How do I start my own backyard garden?
March 21, 2009 12:25 PM   Subscribe

GreenThumbFilter: I'd like to start a garden in my backyard to grow some veggies and herbs and stuff -- like the Obamas' garden, but obviously at a lot smaller scale. How do I do this?

I live in Matamoros, Mexico -- that's at the southernmost tip of Texas. I have a backyard area that gets pretty good sunlight and is completely fenced, so I don't have to worry about small animals getting in and ruining everything.

1. What should I plant? I'm mostly interested in stuff I can use in cooking, so vegetables and herbs. I also sorta want to plant a lime tree or banana tree or something -- is that difficult to do / care for?

2. From what I understand, I have to start the seeds in little egg containers and then transfer them outside. What soil do I use in the egg containers? Do I put them in direct or indirect sunlight?

3. For composting -- what do I need to exclude other than dairy? Do I need earthworms or anything? Can I chuck everything in a big plastic bin outside and let the magic happen? How do I know when it's ready?

4. I'd like to grow these things organically. Do I need to do anything special to replace whatever pesticides one normally uses?

5. Are there any good online resources for this kinda thing?

Thanks everyone!
posted by lockestockbarrel to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you need to start the plants indoors; we're well past the frost date. I like raised beds--here's a good tutorial. You can fill the beds with a mixture of dirt from your yard and bags of manure and compost that you can buy at a home improvement center.

I'm a bit north of you, but I've had really good luck with tomatoes, okra, bell peppers, and beans this time of year. This year I'm experimenting with corn, potatoes, onions, and garlic, which are all thriving. Squash and melons are easy to grow from seed and they look impressive. In September, you can plant cool weather vegetables like peas, cauliflower, and broccoli.

Instead of starting with seeds, it's a lot easier to head to Home Depot and pick up a few vegetable/herb plants that they have started for you in their little peat pots.

With composting, I find it's much more successful if you can construct some sort of open-bottomed wire cage that sits directly on the ground. This allows the compost to breathe and allows earth worms and other beneficial critters to enter your composting bin. You need a big ratio of brown material, like shredded leaves, to green material, like kitchen scraps or grass clippings. Unless you devote a lot of attention to your composting project, it'll probably take about a year before it's ready. You can speed it along by turning it with a pitchfork every 6 weeks or so.

I grow my yard organically and have never used pesticides mostly because the plants have never needed them. You can make a solution of soapy water if you see your plants getting eaten, but it's not as though you need to do anything preemptive.
posted by jschu at 12:50 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Plant what you want to eat. In your climate: tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, herbs, squash, cucumbers are what I'd start with. Lime trees and bananas are outside my direct experience, so talk to someone who's done it.
2. That's one way you can do it, but it's not required. Start them in paper cups, or a shallow tray. Actually, I'm not really sure you'd have to start them in anything, in your climate zone. I do that some years to get a jump on spring, but it's not required. Most veggies and herbs like sun. Take advantage of what you had.
3. No meat/bones, eggshells are fine, coffee grounds. Stick with plant matter, about even proportions green/brown. Composting requires oxygen, so a plastic bin isn't ideal. Use some chicken wire or other fencing and make a little compost cage, say a meter square, with no top (or bottom if you're able to turn it regularly).
4. Talk to local gardeners. My temptation is to say no. If you end up with pest problems, you can deal with that as they arise.
5. Yes. Many, though again, I'm kind of geographically blinkered. I'll defer to those who're more familiar with gardening in zones 9-9b.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:52 PM on March 21, 2009

Avocado trees are pretty simple - we've got one growing right now in our college dorm room that's about a foot and a half high.

Fill a glass with water - leave about an inch empty. Take the pit of an avocado and stick in three toothpicks lightly - just enough that the other end can rest on the glass and the pit won't fall. Basically, you want about half of the pit submerged.

Stick it on a shelf in the sun, and remember to add more water when the level goes down.

