Advice for the new vegetable gardener

As a child, each spring I helped plant seed in the family vegetable garden. Each summer, I spent hours weeding and watering plants. Back in those days, we used a bucket and ladle, not a garden hose. Through the growing season, I harvested vegetables and helped with canning them. All these things, I learned from my mother. What I did not know as a child was that the location of the garden in the landscape is critical. Were it not for my father's intervention, my first garden in my mid-20s would not have been successful. My chosen garden location, he pointed out, was an area prone to late afternoon shade, which has the potential of stunting the growth of garden plants. Most any new gardener can grow a vegetable garden when equipped with advice passed down through the ages like the advice I received from my parents.

Time commitment

Gardening is a time-consuming process requiring, at times, daily maintenance including weeding, watering and harvesting vegetables. Plan to dedicate at least 10 minutes on average each day in the garden to pull weeds, water plants or admire the bounty of your efforts. Consider starting a journal of your garden activities. For the new gardener, recording the outcome of the current vegetable garden can help to create continued success or avoid failures in future years.

Garden size and location

To control expenses and maintenance time, start with a small garden about 10 feet square or smaller. Choose an area away from buildings, shrubs or trees that could cast shadows. Proper drainage is needed, so ensure the selected garden area is level to, or higher than, the surrounding area to ensure the vegetable plants are not standing in water following a rain storm. One last tip about the location of the garden--it should be near a faucet to connect a garden hose.

Row direction

My father taught me to plant vegetables in parallel rows that run north to south. Planting in north/south rows allows optimal sunlight to hit both sides of the plant as confirmed by the Delaware Cooperative Extension article, Consider a Vegetable Garden This Year. If your garden is on a hillside, plant rows east to west with the tallest plants on the north end. Tall plants include corn or pole beans.

Tools

It may sound like a negative concept for someone jumping into gardening for the first time, but if you purchase the bare minimum tools, you may feel less guilt or financial loss should you decide gardening is not for you. I started my first garden with a garden hose, rake, hoe and shovel, but I could have gotten by with just the shovel and hose.

Plants or seeds

Back on my parents' farm, everything was grown from seed. Now, however, I like planting some vegetables from seed and some from starter plants purchased at the local garden center. It's a matter of personal preference. Easy vegetables to grow include seed-planted lettuce, carrots or radishes, and tomatoes planted from seed or starter plant. Yes, you can grow a salad! I also grew green beans, sweet corn and peas in my first garden.

Care

Keep in mind that vining vegetable plants, like pole beans, will need a trellis to climb. To avoid that added expense, look for bush beans, which do not require a trellis for support. A mechanism is needed to support tomatoes. I used inexpensive wooden stakes and twine to create crib-like support around the two tomato plants in my first garden. Watering may be the most challenging part of gardening. Too little water or too much water (including excessive rainfall) and the plants suffer. Vegetables need 1 to 2 inches of water each week, either through rainfall and manual watering. When in doubt, use my father's rule of thumb: thoroughly saturate the soil around the plants seven days from the last rainfall. Increase the water frequency in very hot, dry weather.

Motivation

What a new gardener needs more than anything is motivation. I haven't always been motivated to garden. When living at home, tending the family garden was a chore that I had to do. I hated getting dirt under my fingernails, missed spending times with friends, and did not appreciate my parents' goal of harvesting a sufficient amount of vegetables to carry us through winter without having to buy vegetables at the grocery. I had no motivation to garden. Now, as an adult, those three things are what make me want to garden. They are my motivation. There's something about getting my hands dirty; it makes me feel a kinship with the soil. Sharing produce from the garden with friends is quite fulfilling. Most satisfying of all is placing a meal on the table that includes food you grew.