10 Steps to Gardening from Scratch

One last gardening post and then I swear we’ll be back to food full time, at least for a few months until my garden starts doing very cool things that I’d be remiss in not sharing them with you. I have been hearing from friends and readers (who really are friends too) alike that they are thinking of starting a garden for the first time this year due to either the economy or a desire to be more involved with their food or both. Since I’m a horticulturist by trade, I wanted to take the piecemeal advice I give them and compile it into a post so anyone interested in starting a garden for the first time could have a look. These 10 steps are best applied to a garden being created from scratch. However, a few of them are good to repeat with an established garden once in awhile.

It’s only fair to add a bit of a disclaimer here too: these steps are a tad idealistic and presume you all have plenty of time and resources on your hands. Reality may not allow you to take all of these steps. Don’t let that discourage you. These steps are just what I’d do if I were starting over from scratch. Use the ones that make sense for you and learn what you can from the others.

#1 ~ Get a soil test.

Before starting any growing project, it’s advisable to get information about the pH of the soil, the mineral levels, and something called CEC which has to do with how much your soil leaches out the fertilizers you’ll be applying. Usually soil testing is done through a local extension office, which is part of a state university. Information on how to contact these offices can be found in a phone book or online by googling your state + “extension office”. You can get detailed instruction from that office on how to collect a soil sample. The nuts and bolts are as follows: go around your proposed growing space with a trowel when the soil is dry and dig about 5-10 samples at least six inches deep, scoop a bit from the bottom of each hole you dig and put it in one bag. When you have all your sample, shake that bag up well to combine all the soil. Using the bag you’ll get from the extension office and the form they usually include, submit one collective sample (about a cup’s worth) for your garden. Test’s are either free or very reasonably priced. When you get the results back, it will tell you if you need to change the pH (by adding either lime or sulfur) and add any amendments (i.e., lots of compost versus just some or minerals like nitrogen and potassium). Click here to see a scan of the test results I got back for a test I did on my garden last year.

#2 ~ Start a compost bin or pile ASAP.

If you’re reading this article with any real interest, you’re probably already well aware of the benefits of composting for environmental reasons. Composting your kitchen waste, newspaper, grass clippings and leaves keeps tons of garbage out of our landfills and provides a natural fertilizer for your garden. What you might not realize and what I personally can attest to is the tremendous impact adding compost to your garden has on soil structure. Even if you have no intentions of growing an organic garden, you’ll want a boat load of compost the first few years to fluff up the soil to make planting and cultivating easier and to improve drainage. If you have sandy soil, the compost will add much needed humus (carbon-rich)matter and water retention. If you have clay soil like I do, the compost will do worlds of good for loosening up those clods so water can percolate through it. Improving your soil structure is a long and slow process so it’s best to get a pile of compost going right away so you can start adding it as soon as you turn the soil in your garden for the first time. Having your own compost source is best as it will get costly to go to the garden center and buy the quantities you’ll need to add in the first couple years in your garden. Plus you have more control over the quality of the final product. Quick rule of thumb for compost: it’s ready to use when you can no longer identify singular objects in it like a leaf or a twig.

#3 ~ Apply sheet mulching.

This application is best done under certain circumstances, but I’m including it because it’s a great way to prep a new garden space if you’re turning a patch of lawn into new beds and you have the luxury of time on your side. It’s also another reason for why you should start your composting efforts as soon as possible. Sheet mulching simply involves layering first manure, and then cardboard and newspaper over the area you intend to cultivate, soaking it, and then piling on unfinished compost, leaves, straw, etc. Let the whole thing sit for several months, during which time the existing grass and weeds will be killed for lack of light while the cardboard and compost breakdown further and provide you with a wonderful layer of super rich soil by the time you do put in your first plants. I’ve also heard that sheet mulching can be used on concrete to create a layer of soil for growing, but I think that would take several applications and years to accomplish. Still, if you plan on sticking around your current site for a long time, sheet mulching is a handy way to turn just about any ground into a suitable plot for gardening. That being said, it’s not very handy if you want to plant right now this spring. To learn more about sheet mulching, click here.

