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!

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Guest's picture

I would also say to start small. If you haven't gardened or planted a vegetable garden, I wouldn't go all out the first year. It will be overwhelming with all the extra work that you might not be prepared for.

At least this is our plan once we eventually get into gardening!

Marla Walters's picture

Money Beagle, thank you for adding that great tip (starting small). Out of necessity, our plot has stayed small, and it's still plenty of work.

Guest's picture

Great article. For many years I couldn't figure out what my problem is and the soil conditioning was the main culprit. I compost now and it's starting to come around.

Crushed eggshells work great for slugs. Just sprinkle them around your plants and the slugs can't get over them.

Marla Walters's picture

Steph, thank you for the comment! I am going to try your crushed eggshells tip. We just had a lot of rain and seems to bring the slugs running. Also just bought eggs so this is perfect timing. Thanks again!

Guest's picture
SL Heitz

Lots of great tips. A cheaper option for weed control is using mulch a.k.a. grass clippings. After you mow your lawn, just spread the grass clippings a couple inches deep around your plants. It will not only inhibit weed growth, it will also enrich the soil by composting the dead plant material. I'd only advise this if you don't use any kind of weed control treatments on your lawn, though.

Guest's picture

Concerning #5 - Weed Control:

Using mulch is a good idea - whether it's from your own yard or purchased at the store. We also have a community composting area in our neighborhood that has a free mulch pile.

You can simply use grass clippings from the lawn - as long as your grass isn't full of weeds/seeds, and you haven't fertilized in a while.

Putting grass mulch around your plants ie tomatoes, cukes, squash - will not only keep weeds down but will also protect the plants and help hold moisture in the soil.

Andrea Karim's picture

Wow, feral pigs! I was thinking that our local population of rats was exotic!

Marla Walters's picture

Andrea, I think feral pigs are the new "rats"! I thought it was just a Hawaii thing . . . until my husband and I were channel-surfing a couple of weeks ago and came across an ENTIRE SHOW about feral pig-hunting in Hawaii, Texas, Florida . . . it's called "Hogs Gone Wild" and it's on the Discovery Channel. We had no idea that they were a problem elsewhere. Turns out, they are a big enough problem to warrant a tv show!

Guest's picture

I agree with all of your 10 tips. I've had to fight off predators that wanted to indulge in my organic veggies on many occasions. To save money, I start a lot of veggies from seeds. This way I know where they came from, whether they were treated with pesticides or not. Eating organically out of my garden has saved my wallet, especially as food prices have been rising over the past year. Yesterday we picked a pound of peas and they were better tasting than anything we could get in the supermarket.

Marla Walters's picture

Indio, great tip about starting the veggies from seeds. I do that, too, and it's also cheaper than buying "starts." It's really easy to start seeds (save some old egg cartons). Fun for kids, too.

Guest's picture

I do container gardening with tomatoes and bean/pea plants that are vines. I use tomato supports for all of them and it makes it easy to harvest and take care of without having to do tons of weeding or care. I fertilize every 3-4 weeks since there is limited soil and the nutrients get flushed out with watering. I can also move the cool weather vegetables (sugar snap peas/english pea pods) into the shade in the afternoon on really hot days so that they don't get scorched.

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