Gardening 101: Plan Today for Summer Success


This was an actual weekend harvest from our garden last August.

At Get Rich Slowly, we get many requests for information about starting a vegetable garden. This is huge topic, and really enough fodder for an entire website. If you're a novice gardener you will benefit by asking yourself six questions before mail-ordering seeds or heading to your local nursery. Now is the time to do your research so that you'll be ready for planting season.

Do you actually like to eat vegetables?

If not, focus on fruits and herbs, edible and ornamental flowers, and a favorite veggie or two. A well-tended garden will produce a lot of vegetables. If you are lukewarm about zucchini then pass up that beautiful seedling. (Or go introduce yourself to your five nearest neighbors so that you can share come July).

What is your gardening space like?

This is probably the most important question for the novice gardener. If you are starting from bare dirt or, more likely, a patch of lawn, you have some work to do. The plot needs to be evaluated for sun and wind exposure, moisture/drainage, soil pH and elemental content, pests, and other factors.

When we moved to the new house, J.D. used math to determine our garden location.

Crop gardens need a sunny spot. But remember that the angle of the sun in the summer months will be different than it is now. Nonetheless, try to watch over the next few weeks to determine where the sun hits your property. If I have to choose between morning sun and evening, I prefer morning sun — it is less intense, which means watering needs are decreased. Here in Portland, however, it's hard to give a garden too much sun.

Get online and tap the resources at your local university's extension offices. You can usually find them just by searching for your state's name and “extension service”. Many states offer free soil testing, which will tell you how to amend the soil if nutrients or organic matter are lacking, or if the pH of the soil needs to be adjusted. Your county's Master Gardener program may also offer this service. Each crop has an optimum pH growing range. We add acid for our blueberries and strawberries; kale and peas like a slightly alkaline soil. If your soil is close to neutral (pH 7), you can probably proceed as-is.

These tomatoes were started from seed in February.
In May they're ready to be transplanted!

Even if your soil is terrible, you still have options. On a small scale, container gardening can be rewarding. A cherry tomato, well-watered, can do well in a large pot on a patio. Better yet, build some raised beds. These will require an initial investment for the soil to fill them and construction materials, but they provide better drainage, warmer soil temperatures in the spring (and thus earlier crops), and reduced weeding. (Please avoid pressure-treated lumber, though, there is some evidence that the toxic chemicals leach into the soil. Okay for a picnic table, but not for the dirt where your eggplant is growing!)

If this all seems rather intimidating, I encourage you to start small. Don't roto-till the entire lawn under until you really decide that crop gardening is for you. If your gardening space is less than ideal but you'd like to take the plunge, perhaps one 6'x12′ foot raised bed is the perfect beginning. Or try growing herbs.

During our second summer, we tore up sod to expand the garden space.

Herbs are one of the most forgiving classes of plants to grow — almost as easy as weeds — especially the hardy perennial herbs. Except for excessively moist soil and total shade, almost any conditions will support herbs. They thrive in sunny, dry areas. Herbs are also some of the most frugal crops you can grow because they are outrageously priced at the grocery store and can be used to make even basic ingredients into a stand-out meal. It's worth the cost to start with herb plants rather than seeds so that you can use them right away.

Perennial herbs like sage, rosemary, thyme, lemon verbena, mints, chives and oregano require very little work. Again, do your homework for your climate. And a word to the wise: some herbs are invasive. Mints have spreading roots that will take over your entire city block. They are best in a container with a solid bottom rather than planted directly in the ground. Others, like oregano and fennel, spread easily by dropping their seeds. If you want to avoid little fennel and oregano families, be sure to trim off the flowers before they go to seed.


Last year we added an herb garden.

Short term, long term, or both?

Plants generally fall into two categories: annuals or perennials.

Annual crops start from a seed, mature and bear fruit (or vegetable) in one season, then die. In our region, corn is an annual, as are cucumbers, watermelons, and tomatoes. Plants that can survive the winter to regrow for another crop season are typically perennials, Examples include asparagus, blueberries, artichoke, and rhubarb. This also applies to flowers, of course: sunflower (annual) versus rose (perennial). I tend to think of fruits in the perennial group: fruit trees and berries are perennials. Most vegetables (again, this is for my climate) are annuals. Obviously there are exceptions to this generalization, like the melon family.

