Planning victory for my victory garden
February 8, 2009 3:06 PM   Subscribe

I am completely overwhelmed with all the information online about starting a vegetable garden. Looking for personal anecdotes about what works and what doesn't; bonus points if you started on extremely clay-based soil.

I'm in Charlottesville, Va., which is somewhere on the border of zones 6 and 7 and has some soil with very high clay content (red bricks come from here!). I'm planning on building raised beds in a sunny spot in our backyard, probably four 4'x8'x18" beds.

Our backyard is on a slope, so I'm prepared to dig the beds level, as well as mixing in some compost into what I dig up before adding the soil and compost mix. After building the beds, I plan on adding another foot and a half or so of chicken wire to keep out the pests (we've got a decent number of deer here, though usually not so close to the city center as I am; but I'm more worried about squirrels).

Now the catch is that I'm completely inexperienced, born and raised in the city, and don't really know the first thing about gardening. Do these plans make sense? If I get started on this in the next two weeks, will I be ready to grow by spring?

Bonus points if anyone can point to me to a good "start a garden guide," especially if it's focused on the SE / Midatlantic.

(If it's impotant: I'm planning on growing several herbs, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini and/or summer squash, garlic, onions, bell peppers, and at least one kind of spicy pepper so I can make my own chili powder)
posted by thecaddy to Home & Garden (36 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I grew up in the Charlottesville area, and my family had a fairly successful garden. We grew everything on your list except garlic and onion (which my parents don't eat, oddly enough) and bell peppers, because they're just so vulnerable to bugs and so forth given their rather fragile structure and longish period of development.

Honestly, deer and bugs- particularly Japanese beetles- were much bigger problems than the Mars-like clay. We tilled compost into the garden fairly regularly, and may have started out with some purchased topsoil, though. Did not do raised beds- our fence was probably about 5 feet high, and did a decent job of keeping out the deer, so it sounds like you'll be ok.

One thing I would be concerned about is watering in the event of another drought. I'm not really in tune with the local weather at the moment, but as far as I can tell it's been relatively dry lately. If you're in the city, drought regulations will be very very bad for your garden. The Daily Progress weather section will probably have a running precip total. It also has a decent gardening column that addresses a lot of the timing issues and so on. The JMRL has lots of gardening books- grab 'em now, before people start getting planty in March! Also, the local garden center people are friendly and knowledgeable for the most part.

Overall, don't get too ambitious for your first year. Remember, for every crop and every square foot of garden, there's weeding, watering, harvesting, etc. etc. It might be a better idea to start out smaller and then build up as you gain expertise: one bed instead of four, for example.

Congratulations on the beginning of what will surely be a fruitful and rewarding endeavor!
posted by charmcityblues at 3:22 PM on February 8, 2009

That 18" of chicken wire will do nothing to keep the squirrels out, or the deer either for that matter.

Here is a link about starting a garden. If you google 'start a garden' you will get hundreds of hits.
posted by JayRwv at 3:25 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: That's a huge-ass garden! I'd start way smaller this year and then expand as you can.

I started my garden two years ago, and I opted for raised beds (NC, here, zone 7b). Basically I got some untreated 2x12's and just screwed them together, using 4x4's inside the corners for reinforcement. I made two 4'x10' beds. I lined the bottoms with cardboard boxes and paid to get a few cubic yards of 50/50 topsoil/compost dumped into my driveway. I then shoveled the soil into the box. This took two weekends, but only because I did it all by myself.

In your situation I'd highly recommend going the soil delivery route. You can make clay workable, but a) it's heavy as hell (my neck currently hates me because I'm doing some of this right now in the front yard) and b)

Choose your location wisely. You'll want at least 8 hours of direct sun. Try to get a south-facing spot for your garden far enough away from trees as you can. Orient your beds to run east-west, and plant the tall things at the north end, so that they don't shade the rest of the plants.

In those 80 sq feet, I grow way more than enough food for me (one person) all summer long. I plant peas, beans, swiss chard, carrots, beets, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cukes, zucchini/summer squash, eggplant, and some stuff i'm forgetting, i'm sure.

