seedlings in a square foot garden

seedlings in a square foot garden

“Where do I start?” This is a common question among budding vegetable growers. And with good reason: starting a garden can be intimidating, especially if it’s your first. With the beginner in mind, I offer these basic tips to get you moving in the right direction.

1. Start Small — the Square Foot Garden                                                   

The back yard where I planted my first garden was tiny, the sunlight it received was inconsistent, and I had no idea what I was doing.

In the process of  figuring it out, I ran across a great book: Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew. Mel’s system helped me visualize and plan  for the space I had. I created and managed two 16 square foot beds that first season. The next, I created two more.

I like the square foot method because it’s easy to start, easy to plan, and easy to maintain. For the novice, this ease can be the difference between a new found love or new found frustration.

Regardless of the design you choose, starting small has many benefits: 

  • Weeds and pests are the only certainties in a garden. Learning to deal with them on a small scale will save your sanity (and your pocketbook).
  • Your chances for success are improved. You may not grow enough food to make those trips to the grocery store obsolete, but mastering the needs and habits of the varieties you’ve planted is far more manageable on a small scale.
  • All of the knowledge you gain can be easily applied to an expanded garden the next year!

2. Start with Carefree Plants

Of course, the real pleasure of a vegetable garden is in being able to raise those veggies you love the most or that you’re sick of paying too much for at the grocery and farmer’s market. Still, certain vegetables almost grow themselves, while others bedevil even those with the greenest thumbs. Here’s a shortlist of good plants for the beginning gardener.

  • Cherry tomatoes. Hardier than full-sized tomatoes and just as versatile, cherry tomatoes provide many of the same benefits without as many of the headaches. That said, full-sized tomatoes are still a relatively easy veggie to grow.
  • Peppers. Especially hot or banana peppers, and especially if your summers (and summer nights) are warm.
  • Peas. These are the stars of any spring and fall garden. They hardly take up any space, and you can trellis them on just about anything.
  • Arugula and Lettuce. Another star of the spring and fall garden. Depending on where you live, an early start with these will help avoid such pesky insects as aphids.
  • Thumbelina Carrots. The secret to growing  carrots is well prepared soil. However, if you, like me, live in an area with heavy clay soils, carrots can be a real challenge. An easy answer to this problem is the Thumbelina carrot. Although small, they’re huge on flavor. They are also well suited for heavy soils or container gardens.
  • Swiss Chard. For three or four years I tried to grow spinach, and for three or four years, I watched with dismay as my seeds sprouted, stunted, and then bolted at the first sign of heat. Then I discovered swiss chard. Chard provides the same texture and flavor as spinach, plus its stalk can be used in place of celery. In areas with mild winters, chard can be grown like a perennial.
  • Turnips. You may have hated turnips as a child, or you may be from a part of the country where they were raised to feed the pigs and not the people. Whatever the case, I suggest reacquainting yourself with this gem of a vegetable. Not only are they easy to grow, they also have a long storage life and you can eat the greens as well as the root.
  • Black Eyed Peas. If you love the taste of fresh beans, but don’t want the hassle of setting up a trellis, black eyed peas (and other bush beans) are a great way to go. Just make sure you give yourself room to grow enough!

3. Do a Little Research

When I lived in Eugene, I would get excited every spring at the thought of the tomatoes I was going to grow that summer. And every summer, I would come up short. Way short. I would grow a gazillion different varieties, and apart from cherry tomatoes and a few Russian heirlooms, I would resign myself to eating one or two paltry fruits from paltry little plants. I thought I was cursed. Then I moved back to Kentucky and discovered the missing ingredient: heat.

My point is this: though I thought my garden would be incomplete without the tomato, I could have saved myself a lot of time, money, and woe if I’d accepted that tomatoes just aren’t suited for the short summers and cool nights in western Oregon. By researching what varieties grow well in your neck of the woods, you’ll save yourself mountains of time and misery.

Talk with farmers and/or gardeners in your area to find out what they grow, when they plant it, and tips for growing it. Also, talk to your county extension agent or someone with the agriculture university in your state. They can often give you pointers about growing food suited for your particular region.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Buy Starter Plants

Last spring I managed to get a few tomato and pepper plants started from seed. Then I set them outside without hardening them off, and within a day, they were all dead. I was crushed. So in a fit of tormented grief, I rushed out to Lowe’s and dropped more money than I care to remember on tomato and pepper starts. I felt like a sucker, like a cheat, like a hack. Three months later, when my wife and I were enjoying homemade salsa, fresh tomatoes, and homemade enchilada sauce, I didn’t give it a second thought.

I am a huge believer in starting plants from seed. I believe in saving seed and I believe in sharing the seed you save with others. The vegetables we grow represent cultural traditions, beliefs, and practices passed down over the generations. All of that high-falutin’ talk aside, starting seed can sometimes be a real challenge. And for the beginner, there are many ways to inadvertently thwart your best efforts along the way.

If your goal is to raise your own food, don’t hesitate to buy starter plants. I would simply advise knowing which plants will transplant well and which won’t. Lowe’s will sell you starters of chard and squash, but they won’t tell you that those don’t transplant well.

Still, for hard to start veggies like tomatoes and peppers, starter plants can be one less thing you have to worry about.

5. Buy Good Seed

Every spring, you start seeing seed packets everywhere you go: the grocery store, the hardware store, the pharmacy. I’ve even seen seed for sale at rundown old gas stations.

But not all seed retailers are the same. For those plants you want to grow from seed, I recommend looking for companies based in your region. They are more likely to offer varieties that will be suited for your particular climate.

There are also some seed companies who are a little more expensive, but whose product is miles beyond that of their competitors. Territorial Seed, out of Cottage Grove, Oregon, is hands down the greatest garden supply company I have ever dealt with. Although they offer varieties most suited for the Pacific Northwest, their seeds are superior in every way to other companies. The Seed Savers Exchange is another good option. If you join the Exchange, you will have access to the annual yearbook, which has an even larger selection than that offered on their website or through their catalog.

Though you might pay more for premium seed, the high germination rates and uniform plants you will grow will far outweigh the cost and frustration of having to buy five packets of broccoli to get ten healthy plants.