Starting a garden for the first time is exciting, fulfilling, and great exercise. In the process, you will learn a lot about yourself, your habits, as well as your preferences when it comes to food.
You may also learn more than you want to know about the preferences of your loved ones! We want your first garden to be a great success, so here are the five key strategies you will want to follow with your first garden to make sure it’s a success.
1. Start Small
This is one of those do as we say, not as we do things. When we planted our first garden, we read all of those warnings about keeping it small, and we actually thought we were following them. The problem was that it was not small enough. Over time, the tomatoes merged with the melons, the zucchini terrorized the beans, and the weeds of course took over everything.
The first time you plant a garden, we recommend you begin with a plot that is 30-35 square feet, so a plot of eight feet by four feet would be a nice beginning. Of course that’s not enough to feed your family. Of course you hope to grow more later. But the first time you grow, it makes all the sense in the world to keep your plot small and controllable. Plenty of time later to grow in a larger space and produce larger quantities of food.
2. Keep it simple.
Again, we speak with the voice of rueful experience here. We were eager to get started and overly ambitious about our first garden. We should have limited it to two or at most three crops, but instead we attempted to grow six or seven. Do you like okra? If you do, start with that. It’s easy, it’s relatively hearty, and it continues producing for several weeks right through the hot, humid heat of Southern summers.
You probably will grow tomatoes even if we advise you not to, so go ahead. Just know that tomatoes, although they are every new gardener’s favorite crop, are among the more difficult vegetables to grow in the south, because there are so many diseases and challenges that threaten them. And yes, by the way, we understand that tomatoes are technically fruits rather than vegetables, but we follow the normal convention of referring to them as vegetables simply because most other people do.
Another crop that is easy to grow at least in your first garden is squash. Later, the pests that love to prey on squash will descend on your garden and make growing squash and similar crops challenging, but in your first garden you should have great results from squash and zucchini.
Sweet potatoes are generally easy for new gardeners to grow and oh so tasty. Plant them fairly early in the summer and then leave them alone. You’ll want to dig them up at least three weeks before the average first frost so they can cure before you eat them.
We’ve named four crops; pick any two. Or if you just can’t bear to narrow it down, pick three.
3. Focus On the Soil
You will save yourself a great deal of time, energy, and heartache if you invest time in the beginning to prepare your soil properly. If you are working in a raised bed and the raised bed has loose, fertile soil, this problem is solved for you. If you are planting in the ground, you would be well served to till first-time soil, supplementing it with some additional organic matter like compost or even leaves from your trees.
Getting a soil test is inexpensive in most states and usually helpful. Call your local extension office, and they can give you instructions for submitting your soil and interpreting the results.
4. Easy on the fertilizer.
We don’t use fertilizer of any kind on our vegetables, but nearly everyone else does, and you probably will as well. We can tell you from experience that it’s rarely needed, particularly if you regularly add compost to your soil. If you must apply fertilizer, do so sparingly. For what it is worth, when we advise new gardeners, we hear of many more problems caused by overuse of fertilizer than problems caused by low soil fertility.
5. Cover that naked soil!
The next time you’re strolling through the woods, take a look at the soil beneath the trees. Do you see any exposed soil? Unless a critter or a human has been scratching recently, chances are the soil will be well covered and protected from the elements. You want the same result in your vegetable garden as well. As soon as your plants are established enough for you to know where they are growing and where they are not, cover the soil around them with straw, wood chips, or some other kind of mulch. This offers several benefits:
- It insulates soil from temperature changes
- It helps soil hold moisture
- It protects soil from erosion caused by rainfall
- It keeps weed competition at bay
- Over time here in the south, that mulch won’t take long at all to be absorbed within the soil and enhance its fertility for future crops. Using mulch on your vegetable crops is a win-win all around.
If you use these five tricks on your first garden, you’ll be far likelier to enjoy the experience, and you will serve with pride the crops you’ve grown yourself. Send us pics. We love this stuff!