Have fun. But start way smaller.
posted by Stewriffic at 3:29 PM on February 8, 2009

Ready by spring: I'd say if you build your beds now- you have plenty of time to do pretty much any type of garden. For your first garden I highly recommend you use starts and not attempt to grow from seed.

Clay: along with compost and organic matter you may need to add sand. Call VA Tech cooperative extension to find out what you need to properly amend your soil. Or- visit a local nursery- the staff will be knowledgeable about the soil characteristics in your area. is an excellent book

Evaluate your yard for areas with lots of sun vs. low sunlight- plan your beds and plantings accordingly.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 3:29 PM on February 8, 2009

Well, the first thing to do is to get a soil test, which you can probably do through your local cooperative extension office. They'll also be a good region-specific resource.

In my experience, the texture of clay soil can be dramatically improved by adding lime or gypsum (if they're a sodic/alkali clay) and sand; since you're filling raised beds, you kind of have a choice of what to use, so this may not be necessary.

I wouldn't worry too much about having the beds ready (especially if you're filling them with a soil/compost mix), but you should get your longer-season plants--tomatoes and peppers--started indoors now, if you're starting them from seed.

As far as water management, make sure you're adding plenty of organic material, and remember that the organic carbon compounds in your soil are continually being broken down into carbon dioxide, so you need to continually replenish them with compost/green manures/etc. Also: mulch, mulch, mulch.
posted by pullayup at 3:29 PM on February 8, 2009

Hey, Thecaddy - There is a link to my garden site in my profile; I'm in a clay subsoil in Texas. I built a 20" raised bed and used half compost/ half sandy loam soil to fill it; big caution in my area is that you don't dig down into the clay because you'll create a "bathtub" effect where water sits in the bottom and rots all of your plants' roots.

One of the best resources you can locate is your state/county's Agricultural Extension Service. I'm really lucky to work for Texas A&M University, which happens to BE the agricultural extension service for the state of Texas, but they'll have all the info on their website about how to set up a raised bed and what precautions to take.
posted by SpecialK at 3:29 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: Sounds like you're totally on the right track.

A proposed alternative: Since you're doing raised beds and you're already going to have to buy a significant amount of compost, you could also consider buying enough compost + topsoil to fill your beds completely. (Depending on how many beds you're building, you could probably get away with having 1 cubic foot of each delivered to you, then mixing them in a wheelbarrow.)

The advantages: You won't have to dig in that clay. You won't have to break your back (and it will be back-breaking) mixing the red clay and compost well enough so that you don't end up with huge clay pockets. Your soil will be fertile; you will essentially be starting from scratch.

If you were planting in the ground, this obviously wouldn't be feasible. But since you're opting for the raised beds, you have the distinct advantage of not having to mess with the clay at all. And trust me, that is a huge, huge plus.

For the "start a garden" guide, contact your county extension agent or see if there's a local university extension co-op type thing. You can also contact your county's master gardener program (and say hi to my MIL, who is a Charlottesville master gardener!) -- they often provide free literature along these lines.

You've got plenty of time to get started by spring.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:30 PM on February 8, 2009

posted by hellboundforcheddar at 3:31 PM on February 8, 2009

Oh, and yes -- the chicken wire, unless you completely enclose it, will be ineffective for keeping squirrels out. And even then, you're more likely to come home to find one inside, puzzled as to how to get back out of the cage...
posted by SpecialK at 3:31 PM on February 8, 2009

Oops. I forgot b).
b) you'll burn out trying to make all the clay into soil before you start planting.
posted by Stewriffic at 3:33 PM on February 8, 2009

Keep in mind that if you use raised beds they will dry out faster than the ground- you may have to water more often.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 3:35 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: Last year I built 3 8'x4' raised beds. Two of the beds were 1' deep, and one was 2' deep. The soil I mixed was based on the square foot gardening recipe. I built a 6' high trellis on the shady side of each bed to allow the vine crops (tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, watermelon) to grow. I surrounded each bed with 4' high chicken wire held in place with 4 wooden stakes.

