(Above: a small peanut plant)

[Written two weeks ago.]

It’s almost too good to be true – this week of rejuvenation.  Easter Break is a beautiful time, but not – I am somewhat ashamed to say – because I am particularly religious.  Ten days of not teaching were indeed a gift from Heaven – and if I relished yard work more than the Mass, who can say I didn’t worship God?

Now, however, it is Friday.  Only three days of freedom left.  But I am reluctant to begin the process of returning.  So instead, I’ll use this stolen time to write the advice I would love to give.

Tips for the vegetable gardener beginner

First of all, there is a lot of information out there about how and when to do everything.  But here are a few rules of thumb I have found most helpful:

1. Tools (and expense):

Before you start planting, I recommend you save yourself a whole lot of time and effort and sweat and tears, and instead buy a few good tools to help you out.  A pitchfork, a hoe, a trowel, a weeding tool, a hand rake, a flat or bow garden rake, and a yard stick, which I use to measure the space between plants, are essentials, I think, for the dedicated gardener.  If you couldn’t get all of them right away, I would at least get a hoe, a trowel, and a garden rake.  (Bonus: rain gauge!  Helps you know just how much nature has watered your garden for you this week.)

Don’t be fooled – gardening can be an expensive hobby.  What you already have will somewhat determine how much more it will cost you yearly.  But over time, you’ll learn some tricks – make your own fertilizer by maintaining a compost heap or two, dig out beds early before strong plants grow in and weeds have established themselves, plant seeds instead of buying plants from nurseries.

2. Plants:

What to start with?  The truth is that you should start with only a few vegetables.  The reasons are simple.  (1) Plants do best if they have plenty of their own kind growing around them, so use your space wisely and stick to just a few veggies.  (2) As the season progresses, there will be a lot to look up and troubleshoot.  Every vegetable wants different things and has different pests.  Managing them all for the first time in the first year is unlikely to end well.  You haven’t gotten to know them yet!

That said, some plants are better for beginners than others.  You might be tempted to try the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) – this is a bad combination for beginners in my opinion.  Corn is picky, squash has a very powerful pest, and if you plant beans too early, they’ll outgrow the corn.  And beans don’t always climb straight up and so can become a management issue.

Not tomatoes.  Unless you are willing to buy plants from a nursery…..  You should not attempt tomatoes.  Tomato plants are sensitive and picky, especially when they are just getting started.  You are likely to grow from seed until about 2 to 3 inches tall and then they start acting very grumpy and unlikable.  At least that’s my experience.

Squashes are fairly easy and very tasty.  But they also make a great meal for some very hungry pests.  Squash beetles lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves and then adults and babies feast on the leaves.  They can be a problem – but even worse are vine borers.  I have lost my crops to them year after year.  Vine borers are actually diurnal moths that emerge from their underground cocoons in the spring and lay eggs at the base of your vine plants.  These eggs hatch and live up to their namesake – the first thing you notice is something that looks like a pile of sawdust on the vine of your squash or pumpkin – and then it is probably too late.  (Cucumbers and melons have thinner vines and are less attractive to them.)

However, a companion plant that may help against these pests are radishes:

Radishes are your best friend – they deter pests and are super easy (and quick) to grow.  The first year that I dug a garden, I dug it behind my parent’s house and it was in the shade.  Obviously, a bad idea – but it was a convenient spot and I was determined to try.  Radish was my first success.  Because it is a root vegetable, you may need to mix some sand into your soil if your soil has too much clay.  But it may produce something regardless.

Another really fun plant?  Bush beans.  I have had tremendous success with bush beans.  Some varieties have more flavor than others – find one that sounds good and then plant a lot of it.  The harvest is low to the ground but it’s quick and you can get a few harvests from one crop – plant every two weeks or so and you’ll never run out all summer. (Peas, on the other hand, tend to be delicate, finicky plants.)

Lastly ***strawberries***.  I love strawberries.  Buy them as root balls!  They are hardy perennials that, every fall, send out runners to establish new plants – they would spread everywhere if they could.  All you have to do is snip off the runner or carefully place it where you want it to grow.  You’re typically looking at a first year of low maintenance care without fruit to show for it – in order to let the plant get established.  And then, let the abundance begin!

