Digging into the world of gardening can be daunting, to say the least. When I first started a humble container garden on the balcony of my apartment 7 years ago, I could barely care for a Tillandsia or understand the difference between a determinate tomato and an indeterminate one (hint: they’re just bush or vining varieties).
Gardener jargon about germination, irrigation, seed varieties, and biocontrol confused the heck out of me. I had no idea where to even begin! If you’re a beginner gardener, it’s best to keep things simple. Start with the basics and grow from there!
Plants are very forgiving and Nature is always teaching us lessons, no matter how long we’ve been gardening for. Here are our top 11 tips for organic vegetable gardeners who are just getting started with this rewarding (and delicious) hobby!
Location, Location, Location
Just like real estate, garden location is everything. Before investing all the energy and money into establishing a garden, you want to make sure that the location is ideal for growing vegetables. Most veggies require at least 8 hours a day of full sun. Too much shade will kill even the best gardener’s efforts. Our plants need maximum photosynthesis for maximum growth.
Don’t get me wrong, a little bit of shade can be lovely for some veggies like lettuce, greens, and certain herbs. But the time-tested favorites like tomatoes, squash, carrots, basil, and strawberries require full sun.
Observe how the sun moves over your yard or balcony. South facing tends to be best. Are there trees or buildings that cast shade at certain parts of the day? Can you imagine how the light will shift in different seasons? If you want to learn more about the solar aspect, I highly recommend this video.
Other important considerations for garden location include:
- Can deer or wildlife easily access and eat from your garden?
- Is there any drift of spray or chemicals from nearby yards?
- Is the garden easy for you to access on a daily basis? Don’t make the mistake of installing a garden too far from home!
- Does your proposed garden area flood or have standing water after it rains?
- Is the area on a slope or is it flat ground? You can garden on a slope, but it will definitely make your life more difficult.
Invest in Your Soil
Build your life (and your garden) on a solid foundation! All the magic of plant life begins in the soil. Soil anchors your plant roots, provides them with water, and facilitates nutrient absorption and even plant immunity.
In an ideal world, we would all start a garden in healthy rich soil, but life doesn’t usually work that way. Thankfully, you can turn even the hardest compacted clay into thriving soil by adding organic matter like compost and mulches of leaves or straw. Microorganisms break down these materials over time to nurture your soil into a lovely rich loam.
Beginners should always start a garden with a healthy heaping of 2-6” of compost and add 1-2” every season to keep the soil thriving. Purchase high-quality compost or topsoil that is approved for organic production (no nasty chemicals or synthetic fertilizers).
If you’re breaking into new ground, use our detailed guide on How to Start an Organic Garden to start building healthy soil from the get-go.
There is nothing worse than feeling overwhelmed by taking on too big of a project. I know from experience that biting off more than you can chew will ultimately result in a weedy, overgrown, stressful garden.
Remember, growing food is supposed to be fun and relaxing! It’s best to start gardening in a small space so that you can get the hang of things and stay on top of the crops you are focusing on. Even just 50 to 100 square feet can yield in great abundance if you plant densely and maintain the garden with regular weeding, watering, and harvests.
For example, instead of planting 10 tomatoes and letting them get all tangled and roughed up, you could just plant two tomatoes, properly stake and prune them, and likely yield the same amount from those two plants. Also, the vegetables from a well-tended small garden are usually higher quality than an overgrown garden that is too large to maintain.
Concentrate your efforts on a small area to maximize your yields and minimize your labor.
Find Your Niche
When you first start gardening, it’s tempting to want to grow everything! Diversity is certainly important for a balanced garden ecosystem, but you can still be diverse while staying in a “niche.” Even production farmers try to focus on one or a few things to get really good at. Your niche could be based on the type of crop or the seasonality.
For example, you may want to focus on growing really great fresh greens. Your garden niche for your first season could be salad greens like lettuce, baby kale, arugula, and mustards. Get really great at going those and then add more complexity next season.
Another great niche is a focus on primarily summer crops. If you have the most time in the summer, don’t bother overwhelming yourself with too much fall or winter gardening (you can always plant a cover crop or place a tarp over the garden). You can learn everything possible about tomatoes, basil, and summer squash so you’re prepared to further diversify next season.
Grow What You Love
Another beginning gardener mistake is growing veggies that you don’t actually enjoy eating. There is no use in planting crops just because they’re easy or other gardeners grow them.
Focus on the foods you truly enjoy so that your time, space, and labor don’t go to waste. Make a list of your top five favorite vegetables (that can be grown in your area) and try to focus on those for your first season. Radishes, turnips, lettuce, and zucchini are very easy for beginners. While it’s easy to pick a plant that’s easy to water like basil, it won’t do any good if you don’t want to harvest and and sell the plants, or eat them.