In the end, my the crop yields were overwhelmingly good. Before this I had zero experience with gardening, so I should be able to give a beginner's perspective. Also, I should mention that I'm in zone 6, Pennsylvania.

Very few things went wrong in the end:

First, I messed up the tomato seedlings. Tomatoes, I discovered wouldn't grow directly from seed in the soil. They had to be started indoors. But, I didn't find this out until after several weeks after I should have started them. I still got a fantastic yield, but not until very late into the fall.

Second, I grew way too much. I was using the square foot method, so I had over 100 square feet of gardening space. I probably could have done well with only 30 squares of space. And, in the end, I actually abandoned one of the beds, because I was harvesting way too much.

Third problem I had was with transplanting the seedlings to the beds. I didn't know that the seedlings had to be shielded from direct sunlight for a few days until they adapted. So, a lot of my first transplants died. Luckily I had an enormous amount of seedlings left, more than I needed.

Honestly, those were the only problems that I had. Using the square foot method was extremely easy and my yields were enormous. I grew everything from heirloom seeds, and everything harvested on time, as estimated by the seed package.

I only had one problem with pests, and that was with the pepper plants. Something was eating my pepper seedlings each night after I planted them, and I lost about 50% of the seedlings. However, because I had an enormous amount of harvest, I didn't even notice in the end.
posted by brandnew at 3:35 PM on February 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

Well, you have right there pretty much described my little backyard garden from last year, and perfectly captured my level of experience at the time - clay soil, slope, chicken wire, newbieness and all. I had to water it by bringing buckets down a flight of stairs, too.

You know what? It worked out fine and I had a blast. I found myself responding to "How are you?" with "My garden's doing great." I got tons of tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers and jalapenos, and lots of squash for a while until a powdery mildew attack killed the squash plants (probably from overwatering). I used natural pest control - marigolds around the edge of the garden to keep the worms away, soapy water sprayed on the leaves of the eggplants every few days to stop those damn voracious eggplant flea beetles - and just tried to watch, weed, water and compost as needed. At one point I could tell deer had been nibbling at the tops of a few plants near the edge, but the chicken wire kept the rabbits away without a hitch.

It wasn't rocket science, but you do learn a lot by doing. It's definitely easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated, but the Web is great if you use it for researching specific problems (for me, that was tomatoes, eggplant leaf damage and squash mildew). I found out with a few clicks that I spaced the tomatoes too close so they grew really tall to reach the sun, which made them harder to control and kept the top tomatoes smaller. Ok, I'll fix that this year. I'm trying zucchini again, in a slightly different spot, will water more judiciously and hope the mold doesn't come back, but if it does, I'll move on to something else. The AskMe gardening tag turned out to be my very special friend, too.

