This is the first in a twelve part series for new gardeners. If you have never planted vegetables before but always wanted to, this is the series for you. Robin, who writes the blog Vegetable Matter, and I will post on the first of every month. Robin lives in Houston and I live in Boston. We will be posting about what to do in the garden that month and giving advice. So if you have always wanted that vegetable garden, but didn’t know where to start, you have no excuse. Get growing!
December is for Dreaming
It is December in New England. Here up north we have already had some hard freezes. If it isn’t snowing already it will soon. For someone who hasn’t gardened before it seems odd to start thinking about the garden now, but this is the time that I plan for next year. I decided what I want to grow, plan the garden; and at the end of the month I order seeds.
What Should I Grow?
People will give you all sorts of advice about what to grow. There are numerous lists of the ten easiest crops to grow. Often on the top of the list is the radish. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. I have trouble growing radishes in my garden. They are not an easy crop for me. I have a little insect called a root maggot that is very prolific where I am and the roots just never size up unless I protect them. So radishes are hard.
On the other side of the coin, carrots are often on the hard list of crops to grow. Those long pretty roots are not so easy. However in my last house I had a garden with loose sandy soil. All I had to do was sow the seed, put a board over them until they germinated and they grew straight and beautiful. They were so easy.
So your location, soil, and sun exposure will really dictate what crops will be easy in your garden. The easiest crops list is a useful starting point, but don’t think it is what you should stick to as a beginning gardener. My easiest crops (in order) are: snap beans, peas, summer squash, garlic, lettuce, chard, and cucumbers. These can all be direct seeded in the garden. Chili peppers and bunching onions are also easy but you will need to buy transplants or grow your own indoors. I often find tomatoes on people's easy list, but I’ve found them to be difficult. The northeast is cool and has a short tomato season. Tomatoes are host to a plethora of nasty diseases and insects.
So you can use these lists as a starting point, but my advice is to plant crops that you like to eat. If you love tomatoes, plant them. There is nothing like a fresh tomato from your own garden. Try a variety of crops and find out what grows well for you. Those are the crops you will want to keep growing.
One caveat to the “grow what you like” is if you don’t have a place with good sun, stick with leafy greens and carrots. You can try growing other things, but they just won’t produce.
Planning the Garden
The first thing you need is a location for your garden. Most plants need at least 6 hours of full sun a day, but more is better. If your tomatoes get sun from 10-4 everyday they will grow fine, but if they get sun from 9-6 everyday they will grow much better. Unless you intend to plant in pots make sure the area drains well. Roots will rot if they sit in water. How do you know if it drains well? If you have large puddles that sit there after a rain, put your garden elsewhere.
Right next to your house is not always a good choice for a garden. In our area almost all of the houses have a termite barrier of some nasty chemical (often Clorodane banned in 1988 and Chlorpyrifos/Dursban). The chemicals chosen for termite barriers are ones that don’t break down. They can stay in the soil for decades. It is not a good idea for you or your children to be eating carrots pulled from soil with these chemicals. When I asked my pest control company how far away from the foundation the garden needed to be, they answered six feet. A friend said that her company told her ten feet. In my own garden I stay ten feet away because I’d rather be safe.
If you are growing in the city, lead is often a problem, especially close to an old house. The UMass Extension service will test your soil for you for a small fee (as of this writing a general soil test is only $9). They will give you information on all sorts of useful soil information, like ph and nutrients. They also let you know if there are any dangerous levels of heavy metals like lead. If your soil is not already frozen solid, getting your test done now is useful, otherwise do it as soon as it defrosts in March.
If you do find lead in your soil, fruiting crops can still be grown there, but root crops and leaf vegetables will need to be grown in pots or in beds with bottoms to separate the clean soil from your lead contaminated soil. Or if you can afford it you can have your contaminated soil removed and replaced.
2) Choose a planting method
There are three major schools of thought in how to plant a vegetable garden: row gardening, wide row gardening, and cottage gardening.
The old style of gardening is row gardening. You plant a row of tomatoes and have a path between that and your next crop. This works great on a farm where you have a tractor to cultivate between the rows, but in the home garden it just makes for more weeding and uses more space than most home gardeners have. But a lot of people still use this method. They like to hoe the paths and they like how the rows look.
