You’ve thought about starting a garden, figured out what you’re going to grow, and decided where you’re going to put it all. That’s the easy part. Now, the hard part is keeping everything alive. (Cue the scary music).
Okay, that’s tongue-in-cheek. Even if you think you have the brownest of brown thumbs, you can garden. I promise. Unfortunately, people are more intimidated by this than anything else when it comes to gardening. But trust me, there’s no need to be scared.
Plants want to grow. It’s in their best interest. They’re not sitting there in the ground thinking, “I really don’t like him. I think I’m going to kill myself just to spite him.” They were created to pass themselves on to future generations through their seeds, which doesn’t happen if they keel over when the wind starts blowing. Generally, unless you’re trying to grow pineapples in northern Ohio, it’s harder to kill plants than keep them alive. Take a look at the weeds in your front yard and tell me that isn’t true…
So now for starting a garden – how do you grow these fancy new vegetables?
Starting a garden with good soil is THE biggest step you can take to set yourself up for future success. Your vegetables can have perfect sun and the perfect amount of water, but if they’re stuck in clay or sand, they are not going to be happy, and they’ll let you know. Sure, they’ll still probably produce something (because again, plants want to have babies), but not nearly as much as if they’re really happy plants.
So what does good soil entail? It should be loose, and be a good mix of parts. (Warning : science lesson ahead!) Soil is made up of different sizes of rock particles – sand (big, relatively speaking), silt (smaller), and clay (smallest). Sand is nice and loose and allows for plenty of air and water, but does a lousy job of holding onto nutrients. Clay, at the opposite end of the spectrum, holds nutrients well, but forms a pretty solid mass that gets very compacted and doesn’t allow for much air or water. Obviously, you want the best of both worlds for your plants to thrive – good nutrient retention and empty pockets that allow for air and water.
The other major piece is organic matter. And the more, the merrier. Organic matter is vital for many reasons. It helps keep the soil loose and friable (you can start with solid clay, but if you mix in some nice compost, it won’t compact as much), helps tremendously with water and nutrient retention, and is a vital source of nutrients itself. In addition, soil with a large amount of organic matter will be teeming with microscopic life, which is also important for your plants’ health.
What can you do to get more organic matter into your garden soil? Start a compost pile and throw that in the mix. Save your grass clippings (assuming you don’t spray your yard). Rake leaves in the fall and run them over with a lawnmower to shred them a bit. Find a neighbor that has horses.
How Do I Get Nice Soil?
So after that long-winded explanation of soil (but necessary, because it is so important!), how do you take that and tailor it to your situation? First, look at where you’re planting your vegetables, then determine what you need to add.
- Are you doing a row garden and planting directly into the existing soil? Dig up a few shovelfuls and take a look at what your soil is like. It may be very sandy, solid clay, or a good mix but with lots of larger rocks. If you have a nice loose, black loam, I’m jealous. If not, you’ll need to decide what kind of amendments you need. If it’s clay, LOTS of organic matter and a bit of sand, and till it in well. If it’s too sandy, LOTS of organic matter (sense a theme?) and some peat moss or good topsoil, and till it in well. The informal test for good soil is that you can squeeze some in your hand, and it’ll stay together, but loosely. If it turns into a solid mass or won’t stay together at all, keep adding stuff.
- Are you planting in raised beds or containers? This is great, because you can really start from scratch and build a good soil from the ground up. If it’s a few pots, a general potting soil mix will work, but if you need more, it’s probably cheaper to make your own mix. I start with a well-screened topsoil, mix in a bunch of peat moss, some vermiculite, and a lot of compost. Any garden center should be able to point you in the right direction for those ingredients. Mix it all together, and put it in your beds or pots, and you’ve just given your plants a great head start.
Sun and Water
As we talked about in the “where to grow” topic, most of your plants are not going to do as well as they could in the shade. There are a few that don’t mind some shade, but full sun is almost always the best.
Water is pretty easy too – as a general rule of thumb, your plants will want about an inch of water per week. Sometimes more, if it’s really hot. You don’t need a rain gauge, just your intuition. If it hasn’t rained since last week, a bit of water probably wouldn’t hurt. If it’s been raining for the past four days, put the hose away. (See, gardening is really just common sense!)
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Plants need three basic, or macro-nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). You’ve all seen the N-P-K ratio on bags of fertilizer before (something like 10-5-5; that means 10% nitrogen, and 5% each phosphorus and potassium).
Nitrogen is required in the largest amount – it’s vital for plant growth, leaf size and quality, maturity, and the development of the fruit. If your plants are yellowish and stunted-looking, they’re probably deficient. Readily-available sources of nitrogen include blood meal, coffee grounds, alfalfa or cottonseed meal, and well-aged manure (not fresh!).
Phosphorus is necessary for photosynthesis, fruit development, and particularly, for strong root formation. You probably won’t need to add much, if any, phosphorus because it’s found in high enough amounts in most soil (and doesn’t degrade as fast as nitrogen), but if you do, bone meal is probably the most common supplement.
Potassium also plays a vital role in photosynthesis, increases overall plant hardiness, and improves the quality of the fruit. Common sources include compost, wood ash (not too much, as this will raise the pH of the soil), kelp or seaweed, manure, and greensand.
Other required nutrients include sulfur, calcium, magnesium, copper, boron, silicon, and other micro-nutrients, but these usually don’t require any supplementation, as they’re in most soils in trace amounts, and trace amounts are all that the plant needs.
If you have decent soil to begin with, you probably won’t need to add much to it, but if you think you might be deficient (or you’d just like to confirm), there are plenty of simple kits (like this one) that will allow you to get a good idea of what you may need.
So you see? Starting a garden and growing your own vegetables isn’t anything to be afraid of. Plant them in good soil and make sure they get enough sun and water (and maybe put a fence around them to keep the deer and rabbits away :)), and they’ll produce happily for you all year! Yes, there are some vegetables that have slightly more specific needs, but if you’ve knocked out these basics, you should be able to grow just about anything!
Check out the rest of the Beginner’s Garden series: