Buy an air fryer, an e-bike or any new contraption, and it comes with an owner’s manual, a densely worded book of instructions in teeny-tiny type when you just want to start frying and riding. That’s why manufacturers include the condensed version, a quick-start guide — just the basics so you can move on down the road.
That’s how I imagine it is for people new to gardening. They simply want a quick beginner’s guide and to start digging.
According to the National Gardening Association, the pandemic created 18.3 million new gardeners, many with a desire to grow what they can eat.
These new horticulturists cite mental and emotional health benefits in addition to the hope of homegrown produce. Not all fit the typical gardening mold, large numbers of them are younger, more diverse, have young children and live in apartments or condos. Let me say, welcome!
With a lifelong devotion to growing vegetables, herbs and fruit, I’ve learned a lot by “trowel and error” and am happy to share my hard-won wisdom. Here’s a quick start guide to gardening:
The sunny spot: Solar power is crucial to growing. It takes 6 to 8 hours of sunlight daily to create most vegetable crops. Yes, there are some shade-tolerant plants, most of which fall in the leafy category like lettuce, chard, spinach and beets. Some herbs such as mint, lemon balm and cilantro can do with some light shade. Don’t fight the site — put the right plant in the right place according to the amount of sun available.
Often the sunniest spot lands in the front yard. Use your imagination to make a front-yard-worthy food garden if that’s where the sun shines. Those awkward, narrow beds along fence lines or driveways can be great for tomatoes or other heat-loving crops. Maybe it’s possible to incorporate some raised beds in your public-facing yard design. Another idea is to mix vegetables and herbs into your ornamental landscape. Kale and carrots provide attractive foliage. A tepee supporting beans or cucumbers can become an accent piece.
New or improved soil: Feed your soil to help it feed you. Amend your ground or beds with aged cow manure to boost your soil’s nitrogen levels. (Be careful if you’re offered chicken manure from a neighbor’s coop. It’s “hot’ when fresh and can burn your plants.) Follow with some compost to improve soil texture and moisture-holding properties. Online calculators are available to help determine the amount of amendments you need for your size garden. Consider a soil test to find out more about your plot. Find out more here: soiltest.cfans.umn.edu/testing-services
Stick to potting soil if you’re growing in containers. Garden soil or manure is too heavy and will bog down. You can add organic or synthetic granular fertilizer to increase fertility without losing the fluffy texture.
Water: Vegetables require an inch of water a week, more when it’s hot. A good rule of thumb is to water at least once a week if your soil leans to clay or loam, at least twice a week if your soil is sandy, resulting in a deep soaking every time. Observe how fast water is absorbed into the ground or if it puddles quickly to get a feel for how much is right. Get a rain gauge to find how much free water falls from the sky.
Mulch your garden to help retain that moisture, but be careful what you use. Never mulch vegetables with wood chips or shredded wood that will be slow to break down and rob nitrogen in the process. The best mulches for veggie gardens include materials like shredded leaves, straw and newspaper.
What to grow: Grow what you can’t get in the grocery store, whether that’s fresh-off-the-vine flavor, or perhaps hard-to-find vegetable varieties. Get the most for your efforts by growing “cut and come again” crops like leaf lettuce, chard, kale and other greens. Pick only what you need while the plant keeps on growing. Even broccoli works this way, harvest the central head and then watch for smaller side shoots to develop. Herbs do well with frequent snipping, growing bushier and better.
Determine how much you and your family will eat to know how many plants to grow (one zucchini is probably plenty!), starting small at first. You may be surprised at just how much your garden will produce.
Seed vs. plants: Direct seeding is best for root crops like carrots and beets. Garden centers sell pea and bean seedlings but it’s just as easy and cheaper to sow them as seeds; they’ll catch up. Wait for the soil to warm to 55 degrees before sowing squash and cucumber seeds. Test the temperature using a soil thermometer or watch for when lilacs bloom, which typically requires the ground temperature to be 50 degrees or above. With our shorter growing season, it’s best to buy tomatoes, peppers, broccoli and cabbage as plants. With lettuce and other leafy greens you can sow seeds in addition to using purchased plants, spaced a few weeks apart to stretch your salad season.
How to grow: If space is limited, use it wisely. How about cucumbers that will work for salads and pickles? Vertical supports like cages, trellises and tepees for tomatoes, pole beans and cucumbers keep their footprint small, in addition to promoting air circulation to help avoid fungal diseases and make harvesting easier.
If possible, raised beds are the way to go. The result: better soil structure, fewer weeds, better drainage as well as warmer soil to start and extend the growing season. Elevated growing beds are a wonderful choice for seniors and people with physical disabilities. Fill the beds with 50-50 quality topsoil and well-aged compost.
When using containers, get the largest size possible to allow for proper root growth and adequate moisture. Plant breeders have responded to the needs of deck and balcony gardeners by developing new “patio” varieties; compact versions of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans, summer squash, strawberries and other crops more suitable for limited space.
Harvest applet: With tomatoes, peas, beans, peppers, cucumbers and summer squash, it is important to harvest regularly. That signals the plant to keep producing. You can harvest root crops like carrots, beets and turnips at various stages from baby vegetables until the items are fully developed. If herbs start to flower, no sweat. You can still use the foliage and the blooms will attract beneficial insects that control unwanted pests.
Plus, the more you harvest, the more you reward yourself for the fruits of your labor and a well-done first year of gardening.
Rhonda Hayes is a Twin Cities-based Master Gardener, writer and author of “Pollinator Friendly Gardening.”