One of my go-to fantasies when life is tough is that I’ll run away to start a vegetable farm. I’ll spend long days covered in sweat, soil caked underneath my fingernails, satisfied with the knowledge that I was able to feed myself through hard work and a deep understanding of the natural world. Given our current circumstances—living in an unprecedented global pandemic resulting in much more time spent at home and much more stress when we have to venture to the grocery store—this fantasy is seeming particularly appealing.
The problem with that fantasy is that I am an absolutely rubbish gardener. Name an indestructible plant and I have probably watched it shrivel. Zucchini and mint, for example, which I remember being warned would “take over my garden” if I wasn’t careful—didn’t last a week in my Arizona soil. It became a bit of a running joke. Every summer I’d try again, and every summer I’d fail.
Then I moved to Washington State, where the weather was friendlier and the foliage was lush. I managed to eat a few tomatoes from my potted plant last year and suddenly felt like a new woman. Maybe I could do this gardening thing.
To try to get some clarity on my own gardening woes—and give other hopefuls a leg up on their victory gardens—I spoke with experts from Media Coverage who actually know what they’re doing. Here are their best gardening tips.
1. Start small, but not too small.
How much of a garden you want will also depend on how much time you’re willing to invest. Nicole Burke, founder of Gardenary and author of Kitchen Garden Revival: A Modern Guide to Creating a Stylish, Small-Scale, Low-Maintenance, Edible Garden, estimates it takes 1.5 minutes per square foot a week to maintain a garden. So if you have a 25-square-foot garden, you’ll need just under 40 minutes a week to water, prune, harvest, and otherwise take care of it. A single seed packet can cover that area, she says (although you’ll probably be hungry for more than one variety of lettuce, I imagine).
What small looks like will vary based on your experience and your interest. Too small, Burke says, and you may end up over-tending your garden because you don’t have enough to do (been there), or even get disinterested because your plants aren’t changing enough (done that). She recommends a minimum of 15–25 square feet.
2. Plant your garden where the sun does shine.
“For edible, rule number one is you need full sun,” Dimitrov says. In general, you can usually grow edible food anywhere that is south, southeast, or southwest facing. Or just pay attention to where the sun goes during the day. Which area spends most of the day in the sun? That’s where you’ll want to put your edible garden.
3. Want quick and bountiful? Focus on leaves instead of fruits.
One of the gardening tips I received courtesy of Burke: Edible plants have a pretty basic life cycle. Most edible plants start their life as a seed. They establish roots and a stem, then leaves, then flowers, then fruit (if they make fruit), and then create seeds, starting the process over again.
If you want a super-quick return on your garden, your best bet is to focus on plants whose main bounty is their leaves, like lettuce and herbs. Burke compared it to a race—if fruits are a marathon, leaves are a 5K. Way more attainable, though still certainly a bit of work. You’ll also get a yield quicker, since fruiting happens later in a plant’s life.
“As long as you set them up right, you’ll be able to get a lot of harvest for very small space,” Burke says. Burke is putting the leaves where her mouth is, too—she challenged herself to eat a home-grown salad every day for six months, all from a 15-square-foot bed.
4. Know your “zone."
The USDA mapped out “hardiness” zones for every area in the country, which helps inform you what kind of plants are best suited to your area and what time of year to plant. Some tools, like one from garden.org, let you put in your zip code to make it completely foolproof. My area in western Washington, for example, is “8b”—you might see gardeners online adding these numbers to their profiles so their followers understand their harvests.
Why does this matter? Knowing your zone will keep you from planting tomatoes in the heat of summer in Arizona (a mistake I have definitely made) and wondering why your plant is suffering while your friends from northern regions are drowning in pico de gallo.
“You need to know your zone and you need to know what plants will grow where you live so that you’re not planting…a peach tree that needs 500 to 600 chill hours in Houston, where we get 150 chill hours,” Hammond says.
You can research what grows well in your area online, or you can head to your local nursery. Small nurseries tend to have plant starts that are appropriate to the season and local area—they’re the ones that will be full price and prominently displayed. Plants that are discounted are often cheaper because you’re headed out of the prime season and your harvest won’t be as good. “Timing is crucial,” Hammond says.
5. Move beyond the potting soil mix.
Spend a few minutes on a gardening site and you’ll probably hear a gardener rant against potting soil. And yet that’s what I’ve been using, primarily because mixing my own soil has felt so complicated. But Burke managed to break it down in a way that made me feel confident enough to try my own mix next time.
