Beginner Gardener: What Do I Do?

I spoke with a new gardener a few weeks ago and he was so nervous about planting because he didn’t want to make mistakes and cause any plants to die. As I have told many people in the past, even with many years in the field of horticulture and specifically vegetable growing, I learn the most valuable lessons from the mistakes that I make in the garden. Yes, we all make mistakes and we can all learn something new in the garden every day we spend in it. Gardeners have the great fortune of having something in common with millions of people across the globe and from these fellow gardeners we can learn new techniques, successes and failures and many other lessons. We have to be willing to ask questions, listen for the answers and never hesitate to just dig a hole and plant a seed. There are basics of gardening that can get you started growing no matter where you are. Follow the simple guidelines below to start you on your way to growing your own food.

__Site Selection__
– Well drained site (raised beds allow you to build your soil so that drainage shouldn’t be a problem)
– Six to eight hours of sunlight (the hours of sun between 10am-4pm are the best)
– Steer clear of trees (trees can pull nutrients and water from new plantings)

__Preparing Garden Soil__
– Soil can be taken to your local cooperative extension office to be tested
– Compost: add compost to your soil each time you plant to increase the organic matter and nutrient levels in your garden
– In a raised garden plot, 2/3 topsoil and 1/3 mushroom compost is an excellent ratio to fill your garden
– Compost should be added to the top 6″ to one foot and turned into the topsoil below with a shovel
– Additives such as bone meal, blood meal or worm castings can be added to the soil before turning the soil to provide nutrients which will slowly release as your plants grow
– If planting in ground rather than a raised bed or container, till and loosen the earth to release compaction, remove rocks or roots and, as above, work compost and other natural elements into the existing soil

__Planting__
– Follow spacing directions for seeds and plants (If nothing is recommended, Google it. Spacing is so important for maximum production and disease prevention)
– Dig holes twice as wide as the soil ball of the plant and just as deep (other than tomatoes)
– Plant tomatoes up to their “neck”. Generally, just more than half of the stem will go in the ground. Notice all the fine little hairs on the stem; they will become roots.
– Water plants in containers before placing in the garden
– Place trellis systems before plants are 8″ high so they will be ready when the plant needs them
– When buying plants in peat pots, it is best to remove the pot completely. If you prefer not to remove the pot, break the sides and make sure the peat is well below the soil line (peat will wick all of the water away from the plant roots if exposed to the sun)
– Do not pat the soil around plant roots. This causes compaction and leads to poor drainage.
– Keep a garden journal so you know which varietals produced well and had the fewest problems.
– In Charleston, Sea Island Savory Herbs on Johns Island is a great local nursery to buy quality plants. There are many local garden centers to purchase quality plants as well.

__Watering__
– Water in the morning (1st choice), Water in the evening (2nd choice), Water mid-day (last resort only if you can’t get to it that evening or the following morning)
– Never determine whether your plants need water in the middle of the day (plants have a natural defense mechanism which wilts their leaves providing less surface area exposed to the sun)
– Water the roots not the leaves. Water on leaves sets the stage for disease to develop on your plants
– Water long and infrequently to establish a strong, deep root system
– Keep your garden sprayer on a soft setting such as shower or mist
– Water daily if seeds are direct sown in garden or until plants are established (usually two weeks…longer with carrots) and then watering can be backed off to every other day to three times per week

__Mulch__
– To retain water, to reduce weeds, to add organic matter & to protect plants roots from extreme heat and cold
– Use organic materials such as: wheat straw, leaves, brown grass clippings
– Pre-germinate wheat straw (water until it sprouts then let sprouts die)
– Do not mulch before seeds have germinated

__Fertilize__
– Use organic fertilizers such as fish emulsion & worm compost tea for a healthier soil and to protect plants and beneficial insects (synthetic fertilizers can deposit salts into the soil creating an uninhabitable soil for beneficial insects and eventually plants

__Harvest__
– Most always the rule of thumb: harvest when young and tender for best flavor
– Tomatoes can be harvested at first blush (first sign of pink, orange or yellow) and ripened on a counter out of the sun
– Many garden peas can be harvested for tendrils, flowers, pod and pea
– Many flowers are edible (broccoli, turnip, collards, etc…)
– Harvest herbs in the morning when dew is still upon their leaves (most all plants are best harvested in the morning for best flavor retention and storage capacity)

__Signs of Trouble__
– Holes in leaves
– Insect poop on leaves
– Scorched leaves
– Blossom or Fruit Drop
– Lack of flowers

These bulleted sections are basics of gardening which will get you started in your vegetable garden, but don’t forget to talk to others, listen, observe and just go for it! Gardening is not a complicated process. Plants & seeds want to grow and thrive and will do so given water, healthy soil and sun. All the other elements make for a happier garden and gardener since many items will reduce your labor in the garden. Don’t forget to keep reading the blogs on this site and joining us for classes in the gardens. Every Tuesday and Friday at 9:30am at Magnolia Community Garden and Wednesdays at Elliotborough Community Garden are opportuniities to come work in the garden, to learn new things and to bring your questions (in exchange for a little work, of course).

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