10 Tips For Novice Vegetable Gardeners

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So, seemingly out of nowhere, you’ve been bitten by the ‘gardening bug’ and you’re ready to sow your very first seeds…not to be mistaken for wild oats because that is something else entirely. Maybe you’ve wanted to grow a garden for years and at long last you’re in a place in your life where you can finally get your hands dirty.

You’re ready–yet something causes you to hesitate. That ‘something’ is that you have absolutely no idea what the fuck you’re doing. The unknown can be intimidating, but don’t waste your time worrying when you could be growing! With these tips (and little bit of faith), you’ll be munching on something you grew with your own two hands in no time.

#1 Know your zone.

A map of Canada’s Plant Hardiness Zones.

What is a hardiness zone? Wikipedia defines a hardiness zone as ‘a geographic area defined to encompass a certain range of climatic conditions relevant to plant growth and survival.’ (Did you hear the ‘womp womp’ of the Charlie Brown teacher, too?)

In plain English, each zone represents an average of extreme minimum temperatures in the area. What that means is that some plants will grow and some plants will not grow based on your particular area, or zone.

If you’re still confused, think of it this way: You’re baking a cake. The recipe says to bake the cake for 30 minutes at 375 F. Your oven only reaches a temperature of 275 F but you still only have 30 minutes to bake the cake. Will the cake work out? Well, it won’t be cake, that’s for sure.

In the scenario above, your plants are the cake, the oven represents the geographic region you live in, the temperature of the oven is your average minimum temperature, and the baking time is your growing season. While some things will ‘bake’ in your climate, others will not.

I’m on the cusp of hardiness zone 3b. On some maps I’m zone 4a. That means I can grow snap peas out the wahoozle, but avocados or bananas would be an epic fail.

A quick Google search will tell you what your hardiness zone is, and essentially that will tell you what you can and can’t successfully plant.

#2 Location, location, location.

When we decided where to dig our big garden we chose a lower spot in the yard to hopefully help with watering. It was early spring when I took this photo so there was a lot of run off, but it didn’t puddle like this during the growing season.
The garden in the above photo–but, in summer!

Step number two is to choose where you want your plot to be. You may be tempted to tuck your garden away in an out of the way corner somewhere, and while that may actually be the ideal location, you’ll want to consider a few things first.

  1. The area you choose should gets lots of sun.
  2. Avoid windy areas.
  3. Make sure your hose will reach!

I made the rookie mistake of putting my first raised beds in an area of my yard that I thought would look cute. (I was right, of course, because when a I ever wrong…right, Dave?) But, it only gets sun for half of the day and the hose was so far from reaching my garden that I ended up having to run a hose through my house in order to water them and it suckedso choose wisely.

#3 Start small.

Our first garden on our homestead consisted of a handful of raised beds that Dave built using scrap lumber from around our property, as well as a collection of large containers that were given to us.

It’s a good idea to dip your toes in a little rather than diving in head first when you’re new to gardening.

Keeping your first garden on the smaller side should allow you to stay on top of everything and you’ll have the time to observe things like the soil, the watering conditions, and what does and doesn’t work. If you don’t have time to observe a small veggie patch, you probably won’t have time to tend to a big ole beast of a garden, so it’s a good test.

Our first garden on this property consisted of 6 raised beds and a dozen or so large pots. I planted small sugar pumpkins, corn, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, zucchini, brussels sprouts, carrots, and beans in the raised beds, and I planted tomatoes and peppers in the pots.

Containers are a great option when you need the space!

The pumpkins, beans, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and potatoes thrived. The corn grew, bit didn’t produce. The onions were ‘meh’, the carrots didn’t even germinate, and the brussels started to grow but died a slow wormy death.

I learned something from every win and every fail. By keeping my garden small, I was able to observe and apply what I learned to my future gardens. Baby steps.

#4 Choose your crops.

With so many choices, it can be hard to decide what to grow first.

If you’re like me, you want to plant aaalll the things, but it’s best to choose a smaller variety of plants that you already know your family enjoys.

Your zone has probably already narrowed down some of the options, but if you’re still on the fence, I suggest starting with something easy and low maintenance.

In my opinion, the easiest things to grow are peas, beans, radishes, and salad greens. I have literally thrown a handful of leaf lettuce seeds all willy nilly and had them grow, but tidy rows do look nicer and they’re easier to weed, too.

I included pickling cucumbers and paste tomatoes in my photo example, because part of your decision should be based on what you plan to do with the things you grow. If your #1 goal is to make jam, berries should probably be on your list.

I have long term goals for self reliance so I try to plant things that I can preserve. Cucumbers and tomatoes can be a little more finicky, but if you know you’ll use them all up, go for it! You’ll never know until you try, and even if you fail, you’ll learn something from it and you can try again next year.

