Most of us grew up with some limited gardening experience or another, but if you’re like me, you didn’t realize at the time how much there was to learn, or didn’t really care how the garden came to be, you just enjoyed picking the fruits and veggies of your grandparents’ or parents’ labor and eating them!
It wasn’t until years later and over a thousand miles from home that I would rekindle my love for gardening, and undertake what would become my favorite obsession/hobby to this day. There is nothing more rewarding than preparing a meal using ingredients plucked from the vine that very day, right outside your back door. Thankfully, when gardening fever hit me, I had a wonderful neighbor who owned an “edible landscaping” business to guide me in my new endeavor. I was very fortunate to be able to glean some of her knowledge and minimize my rookie mistakes. Please note I said minimize, not eliminate.
I now consider myself pretty adept at gardening and often wonder, if I hadn’t had my fabulous neighbor at my beck and call, what on earth I would have done, or if I would still be partaking in gardening to this day. I imagine that my dabbling would have been short-lived after the first disappointment. I hear horror stories all the time of people attempting to garden, having problem after problem, and deciding that they just don’t have a green thumb, or enough time, and completely give up. I have found it nearly impossible to change someone’s mind who has arrived at this conclusion, and I’m not sure what they chalk my success up to – I guess in their mind I must have unlimited time, resources, and a lot of luck. I wish! Truth is, I work full time, have 5-year-old daughter and a baby on the way, and a husband who is less than enthusiastic about gardening. And yet somehow, I not only manage a great garden, but I love every minute I get to spend working on it.
I will admit (and only because it’s fresh in my mind after building two raised beds this weekend) that sometimes it is labor intensive; but the good news is that 90% of the hard work is in the initial investment, and the rest is smooth sailing if you do it right. And the hard work does pay off — you will get to see the results of your efforts — and I’m not talking about the sweaty, dirt-covered image staring back at you in the mirror!
To become a gardening guru, keep in mind a few simple gardening philosophies:
1. EVERYONE does it differently. It doesn’t make their way better or worse, but be prepared for every person you meet who has ever grown a tomato to give you advice or tell you you’re doing it wrong. It’s okay – some methods work better for some people, and you’ll find your preferred method after a couple of growing seasons.
2. If at first you don’t succeed, know you’re not alone, and it is not failure. It’s all part of the learning curve. Do not be tempted to set fire to the raised beds you spent time building; just know that, thankfully, we have seasons, and winter will give you a break and time to regroup to plan your next attempt in the spring. I love gardening because you get a fresh start every year, and even if everything went perfectly the year before, you can always incorporate new ideas with the proven successes.
3. Love your garden. It sounds hokey, but I firmly believe that if you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re going to be miles ahead of those who view it as a chore rather than a hobby, and your love will show.
Now that we have basic garden philosophy covered, it’s time to get started planting a garden of your own. You can find a million and one books on gardening, and I recommend every one of them. But if you’re pressed for time, and just want a foolproof plan to get started without a lot of research, this is for you! Gardening is a great hobby because free information is readily available, but to a beginner it can be daunting.
Most of us, whether we are stellar cooks or not, have attempted cooking at one point or another. So a simple way to view gardening is to look at it like a recipe – you have to have the proper tools, ingredients, and instructions to be successful. So here is your complete recipe in ten steps. I’ll point you to some good references at the end if you’re interested in knowing more.
