New gardeners learn by trowel and error, and that is no joke! Gardening for the first time can be the most rewarding (and the most frustrating) thing to start doing. For those fortunate few who learned how to garden from the time they were children, gardening comes second-nature. For the rest of us who want to learn how to garden as an adult, frustration can easily discourage our efforts. Granny and I are writing this post specifically for those of you who are new to gardening and need the bare basic advice on how to begin your first garden.
So, first things first, you need to buy your seeds. A lot of the more experienced gardeners in warm and moderate zones have already started some of their seeds indoors in peat pots, and probably sowed their root vegetables (turnips, radishes and carrots) back in early February. Don’t get discouraged, it is still mid-March and it is not too late to get started!
Second, decide where to put your garden. It should be in the spot that gets the most sun throughout the day, and has good drainage (meaning water doesn’t stay puddled, it naturally drains out). My advice on how to do this: wake up at sunrise, make a pot of coffee, then enjoy the day sitting on your back porch and watch your yard as the sun passes. Take notes on how long each section of your yard gets sun. This is only necessary if your property has a lot of trees because the shade from trees changes throughout the day, and it can seriously affect the decision of where to locate your garden (my backyard has ten trees, so I had to pick my garden spot carefully!) Most likely, your garden will not do well in the shade because all of the vegetables in the heirloom garden seed kit require full sun; generally that means at least six hours per day of direct sunlight.
Third, consider how you want to grow the vegetables, there are basically three ways. You can grow directly from the ground, in raised beds, or in containers on a patio (for those who live in apartments or condos). Which ever way you choose, directions for how to start the seeds is on the website printed on the back of the seed packets. Take the time to read the instructions on this website; it will make all the difference in the world if your seeds are planted properly. Also, if you have never used raised beds before, there are numerous websites available that give instructions on how to build them, or how to buy them. If you decide to grow directly from the ground, you may want to have your soil tested for pH and nitrogen levels. I know that sounds crazy, but it could make a big difference in the performance of your garden. There are many places to send a sample, universities that have large agricultural departments will usually do this for a minimal charge; it just takes a little internet research to find one. The results of your sample will give you instructions on how best to prepare the soil. If you don’t want to send off a soil sample, it is always good gardening to add a layer of compost to your soil (you can buy compost at your local nursery, but you should consider starting your own compost pile, if you would like instructions on how to do that, just let me know!) Then, of course, if you decide to grow from the ground, it has to be tilled. You can rent tillers from local hardware stores, and they are fairly easy to manage. If you know how to use a push mower, you can use a tiller!
Fourth, make sure you have access to water! If you are a first time gardener, chances are you don’t have a drip irrigation system set up like most of the experts have. That is no problem! Just make sure you have easy access to a water spigot, a water hose, and a good spray nozzle. It is also a good idea, if you can, to start a rain water collection. You can spend the money on an advanced collection system, or you can do what I do and thow a dozen buckets out back when it starts raining! From Granny’s experience, plants do better with rain water than they do with water from the faucet. The most important advice on watering that I can give a first time gardener is to pay attention to the leaves of your vegetables. If they are rotting, then they are getting too much water. If they are wilting, they are not getting enough. It is best to water first thing in the morning, if you water at night it may encourage mold to grow. Last, water the ground, not the leaves of the plants. Too much water on the leaves can potentially sunburn them, and that is never good!
Last, have fun with your new hobby. Having a garden is so much like having a child. It needs to be nurtured, and can sometimes take up a lot of your time. But, I have learned that taking the time to do something for myself is the primary reward that I get from gardening. Again, this post is merely intended to give enough information to get you started on a garden. I think it is important to start small and simple, as you learn it will get much easier, and you will be able to try more complex gardening methods. And, don’t forget that it is inevitable that the beginner gardener will end up with a few plant “casualties” along the way. The point is to not let that discourage you, it happens to everyone; even Granny lost a couple of tomato plants last year!