Another method of gardening is the cottage garden style. This style is very nice for a front yard as it mixes flowers and vegetables. It can be quite beautiful. It doesn’t use rows at all, but beds with paths meandering through it. Say you are growing tomatoes this year. Not all of your tomatoes would be together in a row or a block. You might grow just one or few together in a clump, but other clumps could be scattered all over the bed. It is a much harder style than the typical row or wide row garden. It requires a sense of design and a good understanding of companion cropping.
Probably the most popular method of home growing is intensive, raised, wide rows. The rows are typically the width of twice your arm length (usually four feet) and as short or long as you like. Plants don’t just need water and soil to grow, they need air and wide rows allow you to reach the whole bed without stepping in the bed’s soil which keeps the soil aerated. Raised beds warm the soil more so it defrosts faster in the spring. It also provides for better drainage so your plants won’t get waterlogged. These beds are intensively planted which helps shade out weeds and provides a larger harvest in a smaller spot. Closely planted crops also provide a living mulch which helps the life of the soil.
There are many different flavors of this method. All have their advantages. One is the Square Foot Gardening method invented by Mel Bartholomew. He has you building raised beds typically with wooden boards. You make your soil to add into the beds. The advantages for a beginning gardener are that it is easy to start. It doesn’t matter how bad your soil is. After you have mixed it up it will be the perfect soil for growing. There is no digging. Its major disadvantage is that it is a very expensive garden, especially if you want a large amount of space. You buy your garden supports and you buy your soil. I also consider it a very unsustainable method. I prefer making the soil I have better. It also advocates using a soil depth of six inches. Six inches will grow things, but deeper will give you better production in a small space. If you have never grown anything and fear the thought of a spade, it is easy and it works.
Probably my favorite flavor of wide row methods is from John Jeavons. His method is biointensive growing. He has you double dig the beds and add organic matter to build up what soil you have. His beds are raised, but have no prebuilt sides. It is just sloped soil. Between double digging and shoveling the dirt from the paths onto the beds they become raised. The advantage of this is that it is a cheap method. It is sustainable. It provides a much deeper bed than the Square Foot Garden method which makes the deep rooted plants (like tomatoes) grow better. The disadvantage of his method is that it is very time consuming to double dig. It takes a while to build up your soil to be very productive. It is also written with the assumption that you are growing all your own food or are a market gardener. For a small backyard garden, it needs a bit of modification.
If neither buying your soil nor double digging appeal to you, you can try lasagna gardening created by Patricia Lanza. She recommends a no-dig method. You bury your lawn in cardboard and whatever other organic matter you can get your hands on cheaply. You alternate carbon materials (cardboard, newspaper, leaves) with nitrogen materials (manure, coffee grounds, kitchen scraps, and lawn clippings). After assembling it all, you let it sit there for about a month to compost and you are ready to plant. Then throughout the year you keep adding new material on top of the soil as mulch to keep down weeds and feed the soil. Though lasagna gardening can be used with any of the three popular methods of gardening, it is most often used in raised wide bed plantings.
In my garden I use the intensive wide row method of gardening, but mix the styles a bit. I created the garden by dumping about a foot of leaves onto my lawn in the fall. In the spring I double dug it all into the beds and added some nitrogen fertilizer. So I used a method of lasagna gardening to smother the lawn to create the bed (years before Lanza’s book was published, but it was still a known way of creating a new garden and breaking up sod). However my soil was heavy compacted clay, so I felt double digging would improve the soil structure a lot. I like defined edges in the garden. It keeps me from slowly widening the paths between my beds unintentionally. So my beds have edgers, but not purchased wood as in the SFG method. I use a mix of material to edge: rocks dug from my soil, landscape pavers (8”x16”), and small trees that fell in my backyard woods. I also mix it up even farther and have a small herb section that is mixed with ornamental plants (lower left corner of the garden). It has a small rock path curving through it. So I even used a bit of the cottage garden style. Gardening is not about following someone’s method to the letter, it is about finding what works for you and how you like to garden.
The next decision you have to make is the size of your garden. If you have never had a garden before, I suggest you start small. Having a small garden that you have time to care for is much better than having a large garden that will be overtaken by weeds as the seasons progress. You can always expand the garden in the future. Even in the same year you can expand it, for instance adding a fall garden. In addition you will make mistakes your first year. You might think you will want to garden in one way and find another is better. It is fine to have a greater plan for the whole yard, but add it in sections so you aren’t overwhelmed the first year.