Note: If you’re an on-paper planner, a garden planner such as this one created by New Brunswick’s The Petite Plantation is a really clean and affordable option.

#5 Plan your garden layout.

Shown here is a rough sketch of my very first garden on this property. The T’s represent tomatoes while the P’s are peppers.

Spatially speaking, there’s only so many plants you can squeeze in to a designated spot. Fortunately, it’s possible to fit more in to a small space if you do a little digging (ha!) and think outside the box.

While you may be tempted to plant a single crop per row or section, consider underplanting! Underplanting is basically taking advantage of the space beneath a taller crop. For example, shade loving lettuce would do well planted beneath corn, as suggested in Lucy Halsall’s ‘Small Plot Big Harvest’ .

I highly recommend ‘Small Plot Big Harvest’ by Lucy Halsall. Bright, colourful photos are on each and every glossy page and the wording is easy to understand. It’s perfect for a beginner gardener, but experienced growers would also enjoy it.

Growing vertically on a pole or trellis or turning a trellis itself in to an arch are also great ideas for expanding your garden space, and if all else fails and you still need more room, many crops do really well in containers or hanging baskets. Tomatoes and strawberries are good examples, but in cold climates perennial strawberries are not likely to overwinter in a container. Something to look in to.

When you’re planning the layout of your garden, you’ll also want to consider the fact that some crops are like ‘Bloods’ while others are like ‘Crips’. To put it nicely–they don’t get along and they won’t get over it.

Carrots and turnips should not be planted next to potatoes because it can stunt the growth of the potatoes. Potatoes should not be planted in a spot where tomatoes were once grown, either.

That being said, there are plants that help each other out when planted close together!

Which brings me to my next point…

#6 Consider companion plants.

Companion planting is the act of intentionally planting certain crops together with the knowledge that one plant is beneficial to the other. Often times, one plant acts as pest control for another.

One of many Companion Planting’ charts that can be found online.

There’s no shortage of companion planting charts scattered all over the internet, but if you aren’t a chart person, simply ask Google.

Type in “companion plants for carrots” (or whatever crop you’d like to know about.) Another option is to ask “can I plant carrots next to potatoes?” (The answer is, no, by the way!)

Marigolds are just that–gold! Marigolds are natural pest deterrents therefore many gardeners choose to plant them throughout their gardens. Calendula is another great choice, though in my experience, Marigolds are easier to keep alive.

#7 Follow directions.

Directions are rules that are not meant to be broken!

Starting your seeds might sound mundane, but it’s important to take your time and follow the directions on your seed packet.

Have you ever heard the expression, ‘it’s a rule for a reason’? The directions on your seed packets are basically rules, and they’re definitely rules that are meant to be followed.

If the packet says sow indoors before the last frost, sow indoors before the last frost. If it says ‘no more than 2 seeds per pot’, then no more than 2 seeds per pot! If the packet says to stake the plant up when it gets bigger, damn it, Karen, know your role!

It feels so good to see your seedlings flourish!
It’s a good idea to ‘harden off’ any plants being transplanted outdoors. Prior to transplanting I would let my seedlings spend some time outside during the day, but I’d bring them back inside at night.

Your seed packet will also tell you when to transplant outdoors. Some seed packets even tell you what pests could be a problem and what companion plants help prevent those pests from becoming a problem.

#8 Protect your plants.

Tying bits of shiny string or tinfoil to your fences and in and around your garden are good for scaring birds off.

A productive garden is basically a free buffet to birds and many other critters.

Two years ago some mystery asshole kept sneaking in to my garden every night and ate half of my tomato crop in total! I never did figure out who it was.

Last year my chickens were the reason every single one of my brussels sprouts met their demise. I have a nice big wire fence around my garden, but some of my smaller hens found their way inside day after day until every leaf on my brussels had been gobbled up. (So much for farm fresh brussels sprouts on our Thanksgiving dinner table!)

Because there are so many different creatures that would love to feast on your hard work in progress, it only makes sense for there to be different things you can do to protect your investment.

The most obvious first line of defense is to fence your garden in. Deer can easily clear a 6′ fence, so if deer are a problem in your neighbourhood, an 8′ fence is best. Deer also dislike highly smelly things. I popped chunks of Old Spice soap in mason jars and put thick plastic over the ends with tiny holes popped in them. By laying the jars on their sides, the smell could get out but the water couldn’t get in. (Pro Tip! This is a great way to use up the fancy soap your Grandma gave you a decade ago that claims to smell like roses but actually smells like a public restroom, too.) Some strong smelling herbs such as dill or mint are also useful in deterring deer, and of course, there are various sprays that you can use.

