This is one in a series of posts for new gardeners. Click here for the complete list of related posts.
Mike and I both had miserable first gardens.
Mike’s first attempt at a garden entailed buying a handful of packets of vegetable seeds and planting them haphazardly in the sandy soil outside the cabin in the mountains were he was living at the time. He grew exactly…nothing.
My first attempt fared only slightly better. I planted some carrots seeds and onion bulbs in the clay soil behind a shed in the backyard. For good measure, I bought a couple tomato starts and staked them up along side my freshly planted seeds. Months later at “harvest” I found that my onions were the size of scallions, my carrots were about 1 inch long, and the tomato plants never made it above knee high.
Having grown up in the suburbs in families that didn’t have gardens, both of us knew only the basics about how food grew. And by basics, I mean that we knew: Plants grow from seeds. You plant seeds in dirt. Plants need water. So that’s what we did. And as much as we look back on our respective first gardens and cringe, they serve as reminders of where a large chunk of our country’s population stands with gardens and growing. These days, not many of us have grown up doing it, and the process of seed to beautiful, ripe tomato remains a bit of a mystery.
Gardening is not quite as simple as we first thought.
But on the other hand, it’s not as intimidating as so many people believe it to be. Generally, if you do a few things right, plants are going to grow. And if even just a few plants grow, you’ll have produced your very own fresh food, just steps from your back (or front, or side) door.
So, let’s begin with the very beginning of gardening: finding and preparing a spot for it.
All of your typical garden vegetables are going to require 6 or more hours of sunlight per day. About the only exceptions to this are a handful of lettuces and some herbs, but even they will generally be happier with lots of sunshine. For this reason, vegetable gardens need to be located in a section of your yard essentially free from shade. This is a non-negotiable, folks. Plant in the shade and you’re not going to get a harvest.
Since most people plan gardens in early spring, there are a couple of easy mistakes to make with sunlight. First off, remember that your trees haven’t fully leafed out. The year after my initial train wreck of a garden, now knowing that plants needed good soil and lots of sun, I scoped out the back yard and built three raised beds in full sun…only to realize a couple of months later that one of the beds was in the shade line of a black walnut tree and absolutely nothing was going to grow in it. (Even later, I learned that black walnut is toxic to tomatoes and several other plants, so I super-duper struck out on that one.)
Secondly, remember that the sun will not be in the same place in July that it was in May. The sun is higher in the summer and lower in the winter, so shaded parts of the yard shift. Think about when you go out to mow. Where is the part of the yard where you always think, “Oh my godddd, I am sooooo hot.” That’s probably a good spot.
South facing is the best. North facing is a definite no-no.
2. Access to water
We live in Colorado, so having a garden without a watering system in some form is an impossibility. Thus, in picking garden spots, we have to consider areas that we’ll somehow be able to hook up to water. The east side of our house, annoyingly, doesn’t have a single hose spigot, so we have a lot of space there that won’t be used until we figure out how to rig up a system. We’ll dive deeper into watering in our post on irrigation, but when you’re figuring out where to put your beds, consider the question of being able to water them if needed.
3. Raised beds or in-ground beds?
Alright, folks. Think this one over carefully.
The garden beds you create are going to be the bulk of the sweat equity you put into starting your garden. Raised, or in-ground, you’re going to spend time and money on these, so consider what you want carefully before committing.
Raised beds are frames that are built or bought, placed directly on top of the ground. and then filled with purchased garden soil. Bed-building tutorials for about any style imaginable abound on YouTube and all the big home improvement stores offer a number of pre-made beds that you can purchase and install with minimal assembly.
Advantages of raised beds:
- Esthetics – raised beds can be built to coordinate with the landscaping of your yard, and keep a “clean” look to design.
- Accessibility – raised beds can be built to desired heights to cut down on bending over or squatting. The corrugated metal example in the photo above allows for working while standing next to the bed.
- Soil “amendment” – Since soil for raised beds generally has to be purchased (unless you have a heap of extra soil just laying around) it eliminates the need for soil testing and amendment. Simply purchase a good garden mix.
- Weed suppression – Again, since raised beds use new soil, the first couple of years of use they will have significantly less weeds than in ground beds. Even as weed seeds begin to infiltrate the beds over time, it is easier to pull them from raised beds than in-ground beds.
- Spring warming – Because they are raised, these beds will warm earlier in the spring allowing for earlier harvests of cool weather crops like lettuce and peas, and permitting earlier planting of warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers.
Disadvantages of Raised Beds
- Cost – This is probably the biggest deterrent to building raised beds for most folks. Even when built by hand, materials for these beds is not cheap. Add on top of that the initial investment in filling them with soil and buying seeds and starts and that first year can feel very expensive indeed. That being said, well-built beds should last next to forever, so it is a one-time investment.
- They’re (almost) permanent – Once you put in your raised beds…they’re in. They are difficult to expand or reduce in size if, suddenly, you decide you want more or less space. They are also present and visible, so if you decide to skip a year of planting, you’re going to have empty (or weed-filled) beds sitting around the yard.
- Some crops don’t like them – Raised beds don’t do great with large or sprawling crops. Things like corn, pumpkins, and watermelons aren’t going to do all that well in these beds.
- They dry quickly – While raised beds have the advantage of warming faster, they also dry out quicker which, if you’re in a dry climate like ours, is something to consider. When it’s baking hot in August and you have raised beds, you need to make sure you’ve got enough water to keep your sweet little plants happy.
In-ground beds are exactly what they sound like: garden beds you dig directly into the earth.
Advantages of in-ground beds:
- They’re more economical – You’re digging right into the ground, so you don’t have to buy materials or frames for raised beds. The biggest cost investment might be the compost needed to amend the soil…and some time spent with a shovel.
- They’re less permanent – You can expand them or reduce them in size. If you decide you don’t like them at all, you can just replant grass. In-ground beds don’t feel like quite the commitment that raised beds are.
- Easier for watering systems – Because in-ground beds aren’t raised, you don’t have to figure out how to get hoses or irrigation lines into them. You can just lay watering lines right in. Additionally, in-ground beds retain water much better which can reduce the amount of watering necessary, especially in dry climates.
- Everything grows in in-ground beds – less to worry about with your sprawling, or large crops.
Disadvantages of in-ground beds:
- Soil amendment – As Mike and I both learned from our failed gardens, just because you have dirt in your yard, doesn’t mean anything will grow in it. Most backyard gardens are going to require some amendment of the soil. That being said, while there are many books and probably more than a few dissertations written on this, most home gardeners can get by with simply adding a standard garden compost and growing some pretty solid plants, so don’t feel the need to overthink this if you’re a beginner.
- Accessibility – In-ground beds are…in the ground. Which means that working them requires a lot of bending, squatting, and sitting. For some, that may be a deal breaker. For others, it may just be a little extra exercise.
Sunlight, water, and beds: your first three big considerations. Once you’ve got them set, you’re nearly ready to tackle the fun part of garden planning…perusing the seed catalogs for seed selection. But first, it’s worth a little bit of time learning just a few of the basics of soil, so coming up next, we’ll have a post on The Dirt on Dirt. While you wait, grab a pen, paper, and a cup of coffee (beer and wine work well, too) and start sketching out your new backyard supermarket. One garden bed at a time.