Several years ago, I kept finding myself in conversations with people in my parish who were curious about starting a garden. I have been gardening since 2008, primarily vegetables, but have been slowly deepening that relationship since we moved to our present home in 2016. The garden has grown and grown, and I now manage about 650 square feet of vegetable garden, plus several outlying areas planted with perennials like asparagus, blackberries, rhubarb, and fruit trees. As a result of the recurrent conversations, I hosted an open garden day to answer all the gardening questions that I could. Below are my notes from that talk, which I hope will be helpful for you as you start out! If you're looking for books and other gardening resources, click here. —Maria
Starting a Garden
How much space do you have that gets 6+ hours of sunlight each day?
Whatever space this is, in whatever shape, is your best bet for growing a successful garden. Most vegetables that we grow for food do best with six hours or more of direct sunlight per day.
How much time and money do you want to spend on infrastructure?
Soil quality is paramount—the rest is just organization. If you use your resources to help your soil become healthier, you will have a successful garden. Beautiful beds are great, but soil is the most important thing.
What do you like to eat?
Plants to start from seed: carrots, beets, radishes, peas and beans, dill, cilantro, parsley, basil, cucumbers, melons, squash, greens (lettuce, chard, mustard greens, collards), scallions, okra, corn, zinnias, sunflowers.
Plants to start from seedlings: onions, leeks, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale. You can also grow melons, squash, and cukes this way, but it isn’t necessary.
- Plant when it’s time, mulch, water, weed, monitor for pests, and wait.
- Plant flowers, for pollinators and because they are lovely to have. Label your plants (you won’t remember). Keep notes, especially dates. It helps to know how things are doing from year to year, when your first harvest was, and when you planted what. (And we make a handy garden planner with space to do just that!)
Styles & Methods
Deeply tilling the soil, either mechanically or via a broadfork or shovel, to break up the compaction of soil and possibly work in amendments.
Using a structure to hold better-quality garden soil above the level of the ground to protect from erosion, pests, or other issues. Quickly improves depth of usable soil, warms up (and cools off!) more quickly, drains better in areas with heavy soil.
Employs sheet mulch, compost, and mulch to quickly build soil fertility and suppress weeds. Helpful for quickly improving poor soil without lots of digging, and preserves the microbes and fauna in the soil (which tillage can disturb or destroy).
Similar to No-Till, this method employs extremely deep mulch to preserve soil moisture and mimic the natural process of decomposition that happens in deciduous forests, creating rich, loamy soil over time.
Similar to raised beds, with straw bales as the planting medium. Bales must be organic (no herbicides!), and treated with high-nitrogen fertilizer in advance. As the bales break down, they act as compost and mulch, and can be raked up at the end of the season to use as compost. Closely related are lasagna beds, which use the same process but layer straw and other materials inside of a raised bed to create compost for planting in situ.
Available in many materials and sizes, these are flexible, portable raised beds. Like any above-ground planting method, they take more care in watering as they dry out more quickly, but they have many of the same benefits as raised beds or straw bales.
An comprehensive method that seeks to mimic the biodiversity of natural ecosystems by employing polycultures, perennials, attracting beneficial insects and other garden inhabitants, and using the unique traits of each place to create holistic systems.
Average date in spring when your area no longer experiences killing frost and the average date in fall for when your area experiences the first hard frost. Knowing both spring and fall frost dates will help you determine the length of your growing season.
Temperature zones are based on the lowest average temperature each area is expected to receive during the winter. Hardiness zones are used to determine whether a plant is likely to be perennial in your area. Annuals and perennials vary depending on where you live. If you want a perennial, shrub, or tree to survive and grow year after year, the plant must tolerate year-round conditions in your area, such as the lowest and highest temperatures and the amount of rainfall.
For example, I garden in zone 7a: any plant that is Zone 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 is a perennial in our area; anything zone 8, 9 or 10 would be considered an annual (though you can fudge this a bit). Certain areas of your yard could be hot spots and might be able to tolerate one zone higher.
Microclimate can be applied to a variety of things. For our purposes, it is a spot within a garden that differs from the general environment. Some examples would be a wet spot where water collects during rain, a spot that remains warmer in the winter—often due to a structure, a spot that is sheltered from the wind, etc.
A plant that grows, flowers, produces seed all in one season, and then does not survive the winter. It must be planted each year. Many plants we call annual may be perennial in warmer locations.
Plants that are cold hardy and will return again each spring. Some will flower the first year they are planted and some will need to mature before flowering. Some perennials are very long lived and others will survive only a few years.
Plants that are perennial in warm locations but are not winter hardy in cold locations. These plants are often treated as annuals in cold climates or may be in the house plant section. Also called “perennial grown as annual.”
