For Beginner Gardeners

Want to grow some veggies for your family?  In need of fresh-as-it-gets salsa?  Ready to get some dirt under your fingernails?  But not really sure where to start?  Below are some ideas, thoughts, steps and cautions.

Keep in mind that we live in the Pacific Northwest.  I can't guarantee any of it will work for people in other parts of the world.  I can't really guarantee any of it will work for sure in the Pacific Northwest either, but I have been successful for the most part.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to realize that about 85% of gardening is completely out of your control.  You can do everything right and then have a family of voles take up residence in your potato patch and quietly, stealthily eat 3/4's of your crop (that happened to me two summers ago).  Or a late frost, that the weather people didn't predict, can kill the fruit that just set on your peach tree (last spring we had no peaches).  So you have to have the mindset "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

Starting in February
1.  Pick the location - You need to have a minimum 8 hours of sunlight per day.  Don't pick a shady location. Some light pruning may help.  (Note - If your yard is shady, you can garden but what you can grow will be limited to leafy greens and other shade-tolerant veggies.)
2.  Decide if you are going to do raised beds or right in the ground.  If you have soil that drains badly or is extra compacted, then raised beds would be a better choice.  I've done both.  When we lived on a small suburban lot, raised beds were a good option.  Now we have a raised bed out front and a large in-the-ground  garden in the back.  Either will work just fine.
3.  Sizing - You need to be able to weed and reach your food to harvest without trampling anything.  4 foot wide raised beds work well.  Make the beds about 10 inches, or more, deep so you can grow carrots and parsnips.  For working  right in the ground, make sure the whole garden plot is large enough to include trails for you to walk in between your rows and mounds of plants.  For both options, it helps to draw a diagram (see end of post for my diagram).
4.  Plot it out - use some wooden stakes and string and plot out where your garden is going to go.
5.  Build it - If you are doing raised beds, lay cardboard or newspaper (5 layers thick) over the ground where the beds will be.  This kills the weeds but also decomposes in time and allows drainage.  Build the frames using 2x6 lumber.  Re-used wood is good; we used wood from a deconstructed back deck.
6.  Dig it - If you are doing right in the ground gardening you have couple of options.  One is to dig and flip the garden plot. Flipping grass under soil will cause it to decompose.  The other option is layering.  Lay down a layer of cardboard or newspaper (5 sheets thick).  Then add 6-8 inches of compost.

Before You Plant - March
1.  Amend the soil - The condition of your soil is vitally important.  The healthier your soil, the healthier your plants.  In raised beds, you are going to add new soil/compost the first year.  Talk with an expert at your nursery about soil options. For in the ground gardens or raised beds that are a couple years old, you need to test your soil.  You can get soil testing kits from any garden supply place.  After testing the soil, you'll know exactly what you need - organic material, nitrogen, calcium.  That sounds really intimidating - kind of like 8th grade science class.  So, for years I skipped the test and just added compost every spring.  Worked fine for me.  But testing is easy and is best for the soil.
2.  Rototill - Not for raised beds or layer gardening.  For in the ground gardens, you need to till to get some air and water down in the soil.  Loosen it all up. Rent or barrow a rototiller.  We till our garden twice in the spring - once as early as the soil is workable and then again right before planting.
3.  Raised beds or layer gardens - The first year, you just plant into the new soil/compost.  Year two and after, you can till with a shovel by just turn all the soil over.

What to Plant and When
1.  Only plant things you like to eat.  Zucchini is the easiest thing to grow - it's basically a weed.  But if you hate zucchini then don't grow it.  Same with radishes - so easy to grow but not everyone likes radishes.
2.  Plant stuff that will fit in the space you chose.  Pumpkins are fun to grow, but the need lots and lots of space - they trail out all over the place.  Pumpkins don't work well in raised beds unless you trellis them.  Corn needs to be grown in rows - 3 rows of about 10 plants - that is a huge amount of space.  For a first-time gardener, here is what I recommend:  peas, kale/spinach, carrots, beets, cucumbers, green beans, yellow summer squash, fingerling potatoes, tomatoes, green peppers, basil, rosemary and chives.
3.  Timing - March/April plant peas, kale, lettuce and other cold weather stuff.  Plant potato "seeds" in early April.  April/May is when you'll plant most of your seeds. For tomatoes and green peppers, don't start with seeds unless you have a hot location for your garden.  I recommend you get starts from a nursery and wait to plant until May.  Here is a great planting guide for our climate --  Rule of thumb for the PNW, everything should be planted in your garden by Mother's Day.
4.  Add small flowers like alyssum, marigolds around the edges of the garden.  Small flowers attract beneficial bugs like bees and ladybugs.  Plus, it's pretty.

