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Getting Started in the Garden

By Cecilia Nasti, March 7, 2014  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Cecilia Nasti

Cecilia Nasti is an organic food gardener and enthusiastic home cook. She produces and hosts the weekly radio feature Field & Feast broadcast on public radio in Austin, Texas. A nature lover, she also produces and hosts Passport to Texas, a daily statewide radio series about the outdoors for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Photo by Cecilia Nasti

This time of year seed catalogs start showing up in my mailbox, and targeted banner ads for gardening supplies appear like magic during my online searches. I don't even mind that I'm being tracked by a marketing bot sniffing out and calculating my algorithms, because they're on my wavelength. I'm excited about starting my spring food garden, and welcome anyone (or thing) that ignites that passion.

If I've learned anything from years of growing kitchen gardens, it is this: vegetables and herbs cannot thrive on excitement alone. To help you avoid future frustration, here are a few tips to get you growing in the right direction.

Photo by Cecilia NastiStart Small
It can be overwhelming if you go too big too soon. Think quality over quantity. Start with two or three crops you know you and your family will eat. Also, if you're not sure you're ready to dig up your yard for a garden, or have limited space, you can easily grow most edible crops in containers. Just be sure to fill the bottom of the container with gravel for drainage and use a light potting mix.

Sun
The majority of food crops need full sun. Find a spot in your yard (or patio or balcony) that receives at least six to eight hours of direct, unobstructed sunlight a day. Here’s something to consider: while you may have sunny areas in your yard now, how will that change once the trees have leaves again?

Water
When selecting your garden site, make sure it is near a water source, and if possible, put in an irrigation system. I made the mistake of putting my first garden all the way in the backyard of my rented house; too far for my sad little hose to reach. As I was just out of college, a VISTA volunteer, and broke, buying a new hose was out of the question. So I hauled buckets of water to the garden, which got old fast. Only the jalapeños survived that year. Learn from my mistake. 

When to Raise
Raised bed gardening creates garden beds that drain well, and are perfect for square foot gardening, which allows you to grow more food in less space. People who live in areas with little topsoil may opt for raised beds and have garden soil trucked in. However, if you have great soil, dig in! Whether you have a raised bed or surface garden, clearing out the area of weeds and grass before planting will keep you ahead of that chore as the season progresses.

Go Organic
It's up to you, but growing food organically means no toxic chemicals or persistent pesticides for you, and healthier soil for your plants.  It's win-win.

Time
The best thing for your garden is your shadow. That means the more time you spend in it, the more familiar you become with your plants. You'll notice immediately when pests or diseases start to raise their ugly heads, and you can stop those problems in their tracks. When you do, you will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor all summer long.

What tips do you have to help your fellow gardeners have a more enjoyable and productive growing season?

Category: Gardening

 

