A Super Guide for Beginning Gardeners: How to love getting your hands dirty, your feet wet and grow the best vegetables ever
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Gardening isn’t rocket science. Thank goodness it isn’t, or many generations of humans would have gone hungry. However, through many centuries of trial and error, farmers and gardeners have worked out the best conditions for growing various vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. We have learned how a variety of conditions will affect plant growth, such as soil type, length of days, average and seasonal temperatures, and the amount of rainfall in an area.
Gardeners have invented ways to extend their growing seasons, amend the soil, and thanks to modern technology, are even able to combat mid-winter production slumps. It is now possible to grow plants without soil, using a nutrient bath system. You don’t need to know all those things, however, to have a lovely backyard or container garden that can provide fresh vegetables and even some fruit for your household. As one gardener to another, we will examine the essential elements of successful plant growth. We will then look at ten easy-to-grow vegetables. These vegetables tolerate a variety of conditions, are not especially picky about their growing conditions, and can boost your confidence in your ability to become an accomplished gardener.
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With that said, I’m going to share a dirty little secret that most gardeners don’t like to discuss: even the best gardener/farmer has the occasional crop failure. The trick is to not give up. Examine all the things that happened with your garden and see what can be done to do better next time. That process might just make you a super plant scientist – which would put you in great company.
Plant scientists, more properly called botanists, include such well-known names as Gregor Mendel and George Washington Carver. Their biographies make great reading for those months when your local climate doesn’t encourage plant growth.
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Why all the hubbub about gardening if it isn’t difficult and it has been done for a long time? It is because “garden fresh” isn’t just an advertising buzzword. Vegetables and fruits all taste better and have more nutrients when they are only minutes from the parent plant – and you just cannot get fresher vegetables than those that go directly from your garden to your table with only the minimal necessary preparation in between locations. If you’ve even once eaten a fresh tomato or radish taken directly from the garden and washed off at the outside hydrant, then popped right into your mouth, you know exactly what I am talking about. If that excites your salivary glands, then read on, because you can grow your very own taste treats using these basic directions. But the benefits of gardening go beyond that. There is no better exercise than the bending, stooping, pulling, raking and digging that goes along with most garden ventures. Gardening is an
invitation and an excuse to be outside in the sunshine. Some authorities even believe that contact with garden soil helps boost our immune systems. With so much to recommend it, let’s get to gardening!
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A soil test kit or access to testing – university extension centers, such as Missouri University frequently offer free soil testing for home gardeners. Check with universities and colleges near you for this service. Soil test kits can often be purchased in the garden section of your local department store.
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Gardening tools for container gardening:
Pans for mixing soil
Bench or table for your work
Organic mulch or similar material
Garden hand tools
A section of earth for outdoor gardening
Six hours of sunlight daily
Results from your soil test
Fertilizer (chemical or organic; sometimes, a mix works best)
Hand tools: Shovel, Hoe, Rake, Your potting tools can be handy here, too.
Border material, such as 2 x 6 untreated lumber (optional)
The Phases of Gardening: Soil preparation, Planting, Tending and Harvesting
Soil preparation is almost always the first step in gardening. The exceptions to this might be hydroponics or water gardening, or straw bale gardening, but those are subjects for a different tutorial.
If you think of your seeds or seedlings as plant babies, the soil is their food. For them to grow properly, the soil in which they are placed must provide the right nutrients. If you are creating a container garden, this step will be an easy one: you can simply purchase the type of soil recommended for your seeds. Read the labels on your seed packet, then go on over to the potting soil aisle in your department store or garden store, and purchase the matching soil type.
Select an area, if gardening outside, that receives at least six hours of sunlight per day. In some areas, this will be easy; in others, you might have to clear some ground or even plant your garden in two or three different patches to gain enough space that has the ideal sunlight requirement. You can begin soil preparation at almost any time of the year. In fact, if you are going to be hand digging or using one of the alternative gardening methods such as double-digging, lasagna gardening or straw bale gardening, you can begin by layering a weed-killing mulch on your plot in early fall or winter.
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Weed Killing Mulch: Place a layer of biodegradable fibers, such as cardboard, or newspaper on the area you have selected for your garden. Do not use colored paper, especially glossy magazine pages, as the chemicals are often toxic. Cover that layer with leaves or straw, then add a cover of garden ground cloth to keep it all in place
Double-Digging Method: In the spring, if you have been able to lay down a weed killing mulch, pull it back from your planned garden area as soon as the ground can be worked. This is when it is no longer frozen and when it is moist but not muddy.
If desired, create a border around the bed using 2-inch by 6-inch lumber (not treated), logs, or rocks. This will help keep the soil in, and make it easier to keep the edge neat.
