This article is for those of you who have never planted a garden but are ready to take the plunge. If you are tired of high produce prices but you like eating fresh veggies and fruits, a backyard garden is the perfect answer. Here in North Carolina we have fabulous gardening weather and it’s not too late to get your summer garden started right now. Whether you start with a container on the porch or a 10 X 10 plot, once you taste that first, fresh bite, you’ll be hooked!
We started growing a garden ten years ago and to me, there is nothing like a fresh tomato and cucumber sandwich! Although I usually eat them on whole wheat bread with light mayo, the first one of the season is always on white gooey bread. The good news is that tomatoes and cucmbers are two of the easiest plants to grow. Following are some tips to get you started with your own garden so you can enjoy fresh, frugal summer produce.
Don’t get in over your head: There is nothing like planting your first garden only to find out you planted more than you can handle. You will become frustrated, tired and overwhelmed. Start with a comfortable 10’ X 10’ area and remember that next year you can increase the size if you wish. For those with limited space, consider a container garden on the porch. For more information on container gardening see the links in the box above.
Location, location, location: Find a space for your garden that receives 6 or more hours of sun per day. Prep the soil by tilling it with a borrowed or rented tiller. Mixing the grass in with the soil adds organic material. You will need to determine what soil type you have so you know what soil amendments (topsoil, gypsum, lime, fertilizer, organic material) to add. Bring a sample of your soil to your local agricultural extension office to receive a pH and soil analysis. If you only have a small area available, consider container gardening. Many varieties of different vegetables grow well in large pots. A raised bed is also a good option. See the link in the box above for more information on raised beds. For a thorough guide to soil testing, see the link above from NC State University.
Planting time: Once your soil is tilled and prepared or your containers are ready, it is time to plant. There are many types of seeds that you can start growing indoors in small containers approximately 8 weeks before replanting into the outdoor garden. You can also buy transplants of many of the popular vegetables and fruits. These little plants work beautifully, are inexpensive, and are good for the beginning gardener who may only want one plant for each type of vegetable. Good starter crops include tomatoes, beans, peas, zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers. Make sure you plant after the last expected frost, which is usually in mid-April here in NC.
How does your garden grow?: Once you have planted, you can put down a layer of newspaper and then a layer of hay straw. This will keep weeds from growing too rapidly. If you see weeds emerge, get rid of them right away. Plant the seeds or transplants far enough apart, keep them weeded and fertilize regularly and you will cut down on pest issues. Seed packs and transplant labels will indicate how far apart you need to plant the seeds or plants.
You can also put up a short wire mesh gate around your garden to discourage children, rabbits and other creatures that may rummage through your hard work. When dealing with insects, you can choose an organic route, which we have done many years, or use an insecticide from your local garden supply store. For information on which route is best, see the extension office once again. They can tell you what types of pests are most common in your area and how to best prevent them. You will also want to know what critters are good to have around because they eat the pests that can destroy your beloved garden.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor: Pick your veggies and fruits when they are ripe and enjoy your wonderful produce during the winter by freezing or canning, as well.
Share the bounty: You will find that as your plants begin to bear fruit, you may harvest more than you and your family can possibly eat. Share, share share with everyone you know! The food banks are also very appreciative of your donations.
Not so sure about all of this?: If you are hesitant about produce gardening, begin with one container plant. Find a variety that is suitable for containers and get your feet wet with a single vegetable. We have grown tomatoes, especially cherry tomatoes and patio varieties, successfully in containers for years. We also have a larger tomato garden in-ground as well, but I like to have some tomatoes just outside the kitchen door in easy reach.
Herbs and kids: Growing an herb garden is another easy way to add fresh and frugal flavor to your meals. If you have children, herbs are a good introduction to gardening because the plants are smaller than most vegetable and fruit plants and are generally easy to grow in containers. Last summer my daughter grew and cared for some delicious basil that we cooked with every week!
For more information on all aspects of gardening, consult your agricultural extension office and speak with other people who garden in your neighborhood. Ask them what works well for them and what problems they have encountered with their soil and typical pests. Now is the perfect time to start your garden so head out to your yard and decide where you are going to grow the best veggies you have ever tasted!