If you planned on starting a garden this year, or have always wanted to start a garden, now couldn’t be a better time to do so. With the current world crisis due to COVID-19, food shelves are scarce and many counties and states are under mandatory quarantine. If this tells us anything, it’s that having food grown in our own backyard couldn’t be more important during world crises. These 7 important tips on how to grow a vegetable garden will help you make it happen no matter what your experience level.
Getting outdoors, getting our hands dirty and just being in nature has been proven to reduce anxiety, give a sense of purpose, calm the nerves and increase our happy hormones. In my early twenties, as I was recovering from a long and serious depression, I made a list of the things I wanted to accomplish over the next ten years, and at the very top was a seemingly simple wish: To grow my own vegetables.
While it did end up taking me more than fifteen years to finally make that dream a reality (as it turns out, my thumb is really, really brown), the tips my husband and I have learned along our arduous path to growing a garden have proven to be essential.
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You see for the past several 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 know that if I keep trying, I’ll get it eventually!
Well, I’m happy to report that after several years, my optimism has paid off. This year, for the first time 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!).
How to Grow a Vegetable Garden: 7 Important Steps
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, and 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 control the soil, the drainage, 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 Kow soil 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 for 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, 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’s 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, all-purpose fertilizers 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 it 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 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, grown from scratch, from your very own garden!
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!