In my early twenties, as I was recovering from a long and serious depression, I made a list of the the things I wanted to accomplish over the next ten years. At the very top was a seemingly simple wish: To grow my own vegetables.
Little did I know that it would take me more than fifteen years to finally make that dream a reality. As it turns out, my thumb is really, really brown.
For the past five years, my husband and I have been trying very hard to grow our own vegetables. To say we’ve struggled would be quite an understatement. I think we’ve made nearly every mistake in the gardening handbook—planted too early, planted too late, not watered enough, watered too much, let the bugs eat the plants, used too much pesticide and killed the plants, harvested too early, harvested too late, used the wrong seeds, planted too deep, didn’t plant deep enough, used the wrong soil….
In other words, if there was a mistake to be made, we’ve made it.
But much to my husband’s chagrin, I tend to be one of those people who only seems to learn from making mistakes. The more mistakes I make, the more I learn! Moreover, I am also eternally optimistic. My glass is perpetually full (I like to round up), and I just know that if I keep trying, I’ll get it eventually!
Well. I am happy to report that after five long years, my optimism has paid off. This year, for the first year ever, our garden was finally a success!
And luckily for you, my failures are your gain, because now I’ve got some surefire garden growing tips to share that will hopefully allow you to avoid some of my same mistakes! Granted, I’m still learning, but here is what I’ve discovered so far about how to grow a vegetable garden (even if you’ve got the brownest thumb in the world!)
Pick the Right Location
For the most part, vegetable gardens need a lot of sun. Be sure to find a spot in your yard that has a sunny, southern exposure, if possible, & not too much shade. Drainage is also important—your garden should not be located in a low spot that might flood during heavy rains.
Dirt Matters. A Lot
Gardening is the culmination of many different factors coming together—sunlight, temperature, water, the time of year, type of seeds you use, etc. But even the best location and perfect amount of rain won’t matter much if the dirt you are planting in is no good. Rich, fertile soil makes all the difference in the world!
Depending on what you are starting with, it may take quite a bit of effort to get your soil up to par. Raised beds are great because you can not only control the soil, but the drainage as well, plus lay down some sort of weed protection barrier. We have not yet tried raised beds, but have instead dug out deep holes in our garden plot and filled them with better soil. However, next year I am thinking of using these inexpensive raised beds so that I can add a layer of newspaper to minimize weed growth.
This year we followed the “Mel’s Mix” guidelines provided in our Square Foot Gardening book, (named for the author, Mel Bartholemew), which recommended combining 1/3 compost with 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 vermiculite. Since we didn’t have any compost, we used black cow instead, which seemed to work really well. This mix is lighter than soil, retains more moisture, and has better drainage. In the past year we have also started composting, using this rotating double-bin composter, in the hopes that our soil will be even better next year!
Get Good Seeds
I did a lot more research on seeds for last year’s garden, and the one company that kept popping up on all of the “best seed company” lists, was SeedsNow.com, which offers 100% Pure GMO-Free Non Hybrid seeds, which allows you to save your seeds after harvest. This may or may not be important to you, but I like to know that in the event of some major catastrophe, that the seeds I am using are sustainable for the future, and not just for one-time use.
Planting can tricky and a little bit overwhelming. First you have to figure out where to put everything! For the past few years, we had just randomly planted rows, without really knowing where to put what.
This year, however, we took a different tack and followed the square foot gardening method, which recommends dividing your garden plot into 1’x1’ squares. Depending on the crop, some squares will have one plant per square, while others will have, two, four, or even up to 16 for small items like radishes and green onions.
The Square Foot Gardening book gives some really good guidelines and suggestions for where to plant what, but I also liked using the GardenMinder app on our iPad to help plan the garden. I was able to print a map, as well as print planting instructions for each item, which was incredibly helpful!
It is also important to make sure you plant at the right TIME. This has been tricky for us here in Florida, as our growing season is very different from the rest of the country! This year it got too cold for my zucchini, but then too warm for my broccoli and cauliflower. Thus, next year I will adjust accordingly.
Fertilize, Fertilize, Fertilize
Last year I hosted a gardening event on behalf of the Home Depot. While I was there, I had a chance to chat with a few of their gardening experts, who explained that one of the biggest problems for most novice gardeners is that they don’t fertilize nearly enough!
In most cases, an all purpose fertilizer will work really well—try Dr. Earth’s All Purpose Organic or Miracle Gro Organic All Purpose Plant Food—but it is also a good idea to test your soil on a regular basis to make sure the pH level is in the correct range. A pH level that is too high or too low will seriously affect your plant growth. We use this electronic soil tester to make sure our pH levels are where they should be.
The rule of thumb in temperate climates is that your garden should get about an inch of water per week. You can measure this with some sort of rain gauge. However, in hot climates, especially for gardens that get a lot of sun, you will have to water a lot more than that! I definitely had to water my garden at least once a day or it would start to wilt very quickly! One tip I learned from a reader on Instagram was that watering during the hottest part of the day is a very bad idea, as it can actually burn the plants! Try watering in the morning or at dusk.
Keep The Bugs at Bay
There’s nothing worse than seeing all your hard work in the garden literally get eaten away! We had previously tried Sevin powder to repel bugs, but ended up burning our plants by using too much. However, this year we discovered that essential oils work even better for repelling bugs & pests in the garden!
For an easy, all natural bug-repellent, we simply mixed 10-15 drops each of Rosemary, Thyme, Peppermint, and Thieves with water in a small spray bottle, shaking well before each application. (Be sure to use only 100% pure essential oil—for more information, check out this THIS POST!)
Successfully growing a vegetable garden can sometimes feel like a daunting prospect, especially when you are just getting started. A few failures can make you reluctant to try again, but the truth is that gardening often takes a lot of trial and error to finally get it right. In the end, however, there is nothing quite as satisfying as being able to enjoy fresh produce you have grown from scratch!
Hopefully these practical tips from my own garden will encourage you to give it your first shot, or try it one more time. Happy gardening!
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Did I miss anything? What are your best gardening tips?