#4 ~ Plan in advance.

The first three steps are ideally done at least six months before you actually plant anything. Believe me, I know how hard it is to put off getting your first vegetables and herbs into the ground. As I look back now at my first year with my own garden, which I started on a balmy April day with no substantial forethought, I wish I had taken the time to really think out a few things. For starters, it’s important to really consider the layout and your purposes in the garden. Once you start digging your beds and establishing your paths, you won’t want to start over when you realize it would have been better if you’d just… Long straight raised beds about three feet wide are preferable for vegetable production and you’ll want your paths at least two feet wide so you can use a wheelbarrow or bucket or even just drag the hose around without wreaking havoc. Draw a basic overhead view and pencil in where you think things might go (like this). If it’s the end of summer or early fall, it’s a great time to buy some of your basic equipment on sale as stores clear out their inventory for the winter holidays. Items like hoses, rakes, shovels, landscape fabric, trowels, gardening gloves, pots, pre-made trellising, tomato cages, and so forth are good for stocking up. Get online and start browsing some seed sites such as Johnny’s, Renee’s or Burpee’s. Don’t buy anything yet! What you’re looking to do is educate yourself the stuff you’d like to grow: how many days to harvest (longer means it’ll take up space in your garden all summer), is it best to sow the seed straight into the ground or grow it in a pot inside first to be transplanted to the garden later, and how big do these plants get generally (to help you eyeball how much space to give them on your plan).

#5 ~ Talk to a seasoned gardener and visit a farmers market.

If you’ve never had your own garden before, chances are you will be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of variety in the plant world. If you’re buying transplants from a local garden center, which might be the best strategy the first year if you’re a bit timid, there won’t be too many choices. However, if you go to buy, say, tomato seeds, you’ll find yourself swimming in options: red, yellow, orange, green, heirloom, hybrid, determinate, indeterminate, cherry, grape, plum, big beef… See? The best thing you can do for yourself is find a seasoned grower, be it a gardening friend or a local farmer. Ask them what they grow and what they’d recommend for just starting out. If you have a specific vegetable in mind, ask questions about what bugs it gets, is it easy to grow, what variety is tastiest. Try to discover if a plant you want in your garden has special requirements that may affect where you put it. For example, eggplant likes it very hot and very sunny. You might think your whole garden is in the sun, but there might be spots that get more or less sun. Make a note to put the eggplant in the sunniest spot of all if you want a good harvest. And to go back to our tomato dilemma example, buy several types of tomatoes and have an at-home taste test to see which you’d like to have in large quantities. Try to get that plant next year. If you know you want to grow heirloom varieties of vegetables but don’t like the idea of starting your own seeds just yet, it’s worth mentioning to your local farmer(s) that you would like to buy transplants next spring as they very well may agree to bring some with them to market for you.

#6 ~ Determine your plant list.

in conjunction with talking to other growers, it’s wise to start jotting down what you think you’ll be growing and answer a few questions. What vegetables do you eat the most? What herbs to you most often throw into the pot? Are you interested in canning or freezing? Will your neighbors be happy to get bags of surplus squash from you? Would you enjoy having some bouquets of fresh garden flowers in the house? Do you adore pesto? If not, don’t be tempted to put in more than one basil plant. Are you going to make your own spaghetti sauce? If not, you’ll really not need more than one or two tomato plants per person in your household. Would you like space to try things you’ve never heard of, like ground cherries and logion berries? Like packing for a trip, make a list of everything you want to have and then slash that list in half. You’ll thank yourself later. After the first few years in your garden, you’ll start to get a feel for what works in the space and how much you really use of what, but this first season it’s going to be far easier to limit yourself from the outset so you can enjoy gardening instead of feeling guilty about the literal bushels of tomatoes you’re throwing into the compost bin each week (not that I’ve ever done that…).

