What are some tips for the beginner gardener?
January 27, 2014 8:55 PM   Subscribe

I am a complete novice to gardening but would like to start a vegetable garden for this spring/summer. I work a low income job so I need to do things on the cheap. I'm looking for suggestions or tips I haven't read online.

I have no experience gardening. I'm an adult living at home and we have 2 gardening areas that haven't been used in years but my dad (when my parents were married) used to grow tomates and peppers. I've already scoured the internet for information.

Zone 6a. Good sunlight. One plot is 15' x 2.5' and the other s 10' x 2'. I want to do cherry tomatoes, lettuce and bush beans. I have no interest in container or raised gardens (or herbs) , I really want to use this nice unused gardening space. I already have tools and tomato cages. Keeping costs low ($50 not including water) is really important.

Every guide says start spring gardening as soon as you can work the ground. What does that mean? Also while 2 other family me members will eat from the garden this is a solo project. Any tips for doing it alone? How do you decide how much to plant? I am only interested in fresh use and I have no friends so I don't want a lot of waste. While I like the idea of going organic is it going to be too expensive or hard to maintain?

Also I don't know how long I'll be living here so I can't do fruit or perennials.
posted by Aranquis to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: So lettuce is your coldest crop, you'll want to seed that (far cheaper from seed, and if you want you could just hand-scatter several palmfuls of mixed lettuce seeds in the 10x2 plot) basically on your last frost date (check online). You could try planting several bush beans from seed or seedlings, in the lettuce bed, a few weeks later. The upside is that the grown bushes will shade your lettuce and give you a few more weeks of that.

Tomatoes: you can probably cram 5 or 6 small plants (whenever your best local garden store gets live plants in) into the 15' bed and that will make a pretty solid wall of tomato plants when full grown. I would do a mix of cherry, medium, and large (maybe one really big Beefsteak, stick to Early Girl and one of the small sweets for the others), maybe skew to early varieties in 6a since you don't have that long. You said you didn't want herbs but a couple of basil plants around the outside of the tomato bed will give you a little pestproofing and basil for your fresh tomatoes.

You can do all of the above for less than $25. Buy a bag of dry fruit & veg fertilizer for $7 and follow the directions. Buy a bottle of insecticidal soap for pest control, about $6.

Some of them will make it, some won't, but you'll probably have so many tomatoes you have to freeze them (freeze them in the open on a plate or tray, then pop into a freezer bag).

Most gardening is learned by trial and error, and I find the best way to learn is to fling some crap at the ground and see what grows. Also hang out at your best local gardening store because that's where the brain trust works so they can get discounts.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:17 PM on January 27, 2014

ah, yes. "When you can work the ground." Right up there with "Buy low and sell high" and "The check is in the mail." Without more specific details of where you live and what your winter's been like, it's impossible to give much in the way of usable information.

Instead of looking on the internet, try to find LOCAL information. Does someone in your neighborhood have a great vegetable garden in the summer? Knock on the door and ask for a few tips. (Odds are very good that you'll be given a few plants or seeds, too). Does your town have community gardens (called Pea Patches around here)? Make inquiries about who runs them, and contact them and ask for a few tips, or a few specific answers. There are frequently volunteer Master Gardeners who help people, through the community gardens or other ways. Ask your local LIBRARIAN about programs, get-togethers, lectures. In the Spring many non-profits, church groups and other people have plant sales. The prices are good, and the answers are plentiful. Ditto early opening weeks of Farmers' Markets -- lots of starts for good prices.

But before you start shoving plants in the ground, you should be thinking about the soil where you're planning to put them. Your Dad may have had a garden there, but it's a weed patch now. You'll need to clear it out, without destroying the soil ecosystem. Hand weeding, in other words. At least that's cheap! Don't throw fertilizer in there -- work in a sack of compost instead. And start making your own compost from food scraps; fantastic for the plants, and satisfying to be recycling scraps.

Personally, I would avoid local commercial nurseries. They're in business, they want to sell you what they have. And surprisingly, many of their employees are remarkably clueless.

