My First Garden: What I’ve Learned So Far

This summer is my first attempt at full-scale gardening. This is the first year I've lived in a house with a yard; previous gardening efforts were limited to containers of herbs and the odd tomato plant, on windowsills or apartment patios. To complicate matters, it's my first year living in New England, so the climate is new (and frightening). We had an intensely bitter winter, in which my backyard was buried under five feet of snow from January through the end of March. Then we had an intensely rainy and chilly spring.

Container gardens can be a good way to start
Container gardens can be a good way to start.

I knew this first year would be an experiment, so I approached it as such. In February, I began collecting seeds (heirloom and/or organic when possible), with the idea to plant one or two of everything and see what took. Here's what I bought:

  • Tomatoes (several different kinds, including Jubilee, Amish Paste, Cherokee, and cherry)
  • Peppers (habanero, jalapeno, Thai, cayenne, Serrano, and bell: green, yellow and purple)
  • Cucumbers
  • Green beans
  • Zucchini
  • Butternut squash
  • Pie pumpkins
  • Cauliflower
  • Peas
  • Watermelon
  • Corn
  • Kale
  • Arugula
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Beets (regular and striped)
  • Mache
  • Carrots
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Leeks
  • Onions

Some of these I won't plant until late summer/early fall, like the beets and Brussels sprouts. But wait, there's more! I also bought herbs:

  • Rosemary
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Sage
  • Tarragon
  • Oregano
  • Marjoram
  • Thyme
  • Borage
  • Sorrel
  • Nasturtiums
  • Dill
  • Basil (regular, purple, Thai)
  • Lavender
  • Mint
  • Chives
  • Catgrass
  • Chervil
  • Hyssop
  • Strawberries

Ambitious, I know.

The seeds cost around $100 total, although I got quite a few tomato seeds from my sister. I had a lot of one-time start-up costs; I had to buy a hoe, a shovel, a pitchfork (for the compost pile), a hose, and four florescent shop lights to start the seeds indoors. I also needed quite a lot of potting soil and seed-starting mix. I still had all the plastic containers from my various container gardens, which I used to start the herbs.

But I also learned what I didn't need to spend money on.

Due to our climate, I knew I'd have to start most everything indoors. (Because of the very rainy/chilly spring, I didn't get the last tomato seedling in the ground until June 4th.) I have a sunroom attached to the back of the house, walled almost entirely in sliding glass doors. It's lovely in the summer, but bitter cold in the winter. I closed off the heating vents and kept it unheated through the entire winter. It was the perfect place to start seedlings (lots of light, out of the way), except for the cold — at least twenty-five degrees colder than the rest of the house, far too cold for delicate seedlings. I put a space heater in there for the seed-starting project, which promptly doubled my electric bill.

Doubled it.

So next year I'll wait a few more weeks, until things warm up slightly, and skip the space heater.

I kept the florescent lights set on stacks of bricks, just above the seedlings, so I didn't need to install shelving.

Jenny's grow operation

The bricks were free; our house came with two random piles of bricks in the yard. I bought special seed-starting kits, but quickly figured out that I had plenty of things around the house that I could re-purpose for seed starting. All of these things can easily be used, most of which you probably already have, all of which I used at some point:

  • Yogurt/sour cream containers
  • Egg cartons
  • Grapefruit and orange halves (eat the fruit first)
  • Bottoms of milk jugs
  • Paper cups (these actually worked the best of anything)
  • Toilet paper tubes (fold the bottom under to make a little cup)
  • Paper towel tubes, cut in half (see above)
  • Cleaned out food and coffee cans (any size)
  • Cleaned out soda cans, cut in half
  • Those plastic tubs mushrooms and lettuce come in
  • Plastic take-out containers
  • I even repurposed some random, lidless Tupperware

(Just make sure you cut/punch holes in the bottom of everything, for drainage.)

Jenny's seedlings, ready to be transplanted
Note the variety of containers the seedlings are in.

