Did you grow your first vegetable garden last year? Was it all that you hoped for? Are you planning to try again this year?
In a recent Garden Writers Association survey, 37 percent of gardeners who could grow edible plants said they planned to grow more food in 2010 than in 2009. But of those who planned to grow less, the two top reasons were "lack of success" and "cost."
Every garden has rough spots. And especially for new gardeners, there can be some unwelcome surprises. But most gardeners grow with their gardens and find that they gather success as they gain experience.
Many people plant their first vegetable garden in an attempt to save money. In the long run, they will. But some investment will be required the first year--especially in soil amendments and tools. And it's normal for new gardeners to have a higher plant failure rate than old hands.
If this is your sophomore year as a vegetable gardener, you now have a better idea what to expect. And that can go a long way toward smoothing those bumps in the road.
Here are some ways to overcome some of the difficulties that often confront new gardeners.
Reduce your work load: Did your garden turn out to be a greater burden than you expected? You may have been overambitious, trying too many different plants or too many different varieties. This year, consider carefully how much food your family can really use and how much time you really have, and plant only as much as you think you can handle.
Make a plan: As you order seeds or plants and sketch out where you will put them, also make a rough schedule. Figure out when you will need to start seeds indoors, which weekend you plant to prepare the beds, when you likely will set out the tomato transplants, when it's likely to get hot and dry, when you're planning to go on vacation and need to ask a neighbor to water, how far before your first frost you will need to sow a fall crop of salad. Greens. The weather will ultimately rule, but the closer you can stick to a plan the less likely you are to find yourself overwhelmed with garden chores. Try setting up reminders using an online calendar or PDA to help stay on track.
Allow for a margin of error: Were you disappointed by a low yield? Weather and other conditions vary from year to year and yields vary with variety. Inconsistent care has an effect too. To cushion yourself, plant two or three varieties with different maturity dates. That way you'll have a better chance of catching the best weather breaks.
Invest in the soil: Did you skip this part last year and go right to planting, only to find that your plants rotted or languished? This year, remember that the quality of the soil is the basis of all garden success. Dig lots of compost into the soil before you plant anything.
Don't rush: Did you plant peppers or tomatoes last year as soon you saw them in the garden center? And did you see them stall or die in cool spring soil? In cold climates, wait to plant semi-tropical vegetables such as these until it's truly warm enough; err on the late side. If you must plant something early, try cold-tolerant lettuce, spinach or radishes.
Stake when you plant. Put the bean tower or tomato cage in place when you plant. That way you won't find yourself trying to corral a monster plant you had forgotten to stake or having tomatoes rot on the ground.
Weed early: Was your garden overrun with weeds in midsummer? Some weeds are inevitable; there are thousands of weed seeds in every shovel full of soil, and more arrive on the wind. The secret to managing them is to stay ahead of them: Weed thoroughly early in the season when weed sprouts are plentiful but small; mulch around your plants; and set aside regular times for weeding. Half an hour twice a week will go a long way toward controlling weeds in a modest vegetable garden.
Reduce the watering burden: Now that you know how much water a garden needs in August, plan ahead. Invest in soaker hoses (keeping water off the leaves this way will also reduce the chance of disease). Hold moisture in the soil with mulch. Don't water on a set schedule; get into the habit of checking how moist the soil really is an inch or two down. Instead of watering lightly once a day, water deeply once a week. But be prepared to water more often as the weather gets hot. Get a rain gauge and place it, not in the vegetable garden, but where you will see it every day--by the garage or front walk. That way you'll know how much rain has fallen, and be reminded to water if it didn't.
Prevent pests: Pesticides are a bad idea in the edible garden. Instead, concentrate on prevention: Plant disease-resistant varieties. Use soaker hoses instead of sprinklers to deter fungus problems. Slip a 4-inch section of toilet paper or paper towel roll over each tomato transplant to defend against cutworms. Blast aphids off the under with a spray of water. Read up on the possible pests of each species you plant so you'll know what to look for, but tolerate some damage if it's only cosmetic. Welcome beneficial insects that prey on insect pests, and invite them by planting some flowers nearby. If you concentrate on keeping plants properly watered, fertilized and healthy, they can fight off many problems on their own.
Prepare defenses: Many potions, tricks and devices of varying effectiveness are touted to sold to keep animals out of gardens. But the most sure-fire defense is a fence--if you keep the gate closed. A wire-mesh fence should be buried a foot deep to keep rabbits and other animal from burrowing. An ant-deer fence will need to be six to eight feet tall. Raised bed boxes, if they are at least a foot high, will deter rabbits to some degree.
Don't over-fertilize: Did you have an abundance of leaves and stems and not many vegetables last year? You may have over-fertilized, a common rookie mistake. If you use chemical fertilizer, make sure it is for vegetables, not lawns, and do not exceed the label directions. Slow-release fertilizers, added at planting time, are safer. Organic fertilizers are most forgiving, because they feed soil organisms that pass the nutrients along to plants at a useful rate. And if you enrich your soil with plenty of compost, you will need less added fertilizer.
Overdo within reason: Many gardeners, once they've mastered the basic skills, are eager to try everything--every size and shape of eggplant, every flavor of basil, every heirloom tomato. Go ahead and experiment; trying new things is part of the fun of gardening. But bear the workload in mind, and if your enthusiasm lands you with a bigger garden than you can care for, be prepared to do some triage in August if you find yourself overburdened. Don't feel guilty about composting plants you can't take care of. It's all part of the learning experience.
Pay attention: If you want to "plant it and forget it," you're better off buying your vegetables at the farmer's market. A garden requires attention. Visit your garden daily; it's a lovely way to start the day or de-stress after work. You'll spot weeds, insects, beans or squash that need to be harvested or overgrown plants that need pruning or staking when the problem is small and easily handled. You will find that paying attention to your vegetable plot helps put you in touch with the whole natural world: the weather, the rain, what's sprouting or hatching or blooming or fruiting. And you'll have the steady satisfaction of watching your garden grow.