A Bountiful Garden
Prep time: 1 weekend
Maintenance: 1-2 hours per week + one weekend every seasonal shift
Tools: Shovel, wheelbarrow, garden rake, hose, staple gun, drill, screwdriver
Materials (all can be purchased at your local big box hardware store or local nursery):
(6) 4’x4’x10’ boards cut in half in your choice of lumber (see below for info)
(1) box of 2” wood/deck screws
(8) corner fencing brackets (I use 6-hole brackets)
(1) roll weed barrier cloth/landscape fabric
(8+) cubic feet of compost (preferably several different kinds of compost)
(8) cubic feet of peat moss (1 large compressed bale, or 1.5 medium compressed bales)
(8) cubic feet of vermiculite (asbestos free – small, medium, or course grind)
Building your raised bed:
The recipe I’m going to give is for a 5’x5’x1’ square bed. Adjust materials accordingly for different sizes. I prefer to use 4×4 lumber for my raised beds as it adds to the durability, does not require corner posts or bracing against warping, and also because it gives you a ledge to set your tools (or rear end) on while working in the garden. DO NOT use pressure-treated lumber — yes, it will hold up longer against decay, but it also will leach chemicals into your soil. For best results choose redwood or cedar, but if you’re on a budget, regular cheap pine works too. Because my soil mix is more expensive than some, I use pine to offset the cost a little — using 4x4s helps it hold up longer.
1. Pick a level spot that receives maximum sunlight and dry build your raised beds using the 12 pieces of lumber — your bed will be a square three boards high. Stagger the pieces so that the corner joint seams alternate between tiers. Dry building it gives you the opportunity to visualize it in your space, but it is easily reassembled in a different location if you don’t like it.
2. Making sure that all the pretty sides of the boards are facing out and all blemishes are towards the inside, start assembling by attaching the corner brackets on the bottom two tiers of all four corners, squaring up the corners as you go (I recommend marking and pre-drilling the holes unless you have an impact driver). Add the third layer and attach brackets to the middle and top tiers (if using 6-hole brackets like me, you’ll have two brackets per corner, with 4 screws in each tier).
3. Using a staple gun, line the inside of your raised bed with landscape fabric (weed barrier cloth). I use an all natural fiber product vice — the plastic variety. Make sure the top edge of the landscape fabric does not go all the way to the top of the raised bed – your soil will not, and you don’t want the cloth visible. Be gentle during this process and ensure all corners have plenty of excess so it won’t rip when soil is added.
A “green thumb” is a misnomer – it should be called a “brown thumb” instead, but we all know that doesn’t sound half as a appealing. But I guarantee you that the secret behind every successful gardener is their soil, and not the plants themselves or their watering technique. Soil is THE most crucial component of your garden, so don’t be tempted to skimp or cheat. My first raised bed project, I knew nothing about soil, so I filled it with a truckload of plain old top soil. Little did I know that top soil is a sterile product (to ensure weeds won’t grow) with no organic matter, and my first attempt at a raised bed garden was a miserable flop. The next year I dug out all that soil and replaced it with this mix and you would not believe the results – I had to do twice the amount of work, but I learned a very valuable lesson. LEARN FROM MY MISTAKE, PEOPLE.
4. Using at 1:1:1 ratio, mix your compost/peat moss/vermiculite. This can be done on a large tarp, in the bed of a pickup, or in a wheelbarrow depending on your setup. Avoid mixing it directly in the raised bed as the landscape fabric will easily tear.
5. Add soil mix to the raised bed, watering heavily as you go, to allow the peat moss to expand to its full volume. When all of the mix has been added, water heavily. If you want your raised bed fuller, you can mix in some more compost, but do not fill to the very top or you’ll constantly have soil running out when watering.
Every spring, refill the raised bed to the desired level by mixing in more compost. Peat moss and vermiculite do not break down over time, so you will never need to add more.
Adding plants and seeds is the fun part! I will recommend some basics here to help you get started, but other than that, experiment and have fun!
6. Choose vegetables/fruits your family likes to eat, but be willing to throw in a couple unknowns — remember that fresh veggies taste A LOT different than store bought, and you may actually like something you had written off before. The biggest taste differences to me come out in tomatoes, broccoli, and strawberries. Don’t be afraid to plant some edible flowers – they add beauty and diversity!