Instead of drainage trays, I used box tops. Instead of row markers, I used a Sharpie and extra bricks. Instead of purchasing nine zillion tomato cages, I used sticks and twine. (All those winter storms brought down a lot of big tree branches; I simply went to the piles of deadwood in the back of the yard and stripped out large branches which I stuck in the ground, one for each tomato plant. Ditto for pea trellises.)

Frugal tomato stakes
Frugal tomato stakes — you can guess how much J.D. loves this, right?

The previous occupants had left a small garden in one corner of the yard, maybe six feet by six feet. Obviously too small for everything I wanted to plant! But renting a tiller to plow up part of the yard would have been far more expensive than I thought it would be. So I didn't.

Instead, I took a hoe to the backyard and chopped out additional rows. For the tomatoes, I chopped out one hole at a time, in various locations around the yard. I filled in the vacant flower beds with herbs. I planted edible flowers around the mailbox. Every square inch of usable yard real estate was re-appropriated for gardening; and when I'd filled in the edges, I chopped out grass and planted everything else in the lawn.

Now, maybe this method will work against me. Maybe lawn grass growing between the rows will end up stunting the growth of my plants. But so far, everything is growing really well. And the grass will grow back, if it turns out this method doesn't work.

Note: It's far easier to chop up the top layer of grass with a hoe, and use a trowel to dig up the dirt, than it is to try to dig a hole with an actual shovel. Grass is tough to dig through, but surprisingly easy to pull up.

The only other costs have been Miracle-Gro and rabbit repellent. My yard backs into a nature preserve, so it's like Wild Kingdom out there. I've seen rabbits, groundhogs, foxes, turtles, deer, and any number of birds in the yard. It also appears that I have an entire chipmunk colony tunneling under the yard. The homemade repellents (typically a mixture of cayenne pepper or hot sauce sprayed directly on the plants) didn't prevent my cauliflower from being nibbled. So I've been spraying commercial rabbit and deer repellent around the yard, and so far, so good.

Not including the $100 for seeds, I've spent around $600 on gardening so far. But of that, I think I can safely budget no more than $200 total for next year, for seeds and potting soil (and possibly more rabbit repellent). I won't need to buy a hoe, shovel, pitchfork or hose again, and I know I can start my seeds without special seed trays. I also have a lot of seeds left over, which I can save in the back of the refrigerator for next year.

For the rest of the summer, the only recurring costs will be the Miracle-Gro (which I can eliminate next year, as my new compost pile will be producing compost by then) and more rabbit repellent (stupid rabbits).

Will the garden turn out to be more cost-effective than my CSA ($475 for weekly boxes, May to December)? That remains to be seen, but it's looking good right now. If the rabbits don't eat everything, and we don't get a freak tornado or hailstorm, I should have a bumper crop of tomatoes and peppers. The green beans are shooting up, the squash is coming along nicely, and the container herbs are getting close to the point where they can be harvested regularly. I'll be sure to report back at the end of the summer.

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melissa
melissa
9 years ago

Since you are in New England, check out http://www.awaytogarden.com – great info on gardening in the new england states.

Josiah Garber
Josiah Garber
9 years ago

Great Post. I am trying to think of a way to make the room where I start my seedlings warming without breaking the bank as well. I used hydrofarm heat mats, but it is still a little cold for plants like tomatoes and peppers.

Glad to hear you are using a lot of heirloom seeds. They are so much fun and there is so much variety to choose from.

I am also growing Amish Paste Tomatoes this year.

Love the pictures. Let us know how things are coming along later in the summer.

Kristen
Kristen
9 years ago

Great post! Another super-cheap planting method for seedlings is to use sheets of old newpspaper formed into little cups. You can use a drinking glass to form them, and then when you plant them, you can just plant the whole thing in the ground and the newspaper will dissolve. Good luck with your harvest!

Annemarie
Annemarie
9 years ago

What did you use for deer repellent? The local ones blithely eat their way through every anti-deer product I’ve tried. (soaking the mountain laurels in beer helped a bit but it made the yard smell funny for months.)