To decide where to focus your gardening energies, you should know your climate zone. This will help you determine the length of your growing season and which annual crops are going to have time to ripen.

Perennials usually cost more than annuals initially (buying an apple tree sapling, for example), and will require patience. We planted asparagus two springs ago and are hoping for our first taste this April. But these plants are longer living, and give you bigger returns for relatively little work. Asparagus plants can live for twenty years before needing replacements; an apple tree may not bear a crop for the first five years, but may live to be one-hundred.

If you're just getting your gardening feet muddy for the first time, I recommend annuals. Tomatoes are extremely rewarding, as are other salad fixings such as lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, radishes and carrots. Other easy crops to start with are beans, onions (or leeks/shallots), potatoes, and pumpkin (although this needs room to spread). Besides the instant gratification they provide, mistakes with annuals are easily corrected the next season without much expense. Did the birds eat all your peas? Try something next year to protect them. Has your corn crop failed? Next spring, try it in a sunnier place.


Our strawberry plants have spread like crazy in the past three years.

If you have enough space and the inclination, try a bit of both annuals and perennials. A strawberry patch won't produce much the first year, but the plants will reproduce and spread to give you a bounteous crop. Dwarf fruit trees are a nice option if you are looking for an ornamental small tree; most have beautiful blossoms, too. And don't forget those herbs!

We planted two apples, a pear, and prune. We also have a filbert and walnut.
(We never get many filberts — our yard is home to a Kingdom of Squirrels.)

Who are your gardening neighbors?

Tap those resources. Most gardeners love to talk about their plants. You can learn a lot about what works for your area by listening to their stories of success and failure. If you do a bit of pre-planning, you could also take part in a seed co-op. A typical tomato seed packet may hold 30 seeds — more than enough to split among four gardeners. Many vegetable starts are sold as single pots, but some come in six-packs that can be easily shared. With knowledge and experience, you can even harvest seeds from local gardens (with permission, of course) to plant the following spring. And if you're lucky, when it's time for the woman across the street to divide her lavender bush, she'll share half with you!

Can you control yourself?

Most seed packets run only $2-$3, so they are tempting. But spending money and wasting your time on plants that won't do well in your garden is an exercise in summer-long frustration. Evaluate your space and the soil and sun conditions. Learn to avoid catalog phrases such as “spreads quickly” or “freely self-sows” unless that's what you really want. Don't trust the catalog! The pictures are tempting, but they often show the plant only at its peak — what will it look like the rest of the time? Is it invasive? Poisonous? Hard-to-grow? Will it require constant maintenance? Use the internet and your library's garden references to research seeds and plants before you buy them. I have found the internet to be a wonderful alternative to a knowledgeable nursery employee.

Do you have the time and money to grow your own food?

Gardening, initially, isn't cheap. Besides plants and seeds, you'll need garden tools, fertilizers, soil amendments, watering devices and a million other small things. But for those who savor its rewards, gardening is a labor of love. With time, and smart choices, having a kitchen garden does pay off financially. Herbs will pay for themselves quickly, and over the years, so will the berry bushes and canes, fruit trees and fresh vegetables. J.D. and I literally ate several hundred dollars of free homegrown berries this past spring and summer — all from a bit of our own labor, a few supplies and the investment of the canes and bushes. And that crop will only be bigger next year.

We've also dug up the lawn to plant grapes and caneberries.

Most gardens, even sizable ones, can be maintained with thirty minutes of work per day. Hoe weeds while they're small, mulch properly, water wisely and be timely about harvesting. But if you let the garden tasks slip for a week or two, you may face a daunting task of huge weeds, spoiled crops or everything dead from lack of water. Gardening requires a time commitment if you want to reap the benefits.

Other Thoughts

If you are a beginning gardener, start small. Build on your successes. Be wise: it's easy to dive in headfirst and then be overwhelmed. Research the plants you want to grow and the conditions they require, build a manageable raised bed if you're starting from scratch, and use local resources to gain knowledge and cut costs.

