More and more people are discovering the joys of growing their very own vegetables, and with good reason. It’s not only fun, but gardening provides a great outdoor experience, is good exercise, can save you money, and you’ll know your food is fresh or even chemical free. Best of all, the flavor of homegrown produce just can’t be matched.
Not all of us were born gardeners. It took a lot of reading, perhaps a gardening class or two and some trial and error before some of us got the hang of it. I was in the garden center the other day and saw some perplexed newbie gardeners trying to decide what seeds to buy. So I thought it’s time for Gardening 101. If you’re thinking about starting a garden this year and you’re not sure where to begin, here are a few tips to get you going. All you need is a little space, a little knowledge, a big imagination, and you’re on your way.
First, imagine what you would like to grow in your garden. Next, picture where you would like to grow your produce. Would you like to plant in a large pot? This can be great for a first time gardener or for those who have a small amount of space to work with. Just be sure the pot has drainage. Maybe you’re dreaming of a raised garden bed. Raised beds are nice because they can bring gardening to a higher level, eliminating the strain on your back or knees. Also, they can look pretty cool. Planting directly into the ground can provide more space to work with and if you wish, you can use a roto-tiller to get work done fast, but one of the cons is that it may be harder to keep out weeds.
Most vegetables prefer six hours of sun per day, so that should be considered when planning your garden. Locating it near a water source is always a good idea. You might also be aware of deer. If you plant it, they will come. You may need to fence your garden.
If you’re a newbie, start with easy plants. Tomatoes, peppers, beans, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, half-long varieties of carrots, radishes, spinach, leaf lettuce and even herbs are all relatively easy to grow. Keep in mind when you’re planning your garden that some plants may need a trellis to grow on. Peas are one such plant. It’s not necessary, but cucumbers and gourds also like to grow on a fence. A fence will keep the produce off the soil, preventing one side from being a bit damaged where it was in contact with the soil. Perhaps your backyard fence could serve as a trellis? Place your trellis and taller plants in the back part of your garden, or to the north or west side of the garden where they won’t interfere with the sun and shade other vegetables. Beans can be grown as a small “bush” or on a trellis depending on the variety, so be sure to check your seed pack to make sure you don’t end up with an unpleasant surprise.
If you’re starting a new garden you’ll need to remove as many weeds or grass as possible. Keep in mind that weeds may be a bigger problem in the first few years of gardening, so don’t get discouraged.
Soil is the most important factor in any garden, but especially in a vegetable garden. You’ll need to prepare or work your soil by adding amendments and working them into the soil. For most soils, 3 to 6 cubic yards of organic matter should be added to each 1,000 square foot area. This is equivalent to a layer of material spread on the soil surface 1 to 2 inches deep before it’s worked in. Mix the material in thoroughly with a tiller or spade to a depth of about 6 inches. Try to remove as many rocks as you can. If you’re planting in containers big is better. Use quality topsoil or potting soil in your containers rather than local soil.
So, now the real fun can begin. You can plant cool weather crops like spinach, lettuce, carrots, onions, radishes and kale two to four weeks before last frost, which is approximately May 12 for the Montrose area. After the danger of frost has passed plant your warm weather plants like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. If an unexpected cold snap should hit, be prepared to cover your tender crops. A product called floating row covers, which is simply a light weight cloth available at your garden centers, can be used to cover your plants to protect them from light frost, wind and insects. This can be left in place throughout the growing season or removed as temperatures warm. However, you may need to uncover some plants during a portion of the day so bees will be able to pollinate the flowers that will eventually turn into vegetables.
If you’ve purchased any tender new plants to set into the garden, they should be “hardened off,” (unless you’re using floating row covers). Hardening off simply means, getting them used to the sun and wind. If your plants have come straight out of the protection of a greenhouse, they should not be planted directly into the garden. Set them in a protected shady spot for a day or two to get them used to being outside before you plant. Plant on a cloudy day or in early evening so your plants will have time to get over any planting shock before the hot sun hits them.
The seed packages will help you learn about planting your seeds, but here are a couple of additional tips that may help. Tomatoes and peppers take a long time to produce, so buy plants rather than seeds. Tomatoes and pepper plants should be planted deeper than they grew in the container. Tomato plants can be laid a bit sideways in the planting hole so the soil will come just below the first lower leaves. This will help give them a deep root system. Tomatoes can be left to grow on the ground, but putting them in a tomato cage will help plants stay a bit more disease free and keep the tomatoes from rotting when they’re in contact with the soil. Avoid the temptation to buy potatoes for planting from the supermarket. Grocery store potatoes may be treated with sprout inhibitors or may carry disease organisms that can contaminate your garden soil. Cut your potatoes in half leaving an eye, or growing point and let them sit on the counter over night before you plant them. Garlic is often planted in the spring, but planting it in the fall will produce much better results.
After planting you’ll need to keep an eye on water conditions. The soil should be allowed to dry a bit, but if your plants start to wilt, it means you need to water. There is no one size fits all when it comes to water. You’ll have to experiment with watering to get it right. If you aren’t sure about watering, stick your finger in the soil next to the plants. If it’s moist or feels cold then you probably don’t need to water.
Mulching your plants after planting or after they’ve emerged, will help keep weeds to a minimum and help keep the moisture at a more even consistency. Grass clippings make terrific mulch if they don’t have any weed killer them. Grass clippings are also beneficial when left on the turf, so it’s a tough decision. I try to do a little of both.
If you have young kids, be sure to include them in the fun parts of gardening. Let them dig for worms, hunt insets, and eat fresh peas right off of the vine. Planting a variety of colored vegetables may encourage them to love vegetables. Making a scarecrow with them could also be fun.
I’m sure you’ll have questions once you get going. If so, your local CSU Extension Office and garden centers can be a great help so don’t be afraid to ask. So what are you waiting for? Give gardening a try. You’ll be glad you did.
Linda Corwine McIntosh is an ISA Certified Arborist, licensed pesticide applicator and advanced Colorado Master Gardener.