Raising your own vegetables in a home garden is more popular than ever. People want to grow at least some of their own food as a way to save money, eat healthier, and become more self-reliant. In addition, gardening can be good exercise and a great way to relax, and eating food that you grow yourself is a satisfying experience.
However, gardening can also be frustrating! It’s not rocket science, but there is more to it than buying some plants, digging some holes, and watching them grow. New gardeners can create more work for themselves by choosing unsuitable plants, not preparing the garden correctly, or not maintaining the plants effectively as they grow.
Here are several tips to help you find enjoyment and success as a new gardener:
1. Make a plan in advance
Before you start shopping for seeds or plants, determine how much space you have and do some research to find out what grows well. Have a list in hand before you go to the garden center or start looking through seed catalogs. It’s very easy to get carried away while shopping, so resist the urge to jump in with both feet!
2. Keep a gardening journal
A gardening journal may be as important a tool as a shovel or a hose. It’s as easy as a blank notebook or a text file, or you can choose to get a specially designed garden journal or use an app. Start your journal when you first start planning your garden. Once you start planting, keep track of what you plant and when you planted it, when you water or fertilize, and when you harvest your produce. Note any problems that develop and how you deal with them. Keeping a journal from year to year will help you keep track of varieties and plants that grow well and those that do not, what works for you and what doesn’t.
3. Consider making a raised bed garden
When starting out, you may think the easiest way to garden is to just dig up a patch of your lawn and go, but taking the extra time and effort to put in some raised beds will pay dividends over the season. You will appreciate it every time you don’t have to stoop to plant, weed, or pick your crops! It is also easier to start with good clean soil than having to fight the seeds and runners already in the ground. Raised beds are easier to water and can be constructed to keep the soil moist longer. You can find instructions for building raised beds on the internet and in gardening books, and can also buy pre-made frames or kits for raised beds. (Related: Boring Back Yard? 5 Ways to Spruce Up Your Outdoor Living Space)
4. Maximize your space
Look into the many resources on “square foot gardening” that tell you how to get as much as possible out of even the smallest gardening space. A combination of raised beds with efficient layouts, companion planting, and strategic use of containers can help you grow lots of food in relatively small amounts of space. This means that you can garden successfully in a tiny yard, or even on a deck or apartment balcony!
5. Take time to prepare your soil properly
Gardening starts and ends with your soil. Healthy soil makes for thriving, disease-resistant plants that give a good yield. Take time in the planning stages of your garden to learn about your native soil types and what soil amendments your region usually needs. Look into having your soil tested to see if you have too much or too little of the necessary nutrients. Give yourself time to do thorough soil prep before planting season.
6. Get off to a good start with your new plants
Don’t put off planting your babies once you have them. They are likely root-bound and maxed-out on the nutrients in their little pot. Transplanting is stressful, and your new plants will survive the shock better if they are not unhealthy from being confined for too long. If your seedlings are in peat pots, tear off the bottom of the pot before planting. Peat pots are made to break down, but it can take a while and you don’t want your plant to become root-bound in the meantime.
7. Remember that high summer will be HOT
What feels like pleasant labor in May will seem unbearable when the temperatures are in the 90s! Choose plants and techniques that let your garden run mostly on its own during the hottest part of the summer, because watering and harvesting is the most you will want to be doing during those times.
8. Water early in the day
Plan to water your vegetables in the early mornings. This gives the water ample time to soak into the soil before the heat of the day sets in. If you wait until midday, the hot sun can evaporate the water before it has a chance to reach the roots of your thirsty plants. Avoid watering in late evening or overnight because the plants can develop mildew from being moist all night.
9. Plant for the bees and butterflies, too
When planning your garden, remember the helpful insects that pollinate your plants. Add some flowers or other plants that are especially attractive to bees and butterflies. Use flowering plants to create borders, or plant them nearby in an area that may have poor sun or drainage for edibles. You could also put some hanging baskets with flowering plants on poles around your garden, or on a nearby porch or deck.
10. Remember that every year is a new experience
Every year is different. While you may find a particular variety of tomato that does great in your garden one year, next year it may taste different or not do well because of changes in weather and water conditions. A planting that totally failed this year can be a learning experience of what not to plant, or you may find something you overlooked and come back next year with a bumper crop of that same vegetable.
Growing food is an art and a partnership with nature, not a manufacturing process. It can be frustrating, but ultimately rewarding. There is nothing like biting into a delicious vegetable that you tended from a seed or sprout to ripe and ready to eat!