Nothing compares to the texture and flavour of home-grown garden produce, and tending a garden or a plot of land is an exciting healthy and rewarding occupation.
Beginning your very first garden is a memorable experience, however, there’s a lot of planning required before you can press ahead to the planting stage. As with any new hobby, once you’ve mastered the rules and techniques you’ll reap the rewards of your hard work and enjoy the fruits of your labours.
Your first vegetable garden
Gardens come in all shapes and sizes and you don’t need acres of land in order to pursue your gardening hobby. Alternative methods are growing in containers which are easy to manoeuvre, however much depends on what you intend to plant and the location. There are three critical elements required in order to grow excellent vegetables.
Sunshine : A key ingredient for all plants, so it’s vital to choose a spot that gets a minimum of six hours per day.Water :This is another essential and most gardens have a water source, either a hose pipe, a water butt or water tank.
Good soil : There are various soil types and if you have hard clay or a sandy mix, this can be improved on as you’ll read below.
Let’s learn about sun and shade
Sunlight is a critical element of the photosynthesis of all plant life and structure. All growing vegetation on the planet, including shade-loving varieties is fully reliant on natural light. When designing your first garden you will need to study where the sun rises and where the sunniest spots are. You then need to research the suggested plants for the correct areas as some will thrive in full sun but others need partial shade in which to flourish.
It’s very important to plan your garden or plot carefully, and this can be done easily. Check where the sun rises in the east which is always a special time of day, and therefore, the opposite side, or the western side of your plot will always be the hottest area of your garden. In knowing this, you can plan accordingly on where to plant your sun-loving plants.
A compass can help you map out each area if you’re unsure, but having established where your garden or plot lies, you can then progress to the next steps. If you are north facing, this is generally the coolest or shadiest of your garden. However, there are degrees of natural shade, ranging from dappled, partial, and deep shade. But there is also a term known as ‘warm shade,’ and therefore, a hot climate would call for ‘warm shade’ planting to ensure successful growth. It’s essential to understand the light elements of your new garden, which will in turn provide you with a place of beauty.
Deciding what to grow
Garden catalogues and websites are your best source for ideas. Try to plan what you really want to grown and enjoy eating, as all too often it’s tempting to try growing a large variety of vegetables. As a first-time gardener it’s best to start with the most commonly grown vegetables. These include tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, peppers, and peas. Vegetables such as asparagus require waiting a couple of years for the first harvest, so bear that in mind when choosing your crops.
Much of any gardening is trial and error, so you need to experiment each year and keep a log book of what produces well and which vegetables to avoid growing. Always look for varieties that are described as disease-resistant, and note descriptions too, as some plants are better for smaller gardens or containers.
Laying out your garden for great home-grown vegetables
There are two basic approaches to planning a garden layout.
Basically this means planting in a single file with a walking path set between each row. It’s best for large gardens, and it makes it easier to use mechanical equipment like hoes and forks to control weeds. The only downside is that it’s an inefficient use of land, as valuable soil area is used for footpaths rather than plants.
This means planting in wider expanses generally 1 to 4 feet across, and so reduces the amount of area needed for paths. It’s important not to make the bands wider than you can comfortably reach and to make the area easy to work on.
A specialized version of intensive cropping is the ‘square foot method’ which was developed by Mel Bartholomew. By dividing the garden into small beds (typically 4 x 4 feet) that are then further subdivided into one-foot squares, each one-foot square is planted with one, four, eight, or 16 plants, depending on the size the plant will be when it’s mature. Bartholomew’s book, Square Foot Gardening, is the essential guide for this method of gardening and is full of useful information.
Whichever method you choose, always begin in a small way. A 10 x 10 foot space is a good size for a first garden. It’s best to plan your garden on paper before you begin any planting, and as you sketch out your plan, place taller vegetables at the north side of the garden. This includes naturally tall plants such as standard-size tomatoes, and plants that can be grown on vertical supports, like snap peas, cucumbers, and pole beans. Try to allow at least 18 inches between rows or beds for easy access.
Try to leave some areas unplanted at first, as this will allow you to plant a second crop to harvest later in the season. Lettuce, radishes, green onions, carrots, and bush beans are often planted several times during the season.
Digging your garden beds
Work in small sections, breaking up large clods of soil as you work, and use power tillers to grind the soil. Digging can of course be done by hand but it’s very tedious and back-breaking work.
Once the soil has been loosened you can spread fertilizer or compost and gradually work them into the soil. This can be tough work if you do it by hand, but the more thoroughly you work the soil, the better your results will be later on. Use planks or pieces of plywood to distribute your weight, and avoid stepping on freshly tilled soil as much as possible otherwise you’ll compact the soil and undo all your hard work.
