series of raised beds, landscaping the perimeter, and creating cosmetic fences, so don’t even attempt it your first year. Instead, grow your vegetables in just a few large pots (about 2 feet in diameter) or build a couple eight-by-three-and-a-half-foot beds.
And don’t bother composting your first year. Homemade organic matter is great for your garden — it improves the condition of soil and aeration, supports living organisms, holds water, and helps recycle organic wastes — but store-bought manure will do the trick. Save composting for next year.
2. Plant fewer vegetables than you think you have room for
Most beginning gardeners don’t realize how much room a plant needs to grow. Obviously, pumpkins need an extremely large amout of space to grow to full size — each plant needs a minimum of 2 feet when planted and can vine out to 20 feet — but even a leafy green like kale needs space. A student of mine once planted 20 kale plants 4 inches apart in a small raised bed. Forty-five days later, she couldn’t understand why half the plants in the bed were turning brown and wilting. Kale plants, like other Brassica family vegetables (Swiss chard, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) need good aeration and light in order to grow efficiently. When the plants are too close, they are prone to disease; in this case it was downy mildew that made a home in her kale bed.
Research how much space plants actually need to grow ahead of time, and map your garden on a piece of paper before buying materials and planting your vegetables.
3. Spend time in your garden, but not too much
Vegetable gardening may seem like a time-intensive hobby, but the truth is that once you’ve planned and built your bed and planted your vegetables, maintenance is pretty simple. Weeding and watering are your only real responsibilities.
You can get up on a Saturday morning and spend just 15 minutes watering your garden. Morning is the best time to water: Plants will retain the most water, and they will have the entire day to dry, which decreases the risk of infection by fungus or bacteria.
But the real pleasure is in spending a few minutes looking at each plant to see how it is growing. Another student of mine gets home from work after the sun goes down, but he still walks out to his garden, with a flashlight, to see how his lettuces are sprouting.
It’s also worth noting that not all plants go into the ground at once — the process of planting and harvesting is successive. There are certain plants that grow well in cold weather; others prefer warm weather. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and cucumbers can be planted in late May or early June and will still provide a bounty of vegetables. Yes, lettuces grow well in cool temperatures, but you can plant them in late August, after the majority of the summer heat is gone, and enjoy them in late September and October.
4. Grow vegetables you’ve never heard of
One of the many benefits of growing your own vegetables is trying items that you cannot ordinarily buy in your local grocery store. Everyone loves tomatoes, but instead of growing traditional ones that can otherwise be bought at the store, how about experimenting with a Sungella Cherry or Striped Zebra variety? How about a Purple Haze carrot instead of a regular orange one? Or a pink-and-white-striped Fairy Tale eggplant instead of the large purple one found in the produce section?
5. Don’t be tempted by expensive, flashy tools
Stroll the aisles of Home Depot and it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the more expensive the gardening tool, the more efficient and effective it is. My personal philosophy is that a trowel is a trowel. If it can dig a uniform hole, I’m extremely happy, and a basic garden trowel (Eagle brand) costs $3.79.
The only items I would buy with care are a medium- or commercial-grade garden hose ($30 to $50) — avoid the light-grade ones that end up kinking every 8 feet, causing you to stop watering to walk back and fix it — and a quality nozzle. Dramm rain wands let out an evenly distributed flow of water that isn’t powerful enough to injure the plant.
6. Take the time to find a great local gardening store
Most people head straight for big-box stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s. But it’s much better to seek out the “right” garden store for you, one that can give you the personal service you need. Most good gardening stores — or garden center at your local hardware store — has an expert on staff, someone who knows and loves gardening. The questions you should ask are these: Where do you purchase your vegetable plants? What line of garden tools do you carry? Will someone be able to review with me how to plant specific vegetables?