Just try to keep in mind that it's fun. Because it really is. Even when you're fighting daily battles against creatures that are eating your precious plants. And especially when you make that first big batch of garden-grown tomato sauce.
posted by mediareport at 3:39 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: Some comments from someone who has gardened just north of you and also in London (where the soil is extremely clay-based):
1. Dig lots of humus into the soil. Beg, buy, or steal some well-composted leaves, chicken manure, or other stuff and dig it in, to a depth of around 12". The biggest problem with clay soil is that it is very wet in the winter and dries to the consistency of a clay pot in the summer. Watering plants in this hard clay means that your precious water just runs away through the cracks in the soil. Digging in compost means that the clay is broek up enough to hold water, rather than just acting as a channel for it to go elsewhere.
2. Raise seedlings in a separate box and transplant when they are big enough to survive on their own. That way, you can get the spacing right - most beginners (including me) plant things too close together and everything gets buggy and diseased from having to compete for food.
3. Start with young plants in trays that you buy from the market. That way, you have something to cheer you when your first lot of seedlings bite the dust.
4. Whenever you plant any young plants out, dig in some more compost around and beneath the planting hole. Don't surround immature plants with just compost, because it burns the roots. Dig it into the soil all around. Water in new plants and keep watering daily until they are established and can fend for themselves (normally when you start to see significant new leaf growth).
5. Seeds do best in soil with very little nutrient. Too much nutrient and seedlings "bolt" - growing too tall and leggy, so they can't support themselves as young plants. You can buy special seed compost for this reason.
6. Don't grow anything that it is easy or cheap to buy, to start. Grow things that are expensive or difficult to find because the local varieties lack flavor, for instance. You will need a reason to go out and dig, weed, and water every day. So grow the things that you really can't buy easily.
7. Grow tomatoes in containers. So much easier - you don't need to constantly police the local wildife, you don't need netting, and you can move them to an ideal spot in the garden to catch the sun. I much better results (yield and taste) in a container than in the garden. I just buy new compost each year and reuse the same containers.
8. If you have the space, try growing some raspberries. Unlike strawberries, which need feeding, protecting from damp, and take 24-hour surveillance to grow large enough for you to eat them, raspberries tend to be above the height of the armies of slugs, bugs, racoons, and rabbits that are on the lookout for anything edible and sweet(!). Raspberries take almost no care at all - they just need cutting back in the spring to about 12". I get a couple of crops each year of the most expensive berries you can buy, just for the trouble of an occasional weeding and pruning.
posted by Susurration at 3:40 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh - and consider buying a huge water barrel to catch rainwater. It is not illegal to water from your own rainwater supply during a drought. You could consider using a soak hose as well, to direct water to the roots of your plants -- much more efficient than a sprinkler hose.
posted by Susurration at 3:45 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: Here's the book that I used as my guide:

Square Foot Gardening

Regarding compost: I didn't have a compost pile before I began my garden, so I bought my a few big bags of compost from a local gardening store. Later I discovered that my municipality has a compost site which I used thereafter.
posted by brandnew at 3:47 PM on February 8, 2009

Squirrels have always been uninterested in our garden. However deer can be a problem & what works for us is 6 ft high electric fence with strands spaced a foot apart.
Get your soil tested to determine what supplementation it requires. We have clay soil and years of compost & manure have improved it tremendously.
Raised beds are a good idea.
posted by canoehead at 3:55 PM on February 8, 2009

I enthusiastically second Square Foot Gardening. The author will impose some method on the madness, even though you don't have to follow every single one of his rules.

Here's my experience as a total novice: tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers were very easy and rewarding. Spinach, lettuce, and broccoli all failed. The less you water most herbs the better.
posted by footnote at 3:57 PM on February 8, 2009

I had a garden for a few years. I found gardenweb very helpful. They are still around and have, among others that might be relevant to you, a forum for the state of Virginia. My suggestion is grow only easy plants for the first year, or at most one fussy one, because you probably won't get anything from the fussy ones the first year. What's easy depends on your soil, the amount of sun you have, and your general zone. Some are hardy and suited to the climate and some are prone to infestations.
posted by Listener at 4:01 PM on February 8, 2009

You are going to have fun!

How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons is a terrific book.

I'd suggest putting wire screen UNDER your beds if gophers live in your area. Where I live deer and gophers are the worst pests. The other really important thing is to make sure the spot you choose gets full sun, or you won't get decent results. The rest you can discover by experiment.
posted by airplain at 4:01 PM on February 8, 2009

By 'full sun' I mean sun all day. Not full sun part of the day.
posted by airplain at 4:09 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: Could you be overthinking this? ; )

Your plans sound great.

I have a small back yard with exactly 9cm of a horrible soil on top of sheet rock, and this year I've built a raised garden and I'm successfully growing vegetables for our small family.
Some things I've learnt:
The simplest way to get around the problem of poor soil is to build a stout surround and fill the bed with compost - bagged or by the trailer load. Go for broke on the compost, none of it will be 'wasted', and it will make your life a lot easier.

I recommend planting healthy seedlings of the things you know your family will eat - in our case it is tomatoes, runner beans, peppers, spinach and a good variety of kitchen herbs. The herbs are the funnest things in my garden - even our most dreary budget-day meals beome 'Voila! hearty peasant fare' with a generous handful of fresh herbs.