Gardening requires a bit of seed money to begin, but the rewards are many! Healthier, fresher food, time in the great outdoors and a connection to nature, as well as engaging in an activity that can build community. And I haven't even mentioned how much more excited kids are to eat their vegetables when they helped grow them or how people appreciate a homemade gift from the garden — whether a beautiful bouquet, and bunch of fragrant herbs, a fresh salad or a jewel-toned jar of jam.


In January fresh tomatoes are but a gardener's dream.

Final Note

I recommend keeping your vegetable/fruit garden as organic as possible. One of the greatest benefits of growing your own is avoiding the pesticides (et al) on grocery-store goods. Insect diversity in your yard may be enough to keep pests in check; if you have an outbreak, simply try spraying with lightly soapy water, or other low-impact methods. If your soil is healthy and the plants are well-nourished, the plants will be strong and the bugs will be kept at bay.

This may not be practical in all climates, but here in Oregon, a few minutes each night hoeing will keep down the weeds, and the plants can take some munching by a bug or two once they're established. With fertilizers, most choices are fine. I like an organic foliar spray — one that goes directly onto the leaves of my plants — but the crystalline concentrates that you mix with water can be fine as well, as long as your soil is already full of good organic matter and friendly worms.

Here are some additional resources:

Happy gardening!

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Jeremy
Jeremy
13 years ago

Great topic. This is one of my favorite things in the world, gardening. There is nothing in the world like a ripe tomato picked from your own garden. I primarily grow tomatoes, herbs and a variety of hot peppers.

Our garden is fairly small so we can’t venture into many of the other vegetables I’d like to grow, but having fresh herbs and plenty of tomatoes makes for wonderful summer eating (and if you can tomatoes, a year round feast).

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Kris grows enough tomatoes to feed an army. Or so it seems. All I know is that for several weeks at the end of the summery, we pretty much subsist on fresh garden salsa for supper. (I keep linking to that recipe because it’s so damn good.) Seriously. We have batches in constant production, and we eat it with chips, with bread, with other vegetables (especially carrots). I love that time of year. I’m missing it right now.

Matt
Matt
13 years ago

The biggest thing about growing your own vegtables is that they taste so much better than the store bought ones. It really makes sense because you can grab the veggies just as they ripen instead of when the store needs to grab them.

I wish I had more space – actually a backyard would be nice.

Susan
Susan
13 years ago

My mom has raspberries, tomatoes and rhubarb–the raspberries for a few years when I was young grew *monstrously* huge, which always amazed me. Yet another thing to look forward to about owning a home! I’ve thought about doing a few flower pots with herbs in them, but I’m not sure they’d get enough light in this apartment.

Josh Baltzell
Josh Baltzell
13 years ago

I have had a lot of luck with raised beds. It’s really the way to go for a gardener that is just starting because it takes away a lot of the hard parts. I have grown Gigantic tomatoes, lettuce, onions, cucumbers, peas, eggplants, zucchini, bell peppers, hot peppers, strawberries, green beans, banana peppers and I even attempted cantaloupe(with minimal success.) I grew all of those things over a span of two years in two 4′ x 4′ raised beds. They really are amazing how you can pack them full. I plan on documenting my garden this year for some blog… Read more »

Allie
Allie
13 years ago

I love to read stuff like this post. So inspiring! Test your soil! Plan your garden! Choose your plants! But then I go outside with my seeds (I have a LOT of seeds) and I just… stick them anywhere that it’s sunny. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I can’t help myself. I’m a Chaos Gardener and this year I have 10 ACRES to fling seeds in randomly. Of course, I’ll be sharing it all with the local wildlife, but I’m into nature photography, too, so loss in one place is gain somewhere else. I’ll do my mini container garden… Read more »

Beth
Beth
13 years ago

Vegetable gardening is wonderfully satisfying. If you absolutely don’t have the time or space for it, a good second choice is the pick-and-pay farm. They range from almost as pricey as an upscale farmer’s market right down to pennies per bushel, so it’s good to shop around and build relationships with the farms you like. Most state agriculture agency websites have a listing of farms, what they sell and what their growing seasons are; there are also independent listings like http://www.pickyourown.org/ . Picking and freezing or canning is a great way to spend one or two Saturdays a month during… Read more »

RJ
RJ
13 years ago

Sounds wonderful, but I’m a condo dweller in a close-in suburb, and my little balcony is all the space I have for outside growing. (I do keep a basil plant and a chile pepper plant indoors, though.) Anyone have hints or weblinks for balcony gardens? (For example, which veggies can grow in cramped quarters?)

