Over the years I have served as garden coach to many a newbie gardener. Strikingly, most pitfalls to a new gardener’s success have much less to do with what you would suspect (bad weather/bugs/blight) than what you might not: namely, a beginning gardener’s blinding ambition.
It’s true. Somehow, so many gardeners (new and old) hear the officials’ calls of Onyourmarks, getset, GO! and they’re off, planting way too many seeds and plants in one way too big garden on one way too dirty, sweaty, tiresome weekend in May…and have shot their wad, garden-wise, finding themselves overwhelmed by June’s bugs, July’s weeds and August’s tomatoes. With the exception of places with constricted growing seasons (less than 50 frost-free days), caring for a garden shouldn’t be a race at all. And everyone: there is no point in the spring rush.
Sacrilege alert: What I am trying to say here is that spring is not what it is cracked up to be, garden-wise. Beautiful spring days are often accompanied by chilly, damp soil and cold, windy nights. If you want true success, you might want to look at the back end of the season: the days of autumn are often crisp but the soil is warm and the nights aren’t nearly as bracing. And the light levels in April and September are the same. So take some pressure off yourself this spring while you extend your mind and your growing season. You have a lot of learning ahead of you so it’s best you study up now, in January!
Here are my Top Ten Tips for Beginning Gardeners:
- Read up! Try to get your mind around plant families: in more cases than not, the growing conditions and requirements across a family of plants is the same. (Cheat sheet: Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed. Even if you’re not growing for seed, it’s good to know this information. Regional guides appended at each section.)
- Curb your enthusiasm! Start with a garden half the size you were thinking, or even smaller. This means starting with fewer seeds and plants, too.
- Read the *$^@ growing instructions! Do not, under any circumstance, empty an entire seed packet into a row. Most reputable seed suppliers (Baker Creek is the lone awful exception) handily stick this growing information right on the envelope: sowing distance, depth, germination percentage, days to emergence, days to harvest. This is fabulous knowledge, people, right at your fingertips. Bring your glasses and read it.
- Bring a yardstick with you into the garden! If a plant requires an 18″ square space to do its thing then give it an 18″ square slice of soil to do it. Look to its vertical needs too.
- Don’t plant all the seedlings in the grower’s pack! This is a subcategory of #2. Do you really need all 9 Scotch bonnet pepper plants? Trade the rest with a friend but do not plant them all, no matter how tempting.
- SUCCESSION PLANT! Radishes (21 days) can be followed by lettuce (25 days: do a mesclun mix and use them small) and then by longer-lived bush beans (wax, 53 days) and then by rapini (42 days) and then some cold-loving lettuce again. (LOOKEE: you succession plant, you don’t need a big garden!)
- Grow what you will eat! This should be obvious, but if you don’t care for zucchini, don’t grow them.
- Be a tireless observer! Visit your garden, often, in as many different times of the day as you can. This is not a chore: gardening should be enjoyable to you. And if you visit it often, you’ll be on top of its needs (water, weeding, bugs, etc.). Say hello to the garden before you dash off for work in the morning. Bring a glass of wine and a friend in the evening after dinner with no plans to do any gardening work at all, and just enjoy sharing what you see.
- Mulch! You don’t want to weed? Then lay down mulch, thickly, around all but your seed rows. I use grass clippings and I keep them 2-3″ everywhere.
- Let’s say it’s mid-July, you’ve followed steps 1-9, and you’re not getting “enough” out of your garden. Make new garden beds, expanding to your original idea! Grow bush beans (dried or fresh) in your new beds or start some fennel, kohlrabi, kale and broccoli seeds for fall eating. And give some consideration on this hot July day to thinking about covering one or two beds to grow through the late fall and winter.
The vegetable garden season, like its yields, should be savored slowly over the whole of the season. Consider it a long multi-course dinner with some fascinating people you’re just getting to know. And starting small, with appetizer-sized garden beds, is a great way to avoid being discouraged. You won’t be overwhelmed, and your desire to garden will only grow. And by understanding how seeds and plants grow, you’ll be an expert by the time fall garden planting comes around…! Fresh peas and favas in September, radishes and spinach in October!