There isn't much point in growing huge amounts of cauliflower, for example, because some gardening website says it is "suited" to the climate if you can't stand to eat the stuff. You say you have a sunny spot in the garden - in a good raised bed of compost most things will grow.

For a start you want quick rewards, which is why I recommend buying healthy seedlings at first, rather than sprouting seeds. You can build a little confidence at a time with every plant you don't kill. It's important to give single plant more space than you think it needs - don't cram everything in.

I love vegetables that I can 'harvest' a little at a time - certain types of lettuce, spinach, peas and beans. They keep me popping out to the vege patch every day, and there's less wastage.

Gardeners will love to give you advice which is based on the ideal "my garden is my life" principle, and being told to move tons of earth, raise everything from seed, and have a three year plan can kill your enthusiasm pretty quickly.

You will learn from trial and error, the important thing is to get started, and have some fun.
posted by Catch at 4:16 PM on February 8, 2009

Either fill your raised beds with good soil from a rockery/landscape supply, or contact your local agriculture office (as people have said upthread) in order to find out how to amend your soil. Some of the suggestions in this thread may not be helpful; for instance, adding sand to clay soils of certain types is one of the best ways to make something approaching cement. There's usually a ton of calcium in clay soils, so gypsum is only indicated in soils with high salt content. Adding compost to clay is always recommended because it helps inprove soil texture, water infiltration, microbial activity, cation exchange, and soil pH (6.5 to 7 is what you want for most veggies). So talk to your ag people regarding any other amendment you're considering.

Starting small is also an excellent suggestion.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:40 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: Huge garden plan - consider this carefully - although be aware, too, that squash typically take up a lot of space.

Forget keeping the squirrels out. Rather, put a birdbath in your yard. Squirrels will go after your green tomatoes in July & August as much because of their water content as anything else. Give them someplace else to drink.

Since you're doing raised, beds, the suggestion above about carting in your own soil/humus mix is a solid one. I'll be digging my garden for the fourth year in a row in a few weeks, and it's still clay-ey as hell (zone 6-7 cusp, they make bricks here too).

Buy your starters & sets from local growers. Don't go to some hardware big box for plants. They're strip mined in Texas and shipped in via mule. They will not do well. Also, if you buy starters, buy only those the grower/vendor can tell you have been properly hardened off. Plopping down plants in the great outdoors that've never seen the outside of a grow house is usually an ugly scene.

Go to your local garden center and get a seed starter kit. Use it for the lettuces, herbs, other leafy stuff. It'll get you going sooner. I recommend leaving a row's worth of space in the plot here and there in case you want a late crop of some of the early veggies.

I had two grape tomato plants last year. They got monstrously huge, spilling out of their cages and taking up nearly half of my measly 10' x 12' plot. We had fresh salsa all season, but I threw tomatoes away in the early Fall. Don't (vastly) overestimate the amount of stuff you'll eat. Go for variety.

Welcome to the Ancient and Established Order of the Black Nails.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:51 PM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cubed Foot Gardening is a pretty solid introductory book.
posted by electroboy at 4:51 PM on February 8, 2009

There's some good discussion about growing garlic here. I find garlic the easiest of all of my crops because it takes so little work, aside from planting and harvesting. I plant in late October and harvest on July 4.

Emperor SnooKloze is right about thinking ahead. When you're talking to your ag extension agent, ask whether the extension offers any canning classes.

Don't forget to start a garden journal, so you can jot down what you planted, where you bought it, where you planted it and when you harvested it. You will forget these things otherwise.

As you plan your garden, look into companion planting to see if there's anything on your list that will grow well together. (I usually plant tomatoes and basil together, for example.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:35 PM on February 8, 2009

I also recommend Square Foot Gardening and your county extension agent. The agent will probably have a planting calendar and list of recommended varieties that will save you a ton of research.

