It might seem silly to get tips for beginning a garden from a novice, but it’s actually a pretty good place to start. Since I’ve just gone through the process of learning all about gardening and getting my hands dirty last summer with my first one, I’ll be able to break down the basics fairly easily (it’s all I know!). And it won’t be too difficult for me to remember what I did right and what beginner mistakes I made so that you can learn from those things. In any case, what I’d like to do is break down gardening for beginners into different parts/topics.
Let’s get started with soil.
The first step to starting a vegetable garden is finding a place for it in your backyard.
I considered several things while doing this:
- Will the area be easy for me to fence off so the dog won’t romp around in it?
- I choose a corner of the backyard that already had a fence on one side of it so that I’d only have to fence in the other side with some short chicken wire and a few wooden stakes, which took all of about 30 minutes and two people to do.
- Will the area provide enough space for what I want to grow?
- Spacing out crops is important, especially when it comes to harvesting them. If you don’t have enough room, then you might end up with a tomato forest that is difficult to find and pick vegetables in. It also makes it easier to spray each plant with pest control stuff. (I use organic only products, which I’ll get to later.)
- Is the available dirt in that area good to use?
- Don’t worry about testing just yet. Examine the dirt informally. Look for growth that is already in the area. If it seems like there is a huge bald spot where nothing seems to grow, then it might be a bad idea. Someone might have spilled chemicals there in the past. Also, take a shovel and dig up some of the dirt (about a foot down) after a rain or the morning after watering the yard. Do you have worms? That’s a good sign.
My Spring Garden 2011
Once you’ve picked a spot, the next step is examining what kind of dirt you have and prepping it for a garden. Generally, when gardeners talk about soil, they’re talking about three things: sand, silt and clay. When you’ve got those three things evenly distributed in your garden soil, it’s considered loamy soil — supposedly the best kind for gardening. What I had in my backyard was pretty close to loamy and I’m fortunate. I didn’t have to do a whole lot and my garden thrived last summer.
If that’s not the case for you, check out some professional advice for amendments (like sand, compost, manure, etc.) you can add to your soil to make it closer to the consistency you want. I’m no expert here, but I do know that it’s important to have the right mix. Sandy soil drains well (so the water gets to the roots of your plants) but it doesn’t hold a lot of the nutrients essential for healthy plants and heavy crops. Whereas, clay soil doesn’t drain well and your plants might not soak up enough water (because it all runs off or gets evaporated). I also have a theory that it’s harder for the plants to put out deep, long roots in clay soil. I haven’t verified that bit, but it seems logical.
Okay. So, you’ve found yourself a spot and amended your soil. Now what?
It’s time to prep the dirt. (And you should probably start doing your research on what plants you’d like to grow, which I will talk about more in the next post.) Part of prepping the dirt is adding any amendments needed for the soil to be just right for the plants. The other part is just chopping up or pulling out any existing grass/weeds and turning it over.
Tilling the soil isn’t necessary, although some people disagree. Check out some forums and ask your local experts (Ag extension agencies, gardeners who work at the local nurseries and hardware stores, local gardening club, etc.) But I personally don’t think you need to bother. Instead, water the area you intend to use as a garden. Then wait several hours or until the next morning. Take a shovel and begin turning over the dirt. Just push the shovel in with your foot, pry up that part and flip it over. Repeat until the garden area has been turned over (or until you need to stop for a cold beer — cough, I mean water — break.)
If you’ve got weeds and grass, be sure to pull those out as you go. It’s okay for some of it to get chopped up and mixed in but try to avoid mixing in plants that have gone to seed and will pop up as a nuisance later. Grass in the garden might seem harmless, but it’ll suck up a lot of the water you try to give your vegetable plants, and weeds can choke out your garden if you let them get out of control.
An example of gardening in rows from someone else's garden
After turning over the dirt, you’re ready to dig some trenches. (And bask in the glory of the newly formed callouses on your hands…) I like using trenches in the garden because I think it makes watering easier. I also trench compost, which will be explained later. If you don’t want to use this method, I’m sure there are plenty of other options. Do a Google search. But read on to learn about the method I use with much success.
The idea came from two places — my mom and our neighbors. I grew up on a ranch in the Hill Country part of Texas. So, I was used to seeing HUGE gardens set up like miniature fields. Our neighbors would have several rows of crops that looked sort of like the picture to the left.