At any rate, have a wonderful time! If you're willing to put in the work, it shouldn't cost you very much. And remember, you can frequently make another planting of early Spring plants (like lettuce) in the Fall -- and you'll know much more by then.
posted by kestralwing at 9:50 PM on January 27, 2014

Best answer: Soil, soil, soil. Make sure it's rich, friable, moist (achieved with the right amount of compost) but not wet. Test the pH with a cheap kit from the hardware store, which can also give you an estimate of nitrogen and a couple of other levels. Probably your soil is fine, unless: your Dad grew a lot of tomatoes on it without fertilizing (depletes lime); or: it's been sitting bare for years with no weeds or grass allowed to grow on it.

However, before garden is your big chance to make sure the soil is great. You could go the expensive route and add a bunch of new soil, but you can probably achieve a lot by just working in a bag or two of composted cow manure. Work the soil deep to give your plants the best growing environment. This will give you great, healthy vegetable yields with best resistance to bugs and diseases.

Bury tomato plants deeply in the ground, halfway up the stems, to give them a good root system.

Not all nurseries are clueless; ask around and someone may recommend a really good one with a knowledgeable owner or employee.
posted by amtho at 9:53 PM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

With the lettuce, I would recommend not seeding it all at once. Space the seeding out ---maybe plant one patch every week or two. That way you always have a fresh crop. And get different varieties. This equals a more delicious salad=same price.

I have found cucumbers hard to grow but tomatoes just grew out of my compost.

You will probably want to start composting so that you can have some tasty soil (for your plants to eat).
posted by pynchonesque at 9:57 PM on January 27, 2014

Best answer: Organic is not that hard. Depends on your particular pest situation. Keep in mind that even foods that are organic can use pesticides (as long as they're organic pesticides).

"As soon as you can work the ground" is a bit vague, but it mainly means no more deep freeze. Light frost is probably fine. Lettuce can tolerate cold. Beans and lettuce are easy to grow from seed. For a beginner I'd recommend buying tomato starts.

A well-fed tomato plant will yield a pretty good amount of fruit. I don't think you want 6 tomato plants. The only other thing about tomatoes is regular watering. If they get a bit dry and then get a lot of water the skins will split. It's not a big deal, and they're fine to eat - but it's better to avoid. Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so make sure there's plenty of nutrients in the soil.

Depending on where you are there may be either master gardeners or a college extension office you can contact with questions as well.
posted by O9scar at 10:03 PM on January 27, 2014

Check online for your local Extension Office/Master Gardener program - they will likely have a lot of free publications available with good recommendations for what does well in your area, as well as information on starting your first garden. They may also offer free/low-cost classes, and there is usually a call-in line/office staff (trained volunteers, those lovely people) to get specific questions answered.

Have fun with it - growing your own food is awesome and gardening is meditative. Good luck!
posted by faineant at 10:03 PM on January 27, 2014

Start your lettuce from seed once all chance of frost is past. Buy tomato seedlings and plant them once the nightime low is consistently above 50 degrees farenheit. Put some bone meal and slow release fertilizer beneath your seedlings if you can. Beans, like tomatoes, are also a warmer crop. Start planting them from seed about the same time as tomatoes.

Difficulty levels

Beans and Lettuce: easy
Cherry tomatoes: moderate

Gardening ninja advice:

Don't pull your lettuce to harvest - cut it with scissors. It will grow back 3-4 times.
If you do pull your lettuce, replace it with bush beans. Beans actually give nutrients back to the soil. Keep your cherry tomato plants picked and you'll get more! Don't bother pruning cherry tomatoes.
posted by way_out_west at 10:49 PM on January 27, 2014

Your local extension office should be an amazing resource for you, with very very local information and advice on gardening. And umm, on canning, should you have a bumper crop of tomatoes :)
posted by DarlingBri at 4:07 AM on January 28, 2014

The test to determine if your soil is workable is to pick up a handful and squeeze it in to a ball. Poke it with your finger. If it breaks into several pieces, it is workable. This is important because if it is too wet, you can compact the small air spaces in the soil by "working" it (digging). Do this after the ground isn't frozen anymore, of course. It depends on the kind of soil you have, and how wet things got in the winter, not as much on the air temperature. Plants that can go in as soon as the soil can be worked can take some frost.

"The Square Foot Garden" has great charts in the back about when different plants should be started based on your average last frost date, along with other good beginner information. Unfortunately, in the last edition, the author has become insistent about using only raised beds with an artificial soil mix, which seems unnecessary. So read it with some skepticism about the structures and "required" soil. Maybe someone else knows a better book?
posted by SandiBeech at 4:33 AM on January 28, 2014

I'm not sure what zone 6a means in terms of temperatures, so this advice is what works well in England and Vermont the two places I have tried growing things.

