Thursday, July 2, 2009

Backyard Gardening: Starting Your First Vegetable Garden

A few weeks ago, as soon as MDT and I got settled in our new place, one of the first things we did was start a garden in the backyard. It was already June, a bit late to be starting a summer vegetable garden, but we were determined to have one for what could be our last Midwest summer for quite a while.

For the reasons why we wanted to have our own backyard vegetable garden, see our previous post titled Save Money on Food: Grow Your Own!

Many people spend hours or even days planning the layout of their gardens, but for the beginning gardener, it's best to start small and simple.

Step 1: Choose your seeds and/or seedlings. Make a list of what vegetables and herbs you like best. If the list is too long to plant everything, choose the ones that are most expensive to buy at the grocery store. Plants like green beans, peas, beets, carrots, turnips, swiss chard, lettuce, cucumber, zucchini, watermelon, cantaloupe, and other melons and squashes grow easily from seeds. Others like eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are better planted outside in the garden as seedlings.

Make sure you check the back of your seed packet to determine the best time to plant that vegetable in your zone. For planning purposes, see this map of U.S. hardiness zones. Remember that some plants thrive in warm and hot weather, while others, mostly green leafy vegetables and root vegetables, prefer cooler weather. Lettuce, for instance, can bolt (stop producing leaves) in hot weather, so it's called a cool-weather crop. Here's a list of warm- and cool-weather crops. Though not extensive, it'll get you started.

Cool weather crops
Warm weather crops
  • Lettuce
  • Chard
  • Spinach
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Peas
  • Kale
  • Carrots
  • Turnips
  • Parsnips
  • Onions
  • Cucumber
  • Tomato
  • Okra
  • Strawberries
  • Summer squashes
  • Radishes
  • Zucchini
  • Eggplant
  • Melons
  • Peppers
  • Green beans

Where do you get seeds and seedlings? You could purchase them online (and pay via PayPal or credit card), from a seed catalog, or from your local home and garden store. Seeds are usually least expensive at the beginning of the year and at the end of summer. When purchasing seeds, make sure the package is dated for this year. Old seeds can be duds.

If you plan ahead, you can start seeds for the more difficult plants indoors in early spring, so they'll be ready as seedlings to transplant outside when it's time. Or if you know other gardeners, you can ask if they'd like to share or trade seeds/seedlings with you. Remember to save the seeds from this year's best garden produce to plant next year!

Since seeds are much less expensive than seedlings, try to minimize the number of seedlings you buy. For instance, MDT and I really wanted bell peppers and tomatoes, but we didn't have time to start them from seeds, so we bought the peppers and tomatoes as seedlings and stuck with seeds for the rest of our garden. We were lucky enough to have a bunch of seed packs that my father had given us: string beans, carrots, swiss chard, cucumber, and marigold. The only seeds we bought were cilantro, MDT's all-time-favorite herb. The marigold seeds were a couple years old, so we didn't have high hopes for them, but we decided we'd plant them anyway just to see what happens.

Step 2: Prepare the bed. If your soil is really infertile or you have particularly pesky pests (say that three times fast) like moles, you might try a raised-bed garden, where you build a wood frame with a bottom layer made out of netting, screen, or--best of all--heavy fabric like sackcloth.

Another handy thing about raised-bed gardening is that you don't need to till it because its soil is pretty, and new, and non-clumpy. Most people seem to use wood for the border of a raised garden bed, but that can get pretty pricey. Cinder blocks are much, much cheaper (and sometimes you can find them free). Arrange the cinder blocks hole-side up and in a rectangle, and voila! You have a cheap border that lasts pretty much forever. And you can even use the holes in the blocks to plant flowers, herbs, or more veggies!

Since the soil where we live seems fairly rich, and since we didn't want to spend the money for potting soil to fill it, we opted to forgo the raised bed and get to tilling. We found the sunniest spot in the yard and tilled an area roughly fifteen feet square. We wanted to have enough room for all our veggies but not to bite off more than we could chew. It is our first vegetable garden in a new location, and there's always a learning curve while you figure out exactly what type of soil (and "varmints," as my father likes to call them) you're dealing with.

I should point out for those who are new to vegetable gardening that tillers are dangerous and expensive machines. That said, I happen to think that buying one is totally worth it if you plan to have a garden every year. If you're not ready to invest just yet, try asking family, friends, or neighbors if they have a tiller you can borrow. We borrowed my father's. He's definitely come in handy this year. Thanks, Dad!

Till when the soil is fairly dry because you don't want clumps of mud flying everywhere, and always wear work gloves. If you think you don't need them, ask MDT. He didn't think he needed gloves either and, despite his callused mitts, wound up with two nasty blisters between his thumbs and forefingers. The blisters turned to big skinless spots that took over a week to heal. So wear gloves. And if you don't have any, a cheap pair from the dollar store will do. Work gloves are also something you can borrow pretty easily.

After we tilled a few times to make sure all the clumps were broken up and the grass that had been there was shredded and turned under, it was time to fertilize. There are many options for fertilizing and preparing your soil, some of which can be combined easily for optimum growing power. Here are a few:
  • Add a few bags of potting soil or top soil and till it in to mix well.

  • Mix in a bag or two of peat moss. You can get this at most home/garden stores, and it's fairly inexpensive. We got a huge bag for $3.

  • If you've been composting, throw in a bucketful or two of compost and till right through it to mix it in. Compost is best as an underneath layer, though, so you'll need to add at least a couple of inches of soil on top after you mix it in.

