10 Gardening Lessons Learned the Hard Way
I am proud to announce that, as a novice gardener, I no longer wear the "black thumb of death" badge. Stuff is actually growing, and we can eat it! Here are ten tips from my (ongoing) experience. (See also: The Urban Dwellers Guide to Gardening via Currency)
1. Check Out Your Dirt
Last year, we took a soil sample to our local university’s agriculture department. For the low cost of $12, we received a soil analysis report. Based on that report, we were able to add nutrients that were noted to be deficient in our soil. This service is also frequently offered at agricultural or cooperative extensions and is well worth the small fee. Take your report to a farm supply or co-op (where we have found bulk nutrients for much less) and load up on the needed supplements.
2. Be Realistic
They get me every year — glossy packets of seeds at garden-supply stores. The little voice in my head says, “Wow, wouldn’t it be neat to grow my own broccoli?” and I succumb. The problem is, my climate stinks for growing broccoli, and the heads grow to about the size of a quarter. That is just one example — I have tried many seeds over the years, only to be disappointed. Find out what grows well in your area, and stick with that. My climate is wonderful for growing beans, squash, kale, Swiss chard, and bok choy, but I have learned to fight the urge to waste space, money, and energy on the wrong plants. If you don’t know, ask employees at garden centers, your neighbors who garden, or your co-workers. People who grow vegetable gardens are very willing to help those of us who are learning. Also ask yourself "is somebody in my family going to want to eat this vegetable?" If no one likes cabbage, why bother?
3. Fence It
My husband fenced our garden area, and thank goodness he did. I don’t have to worry about dogs, kids, or feral pigs wrecking the patch. If you live in an area with deer, you probably already are familiar with the aggravation — they just mow everything down. If you have a gopher problem, you may need to either plant your garden in raised beds with bottoms screened with ½” hardware cloth, or go to the more drastic measure of installing an underground fence surrounding your garden plot. Save yourself the grief and make sure your garden area is protected to the extent practicable.
4. Fertilize It
Every gardener has his or her own fertilizer preference. Manure stinks, but it works. Using a commercially composted manure product helps ensure that no pathogens will survive to contaminate your vegetables. I use composted chicken manure; a co-worker swears by composted steer manure. My neighbor only uses Miracle-Gro. Whatever you choose, your plants will love it.
5. Make Weed Control Easy
While I do enjoy going out to the garden after work to pick vegetables and pull some weeds, I do not enjoy it when the weeds get the upper hand. Then you are looking at a lot of work and a sore back. While I am not crazy about the way it looks, weed-control cloth saves a lot of work. I keep strips of this in between rows, and it is a great detriment to weeds.
6. Water It
Initially I thought I would just water the garden every day with a hose. That was unrealistic. If I am late getting home, there goes the garden. My husband installed a simple sprinkler system so that I could just turn a handle near the house and water. While there was a small cost, the convenience was well worth it.
7. Annihilate Slugs
There is nothing so disheartening as going out to the garden, where there had been a row of beautiful seedlings, to find them chewed to the ground. All that work! I am currently using Corey’s Slug and Snail Bait, which works very well. A co-worker swears by the beer-in-a-shallow-dish organic method , but my slugs apparently have been to AA and are not interested. Chemicals are a must for me.
8. Record Your Progress
When we started the garden, I started a garden journal. I have also taken photos over the years, which gives me encouragement. I have a record of which plants worked, which didn’t, and what soil implements we used.
9. Give It Some Sun
Before you plant, make sure your patch isn’t shaded from the sun. Over the years, we have hacked back many of the trees that prevented sunshine. I can even grow tomatoes now, which love sunshine.
10. Share It
Something I find joyful is being able to share vegetables from the garden. The favor always comes back — either in the form of something from that person's garden or fruit tree, or in the form of a “thank you” treat.
Before embarking on a vegetable garden, I would recommend reading The $64 Tomato by William Alexander. A humorous and realistic account of a beginning gardener, it will help you stay frugally “in check” when you start.
Readers, if you have any tips for beginning vegetable gardeners, please share!