Dig up the soil to a depth of about eight to twelve inches. Place the dirt on a tarp or in containers.
Place coarse material, such as twigs, weed stems, or similar items that are biodegradable at the bottom of your dug-out area.
Over this, place compost or similar coarse material.
Next, add a layer of well-rotted manure (you can buy this at your garden store, ready for use.)
Add soil amendments such as bone meal, blood meal, or artificial fertilizer that correspond to the corrections suggested by your soil test.
Then add some “store dirt”, gardening soil that is purchased from your local garden store.
Finally top your garden area with the dirt that you removed from the plot, minus sod, weeds and so on.
Leave the weed-killing mulch in place, except for pulling back the top cover.
Create a border around the bed.
Add purchased or locally composted materials in the same order as the double-digging method.
Top with purchased garden soil.
There are other soil preparation methods, but these two require few tools and minimal labor. For first-time gardeners who do not have a lot of time to invest, these can be important considerations.
Important: Do not skimp on soil preparation. It is the foundation of your garden’s health.
This step depends, in great part, upon your local climate and your seed selection. For simplicity’s sake, directions here will be given for a temperate zone. Read your seed packets carefully, and check your local weather service for average seasonal changes. However, keep in mind that weather can change from year to year.
Ten Easy-to-Grow Vegetables:
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Lettuce: This leafy green is one of the easiest vegetables to grow. Select a leaf lettuce (rather than head lettuce) such as Black Seeded Simpson, Bibb or Deer’s Tongue. Or select a Mesclun mix for a variety of greens.
Plant outside as early as the soil can be worked.
Protect your rows with row covers if your area is prone to late or sudden frosts.
Does not require any added fertilizer if planted in a prepared bed.
You should see the first seedlings at about two weeks, and they should be ready to pick and eat at six weeks.
Keep well-watered for best production.
Grows best in early spring; tends to go to seed or “bolt” when the weather grows warm.
Lettuce can also be grown in window boxes. The box should be at least eight inches deep, and proportionally wide for good root development.
Lettuce is a good candidate for hydroponic growth.
Kale: Another super-easy leafy green that is often part of a mesclun mix seed package. Kale can be planted a little later than lettuce as it is more resistant to warm weather. There are several varieties. Kale can often be purchased as plants in early spring. Or it can be grown from seed. For an extra early crop, the plants can be started indoors in peat pots or seed flats.
Plant out of doors when the weather has become settled and there are more warm days than cold.
Protect seedlings if frost is predicted.
Grows well through the early months of summer.
Is susceptible to cabbage worms. Inspect often and remove any little green worms of any description. Spray with a mixture of water and dish soap (not detergent).
Can be grown as a window box plant, in a manner similar to lettuce.
Walking onions are a perennial – which means they can be grown, outside, all year around. In cold areas, they will go dormant in the winter months, and put up new growth in the spring.
Grow your first EWO’s from onion sets – these look like tiny onion bulbs.
Tolerates poor soil, but likes well-rotted compost.
During the first year of growth, do not harvest or harvest only green onion cuttings from the tops. Bend the cut tops over so that water does not run down inside the stem and rot the bulb.
Allow the onions to “bolt” or go to seed. They will bloom, they produce several little bulbs at the top of the bloom stem. It will naturally bend over and touch the ground. Where it touches, the little bulbs will root, and grow into new onion plants.
Egyptian Walking Onions are prolific. Soon you will have plenty of onions for your table, and some to share besides.
4. Sugar Snap Peas
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Start indoors in peat pots, or plant outside as soon as the first frost is over.
Does fine in ordinary garden soil, loves compost.
Use gro-caps to protect the young plants at night if out of doors until all danger of frost is past.
Comes in bush or vining varieties.
Likes cool weather – will not produce in heat.
Prolific source of pod-peas for salads and stir-fry
Is a nitrogen fixer – that is, it will help the soil in your garden.
Prepare a deep bed for this parsley – at least eight inches of well-rotted compost
Plant in a protected bed (such as a coldframe) as early as the ground can be worked.
Is slow to germinate. Read the package, and be patient
In spring and summer, harvest the leaves for salads, garnish and soups.
Keep the seed stalks trimmed off to prevent bolting
Water evenly and often.
Keep well drained, however, too much water will cause the root to rot.
In autumn, pull them up and enjoy the roots as parsley.
6. Stringless Blue Lake Green Beans
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Plant in the garden after danger of frost is past
Like well composted garden soil
Germinates quickly; beware of birds who will try sometimes eat the seed
Comes in bush or vine types
Nitrogen fixer; often planted as a companion to corn or squash
Produces tender green beans or beans can be allow to mature more for shelly beans
Water evenly by soaking the ground. Do not pick beans when plants are wet.
