Top 9 tips for beginner gardeners

Every year we are inspired by all the new gardeners we meet setting out on the journey of growing their own food. Their excitement is so pure it’s inspirational to even hardened old-timers. In fact, one of the best things about gardening is how eager older gardeners (folks with several years’ worth of dirt under their nails — figuratively and maybe literally, we don’t judge) are to share stories of their own successes and failures, and to give valuable advice based on their experiences.

We’ve gathered some of our favorite tips for beginning gardeners. Some were passed down to us when we began, and some of them we had to learn the hard way. Hopefully you can learn from them and get started out right!

1. Sweat the small stuff
Don’t plant more than you can manage. Begin small, find out what’s best to grow given your location and time of year. Learn the types of plants you enjoy growing.

2. Soil is everything
Prepare the soil you plant in. Learn what makes it “good soil” and begin tending it in early spring. Come the summer, your veggies will show their thanks.

3. Location, location, light
Sunlight and warmth are pivotal to a garden. Notice where your yard get the most sunlight. Some plants require more than others. Figuring out where to place your garden is the most important first step to success!

4. Rich, but not too rich
That’s fertilizer, not money. Understand how much fertilizer is the right amount for what you plant. Some require more, some less. The same for manure, it can affect the time of harvest.

Image of a watering can watering plants in a garden. Photo source: Markus Spiske, Unsplash5. Water is the driver of nature
Leonardo DaVinci had it right: water is the driver of nature. If over watered, a plant’s root system can rot. Once rotted? Let’s not go there. Too little water and the plants begin to wilt. If you see this, add water — a much happier ending!

6. Don’t judge
The general rule is to plant seeds twice a deep as they are big. The larger the seed the deeper it should be planted. And on the flip side, who knew “shallow” could be good? Smaller seeds mean shallower planting. But beginner gardeners often go too deep or too shallow. Good news! Most seed packets give the ideal planting depth, so be sure to refer to the packet for a smart, healthy plant.

7. Give me some space, please
Seeds may look small but planting too many, too close means a grab for soil nutrients, sunlight and water. The larger the plant, the more space it needs to thrive. Again, the spacing info listed on seed packet is a good guide to make sure plants have room to grow.

8. Not too mulch
Mulch is good but like almost everything else, moderation is key. Applying a light mulch after planting is good. But too much mulch? Not good. Add it lightly as a plant grows and it will help keep soil moist. It also discourages weeds. Speaking of…

9. Weeds can be stingy
Weeds grow way faster than your veggies will. The best treatment is to pull them as soon as you see them. The longer they’re neglected the more roots they grow, and then they’ll take over your garden. Oh no! Yank them quick and let your veggies win and you’ll enjoy the taste of victory!

Don’t worry!
Smart Gardener can help you keep track of each of these tips as you get started. With planting guides and weekly reminders, we help you every step of the way

The trick to a successful first garden: start out small

You might not think so from the countless words that have been written about it, but vegetable gardening is a pretty simple process. Plants are genetically programmed to grow (even our pampered crop plants) and all you have to do is give them the right things at the right times. You take seed, put it in the soil and it grows. The basic requirements are soil, sunlight, seed, water and motivation. Continue reading “The trick to a successful first garden: start out small”

Peas for St. Patrick’s Day

Image: Peasl Photo source: Jessica Ruscello, UnsplashIn Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is the traditional day to plant peas in a spring garden. In the United States the timing can vary somewhat from zone to zone, but March 17th still works well as a guide for starting peas for most areas. And what a perfect way to bring your garden a bit of the “luck of the Irish” by planting something green!

Why you should grow peas.

Did you know peas have been cultivated by humans for anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 years? Peas are an easy, rewarding crop for spring, and are a great way to fix nitrogen in the soil for your summer plants. As an early spring crop they can be out of the ground by June, leaving time for a warm weather crop to succeed them.

Selecting a variety.

Image of peas in a basket

Dried Shelling Peas are typically used for soups or stews, and fresh shelled immature peas are good lightly steamed or boiled. Their pod is too fibrous to be edible, and the peas themselves must be removed from the shells, hence their name. Bush Shelling peas grow in a compact bush form, while the more common Vine Shelling peas, which grow on vines that require staking or trellising but which are generally more productive than bush varieties.

Snap Peas are a more recently developed edible-podded pea, this one originated in America. The pod is thicker and more succulent than that of the Snow Pea, and less fibrous than standard Shelling Peas. These are now one of the most popular types of pea, because there is no work in shelling and very little waste.

Snow Peas have thin crisp pods that are nearly translucent and bright green, with tiny seeds. The whole pod is edible and quite sweet when picked at the right time. The name may come from the whitish tint reflected from the pods, or because of their tendency to grow at the end of winter, just before the last spring freeze. As their name suggests, they can be covered with snow during these times, but still keep growing.

When to plant.

In moderate climates, you can sow directly into your garden bed, while in colder climates you may need to start them indoors. Fortunately, peas do well in containers, so you may not even need to transplant them!

In warmer climates, you may have already started your peas back in January or February, but you can still continue to sow new seeds for a second harvest before the warm days of summer.

Getting started.

The best soil for peas is a loose well-drained loam. Peas don’t need a lot of nitrogen, as they can obtain their own. In fact, if nitrogen is too easily available they won’t bother to fix any. Peas do need phosphorus (colloidal phosphate) and potassium (wood ashes), as well as calcium and magnesium (use dolomitic limestone).

If the soil is compacted double digging is beneficial. If it is poorly drained, use raised beds, especially for early plantings, as they don’t like wet soil. In very poor soils it may pay to plant your peas in trenches, filled with a mixture of soil and compost.

If you’re growing a vining variety, you will need to supply a trellis or poles for the plants to grow along.

Don’t feed the birds

There are few things more frustrating than preparing, planting and pampering a bed of peas or beans and then discovering that the newly germinated seedlings have all been wiped out by birds.

In most places birds are only a significant problem in spring when they seem to relish the abundant succulent green seedlings, but in my garden quail can be a problem anytime. In winter they go for the Brassicas, in summer they like any succulent greens, and in fall they eat newly sown, or emerging, cover crops. I’ve learned the hard way if I leave a seedbed unprotected I am pretty much wasting my time, as I will be lucky to harvest anything from it.

Tips on how to protect your plants:

Easy: The easiest method to keep birds away is to use scare tactics such as flashing tape, hanging old CDs, scarecrows, and predator balloons. The problem with these is that birds will eventually get used to them and start to ignore them, though they may work long enough for your planting to grow out of its most vulnerable stage.

Functional: The usual solution to serious bird predation is plastic netting. This is awkward to handle and put up (it’s an extra step after planting that you don’t need), and somewhat hazardous to wildlife (I have released several tangled snakes) but in these circumstances it is a necessary evil. I usually support the netting on hoops made from lengths of discarded ½” polyethylene irrigation pipe, weighted down at the edges with wood or soil. It’s not particularly elegant, but its quick and it works.

Extreme: In the most extreme cases you might decide to cage the whole garden (especially if you are also plagued by rabbits, deer, squirrels, or raccoons). The simplest and cheapest way to do this is to put an 8 foot tall chicken wire fence around the garden and make a roof out of plastic bird netting.