I'm one zone colder than you, very clay soil (can make pots out of it!). Some recommendations from my experience:

- Buy soil/compost/anything that isn't clay and put it in your raised beds. Don't even try to work the clay. Really.
- Squirrels are unlikely to do much damage.
- Chicken wire won't keep out deer unless it completely encloses the plant like a cage. Around here, deer hop over anything shorter than 8 feet.
- Start smaller. I had 4 beds about the size you're planning and now use only 1.5. If you start too big, you could easily get discouraged and overwhelmed.
- Mulch a lot to reduce weeding and watering. I use shredded leaves.

I live in intensive deer territory so built a hoop house using galvanized stock panels (lightweight cattle fencing that you can bend to make an arch). The wires are spaced closely enough that the deer can only stick their noses in a short distance. In cold weather, I can cover the hoop house with plastic and have a greenhouse.
posted by PatoPata at 5:40 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: I haven't read all the replies, so I apologize for the repeats. I'm nthing Square Foot Vegetable Gardening. Also: nothing without a roof will keep out squirrels or deer. Nothing. Deer can easily jump over two-meter fences. Even the roof solution requires luck. Get used to sharing. Where it's really tough is lettuces and cabbages, wherein the deer will take one bite from each head, going down the row (if you are planting one-dimensionally, which is sub-optimal.) Cutworms are especially annoying, so if you live in their squirming grounds, start stocking up on coffee cans to sink into the ground -- then plant your seeds or transplants inside the walls.

Drainage, drainage, drainage. If you're in clay soil, mix in hard sand with the other amendments. If vermiculite is still available in your area, it's fantastic stuff, but wear a respirator.

Over-nitrogenating the soil is a common beginner's mistake. You'll get gorgeous leaves and no fruit. As mentioned, the Cooperative Extension office will be your best friend. Avoid Miracle-Gro and their ilk. If you can stand the smell, fish emulsion is magic.

Start way smaller than you think you'll need. Two 4' x 4' beds is more than enough, even if you have a large family.

Don't amend with potting soil. Most is full of weed seeds. Some store-bought compost is good. Ask an expert at a garden center (not a home center) what s/he recommends.

Don't plant all your x at once, unless it's something that fruits, or some of the niftier lettuces that let you take a couple leaves at a time without their dying. I've known people to plant fifty radish seeds, then in four weeks they have to figure out what to do with fifty radishes. Plant a week's worth at a time. You'll eat less than you think.

Again: You'll eat less than you think. One zucchini plant, maybe two tomato plants, is all that is necessary. At the height of the season, even homeless shelters turn away surplus zucchini. You'll pick every squash, then the next morning there will be two dozen new ones. This is counter-intuitive, but: eat the small ones, and put the baseball-bat ones into your compost heap. Allocate 3' x 3' for the zucchini alone.

You mentioned liking hot peppers. Try Fatali. They are lemony and fantastically, brutally, otherworldly hot, especially if you try your best to kill them (it takes some practice, but give them an absolute minimum of water.) Peppers cross-pollinate like crazy, and since we eat their sex organs, planting even the mildest bell pepper near a Fatali, Scotch Bonnet, Habanero, etc. plant will make the former spicy.

Ring your garden with marigolds. They're pretty and they repel many insects.

Don't plant mint, it will parasitically devour everything in your garden. And beyond. If you have a smaller car, be especially wary. Garden mint has been known to eat 2 - 3 coupes per season.

Do your part for variety conservation (and old-time flavor) and get heirloom seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. Black tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, proper (non-hybridized) French Breakfast radishes, and tons of others. You'll be pleased. The seeds in the stores were bred to ripen all at once, to have thick skins to protect them in shipment, to be as large as possible, and to stay "fresh" (not really, though) for as long as possible. These traits are desirable for factory farms, but unnecessary (if not positively harmful) for the home grower.

Buy some garlic from the grocery store, pull it apart, and plant the cloves. Then clip each green shoot as it grows, when it's still soft and springy, and use it wherever you would use green onions. It's so much tastier that you won't believe it.