After digging, smooth the surface with a rake and then water thoroughly, and allow the bed to settle for few days before planting.
Seeds or Seedlings?
Some vegetables can be grown by simply putting seeds into the soil, such as carrots and beans by which you place seeds at the recommended depth, water thoroughly, and then wait for the plants to flourish. Planting extra seeds will account for some not germinating, and any thinning out can be done after the plants are up and growing.
Many vegetables can be started early indoors or purchased already to plant and the benefit of this is that you can have a crop ready to harvest several weeks earlier than if you start with seeds in the ground. All information is given on seed packages.
Care and feeding
Water your crop when the top inch of soil is dry. Remember that raised beds drain faster and may require watering every other day, and don’t allow the crop to stand in water. Stay on top of weeds as they compete against plants, and hand fork regularly to dis-courage seedlings. Mulching or adding compost can keep weeds at bay around larger plants.
Whether you choose Organic gardening or normal, it’s important to add fertilizer at planting time but remember to follow the directions on the container, and don’t apply more than recommended, as this can often decrease the yield.
Pests and diseases
Gardeners will sadly always face the age old problem of pest and disease management, but you can do much to keep things under control.
Helpful hints are listed below
Always ensure fences are firmly secured and buried several inches under the ground to deter rabbits. Use covering, or row covers, which are usually lightweight plastic or polythene sheeting which guard plants against light frosts and various insects.
- Try to grow varieties that are listed as disease-resistant, and visit websites or garden catalogues that offer advice on this area.
- To reduce fungal diseases, water the soil but not the leaves of plants. If you use a sprinkler, do so in the day so the leaves will be dry by nightfall. If a plant does fall prey to a fungus, remove it immediately and discard it on the rubbish tip.
- Hand pick and dispose of caterpillars from your plants, leave them in a pile hoping the birds will feast on them instead.
- Use insecticidal soap sprays for safe control of listed pests and be certain to read the labels carefully.
- Use crop rotation for different locations as by doing so this reduces the chance that pests will gain a permanent foothold in your garden.
- A golden rule to remember! With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce more harvest.
This is the fun part where you can reap your rewards. Remember, the more you pick, the more you’ll get from the crop. Many vegetables can be harvested at several stages, and lettuces can be picked as a very young crop as the leaves will be sweet and tender. If you pinch out the leaves it will continue to grow and produce, and a guideline is that if it looks good enough to eat, then pick it and enjoy the crop.
What you need to know when buying vegetable seeds
The choice of seed purchase is vast and it can be difficult deciding what to buy and plant. If it’s winter, don’t despair as you can be sifting through seed catalogues and deciding what you want to plant during the coming year. It’s ideal to work the soil in preparation for the next season, that’s if the ground isn’t too solid.
Buying vegetable seeds online
Online shopping is the way forward and gardening is no exception to the rule. You’ll often find a greater choice that can offer a next day delivery. You’ll also find rarer seeds online, so it’s worth investigating and most offer warranty too. Always read the purchase terms before buying and check product weights too as websites do vary.
Whatever type of gardener you aim to be, you’ll find seed catalogues galore online. Ensure they are a reputable company, and enquire among gardening friends or social circles as they will always be keen to offer advice.
Planning your new vegetable garden can be an immensely satisfying experience. Make sure you’ve taken aboard all the advice and helpful hints as they’ll help you in the long run.
It’s like a dream come true when planting and visualising your first vegetable garden. Just the thought of picking a juicy ripe tomato or crunchy green pepper to toss into your salad makes it so worthwhile.
This is a must have and key ingredient for each tiny seedling to produce a crop and besides this, a little preparation is required. Can you believe that vegetables have very precise sun and shade needs, along with individual soil conditions? You need to take care of your seedlings and get to know how much sun each little seedling requires.
Some vegetables tend to wander anywhere, but in doing so they produce multiple crops. Cucumbers, squash, melon, and vining tomatoes fit this category. If room isn’t an issue then let them be, however, they can be staked or trained up fences and trellises to save room. Under ideal conditions, they can be prolific bearers, so it’s important not to overplant. Determinate plants are the opposite and much bushier in their growth habit and therefore, only bear one crop and are ideal for small spaces or containers. Bush tomatoes fit into this category.
Make sure you prepare the soil in the beds ahead of time and remove all rocks and weeds. Black plastic is very useful as mulch around cucumbers and melons, and this helps keep wet soil away from leaves enabling speed ripening.
Lay the plastic down in prepared beds and cut openings to place the plants in. Remember that cucumbers are very prone to mildew from wet leaves, so this method will help the crop. (See the section below about preparing the soil).
