Friday, March 20, 2009

Ask FYG - First Time Gardener Edition

I was thinking about writing a couple ideas for first time gardeners, when a friend of mine thinking of getting started on a veggie garden this year sent out a Facebook SOS.  She had gone to a gardening class and became completely overwhelmed as the lecture devolved into details about testing pH levels in her soil (a reasonable thing) and watching for the waxing and waning of the moon (umm... a little less reasonable for first timers, though I find myself curious about it...)

I think that her friend actually posted the best advice of all so I will (without permission) reprint it here:
Oh, it's easy. You put stuff in the dirt, you water it, and hope it doesn't die. If it does die, no big cuz you didn't spend much money on it.

So true.  But let me expound on this a bit.  To make it my own, if nothing else.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="oh, how I wish I had space like that"][/caption]

First, I would start by figuring out what do you really want out of this first experience.  Let me just tell you what you want.  You want some stuff that you can eat and that tastes good to grow out of the ground.  Now you might think that what you want is: corn, tomatoes, carrots, beans, cucumbers, melons, peas, lettuce, zucchini, squash, pumpkins, a scarecrow, etc. You might dream about constant meals out of the garden all summer long.  I would say keep your expectations and planning simple this first time around and stick with the plants that are easy to maintain, and easy to harvest.

So, I am going to make a prioritized list of what you should grow based on my own personal experience with bang/buck

tomatoes - among the easiest plants, the most useful and tastiest.  start here alway.  Better boy, carmello, sweet 100, sungold are great varieties

zucchini - just so easy.  lots of bang for the buck.  freeze shredded excess for zucchini bread in winter.

lettuce/arugula - Lettuce and especially arugula has been one of my favorite discoveries.  Lettuce can be scattered in a bed densely so that you can clip bowlfuls of baby lettuce or grown as a head.  Definitely do arugula in the baby form.  Arugula is THE. BEST. EVER. Good lettuce variety to try is marveille de quatre saison, flashy troutback, lots of romaine varieties.

cucumbers - These are quite easy as well, and should be trellised like pole beans.  keeps the bugs and rot away.  my favorite is lemon cucumbers

snap peas - Easy and sweet.  They need to be trellised, and are best grown first thing in the season.  Go ahead and plant them before you have the trellis, because they won't need that for some time.

jalapeno or bell pepper - These are easy in So. Cal. where we always have enough hot weather, but they can be trickier in cooler climates (so I hear), but they stay ripe on plant for a good length of time and can be used whenever you need heat.  best variety is jalapeno


basil - easy to grow. pesto. marinara sauce.  need I say more.  varieties: just stick with the good old green kind.

carrots - a little hard to get started for me, but the results are so sweet compared to store bought.  Lots of fun for the kids.

green beans - These grow like crazy and are fun to snack on in the garden. Pole beans will give beans on a steady basis which is good for snacking, not as good for harvesting a bunch at once.  Bush beans tend to mature at once.  Blue Lake is the gold standard variety.

Second, preparation of the ground.  Again, keep this simple to some degree.  Yes, it would be nice to know the pH of your soil and that can have an impact on your results if there are some particularly out-of-range conditions, but usually, it's not going to be a killer for first time.  Basically, removing existing growth, adding "compost" or bagged manure, or some sort of cheap soil amendment (possibly splurge on some bone meal), and then tilling that up is enough to get you started.  I have raised beds, and I am pretty fussy about my soil, but not important on your first go round.  (Seriously, though.  if you are really pressed for time, skip everything but clearing the ground).

Third, it's time for planting. You have turned the soil so that it is loose and can be planted.  Do you just go buy seed packets or plants, or heirloom plants, what varieties??????  In some cases, plants are easiest, and in others seeds are better. From my list of plants above I would recommend the following way to purchase your plants.


tomatoes,zucchini, peppers, basil, other herbs


lettuce, corn, green beans, cucumbers (if you are planting a lot or want specific varieties), snap peas, carrots

Where do you get them and what varieties?  Well, I would recommend going to your local nursery, and tell them what you want and they will gladly sell you the right varieties for your area.  If you can, avoid mega-retailers, Home Depot, Walmart, etc. because typically, their varieties are the wrong kind for your area.  They buy plants by the millions and distribute them across the country.  A local nursery is almost always better.

Ok, I hope that helps.  I tried to keep things simple without leaving out the stuff that people who are actually going to plant need to know.

man, I need to get planting myself!!

P.S. I would wear different clothes than Mrs. Obama did today:

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