Spring is in the air and if you’ve always wanted to plant a vegetable garden, it’s not too late! For taste and peak nutrients, you can’t beat fresh-picked veggies. Research shows that vegetables start to lose nutrients immediately after harvest, with spinach for instance, according to a University of California study, losing 90 percent of its vitamin C content within 24 hours. See this Smart Lifebites story to learn just how fast this happens. The following vegetable gardening guide is designed to address every excuse a reluctant gardener might have. We know, we’ve heard (and used) all of them, except maybe not owning shovel. We’ll show you how to grow delicious vegetables and herbs despite the odds. If you enjoy cooking healthy dishes, there’s nothing more fulfilling then incorporating just-picked herbs and veggies into your meals.
Top Five Reluctant Vegetable Gardener Excuses
1. My yard doesn’t have enough sun
Yes, there are well-shaded yards that have next to zero sunshine. If that’s your case, it’s possible to rent garden space through local co-ops. Shared Earth has a directory of some of them. However, most yards have full sun, partial sun or get light at different times of the day. Start with a sunlight analysis: Draw a map of your yard and watch to see how many hours of sunlight each potential planting area gets. Also note whether it’s morning or late afternoon sun. Morning sun is usually preferable. This is especially important in Southern states where late afternoon can torch plants in the heat of the summer. What thrives in full sun in the Midwest, Northeast or Pacific Northwest, could do better in light shade in places like Texas and Southern California.
Vegetables that can grow in partial sun
I once created a school garden that had a fenced in area with 5-6 hours of morning to early afternoon sun. We successfully grew bush and pole beans, peas, carrots and herbs. If a plant is eaten for its leafy greens, chances are it can handle more shade. Cool-weather crops such as kale, Swiss chard and other dark leafy greens like partial shade.
Let’s say you have a pool deck or patio that is one of the few full-sun places in your yard. Consider varieties of sun-loving tomatoes, peppers, etc.in in a large pot. Select smaller “patio varieties” of tomatoes, and always err on the bigger size of the pot to give the vegetable plenty of room to grow. Potatoes can also grow in breathable bags or plastic laundry bins (see video) placed in a full sun area of your yard.
2. It’s too hot or cold where I live to grow vegetables
Did you know that the state record for giant pumpkin in Alaska is over 2,000 lbs.? Yes, if they can grow giant vegetables in Alaska (where arguably never-ending summer sunshine gives plants an unfair advantage) most of us in the lower 48 states can grow vegetables. The secret is knowing your Plant Hardiness Zone, which will give you an idea on when you can start growing a garden. Your Zone will also tell you which vegetables are likely to thrive in your area. For instance, if you live in Northern New England, you can grow peas (a cooler weather crop) later into June, and then tomatoes all summer.
How to handle the heat
Meanwhile, Southwest gardeners need to adapt to two growing seasons: early spring from March through June and later August into November (or year-round depending on what you’re growing and how cold it gets.) There are also limitations on plants that will thrive in the South. For instance, according to Bonnie Plants, tomato flowers will often fail to pollinate if daytime temps are between 85°F to 90°F and nights hover above 75°F. If the heat wave lasts all summer, expect tomato production to be put on hold till the weather cools off. Bonnie Plants sells a few varieties of tomatoes that can handle the heat or produce most of its fruit earlier in the season before it gets too hot. Heavy mulching is another way to help plants handle the heat and stay cooler. And some plants, like hot peppers and okra, just thrive in the heat.
3. I have terrible soil
Clay soil is often to blame, but if you have a yard next to new construction, the soil can be compacted, gravel or just devoid of all organic matter. Try testing your soil (with a home testing kits such as RapiTest Soil Test Kit available at garden centers and amend with whatever nutrients it’s lacking. Or you just assume it needs help and amend it with store-bought outdoor garden soil and some manure. For instance, root vegetables need sandy, loamy soil that drains easily. When I created a large school vegetable garden, we grew everything on the site of a former asphalt parking lot, so we were constantly amending the soil with homemade compost. If you have heavy clay, consider mixing expanded shale to it, along with a soil mix rich in organic matter and aerated to improve drainage.