Pick beans by snipping the stems gently – if the bush is not damaged, it will produce more.
Keep the beans picked, water well, and sprinkle about a ½ teaspoon of added nutrients beside each plant, and the bean plant will continue to produce beans all summer. If the beans are allowed to mature, the plant will stop producing.
Over-all, beans are one of the easiest plants to grow in temperate zones, and are good investment for a new gardener.
Heavy feeder, add liquid or granular top dressing mid-way through season. Or add well-rotted mulch early in the season
Easy to grow seed types include Earliana, Roma, and Burpee’s Better Boy. Or, if you primarily want them for salads, cherry tomatoes of any brand or type are prolific and easy.
Do not plant near walnut trees; the trees exude a chemical that is bad for the tomatoes (although harmless to most other plants).
Do not plant cabbage, broccoli or other brassicas near your tomatoes. Both are heavy feeders, and will not do well together.
Must have six hours of sun, minimum, to produce good fruit
Keep ripe fruit picked to encourage continued production.
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Likes, rich, moist (but not too wet) soil
Plant after danger of frost is past
Most varieties are bush types
Needs plenty of sun – six hours is the minimum
Water evenly, but not too often
Mulch with cardboard or garden cloth to help keep down pests
Highly susceptible to stink bugs
Under good conditions, is highly prolific
Can be used in salads, pickles, soups, stews, and even cookies, pies or cakes.
Keep fruits picked to encourage production
Blossoms can be battered and fried for a delicious taste treat
9. Summer Squash
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Plant when all danger of frost is past
Likes rich, moist (but not super wet) soil
Needs six or more hours of direct sun
Can be a bush or a vine, depending on variety
Highly susceptible to stink bugs
Grows crook-necked yellow fruit, keep picked to encourage production
Blossoms can be battered and fried
Can be used in soups, stews, salads (when young and tender), pies or baked in its shell.
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Can be planted at intervals throughout the season, but does best when planted early
Likes a deep, rich soil bed of loose soil
Water at regular intervals, but allowthe bed to drain – watering once every two or three days, or even weekly works well.
Harvest tender tops to use in salads or to cook as “greens”, just as you would spinach
Thin seedlings until plants are at least six inches apart
Pull the mature plants when the tops of the roots begin to look globular.
Susceptible to cabbage worms and root borers
Ducks and rabbits like the young plants
Water evenly to prevent the roots from splitting when they mature
Care Through the Season
All plants require three things: nutrients – usually delivered through the soil; water; and sunlight. During the summer months, water becomes vital. Plan an irrigation or watering system that will soak the soil, rather than one that will spray the water into the air.
Mulch – layers of organic or inorganic material that is placed around your plants – is a wonderful way to prevent weeds. But even with a good layer of mulch, some weeds will creep in.
Pulling weeds: the sooner a weed (by definition, a plant that is in the wrong place) is removed from a bed, the easier it is to pull out. Large weeds can develop extensive root systems that, when pulled, will disturb the vegetables that are growing around them. Getting them out before they can establish themselves is the best plan, but sometimes you can resort to clipping the weed back until the growing season is over, and it can be properly removed.
Mulch comes in a variety of types. Its purpose varies, right along with the type. It might be primarily to keep down weeds, but it could also be to hold in moisture or to add nutrients. Inorganic mulches, such as black plastic, are excellent for keeping down weeds, helping the earth get a head start on getting warm in the early spring, and even for preventing some types of pests. However, it will not add nutrients, and it can overheat the earth during the summer. Organic mulch, such as leaves, young weeds or grass (before they produce seeds) and clean straw can also prevent weeds. In addition, they shade the roots of heat-sensitive plants and they add nutrients. On the downside, mulch is a happy home for many kinds of bugs and worms – some of which are beneficial to plants, and some that are not.
Regardless of the type of mulch, by midsummer it is often looking tired and thin. This is a good time to add some well-rotted compost and another layer of seed-free weeds, grass or straw. The compost gently releases nutrients that your plants can use, and the added layer of mulch helps keep the roots of the plants cool and protected.
