The gardening season is here! It's an exciting time and has been made even more so by all of the new gardeners getting growing as a means of supplying their families and communities with fresh food. Below we've put together some friendly first-timer tips and, as always, we encourage you seasoned gardeners out there to share your wisdom widely and proudly. Your hard earned knowledge could help your neighbors and friends avoid some of the struggles that befall even the most experienced growers as the season heats up.
Pick a Great Spot, or Adapt the Spot You've Got
To grow a healthy garden, plants generally require 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day. If you've got some space to work with, putting your plants in a location that receives at least 6 hours of sunlight and has good soil drainage will help them develop into healthy plants. If all you have is partial shade to work with, it is important to pick plants that can handle a little shade like greens, root crops, many herbaceous and perennial herbs, and some fruiting crops like bush beans and some varieties of determinate tomatoes. If all you have is a hot, exposed balcony or patio with containers to grow in, sometimes the heat of the summer can be a little too much for even summer crops to handle and erecting a shade structure that minimizes the sun for part of the day can help plants deal with the extreme heat. The bottom line is, if you have a great gardening spot with good sun and drainage, you should put the garden there. If you have a less than ideal spot, you will need to mimic ideal conditions through things like shade cloth, raised beds, healthy and hearty soil mixes and thoughtful variety selection.
Design Your Plan Before You Plant
If you are putting a garden in the ground or even arranging containers on your patio, its fun, exciting and important to map out the season ahead. You could go to your local hardware or feed store and grab transplants and seeds and throw them in the ground and still have success, but starting with a plan that factors in the space you have, the crops you like, and your unique growing conditions can help lead to more success overall. A good garden design evaluates space and time. You'll need to make sure the crops you want to grow will have the space they need to thrive. To make the most of the season, factoring in the timing of plantings can elongate your harvests through what is called succession planting. Designing your garden ahead of time allows you to explore things like companion planting and also allows your personal style and artistic ability to shine.
Dream Big, Start Small
When you take that pen to paper and begin to explore your wildest gardening dreams, it can be good practice to start broad. Write down everything you'd dream of having and how you'd like to have it, even if it is not feasible. Once you've got the glorious garden of your dreams down on paper, you can look at it and decide what parts of it are possible for your first season and what parts will be added down the road. Generally, it is better to start small and add as you go. Starting small allows you to develop practical and efficient systems that will help you as you expand. Starting too big will spread out your efforts and can lead to an untidy garden with many ailments. Once you've mastered your smaller growing space, you will have the confidence and experience needed to take on more. This is easier said than done, of course, because in the garden we can nearly always be tempted to take on too much, no matter how many seasons we've learned the hard way that our desire to over-plant can lead to an overwhelming season.
Plant Things You Like to Eat
With so many options for amazing plants to grow and try, it can be daunting to choose what will occupy the valuable real estate of your garden. With flashy colors, tantalizing descriptions and the endlessly fun and funky realms of heirloom varieties, you may find yourself on the path towards seed hoarder very quickly. Of course, we understand this predicament all too well and just as thinning a row of baby carrots can feel painful, (each plucked baby carrot feeling like something of a loss), narrowing down your garden selections can provide for practical, nourishing harvests that will keep you fed. Choose varieties that perform well in your conditions and taste good. Choose crops that you and your family enjoy. Experimentation is always fun, so leaving a little space in the garden for trialing new things can be a great way to add some fun each season while still maintaining a useful harvest.
Don't Plant Things Out Too Early
Oh how the garden will tempt you to do bad things! Some early springs sneak into your life and convince you that you have somehow completely fallen behind on getting your garden planted. Your frost free date is far away but the world around you is waking up and turning green and you think to yourself, "what could go wrong if I get some seeds and plants in the ground a little early?" This is a very natural lapse in judgement and this gamble can and has paid off for some, but it can lead to rotten seeds in the ground, sad plants, and a stunted start to the season. Waiting for the soil to warm up and for the frost free days ahead can help you start on the right foot. The truth is, when the conditions are right, the plants tend to catch up. The growing season is long, even in the Northeast, and starting too early usually isn't worth it. If you are the adventurous type, you can start early with greenhouses, floating row cover, and other season extension techniques, but for your first gardening experience, patience is a virtue!