Since I didn’t want to convert my whole backyard into a garden (at first), I decided to do something similar but on a smaller scale.
I made three rows with two trenches in between each of the rows and I connected the trench so that I could fill it with water and none would flow out. (See the picture at the top of the post.) I’ve since extended the garden with my onion bed, but it still has a trench around it.
Once that’s done, you’ll need to start thinking about watering systems. Watering by hand is a pain in the butt and time consuming. Plus, you run the risk of getting water on your plant leaves. That’s not good, because then they might get scalded by the sun or diseased. Tomato leaves especially do not like to be fondled by humans or watered. It’s also not the most efficient way to do it because of evaporation. Since I live in West Texas, which is dry and desert-like, it’s important to think of these things.
I opted for a soaker hose.
I currently have three of them connected in my garden. Here is the one I use. It’s from Home Depot and cost me $8.97 each, and they had them in stock last year and this year. There are other options, too. So, you can pick the one that is the right price/size for your garden.
The benefit of a soaker hose is that you can put the water on low and allow it to run for an hour or so. Water will drip out all over the hose and into the ground, which soaks it up. Since the water is released slowly, the ground has plenty of time to absorb all of it and you avoid pools of water that get partially evaporated. Plus, if you read advice online, you’ll find that plants like to be watered slow and deep every few days instead of fast and shallow every day.
If you choose this type of watering system — which is so much easier to install than a drip irrigation system by the way — then all you have to do once you get it in place is turn your water on low and then measure how deep the water penetrates after, oh, 30 minutes and then maybe every 15 minutes after that until you get it to the right depth, about 6 to 8 inches.
I mentioned earlier that I like the closed trenches because I can trap water there and it’ll all soak in to the garden. However, I just told you not to do that and to use a garden soaker hose instead. In case you’re wondering what the deal is, I collect rain water in cheap 40 gallon trash cans. (I got them at Big Lots for $18 a pop when they went on sale.) I don’t have a proper rain collection system (too expensive). So, I just collect the rain as it runs off the roof into the trash cans and then put the lids on them to avoid mosquito as I save it for a few days later. Then I dump it into the garden trench and let it soak in.
Watering in the early morning or late evening is also reccomended for minimum evaporation, but I’m hoping that you already know that much. Hehe.
One last thing about soil before we move on…
Testing your soil is extremely beneficial and can be done at home on the cheap. This year I purchased a kit with enough materials for two rounds of tests for $6.49 at a local hardware store. The kit tests for pH level as well as the nutrients N, P and K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potash). For more info on what each of the nutrients do, look online or read the packaging. The most important thing to know is just that those are essential for healthy plant development and a deficiency in the soil will result in a poor harvest or none at all. More extensive send-off soil tests can also be done by local extension agencies, but the one available in Lubbock was going to cost me a lot more than the home test kit. Since I knew the dirt was fabulous last year (when I planted without doing a soil test), I didn’t want to spend a lot of money.
In retrospect, I should have done a test last year. It could have been a flop but I got lucky with my soil. The reason I wanted to do a test on the soil this year was because I chopped up last year’s garden and mixed it in the soil. When I went to turn over the dirt last month, not much of it had decomposed like I thought it would. I did some online research and it appeared that I might have tied up the nitrogen in the soil, which is also needed to decompose organic matter. Although composting last year’s garden in the garden soil is a good thing that provides nutrients, I didn’t chop it up enough, turn the dirt or water throughout the winter to speed up the process so that I ended up with fertile dirt in the early spring.
With these concerns in mind, I tested the soil (see the instructions on your packaging) and found out that my pH level was 7, which is neutral. The packaging on my test also has a table of recommended levels for each test item. So, I knew that was perfect for my garden. The nitrogen and phosphorus, however, was pathetically low. It was practically nonexistent according to the test. But the potash level was medium, which was also perfect.
The knowledge of what my soil needed helped me decide what to mix in before planting. I went to a local garden supply store and purchased some organic plant food with a beneficial bacteria that would help decompose the organic matter. It cost me about $12.99. I mixed it in by sprinkling it everywhere and then turning the dirt over again before watering everything.
A re-test a few weeks later showed that the levels had increased but weren’t as high as I want them to be. Because I know what my soil needs, I plan to keep fertilizing with nitrogen-rich organic materials throughout the growing season. More on fertilizers later.
Until then, love thy dirt. And watch Dirt! The Movie. It’ll really make you appreciate it.