21 Comments

Comments

Donna says ...
Just starting my first garden what 3plants should I start with? Tomatoes are a yes but next on list easy and kid friendly to grow any ideas
03/12/2014 12:06:39 AM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@DONNA - I think tomatoes are a great plant to start with! I would also suggest to plant something that is a root vegetable so they can see how different plants grow. I found this great list of kid friendly plants: http://eartheasy.com/grow_gardening_children.htm.
03/12/2014 3:30:30 PM CDT
grace says ...
Peas, Salad Greens, Strawberries and Sunflowers !
03/12/2014 3:32:55 PM CDT
kat says ...
tomatoes peppers and beans ok sunflowers
03/13/2014 5:41:47 AM CDT
Carolyn Yost says ...
Sugar snap peas Cocktail tomatoes Tomatoes Basil after sugar snap peas are finished producing.
03/13/2014 6:15:14 AM CDT
Barbara says ...
I love fresh herbs to cook with - parsley, thyme, basil and dill are my faves. I plant them in attractive pots on my screened-in porch and enjoy them all until frost. This would also be good for children with a porch or patio; another benefit is there are no bugs - no ants and no worms.
03/13/2014 6:59:22 AM CDT
DeEdria11 says ...
I have a balcony apartment with sunlight on one side and none on the other. What would be a good green vegetable that does not require direct sunlight.
03/13/2014 8:26:51 AM CDT
Rick says ...
I source heirloom certified organic seeds from Seedsavers.org and Botanical Interests. This year I'm building trellis's for tomatoes and cucumbers and found a very simple, inexpensive way to do this using rebar and electrical conduit at http://petitefarmstead.com/2013/06/indestructible-diy-tomato-trellis/
03/13/2014 8:30:31 AM CDT
Adam says ...
What can you recommend for areas with more shade, we have no place with 6 hours of sun.
03/13/2014 8:32:29 AM CDT
Tom says ...
Could you let me know some tips on how you get rid of pests while maintaining the organically raised quality of the garden? Not an exhaustive list, but some tried and true methods to get rid of common pests.
03/13/2014 10:17:09 AM CDT
helen guerrero says ...
thank you for helping make a decision on planting this year I wasn't going too , after reading this short article on start small I'm going to get some herbs and start with them I'm fifty-nine years old and I've never gardened I don't have a green thumb but I will try again the tips you gave are so helpful and something I didn't know to do again keep the articles coming because II will b watching for them .
03/13/2014 12:42:53 PM CDT
Nieves says ...
what do you do when "pests and diseases start to raise their ugly heads"? I want organic so I cannot spray anything, right?
03/14/2014 7:48:36 AM CDT
Michael Miller says ...
I am trying to grow some Green Shiso. I started indoors in small compressed seed starters. They all sprouted, but now the secondary leaves are coming out yellow and they seem to be stunted. I did transplant them into pots, give them sunlight through the window and have split them into sub-groups and tried a variety of fertilizer, no fertilizer, water, dryer conditions and nothing seems to make a difference. do you have any suggestions? I have more seeds and can start over if need be. Thanks
03/15/2014 1:18:47 PM CDT
Maria says ...
This is totally helpful. Although it is all simple points for a beginning patio gardener its all the info I need to be confident in trying to grow my own food. Thanks so much for the cool info.
03/19/2014 4:04:51 PM CDT
Cecilia says ...
@Adam -- When anyone asks me about growing food crops in an area that receives less than 6 hours of direct, unobstructed sunlight a day, I always say: give it a try. Prove to yourself what is and is not possible in your growing space. You may end up disappointed, but at least you will know from personal experience what works - or doesn't. Food crops -- especially the sexy ones like tomatoes, melons, peppers, squash and cucumbers -- need a minimum of 6 hours of unobstructed sunlight a day (but prefer more) for optimum health and maximum production. That means no shade. None. Nada. Okay, let me backtrack a little, here: the one caveat I have is if you live someplace like Texas or Arizona where the sun can be unrelenting; a little afternoon shade is a welcome relief to your plants in those locales. If you're okay with tomato plants that-- if they produce at all -- produce a mere fraction of their potential because they do not receive enough sunlight... go for it. Heck, a few homegrown tomatoes is better than no homegrown tomatoes. Am I right? Be advised, though, that no food crop will grow in dense shade. Be advised that NO traditional food crop will grow in dense shade. If you have three to six hours of sun, or a constant state of dappled shade, crops like lettuce, arugula, chard, beets, spinach, mustard greens and kale may be able to satisfy your gardening urges. Good luck! Cecilia
03/20/2014 11:15:55 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@Tom -- Cecilia said: It's important to understand even natural and organic methods of pest control are indiscriminate killers and will take the lives of beneficial insects as quickly as they will pest insects. Insecticidal soap sprays do not have a residual effect and will only kill what you spray with it. It works well on soft-bodied insects like aphids, white flies, and mites. Use Bt, or bacillus thuringiensis, against leaf eating caterpillars, and some fly larvae. Rotenone dust can be used against potato beetles, cucumber beetles, flea beetles, and cabbage worms. I also recommend establishing populations of beneficial insects to help battle the bad bugs. Lady bugs, praying mantids, minute pirate bugs, and green lacewings are terrific garden helpers. All the best, Cecilia
03/21/2014 4:22:26 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@Nieves -- I asked Cecilia for her advance and she said: When pests and disease raise their ugly heads, you can use organic products like insecticidal soap spray, rotenone dust, and Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) among other items against the bugs and still be organic. Also encouraging a population of beneficial insects like lady bugs, green lacewings and praying mantids will mean fewer pesky insects in the garden. There are organic products to use when disease strikes plants, and what you use depends on the plant and the disease. I recommend talking to your local nursery professional about what's available to you. Sometimes the best defense is to simply pull up the diseased plant or plants and put them in the trash. Keep diseased plant material out of your compost, though, as the pathogens may still be active even after the plant gets pulled. It's best to kick those trouble-makers to the curb. Best, Cecilia
03/21/2014 4:23:09 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@Michael Miller -- From Cecilia: Yellowing of secondary leaves on new plants can be caused by allowing the growing medium to dry out, or get too wet. It could be the buildup of salts and minerals from the water used to keep them hydrated. And, if you are fertilizing them -- stop. They do not need fertilizer until they are much larger. Although, a little hit of diluted seaweed can help stressed seedlings. I would consider direct seeing the green shiso into your garden once the soil has warmed up and the threat of freeze and frost has passed. I feel confident they'll perform better for you. Good luck! Cecilia
03/21/2014 4:24:22 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@ DeEdria11-- Cecilia said: If you have three to six hours of sun, or a constant state of dappled shade, crops like lettuce, arugula, chard, beets, spinach, mustard greens and kale may be able to satisfy your gardening urges. Good luck! Cecilia
03/21/2014 4:24:43 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@Helen Guerrero -- Thank you for the kind words. So glad I could encourage you in the direction of starting a garden. All the best, and please drop a note whenever you have a question. Grow for it! Cecilia
03/21/2014 4:25:02 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@Maria -- From Cecilia: Have fun growing food on your patio. Gardening is simple, but can seem a little intimidating before getting started. Just take it slow, pay attention to your plants, and I'm sure you will have success. Have fun! Cecilia
03/21/2014 4:25:17 PM CDT