JS
JS
9 years ago
Reply to  Annemarie

It sounds gross, but I have my husband pee around the yard perimeter every so often. That works better than anything else I know of for deer. 🙂

Sarah
Sarah
9 years ago
Reply to  JS

Bahahaha. I can just imagine the neighbors’ reactions if my dad EVER tried that at my parents’ house in Connecticut.

Might not go over so well in some parts of New England. 🙂

Sara
Sara
9 years ago
Reply to  Sarah

Well, you can always have him pee in a cup and distribute it unobtrusivey around the garden. Works just as well.

Annemarie
Annemarie
9 years ago
Reply to  JS

Good thing the neighbors aren’t up for the summer yet!

But yeah, I’ll run this past my husband. At this point, I will try anything.

Thanks!!!

Jessie
Jessie
9 years ago
Reply to  JS

Peeing around the garden works to repel most foragers (deer, rabbits). My grandparents assure me that this is the tried and true method for hundreds of years. Grandma still empties the chamber pot around her garden every morning. 🙂

De
De
9 years ago

I like the ambitious garden 🙂 You might try a seed heating mat for your cold sunroom. I have a seed starting getup (rack+lights) I got off Craigslist that uses a clear plastic cover to hold in the heat, which would be even better with the warming mat.

Kristen W
Kristen W
9 years ago
Reply to  De

My dad keeps his bonzai plants alive through winter under the patio by using a small shelving unit covered in clear plastic, with an incandescent light bulb hanging inside, for heat. But, I live in the northwest, so I our winters aren’t as cold.

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

Great start. If you need inspiration, check out the websites of Eliot Coleman. He raises veggies in New England year round.

Since I have limited space, I grow things that are so easy it’s not worth paying anyone else for (lettuce & spinach). And things that are very expensive (blueberries and asparagus). So I don’t have anywhere near your variety but it’s a nice supplement to the farmer’s market.

I find growing and eating my own food immensely satisfying. It makes most meals out pale by comparison–which is how I save the most money by gardening. 🙂

Dee
Dee
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Thank you for suggesting Eliot Coleman! I have spent the past 1/2 hour browsing his very helpful website!

indio
indio
9 years ago

Good luck with the garden experiment. It sounds as if you are off to a good, frugal start. My veggie garden is my passion so there is nothing frugal about mine, except for the seed starting. I have two suggestions. Since you bought organic and heirloom seeds, you should probably stop using the miracle-gro. There is nothing organic about watering a slew of chemicals on your organic plants. A good replacement would be a liquid fish emulsion. It’s stinky so it might help with the animals too. I’d also recommend investing in some fencing. It’s so depressing to find that… Read more »

Rose
Rose
9 years ago
Reply to  indio

Thre are also seaweed based plant foods that are all natural and don’t smell. I have even found them at national chain stores that sell plants. Also after a couple of years of adding compost, grass clippings, leaves etc to the garden it is so rich, dark and full of worms that you don’t need to add anything to it besides water in the growing season. I only use grass clippings as a goundcover at the start of the year and rake my leaves onto it in the fall and end up with tons of veggies. Also, if you have… Read more »

Sharon Gilmour
Sharon Gilmour
9 years ago
Reply to  indio

I agree that Miracle Gro is probably not in line with your organinc goals. Here in NE Mass there are a number of local farms that will sell organic manure (OK, cow poo 8^) it works well as fertilizer and as mulch as well. I find mulching is very important especially as the summer gets warmer and dryer.
Good luck with your garden.

Sara
Sara
9 years ago

A couple of heating pads set on low underneath your seed containers/flats works great and the warmth goes right to the soil. You can also warm up the soil by putting your pots on top of the refrigerator.

Kristen W
Kristen W
9 years ago

My favorite personal garden story for scaring off pests:
I put my garden in my front yard, b/c of all the shade out back. We live one street over from an elementary school. One summer, my strawberries kept disappearing. I would find the tops neatly arranged on top of the bricks which form the container for the garden.
In response, I bought a motion-activated sprinkler. My strawberries have stayed put ever since!