Aimee
Aimee
13 years ago

I posted about our garden today too, with much the same theme– plan now! Your garden is amazing, it looks like a great place for growing all kinds of great food.

RJ check on Amzon for Lasagne Gardening in containers. You can grow all kinds of things in containers. 🙂 We do!

Angie
Angie
13 years ago

Great article! Gardening is good for the soul, the body, and (by and large) the pocketbook. Apartment-dwellers, take heart! My husband and I gardened for a decade before we ever had land of our own, thanks to the amazing community gardening program called P-Patch here in Seattle. Garden plots are rented at affordable prices, for just the summer or all year ’round. A great way to grow your own veggies and flowers, and to meet your neighbors, and to participate in the betterment and beautification of your community. The link on my name is to a page on the web… Read more »

Angie
Angie
13 years ago

RJ, it’s easy to grow cherry tomatoes in pots if your balcony gets a lot of sun. A variety like Sweet Million will keep you grazing on tomatoes all summer. Yum! Pick a pretty large pot–a 5 gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom will do if you’re not picky about aesthetics, something about that size. The pot needs to hold enough soil to give the plant’s roots room to grow, and also hang on to enough water that it won’t dry out in two hours on a hot summer day. That’s something you need to watch out for… Read more »

brad
brad
13 years ago

RJ, like you I only have a balcony for my garden (in Montreal). I keep it quite verdant in summer. First, I put window boxes on the balcony railings and put flowers in there for colour (try portulacas, they’ll bloom all summer). Then on the floor of the balcony I put pots of mint, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and basil, all of which thrive on the balcony…the rosemary and thyme come back inside for the winter and they survive well from year to year. We also have a couple of oleanders that live on the balcony in summer (it’s a common… Read more »

Rich
Rich
13 years ago

I’d suggest garlic as a good starter plant as well. Plant it in the fall (or early spring) and harvest it in the late spring early summer.

But you can’t use the supermarket variety. It generally has been treated to stop it from sprouting. Get some good organic garlic – pick the largest cloves (skin on) and plant.

Easy!

Phelan
Phelan
13 years ago

We have been talking about small scale gardening {the compacting garden} and border garden. We have to go small this year because of the new house.

Great article.

mapgirl
mapgirl
13 years ago

My mom grows specialty Korean cucumbers for pickling. She found the seeds in a Korean grocery store. She gets other fresh Korean produce from friends who grow it in their home gardens. It’s easy, but you give great advice on the mint. My mom grew some and it overtook a patch of the yard. But that’s ok. When you step on it, it smells great!

Brian
Brian
13 years ago

Those are some massive end-posts on that grape trellis. What type are you growing?

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Aha! I was wondering how long it would take for somebody to notice my lovely telephone polls. This isn’t a sign of massive grapes, but a sign of frugality. My neighbor has an old barn filled to the gills with all sorts of scraps: wire, lumber, fabric, scrap metal, etc. When he heard of our plans to build grape and berry arbors, he dragged me over and showed me his collection of large scrap wood. “Take what you want,” he told me. And so I did. Those posts are remnants of an old telephone poll. They’re sunk as deep as… Read more »

evan
evan
13 years ago

JD (or anyone else), if i remember correctly, perhaps last summer, you had linked to some books on container gardening, and i’d be interested to pick them up (at the public library). as we’ve moved into a new apartment here in Chicago, we now have a (almost) rooftop deck, which is (relatively speaking) huge. unfortunately, its not quite high enough to see into Wrigley, but we are completely open on 3 sides (with only our actual apartment on the 4th). i’d love to turn some of that space into a garden, but i’m not sure where to start and what… Read more »

