“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” – May Sarton
If you are like me, you have been itchin’ to get your hands dirty in the garden, or perhaps you already have! I sowed some seeds a few weeks back, and our beds are currently tucked in and covered up like babies because snow. Anyway, let’s talk about starting a simple garden, something I’ve been adding to here and there for some time and am ready to share with you.
I want to start of by saying that I really do think gardening and plant care is one of those topics that can feel rather intimidating if you are new to it. My sweet mama literally has a fake succulent plant in her home because she claims to have a “black thumb” and therefore has deemed herself “horrible at keeping any plant life alive”. I keep telling her, “Mom. You can grow a succulent. Just neglect the heck out of it.” She doesn’t believe me.
I think some of you may feel like if you don’t know everything about how to keep plants alive (both in and out of your garden) you know close nothing and maybe shouldn’t try. Does this sound like you? I am here to tell you that’s hogwash. Yep, it’s not true. You really can know a few basic things and still produce a wonderful garden (or keep a dang succulent alive) while knowing the bare minimum, which, in case you didn’t know, is what succulents and other cactus varieties require.
You don’t even have to have a lot of land, nor do you need any fancy gadgets to get started. You don’t even have to have a raised bed or beds, although it helps. You can indeed grow a fabulous garden in containers and feed yourself and your family in a beautiful, wholesome way with good soil, a sunny spot, consistent water, and some seeds or starters.
Also know you will probably kill something. I do every year. Or maybe you won’t kill it per se, but it will do less-favorably than you hoped for. This is fine and expected. You are not alone in the ups and downs that seasonal gardening delivers, so look at it as an opportunity to learn, learn, learn! Plant anyway, write down what does well, scribble down what doesn’t, and do your best with what you have to correct your problems the following season. Grace and gardening go hand in hand. Thank God for nature to teach us this important lesson.
And if everything really does go down the pot, chances are you’ve gotten a lot of healthy vitamin D in the process and there’s a probably a wonderful farmer’s market to take advantage of nearby. There’s no shame in supporting local growers if your tomato crop decided to produce more leaves than fruit one particular year. Go meet your local farmers! Make friends with them. Ask them questions. They will talk your ear off and let you sample things and it will be delightful. Here are a few helpful tips and bits of information you should know when start a simple vegetable & herb garden at home:
- Vegetables need around six hours of sunlight per day, so where you choose to plant your garden matters a great deal. Herbs and leafy greens are on the low end of that, while vegetables are on the high end. Building your beds and putting your containers in a sunny spot will ensure consistent growth. Take note know of where the sun shines in your yard and where it doesn’t. This changes seasonally, by the way.
- Fill your beds, containers, or plot with good-quality soil. I use compost from our yard bin and also buy good soil from a nearby nursery each spring. Buy organic. Buy quality. Soil is important! This will feed your vegetables which in turn will feed YOU. I am going to be showing you how to create successful compost here in a few weeks.
- Check your growing dates. This guide will show you when to sow indoors, if you prefer, when to sow outdoors, and when to plan on harvesting. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is my trustee companion for both planting and harvesting dates and I think you’ll find it quite helpful.I also recommend getting the hard copy to have on hand throughout the year. Hardware stores would carry it. Its full of the most wonderful and ridiculous information. It always gives me a chuckle.
- Make sure your containers have good drainage and support systems. If you are using cans, drill holes in the bottom. You can use strings or sticks to hold up plants that you know will grow to be tall, something I do frequently for tomatoes and beans that like a little something to lean on.
- Label everything. You will forget otherwise. You can use popsicle sticks, cut up pieces of tin, or anything that will hold up in the rain to mark your plants. You can name them too if you want. Stella name one of our tomato plants George last year. George didn’t do so hot, be we loved him anyway.
- Keep an eye on the leaves of your plants. If there are holes in them, changes are high that you have a pest problem. If the leaves are yellow, you’ve been watering too much. They should be deep green and bushy without holes or spotting.
- Plant bee attracting flowers in your raised beds to encourage pollination and keep your veggies and herbs happy. I like marigolds, sunflowers, black-eyed Susan, various native wildflowers and and echinacea. Here is a good source to help you out for further reading.
- Keep a record of what you have planted including: variety, where you planted, date planted, rain amount and yield. This will greatly impact how and what you choose to plant the following season. I have a little journal where I draw out my garden beds each new season and what is in them, in addition to how each plant did over the course of the season. Small notes do just fine, nothing elaborate here unless that is what you fancy.
- Plant tall crops (like corn, tall tomato plants, or sunflower) on the north end of the garden so they do not shade other plants. Plant herbs and leafy greens on the south end of the garden.
- Weed and harvest as much as you can to maximize your harvest. Weeds take valuable nutrients from your precious plants and you do not want this. Also know that many plants will stop producing if you do not tend to them and harvest when they are ready. Kids and their tiny hands make for fantastic weeders and pickers.
- Plant mint and thyme and other fast-growing cover crops in containers so they don’t overtake your garden.
- Learn about companion gardening! Here is a wonderful source if you want to learn more about what grows best with other vegetables and flowers and what doesn’t. My friend Lindsay is a geek about this and she has been a great resource for me, but the post I’ve linked here is wonderful too.
- Mulching is a great way to smother weeds. Using organic material such as hay, manure, grass clippings, peat moss, bark, and newspaper add fertility to your soil so they are much more beneficial than blankets or synthetic covers. Plastics however, can conserve moisture and help if you live in a colder part of the country and really want to take advantage of cold-season planting.
- Take care of your crops by watering regularly early in the morning or later evening, and avoid watering when the sun is at its warmest in the middle of the afternoon.
- Lastly, don’t go crazy with heirloom varieties right off the bat. If you are new to gardening, start simple. Here is a list of fairly easy vegetables and greens to plant, climate permitting:
- leaf lettuce
- summer squash
- peppers (any kind)
- bush peas
- green beans
- swiss chard
There’s that, folks. Fellow gardeners and growers, what did I leave out? Do you have any more helpful tips others should know when starting a simple vegetable and herb garden? Happy planting!