Gardening 101

Beth Knorr, Market Manager & Local Food Programs Coordinator

Many of us have visions of bountiful gardens dancing in our heads at this time of year, but if you have never planted a garden before, there are many questions that spring to mind. Fortunately, there is a plethora of good information available online, and many books that have creative ideas.  Below, I will outline a few first steps we think are important prior to getting started.

The first thing you should do is assess your site.  Where will your garden grow? How much light does it receive during the day? That is a challenging question at this time of year given that there is so little light right now, but is fundamental to being able to determine which crops will be well suited to your location.  Vegetables prefer 8 full hours of direct sunlight, although some will prosper with only 6.

The next step in assessing your site should be conducting a soil test.  These are sold at any home garden center, and will give you a good idea what nutrients are available to your plants, and what amendments you may need to add.  Garden center personnel should be able to direct you to those products that will fill in the gaps identified in your tests, and can also steer you towards the most environmentally friendly choices.

While doing your soil test, it’s also important to determine what kind of soil you have, and what challenges (if any) it may present to you.  Do you have heavy clay soil?  Many of us in Northeast Ohio do.  Or is your soil loamy? Silty? Sandy?  Each has its challenges and you should become familiar with what they are so you can help combat them and avoid feeling discouraged when they happen. For example, heavy clay soil is full of nutrients, but it doesn’t drain well so amending with compost to lighten it up will help alleviate that challenge.  Sandy soils drain well, but don’t have many nutrients so amending with compost to provide those nutrients will help meet your plants’ needs.  I should point out here, that compost is often the answer to soil challenges, but over-fertilizing with compost can also lead to some fruits and vegetables not producing, too, such as zucchini, that will not form fruit if the soil is too fertile.

The next question is one I find that is often overlooked: what does your family actually eat?   It’s great to have the intention of increasing the variety of produce your family will eat through your garden, and eventually you will, but I would recommend starting with those items your family already loves for the first year, and introducing a couple of new items each season.  You will see a bigger pay off from your efforts this way, and won’t feel as though you’re wasting time (& seed money, and effort) growing things at which your family continues to turn up their noses.

Finally, figure out how much time you want to devote to gardening each week.  If you only want to spend 15 minutes in the garden each week, your plot (or pot!) size should reflect your busy lifestyle.  However, if you plan to dedicate 4 hours each week to garden maintenance, you can do quite a bit more.  Nothing contributes to gardening fatigue more than biting off more than you can chew that first year (I speak from experience!) so start small and grow from there.

Great resources for your gardening adventure include (these are just the tip of the iceberg!):

Ohio State University Extension and Master Gardeners

Kitchen Gardeners International

National Gardening Association

Organic Gardening

Happy Growing!


2 thoughts on “Gardening 101

  1. You mention not biting off more than you can chew. I’ve been reading a lot of books and looking on the web, but I cannot find any suggestions about what size to make my first garden. I have about a 1/2 acre of land that gets plenty of sun, but I know I’m not up to tackling a garden that big! I live by myself, so I only need enough for me and some extras for the neighbors. Any suggestions?

    • A book that I have found very useful in determining amounts is one from John Jeavons, entitled How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. Helpfully, there are even sample layouts and some include fruit trees. 1/2 acre is quite a bit, but depending on what you want to grow the amount of space you need will change. For example, if you are interested in growing a lot of cucumbers, melons and winter squash you will need more space than if you want to grow more green beans, cabbages and lettuce. If you first determine what you would like to grow, you could then extrapolate how much area you need. In the above book, John recommends a 100 square foot garden for one person for a six month growing season. Keep in mind, however, it will be a matter of trial and error until you find what works for you. Keep us posted on how it goes!

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