England (Yorkshire) never really gets that cold so I am able to grow certain crops over the winter to still get some fresh greens, things like Chard and Kale where a few plants can really produce quite a lot of good food. The things that require very warm summers (Tomato, cucumber, melon, squash, etc) aren't going to do that well here because also it never really gets that warm and sunny. I still grow some tomatoes and try and grow cukes and squash because I like them and have the space so it isn't that big of a deal.

In Vermont you mainly have to deal with the short intense growing season. It helps immeasurably if you're able to start off seedlings inside so they're already of a decent size when the ground is finally thawed and it is getting warmer out. Greens (lettuce spinach etc) will do amazing in the spring but will bolt unshaded in the heat of the summer. You can still eat the bolted plants they just go a little more bitter.

General tips:

Always be improving your soil by adding in good amounts of well rotted organic matter. If you've got heavy clay soil working in some sand along with the muck will help if you've got drainage issues.

Start off things that can be transplanted inside away from pests so you can plant them out when they're bigger. (I once lost an entire row of peas by planting them direct outside because the slugs just came by and ate the tops before they got a chance to grow. I also had started some inside and planted them out as 4-6" plants and they grew into 6 foot monstrosities absolutely loaded with peas, but the slugs did take off the bottom leaves which wasn't a problem because it already had 3-4 pairs.)

Dig the land well to improve drainage and add air into the soil. Plants like nice easy root runs and will send down deeper roots if the soil isn't hard and compacted.

Cut and come again lettuce makes absolutely loads so I wouldn't bother planting more that a three foot by two foot patch.

Radishes grow really fast and are tastiest fresh so plant a row then wait two weeks and plant another and repeat. By the 6th week the first ones will be ready so eat them and plant a row in their place and you'll have radishes all summer using only three rows.

Grow whatever you can from seed. A pack of seeds will only cost a minimal amount and will make loads of plants. You can buy baby leek seedlings from a garden centre for £2 and get 10 seedlings, or you can spend £1 and make 100 yourself. Don't completely avoid buying plants though, just look out for community stalls selling tomato or cuke plants for £1.

Once established, start saving your seeds. Let some plants set their seed and you can save it to next year to plant and never have to buy seeds again.
posted by koolkat at 4:34 AM on January 28, 2014

Best answer: Good advice above.

I recommend you add arugula. It's very easy to grow, last year I had the plants for up to 8 months! Let it grow and pick the leaves from the plant and it will produce more.
You can add arugula to your salads, sandwiches, dips and more.
posted by travelwithcats at 4:51 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Buy sheep manure soil and mix it in. You will get the tastiest veggies and they will grow so fast.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:14 AM on January 28, 2014

Also I disagree with starting from seed. If you are a newbie to gardening it may be too challenging to get them to sprout and you don't want to be disappointed with a crop of nothing. Buy seedlings instead.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:16 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

2nding your extension office as a great place to get help, and also free seeds and things. Also Google around for community gardens and garden clubs. Most of them also provide free help, events, meetups, and seed exchange. This is the right time of year for those events - thanks to that kind of network I hardly had to pay for seeds my first few years gardening (and got more advice than I could even handle!). Since you mentioned low income, I'll just note that SNAP benefits can be used to purchase seeds and seedlings - even if you aren't using that program it might helpful for someone reading the thread - it's not as widely known as I wish it were.
posted by Miko at 5:28 AM on January 28, 2014

know anyone who heats with a wood stove? see if you can get a few buckets of wood ash and work that into your soil. tomatoes love ash.
posted by Abinadab at 5:48 AM on January 28, 2014

My township offers free municipal compost. Check around and maybe you can find something similar.

I share seeds with my friend. I've also hung onto my seeds for several growing seasons and haven't noticed too great of a reduction in the germination rate. I grow beans and lettuce are easy from seed, and I buy tomato starts.

Check out yard sales for tools. I use a trowel and a shovel most of all.
posted by Marered at 10:41 AM on January 28, 2014

My garden is about the size of yours, just more square.

