Welcome to the world of organic vegetable gardening for beginners! People from all walks of life come to this rewarding hobby for many reasons. Some want to connect with the earth and be more self-sustaining; some want to know the food they put on the family table is organic and free of toxins; others know that growing vegetables can feed the less-fortunate or make a small business stand out. Do any of these reasons sound like you?
Whatever way it is that brought you to grow your own vegetables, I’m glad you’re here! We are going to start with an understanding of what is possible for you to grow, and then move on to deciding what you want to grow,
Know your Climate
Your first step in choosing plants for your garden is to understand what is realistic for you to grow in your area. In order to know what will do well in your climate is to find your location on a map delineated by hardiness zones. If you live in cooler zone (3, for instance) you will find success with leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce, but you won’t have luck with watermelon.
These zones are based on accumulated averages of the last 30 or so years. Due to climate change, these zones have been creeping upward , so check the date on whichever map you refer to.
Microclimates are an interesting phenomenon worth knowing about from the start. Simply put, a microclimate is a small pocket of space that is different from the space around it. Cities are a few degrees warmer than the surrounding area. A shady tree farm will be a few degrees cooler.
A seasoned farmer can stand in their field and point out nearly imperceptible dips and rises that affect the seeds planted there. Your goal is to find the small variations in your growing space, just like that farmer. Within a season or two, you can look forward to identifying the microclimates in your own garden!
Make a List
Once you have an understanding of your hardiness zone, it is a simple matter to get a list of what you can grow. Make a list of everything that you might like to grow one day.
Narrow Down Your Choices
Once you have an understanding of your hardiness zone, and you’ve chosen a list of potential vegetables, it’s time to take a closer look. For best results, all vegetables need full sun and nutrient-rich soil. But beyond that, there are several variables to consider when making your final choices.
Here are some key questions to ask about your potential vegetable picks: What kind of drainage do they require? How sensitive are they to changes in temperature? How picky are they when it comes to watering?
Know your Space
With your shortlist of vegetables you would like to plant, it’s time to take a good look at the area you have for growing. You might have a flat, open field, a wedge of suburban yard, or two windowsills and a fire escape. No matter what kind of space you have, the goal is the same. You want to find places that match the needs of the vegetables on your list
After sun and water, soil quality is the most essential element for plant growth. Farmers who plant on acres of land need to study their soil quality closely, but for the hobby vegetable gardener, there are more practical paths. If you are growing in containers (pots, bags, raised beds), it’s best to use one of the many potting mixes commercially available.
Light, Temperature, and Moisture
You need to consider just a few more variables before planning your garden. In order to do this, it’s to play a bit of detective. Remember microclimates? Well, it’s time to apply that knowledge to your own yard.
Watch the sun at different times of day and identify the sunniest part of the yard. It is likely that the sunniest spot is also the warmest spot. That space should go to the vegetable that needs sun the most — or to the crop you are most excited to grow!
Note where fences, trees, or buildings make natural windbreaks to protect taller plants laden with fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes and brussel sprouts alike will appreciate the less-stressful environment.
Shady and low spots tend to be cooler and more moist, so root vegetables and green, leafy vegetables will do best there.
How to Arrange a Vegetable Garden
You now have all the knowledge you need to arrange your garden in the most effective way! Grab a pencil and paper, and start sketching. Take your time and try out different arrangements. Vegetable gardening is definitely a hobby where a little planning upfront can save a lot of heartbreak by the end of summer.
As you plan, here are are a few extra strategies to think about
Timing of your crops
You can get ‘double duty’ out of some space by growing an early-harvest vegetables, and then replacing them with young late-harvest vegetables. For example, lettuce, grow best early and late in the year. You can plant, grow, and harvest a round of lettuce while some of your larger crops are still growing. During the long days of summer, your larger crops take up the space where you once grew the lettuce. Look for similar ways to get ‘double-duty’ out of space with good timing.
Some vegetables are known for helping one another grow. These are known as ‘companion plants’. Tall plants are grown beside plants that need some protection from sun. The most famous companion plants are probably corn, beans, and winter squash — staple crops for many indigenous people of North America. The corn stalks provide the beans with a ‘trellis’ to climb up; the low, broad squash leaves help the ground retain moisture and discourage weeds. The beans ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil, thereby making this essential nutrient available to the other two plants.
Garden beds that are too wide make it hard to harvest the center plants. Paths that are too narrow are going to make moving things a chore. And finally, make sure that your garden hose reaches everything! Take the time to look at pictures of successful gardens and see what you can apply to your own space.
How to Prepare Soil for a Vegetable Garden
The science of soil can literally be a phd-level study, but a beginning vegetable gardener will be well-equipped with only a few basic understandings.
Soil is described along a range, with sandy soil on one end and clay soil on the other. Sandy soil has good drainage, but poor nutrient levels; clay soil has lots of nutrients, but gets waterlogged. In the middle lies the perfect mix: loam. Loam is nutrient rich, airy, and moist. You can also mix in high quality organic nutrients to improve the soil.
Examine a spadeful of dirt from your growing area. Examine its color and texture. Dark, crumbly dirt is best. If your dirt is light and sandy, you will need to add organic matter. If your dirt is heavy, you may need to add grit in order to break up the soil enough for oxygen to reach growing roots. Visual comparison of soil types. Determining soil type by touch.
Soil testing is also a good idea if you want to get a clearer picture of what you are working with. Soil testing will tell you how acidic your soil is, as well as how much of the major nutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) is present.
Regardless of what kind of soil you are working with, mix it with a good organic compost. If you have poor soil, use as much compost as soil. If you are starting with good soil, adding 1 part fertilizer to 2 parts soil will give you the healthiest plants.
Time to Grow
You should now feel confident that you can choose the right vegetables and give them their best chance to thrive. Plan a schedule to water, weed and fertilize. Plant your seeds or transplant your seedlings. Get growing!