Bolting is when a plant starts to produce flowers, which often reduces the eating quality. The most common signs are a lengthening of the stems.
- Habit The general structure of the plant. Common habits:
- Climbing Plants that climb fences or other structures by using roots or stem structures to grip, vines are climbers. Pole beans, peas, indeterminate tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, and many squash climb.
- Clump Forming Plant that forms clumps of foliage, often spreading to form other clumps close by. Many alliums form clumps if left to do so.
- Mounded Plants with a rounded appearance, they are usually wider than they are tall.
- Spreading Plants that grow low and spread along the ground, rooting at nodes along the stem. Many nightshades, herbs, and brambles will do this.
- Trailing Plants that trail along the ground or out of pots but do not root at nodes along the stem. Nasturtiums are a classic of this habit.
- Upright A plant that is taller than it is wide with straight (more or less) edges, these plants often have a somewhat spiky appearance. Think salvia!
Removing a portion of the plant, often just the very tip of the shoots, to encourage branching. Often this is done by using your finger nails to pinch off the newest growth but scissors, pruning shears, or a knife can also be used. Useful for tomatoes, peppers, and basil.
Using pruning shears, scissors, a knife, or loppers to shape or rejuvenate a plant, not to increase branching. Generally pruning is much more drastic than pinching. Pruning is most commonly used on shrubs, trees, and perennials.
Soil & Sun
The upper layer of soil that you plant in. It varies in depth from place to place, but will almost always be less than a foot deep and can be as little as 2 inches deep.
Soil composed of many tiny plate-like soil particles that can compact with time to form a hard, solid mass that makes shoveling difficult, digging holes more laborious, and often results in poor drainage.
Sandy soil is composed of many irregular to rounded tiny grains of sand, as opposed to the many tiny plate-like soil particles that make up a clay soil. Sandy soil drains very quickly and doesn't hold on to fertilizer well.
Compost is the decomposition of plants and other formerly living materials into a soil-like substance that is high in organic matter, an excellent fertilizer, and capable of improving almost any soil.
It is a substance applied to the top of the soil around plants. It can be organic or inorganic and may serve several different purposes. Mulch helps retain soil moisture, decreases weeds, reduces erosion, moderates soil temperature, adds organic matter (provided organic mulch is used), increases the attractiveness of the landscape, and protects plants from adverse winter conditions. Excellent mulch options include: wood chips, straw (organic only!), pine shavings, rice hulls, and/or pecan shells.
A measure of how acidic or basic your soil is. A pH of 7 is considered neutral. Acidic soils have a pH less than 7, basic soils have a pH greater than 7, and most plants prefer a pH between 6 and 7. pH can be adjusted using amendments, but I wouldn’t bother about this much unless you suspect that pH is causing problems for your plants.
- Exposure is the optimum amount of sun or shade each plant needs to thrive:
- Full Sun is 6 or more hours of direct sun a day. This is needed for 99% of edible plants.
- Partial Sun or Partial Shade is 4 to 6 hours of direct sun a day.
- Full Shade is less than 4 hours of direct sun a day.
- Fertilizing To add nutrition to your plants using either commercial or non commercial fertilizers or compost.
- Heavy Feeders are plants that need a lot of fertilizer for optimal performance. Regular applications of fertilizer are necessary for continued performance. In general, nightshades and curcurbits are heavy feeders.
- Light Feeders are plants that do not need a lot of fertilizer for optimal performance. Over feeding light feeders can cause toxicity.
- N-P-K Ratio of Nitrogen to Phosphorous to Potassium in a fertilizer. These are the main nutrients required by plants. Aim for a balanced fertilizer, like a 5-5-5 or 10-10-10 for general feeding. I like fish emulsion liquid, as it doesn’t burn.
- Watering Plants differ somewhat on how much water they require and will generally fall into 5 categories. These categories are most relevant for plants in containers but also apply to in ground plantings. For in ground plantings you will need to provide an inch of water each week if mother nature doesn’t do it for you.
- Drought Resistant plants can withstand periods with little to no supplemental water once established in the landscape. All plants will need to be watered while getting established. Annuals and perennials need 2 to 3 weeks to establish, shrubs and trees need a year to become established.
- Drought Tolerant plants deal with severe drought on a regular basis, and recover from repeated wilting.
- Heat Tolerant plants flourish despite hot temperatures.
Seeds & Plants
- Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms. These plants are more genetically diverse; this can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, the seed produced will remain true-to-type year after year.
- Heirloom seed varieties come from a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the generational sharing of heirloom jewelry or furniture. An heirloom variety must be open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.
- Hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed by human intervention. Hybridization can occur naturally through random crosses, but commercially available hybridized seed, often labeled as F1, is deliberately created to breed a desired trait. However, any seed produced by F1 plants is genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years. Gardeners who use hybrid plant varieties must purchase new seed every year.
