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Welcome to Digging In, a column for the horticulturally curious. If you’ve ever entertained bucolic fantasies about starting a farm, or have lingered around the seed packet display at the hardware store thinking about the things you would grow if you could, this is for you. Whether you have massive tracts of land at your disposal, or just a few square feet of fire escape, every gardening endeavor starts with a pile of dirt and a dream.
When Ashlie Thomas and her husband moved into their North Carolina home in 2018, their one-acre property was pretty much a blank slate. Over the past couple of years, Thomas and her husband transformed that empty acre into roughly a dozen garden beds, where they grow squash, root vegetables, leafy greens, nightshades, herbs, medicinal plants, and more using entirely organic methods. Thomas has been documenting their journey from the beginning through her Instagram account @the.mocha.gardener, where she also shares gardening tips and speaks about food security issues in rural areas of the U.S.
But Thomas insists she’s no gardening expert—in fact, she thinks there are no gardening experts. “We have not created this earth, we have not created this ground, we have not created the plants. We are simply nurturers to what already exists,” she told me over Zoom. Instead, she believes firmly that everybody, even you, can successfully grow plants and vegetables. It doesn’t matter if you’ve killed every houseplant you’ve ever owned; with the right knowledge, you can successfully manage a thriving garden.
This guide is meant to offer help as you start your own gardening journey, even if you don’t know where to begin. In addition to Thomas, I spoke with two other highly knowledgeable gardeners: Nick Storrs, an instructor at the New York Botanical Gardens and owner of Homegrown Kitchen Gardens, and Lee Reich, an author and lecturer on organic gardening with a PhD in horticulture. The three of them provided a bounty of insights on what you should know before you get started, the easiest things to grow as a beginner, and the essential tools you need to start growing food yourself.
What do I need to know first?
Before beginning a new garden, you need to know the space you’re working with. Each type of plant thrives under a particular set of conditions, so it’s important to evaluate your space in a few key ways to understand what you can grow.Know your climate at a local level
Where you are—your specific geographic environment—is an essential piece of the puzzle to understand what you can and cannot grow.
A hardiness zone is based on the average annual low temperature in your area, and determines which plants (particularly perennials) will be best suited to your climate. The USDA keeps a detailed map of the country based on hardiness zone, designating areas a number between 1 and 13. Plant and seed labels will typically include a range of ideal hardiness zones, or say that the plant is “cold hardy” up to a certain zone number. This is not as important for annual vegetables that last a single growing season, but is essential for perennial herbs, fruiting trees, or flowers.
Beginner gardeners frequently set seed down too early—on the first warm day of the year. We’ve all been tricked by a balmy February weekend, and plants planted early are easily killed by late season cold snaps. “I plant according to the calendar, not the weather,” says Reich. He recommends finding out the average date of the last frost in your area—that is, the last day of the year that temperatures plunge below freezing. Seed labels will often include the best time to set seed in relation to the date of last frost. Some plant seeds, like certain peas and spinach, can go in the ground before the last frost. Others, like melon, should go in two weeks after the last frost.
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According to Thomas, one of the best resources for this sort of agricultural information is your country extension site. Extension offices are typically run either by the state or by research universities, and they provide information on soil quality, frost dates, planting times, and other agricultural topics to the public. To find yours, type “[blank] county extension site” into a search engine. All extension sites are not created equal, so if you have trouble finding what you need online, you can always give them a call.Know how much sun you’re working with
Most vegetables need a lot of sunshine in order to thrive. At a minimum, Reich, Storrs, and Thomas all said that your chosen spot should get at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day.
When helping his clients decide where to plant in their yard, Storrs suggests this trick:
“Wake up bright and early one day and set an alarm on your phone to go off every hour. After each alarm, go out and take a picture of your backyard, balcony, or wherever you want to grow things over the course of the whole day. By the end of the day you can put those pictures together and have a flipbook of how light is moving across your space, and it gives you a really good sense of how long there’s direct sunlight in a given spot.”Know what’s in your soil
Before you begin planting anything, you need to know your soil’s general safety and history, and then assess it for specific attributes that will make it suitable for growing. Consult your extension site for information regarding regional soil safety, and look on the EPA’s website to see if there are any known environmental pollution issues in your area. Soils can hold onto chemicals and heavy metals that plants can absorb, making them potentially hazardous to consume. Many urban areas have high levels of heavy metals in their native soils. This is why the city recommends that people grow food in raised beds, using healthy soil from a garden store. If you’ve done the research but are still uncertain about your soil safety, you can seek out soil testing services approved by your state through your local extension site, or your state health and agricultural departments.
Just because soil is safe doesn’t mean that it’s good quality. According to Reich, soil drainage is the most important factor in determining soil quality.“If a plant sits in waterlogged soil, the roots can’t function. You could give it all the fertilizer you want and it’s not gonna grow well,” says Reich.
To test your soil drainage, poke a few holes in the bottom of a coffee can. Dig a hole in the ground and place the can snugly inside. Fill it with water and let the water drain out completely, then fill it again. If the water drains quicker than an inch per hour the second time around, then the soil drainage is adequate. If not, Reich suggests either finding another spot to garden or building raised beds. You can also improve the drainage of your soil with mulch, compost, and materials like vermiculite.
As for potted plants, stick to store-bought potting soil, which is designed to drain quickly and efficiently. Reich warns against using soil from your yard in pots, as pots need an even higher level of drainage that most conventional soils can’t provide.
