An expression of art and science, gardening is a practice that dates back to the start of civilization, and is both creative and economical. With the ever-increasing trend towards green and sustainable living, gardening is enjoying a resurgence–if you’ve been considering taking up the habit, I hope this is your year! If you’ve been toying with the idea of gardening but need a little incentive, let me tell you why it’s a good investment of your money and time, and how you can get started right now.
Why you should garden
Self-expression: No two gardens are exactly alike because no two gardeners are exactly alike. Any garden will be based on the principles, values, and methodologies that the gardener possesses. You can get as creative or scientific as you please with your garden, with no one to tell you you’re doing it wrong.
Environmentally friendly: Growing plants in your backyard is good for your local ecosystem. Your garden offers habitat and food for local wildlife, and studies have proven that backyard gardens are key components in the conservation of our native pollinators. Growing your own food also means you’ll be less dependent on the industrial food system, which helps to reduce our need for oil.
Quality & freshness: When you grow your own food, you can monitor the health and vitality of your plants to ensure the best possible produce. You can reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Growing your own means you can experiment with different varieties for new flavors, allowing you to create gourmet meals for your family and friends. And if it’s fresh food you’re after, it doesn’t get better than vegetables harvested in the afternoon for dinner the same evening–or a carrot straight from the garden!
Family oriented: Having a garden in the backyard is a wonderful way to teach children where their food comes from; it entices them to be more adventurous with their food. Vegetables they might otherwise have turned their noses up at, may now become their favorites simply because they were able to watch them grow. You can get the whole family involved in the garden–it’s a great way to get outside and have fun!
Establishing your new garden
Once you’ve decided that you’re ready to “dig in” and start your first garden, you’ll want to cover the basics before you actually begin putting plants in the ground. There are many different methods and styles of gardens available for you to choose from, if you’re short on space you may want to go with a small raised bed–say 3-feet by 8-feet. And to make the most of that small space, you’ll want to utilize the square-foot method.
Note: If you’re gardening in a small space, I recommend you check out this article from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Regardless your choice in garden style, there are a few things to consider.
- Location – Where you place your garden is very important, as vegetables require a minimum of 6 hours of full sunlight daily–8 is preferred. Watch the sun to determine where it rises and sets, look for shade cast by trees and buildings, and situate your garden accordingly.
- Proximity – Think about your garden’s proximity to your water source, tool storage, and the drop-off point for in-puts such as manure.
- Water – For best results, your garden is going to need plenty of water. If you don’t have access to a spigot for a hose, you could set a water collection tank up on stilts and let gravity feed the water into your hose or irrigation system.
- Soil type – Most soils are fine for gardening, but it’s a good idea to do a soil test (preferably in the fall, to give amendments time to mature before planting begins). Contact your local county extension office for a test-kit and instructions on how to take your soil sample, as well as information on where to send it.
- Tools – You’re going to want a few basic tools to get started with: a spade, garden fork, hoe, trowel, hoses, and a wheel barrow all come in handy in the garden.
To till or not to till?
When you take into consideration the fact that there are 900 billion microorganisms in a pound of soil, you begin to understand that the soil is alive with life. You soil is the life-blood of your garden, it should be nurtured, cultivated, and treated with respect.
Personally, I use the tiller to break new ground. Otherwise, if I don’t have to till, I don’t. I like to use a garden fork or a broadfork to loosen the soil in the spring, and to work in compost or manure–otherwise, I mulch it and leave it be–allowing the organisms to proliferate.
The beginner’s garden
If you don’t own a tiller, perhaps you know someone who does, but if not, don’t fret–often hardware stores or garden supply stores have rototillers available to rent. Sometimes you can find a local handy-man who offers rototilling services.
But how big should you make your first garden?
The Farmer’s Almanac recommends a 10-foot by 16-foot plot for the beginning gardener. A plot that size can feed a family of four through the summer, with a bit extra for canning, freezing or sharing with friends and family.
It’s best to start small and simple when you’re just starting out. Resist the urge to grow too big too quickly, which can be overwhelming and lead to an over-run, neglected garden that sets you up for disappointment and running the risk of abandoning your project. It’s easiest to start with the mainstream row-method, and work your way up to wider beds and different growing methods.