#7 ~ Amend your soil as determined by the soil test.

By this point you’ll have your soil test results. From it you should be able to tell if you need to raise or lower your pH. Generally, the ideal range for vegetable production is 6.5-7.0, but certain plants like it higher or lower (information you can get from the seed supplier or tag in the transplant). If your pH is lower than 6.5, you might consider adding some lime to it to raise it up a bit. If the pH is over 7.0, you’ll likely want to add some sulfur to tip it back down. In most soils, pH will naturally lower over time so it’s more likely you’ll need to add lime than sulfur. When adding either, be extremely careful not to add too much as this can be toxic to plants. The soil test should also tell you if you are lacking in any macro or micronutrients, the “food” of plants. If these are lower than the recommended levels, visit your local garden center or ag supply store and ask for help of finding the right fertilizer to address these deficiencies. There are organic amendments you can apply too, such as fish emulsion, bone meal, pot ash, and, of course, compost. If your nutrient levels are only slightly lower than desired, just adding compost from your bin is likely to correct the problem. In all cases, it’s wise to add at least a 2 inch thick layer of compost to your garden plot when you turn it over each spring to bulk up the organic matter and improve drainage.

#8 ~ Measure out and dig your beds.

Don’t just go into your garden with a shovel and start hacking out beds willy-nilly. Start by consulting your plan overview and use a tape measure to mark out the beds accurately. Then use a piece of string attached to two stakes and stretched along the to-be-dug beds and paths to guide you as you dig. This careful approach ensure you’ll have nice straight lines in your garden that not only help make it look tidy, but also assists with easier weeding with a hoe, covering the rows with fabric, or using soaker hoses or other irrigation. If you take the time to layout your garden right the first year, you’ll have a lot less work to do in subsequent seasons.

#9 ~ Mulch now and later.

At this point you’ll want to think about what mulch(es) you’ll want to use in your garden. First off, let’s establish that you will want mulch of some kind as it greatly enhances moisture retention and weed suppression in your garden, making your life a heck of a lot easier. There are several options in the way of mulch: plastic sheeting (black, white, etc.), straw, landscape fabric, leaf mold (decayed leaves), wood chips, and even compost, to name some of the more common ones. Black plastic warms up the soil fast in the spring and let’s you plant earlier than might otherwise be advisable. It also does a great job with weed suppression and retaining moisture. However, it’s not very good for the environment since it can’t generally be recycled and it can stress your plants out in really hot summers by absorbing too much of the sun’s heat. The mulches consisting of plant material (straw, leaves, etc) are great for the environment and break down in time to add to the organic matter in your soil. However, they aren’t always so successful at weed suppression since sunlight does get through it. I personally favor black landscape fabric because the kind I use is biodegradable (though I remove it from my garden each fall to avoid retaining any pests seeking shelter under it) and it does a comparable job in weed suppression and moisture retention as black plastic does. Plus it’s a heck of a lot easier to handle than the plastic. Since I add so much compost to my garden anyway, I don’t really need to additional organic matter that a plant-based mulch would supply. I do use wood chips in my paths though to keep the weeds and mud at bay. I lay soaker hoses down first on the beds I’m covering in fabric as I like to water plants at their roots, rather than overhead. When you have your beds established, apply your chosen mulch to the beds in which you’ll be planting transplants. If you are sowing seeds in a bed, you may wish to leave it bare for the time being to give the seeds a start and then mulch later when they have a few inches of growth on them. I’ve had moderate success with sowing seeds through wide slits in my fabric mulch.

#10 ~ Start Planting!

Finally you can start growing things in your garden! It’s been a bit of a process to get to this point, but now that you’re here you should have a fantastic garden space in which you’ll harvest the right amounts of the stuff you’ll really use and enjoy. After a year or two, you’ll be an old pro and hopefully you can pass along your knowledge to another new gardener.

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