These are just off the top of my head. If you find this useful, email me through my profile, and I'll send you more.
posted by quarantine at 7:06 PM on February 8, 2009 [5 favorites]

Buy a canner and some mason jars and learn how to use it. You can can tomatoes etc straight or you can experiment a bit and make huge amounts of tomato sauce or salsa right in the can for use later. Also learn how to blanch vegetables, freeze pesto and if you have a cellar make a root cellar area. You can feed yourself well into the winter months this way.

Lettuce and other shade loving greens grow best in hanging baskets under your eaves in your climate. They get zapped by the sun if you grow them in the regular beds.

18" of chicken wire won't even keep chickens out. Either go for broke (buried wire mesh, deer fencing at least 6' high) or don't bother.
posted by fshgrl at 10:03 PM on February 8, 2009

The best advice I got about learning to garden is "start small."

(You can always plant a second crop in a month or so if you're feeling on top of things with the first.)
posted by salvia at 11:57 PM on February 8, 2009

I grow mint in pots sunk into the ground btw. It still escapes but at least that keeps it reasonable.

And don't try to grow hot and bell peppers or several varieties of hot peppers close together as they will interbreed with bizarre results.

finally- some vegetable garden plants are poisonous to dogs, if not deadly at least enough to make them throw up on your floor a lot. If you have a dog and it begins to take an unhealthy interest in onions, garlic, hops or oregano you may want to reconsider your fencing options.
posted by fshgrl at 1:34 AM on February 9, 2009

Go to you local barber shop and ask them if you can collect some bags of human hair. Wrap loosely in mesh and hang the bags around your garden. Deer will smell human scent. Deer don't like humans.

It sounds cruel, but I used BB guns on the squirrels.
posted by zaelic at 4:00 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a hort background and I'm finding the recommendations for sand really interesting. My profs always stressed the importance of not adding sand to clay. This is in the SE/MidAtlantic US, so perhaps here sand and clay should not mix.

This is one advantage to starting small - any gaffs you make in soil prep won't be too disastrous.

For our lovely SE clay, add humus to improve soil structure. Raise any beds with significant quantities of amendments (otherwise you'll have drainage issues). It sounds like you're bringing in soil/compost. Try to find a reputable source. A lot of 'topsoil' is worthless. Look at the soil before buying. (This is one advantage to knowing local gardeners/trustworthy garden center staff.)

Once you've finished the bed, get a soil test (often free from your state's cooperative extension service). Add fert and lime at the level recommended by the test for the crop you're growing.

Gardening is really local. Befriend the staff at the local indie garden center (visit on a slow day), check out any nearby botanical gardens for classes/gardening friends, and use the publications produced by your state's cooperative extension service (North Carolina has good pubs too if you want general SE gardening advice).

Gardeners love to share. Once you have local gardening friends, you'll have ready advice and lots of cucumbers (tomatoes if they love you) when the drought hits or the bugs appear.
posted by fiore at 11:18 AM on February 9, 2009

When you google for gardening help, you're better off looking in your zone. Every state has a Cooperative Extension Office listed in the phone book. If you can't find it, call the state university. They will have lots of free information, well-researched, and may be able to connect you to Master Gardeners in your area. Your local Adult Ed. program, may have classes. Local gardeners are a great resource. For clay, I've been told to add sand and lots of organic matter.

Have fun; it's a treat to eat home-grown tomatoes. I moved and am starting from scratch; I miss my herb garden, and look forward to starting a new one.
posted by theora55 at 4:27 PM on February 9, 2009

Hey thecaddy, you know Woodfolk right... you should go there and ask for advice. When I lived there we had watermelon, passionfruit, figs, okra, raspberries, autumn olives and lots of other stuff growing in our yard.
posted by cloeburner at 7:49 AM on February 10, 2009

I'm in San Diego and my city provides free compost to residents. Anyone who asks can get the equivalent of several trashcans full for free if they load and haul. More than that is still cheap. See if any of your city or county departments provide such a service. A quick Google didn't turn up anything but I only checked for the City of Charlottesville. Perhaps a local private group?
posted by slow graffiti at 4:23 PM on February 13, 2009

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