Jason
Jason
13 years ago

Great post. We have a great spot on our property that had a good first plot on it last year. We should have tested our soil, but in the end, we had some pretty good success. My question for this coming year is: what is an inexpensive way to keep the critters out? We are in a fairly rural area in NH, so deer, rabbits, wild turkeys, and others seem to do their damage at the worst times. The plot is approximately 12′ x 30′. That’s a guess, but it’s pretty big, so store-bought stuff gets pretty expensive. Twine around… Read more »

Angie
Angie
13 years ago

JD, the day will come that you’ll be glad you have telephone poles holding up your grape arbor. Those plants are VIGOROUS and if you don’t keep on top of pruning them they can easily bring down lesser supports. We have a probably 5 year old grape plant trellised in our old backyard. This is a tiny backyard (probably 15 X 30 feet) and the support is three 4X4s, one in the center and one on each end, with wire between as you have it. There’s one central leader, two “arms” growing along the wires on each side, and the… Read more »

RJ
RJ
13 years ago

Thanks for the tips on balcony/urban gardening…. My balcony doesn’t get much sun (northern exposure), but I’ll definitely read up and try some plants this summer!

Kris
Kris
13 years ago

In answer to comment 26 above, about portable gardening, I’ll point you to companies like Gardener’s Supply Company (www.gardeners.com). I have no affiliation but have been happy with my orders in the past. Check out their “self-watering Raised Bed”, “Square Foot Success Kit” and “Topsy-Turvy Planter”. All of these are designed to grow vegetables in a container. If you’re handy, you could make something similar on the cheap, and I’d also suggest you call local garden stores to try to save on shipping charges. Either way, make sure you choose appropriate varieties for container gardening. Look for bush (rather than… Read more »

Bill Canaday
Bill Canaday
13 years ago

I’ve been gardening 100% organically for several years … in urban small spaces. I feel that I need to contradict some earlier advice. Choose vining crops over bush varieties for tomatoes, melons and beans. These can be readily trained to grow on trellises and use vertical space that is often wasted in horizontal (and back breaking!) gardens. Plant bush varieties, if you have room left over, at their feet. Learn to interplant and rotation plant. Google is your friend. Here in Michigan I garden at least 9 months of the year. I start with lettuces before the last frost of… Read more »

sUGa pLUm
sUGa pLUm
11 years ago

I found this site after deciding to expand our herb garden and to include veggies as well. It is truly inspiring and motivating. Thanks

Melissa
Melissa
11 years ago

Great Site! Thanks so much for all the helpful tips!
I am starting my first garden this year, and I dont know what to plant what vegatables near what! Any Advice??

AK
AK
11 years ago

J.D.,

I am wondering, have you ever bought any of your seeds from seed companies that specialize in preserving rare varieties to protect biodiversity?

Two such companies are:

http://www.seedsofchange.com/

http://www.heritageharvestseed.com/

If you have used heirloom/extant seed varieties, please let us know how that went for you!

Good luck with your 2009 garden!

Terry
Terry
8 years ago

Awesome site! Just wanted to say thanks for the info. I’m planning my 2nd vegetable garden and have enjoyed reading your articles and the Totally Tomatoes website is definitely where I’ll get my tomatoes as I had poor success with the “better boy” and “big boy” varieties from Lowe’s. Home depot had a Black Krim that performed very well so I’m planning a couple more plants like that for 2012 summer veg garden.
thanks again!

mary
mary
8 years ago

Great article, written with humor and easy to enjoy. Question: our soil is full of large rock even though it’s been gardened for nearly 100 years. Every Spring we take out the rocks and the soil dips lower and lower. To bring in builders soil just runis the nutrients. Any suggestions?

Seeds for Survival
Seeds for Survival
6 years ago

A friend of ours planted a small plot of mints and now they have taken over his yard completely. Be careful with them. Try a large container.

Ben Lannoy
Ben Lannoy
6 years ago

Our veg plot gets bigger every year because I get more confident on wha’s such a diverse subject. Building, preparing and producing food from something you’ve built yourself is one of the most empowering skills you can own.

In response to your question Mary, If your soil keeps in depth or in nutrients, I would always recommend adding more organic compost each time to build it up and feed the plants. Either that or work with the rocks and buld a rockery!

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