Observe and Protect Your Plants
Your garden is a living ecosystem with a balance of predators and prey, health and disease, and all other symbiotic and detrimental relationships that are offered by the natural world. Your role in the garden is protector. Your plants are tied to the earth and while they do have their own means of protection, they will need your help. As a faithful steward, your job is to provide the right conditions and prevent the wrong ones. Over watering is a common problem for seedlings and containers that can contribute to disease and low productivity. When you are watering, it is beneficial to water the soil instead of the plants to help eliminate disease transmission. Try and only touch your plants when they are dry for similar reasons. Pests will come and they will be many. They can come from the soil, they can fly to the plants, or they can be a fat squirrel that steals your beautiful, vine ripened tomatoes every morning and laughs hauntingly from your treeline every night. Observe and be proactive. If you see big bugs on your plants, pick them off by hand and put them in soapy water to die. Put up fencing and cages and plant herbs and crops that attract beneficial insects and predators to your garden. If you see disease on your plants, look up the symptoms online and try to manage its spread. Plants are like people. They need certain nutrients to do certain things and therefore a balanced soil or soil mix is important for their health. They need water, but not too much. They like to listen to music and respond to your touch.
Pick Early, Pick Often
Most of the crops you will grow in your garden can be suspended in a period of high productivity when picked often. Picking your crops can actually stimulate them to produce more. Picking things earlier, as soon as they look delicious to eat, will ensure that they haven't passed in quality and taste. Some things look really cool when they grow really big but they lose their flavor and texture as they focus on growing and protecting their seeds. When you plant your zucchini and summer squash, this advice becomes extremely real. Some crops, like winter squash and watermelons, need to mature to a certain age before it is appropriate to pick them. Reading up on the best times to pick each crop will help you make informed decisions that can result in delicious meals and bountiful, extended harvests.
Make Healthy Soil a Goal
One of your plants' first and best lines of defense against the onslaught of pests and disease is a healthy soil. Where the soil has a balance of micro-nutrients, high organic matter, an active ecology and a stable pH, plants are able to gather what they need for healthy growth, when they need it. You can help your soil by doing things like adding compost at the time of planting and maybe even again in the fall as the growing season comes to a close. Read up on soil nutrients and take a soil test to see what deficiencies you may have and what specific soil amendments may help. Use mulch whenever you can. It not only suppresses weeds and holds onto soil moisture during hot weather, it also degrades into organic matter that will help next season's crop. Try and see if there is a way to utilize cover crops in your growing system. If you're adding manure, make sure it has been properly composted first. When using things like sea minerals and kelp, be careful not to add too much as the salt can build up and cause problems. When you garden, think of the soil as another living thing you are being tasked to take care of.
Decide that Weeding is Fun
It sounds like a joke, but it's the truth. Gardening comes with many tedious tasks. Whether it's weeding, thinning, trellising, picking bugs, picking okra or a multitude of other what we'll call "meditative" tasks that take time and patience to execute. In a world where so much feels out of your control, taking control in the garden with an actionable to-do list can be very grounding. Seeing immediate results from your efforts can be just what you need when your day to day feels overwhelming. Doing things that promote the health and well being of your plants is actually really fun. When you become a pro, the next level up is being able to convince your kids that weeding is fun, too.
Choose a Style that Works for You
When starting your garden, you will likely take a stroll through the endless resources on the internet and it may be difficult to navigate what method of gardening is the "right" method. There are many people with many opinions about how it "should" be done and this passion comes from their experiences learning about what works in their space. It is good to take inspiration from other people doing things that seem like they could be appropriate for your space, but the only real way to know what method works best for you is to try to design one yourself. The truth is, there are so many different ways to garden and no method is the "right" one. There will be methods that are simply "right" for you and you may even come across something new and exciting in your own work that you will be able to share with others.
Enjoy the Journey
The beautiful thing about gardening is that it's a journey. Every day is a new adventure with new successes and potential failures. Learn from your struggles. Keep a daily journal where you talk about the weather, what is working and what problems you are experiencing. This journal will be so helpful when you head into the following season. Make friends with other gardeners and steal their secrets. Share your abundant crops with neighbors, family and friends and use your harvests as inspiration for getting creative in the kitchen. Gardening is tough; mother nature is full of surprises and mysteries and it's important not to be too hard on yourself when things fall apart. The garden is actually a very good teacher about the art of letting go. Even as one season presents us with unique and unexpected challenges, every spring is a chance to start over again with a clean slate.