Essay: Growing your first garden

Depending on where you live, spring is around the corner. The excitement is building because winter is nearly over and this spring you will plant your first garden. I am excited for you too. And here is some unsolicited advice for you to digest while it is still too cold to muck in the yard.

1. Start very small

It is very tempting, when looking through the seeds catalogs, or spinning through the rack at your hardware or home improvement store, to purchase a grocery store’s worth of vegetable seeds and bring them home. I did this my first year, and still struggle with not buying too much seed. In January and February there is so much potential that it is easy to overdo your plans. But if this is your very first year, I recommend choosing one item (yes one!) that you would like to grow. For many people that will be tomatoes and those are a great choice, but given our cold summers the past two years, I would warn residents of Portland away from the tomato as a monocrop. Maybe get one plant (thus breaking my first rule right off) and then choosing another item for your main crop. My suggestion: kale. It’s delicious and nutritious and retains much of its weedy “I will grow anywhere” roots, which increases your chance of success.

2. Pay attention to soil quality

If you want a good crop, you need good soil. This was something I had absolutely no understanding of when I first entered into gardening. I thought dirt was dirt. However, unless you are particularly blessed, the soil where you want to plant your garden is probably lacking. Grab a handful of soil and make a ball in your fist. Then press your thumb into that ball. Does it fall apart into a lovely mound of humus? You have won the soil lottery. Did it stay in a ball? You’ve got too much clay. Did it never make a ball in the first place? You’ve got too much sand. You need to fix your soil. How do you do that? You:

3. Read a lot

My advice is to find your local gardening guru and read their book. In the Portland area, that guy is Steve Solomon and I recommend Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, as well as his other books. In it, you will learn that living in Portland, you will most likely never produce an abundant eggplant crop. But he does point you in the right direction (kale! Among other things.) You can stick with just one book, or you can dip your nose into any of the following recommendations.

If you’ve ignored advice point number one and are growing more than one thing, I recommend One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein. She emphasizes you start small, with one four-foot-by-four-foot square, but she has many “recipes” for squares that provide a complete salad. If you are looking to survive, Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts is an excellent book, because its focus is on spending as little money as possible when gardening. I believe in a closed loop system so I recommend The Sustainable Garden for beginners (if you follow this plan you will be not following my advice about starting small) and How to Grow More Vegetables for the next year. Both are by John Jeavons. For those interested in growing food for survival, Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener focuses on five crops: beans, corn, squash, potatoes and ducks. She’s a wealth of information and full of good advice. Ideally you could start with one crop and add a new one each year.

4. Pay more for high quality materials.

Buy your tools from local toolmakers (if they exist, and if they are quality) and your seed from small local seed houses, not the big box home improvement centers. Local seed houses (if they exist in your area) will have seed that fits your climate better than others. I buy from Nichol’s Garden Nursery, Territorial Seed, Carol Deppe’s Fertile Valley Seed (tiny seed breeder and producer) and Bountiful Gardens (not local, but full of heirloom, open pollinated seed).

If you are buying your soil or buying amendments, buy it from your local garden center, not your local big box home improvement center. Seek out your local Master Gardeners for advice about supplies. They usually have hot lines you can call with questions.

5. Remember that if you have success, you will have to eat all that produce.

The lesson I learn every year is that I’ve got to deal with what I grow. Last year it was the 35 heads of lettuce that all matured and were ready for eating at the same time. I ate a lot of salads over two weeks, gave a lot away, and let much too much bolt. Bear in mind that the produce you grow will most likely have to go through a bit of processing to look like the produce you buy at the market. The kale grown in your yard will not be rinsed of all dirt and bugs and bound in a neat twist tie. You get to do that. There are days when buying the same item at the store seems much, much easier than walking into the backyard to harvest. In addition, some things always want to ripen at the most inconvenient times. I would love for tomatoes to peak in early August, as that is the time I could best process them, but here, if they ripen at all, it is in the thick of September, which is a crazy busy time for me. I haven’t processed tomatoes in several years for just that reason. So I minimize my tomato efforts and maximize my kale, collard and beet efforts, all of which can sit happily waiting for me to get around to them. Which brings me back to my original point:

6. Start small.

If you don’t over-plant, you won’t get overwhelmed which means you won’t be overburdened at the end of the season, allowing you to expand (or maintain) your gardening empire next year.

Happy dirt!

One thought on “Essay: Growing your first garden”

  1. Excellent essay. My black thumb still makes me nervous about this endeavor! We only have a couple of bits of land… We do want to plant some non-edible plants in our front area. We shall see…

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