Essentially, you leave it alone until it sprouts. Here's the catch - they don't always sprout. We had five pits going, but only one sprouted. Once the sprouts get about three inches long, transfer it to a pot with soil. Keep it in the sun, water it when it gets dry, and then it'll grow great. When it outgrows the pot, I'm sure you can plant it outside, but, I don't have any experience with that yet. :)
posted by firei at 1:03 PM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whether you're a casual cultivator or gardening guru, has a wealth of information about the care and feeding of indoor and outdoor plants. You can search the extensive plant database to find information on thousands of house plants, participate in and discuss your favorite gardening topics in the plant forum, and expand your plant knowledge with hundreds of gardening tips and guides. Have a great time. I know you will love it.
posted by netbros at 1:25 PM on March 21, 2009

This isn't meant as a snark: Don't you have a library anywhere near you? If you've never had a garden before, there are a lot of things to learn--more than you're going to get in this space. You need a couple of good books on gardening. Organic gardening--the word "organic" should appear somewhere on the cover.

And not trying to be discouraging at all, either. Gardening is essentially a very simple enterprise, and you're practically guaranteed some success no matter how inexperienced you are. (As, for the record, you're practically guaranteed some failure no matter how experienced.)
posted by bricoleur at 1:25 PM on March 21, 2009

Propagating avocados from seed is a bad idea unless you're more interested in genetic experimentation than tasty produce. To steal a professor's analogy, an avocado variety like the Hass is the genetic equivalent of a royal flush in terms of plant and fruit quality. When you try to propagate an avocado by planting a seed (rather than the usual method of cloning it by taking a cutting) you are essentially shuffling the deck and drawing a whole new hand; what you get will be substantially different from, and most likely inferior to, what you started with.
posted by contraption at 1:44 PM on March 21, 2009

The US Department of Agriculture, circa 1943, is here to help.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 1:54 PM on March 21, 2009

Raised beds are the way to go. Period. Try the Square Foot Gardening method. Make sure you get the "All New" edition, as I found it to be much better organized and descriptive than the first edition. One side benefit for you would be that the SFG book also has a lot of the basics, such as plant spacing, harvesting, and other newbie stuff. I still refer to it quite a bit.

SFG has a pretty wide following on the internets. I can also vouch for the book's soil "recipe" to get you started until you have your own compost production. I built mine out of cinderblocks several years ago and it's easy-peasy now each year. This SFG forum on gardenweb is pretty active as well. Gardenweb also has LOTS of region-specific forums and gardeners, for the most part, really love to share and so they tend to be pretty friendly places to post.

In your part of the US, good water management is very important. The key is to get the right amount of water to the plant roots at the right time. You can't do this with a hose and nozzle or even a sprinkler. I highly recommend using drip irrigation. DripWorks is an good, informative source of what you'll need. Get their paper catalog mailed to you and spend some time with it to understand how the systems work. Again, this is a one-time investment that you'll thank yourself for every year down the road.

Potatoes are also fun to grow - especially when no digging or stooping over is required.

And lastly, read The $64 Dollar Tomato to keep things in perspective.
posted by webhund at 1:57 PM on March 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

For starting out gardening, I strongly recommend getting a timer-controlled drip irrigation system like this one. Your local hardware store will probably have something similar, and the hose, timers and little sprinkler fittings are standardized and widely available separately, but it's kinda nice when you're starting out to know that you have everything you need, including some basic instructions, in one box. The systems are affordable, very easy to set up, and can save your entire garden from decimation in the event that you forget or are unable to water it for a couple of days.

I've got strawberries, tomatoes, herbs, peppers, zucchini, radishes, green onions, beets, and a whole deck full of container plants being automatically watered by two timers right now, and I've invested probably 4 hours total installation time.
posted by contraption at 2:00 PM on March 21, 2009

If you've got a decent budget, consider starting some plants from bedding plants purchased at a garden center. Things like peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers and squash can be intimidating for beginning gardeners. Bedding plants give you a little head start. Of course, in your climate you won't need as much of a head start as we need here in the frozen north.

Gardenweb, mentioned above is a great site. Check into MyFolia as well which as daily journals from lots of different types of gardeners from experienced to beginner, and there are lots in your area. Lurk or join, you can learn a lot from this site.
posted by nax at 2:04 PM on March 21, 2009

which HAS daily journals. gak
posted by nax at 2:04 PM on March 21, 2009

For what it's worth, I hope that you're considerate to the various creatures that are bound to feast on the bounty of your garden. I live in metro Detroit, and backyard gardens are common, but birds and squirrels and rabbits also tend to feast on the fruits of your labor. We had a neighbor who would actually go out and kill those critters that he could catch nibbling at his veggies (and most backyard gardeners grow far more produce than they themselves can consume), and it turned my stomach.