The best pest prevention is a combination of healthy, well-nourished plants and good garden maintenance. With that said, there are many bugs out there in the world, and many of them just love your vegetables. Too many of them can take a healthy plant from beautiful and green to sad and wilted in a matter of hours. A decade or so ago, a gardener might have reached for the latest chemical solution to these intruders. But we gardeners have learned the sad truth about many of these substances, which boils down to a simple statement: what is bad for mean bugs can be bad for beneficial bugs, for fish, for wildlife, for pets, for children and for adult humans. Therefore, they should be approached with caution. That doesn’t mean that gardeners are defenseless against these six-legged unwanted intruders, however. Here are a few ways to combat buggy invasions:
Companion Planting: Plant something that is unfriendly toward menacing bugs with your vegetables. For example, plant basil (an easy-to-grow herb) next to your green beans, place your walking onion bed at the foot of your favorite rose bush. Alternate your squash plants with zinnias and nasturtiums. The flowers add a splash of color to your vegetable garden, and they help ward off nasty sap-sucking beetles.
Hand Picking: Long before you pick the first beans or tomatoes, you are likely to be able to glean another sort of harvest – a nice collection of insect pests. Check the underside of leaves for bug eggs, and turn the mulch at the foot of susceptible plants to look for cut worms and similar invaders. Watch for pretty butterflies in your garden – sad to say, many of them are the adult versions of future pests. When you see them, check your plants for eggs and small, leaf-munching caterpillars.
Of course, the part of gardening that everyone loves is bringing in those beautiful vegetables. With that said, there is a right way and a wrong way to harvest just about anything. The first rule is to treat your plants gently, and nip off the harvested parts cleanly. You could pinch the stem between fingernails or you could dedicate a pair of shears just to harvesting. For some plants, you might even want a sharp knife.
Leafy Greens: Leave the root and central stem intact, along with the heart of the plant. Pick leaves off the sides of the central stem. The plant will respond by growing new leaves. This helps keep you in fresh greens. If the plant starts to bolt or go to seed, pinch the seed stalk out of the top of the plant. This will encourage it to keep on growing new leaves.
Legumes: As you probably know, beans and peas are legumes. The seeds and pods that we eat are technically a fruit. As long as the fruits are picked before they are ripe, the plant – which is trying to reproduce itself – will keep putting on new pods. By picking the pods that are ready to eat every day, you will encourage the plant to keep growing new pods.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes are an interesting plant. They are a member of the nightshade family, along with eggplant and moonflowers. As such, they were once considered to be poisonous. However, experimenters proved that the colorful fruits (which come not only in that beautiful red, but also in yellow and deep purple) are not only perfectly safe to eat when cooked, they can also be eaten raw. Again, pick them daily. Not only will removing the ripe or nearly ripe fruit encourage the vine to keep on producing, it reduces the likelihood of attracting birds, terrapins and other creatures who also find tomatoes to be a delicious snack.
Root Crops: Gaging the readiness of root crops, such as turnips, can be a little bit trickier. After all, a lot of what these vegetables are doing takes place underground. However, as they grow, you can often see the tops of the turnip as it forms. If you are curious, you can lip a finger down beside the root stem and feel how the root is coming along. Some root crops, such as potatoes, are best left alone until the tops die back. However, others – such as turnips and carrots – can be pulled or dug up while the tops are still green.
Getting Ready for Next Year
This is either the last step or the first one, depending on how you are looking at it – of your vegetable garden activity. After the last crops are harvested, your job as a gardener is not done. There is a lot of pick up and clean up to be taken care of before you can look out the window toward your dormant garden while you enjoy a cup of something warm and wonderful while dreaming over next year’s seed catalogs.
Clean up the beds. Rake up the old mulch, and add it to the compost bin or heap. If there was a particularly nasty insect or plant disease invasion, either bag that mulch and send it to the local landfill or – if your location does not have an ordinance against it – burn the infected material.
Put down a layer of weed-killer mulch and make it look nice – just as you did to begin your garden.
Go inside and admire the produce that you picked – either preserved in jars or in photographs, and begin planning how your garden next year will be even bigger and better than the one you enjoyed this year.
Gardening is a process rooted in history. There are many methods, but they all – in the end – must deliver the same requirements to the plant: nutrients, light and water. From these things, plants make delicious food stuffs that humans and animals can eat and enjoy. Fresh produce is more nutritious than produce that has had to travel many miles from field to plate. Growing your own also contributes to preserving the environment because your dinner will not require the use of fossil fuels to reach your table. Caring for your garden encourages exercise, as well as time in the sunshine and fresh air. According to one study, getting your hands dirty in good, clean garden soil improves your immune system.
I hope you have enjoyed this tutorial and that it will inspire you to start your own garden – whether it is a window box full of lettuce and kale, or an acre or two of vegetables to preserve for winter or to sell. Whichever your choice – or somewhere in between – bon appetite! May your garden grow green and beautiful, with many delicious things to eat.
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James G. Craig
James G. Craig is a gardening enthusiast who splits his spare time between growing vegetables, preening his flower gardens, and blogging about his experiences at the Gardener Corner.