  • Mix some powdered Miracle Gro Organic Choice for Vegetables (follow the directions) into buckets of water. Pour over garden. Mix. Note: Regular Miracle Gro is not organic and may contain chemicals that harm the earth in the long run. See below.

  • Buy a small bag of commercial fertilizer, like 10-10-10 or 5-10-10, sprinkle it sparingly over the garden, and till to mix in. Note: these are simple chemical fertilizers made from naturally occurring deposits, but they are not organic because they've been chemically altered. I don't really recommend using them since, according to Wikipedia, "chemical fertilizers may have long-term adverse impact on the organisms living in soil and a detrimental long term effect on soil productivity of the soil."

  • If you happen to have horses, cows, goats, or rabbits, mix in some good-old manure (with a hoe, not a tiller--you don't want this stuff flying). Note: Rabbit manure can be mixed right in; the others are best composted first. Dog and cat wastes are not recommended since they can contain parasites harmful to humans even if your pet is healthy.
Sadly, we'd only been composting at the new house for a few weeks and our sludge wasn't quite primed to mix in yet, so we opted for peat moss and a bit of Miracle Gro I had lying around (left over from last year's tiny lettuce and tomato garden at my old apartment). We tilled in the peat moss, used a garden rake (not a regular leaf rake!) to even out the soil, and prepared to plant our veggies.

Step 3: Plant! Actually, there is a little planning involved first. Some plants grow well in groups; others are best separated and planted in rows. Some grow low to the ground and spread or sprawl out quickly; others, like tomatoes, can be trained to climb on a trellis or can be grown vertically on a stake. Check the back of your seed packet (or the little guidestick in your seedling flat) to find out which you've got.

If you've got climbers, like tomatoes, cucumbers, or pole beans, you can save garden space--and you can save your vegetables from sitting on the ground, where they can rot--by planting them along one edge of your garden bed and growing them vertically. There are several options for trellises, including your standard wooden trellis, large-square netting, wire cages, and stakes. All of these are fairly easy to make yourself, so don't waste your money buying them from the store. If you can't make them from scratch, improvise! I once used a couple of rectangular grill grates I found in a dumpster, duct-taped them together, and leaned them against the side of the house. Tada! Instant trellis! Or, find three long, sturdy sticks or pieces of wood, tie them together near one end, and you've got a tepee cage! The possibilities really are endless.

Although I've been wanting to try out the net method, we found some old pieces of wood lying around that were perfect for tomato stakes, so we just went with that. When the tomato plants are big enough to start drooping, we'll tie them up with strips of scrap cloth. As simple as it gets.

To maximize your spacial economy, you can "interplant" slow-growing vegetables with quick-growing ones and vertical-growers with low-growers. For instance, you could plant cantaloupe, which sprawls out rather than up when it grows, under climbing tomatoes. Or you could plant quick-growing radishes among slow-growing carrots by spacing out your carrot seeds (according to the package) in a row, and then placing a radish seed between each carrot seed.

Some plants even seem to help each other grow because they use complementary nutrients. Check out this companion planting list, and layout your plants accordingly.

For more help with planning, has an awesome piece of online software that helps you visually plan your garden's layout and tells you exactly when and how to plant each vegetable. It's free if you sign up for their 30-day free trial.

We had plenty of space for what we wanted to plant, so we just decided on one row of each of following: bell peppers (seedlings), carrots (seeds), string beans (seeds), swiss chard (seeds), and cucumber (seeds).

Spare bricks mark our five rows; bell pepper seedlings are in the first row.

The nine tomato seedlings, which were a bit shriveled when we got them (on sale), got their own little square patch next to the main bed. Hopefully they'll perk up quickly. And we planted the marigold seeds around the perimeter since they supposedly deter varmints. We'll see.

Stakes and tomato seedlings (seedlings not yet tied to the stakes).

The cilantro got its own pot since it's such flimsy little thing when it comes up, and we didn't want it to be taken over by the vegetables. But you can definitely plant herbs in your garden right along with everything else, if you'd like.

I love, love, love watermelon, and we happened to find five seedlings for a good price. So the next day we tilled a new patch just for them on top of the hill in our backyard, where there's plenty of room for them to sprawl out.

Watermelon patch and seedlings.

The first watering
When planting seedlings, I like to dig the hole, pour in a cup of water, and then set the seedling in and fill around it. See the wet spot in the picture above? This ensure the roots have plenty of water right away to ease the shock of transplantation. For seed rows, when you're finished planting, just water them until they're nice and soaked (but before you start getting puddles).

That's it!

MDT has never gardened before, aside from a bit of cat grass he'd planted for Ed, so everything's been a learning experience for him. I think his favorite part was tilling; it's so manly. Except that I had show him how it's done by tilling the first round, which is always the hardest.

Now we wait and see.

Be sure to keep your garden moist. Veggies need plenty of water to grow. It's pretty steadily hot and sunny here in St. Louis right now, so we water every evening. You don't want to water during the heat of the day because the sun is magnified through the water droplets and your leaves can get scorched--not good since that's how our little green friends make food. It's best to water around sundown, when it's still warm enough for the leaves to dry before night. If leaves sit wet overnight, they can develop mold, which can kill a whole garden quicker than a hiccup.

Until next time. . . .

If you've got any tips for beginners planning or starting a garden, or any ideas for creative DIY planting accouterments, leave them in a comment below!

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