4) Draw a plan
Now that you know what type of garden you are growing, what you are growing, and how big it will be, you need to get some graph paper and put down where everything will be growing. This needn’t be done right now. You can modify it all winter to your hearts content. You might want to look up companion planting on the web (interestingly enough Wikipedia even has a page on it). It will tell you what plants love one another and which plants hate one another. For instance if you are growing onions, carrots love to be next to them (they help repel the carrot fly) however peas don’t do as well next to onions. Another factor to consider is how tall the plants will become. I always plant tall crops which often needs support on the north side of the beds and reserve the south side for the shorter crops. This way the tall plants won't shade the shorter plants.
You can always go to your local hardware store or garden center to buy seed, but you do a disservice to yourself if that is the only place you buy seed. The seed racks have a very limited selection. Seed catalogs provide a much wider variety. If you want a small tomato to grow in a pot on your deck, you can find one in a catalog. If you want to grow a gourmet crop that isn’t your basic green lettuce, red tomato, green cucumber, it will be in a catalog. Did you know you could grow yellow snow peas, white tomatoes, purple potatoes, or red carrots? Well you can.
Seed catalogs are also the source of inspiration and experimentation. I know I told you to grow what you eat, but I always reserve a small spot for something I’ve never grown before. Often something I’ve never eaten. This year I grew kale. I have two dwarf kale plants in the garden and I love them. I never grow much of a new crop because I might hate it. Last year I found out I hated arugula. I had two plants. I immediately pulled them out and replaced them with something else.
The racks at the hardware store will always have what grows well around the whole country. They tend not to have region specific varieties. From seed catalogs you can get just the right variety that will grow in your area. In the northeast we have a short warm season. It helps to grow some tomatoes that don’t take a long time to mature. This year I grew Market Miracle tomatoes which are a Russian variety. They mature quickly and did very well in a particularly cold and wet summer. I never would have found them on a seed rack.
So what catalogs should you order from? I like to order from local New England seed companies. If you live in another area it would be good to search out your own regional seed companies that specialize in crops for your area.
I’ve ordered from the following companies:
Johnny’s Selected Seed – Johnny’s is not the cheapest of the list, but it does have a wonderful selection of seed that will grow well in our area. They are quick to send out seed and have good customer service. Their catalog is beautiful and contains growing information and tips for the different crops. Even if you never order from them you can learn a lot. In addition they have the a great selection of tools, many of which are for the small market gardener.
Pinetree – Their selection of seed is not particularly regional. They are however cheap. Their claim to fame is smaller packets than usual since most home gardeners don’t need a hundreds of seeds of one type. Their packets of seeds range around a dollar, so you can buy a lot of variety for your money. They are not quick and last year they were inundated with new gardeners. In a normal year they say the wait three weeks for seed in the busy season. So plan ahead.
Fedco – Is a cooperative owned by the workers and customers. It carries varieties specific to the cold northeast growing area. You do not have to be a member to buy. They don’t do phone orders (online and mail order only). They have five different divisions and you can’t combine orders between them. They are inexpensive, but don’t expect them to act like a full service for profit company. They don’t do rush orders and can take time to send the seed, so plan ahead.
Seed Savers Exchange – is a nonprofit whose goal is to keep the genetic diversity of our seeds strong. They grow out many rare varieties each year that they don’t sell. In addition they try to pick heirlooms that will appeal to home gardeners and sell them. Buying from them helps support their mission. It is not local to our area, but is worth supporting.
Seed companies recommended by other:
If you are a new gardener and are confused about something, leave a comment and I'll try to help you out.
To my more experienced readers, if you can add anything to the subject it would be much appreciated, especially other regional seed companies that you like and why you like them. If I get enough of them I'll create a list below. In addition if you use a different style of gardening, add that to the comments.
Other post in the seriesDetermining your growing zone and planting peas (Vegetable Matter - December)
Planning a Garden (Daphne's Dandelions - December)
Growing Lettuce (Vegetable Matter - January)
Starting transplants indoors (Daphne's Dandelions - January)
Growing tomatoes (Vegetable Matter - February)
Compost (Daphne's Dandelions - February)
Snap Beans (Vegetable Matter - March)
Peas and Spinach (Daphne's Dandelions - March)
Eggplant (Vegetable Matter - April)
Brassicas (Broccoli, Cabbage, Asian vegetables) (Daphne's Dandelions - April)
Edamame (Vegetable Matter - May)
Tomatoes (Daphne's Dandelions - May)