First: why not use bagged potting soil? Burke says potting soil, even organic potting soil, often contains unsustainable ingredients like peat moss (which is harvested from bogs and takes a long, long time to regenerate—and also dries superfast in soil mixes and doesn’t rehydrate, which is why so many of my pots end up looking like bricks). Perlite and vermiculite are volcanic rocks that end up in a lot of soil, too. Even worse, non-organic potting soil usually contains synthetic fertilizers. But maybe most importantly, potting soil often isn’t very nutrient-rich since there’s so much filler. “You have to feed your food for your food to feed you,” she says.
Her go-to mix is one third sand, one third local topsoil, and one third compost. Mushroom compost and earthworm castings both make good composts, she says. Bonus: Her mix usually winds up cheaper than the same amount of bagged potting soil. If this sounds impossible and you’re still going to use potting soil, Burke says you should at least mix some compost into it so that your plants will have enough food.
When your plants are in the ground, Hammond recommends mulch. “Mulch is just a ground cover, something that you put on top of the soil,” he says. It helps prevent weeds, helps keep moisture in the soil (which means less watering for you), and, over time, breaks down to keep feeding the soil. Straw and wood chips both make for good mulch material, he says.
6. If you use transplants instead of seeds, keep the soil consistent.
Some seeds are more difficult to get going than others, and so you’ll want to be choosy about the plants you begin with seeds and the ones you buy as transplants (young plants that have already been started for you). Burke says that lettuce is an easy one to start from seed, and you’ll get more out of it if you start that way—you can only harvest lettuce two or three times before the plant’s life cycle is over, so you might as well start the life cycle on your terms.
But plenty of other plants are more finicky, and Hammond says beginners are often better off getting transplants for herbs like basil, which will already have edible leaves ready to go when you buy it, versus hoping it sprouts and grows in time for your summer caprese.
One big tip: Know what kind of soil your transplant started in. If your plant was grown at a big box store that uses synthetic fertilizer to start their plants, you need to keep the plants in synthetically fertilized soil. Burke says putting one of these transplants in organic soil would be like depriving a coffee addict of caffeine—it’s not going to have a whole lot of energy. In fact, if you plant a start and it just doesn’t seem to grow, the soil mix-match is a likely culprit, Burke explains.
But if you get your starts from a local nursery that starts their plants in a more natural mix (and you should ask!), then continuing with organic soil is A-OK.
7. Your garden should be full of things you actually eat.
If you’re not sure what you want to plant, Hammond says the best place to start is your kitchen. “What do you use when you cook?” he says. “You should grow something not just because it’s easy, but grow something because you’re going to use it.” There’s a lot of satisfaction of bringing your harvest indoors and cooking yourself a meal. Or, if you’re me, snapping off your peas and tomatoes one at a time and eating them in the sun.
8. Eat your plants as soon as they’re ready.
Most plants aren’t year-round producers or even months-long producers. They show up happy and delicious for a short period and then move on to flowering. I told Burke about a parsley plant in my garden that’s been stubbornly thinning. It’s shooting out a couple of stems toward the top and no matter how many times I trim it back, it won’t go back to the healthy-looking plant it was a few weeks ago.
That, Burke says, is because the parsley is stressed—it could be the weather or something else—and it’s trying to complete its life cycle by flowering. This is a process that is usually hard, if not impossible, to undo.
“Most of the plants I would grow in the garden, they’re going to finish their entire life cycle in 90 days,” she says. “They go so fast.”
Her advice is to take advantage of the plants to their fullest when they’re at a delicious stage and then let them go to plant new food when they’re done.
9. Use the three-second rule when watering.
For most edible plants, you want to water the soil—getting water all over the leaves isn’t helpful, and can actually contribute to more diseases. You want to make sure you water enough, but not too much. Hammond says the easiest trick is to water a container or a garden bed until you can count to three seconds with the water still pooled on top—that means the water has sufficiently drenched the soil down to the roots.
How often you need to water is more complicated. How hot is it? Do you have mulch or not? What part of the season is it? What’s the weather been like? But for the most part, Hammond says, plants will tell you when they’re thirsty—if the leaves are drooping, it’s time for refreshment.
10. Cut yourself some slack when you fail.
“In order to become a good gardener or a more advanced gardener, you have to go through all of the same things. You have to kill a bunch of plants, get a bunch of diseases on your plants, and you just have to learn,” Hammond says.
Burke agrees, and says she still has failures in the garden. Recently she planted radishes that never turned into much more than leaves, for example. “You’re either harvesting or you’re learning,” she says.
So maybe all those failures in my garden are starting to add up to something. This morning I harvested bok choy that I regrew from a grocery-bought plant. My thyme is thriving, and I can see the beginnings of a little broccoli head poking out of my broccoli plant. Last week I sauteed my own kale and I tasted my first-ever home-grown strawberry. Don’t get me wrong—I’m still a rubbish gardener. But I’m a little less terrible than I was before.
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