Last summer, spurred by the success many of our friends and neighbors had with their own vegetable gardens, my family built some raised beds and started a garden. Unfortunately, we chose an uncharacteristically cool, rainy summer for our gardening debut, and we didn’t quite get the bumper crop we were anticipating. Nonetheless, we were undeterred and I’m already starting seeds and planning this year’s garden. I learned a lot from our mistakes this summer, and I’m excited to share my newly acquired wisdom with you!
Growing your own vegetables is an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint and help the environment. By now you likely know the importance of buying local, to reduce the resource-guzzling transportation that much of our supermarket food undergoes. You can’t get much more local than your own backyard! By raising your own veggies, you can also have more control over how they’re grown, ensuring that chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not used. What’s more, whether on your property or in a community garden, plants can help improve air quality.
If you’re new to vegetable gardening, these tips will help you get started.
- Do your homework. Especially if you’ve never gardened before, be sure to research and read as much as possible before digging your first plot. There are plenty of resources online: try your local Cooperative Extension office so you can get regional advice, or take a look at my Pinterest collection of gardening links. For other reference, buy or borrow books about the type of gardening you prefer. Our bible is All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholemew. In particular, you’ll want to learn about your area’s growing season and which plants do best in your region, where to locate your garden on your property for the best sun and other conditions, and how to prepare your garden for planting. As part of your homework, document your efforts, especially in the first year. Keep a log of what you planted, when, and where, and what the results were, so that next year you can adjust your efforts for better results.
- Consider containers and raised beds. A good starting point for new gardeners, especially if you don’t have a very large yard, or if you’re concerned about soil quality or tree roots, is to plant vegetables in large containers or to build raised beds. Container vegetable gardens allow you to control the soil quality, protect plants from soil-based pests, and even move the plants around to get the best sun. Raised beds are better for larger-scale gardening, and also give you better soil quality, better water drainage, a longer growing season, and easier maintenance (weeds will be less of an issue, and if your bed is high enough, you won’t have to bend over as far to work on the garden).
- Make your own compost. Although, as I mentioned, containers and raised beds are a good option, we quickly learned that the startup costs can be high in terms of buying the soil and compost to fill the beds we built. This year, we’ve gotten wise and I have been making my own compost. By composting my yard waste and food scraps, not only am I saving money by making my own, but I also feel good about diverting food waste from the trash, and ultimately from landfills where it contributes to methane gas emissions. At the end of the growing season, everything comes full circle when I clear the beds of plants that are no longer yielding and compost them for next season.
- Choose the easiest crops. To avoid frustration, research and choose some of the easiest and most prolific vegetables to grow in your area. Some good options include lettuce, peas, radishes, herbs, and tomatoes. Lists of easy-to-grow vegetables abound on the internet. One of my favorites is from Serious Eats. While starting vegetables from seed has many benefits, including being able to obtain a wider variety of cultivars and controlling your crop from the very beginning, many new gardeners — myself included — find that buying and planting young plants from a garden center gets faster, more gratifying results.
- Plant enough. When my husband and I were planning our garden, our list of vegetables we wanted to grow was lengthy. We tried to squeeze a little of everything into our two raised beds, and as a result, never had a harvest of any one variety that was big enough to make a meal of it. This year I’m limiting our planting to the few vegetables that we really enjoyed, and which grew the best for us (as noted in the log mentioned in tip #1), but doubling or tripling what we plant over last year.
- Water wisely. You don’t want to negate the environmental benefits you’re reaping in planting a garden, by wasting resources to water it. Use an old trash container or plastic drum to make your own rain barrel, catch water in a bucket as you’re waiting for it to warm up, and find other gray water sources with which to water your garden.
- Seek out natural pest control. There’s no need to use chemical pesticides, which have been known to cause health issues, leach into water, and harm or kill beneficial wildlife. Among the many natural ways you can keep your garden healthy and pest-free are attracting beneficial insects, using nontoxic ingredients (including common household substances like baking soda or hot sauce) to create pest sprays, using sticky traps, and planting insect-repelling plants.