All plants need regular watering; along with fish emulsion which is recommended to provide them with a healthy start. Don’t let plants dry out or become weed-choked, as you’ll then be rewarded with bigger healthier plants.
Everything you need to know about preparing the soil
In this section you’ll learn about everything there is to know about soil types, from building excellent garden soil, the pH levels to composting, and side-dressing. This is the key component to having a great garden and producing good crops.
Your blank garden canvas
Before you begin, remove all debris and rake the soil to a smooth finish. All weeding should be done before the soil preparation begins. Using a spirit level, seek out low spots as they need filling to avoid boggy areas. Remember to use sterile topsoil for this purpose, because you don’t want to allow soil-borne disease or pests. After the initial levelling, you can use a tiller to work and aerate the soil.
The Troy built or Mantis tillers are recommended as they’re compact, easy to use, and help prevent back strain by doing the heavy work for you.
Use the tiller in stages, beginning the first week, for loosening the soil, then the second week, add fertilizers and till in again. Gradually the soil’s resistance begins to lessen as you till over and over again. On the third week, remove any large clods, stones and debris.
When you can feel a good earthy texture, then you’re ready to begin planting. If it’s still not right, go through the soil with the tiller another few times. Rake the area smooth, water lightly to dampen, and you can proceed to plant your crop.
Evaluating your soil
To check your type of soil simply pick up a handful and squeeze it lightly together. The texture tells all. Is it heavy and cold? Does it feel gritty or sandy? Now release the soil and check if it falls apart completely? Does it remain in a hard cold clump? This simple test will tell you what type of soil you are dealing with.
Generally, your soil should be slightly crumbly, and should hold together when lightly squeezed but falls apart easily. This is the top quality earth all gardeners dream of and work endlessly to achieve. Many people choose to toss bags of pre-mixed soils on top of the underlying soil hoping it will solve the problem, but it doesn’t.
Heavy clay soil is the nightmare of all gardeners. With its tough clogging nature, it compacts and chokes off roots. There are products such as Greensand or Gypsum, peat compost and garden sand available that can be worked into the clay soil to make it more usable.
Is your soil acid or alkaline?
Many people don’t stop to consider the soil quality as all we expect is a great harvest of vegetables and an array of colourful flowers. Most would not admit to even knowing the quality of their garden soil! However, it’s important to find out as your garden’s growth depends fully on the health of your soil.
The best way to answer your soil question is to buy a home soil testing kit which is very useful and costs around $20. You’ll need to take random samples from different areas of your property, so here’s a quick 4 step guide of how to do this.
1. In the top one-inch of the soil, remove any loose organic matter
2. Take samples 6-7 inches deep, using a spade or hand trowel,
3. Repeat this in six locations for every 1000 to 2000 sq. ft.
4. In a bucket mix the various samples and use about 1-2 cups for testing.
The kits generally consist of a test tube, some testing solution, and a colour chart. You put a sample in the tube, add a few drops of test solution, shake it up, and leave it for an hour or so to settle.
The solution changes colour according to the pH of your soil. Simply compare the colour of the sample with the colour chart that came with the kit to determine the pH range of your sample.
After this treatment you’ll have a fairly good idea of what the pH level is, and you can begin to amend the soil to suit your planting needs. If your soil’s acidity is too high, adding dolomite or lime will bring it back into a more alkaline state and it will then be workable.
To acidify alkaline soil will require adding garden sulphur to sour down the soil. Many plants thrive in an acidic environment including gardenias, azaleas, rhododendrons, pines, raspberries, and many tropical varieties. They may also benefit by feeding with an acidifier like Miracid, at least once a month.
Sand is a real nuisance for gardens and can be even more troublesome to plants. Soil that is too loose drains so fast that water never reaches the roots. As a result, the plants die off very quickly.
One way to tell if your soil is too sandy is by feel; it won’t hold together properly and immediately falls apart. It will have a gritty texture unlike normal soil.
The recipe below will give you a firm, healthy soil that will continue to improve over the next two to three years. For every 100 sq. feet of garden, add the following:
2 lbs of bat or seabird guano
2 lbs of rock or superphosphate
10 lbs of gypsum or lime
2 lbs of Greensand
2 lbs of kelp meal
This mixture should be evenly spread over the planting areas and tilled in 6″ to 8.” Once this is done, the garden is then ready to plant.
Leave for around two to three months, and then add 3lbs of alfalfa meal, digging it in to the first 6 inches of topsoil. By now you should begin to notice earthworms tunnelling through the dirt which is a good sign. If not, buy them and release them in order to work their garden wonders.
You should see an improvement in your soil within the first year. Certainly, by the third year you will have the right garden soil, which will be rich in texture, dark in colour and will hold moisture. Your gardening journey can then begin!