7. Know whether to plant seeds or seedlings. Certain plants take a long time to start and are very finicky about germinating. For this reason, if you are a beginner, do yourself a favor and plant seedlings, not seeds, of broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, squash, watermelon, cucumbers, etc. This will save you a lot of time and replanting. At the same time, many plants should be started from seed because they are fast growing and will go to seed too fast if bought as seedlings. These include lettuce, carrots, herbs (basil and cilantro especially), beets, chard and spinach.
8. Timing – If you plant all your lettuce seeds in one day, your lettuce crop will all be ready to harvest at the same time. Most of us have a couple salads every week, not enough salad to feed 800 people one time per season! So know the foods you want to keep growing throughout the season and rotate your planting schedule so you’ll always have some ready to harvest – I usually space seed planting out by one week. Lettuce is probably the most critical. The other plants won’t be harmed by waiting to harvest a few days or a week. Know when to plant certain varieties. Early crops can’t tolerate heat (lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, celery and peas), while others (tomatoes, basil, peppers, eggplant and corn) demand it. A helpful hint is to pay attention to when items become available at your local farmers market and start planting seedlings of those right away. Large scale producers have methods to get earlier crops than the average gardener, so if they are selling tomatoes in April, you can start planting seedlings!
9. Spacing – Know the size of full-grown plants to avoid overcrowding — I typically would not plant squash or watermelon in a raised bed because they take over everything — but, the good news is that they are not as picky about their soil, so you can plant straight into the ground in other areas of your yard. If you do want to plant in the raised bed, consider planting along the back row with a trellis for it to grow up.
Spread same-type plants out – don’t cluster them all in the same section. Also, interplant among other varieties. This helps confuse pests that only feed off one variety, and also makes sure that the plants aren’t competing for the exact same resources all in one area. This goes without saying, but make sure you take into account where to plant the tallest plants so they are not shading the rest of the plants as they grow (for best results, plant tall plants or trellised plants on north side).
10. Tomatoes – know whether you’re planting determinate or indeterminate varieties — it matters! Determinates (Romas/pastes) are smaller and bushier plants and require just a tomato cage or stake for support. Indeterminate varieties (Beefsteak, Yellow Pear) are better trellised as they keep growing and growing and growing. Determinant varieties are designed to ripen all at the same time (helpful for canning or preserving) and indeterminate varieties ripen all season long. There are a lot of schools of thought on pruning or not pruning tomatoes and I can tell you I have tried both and not seen a huge difference. If you choose to prune, read up on the proper way to do it, as cutting the wrong branch can stop the growth of the entire plant.
Watering and Maintenance:
I usually water once per day in the morning or evening, giving a good soak to the soil. Avoid watering the leaves of the plants as it can lead to leaf rot. I recommend installing a simple drip line that runs on a battery operated timer connected directly to your hose bib if you travel at all, or won’t remember to water every day.
When you use this soil mix, there really is no need to fertilize – the compost acts as a constant fertilizer. However, I like to use an organic liquid kelp mix spray on the foliage of all my plants and they seem really happy, especially when they are first planted and trying to establish their root systems. Healthy plants are much more resistant to diseases and pests, but, if needed, know organic methods of controlling them. Remember that not all bugs are bad bugs, and if you spray your garden with harsh insecticide you’re killing the good ones as well, which can lead to bigger problems. If you see a bug you don’t know, don’t assume it’s doing harm. Base your conclusions on visible plant damage, and treat accordingly.
Some of the best gardening resources for beginners can be found on the Internet. However, it is easy to get overwhelmed, so, if nothing else, order a copy of All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, check out your local Extension Office for specific resources in your local area and for pest/disease management. Local Master Gardeners are extremely knowledgeable and helpful, but be aware not all use organic methods, and be prepared to get a lot of advice — just remember gardening philosophy #1. Urban Farm Magazine is a fun and informative periodical for experienced and novice gardeners alike.
Kara is a full-time working, soon-to-be mother of two who would much prefer to garden and drink wine over working, though she has yet to find an employer who fully appreciates her desired position.