The Only 4 Things a Vegetable Garden Needs
One of my favorite children's books is "Bear and Bunny Grow Tomatoes." The two characters are friends and neighbors. Bear plants a garden the right way (preparing the soil, getting rid of rocks, weeding, etc.) while Bunny throws seeds in a plot of dirt and then relaxes by the pool for the rest of the summer. At the end, the diligent gardener gets a great harvest and the slack one gets nothing, until Bear gives Bunny his extras. (See also: Gardening Lessons Learned the Hard Way)
I love the book because I so closely identify with Bunny as a gardener. However, as diligent as I tried to be, none of my own gardening efforts ever yielded results. Trying hard didn't appear to be the magic ingredient in a successful garden.
Last year, I decided to make growing a garden a new year's goal. When a Living Social offer on a gardening class popped into my inbox, I quickly signed up. The deal was a four-hour class with the promise that I could learn the basics from a real-life gardener. The instructor overturned conventional wisdom that didn't work in real life. Most importantly, I learned that if you don't have four simple ingredients, nothing else matters. Here are the basics to growing a garden.
Great soil is essential to growing vegetables, fruits, and other plant life. Plants get their nutrients from the soil. So, for plants to thrive, they need soil with great nutrients. The first step is to evaluate your soil and, if needed, take steps to improve its composition.
The three main types of soil are clay, sandy, and silt. To develop loamy soil (the kind you want) from these types, mix in self-made or store-bought organic matter. You can add plant food, just as you can take vitamins and supplements for your body. But the best and cheapest nutrients come from real stuff like grass clippings, dead leaves, chopped-up tree prunings, etc.
Soil can also be classified by its pH level, such as acid, alkaline, or neutral. My instructor recommended getting garden soil tested to determine its pH. You can try testing yourself using a commercial device or work with your agricultural extension office or similar resource, which should provide testing services.
Most plants thrive at neutral levels although some, like blueberries, benefit from lower or higher levels. After you have received test results, make adjustments to the soil pH depending on the types of vegetables you hope to grow. If you need help with this step, visit a full-service garden center or enlist help of your local agricultural extension agent. (Note that I skipped this test because my soil looked good to me.)
Plants need lots of sun. The energy from sunlight is converted into chemical energy that fuels growth in a process called photosynthesis. My instructor advised that most vegetables need at least eight hours of sun every day.
Based on my experience, the spots on my deck and porch that get about four hours of sun daily do not support vegetable life. However, some folks are able to grow certain vegetables, such as lettuce and beans, with three to six hours of sun per day.
There are just a few places in my yard that get enough sun on a regular basis. I chose a sunny location with great soil to plant my garden.
Plants need water, which is useful for gathering nutrients from the ground. Most importantly, I learned that seeds need moisture to germinate. So even if you ignore your garden for most of the season, make sure there is water or moisture immediately after you plant the seeds.
We had an unusual amount of rain in our area this summer, so I watered my plants just once during the season. My garden got about an inch of rainwater each week, generally enough to grow vegetables. To determine how much water your vegetables need, check a gardening resource. (See also: Landscaping for Your Climate)
I purchased a seeds-of-the-month subscription from Mike of Mike the Gardener Enterprises. There are two options for growing from seed: 1) plant indoors or 2) wait for the ground to become amenable to seed growth. I followed instructions on the seed packets and waited until the soil was warm enough to receive my seeds and planted directly into the ground, rather than spend my winter cultivating plants indoors. (See also: Foods You Can Grow in Your Home)
I planted my seeds not being sure that they'd actually grow. But they did! My garden grew a nice harvest of tomatoes and peppers along with amaranth. I wasn't completely successful, as my cauliflower plants looked like they were destroyed by bugs and my zucchini seemed to be drowned by the overabundance of rain; still I was thrilled to grow something.
It impresses veteran gardeners when I tell them I grew vegetables from seed. The truth is that all the vegetables I tried to grow from plants never did anything but die. In fact, the vegetables that grew were so abundant I needed to thin my plants. Where I didn't remove enough tomato plants, for example, they are all tangled up and drooping off the stakes installed to keep them away from each other. (See also: How to Plan Your Garden)
Next time, I will improve on my techniques. I will space out my plants. I may even keep a garden journal. But the truth is that I needed to learn how to grow something, anything, before I could advance to the next level. My advice is to start with the simple ingredients and grow from there.
Now that harvest has almost come and gone, what gardening tricks worked for your garden this year?