It's time to get your garden planted, you're armed with a spade, a pile of compost and you’re eager to get some soil under your fingernails but you’re not sure where to start.
I got you.
A vegetable garden can be a very rewarding and delicious endeavor that gives back year-round. To be successful you don't need to have any specialized knowledge just the desire to grow your own food and an understanding of some basic guidelines.
Image courtesy of Markus Spiske
Becoming a great gardener is always a work in progress and even if you are an experienced gardener you got way in part through experimentation and failure. Every year I learn something new and usually try something different but always with the goal of increasing my yield. Let's get ready for the growing season with some simple guiding principles and a little elbow grease.
Just the Facts Ma’am
Vegetable gardening is being embraced by people more than ever before and the trend is on the rise. Just so you know that you are in good company and to give you a little bump of inspiration here are some ingesting facts from Axiom Gardening Insights Survey:
Confidence: 82% said they have a high level of confidence in their gardening ability based on their past successes.
Same: 30% say they will plant about the same as they did in 2021.
More: 62% of people said they will be planting more crops this year.
Millennials: 76% of this generation intend on planting more.
Hours: 44% intend on spending more time in their garden this year.
Same Money: 68% will spend the same as they did last year.
More Money: Over 28% stated they will spend more money on their gardens this year.
Why: The #1 reason given for increased interest in gardening activities was to lower stress & increase well-being.
More Why: The two reasons that tied for 2nd place were more time with family outdoor and more time at home.
Even More Why: The reasons that were given that tied for 3rd place were creating a beautiful outdoor space and gardening for food security.
Image courtesy of Zen Chung
What are Your Gardening Goals?
As with all goals the more specific, you are in determining what you want the better chance you’ll have of executing your vision. You may have multiple reasons why you like or want to garden:
Here are a few ideas to give your thinking a nudge as to what you want from your vegetable garden before placing you place any plants in the ground.
Increase the value of your home with beautiful gardens
Spend more time outdoors and breathe in that sweet prana!
Create a backyard haven to escape into
Grow fresh produce (fruits, vegetables, herbs) that you use to feed yourself and your family.
To gain the experience of putting in your first garden.
Your vegetable gardening goals drive what you will plant so you need to prioritize what is most important to you as a starting place. Take your time with this exercise, really dig deep and be honest with yourself but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Determining which goal is most important to you can help you make choices about what and where to plant. It also helps you figure out if you what to plant a small garden or install something that is more complex.
You Can Get by With a Little Help from Your Friends
Recruiting gardening friends and family to help you care for your garden is a great way to bond and learn together. The art of garden cultivation is an excellent pastime for everyone. From young children to seniors everyone can learn valuable skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Image courtesy of Unma Desai
Gardening is one of those things that tend to bring family, friends, and even pets together. It's easiest enough for a child to understand but complex enough that people dedicate their lives to it. Don't be afraid to ask for help with your garden from those who may not have the space for one. Almost nothing is as rewarding as sharing a well-earned yield with good friends.
Getting Your Tools Together
There are a plethora of tools available to help you out whether you’re a newbie or if you’re building on your past efforts. Don’t be afraid to imagine the garden of your dreams but just be realistic about what it will take to bring it to fruition. Develop a solid plan, get started, and adjust as you go along.
You don't need a ton of tools to get started and many tools can serve double duty. Although over the years I have owned a truckload of gardening tools I only now use a handful of tools to get the job done.
Hori Hori Gardening Knife
Resist the urge to splurge on a shed of new tools but instead opt for just some of the tools I have recommended. You can always add new tools as the need arises which is better than having tools lying around you never use plus you'll save money.
Another great resource for all gardeners is your local tool library. The site Local Tools is a good resource to check if there is a tool lending library in your area. It's a nice option for saving space and money on tools you only occasionally use.
Know Your Zone
The most important question to answer when selecting plants is what hardiness zone do you live in? You can use this interactive USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to get pinpoint zone-level data. Enter your ZIP code in the upper left search box to find your location and the Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Click the map at your location of interest to see the Zone classification at that location.
Before you purchase any seeds or plant starts first learn what’s native to your zone and grows well where you live. It will save you a lot of frustration and money later.
Getting your zone figured out will help you narrow your search as to what plants you are most likely to have success with. When starting out go with a couple of plants that do well in your zone, so you can experience success.
Success begets success so getting at least 50% or better yield usually is enough to motivate yourself to ask ok how can I do this better next season?
What Vegetables to Plant?
Figuring out what vegetable plants are right for you isn’t about me telling you exactly what to plant, it’s about you knowing enough to be dangerous! By this, I mean that you need to accept it's likely you are going to have some failures and just get in the garden and start experimenting.