- Genetically modified seeds have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs. In general, genes are taken from one organism that shows a desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism. Organic seeds are never GMO, and reputable seedsmen catering to home gardeners don’t sell GMO seeds.
If you're interested in where to start for books, media, and seeds/plants, click here!
And lastly, I am including a copy of the note that was sent out to newsletter subscribers of Old House Gardens when founder Scott Kunst retired several years ago. I have never encountered better advise more succinctly stated, and I share it with every person I can reasonably press it upon. I hope it serves you well!
Lessons Learned from a Lifetime of Gardening
by Scott Kunst, OHG Founder, Expert Emeritus, and Ambassador for Heirlooms • “Friends of Old Bulbs Gazette” from Old House Gardens • Ann Arbor, Michigan • June 2021
“Though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” – Thomas Jefferson, a life-long gardener, writing in 1811 when he was 68 years old
I’ve been gardening since I was seven or eight, inspired by a love of nature and a grandmother who nurtured me along with her plants. And though I’m still constantly learning, here are a few of the lessons the garden has taught me so far and that guide me today. Hopefully some of them will resonate with you, and maybe get you thinking about what you’ve learned so far and what guides you today in nurturing your own little bit of paradise.
Garden for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with making your front yard look good for the neighbors, or planting native plants for pollinators, and so on. But the garden is one of the few places in life where you can truly follow your own heart, and I think you’ll find it’s a lot more fun when you do that. But please remember ….
Your garden is their home. The older I get, the more I feel for the thousands of tiny creatures that live in my garden: bees, ants, worms, spiders, and all the rest. Most of them are good for the planet, they work harder than I do, and they love my garden, too! Now instead of being a clueless Godzilla rampaging through their world, I look out for them – and that has made my gardening more interesting and satisfying.
It’s mostly about the plants. Garden history books usually emphasize design and constructed features rather than plants, and some garden magazines do that, too. But for most of us gardeners, plants are the heart of the garden. They’re why we garden. Sure, we like to arrange them so they look good, and we probably have some garden furnishings, but we’re not landscape architects, we’re plant lovers. Embrace that.
Step one is paying attention. It’s a lot like “showing up” for your kids. If you’re not out there really looking at your plants on a regular basis, you’re not going to know what’s going on and small problems – weeds, pests, whatever – will soon become big ones. Also, nothing can teach you as much about your plants as they will, if you’re paying attention, and the more you look closely at them, the more you’ll enjoy them.
Don’t be daunted by the hype. It’s easy to get seduced by photos of a spectacular garden, a blog post about how easy it is to grow something, or an enticing catalog description. But reality often falls short of these rosy visions, and that can get discouraging. Instead, remind yourself that much of what you see and read about gardening is more like la-de-da Hollywood movies than the real world and you’ll be a much happier gardener.
You will make mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Learn from them and it will lessen the sting, plus you’ll do better next time. And forgive yourself. Not everything is in your control, and no one is perfect – just like in the rest of life.
Editing is more important than planting. Adding new plants to the garden is fun, but since plants are always growing and changing – and since we all make mistakes – it’s good to keep looking at your garden with a critical eye and pruning this, moving that, and getting rid of plants you no longer love. Without editing, no garden will ever look its best. And sometimes you need to be ruthless about it.
Weeding is endless. Learn to love it. Weeds will always be a part of your garden, and once you accept that, plan for it, and keep after them, you may find that what was once a dreaded chore is relaxing, even soothing, and gives you time to enjoy your garden up close while your thoughts wander freely. How could you not like that?
Start early, go late. We all love spring, but it’s not much fun when it gets so busy that you feel rushed and overwhelmed. I’m sure I’ll never avoid that completely, but I’ve learned to garden longer in the fall, doing as much as I can then so I won’t have to do it in the spring, and then I start again as early as I can in the spring. Yes, it’s cold, and I have to push myself to get out there, but the payoff is worth it, and I’ve come to actually enjoy doing it.
Cultivate anticipation. Looking ahead is one of the greatest pleasures in gardening, so make the most of it. Daydream about your newly-planted bulbs all winter long, admire your buds as much as your flowers, and enjoy not only the garden you have but the one you’re constantly planting and reshaping in your imagination.
Pass it on. I think I was born a gardener, but I got some important inspiration and encouragement along the way from my Grandma Billie, my dad (who helped me plant my first gardens), Sally Campbell (who paid me to do what I loved doing), Art Tucker (who opened my eyes to heirloom plants), and a host of other gardeners. You can pass that gift along, too, and – when I think of my four-year-old grandson excitedly showing me the flowers he asked his parents to buy him at the farmers’ market – I can promise you that giving it will bring you enormous joy, too.
That’s not all, of course, but I have to go. Happy gardening!