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

A nice way to remove sod, if you plan ahead, is to lay down cardboard in fall where you want your beds to be and cover with mulch. Leave all winter and the grass and cardboard will have rotted, pull away the mulch and you have perfect planting beds for minimal cost and effort! If might help for net season.

Erin
Erin
9 years ago

This is my third season tending to a veggie garden. The first two years, I made the mistake of overplanting (I live in a city and don’t have too much space). The garden got very overgrown and hard to manage. Now I know better and have only planted three tomato plants (Better Boy, Heirloom, and Cherry) and several jalepeno and chili plants. There is nothing better than making your own salsa straight from the garden! This year, I tried using fox urine granules so that I wouldn’t have to put fencing around the plants. It didn’t work and I ended… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
9 years ago

Pee in a bucket and pour it if worried about the neighbors!

Pee blooms lilacs too.

Paula
Paula
9 years ago

Good for you for jumping into vegetable garden. It is a great hobby, and good exercise, too. I have one suggestion – don’t use Miracle-Gro on any plants unless you are eating the leaves of the plant (spinach, lettuce, chard). For things like tomatoes, peppers, green beans, cucumbers, you should use something with a lower nitrogen content. Garden-tone is great, and organic. The high nitrogen content of Miracle-Gro causes the plants to put their energy into producing leaves instead of blooming, and you need the blooms to produce your veggies. Have fun!!

Lis
Lis
9 years ago
Reply to  Paula

Garden-tone is fantastic stuff! It’s organic and well balances. They also have specific formulas for tomatoes, roses, and other plants.

indio
indio
9 years ago
Reply to  Lis

Espoma is a great organic brand to use. As long as the N-P-K ratio adds up to less than 15 it’s organic and not synthetic.

bud
bud
9 years ago
Reply to  indio

This is not true.

Tara@riceandbeanslife
9 years ago

I’m looking forward to seeing how your adventure in gardening turns out. We live in a desert climate now and gardening is next to impossible but we thoroughly enjoyed our Square Foot Gardening when we lived in the Southeast. We never could manage to keep the critters from nibbling or straight out stealing our lettuces and cucumbers-even with homemade cages around them. I’m looking forward to seeing how you fare. I love the “rustic” stakes you chose. We did that too and it looks so much nicer I think!

Justin
Justin
9 years ago

There are some very unique suggestions for creating planters. Maybe my wife can have her own small garden even in our apartment.

Peggy
Peggy
9 years ago

Absolutely love the gardening posts. The pics are fantastic! It’s great having reader comments/tips from all over and I’m bookmarking all these posts for future reference. We are currently in Mongolia and also got a very late start with our gardening this year. We garden in an approximately 5’x7′ plot contained in a plastic covered quonset shaped greenhouse with 14 plots. We’re unable to start much indoors due to limited space and a very pesky and determined Maine Coon/Persian mix aptly named “Hunter”! The inside temperatures range from a humid, breath sucking +100F during the day to around 50F at… Read more »

sarah
sarah
9 years ago

If you plan to go organic in the future, you may want to use something organic instead of miracle-gro. Using it can really upset the natural balance in your soil.

I also put a lot of start up costs into my garden last year, and then unexpectedly had to move across the country this year. Now I’m living in a NYC 5th floor walkup and the best I can do is a few pots on the fire escape (which is actually illegal). I really miss my garden.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarahkincheloe/5833960227/in/photostream

Good luck with yours!

Joe M
Joe M
9 years ago

Aren’t felines a natural but effective rabbit repellent?

Jessie
Jessie
9 years ago
Reply to  Joe M

Unfortunately no – I have six neighborhood cats that frequent my backyard, and I have three wild rabbits that frequent it as well!

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago

It looks beautiful!

Waiting til it warms up is smart – I live in a pretty extreme climate (Minnesota, zone 5) and I’ve given up the grow lights in favor of the 3 season porch. Seedlings start sooner & seem to do better under the artificial lights and stable temperatures, but the passive-heated (barely above freezing when I first start seeds) natural day length seedlings always outperform the babied ones once they’re transplanted.

firefly
firefly
9 years ago

Brussels Sprouts are a longer season crop, you should put the transplants out now for harvest in the fall. You mentioned planting them later on, but that’ll be too late.