You'll be pleasantly surprised at the selection you'll find so you're likely to find a least a couple of your favorite vegetables listed.
This site takes all of the work out of choosing vegetables with a simple and easy-to-read matrix. All of the plants are listed on the left side of the page with three corresponding date columns titled Start Seeds Indoors, Plant Seedlings or Transplants, and Start Seeds Outdoors.
On the matrix, simply follow a plant's row to the right to ascertain the recommended planting dates for that plant. All of the plant names are linked to their own page where you can learn more about care instructions and other plant-specific information.
Another helpful tool you will find on the Farmers Almanac Planting Calendar is their First and Last Frost Dates Calculator. A frost date is the average date of the last light freeze in spring or the first light freeze in fall.
Frost dates are important because many planting instructions specify that a plant should only be planted after your last frost. With this data in hand, you'll know when it's safe to plant directly into the ground without the fear of frost killing your starts.
Again just plug in your zip code and you'll learn more about frost dates than you ever thought you wanted to know.
They will tell you the earliest dates to plant vegetables in the spring and the last dates that you can plant for a fall harvest, based on average frost dates for your location.
Seeds vs Plantings
What to Look For
The two things I tell gardeners to look for when selecting either plant starts or seeds are open-pollinated and heirloom.
Some open-pollinated plants are self-pollinators which means the construction of the plant encourages fertilization before it flowers. Other open-pollinated plants are pollinated by another representative of the same variety or by insects, birds, and the weather. The seeds that form produce nearly identical plants to their parents.
A seeds heritage specifically refers to the documented heritage of that seed (plant) being passed down from generation to generation, so basically seed saving.
Seeds require a little more planning and patience than plantings do. When you first start working with seeds you will likely experience a less predictable yield until you get it dialed in. However, seeds are relatively easy to plant, and if you follow the instructions on the seed packet, you’ll experience success.
Image courtesy of Joshua Lanzarini
With the help of growing pellets, you can help your seeds form healthy root systems so they are ready to go and can be planted directly into the ground when the season begins.
I like to recommend to new gardeners to do a mix of seeds and plantings to experiment with what they like and what works best for them. Early in the season I often sow beets, green beans & peas directly into the ground but grow tomatoes in the greenhouse until it’s warm enough for them to thrive planted directly into the ground.
A simple way to kick start your garden is with plantings, commonly referred to as starts. Plantings are simply healthy young plants ready to be placed directly into the ground with a little fertilizer and water. Ready, Set, Grow!
Image courtesy of Markus Spiske
You can order plantings from online vendors and have them delivered directly to your door or you can hit up your local nursery. In either case, try and support outlets that are full-on purveyors of plants and avoid the garden centers attached to supermarkets or home improvement centers.
I like to go in person to nurseries and farm supply stores for the hands-on tactile experience and to speak with the experts who always have great tips.
Merchants that specialize in just gardening are going to have a better selection and more knowledgeable staff to help you. Check out their reviews and look for troubling comments, especially regarding their customer service.
Image courtesy of Annie Spratt
Thoroughly check out any company you are considering buying from. They should have hundreds of varieties of herbs, vegetables, shrubs, trees, and flowers to choose from. It’s also a good sign if they also have a good selection of high-quality tools and supplies available.
Also, don’t forget to ask people you know who have beautiful gardens where they buy their plants. You may be surprised how many other growers of stuff can turn you on to great deals or even give you plants for free.
Plant starts are an awesome choice to get your garden started early and fast with established root systems that can result in bigger yields and a healthy garden.
Observe & Interact
If you’re a gardening newbie it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the plethora of options to choose from. Gardening should be fun so if it’s a stressor you may be overthinking it.
A simple philosophy to follow is to select low-maintenance hardy plants that you like and that grow well in your zone.
Before you buy any new plants follow permacultures’ first principle to observe and interact.
Image courtesy of Oliver Kepka
Look at what is already working in your yard, what would benefit from being moved, and what needs to be eliminated? Moving a plant that needs more sun will allow it to thrive or giving away a scrub will open up more planting space.
“By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.”
~ David Holmgren
Maximize what you have by doing some research on the plants you already own. What are their ideal growing conditions? What plant guild do they fit in? It’s helpful to know this information when selecting complementary plantings.
Don’t Overthink It
Gardening is a relatively inexpensive hobby so don’t be afraid to experiment. If you fail at a particular crop at the very least, you learned what not to do. Next season you might try something counterintuitive that works well, but you have to experiment to find that sweet spot.
Get out there and plant stuff - See you in the garden!
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