Thursday, April 3, 2014

5 Tips for Beginning Gardeners

1.  Grow What You Eat

Rule #1 – If you (or your family) won’t eat it, don’t grow it.  If you’ve got limited space and time, focus on the fruits or vegetables that your family enjoys the most.  It’s no accident that the most popular produce item grown in backyard gardens is the tomato.  The taste a homegrown tomato is worlds apart from tomato shipped green from a thousand miles away to your grocery store.  Other garden crops might not be quite as dramatic in their taste differences, but you will notice a difference.  Some foods store better than others, too, so give some thought to storage crops.

2. Be Prepared to Spend Time in Your Garden

There’s an old saying that says, “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.”  If you’re not prepared to make time in your schedule to tend to your plants, you may be betting off hitting the farmer’s market, or sticking with extremely low maintenance items like sprouts or herbs.  Depending on the size of your plantings, time requirements may range from a few minutes per day to a full time job.

3.  Start Small, Scale Up

A small, well-tended garden can produce as much or more than a large, poorly tended garden. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and give up if you get overextended.  Pick your favorites, estimate the amount of time and space you have available, and go from there.  Ask others who garden in your area how much time they spend in their gardens, and that should give you a ballpark figure for the time your garden may require.

4.  Test Your Soil

A basic home soil test kit can be found online or at most hardware stores for around $10, or you can contact your local cooperative extension office.  “The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network.  … These offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.”  See more about using a soil test kit in “Soil Testing – Why I Use Worm Castings“.
Most garden crops prefer soil with a pH around 7 (neutral), although some like conditions that are slightly acidic (potatoes, for instance) or slightly alkaline (brassicas).  Balanced nutrient levels are also important, as is the presence of organic matter.  Ideally, most plants prefer a deep, well-drained, fertile soil rich in organic matter.  Each year I add a combination of different types of organic matter.  I have also added rock powders, used cover crops, weed tea, and other fertility boosters.  In general, I work to improve the soil, not just to feed the plant.  For information on some truly innovative gardening techniques, check out page 2 of the article “How to Grow (Lots of) Tomatoes Organically“.

5.  Find a Good Seed Source

Sometimes, you get what you pay for, sometimes not.  When I first started gardening, I used some of the same companies my mom used to order from, and I tried some new ones that seemed to offer great deals, like Burgess.  I don’t order from any of those companies any more.  My favorite seed sources can be found in the article, “My Favorite Seed Sources, Seed Storage and Germination“.  Dave’s Garden Watch Dog is a great place to check out a company before you order from them.


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