Gardening is a great way to get some physical activity, fresh air and sunshine. Plus, it’s a fun way to connect with nature and destress. Vegetable gardening can help you save money on grocery bills and reduce your environmental impact. Some studies have shown that people who garden tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than those who don't garden, likely because gardening makes it easier to access fresh, healthy food. Use these simple steps to get started on a gardening adventure.
Gather Gardening Supplies
Gardening tools are essential for planting, watering, weeding and harvesting plants. Some basic tools include a shovel, hoe, rake, trowel, watering can and pruning shears.
Seeds are the starting point for any garden. When choosing seeds, consider the type of plants you want to grow, the climate you live in and the amount of space you have. Varieties include conventional, heirloom and organic seeds. As a beginner gardener, you may want to consider the most common type, conventional seeds, which are typically bred for high yields and resistance to pests and diseases. Organic seeds are grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, while heirloom seeds are typically those passed from generation to generation.
Seedlings are young plants that have been started indoors or in a greenhouse. They are a good option for gardeners who want to get a head start on the growing season. Seedlings can be purchased from a nursery or garden center, or you can start your own from seeds.
Healthy soil is important for growing healthy plants. Good soil should be loose, well-drained and rich in organic matter. You can improve the quality of soil by adding compost or other organic matter such as dried leaves, grass clippings or peat moss (hint: you can find it in home improvement stores). Lastly, consider having your soil tested. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends testing soil to make sure it is safe and does not contain high levels of lead.
Water also is essential for plant growth. It is important to use a safe water supply for watering fruit and vegetable plants to eliminate possible chemicals or pathogens. If you are unsure about the quality of your water, have it checked.
Fertilizer provides plants with nutrients to grow stronger. Varieties include organic, synthetic and soil that includes fertilizer. Some fertilizers provide immediate fertilization, while others may provide a “slow release.” Different plants require different types of fertilizer, so be sure to do your research and apply fertilizer as directed.
Compost is a natural fertilizer that is made from organic matter such as leaves, grass clippings and food scraps like banana peels and eggshells. Compost is a great option to consider, especially since it helps to reduce food waste.
As plants mature, support is needed for proper growth. Stakes or trellises provide support for climbing plants, such as cucumbers, and cages may be used for larger plants such as tomatoes.
Starting a Vegetable Garden
Before you start digging, choose a location that takes into consideration the size of the garden you want, the type of fruit or vegetable plants you want to grow and your climate. Plants that grow best in full sun need a location that provides at least 6 hours of sunlight daily. Think about the amount of time and money you want to invest in your garden based on your goals. You can start small and gradually increase the size of your garden as you gain experience or, if you want to grow a large garden or sell your produce, you will need to invest more time and money.
There are three main ways to grow a garden: in containers, in the ground or in raised beds. Each method has advantages and disadvantages.
- Containers are a good option for gardeners with limited space and who don’t want the hassle of tilling soil, or who want to move their garden around. However, some plants may not grow as well in a small space, and they usually require more frequent watering and fertilizing.
- The most traditional (and affordable) method, growing in the ground, is good for people who have a lot of space and want to grow a larger garden. However, it can be difficult to control weeds and pests.
- Raised beds are a good option for gardeners who do not have good soil in their yard (for example, clay or sand), do not have ground space to till for a garden, or who have limited mobility or difficulty bending over. One disadvantage is that materials to build a raised bed garden can be costly.
After choosing a location, sketch out your garden plan with the plants you want to grow. Consider these factors:
- The amount of sunlight each area gets; some plants need full sun while others tolerate partial shade.
- The condition of the soil and its pH level (a measure of how acidic the soil is); most vegetable and fruit plants grow best when pH is near neutral or between 5.5 to 7.
- The depth of the soil; some plants, such as carrots and potatoes, need deep soil to grow properly.
- The size of the plants and how much they may spread.
- The amount of time you have to garden.
- Your skill level; for example, a beginner gardener should start with easy-to-grow plants.
- When plants will be ready to harvest to ensure you can use the ripe produce.
The best time to plant a garden varies depending on your climate. In general, you should plant when the soil is warm and the weather is consistently temperate. Consult the National Gardening Association website for the best time to start planting your garden. Some vegetables tolerate cooler temperatures and may mature quicker, so they can be planted earlier and sometimes more than once in the same growing season.
Easiest Vegetables to Grow
These vegetables are relatively easy to grow from seed and can be harvested quickly. Plus, like all produce, they provide beneficial vitamins and minerals.
- Green beans
How to Start Seeds Indoors
- Fill seed trays or pots with seed starting mix about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date.
- Plant seeds according to package directions.
- Cover seeds with a thin layer of soil.
- Water lightly.
- Place seed trays or pots in a warm, sunny spot. You also can use a grow light.
- Keep soil most but not soggy.
- Once seedlings have sprouted, thin them out so there is only one seedling per pot or cell in the seed tray.
- Continue to water and fertilize seedlings as needed.
- Begin the process of acclimating the seedlings to the outdoors. Also known as “hardening off,” this allows plants to adjust to the weather, decreasing stress on the plant upon transplanting.
Tips for transplanting seedlings:
- Choose a day when the weather is mild, between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and not windy.
- Water the seedlings well before transplanting.
- Dig a hole that is twice as wide as the root ball of the seedling.
- Gently remove the seedling from the pot or seed tray and place it in the hole.
- Fill the hole with soil and water the seedling well.
- Apply mulch around the seedling to help retain moisture.
Basic Plant Care and Guidelines
A few plant practices can help ensure your garden is successful:
- Allow for ample space during planting. If you place plants too close together, they will compete for resources and may not grow as well.
- Water plants regularly, especially during hot, dry weather. Water at the base of plants and earlier in the day. Most plants need at least 1 inch of water per week but avoid overwatering, which can drown plants and cause root rot. Underwatering also can be an issue, causing dry leaves and wilting, or even death.
- Fertilize plants regularly, if needed. Many plants need to be fertilized every few weeks, depending on the soil and type of fertilizer.
- Clear weeds from your garden regularly. Weeds compete with plants for water, nutrients and sunlight.
- Protect plants from pests and diseases, which can damage or even kill plants. Consider using a physical barrier such as row covers ─ a transparent or semi-transparent cloth that protects plants from wind and insects ─ or fencing to protect from deer and rabbits. You also can use natural pesticides, such as neem oil or insecticidal soap, for bugs that aren’t welcome in the garden. Beneficial bugs like ladybugs and praying mantises are helpful in keeping pests under control.
- Harvest crops regularly, which encourages plants to produce more. If you wait too long to harvest, crops may become overripe and not taste as good.
With a little planning and effort, you can have a successful garden that provides fresh and healthy food.
Looking for more resources to get started? Check out your local library, college or university, nurseries or home improvement stores and even gardening and cooperative extension service websites.
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