Buy Your Transplants
While seed starting is super fun, it can be a little bit complicated and require more equipment. I always recommend that beginner gardeners buy vegetable seedlings (sometimes called “starts” or “transplants”) from a local organic nursery. This will take away the headaches of seed-starting and ensure your garden gets started on the right foot with healthy, happy baby plants.
When buying transplants, keep in mind that the seedlings at big box stores are often rootbound (roots are spinning around inside the container) and have been transported long distances. Sometimes they are treated with fungicides or other chemicals. It is much better to find a knowledgeable local nursery or organic farm with healthy baby plants.
You can ask them about the varieties and ensure that your transplants haven’t been sprayed with anything or fed synthetic fertilizer. You also want to make sure you have the proper companion plants. Tomatoes and potatoes for example, don’t grow well together. So find the plants you love, but make sure they provide benefits to each other before growing multiple plants.
Choose the Right Varieties
Just like there are many different breeds of dogs, there are thousands of different varieties of tomatoes. When you pick out your garden crops, you want to be sure you get varieties that are suited to your climate, garden space, and flavor palette.
Some broccoli plants are bred for summer production while others are bred for overwintering. Some tomatoes are bred for trellising (indeterminate vines, meaning they will climb and probably need pruning), whereas other tomatoes are more of a “bush” type (determinate, meaning they don’t vine). Similarly, there are bush beans and there are climbing beans. Don’t get overwhelmed by these nuances! Just remember to research a bit about the veggie varieties you are planting.
Seed catalogs are a great place to learn about varieties. Local nurseries and farms can typically describe to you the differences between varieties and what will work best for your context.
Pay Attention to Your Water
Aside from sunlight and soil, water is obviously one of the most vital inputs in a garden. You will want to start a garden near a water source such as a well or a city water spigot. You can use a garden hose to hand water or set up a simple irrigation system with sprinklers, soaker hoses, or drip irrigation.
Regardless of what you choose, make sure you have a reliable water source and that it has been tested for contaminants. If I lived in the city, I would get a cheap water filter on the outdoor spigots so that chlorine and chemicals weren’t going into my garden.
Keep your garden moist, but not too wet. If you sow seeds directly in the garden, you will want the soil to stay moist to the touch, but not saturated. Check the weather periodically so you are available to water your garden during dry spells. Watering should not be too complicated, as long as you stick your finger in the soil regularly and keep a happy balance of moisture.
Use Row Cover
It amazes me how few gardeners utilize the magic of row cover! Row cover is basically a thin fabric that allows sunlight and water through but keeps pests out. It also keeps your plants warmer in the early or late season as a form of frost protection.
Row cover can be purchased in small quantities from farm suppliers like Johnny’s Selected Seeds. You can place row cover “floating” over your plants (radishes or low-growing greens, for example) and weigh it down with rocks or sandbags. You can also use wire hoops to make a low tunnel over taller plants (like broccoli, cauliflower, or beans).
Row cover is a super valuable resource for beginners to keep your garden protected and cut down on initial pest attacks. Just be sure it doesn’t get too hot under there.
Kill the Weeds Young
Obviously, you don’t want to use toxic herbicides in your garden. Organic growing requires manual (hand-pulling or hoeing) as well as preventative methods of controlling weeds.
Unfortunately, weeds tend to grow much faster than vegetable crops, so the best way to stay on top of them is to get them young. The “bean thread” stage is when weeds are still very small and white, they have only just begun to grow their first true leaves. This is the best time to hoe them with a scuffle hoe or wire weeder and prevent them from crowding out your crops.
If you don’t get to your weeds in time, they will disrupt the root zone of your vegetables and potentially remove a lot of soil. If you really wait a long time, weeds will set seed and spread their progeny all over your garden (which can be disastrous in the case of invasive weeds like bindweed or thistle). It’s best to just get ‘em young and prevent the headache!
Mulches are decomposing organic materials that improve your soil, suppress weeds, and reduce the amount of watering you have to do. The best mulches for around your plants in a garden bed include fallen leaves, straw, and compost.
The best mulches for pathways are wood chips and sheet-mulched cardboard or newspaper (typically covered in another mulch). Using these mulches will prevent a lot of weedy or grassy headaches while welcoming earthworms and soil microorganisms to your garden to improve the soil.
I hope these 11 tips are helpful for your first garden endeavors! At the end of the day, remember that nature is very forgiving. All of us humans have a “green thumb” of some sort embedded in our ancient genes. We just simply have to bring it back to life and reconnect with nature.
Gardening is just like any new skill– it takes research, practice, and multiple attempts. Don’t give up if you lose some plants. Even people who have farmed food their entire lives mess up certain crops. Don’t sweat it, there are always more seeds and there is always more to learn!