Today’s topic is: “What advice would you give to someone starting their first garden?”
I have a long-standing love affair with gardens. In the summer of 1979, at the age of 2 1/2, I was caught admiring my uncle’s garden in Alaska. The following spring, I helped my father till up fresh soil using his trusty old Gravely, which turned into quite a large garden that he tended that summer and several more that followed.
In 2001, I lived in a sunny apartment building in Boston and decided to plant a container garden in large plastic tubs. Things grew (especially the cherry tomatoes which eventually took over the whole window) and I ended up harvesting the most pathetic crop of carrots in all of gardening history. I was very proud.
When I bought my first house in the winter of 2008, I was so excited to finally own ‘ground’ that the first thing I did the following spring was plant a row of blueberry bushes along the foundation. They grew plump and delicious berries!
But when I moved to this 20-acre utopia in 2011, my husband taught me how amazing gardening could be. For the last five years, we have planted and preserved a wide variety of vegetables. Our usuals include potatoes, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, and squash. This year, we also added parsnips, green beans, peas, carrots, and popcorn.
I love the idea of growing our own food. I love that our 3- and 2-year-old daughters are finally old enough to participate in planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting. If you have any space, even just a little tiny bit, I highly recommend starting a garden.
So, to finally get around to the topic at hand, here are my top five tips for new gardeners.
1. Start small.
Unless your schedule is completely empty for the next three months, start small. While gardening is very rewarding, maintaining it takes time. If everything goes well, you can always expand in the future (or as was the case for us, when two babies arrived, we downscaled our garden by half for a couple of years.)
2. Go organic.
If you start small, you will be able to keep ahead of the weeds and on top of the pests without having to resort to harmful chemicals. In my view, there’s no point in putting in all that effort if the end result isn’t good for you to eat.
3. Weed often.
This is something that I still struggle with. My schedule gets busy and I realize I haven’t checked on the garden in a week and, BAM, huge weeds everywhere! Then I have to clear for a few hours to get it back under control. But if your garden is small, you could weed the entire garden in just five or ten minutes a day. And as my husband often reminds me, “the veggies and the weeds are competing for the same water and nutrients, so let’s make sure the ones we eat get all the good stuff.” (That being said, there are many delicious edible weeds too, so it really just depends on your point of view.)
4. Plant what you love to eat.
It is true that some veggies are easier (and faster) to grow than others. But just because you CAN grow them, doesn’t mean you should. My husband and I debate this every spring when we plant radishes. They are the first thing that can go into the cold soil and I agree that it’s wonderful to watch them sprout so quickly, but since nothing else is growing yet, what are we supposed to do with a fridge full of radishes but no other salad makings? Along the same lines, if you don’t like to eat kale, don’t grow kale, or if you have an uncontrollable obsession with eggplant, then by all means, plant eggplant!
5. Learn from experience.
I continue to learn new ways to improve my garden. Just yesterday, my sister-in-law Angie told me about an experiment she conducted in her garden last year. She planted six identical tomato plants, but under three of them, she included banana peels and egg shells. She insists that those with the extra calcium and potassium nutrients grew nearly twice as tall and had fantastic tomato production while the plants without the early boost hardly produced at all. This spring, I plan to bury my peels and shells instead of throwing them over the back fence with the other scraps.
If you have other tips for new gardeners, please share them in the comments.
~ Phoebe DeCook