Seeds grow in dirt. Really. Sure, they need a little water. And the average daily temperatures make some difference. But, mostly, seeds grow in dirt and beginners should not be overly awed by all the gardening information out there. Be ready to learn along the way, but do go ahead and plant a garden without having to become “an expert.” If you can add a bit of watering and weeding to your schedule, you can grow something almost anywhere.
I remember researching about how to teach my own children. The bottom line was that nothing mattered quite so much as me just spending time with them. There was the same basic advice about how to encourage them to excel in their areas of interest. They needed to know that it took time. Many a person has outdone someone with “natural talent” by the amount of actual effort they were willing to put into an endeavor. They didn’t have to start with knowing lots of things, have the best teachers, or have the best equipment. They just had to be motivated to do it and keep at it.
That is not to say that gardening has to take a huge amount of time. It obviously depends on the size of your garden. But it does mean that you don’t have to pass a class or have a degree in soil chemistry to plant seeds. As long as you are willing to spend time at it, some things will grow and you will learn a few tricks along the way.
There are some things you can do to make it as easy as possible on yourself, because, although it isn’t rocket science, you can make it harder by trying too hard or by neglecting a few basics.
1. Don’t begin with a huge garden space. You may want to choose an area that can be expanded as desired later, but start smallish, with something that won’t be nearly as overwhelming to keep track of as you adjust to the extra work load.
2. Plan permanent rows or raised beds. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever change your garden layout, but there is good reason to believe that yearly tilling is a waste of effort. This means you will have time to make more garden area the following year, if you so choose, because you are not spending time re-doing the whole thing every year. (read more about gardening without yearly tilling here.)
3. Raised beds and rows do not need solid borders. Such retaining walls can be put in later, at your convenience. You might want to make sure you cut a deep edge (4-6 inches) between the lawn and the garden, to keep grass from encroaching, but it doesn’t have to be fancy landscaping.
4. Read the back of the seed packets or look up basics about what temperatures and moisture conditions certain seeds like for germination. Often a fail is not due to “black” thumb so much as a lack of this knowledge. You can see a list of articles with some of my suggestions for planting times in southwest Idaho here.
5. Keep most seeds relatively wetter during the germination period. Notable exceptions are peppers and squash, which shouldn’t be kept quite as moist. However, in this phase of life, most seeds need a constant, but not drowning, supply of water. They are like little babies that need to nurse every hour and a half because they have small stomachs. You don’t have to know all the biology of how a seed sprouts to do this, fascinating as it is.
6. Get into the habit of checking soil moisture around the plants with your fingers every couple of days. Yes, I said with your fingers. They are a pretty good water gauge. If it is muddy, don’t water. If it is crunchy or hard, you probably waited too long, but if the plant hasn’t wilted things might be okay. Too much lack of water can stunt the plant, as can rotting the roots with too much, but you’ll still probably get something edible out of the plant. You can learn about amending your soil for water retention and flow, but you don’t need to stress out about it. A watering chart, as I outline here, can be useful.
7. Plan on getting some exercise from weeding the garden. There are some things you can do to mulch the paths, and even up around the plants to some point. But you will still find that you need to pull quite a few. Learn to enjoy the time outdoors getting fresh air. (more on weeding in a future post)
8. Try to examine you plants for insects semi-regularly. The fact is that some insects come quickly and do a lot of damage if not stopped as soon as possible. This can change from year to year, and will certainly vary with the particular environment. Hand picking leaf-eating insects, spreading diatomaceous earth for crawling-sneaky things, and spraying with a firm water spray can take care of quite a few pests if done religiously. Still, there are times when insecticidal soap or something like BONIDE Eight Insect Control could be the only way to save a crop from destruction. You have to decide whether it is the bugs or you that are going to eat your garden. Check out books like Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solverto help diagnose.
9. Same thing for diseases, like powdery mildew or tomato leaf curl. Part of the cure can be to rip out the infected plants in a timely manner, making sure not to touch the healthy plants with the gloves until they have been washed.
10. Mark on your calendar when to begin checking for ripe produce. Some crops are edible from the moment they sprout, like lettuce or spinach. Others are a wait-all-summer proposition. Don’t neglect the plants or the harvest time from lack of attention. If you are out checking for moisture, insects, and diseases, then you might see the produce. Still, if you are not exactly looking for it, it can take you by surprise!
11. Don’t give up when some things don’t go perfectly. Enjoy the success you had. Realize that some of the trouble might be
- a variety that needs more days to mature than your climate provides,
- weather conditions beyond your control,
- mystery marauders, like cats or gophers
- taking on too much at once, thus nothing really gets taken care of reasonably
- unexpected life events that had to take priority
If you want to grow a garden, seeds and dirt are pretty much set up waiting for you to take action. I think God wanted us to be able to have a good chance of growing food, without having to understand or fiddle with programing myriads of details. Kind of like he didn’t make it so we have to remember to breath. Take advantage of how the earth is already designed to grow things, and grow a few things that you would particularly like to eat. (click on any photo to enlarge)