Garden tips for new growers

aloe plant

With reduced access to grocery stores and a focus on the home, gardening is surging in popularity this year. If this is a new hobby you’ve picked up—or want to try—here are some tips to make it work.

Growing outside

Growing vegetables in the ground is easiest in many ways, because nature does a lot of the work of providing nutrients and water. It takes work to get your garden set up, but you may not have to do so much afterward, and plants tend to thrive and produce better in the ground.

  1. Preparation is key. Choose a site that will get full sun most of the day, and take the time to prepare the soil well. After removing any grass, dig into the soil at least 12 inches, about the depth of a shovel. Turn the dirt over and loosen it throughout the entire garden bed.
  2. Add leaf compost. Spread a few inches of compost over your garden bed and turn the soil over to mix it in. Leaf compost is a rich source of nutrients and it also keeps the soil light so plants can thrive. Now you’re ready to plant!
  3. Choose the right plants for your location and time. Look up your local cooperative extension for planting dates. At this time, if you haven’t planted yet, you will likely need to choose fast-growing summer plants like zucchini. Take note of the “days to maturity”—how long it will take to grow—and make sure the weather will still be warm at the end of that time so your crops will finish growing and ripen.
  4. Treat seedlings gently. Don’t pull on the stems to get them out of the containers: Squeeze the container to push the plant out with its soil. Then immediately plant it to the same depth as when it was in plastic flats or nursery pots, and water it right away. Plant in morning or evening; if you have to plant in the hot sun, rig up some shade for your plants for an hour or two to reduce their stress.
  5. Beat the weeds. One trick is to cover your garden beds around the plants with straw. Get it from a garden center so it’s not treated with chemicals that will prevent plants from growing. Be aware that after the first rain, you may see sprouts from the straw, but after you pull those out, you won’t have to weed again all summer. Bonus: This keeps in water too, which means less watering for you to do.
  6. Watch for little pests. You may need to treat your plants a few times so insects and caterpillars don’t eat the fruits of your labor. More natural options include pyrethrin, which is derived from chrysanthemums.
  7. Watch for bigger pests too. If you start seeing leaves chomped off of your plants—or worse, big bites out of your tomatoes—you may need to put up a fence. Other deterrents are not very effective.
  8. Watch for disease. If leaves start turning brown and shriveling at the edges despite plenty of water, or if you see a white coating on the leaves, those are signs of diseases like blight. Copper-based sprays are among the more natural options for fighting disease.
  9. Water well. Less frequent deeper soaking is better than more frequent watering that doesn’t get deep into the soil. When you need to water, take your time, enjoy the outdoors, and soak the soil deeply.
  10. Enjoy your harvest! Few things in life are better than heading out with a basket and gathering the freshest and tastiest vegetables you’ve ever had.

Gardening in pots

If you don’t have the space for gardening in the ground or prefer to start on a smaller scale, container gardening is a good option.

  1. Choose the right container. The bigger the better, and make sure it has holes so excess water will drain. Several holes are better than just one—many container plants are killed when their roots rot in waterlogged soil. If practicality matters more than looks, you can get 5-gallon buckets and drill holes in the bottom.
  2. Choose good potting soil. Empty out any old soil in your pots, and fill them with high-quality soil specifically meant for growing food in pots. It will be light and loose so your plants’ roots aren’t compacted, and it should also be free of harmful chemicals that you don’t want in your food.
  3. Put them in the sun. Make sure your plants will get full sun most of the day.
  4. Plant carefully. See #4 under outdoor gardening above.
  5. Water well. Potted plants dry out quickly in the sun. In hot weather, you may need to water every day.
  6. Feed your plants. Nutrients become depleted more quickly in pots. If your plant’s leaves start turning yellow or the plant looks weak, it’s probably hungry. Feed your plants high-quality fertilizer meant for vegetable plants. Natural options include fish emulsion, bone meal and kelp meal.

Gardening indoors

If you just want a few pots of vegetables or herbs indoors, you’ll get to enjoy seeing your mini garden right at hand every day. But you will have to be careful to replace what your plants are missing from nature.

  1. See “Gardening in Pots” above. The biggest difference is light.
  2. Light is essential. Most windows these days block too many of the sun’s rays for a window to be enough. You will likely need a grow light. It should stay a few inches above your plant’s leaves, so if you’re starting with seeds or seedlings, make sure you’ll be able to adjust it as your plant grows.

Happy gardening!

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