Where to Plant within Your Garden
Draw a picture of your garden to determine where you are going to plant stuff.  Try to scale it somewhat.  Start with pencil :-).  At very bottom of this page is a picture of my 2010 garden.
1.  Check out the back of the seed packet, it has spacing requirements.  You should follow these to make sure the fruit has enough room to mature.
2.  Peas, green beans and cucumbers grow up a trellis.  Put the trellis so it is on the north side of beds and won't shade plants behind the trellis.  You can get fancy trellises or create your own with wooden poles and twine.
3.  Some veggies/fruits hate each other, while others are best friends.  For example, tomatoes and green peppers do not like to be together.  Plant them as far apart as is possible.  Potatoes and green beans like each other.  Here is a guide for "companion
4.  Also follow the seed packet instructions for thinning.  Thinning is hard - you are killing perfectly good seed sprout that could produce food - but you have to do it.  Thin to get the right spacing and remove sickly looking sprouts.
5.  Don't plant the same plant in the same location two years in a row.  You need to rotate the plants around, yes even in raised bed.  Not only will plants pull the nutrients out of the soil, there are little bugs that prefer certain plant roots.  If you rotate, your soil will be happier and you'll have less disease problems.  Since you drew a picture of where you planted, you can use it next year to choose new locations.

You should water at 4am.  Yep, 4am.  It's cool out so all the water goes to the plants and doesn't evaporate into the air.  If you water at night the water will sit, not being used by the plants which aren't growing at night, and the soil will get all fungusy and mossy.  4am. Get a timer, unless you like getting up before the sun.  The timer should have options of watering for 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes.  Starting in May or June, depending on when the rain lets up, I water every day.  Starting at 15 minutes, I up the time until the water is running for 60 minutes in the heat of August.  It should be noted, that drip watering is best because less water is wasted.  But I use a sprinkler due to the size of my garden and all the hose I'd need to drip each plant.  If you water from the top, you will probably get fungus on the leaves of some plants, particularly winter squash which don't like top watering.  But it doesn't hurt the fruit.

Feed your plants.  When the seeds sprout and are the shoots are up a couple-three inches, add some fertilizer.  Use an all-natural, organic fertilizer and follow the instructions for how much to add.  Some plants like particular nutrients, but you can get into that during the 2nd or 3rd year of gardening when you feel more confident.  For year one, just do a basic organic fertilizer.

I don't use any chemicals in my garden.  The best way to keep everything healthy is to plant lots of variety, add plants that attract beneficial bugs, rotate every year and keep the soil healthy.  To keep the deer and rabbits from nibbling on my food, I use "Liquid Fence" which is combination of egg whites, garlic, pepper and vegetable oil that has been fermented or rotted or something like that.  It smells foul - careful not to get it on your clothes because the smell will stay for 3-4 washings.  You can order it online or find it at your nursery.  If aphids show up, I mix some dish soap (1 T) in water (4 c) and spray just on the infected areas.  Kills the aphids but doesn't hurt anything else.  For slugs, the best bet is to cut them in-half.  Totally disgusting, but very effective.  Another option is to plant something the slugs like more than the veggies - like marigolds.  The marigolds get eaten but your veggies stay safe.  Copper also works if you have raised beds - line the bottom with copper wiring.  In my experience, a dish of beer does not work.

I weed every single weekend but only for about 30 minutes - yep 30 minutes to weed a 1,500 sq ft garden.  I use a stirrup hoe to scrape the bare soil around my plants.  Agitating the soil like this prevent weeds from growing.  I pull out any weeds right around the seed sprouts.  If you do this routinely, you'll have a very "clean" garden with no weeds competing with your food for light, water and nutrients.  And you won't spend hours weeding.  You can also add mulch, like grass clippings around the plants, to slow the weed growth.  Make sure the mulch is free of chemicals - those chemicals will get into the plants that you are going eat.

OK - Those are the basics of gardening.  Every year you'll have some successes and some failures to learn from.  You'll learn tricks that work for you and your garden.  You'll find varieties that look as neat as they taste.

Happy Gardening!

A - acorn squash            P- pumpkin                  B- butternut squash
Z - zucchini                     r - Roma tomato          C - cherry tomato            h - heirloom tomato