Planning your garden
This is the fun part of gardening; gardeners everywhere look forward to January when they can pour over seed catalogs and use a pencil to lay out their gardens.
What will you grow?
Make a list of all the vegetables you’d like to grow. Consider what your family likes to eat. It’s best to start with crops that are easy to grow like lettuces, cucumbers, beets and carrots, radishes, swiss chard, spinach, kale, green beans, summer squash, and tomatoes. Some crops may produce more than one crop per season, such as beans, lettuce, spinach and tomatoes.
Put it on paper
Use graph paper to sketch your garden to scale. You can divide your 10×16 plot into 11 rows, each 10-feet long and running from north to south to receive the best possible sunlight.
Group plants together
It can be beneficial to group plants into families; grow all of your brassicas in one part of the garden, nightshade crops in another, roots and greens can be grown together, all of your legumes (peas, beans, and potatoes), and vining crops like cucumbers and squashes. Typically crops of the same family require similar growing conditions, and grouping plants like this allows for easier rotations.
Allow appropriate spacing
On your graph paper mark down the spacing between plants to determine how many seedlings or how much seed you will need. Keep in mind that plants that grow taller will shade low-growing crops and plan your layout accordingly. Avoid spacing plants too close together so that each crop is not crowded and fighting for nutrients, water, and sun.
Sowing and harvesting
Before you put anything in the ground, you’ll want to know the first and last frost dates for your area. You can contact your local extension office, or try this frost-date calculator from the Farmer’s Almanac. To help you determine when to plant each crop, use this interactive seed-starting calculator for free from Johnny’s Seeds.
It’s helpful to know when each crop will reach maturity so that you can harvest your vegetables at their peak. Check the seed packet or the catalog for the “days to maturity”, count off the days and weeks on a calendar, and mark on your garden plan the estimated harvest date. This does take some time, but it’s incredibly helpful information later in the summer when you’re looking at your beets–for example–and wondering if they’re ready.
Knowing the days to maturity and when to harvest also allows you to set up planting so that crops will be ready for harvesting when you are. Some gardeners want crops to “come in” all at once for easy processing, while other prefer a continuous supply of fresh produce throughout the summer. Gardeners can stagger plantings, or plant a succession of sowings to get more than one harvest or to extend the season.
Maintain your garden
Even more than the sowing of seeds and transplants, maintaining your garden once it’s in is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the craft.
The key to success is to keep a “clean”, weed-free plot. Weeds inhibit the growth of your vegetables, sucking up valuable nutrients and water your crops need to grow healthy and produce fruit. Don’t allow grass surrounding your garden to get long and over-run, since slugs and snails love to hide there and will raid your crops at night. If possible, create a “no-man’s land” around your garden–where you or the birds can easily pick them off. Make time every week for weeding, and try to make daily trips through the garden to monitor your crops for pests and diseases that can affect your harvest.
Use mulch to suppress weeds, retain moisture in your soil, and build up your soil’s vitality. There is a wide array of mulches to be had–newspaper and cardboard, wood chips, landscaping fabrics–again it comes down to personal preference and methodology, and the choice is yours.
Timing is everything when it comes to harvesting. If you miss the window of opportunity your vegetables will be past their peak in flavor and texture, and there’s nothing more disappointing than woody green beans! Even worse–insects, birds, and other wildlife may dine on your vegetables rather than your family savoring your gourmet vegetables over dinner.
A “growing” opportunity
Gardening offers families the chance to connect with nature, to better understand where food comes from. It’s a great way to protect the environment and live more sustainably. Establishing a new garden is an opportunity for healthier living, and while the recent trend may seem like a fad, gardening is one activity that had held true through the history of mankind. Heirloom seeds saved by generations who came before us, allow us to experience this history through our food. Cultivation practices once forgotten in the face of technology are returning to us, connecting us to our ancestors. If you’re ready to take the plunge into gardening and cultivating even a portion of your own food requirements, then give yourself a pat on the back and have fun with the journey that now lays ahead of you.