I think it is official. I am no longer a “black thumb.” When I first started my vegetable gardening journey, I knew nothing except my previous attempts (and failures) at keeping anything green alive. My college roommate can testify to my cactus murdering phase. Now, nearing the end of the growing season for my zone, I can safely claim a successful first garden. Virtually all of the vegetables I planted grew well.
Initially, I figure if I had even a 50% success rate I would be pretty pleased. I have now harvested radishes, turnips, peppers, peas, wax beans, green beans, broccoli, potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, carrots, green onions, yellow onions, garlic, a zillion zucchini and summer squash, an abundance of herbs, and a ton of lettuce. My crops varied somewhat in amount and consistency. Not to mention, I still have corn, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage that are in the works.
These are the top five tidbits I have learned in my first year as a serious gardener.
1. Have a Plan
A good garden is a planned garden. You need to research each plant you intend on growing to find out if you can grow it in your particular zone (more on that below), when you need to plant it, how much space it needs, what other plants it will grow well with, etc. There are so many great resources I have found for finding out how to plant, care for, harvest, and even eat the vegetables I planted. A few of my favorite are Smart Gardener, The Spruce: Outdoors and Gardening, and The Farmer’s Almanac. Additionally, I utilized my local library, local gardening club, several friends and family members, and of course, Pinterest! I used a printed plan of what I wanted my garden to look like that I was able to generate on Smart Gardener, that came with a to do list of planting and fertilizing times.
2. Know Your Zone
If you are lucky enough to live in a warm, moist climate with a long growing season, you can probably grow just about anything you want. As for me, I live in Zone 3 (cold, short growing season) at an elevation of 7200 feet and with a semi-arid climate. Many of the things I wanted to plant were not advised for my zone. In order to combat this I did a lot of research, I learned that certain things did well in our zone–greens, zucchini (I think that does well anywhere), certain herbs, broccoli–and I learned about frost-tolerant and “early” varieties of things like corn, tomatoes, and peppers. I started many things indoors, under grow lights (see my post on that here Black Thumb: Diary of A Wannabe Gardener, Day 6 — Grow Lights) in order to maximize my growing season. I also learned that compost and regular watering would be especially important for me.
3. Watering is Key
Clearly, watering is important for your garden under any circumstances, but if you live in a dry climate like I do, it is absolutely paramount. With the help of my engineer husband we bought a simple timer on Amazon like this one from Orbit Orbit Single Outlet Programmable Hose Faucet Timer and rigged up a system of soaker hoses to water our garden at regular intervals in the early morning and evening. I had my tomatoes in large containers and my husband rigged up a section of soaker hose to water them as well. He used electrical tape to cover sections of the hose that he did not want to emit water.
4. Compost Really IS Your Best Friend
When we were preparing to plant our garden we were concerned with both the nutrient content of the soil, as well as its ability to retain moisture. Through research, we discovered that a 50/50 mix of soil and compost had been successful for others in our type of environment. Our local landfill had certified compost for a very reasonable price. Our plants achieved an impressive size and were, for the most part, very productive. I think this was mostly due to the use of compost early on.
5. Embrace the Process
Most importantly, understand your priorities and have realistic expectations. This was quite an experience for me, especially having never successfully grown a seed in my life. I went in with very low expectations. Gradually, as my first strawberries and asparagus started to sprout, I began to get excited. The perfectionist in me took over and I took every setback as a personal failure. What I have learned through this process is that having realistic expectations for your garden is very important. Gardening should NOT be stressful. If you are a new gardener, you need to understand and accept that not every seed you plant will germinate, not every seedling will grow, and not every plant will bear fruit. Embrace the process. Learn from your mistakes and find joy in your triumphs.