Even with nature's predators, we've regularly grown cucumbers, green peppers, cucumbers, garlic, and dill just in a small dirt patch behind our garage.
posted by Oriole Adams at 3:09 PM on March 21, 2009

I'm in Houston, so about 1/2 a zone north of you, and this is my second year to have a garden. Last year I planted tomatoes, peppers, herbs and green beans. The tomatoes and peppers did very well, but they grew so fast they shaded the green beans and herbs too much, so they didn't produce much. I planted my tomatoes this year on the north end of the bed so that won't happen.

I created a raised bed from untreated landscape timbers. I put one on top of the other, drilled holes in each end, and pinned them to the ground with short pieces of rebar. I've had a compost bin for years, so I was able to fill the bed most of the way with my own compost and just top it off with about 2 parts bagged hummus to 1 part bagged topsoil.

I never started plants inside. I just bought plants for tomatoes and peppers, rather than seeds. If you want to grow things from seed, you'll probably be able to sow the seeds directly into the garden.

My compost bin is made of alternating landscape timbers, open on one end (again, untreated, so eventually it's going to rot away). I don't turn it or anything, but compost is pretty slow to happen that way. You'll want to stir it all up now and then if you want maximum composting. If you drink coffee, definitely include the grounds, as they'll make the rest of the plant material and vegetable scraps rot faster, and most veggies like the acid. You'll know it's ready when it looks mostly like dirt, or dirt and dry leaves.

Your best bet for advice is to find something written for your area. You and I don't have to worry about cold much (I picked my last tomatoes just before Christmas and could have kept the plants through the winter if I wished), but the heat's a killer, and most gardening guides don't take this into consideration. A lot "summer" vegetables will stop producing in extreme heat and might even not survive it. You'll have crops in the spring and fall, instead.

I never used any pesticides. Some bugs were eating the leaves of my bean plants, but I assumed most of the problem was that the plants were weak from lack of sun. I did have problems with birds pecking at my tomatoes, so I covered them in netting and learned to pick the tomatoes early.
posted by zinfandel at 5:28 PM on March 21, 2009

1. Regarding lime trees and banana trees - I'm not an expert by any means but I have a little experience of both. Where I am in Australia, the climate is dry and hot. It gets very hot in Summer, and in winter the coldest is maybe 40F in the middle of the night, and averaging around 60F during the days. I'm not sure how your climate relates to that. I'm pretty sure that neither limes nor bananas like the cold.

We have a little espaliered lime tree in our backyard going great guns. We have it in with the herb patch and it doesn't seem to need much special treatment. The fact that it's espaliered means it's easy to manage its size. My neighbour has a banana tree and it is freaking huge and I don't think the bananas are ever edible, if he's even had any. I think they need a tropical climate, and I think you need to grow a few plants together.

With a lime tree, it'll be more expensive depending on how old it is - ie. how big it is and how long it'll take to fruit. I'm pretty sure you can grow lime trees successfully in pots, though they need much more attention that way.

My sense is that (especially if you have limited space) a lime tree will be easier than a banana tree. But keep your eyes open around your neighbourhood and talk to someone in your local garden centre and you should be able to find out pretty easily what is likely to work or not where you are.

3. We don't put in meat or stinky things like onions or garlic. I don't really handle the composting in our house, so I've no idea why, but the person who does knows what he's doing so I assume he has his reasons. Maybe they take longer to break down or the worms don't like them or something?
posted by Emilyisnow at 5:47 PM on March 21, 2009

I forgot to mention my favorite gardening books: Texas Organic Vegetable Gardening and The Complete Compost Gardening Guide (I am a huge compost dork).

Also, we have miniature (stunted?) peach, lemon and tangerine trees in large pots. They only produce a few fruits every season, but they're cute, hardy little things and the flowers are gorgeous and the fruit is delicious. You can buy them at Lowe's or Home Depot.
posted by jschu at 7:08 PM on March 21, 2009

We're going to do straw bale gardening this year. This is the article that first caught my eye and there's more here.
posted by auntbunny at 11:21 PM on March 21, 2009

if you like okra, plant some!
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 12:11 AM on March 22, 2009

« Older Figure out what's important to you   |   On the spinning wheel ride Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.