Secrets of Success for First-Time Growers
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When I was Editor-in-Chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine back in the 1990s, we had a training exercise where we had to pick one other editor to be stranded on a desert island with. The editor I got along with the least instantly picked me. When I asked why he said, "at least I'll have plenty to eat".
We're all on desert islands now, and many of you want to have a food garden over the summer for the first time--both to keep busy and have fresh-grown food without having to wear a mask. Here are the basics for first-time success.
• Start small. Don't try and establish a farm overnight. Only plant what you can manage.
• Know thy seasons. Cool-weather crops like spinach, lettuce, kale and peas won't last through the summer, and summer crops like tomatoes and peppers can't stand chilly nights, so harvest all your lettuce and such when summer hits and plant them anew as soon as summer heat breaks.
• Lettuce, spinach, kale, beets, radishes, zucchini and string beans are always ripe. If you can see it, you can (and should) eat it. Eggplant too!
• Don't plant warm-weather crops like tomatoes and peppers until the ten-day forecast shows nights consistently in the fifties. Warm, sunny days are tempting, but here in PA, I just had a 75-degree day followed by a night that dropped to 38. There was a hard freeze just North of me.
• Tomatoes: Small, compact 'determinate' varieties are best for beginners. They'll have a days-to-maturity rating of around 55 to 70 days and produce a lot of fruit on well-behaved plants that require minimal support. Great for containers too.(Read last week's tomato treatise for lots more details.)
• Peppers: Classic varieties like California Wonder take a LONG time to reach full size and then another two weeks to a month to fully color up, so look for sweet peppers with shorter days to maturity, like Italian frying peppers and mini, or 'baby' bells. They'll color up fast. Don't eat green peppers unless frost is predicted; they're not ripe.
• Cukes: Grow them on a trellis or inside a tomato cage to save space and keep the fruits straight and clean.
• Zucchini and other summer squash: Look for compact 'bush' style plants.
• String beans (aka green beans). Look for 'bush' types here as well. They stay small and compact (generally growing only to around two feet tall), whereby 'pole' beans require a very tall trellis.
• Potatoes: One of the easiest crops to grow. Look for certified disease-free 'seed potatoes' and do not cut them up or 'coin' them. Plant them whole; and consider growing them in a big 'potato bin'. (Read the article in our archives for details.)
• Pumpkins. Don't. It sounds like fun, but they'll overrun your garden faster than kudzu.
• Starting tomatoes and such from seed indoors. Don't. It's best to have a couple of years gardening experience before you start trying to start your own plants. It's also much too late in the season to start summer crops from seed unless you live in a VERY warm clime. (But see the recent 'direct seeding' article for summer plants like string (green) beans whose seeds are directly planted in the ground.
• Mail-order seed companies are overwhelmed right now, so make sure you know shipping dates before you order. Your best bet is always a local independent garden center. Here in PA, some are acting like supermarkets (wear a mask; social distancing) and some are open for curbside pick-up; you order online and they'll bring your order out to your car. Individual state rules vary, but please make small independents your first choice.
• And don't forget people like me. If you have friends or neighbors who always start WAY too many plants, ask for some of their extras--and advice.
• Local botanic gardens and organic farms often have plant sales in the Spring; search these out as well.
• Planting. Do not use your flat earth unless it's been tested for lead and other heavy metals. If you must plant in flat earth, establish growing lanes that are no wider than four feet, with two feet of open space in between, so you're not compressing the soil around the plants' roots.
• Do not till or you will only grow weeds.
• Raised beds deliver twice the food in half the space. Scalp the area with a lawnmower set as low as she goes, cover the space with cardboard and create dedicated areas four feet wide for growing with two-foot walking lanes all around. Frame them about a foot high with low-grade cedar or redwood; bricks, cinderblocks or pavers; or just plain old cheap untreated pine. Don't use any kind of treated wood or railroad ties.
• Fill the beds with a mixture of compost, aged-mushroom soil, good-quality topsoil and perlite. Don't use garden soil.
• Don't use wood ashes, milled peat moss or manures of any kind unless you're SURE you know what you're doing.
• Don't use chemical fertilizers, herbicides or fungicides period. They're unnecessary and weaken plants.
• Always wear gloves. Baseball batting gloves are an excellent choice and widely available in a large number of different sizes.
• There's no need to feed first-year beds if they have a good amount of compost or aged mushroom soil mixed in. The best fertilizer in years after is a two-inch layer of compost applied on the surface of the soil; NOT tilled in.
• Can't find compost? Use liquid or granular organic fertilizers. Cover granular fertilizers with soil or compost after application to hasten their uptake by the plants.
• Containers: Anything that drains, baby! A clawfoot bathtub, the bed of an old rotting pickup truck, the decks of wheelbarrows whose 'feet' died long ago, baby pools with holes punched in