Whether your bit of land is one pot on a porch, a tree-root-riddled city yard or a sprawling country lot, you can grow some vegetables at home. And why wouldn’t you? Some are easy. Some save you money. All give you back satisfaction and healthful food. You know where they came from, and when you want to eat them they are minutes away from your table.
Start with the basics.
1. Prepare the soil
Beginner mistake: “I’m doing the garden today; I always do it by Mother’s Day.” (But the soil is wet so the tiller compacts the soil. Or if the soil is dry, New Gardener tills and tills the soil until it is powder, which also destroys soil structure.)
Advice: Wait until the soil is drained and dried enough that it crumbles in your hand, rather than caking. When you till, do it lightly just to break up the surface; leave it lumpy. Or turn in some compost by shovel.
The soil is the secret. Or – if you have been a gardener or a reader awhile, it’s no secret. The soil makes all the difference. In containers, you don’t want real soil; use quality container mix. In raised beds, use topsoil with lots of compost. In the ground, continually add organic matter (compost is the ideal form) and replace what you use.
2. To plant now – or later
Beginner mistake: “It’s planting day!”
Advice: It’s an extended process. Easter Sunday, today and June 1 might be planting days. Sort out cool-season vegetables from warm-season vegetables. (See accompanying list.) The cool-season plants grow best in cold weather, live through a few frosty nights and finish in summer heat. Warm-season crops are damaged by cold nights, grow poorly or acquire defects or diseases in cold soil, or rot in wet soil. Don’t rush them – June 1 is soon enough for warm-season crops in our region.
Advice: Save time and effort by figuring out which things are worthwhile to grow from seed and which are best bought as seedlings started by growers with greenhouses. While it’s fun to start some seeds indoors, it takes a body of knowledge and more than a windowsill – usually a light setup. Don’t start with tomatoes. America’s favorite food plant is not a beginner seed-starting project. Timing is tough and providing enough light is tough, while waiting for the soil to warm. Buy sturdy seedlings in late May or early June, even before they set blossoms. They will catch up.
3. By seed or seedling?
Beginner mistake: “I’m looking for some tomato seeds …” (But let’s say it’s May 15.) Or “Where are your pea plants?”
Easy to grow from seed: Green, leafy vegetables (lettuce, spinach, etc.), peas, carrots, beans, squash, pumpkins, radishes.
Easier to grow from seedling: Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and usually the cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts).
These aren’t firm rules. There’s no shame in buying squash plants at the farmers’ market, or popping a potful of lettuces into your raised bed. Broccoli and kin certainly can grow fine from seed, starting early (or do as a late-summer crop for the cool weather of fall). Onions can be planted several ways – from seedlings, seeds or “sets” – so it depends on what you find. Potatoes – really fun to grow – are planted from “seed potatoes” – typically a potato with eyes that are ready to sprout (not treated to prevent sprouting), typically cut in half with sprouts facing up.
4. Where to plant?
Raised beds, containers or flat-out gardening? Beginners or pros, this all depends upon what you have. With limited space, in cities or lots with small yards, container or raised-bed gardening is for you. Ditto, if your soil is hopelessly compacted, impoverished or packed with tree roots. You can build or purchase many kinds of raised beds or large containers. Almost all vegetables need full sun, except for some salad greens, so you have to put the raised bed where the sun is – front yards a great option. Some gardeners drag their containers around on large wagons or wheel barrows, chasing the sun. One famous Buffalo Garden Walk gardeners grow their tomatoes in containers on the garage roof and climb a sliding library ladder to reach them.
As you select containers, don’t underestimate what one little cherry tomato plant might need. Most tomatoes need a large tub or half a wine barrel, and support. Most vegetables need growing medium that is 18 to 24 inches deep.
If you have space to lay out 10 by 20 feet or more, I strongly recommend these efficient and soil-preserving methods:
• Wide rows: It makes no sense to waste 12 inches of foot path for one row of beans. Make planting beds that are 3- to 4-feet wide, depending upon how easily you can work in the center of the row without stepping on it. Plan to cover the whole bed with your crops once they mature; use companion gardening methods that include herbs and flowers among the veggies. Make permanent paths that are as wide as the garden cart or wheelbarrow, or just walking width; think it through. Then your feet won’t compact the soil.
• Raised beds – even in a flat garden: A raised bed can be simply 4 inches higher than the surrounding path. Just rake the topsoil off that path and level out the 3-foot bed. Raised beds warm up sooner and drain better than entirely flat areas.
It is time to start – with cool crops, of course.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.