I often have the pleasure of discovering a brand new gardener and then figuring out the help she or he needs to have a good first experience. Our encounter may begin with a simple question: “How soon can I plant my tomatoes?” “Where’s the weed killer?” “How much fertilizer should I put down?”
But the timing of the question, or the products or plant she’s asking for, lead me to ask a clarifying question or two, and then I know. Beginners don’t necessarily ask the right questions at first. Sometimes they’re saying, “Help! Where do I start?”
I would very much like to save you time and money, spare some mistakes and see some happy pea-pickers sooner! So I am sharing these beginner’s questions and answers.
What do you do first when you’re going to make a garden?
Picking out the vegetable plants or flowers does not come first (although that is how most people start). You should prepare the site and make a plan.
I want to make a garden where we had grass. Can I just till it up?
It’s better to get rid of the lawn before you till, especially if the lawn has weeds. Many weeds regrow from even the tiniest bit of root left behind or from last year’s annual seeds. You could lift off the turf (and pile it for compost) or use a herbicide such as Round-Up™ and wait a couple of weeks (not the answer if you are planning to garden organically).
The soil seems really hard when I try to dig it? Should I get new topsoil? Sand? Peat?
If you have the typical Western New York clay soil – rich in nutrients but hard to work – you will spend much of your gardening life improving it by adding organic matter to it. Compost is the best form of organic matter, but other good products are manure, chopped leaves, straw or pine needles. In a small garden or raised bed, simply mix some high-quality bagged compost into the soil you have. In a big garden, get a load of compost/topsoil mix. (Replacing your soil with all new topsoil doesn’t guarantee happiness, because topsoil is so variable; the compost is the insurance.)
Adding sand was the practice in the olden days, but scientists have learned that compost is a much better soil additive for texture and nutrient value. Peat is often recommended, but again, compost is a better choice. (Exceptions: Professionals may still use sand or peat for particular situations.) When in doubt, add compost.
How deeply should we dig or till the ground?
It is worse to overtill the soil than to leave it lumpy. Wait until the soil crumbles in your hand and you cannot make a patty-cake; then it’s time to dig or till. A couple of weeks before your estimated planting day, till lightly to 6 or 7 inches, to break up and aerate the soil, but do not pulverize it. If you are turning in organic matter, still leave it lumpy. A good practice is raised-bed gardening, in which you never till but just keep adding organic matter on top. The day you are planting, rake just the surface of your bed(s), to disturb any surface weed-seeds that are sprouting.
When can I plant the garden?
There’s no one time. Divide your crop wish list into at least two groups: Early (cool-season) and late (warm-season) crops. The first group prefers cold weather and the plants don’t mind frosts, so sprinkle salad green seeds and poke peas into the soil as soon as possible. Cole crops (broccoli, brussels sprouts) also prefer cool weather; I suggest you plant them as seedlings. (You can also have a fall garden with these crops, but they will be terrible if you try to grow them in summer weather.)
The second group requires warm soil as well as day and night temperatures over 50 degrees, so it’s OK to plant them at the end of May: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, beans and squash. Our last frost date averages around May 21. Best planting dates are on every seed packet, so just read instructions such as “number of days before the last frost date.”
How far apart should I put the plants?
Read the instructions on tags or seed packets. A pumpkin might need 7 square feet, a tomato 3 square feet raised in a cage. Then consider wide-row gardening, in which you can space plants properly but maximize the use of the space. Inter-planting or companion gardening (mixing in some flowers and herbs) has many benefits, too.
Which plants are easiest to grow? How many should I get?
Many guides advise how many plants to grow to serve how many people. Grow what you like. America’s favorite home grown crop is tomatoes; try three or four varieties of seedlings from a garden center or farmers’ market. Include at least one cherry tomato – they’re mostly very productive. Salad greens, Swiss chard and radishes are easy from seed, and onions from sets.
Peas are a pleasure if done early, followed by beans afterward, in the same location. Potatoes are really fun, although they are cheap to buy in the store. Squash are healthful (but watch the space each type needs). Most folks shouldn’t bother with corn; we have such great local growers. Some folks find peppers difficult. You will probably plant more plants, too close together, than you should have – but that’s part of gardening.
What fertilizers, bug-sprays and weed killers should I buy?
Maybe none. Pest prevention, problem management and fertilizers are all topics for another day. You’ll learn to build your soil rather than continually adding quick-release fertilizers. You’ll learn to avoid pests and arrange the garden to minimize pest or disease problems. Most insects in the garden are beneficial, including pollinators and just passers-by, and you should never need to just “spray bugs” without a lot of analysis. And weeds ... well, gardening is weeding. Prepare to mulch, hoe, pull and dig for the remainder of your gardening days.
Beginners – welcome! It’s a wonderful world.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.