'Working the soil' basically means when it's thawed out from winter and you can turn it with a shovel or small tiller. Since it's been a while since the garden has been used, go get several bags each of pete moss and soil (let the staff recommend the right type of soil for your purposes...). If you're going to grow things from seed keep in mind things will have to be thinned out after they sprout or nothing will grow like you want.

Things like radishes grow quickly (and you'll have to thin them out after they sprout) but you can also plant carrot seeds right with them because they'll take longer to germinate. Just about the time the radishes are done the carrots will start to come up.

Last season I grew swiss chard from seed for the first time. After thinning, we had swiss chard a llllll season long because it just keeps growing new stalks. I'm now sick of swiss chard, but it was a fun experiment.

I also grew some heirloom tomatoes of various varieties from seed. Germinated them in individual decomposable pots first (your garden shop has these - they're cheap) and then planted them in the ground when they were a couple of inches tall. I learned the hard way that they will grow and grow and grow.... you have to top them off once they reach the height of your tomato cages else they will snake throughout your garden and not really produce many tomatoes because they put all their energy into just growing more tendrils. Lesson learned.

Squash... couldn't be easier to grow. Same goes for eggplant. I'm also now sick of eggplant (as are my neighbors I gave a ton to.

Okra... easy to grow! Just remember to harvest before the pods get too big or they'll turn harder than wood.

My garden bust... corn. A lot of plant for not a lot of return.
Additional garden bust... pumpkin. That crap grows like kudzu in the south and takes over everything! I had to rip it out lest I lose the rest of the garden.
posted by matty at 10:50 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have no friends

Make friends. Gardening friends. Ask your gardening neighbors to help and advice. You help them dig. They help you weed. You help them water. They help you figure stuff out. Nice old ladies typically make the best gardening friends in my experience. I have cultivated one such friend just over our back fence.


Unless you are willing to go out and buy biggish tomato plants from the gardening store, and that may not be possible with your budget, you need to start plants indoors from seed and grow them as big and strong as possible before putting them out into the garden. Here is a pretty good guide to growing tomatoes from seed.

The tricky part will be deciding when to start. As the guide I linked to says:
Many novices fail at starting tomatoes simply because they start too early. Given the proper care, full-sized tomato transplants can be grown in 6 to 8 weeks.

Before planting seeds, you must determine when your plants can be safely placed into the garden. Planting outdoors is best done about 1 or 2 weeks after the average last frost date for your area.

Ask friends or use web resources to find your average last frost date, then do the math to calculate your seed starting date.
So when is the last frost date for your area? You need to start your seeds indoors about 6 weeks before that date. If you don't know any local gardeners to ask, you can try sites like this and this and this to get more official estimates of frost dates for your area.

As for when to plant lettuce, here's a pretty good guide to growing lettuce from seed.


Another important thing to know is exactly what should be coming up in each location. Let's say you rope off a certain area and plant only lettuce there. Cool. Now you know exactly what you want there. So you plant and water lettuce seeds there. But suddenly three different kinds of little plants start poking their heads out of the soil right where you planted the lettuce seeds. Which ones should you kill and which ones should you keep?

That's where sited like this and this and this come in. If you need to learn more about that, Google something like "how to identify lettuce seedlings" and see what comes up. Once you learn what a seedling looks like, you'll be able to confidently kill everything that doesn't look like what you want in that area. That's weeding. Very important.

If you get when and what right, you'll be fine.
posted by pracowity at 6:59 AM on January 29, 2014

Best answer: A nice thing about gardening is that the activity itself is a good teacher. Don't feel as though you have to know everything going into it. You will learn a lot about what works/doesn't, when to plant and not to, what makes a good garden design, and the like, just through experience. Feel free to make mistakes and embark on experiments. Every year in my garden, I've had some great surprises/good producers and some fails and lessons learned. Since I grow for food as well, my philosophy has been to grow the things that grow well and easily for me where I garden, and things that are tougher or more fragile or specialized - those, I save for buying from others, rather than invest time and seed/seedling money in coaxing something along that I don't have a great knack for. My best "Friends" have been kale, chard, arugula, tomatoes (cherry and slicing), leaf lettuces, herbs like basil, tarragon, chives, oregano, thyme, and sage, raspberry canes, green beans, and squash.
posted by Miko at 7:52 AM on January 29, 2014

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