Vermont Organics Potting Mix
Organic Vermiculite Soil Amendment
Like humans, plants need certain nutrients to thrive. Most plants get their necessary nutrients from the soil, which is why fertile, healthy soil is important. You can tell if you have fertile soil by the quantity of weeds in your garden. The more weeds there are, the more nutritious the soil. Little to no weedage, and you’ll likely want to think about fertilizer.ADVERTISEMENT
Reich insists that the best way to fertilize is organically, and the best organic fertilizer is compost. “A lot of people think they need to get compost down deep into the roots, but it’s not true. The feeder roots of all plants are in the top few inches of soil, so compost really does its best work just laid on top of the ground.”
I you’re looking to buy plant food, it’s important to know how to read the label. Typically you’ll see three consecutive numbers formatted like this: #-#-#. These numbers refer to the levels of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) in the fertilizer, all of which are important for plant growth. A common rule of thumb is “up” nitrogen, “down” phosphorus, and “all around” potassium. To explain: nitrogen encourages the plant to grow “up” with bigger, greener foliage; phosphorus encourages bloom and root growth “down”, and potassium is beneficial for “all around” health. Do some research on the vegetables you plan on growing to learn what type of fertilizer they prefer and how often they like to get fed. Just remember, organic is the way to go.
Dr. Earth Organic 5 Tomato, Vegetable & Herb Fertilizer
For heat-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers, Storrs suggests finding the warmest spot in your yard to ensure a long growing season. To do this during the winter, he suggests paying attention to snow melt. Snow lingers the longest in the cold parts of the yard. Steer clear of that spot when you begin to plant your vegetable garden.Determine your water source
“Watering with a watering can sounds charming and may work for a few containers on a patio, but that charm wears off pretty quickly,” says Storrs. Having easy access to water is important for any garden, and even the most enthusiastic gardeners will get tired of schlepping a watering can back and forth between the sink and their yard. Situate your garden as close to your water source as possible, and consider installing a sprinkler system or hose if you have the means.
What should I grow first?
Not everybody has the space for a big vegetable garden. For those working with a window box or fire escape, Thomas recommends growing an herb garden. “Everyone likes to season their food, and herbs are something people will utilize the most.”
If you do have a few square feet of dirt to work with, there are a lot more possibilities. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to grow the easiest vegetables with the greatest yield, but that may not be the best approach to starting a successful garden. Instead, think about what you eat. “I usually say, go to your cookbook first,” says Storrs. “Start with the vegetables and herbs that you’re already cooking, even if they take a little bit more work. If you’re actually eating from your garden, you get so much more satisfaction from it.”
That being said, some vegetables are more beginner-friendly than others.
Black Krim Organic Tomato Seeds
Peas: Reich loves growing peas because they are sweeter when freshly off the vine than anything you’d find in the grocery store. “As soon as peas are picked, their sugars begin converting into starch.”
Burpeanna Early Organic Pea Seeds
Jalapeño Early Organic Seeds
Marconi Rosso Organic Pepper Seeds
Gourmet Blend Organic Lettuce Seeds
Buttercrunch Organic Lettuce Seeds
Red Winter Organic Kale Seeds
What equipment do I need?
You don’t need a ton of gardening equipment to get started. Think about what you plan on growing first, and go from there. Below is a shopping list organized by tasks. Some of these items may not make sense for you—you don’t need a wheelbarrow for a window box herb garden—so you can scale the options to your needs.Things for digging
Wood Handle Spade Shovel
$26 AT HOME DEPOTThings for planting
Garden Trowel with Ergonomic Handle
I’ve written about how much I love the Hori Hori before, and Storrs agrees: “They are the jackknife of the garden. I use mine for planting, harvesting, dividing perennials, and opening paint cans; it’s one of the two tools in my back pocket at all times.”
$23 AT AMAZONThings for cutting
The second tool in that back pocket? A solid pair of bypass pruners. They’re essential for the bulk of the cutting workload in the garden. You will need a pair for cutting back foliage and pruning hardy stems and roots.
Okatsune 101 7-inch Bypass Pruners, Small
Zsling Extra Long Edge Stainless Steel Pruning Shears
$13 AT AMAZONThings for moving dirt around
Collapsible Rectangular Handy Basket
Wheeleasy Foldable Garden Cart
$149 AT REJUVENATIONThings for protection
Columbia Global Adventure Packable Hat
Some gardeners, like Storrs, prefer to work with their bare hands. Thomas likes to wear gloves for protection and to keep her hands clean. The choice is yours. However, as someone with a lot of thorny plants in their garden, I swear by these gloves.
Vermont Glove Work Gloves
Organic Workshop Apron
$55 AT FOOD52Things for watering
Behren’s Watering Can
Flexilla Garden Hose
Don’t feel discouraged if this seems like a lot; gardening is all about embracing the learning process and applying that practical knowledge through trial and error. However, if you still need some encouragement, Thomas offers some sage advice: “Don’t underestimate yourself, even if you’ve killed everything green in your life. If someone guides you through it, and you have the resources to help you learn how to take care of a garden, you’d be surprised how many people actually have green thumbs— that comes from educating yourself. You may think, ‘I’ve never grown this before so I know I am gonna fail.’ Well, you won’t know if you don’t try. Even if you try and you fail, try again. Plants take time to learn.”