4. There’s no room for a vegetable garden
Even if you live in a home owners’ association that strictly prohibits a vegetable garden in front yards, you can usually have one in the back yard. In addition, mixing flowers with vegetables is easy and can add beautiful interest. I live in Texas and every winter, I grow a front winter garden with edible cabbage, kale, broccoli, onions, shallots and garlic mixed in with pansies. In the spring, wildflowers bloom mixed in with the vegetables creating a unique and beautiful array of colors.
If you plan on growing a pumpkin or zucchini, in a tight space surrounded by short annuals or perennials, it’s likely the plant will expand outside of its space, and into your other plants. Just be sure to research how big a plant will get. For instance, if you like cucumbers and your front flower garden is the best place for it, add a trellis so it can grow up and not outward.
5. It’s too dry or wet.
Before you plant a garden, make sure the area has plenty of drainage and the ground is properly aerated. For instance, if you create a raised bed (a good way to start a garden)–do not forget to install drainage or your raised bed will turn into a small pond. To save on waterings in the summer and cut down on weeding, add between 1 to 3 inches of mulch. In extremely dry climates, consult with your local cooperative extension or local garden bloggers to see what grows best locally.
Now that we have gotten the excuses out of the way, here’s a few more tips to get you started!
More Tips for beginner gardeners:
- Start Small: Square Foot Gardening is an affordable DIY online course and method of planting to teach you how to create a vegetable garden in a 4-foot-by-4-foot space. It’s a great way to learn how to get started. Sketch out your plan and think about it before you start throwing plants together.
- Herbs are a perfect “starter” garden. Basil and rosemary will both thrive in more sun; other herbs can handle some afternoon shade. Chives and mint are two good, impossible-to-kill plants. But whatever you do, keep all your mint IN A POT. Mint will take over your garden if you plant it in the ground.
- Cheat with seedlings: If you’re a first-time vegetable gardener, start with plants vs. seeds. Many seed packets contain small print with the following three words: “Preferred: Start Indoors.” So, if you live in a climate with a shorter growing season and you haven’t started them inside months ago under a grow light, don’t expect your plant to produce fruit before the autumn arrives. Tomato and peppers are two such plants.
- When to start with seeds: Beans, root vegetables and certain fast-growing plants are a few of the plants that prefer to be started from seed outside. Carrots and beets can be started outside as soon as the risk of frost is over, and beans are fast-growing and easier to start outside once it’s warm outside. Heirloom beans are a great for anyone new to gardening. Try growing bush beans like these.
- Read the back of the seed packet: Pay attention to how deep you plant your seeds– anywhere from an 1/8 inch deep to slightly deeper. Don’t forget to space them apart and then thin your seedlings so they have enough space. They like to be social distanced!
- Don’t forget to aerate: Many gardeners have no idea how important it is to loosen compact soil for a vegetable garden. This process enables plants to better access key nutrients, including water, oxygen and organic materials through their roots. If you’re working with prepared outdoor garden soil, this is done for you.
- Don’t forget to water: Seedlings need consistent moisture to germinate properly.
- Don’t forget to feed them: Vegetables are heavy feeders which means they will rely on nutrient-rich soil and benefit from fertilizer. My favorite is fish fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest.
- Pest control. We won’t lie. A raccoon could eat that tomato the night before you were going to harvest it. That’s life. If deer and animal pests are a big problem invest in netting. For small pest and bug issues, try to go organic with natural herbicides like Neem Oil. Neem oil i one of the most effective way to naturally control aphids and other common bugs and is safe to apply to vegetable plants.
Get Local help:
- Most communities have county cooperative extensions manned by volunteers that can answer your local gardening questions, as well as state and regional websites with information. Learning what grows well and what doesn’t in your region is the best way to become a better gardener. When I moved to Texas, I found a community vegetable garden associated with a food bank. Master Gardeners oversaw it and taught me what vegetables grow best at what time of the year. They even shared free plants with me. It was a great way to get involved, learn more about gardening and meet nice people in the process.So whatever you decide to do, take the gardening plunge! Set realistic expectations for yourself and enjoy the bounty of fresh AND healthy herbs and vegetables.
Smart LifeBites Editor Patty Yeager is an avid gardener, who’s built three school gardens including a vegetable garden and two certified butterfly gardens. She is currently growing Swiss Chard, Tomatillos, peppers, tomatoes, kale and lots of fresh herbs.
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