Deb
Deb
9 years ago

Love these gardening post, thanks for sharing your wonderful pics as well! We got a late start on our garden too, very cool wet spring here in the Northwest. I’ve been collecting heirloom seeds from friends/family/and have purchased some as well. My biggest expenditures were like yours, gardening tools and soil amendments. UGH. We started our seeds indoors in a sunny window and had sprouts within a few days. I chose a layering method for gardening. I spread 4 inches of chicken manure (25 lb bag = $3.99) over soil, then added 8 inches of straw (I purchased a full… Read more »

Charlotte
Charlotte
9 years ago

We started our seeds using the bio-dome. Now they have been transplanted to 4 different raised gardens. For staking we use bamboo sticks.

http://javafoto.com/wp/2011/06/garden-update-june-2011/

Gretchen
Gretchen
9 years ago

I know others already said this but organic seeds, then miracle grow?

For stripping sod I use a linoleum cutter.
I’d be interested in tips on onions- mine get soft when they get a little bigger than scallion size.

Jessie
Jessie
9 years ago
Reply to  Gretchen

Try planting them a little shallower so when they get bigger the bulb starts to come out of the ground.

Jackie
Jackie
9 years ago

Sounds like a great start to a garden. I haven’t found the courage to take that step yet. We have discussed starting a garden for a few years now. I like your suggestion of a container garden. Maybe we will start off with a few plants in containers and go from there.

Jill
Jill
9 years ago

You’re off to a great start! I will also reccomend Epsoma products. The sea kelp has really made my plants grow like weeds. Also, my tomatoes have more flowers than I’ve ever had before. Good luck and keep us gardeners on GRS updated.

rail
rail
9 years ago

Congrats Jenny on starting a garden! You have started on a hobby/interest that you can participate in for the rest of your life. Like your outlook on trying differnt plants, its fun to mix things up. Dont be afraid to try things that may not do well in your area. you never know how things will grow. Keep a notebook on your garden, what you grew, costs, growing tips etc. It will be of value to do so. Also dont be afraid of the Miracle grow, it is not Evil encarnate.

Julie @ yardsales.com
Julie @ yardsales.com
9 years ago

I love the pictures of the different plants and pots! I live in a town house and my community is talking about opening up a community garden. But that talk has been going on for years. I would love to be as adventurous as you! Good luck with the season and I will revisit to see how you made out.

Gretchen
Gretchen
9 years ago

I don’t see it mentioned in the article or in the comments – but for the rabbits may I suggest a fence? Another one time investment, but a well placed 4′ garden fence will keep out many of the rabits and woodchucks, and some of the deer. Unfortunatly to truly keep out the deer it needs to be more like 12′, rather more expensive than most want to invest in!

Heather
Heather
9 years ago

Great tips! A garden can be very frugal! I’m a bit surprised that you spent so much though. I started my first garden last year at a cost of just over $400CAD. A good $225 of it was for a 6′ tall deer fence. It could/should have been higher but that’s what all the neighbours have and it seemed to work, even with the huge deer pop. This year I believe I spent $100 including a new shelf, lights, some seeds (still had quite a few left over from the first year), and flowers. I did a LOT of reading… Read more »

20 and Engaged
20 and Engaged
9 years ago

What a great garden! My father-in-law got ours starts with zucchini, squash, and some other things. I’d love to plant spinach, tomatoes, and some fruit, but we’re limited on space. I’m glad I saw all the containers and make shift items you did, so I’m a bit more optimistic!

Kim
Kim
8 years ago

I’m new to gardening in New England, too (I’m a transplant from Mid-Atlantic & Southeast states).

I was disappointed last year due to a VERY late start (late June) and a getting-to-know-my-poor-soil learning curve.

This spring, I will utilize 2 south-facing picture windows for seed-sprouting to get a jump on a short growing season. And I’ve got compost brewing.

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