Besides the classic scarecrow, shiny strings, strips of tinfoil, or children’s flashy windmills are great for making birds think twice about stealing your precious produce. And, let’s not forget about bird netting!

Chicken wire works well for keeping your flock out of your garden, but even 1″ wire won’t keep a gopher or mouse out, and unless you bury the fence deep under the ground, rabbits won’t be deterred, either. You can unleash the wrath of your cat and dog on gophers and rabbits, or you can trap them, if you’d prefer.

Rodent damage!

Worse than animals, in my opinion anyway, are bugs! If you don’t know what you’re looking for (and sometimes, even when you do), you can easily miss the signs of an impending or quiet attack on your plant babies.

A dainty little white or light yellow ‘butterfly’ flitting gracefully through your garden may seem harmless, but if you have any of the brassica family planted, beware! These cute little butterflies, or Cabbage Whites, lay eggs among your broccoli and their relatives–and those eggs hatch an army of squishy green hell-beasts who unleash Satan’s fury all over your Brassicas, quickly destroying them if not stopped. I’ve tried companion planting and literally picking off each and every worm I see but I have still lost the majority of these crops to Cabbage Worms. This year I’ll be using row covers.

Not all insects are bad, though. Bumblebees, ladybugs, and other butterflies are all beneficial!

When it comes to bugs, the next best thing to do beyond gaining experience, is to find out what bugs pose a threat to each of the crops you’ve planted and then check to see if they are found where you live. For animals, simply chat with your neighbours and find out what pests are getting in to their gardens.

#9 Watch and learn.

A hefty Bumblebee doing his job. Anything that draws in pollinators, like this Comfrey, is a good thing!

This step is so important, yet it can be so underrated. We learn from experience.

Spending a few extra minutes walking through your garden, watching and listening could mean the discovery of squishy green worms on your cabbage leaves or a gopher hole under your squash. The herd of ladybugs you stumble upon could mean you have aphids. Or, maybe there’s another pest lurking around your plants that hasn’t been mentioned here?

Besides pests, your garden is telling a whole other tale. Dry cracked soil? That area isn’t getting as much water as other areas. Hard, compacted soil? Maybe you have too much clay or sand. Yellow, droopy leaves? Maybe too much water. Stunted growth could mean not enough sun or inadequate nutrients in the soil. These are all things you can work on so that each subsequent growing season gets better and better!

So stop and smell the...broccoli? Spend some time observing. You won’t regret it!

#10 Do the work.

Weeds started to take over my corn!
Tackling the weeds throughout the corn took me about an hour. I finished just as the rain started.

Weeding. What’s the harm in weeds, really? Well, weeds will choke out your crops and likely take their sun. Besides that, any weed you ignore is taking the nutrients from the soil and drinking the water your garden needs. It’s a no-brainer to stay on top of the weeds!

Thinning. Thinning is another chore you’ll encounter at some point. Carrots, beets, and radishes typically involve some level of thinning. The reason for thinning is to give the healthiest plants the best chance to grow. Plants need space, room to breathe.

Watering. The best times of day to water are early in the morning and early evening or at night. Watering when the sun is high in the sky can cause your crops to burn, and of course it doesn’t make sense to water on rainy days.

Harvesting. Throughout the growing season, things will grow and ripen at different rates. Some things may continue to produce as you harvest them, while others are a one time deal. The key to all of this is to pay attention, especially when you know the crops are close.

Enjoy! When you get to this point, enjoy the fruits of your labour! Eat your crops fresh or preserve them, give them away or sell them–but don’t waste them. If something does go bad before you can use it up, consider composting it for future gardens!

Bonus Tips!

#11 Ask the locals.

Besides your own experience, the next best resource is the experience of the locals! Your green thumbed neighbours, the folks at the community garden, and the local greenhouses can probably all give you insight in to gardening.

Facebook groups can also be super helpful! Most online gardening communities for a specific geographic area are full of friendly and considerate people who simply want to grow and connect with other growers.

#12 Relax and enjoy!

Even if the army of squishy green bastards end up invading your broccoli. Even if you only plant enough paste tomatoes to make one jar of sauce. Even if you question yourself every step of the way…

Trying something new takes balls! It’s intimidating! But, you have to breathe it all in, too. You deserve to stroll through your garden and admire your handy work. Stop, smell the rosemary, snap a few photos, snack on the cherry tomatoes. And, when your guests come over, show it off! Here in Central Alberta, our growing season is stupid-short, so I make sure to walk barefoot through the garden as much as possible. I take my coffee out with me in the morning, and I zip out to snatch a handful of herbs for a last minute addition to whatever I’m cooking. I soak it all in, and I love it. The downside to loving my garden so much is that fall and winter are even more unbearable to endure.

Happy gardening, Friends!

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