10 Tips for Growing Your Best Garden Ever
Since it's KGI's 10th birthday year, I'm thinking a lot about the number 10 and my own garden path over the past 10 years. I've only had a garden to call my own since the spring of 2005 but before that I was a landless serf of sorts growing things on windowsills, rooftops and other people's land. The tips below are the things I know now as a 47 year old which I wish knew as as 37 year old. Hopefully, one or two of them will be new to you and help speed you along your path to becoming a better gardener.
Tip 1: Make a Garden Plan
Winging it is a perfectly acceptable approach to garden planning if you're just looking to have fun and get a few vegetables as a bonus. It's what I did initially and had some decent results just from making decisions on the spot about what to plant where. I later "graduated" to sketching out a plan on graph paper which would end up looking pretty scruffy by the end of the season after numerous changes were made and coffee mugs had left their mark. Moving from a paper-based plan to a computer-based one three years ago was a real game changer for me. The program allows me to make better looking plans than I could ever draw in less time and remembers what I planted in previous growing seasons.
Tip 2: Start Early & Let There Be Light
Legginess in a basketball player or Rockettes dancer is considered a good quality but not in a tomato or pepper seedling. To get your plants and garden off to an early, successful start, it's important to invest in a grow lights system of some sort as the natural light of a winter windowsill is insufficient. Here, too, I graduated from one system to another as my garden and gardening passion grew. Initially, I used a small, single light salvaged from an old fishtank. Two years ago, I upgraded it to a new system I designed myself using a stainless steel cart and 2 high-powered growlights. It wasn't cheap (about $450) but I see it as a sound long term investment and the price was about $200 cheaper than the ready-made systems that one can buy.
Tip 3: Sow Early and Often
Many gardeners I encounter in my region aren't aware that many crops (salad greens, peas, potatoes, etc) can be sown successfully in cool, damp soils. More still have yet to discover the magic of succession planting. By this, I mean sowing seeds in areas of your garden at regular intervals throughout the growing season so as to be able to enjoy a long and steady parade of vegetables. This tip is especially important if you're trying to get a lot of food out of a tight space. Instead of planting a long row of 8-12 feet lengthwise down your beds once a month, try planting 4 short ones of 3-4 feet across the width of your bed every week.
Tip 4: Location, Location Location!
One of the gardens I tended as a landless serf was my mother-in-law's in the French-speaking part of Belgium. She grows a great garden every year, but it's located so far from her house you need to take a snack to eat on the way. I'm exaggerating, but the distance was long enough to discourage a last minute dash for a few snow peas or herbs to add to a salad or stew. One of the defining qualities of a kitchen garden as compared to a regular ol' vegetable garden is its proximity to the kitchen table or, as in the case of this photo, my sundeck table. To the extent that you have some flexibility in where you site your garden, try to situate it as close to the food prep area as possible. The easier it is for you to get into the garden, the easier it is to get good, fresh food out of it.
Tip 5: Become Water Wise
My words of water wisdom are as follows: water deeply and smartly.That is easy to say, but not always easy to do. One of my mistakes, a classic rookie error, was to water often but only on the surface. Watering in that fashion is enough to keep your plants alive and producing, but doesn't allow them to establish the deep root structure that is needed for maximum production. After realizing my water failings, I began making efforts to water longer and deeper, but was stymied in my efforts because I didn't have a water source close to my garden. Since I didn't like the look of having a hose crossing my lawn all the time and didn't have the time or budget for installing a full, buried irrigation system, I found a compromise solution which was to bury a hose and set up a spigot right in the middle of my garden. Having a water source onsite is not only helping me to water better, but it's also proving useful for giving our harvests a first rinse before taking them into the kitchen.
Tip 6: Have the Right Tools Ready in the Right Place
This isn't my tool wall, but it's the one I aspire to have someday. If you're curious, these tools belong to Maine's organic gardening dynamic duo, Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, and set a good example by being in the right place (i.e. smack dab in the middle of their garden) at the right time (i.e. when they need them). They're kept out of the weather by having a protective overhang above them which you can't see in this picture. In the past, I did one of two things with my tools each of which was as unacceptable as the other. I either left them out in my garden in the elements in such a way that I could use them when I had 10-15 minutes to tackle a task or I stored them in my garage. The former was convenient for me but bad for the tools and the latter for good for the tools and inconvenient for me. I've since taken to leaving my most-used tools in my small greenhouse which is extending their lives and keeping them close at hand when I need them.
Tip 7: Meet Mr. Mulch, Your New Best Friend
Over time, I've come to learn that gardeners have three best friends: the sun, the rain and mulch. I value organic mulch even more than I do organic compost in that it does what compost does (i.e. adds organic matter to the soil) albeit more slowely as well as some things that compost can't do such as suppress weeds. It's for this reason that I not only use every form of mulch from my own yard (grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, etc) and local surroundings (seaweed, salt hay, etc) offer but even "import" some from neighbors' yards. Mulch has the added benefit of keeping your soil moist and reducing the amount of watering you need to do. So in the future, don't just think mulch, think mucho mulch!
Tip 8: Think Outside the Box about What You Can Grow
One of the things that keeps gardening fun each year is trying new crops and new varieties including one or two that are unconventional for your region and climate. Maine isn't known for its artichokes, okra, melons or hot peppers, but that hasn't stopped me from growing them. My warm weather experimental crops don't always work out. This year, for example, I tried a new variety or artichokes which produced the most luxuriant foliage you can imagine and not a single artichoke. The fruitless plants however did yield a couple lessons: don't allocate too large a space for experimental crops and choose varieties that will offer the best chance of success. Next year, for example, instead of planting 6 artichoke plants, I'll probably only try 3 or 4 and will go back to Imperial Star, a variety known to work well in cool climates.
Tip 9: But Think Inside the Box Too
The box I'm referring to, in this case, is a coldframe or some other structure that will allow you to extend your growing season. Unless you're in a tropical climate that offers easy, year-round growing, you could most likely benefit from having at least one section of your garden equipped with a coldframe, hoophouse or greenhouse. Such structures allow you to get an earlier start on the season and, as you can see from the proud, scruffy-looking guy above, a later finish. They can be purchased online in kit form, but can also can be built with inexpensive or salvaged materials.
Tip 10: Don't Forget to Smell (and Eat) the Flowers
As I transition from a beginning gardener to an intermediate gardener, I find it interesting to think back on my pathway to where I am now. What motivated me to start gardening is not what motivates me now to keep gardening. I started by growing what might be called an "environmentalist's garden." I was fearful about what was happening to the planet and saw my little garden as one positive thing I could do to make things better. While fear might have been the initial impetus for my gardening, joy is now what motivates me to continue. I find joy in many things: in watching nature's cycles play out in my own backyard, in tasting the real, fresh flavors of garden-grown foods, in getting my hands into the soil that makes these foods possible and in seeing my family make these healthy connections as well. The tip here is just to stop every once in a while to enjoy the little things and let it all soak in. A garden is a gift and hopefully we can all find ways to sow our own gardens forward.
KGI is a nonprofit community of over 30,000 people who are growing some of our own food and helping others to do the same.
Join our mailing list:
Connect with us:
Kitchen Gardeners International
3 Powderhorn Drive,
Scarborough, ME, 04074, USA