Starting a vegetable and herb garden can be a bit daunting. This is especially true if you go about it in the dark. This is my simple guide to making it a little easier. It is by no means the only way to do things. In fact, different plots bring on different challenges. Feel free to ask any specific questions below that I may miss addressing here.
1.) Decide what you will grow. This includes planning out what is appropriate for the time you are starting your garden. If it is November and you live in Tucson, don’t plant peppers or tomatoes (unless you are doing some experimenting). They will most certainly freeze.
2.) Find out how much space each plant you are growing needs, and how long they take to reach maturity. This will prevent you from overcrowding your garden. Remember not only to consider width, but height. When you plan out your crops on paper or while planting, keep the tall stuff on the NORTH end of the garden. If you have your tall crops on the SOUTH end of the garden, they are likely to shade other crops.
3.) Decide which plants go where. This takes some research, knowledge and maybe assistance. But you need to know what grows well with what. You don’t want to plant peas and onions together. Look forward to an at-a-glance guide soon from me to help you know which plants make good companions and which don’t. Also, keep in mind the different needs. Radishes want only lightly amended garden soil, while cabbage likes rich soil. Obviously they might not make the best companions.
4.) Measure out the space you have and start plotting your garden on paper. Use graph paper with each square representing one foot. This will kelp you plan out how much space you should allot for each crop (keep in mind how much of each crop you actually want too). When you plan out your beds, make them wide. I usually make them wide eonugh so that I can reach to the middle of each row: usually about 5-6 feet. Wide rows make for more space for organic biology to take place. I also plan where I will walk, and this is the only place I ever walk. NEVER WALK WHERE PLANTS ARE GROWING. This can be some work for the back at times, but it’s not too much of a sacrifice for a healthy garden. You may be working in a community garden and not have much say over how each bed is made. In this case, you work the best you can with what you have. In this article there are pictures from both my back yard where we started from scratch, and another plot in a community garden down the street.
5.) You might want to consider how to protect your plants. In my case, I am worried about my dogs and birds. So I put up a hardwire fence around the garden. If you use something like wood, you may rob some of your garden from sun. Over the top of this fenced off area I now have bird netting to keep out the birds, which can render much of your labor pointless if they decide to feast upon your seedlings. I remove the bird netting when seedlings are big enough that birds won’t damage crops.
6.) Assemble all the soil amendments you are using and start Digging. Break up the ground. Use a nice spade (shovel) and even at this point, try not to step into the area you have planned for your plants. Depending on whether or not the ground has ever been cultivated, and what you plan on growing, amend the soil with manure, compost, and any other supplements (kelp, bone meal, etc) you want to add. I suggest first using a shovel or spade (if this is a new plot) and following up with a pitchfork or garden fork. Use the fork to get as deep as you can and loosen up the soil. The deeper the soil is loosened and amended without compacting the level below the dug-out area, the better.
7.) Grade the gardening area and finish with a nice tamp down (this is just enough to grade but not compact the soil beneath). This will make it easy when it comes time to plant each seed. Make sure that the garden is convenient to water. In Tucson we tend to have garden plots set down lower than the adjacent walking area. You might have some perennial plants or annuals you want to keep. Work around them carefully. It is great to leave behind portions of the plot with plants from previous crop. Also, if you have to break up soil, at least there are some spots safe from being broken up. Fungus in the soil (good fungus) can get destroyed when the soil is broken up. Having a few islands where such isn’t happening is great.
8.) Water down the soil. Make sure you have some spray options on your hose. Get a nice watering wand with a dial to change the water flow. This will be particularly important when you are watering newly planted seeds. You don’t want to wash away your work. Water the soil thoroughly and let sit for at least an hour before planting. If you have not yet installed your irrigation system, put it in now. I like perforated soaker tubing because it’s more or less critter-proof, waters like a drip system, and is fairly sturdy. It is also very obvious, therefore you won’t be as likely to accidentally dig it up. It’s like the 3/4 inch tubing you are used to, but instead of spaghetti tubing extended from that, it just has holes. It’s very simple and soaks the ground quickly without causing run-of. It’s also less likely to clog and easy to clean if it DOES clog. You can get a cheap timer for less than 20 bucks, but if you cannot afford to do this yet, watering with a hose from your hose bib is sufficient if you have made your beds such that they hold water, not lose water.
9.) Start planting. With seeds, you might make a small trench. Planting instructions here vary to the crop you are planting. But in general you usually bury the seed about the depth equal to the size of the seed. There are many exceptions to this rule, so follow seed packet instructions. Some seeds need light and you barely cover them (this is why it is important to grade the soil nice and flat for planting). Plant closer than the mature width of the plant will reach. When seedlings come up, you will thin out the weakest seedlings, and leave behind the remaining seedlings with enough room to grow to potential sizes.
9.) Assemble any sort of support each plant might need: stakes, trellises, cages, etc. Make sure they are sturdy. If planting in fall/winter, make sure you have a plan if your crop needs to be covered in a frost.
10.) Water appropriately. You should water deeply enough that the whole root zone is moist. Measure by digging your hand trowel down to see if your watering has penetrated. You might be surprised how much it takes, particularly the first time.
11.) Wait. Sometimes impatience can make you think they won’t arrive, but they almost always do, provided you have been careful and followed instructions. This is at least true of most commonly grown crops. Try to always use fresh seed; germination viability can decrease with time, for some species more than others. This winter, I used a lot of old seed because this is what I had (and I don’t have the funds to purchase a lot of new seed). I will still get decent germination (as I know from previous experience) because most domesticated crop seeds are structured and even unintentionally selected by humans to survive (provided Monsanto has not manipulated your crop’s genes).
12.) When seedlings pop up, as discussed above, thin out plants so that each one has lots of room. Use scissors. Pulling up seedlings can harm other seedlings if they are right next to each other. When plants are too crowded they are less likely to produce as well and reach potential sizes. Many crops bolt early when over-planted because they are competing with each other for nutrition and water. When your plant crosses over from sensitive seedling to sturdy plant, mulch the base of the plant. This will insulate the plant from the elements, conserve water, and contribute to the organic biology that feeds your plant.
13.) While your crop is growing, plan how you will utilize your bounty. Plan with friends to trade crops or look into methods of preserving your harvest (canning, freezing, drying, etc).
Expect failure. But also expect success. Even the most experienced gardeners fail (even if they don’t admit it). The best gardeners keep experimenting and try to figure out what caused particular failures. Go to your local cooperative extension service for local information (though realize, they don’t do everything organically, so take their advice with a grain of salt). Join local gardening groups (there are many). Check out local literature on the subject. This is another subject I will address soon with lots of suggestions. And yes, you can always come here for information. I try to answer any questions I can answer and if I don’t know the answer, I have the resources to find them or guide you in the right direction. Also, you can make a lot of friends who garden. People who garden seek out others for trading of crops, seeds, information, and support.
Have fun and beware, vegetable, herb and fruit gardening is an addictive hobby.