The great news is that strawberries and bush beans grow great together, and spinach gets along well with strawberries as well.  Radishes and spinach produce best in cool weather and go bitter and produce seeds when it is too hot – but you could leave some in your garden around your strawberries to deter pests.

3. Germination temperatures:

Every packet of seeds you buy will probably tell you what month to plant in, or most will.  And if you look up resources online or buy a book like Crockett’s Victory Garden, you’ll get suggested planting dates.  But I am in my sixth year growing vegetables (maybe more, and this is my second year in the deep south) and what I finally found most helpful were germination temperatures.  Germination temperatures are the soil temperatures that seeds will sprout in.

tomatoes: 70-80°, 5 to 10 days
squash: 70-90°, 6 to 12 days
pumpkins: 70°+, 95° ideal!, 5-10 days
cucumber: 65-70°, 7-10 days
bush beans: 70-80°, 1 to 2 weeks (this seems long to me – mine only take a few days)
radishes: 45-85°, will not over 95°, prefer growing temp. of 50-65°, 3 to 10 days
peas: 65-75°, 7 to 14 days
peppers: 65-90°, 85° ideal, 7-14 days
spinach: 40-75°, varies by temperature
lettuce: 40-80°, 68° ideal

Now that it is 85 degrees every day, for example, and no lower than 60 every night, I know I have missed the window for spinach and lettuce.  It is simply too hot for them to thrive – hardly worth the effort.  But it is perfect for pumpkins and squashes.

Of course, soil temperature and air temperature are not the same.  If you live in an area that gets very cold, soil temperatures will be cold long after the air is more agreeable.  Use good judgment – how long has it been warm?  Are the higher temperatures consistent?  What are the night temperatures?  Does the ground feel cold?

4. Documentation:

I have a calendar on the wall and a notebook on my bookshelf with all my gardening books and the box of seed packets.  On my calendar, I mark planting dates, and rainfall, and other important events.  I marked that the spinach had sprouted!  And then had to cross it out because we didn’t get rain and I was too busy that week to notice.  In my notebook, I draw garden plans, make lists of plant data, glue diagrams and graphics – for example, I identified a few bugs that were crawling on my cow pea plants and printed the pictures for future reference.  I also noted in February and March that I planted seeds but it was too cold (and noted the average temperature), that I planted seeds last fall and then we had a drought and I didn’t keep up with the watering, and that even further back, I planted fall crops late last summer and then we had historic flooding.  And so on.  For this month’s synopsis, I’m going to include that the St. Augustine Grass grew in and made garden bed digging harder, so we got a tiller and tilled out three new garden beds.

5. Invest time:

The truth is that your garden is not going to need you every day.  Maybe it just rained last night but not so violently that anything was disturbed, nothing is ready to be harvested, and the weeds are temporarily tamed.  Be a bit of a helicopter parent anyway.  Not too long ago, I was reading a blog or an article that recommended you make a resolution to spend time in your garden daily – whether it’s five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, whatever you feel you can commit to.  That way, even if there is nothing to do, you know it.  That way, you can keep tabs on all your plants and catch problems early.  That way, your garden is always a priority.  When I still lived with my parents, I did this with their garden, and I always found some little task that could be done – although sometimes, I just sat and watched the bees.  I’m less consistent now – after the 45 minute commute from my teaching job, I feel exhausted and hungry and there’s nothing to nourish me in my garden at the moment.  But I always feel better after spending some time outside in my garden.

Everything I’ve written can be taken with a grain of salt – this is based on my 6+ years experience of trials and disappointments.  I’m so fortunate to be in a place in my life right now where we decided we wanted a large garden bed in the middle of the back yard and we could afford to rent a tiller to make quick work of it.  But my vegetable garden history has been largely depressing and filled with struggle to find little successes.  So I write as I’ve found.

Despite everything I’ve said, I’d also say go and do whatever you really want to do.  If you want to handle a huge plot of zucchini even though I’ve warned you about vine borers, go do it.  There are pesticides, there is netting available, and there’s a good chance that you’ll harvest some zucchini before the plants give up.  Failing, honestly, is part of the fun – now you know more than you did before and more than many of your friends will ever experience.

So I know it was a long read – but I hope this is helpful!

What’s your best piece of gardening advice?