Planting a Garden: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Your Own
by Amy Thiel
So you’ve decided to plant a garden, congrats! One of the most balancing and rewarding ways to regularly spend an hour or two is cultivating a garden. If you’re thinking about growing your own vegetables and herbs, let this be the year you start to grow your own. It will almost certainly become a lifetime habit.
Below is a beginner’s guide to planting a vegetable garden.
Step One: Observation
Universal patterns occur in nature that can be observed on every scale. I want to encourage you to step out into your space and employ a primary and fundamentally crucial tool of gardening -> observation. Notice the winds, how much rain, what the runoff looks like, where the sun comes in, is there shelter or shade? These environmental factors affect what you can grow and how you grow it. They can predict success and enjoyment in your new gardening endeavors. When you have a choice, it's good to grow vegetables in a sunny spot. Most of the vegetable plants you will be growing will thrive with more sun no matter the season. Once you have a location picked. Plan the layout. Start small and let the garden size grow with your success. After you’ve done your observations choose your site and dig in.
Step Two: Work Your Soil
You have the site located. Next is to work your soil. Get your hands dirty. Find out what raw materials you have. Do you have clay, sandy, or silty loam with plenty of organic material in the mix or a combination. Most soils can always benefit from additional organic material. I’m particularly keen on worm castings and composted leaf mold. You can do a search for the general soil conditions in your city or state to find out what natural elements could be added to enhance the productivity of the garden bed. Search “soil in (city, state)” to have USDA or local extension service information at your fingertips. For instance, some soils need minerals like rock phosphate and gypsum for natural slow release fertility and soil conditioning. Local garden centers in your area can also be a wealth of information when dealing with soil amending.
Pro tip: Ask the garden center owner if available. When you’re ready to expand your garden consider soil testing to determine more accurate soil amending.
Before you get started make sure your soil drains freely and check the depth of your topsoil. Do this by digging down and 12-15 inches and looking at the soil strata. Is the topsoil, (often darker with most of the organic matter and more nutrient dense ), only one to two inches deep before seeing a color change, subsoil, (less organic matter, less nutrient) or hitting rocky soil. After you have a look at the topsoil, fill the hole with water and see how long it takes to drain. If the water drains slowly you may consider raised beds. Raised beds are a great way for beginners to start. They allow for control to soil quality easier than a garden using existing soil. They can be planted intensively to minimize the need for watering and weeding you can start with a single raised bed. Use boards or rock as borders. When you decide to expand there are some cool kits you can arrange.
Step Three: Choose Your Vegetables and Plant!
For your first foray into the garden, choose vegetables that are easy and highly productive. Keep in mind that is better to start your first garden with fewer kinds of plants until you can get the hang of it. Choose your favorite vegetables. Avoid making things overwhelming. Easy cool season crops to grow are lettuce, spinach and radishes. If it’s the summer season, like it is now try some cucumbers, eggplant, okra and don’t forget to plant some herbs such as basil and oregano. They can, by far, be some of the easiest plants to grow and they definitely enhance the gardening experience. Once you’ve got your soil prepped, you have your seeds and your starter plants it’s time to get planting.
Seasonal Planting Chart
Check out this helpful planting seasonal chart, specific to Austin, Texas.
Planting by Seed
When direct sowing into the soil, we need to talk a little bit about soil preparation. It’s very important to make sure that your soil is not too dry or too moist. So take a handful, squeeze it into a ball and see if it falls apart gently. If it does, then it’s in great condition to plant. If it crumbles immediately and doesn’t stay together at all, it’s too dry, so add water. Come back shortly and plant your garden. Of course if it’s too wet, water drips from the soil ball or doesn’t fall apart, wait a day or two and then sow your seeds. Water logged soil lacks gas exchange capacity, which is necessary for seed germination.
Every seed packet, on the back, tells you how deep and how far apart you should your seed. A whole wealth of information from harvest time to best growing condition is on most packets. For the beginner this is a valuable resource. Adhere to this information until observation tells otherwise. Prepare the furrow or planting hole for the seeds, usual depth is 3x the width of the seed. So small seeds are fairly shallow. Sometimes you plant more seeds in the furrow than needed. Don’t worry about it, relax and enjoy. You can thin the seedlings for proper spacing after germination. Cover your seed and apply a small amount of pressure to soil to ensure go seed to soil contact. The germination process requires the seed stay moist. So use a gentle nozzle or drip system to give them a drink and not to wash the seed out. Mark your seeds location. Voila, go away, wait and prepare to be dazzled.
Planting by Transplant
Choosing healthy plants sets you up for immediate rewards. Plants should be bright green. Not yellowing (stressed or undernourished) nor very dark green (too much nitrogen.) Choose upright and dense plants. Long, scraggly plants have either been around awhile or have not been grown with enough light. Don’t be afraid to take the plants out of the pot and look at the root structure. Roots should be white and moderately cover the soil surface. Overly rooted plants can be bound and not grow into your garden well. Take time to look for insects and leaf spots and avoid them. Both are indications of stressed plants. When you get your plants to the garden again make sure the soil is adequately moist as the transplant soil. Pop the plant out of the pot and gently fray the roots. Set the transplant in the ground covering the root ball to the same depth as the soil line. Water in your new garden.
At this point you can mulch with composted bark, pine straw, wheat straw or the like.
When I look back and think about my experiences in the garden. The time of planting is filled with optimism and opportunity. The expectation of growth and harvest. I can’t encourage you enough to partake in the experiment of growing your own food. It is a rewarding and nurturing relationship. If only to provide a single tomato or an opportunity to share at a dinner party that one time you grew a garden. You will fondly recall the time spent.
Be sure to check back for our second installment in this series, Tending Your Garden, publishing later this month.
About Amy Thiel
Amy spent her formative years growing up on a farm in Lubbock, Texas. She graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in Horticulture and then went back to obtain her Masters in Agriculture with an emphasis on food production. After graduating from college Amy worked in the Horticulture industry in various capacities including floral, landscape design and farmed for ten years. Currently she is the “Chief Operations Hacker and Head of Business Development” at CrossFit Central Downtown. In her spare time Amy enjoys being with her family, researching a myriad of topics, seeking out new information, and expanding her knowledge base. She is our resident expert and scholar for all things plant-based, research-based and natural.