Starting a plot in a community garden
January 19, 2021 5:12 PM   Subscribe

My partner and I finally are off the waiting list at our community garden and are really excited to have our own little plot. Thing is we've never done much gardening before, certainly not vegetables or herbs, and are looking for good resources for planning and what weekly maintenance might look like for our hardiness zone 10a.

My main questions would be around what does the daily or weekly workload look like? What are you doing when you're working in your garden? Most of the beginning guides I've found come from the perspective of someone carving out space in their backyard rather than going in with an already defined space set up, and then skip to tips about annuals vs perennials.

How can I tell a weed from a plant I want to be growing? Should I be watering every day or is that too much? When should I think about adding fertilizer or mulch? Is there a list of tools I should buy that won't be overkill but will let me be successful?

I'm sure there will some resources in the community garden that I can access, but I do tend to overthink things and would love to be prepared going in, so any books, websites or personal experience would be really appreciated.
posted by Carillon to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also too would love to know what things are absolutely worth growing myself and which while fun aren't that much different from the grocery store!
posted by Carillon at 5:15 PM on January 19, 2021

I'm looking to do a little gardening this year as well, and I've found YouTube to be an absolute godsend. Tons and tons of videos with extensive instruction that clarified a lot of things I wasn't so sure of via guides and books. I like Epic Gardening because he gives a lot of low cost and beginner-friendly options. CaliKim is also a good one. But I guarantee there are a ton of videos out there for whatever questions you may have.
posted by thebots at 5:19 PM on January 19, 2021

Plant fewer things than you want to: you'll be SO EXCITED but most veggies do better with more room.

Weed weekly. Water more often (unless your garden offers irrigation).

If it thrives in adverse conditions then it's probably a damn weed: the stuff you are tending to needs help to survive.

Ask other gardeners for help. Ask the garden managers what the most common weeds and pests are -- and take pictures for reference! Use the free app called Seek to look up unfamiliar plants. No shame in teaching yourself!!
posted by wenestvedt at 5:25 PM on January 19, 2021

Gardening is local, so check out your Extension service and regional groups and certainly look at what’s doing well in your neighbors plots! Here’s a San Mateo resource with a year round calendar.

Better than the grocery - delicate crops, like wild strawberries; crops that lose flavor if chilled at all, like tomatoes. And the pleasure of having a different six handfuls of ripe right now every single day all season is high, there’s so much variety and subtlety and knowing that the seasons pass but come back again is very sweet.
posted by clew at 5:28 PM on January 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

When I had a community garden plot, my community garden came with a neighboring gardener who had infinite gardening advice. My plot would have been much less impressive without her encouragement.
posted by aniola at 5:29 PM on January 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Check out the vegetable growers handbook by frank tozer.
posted by aniola at 5:31 PM on January 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

I also recommend this book. It will give you a handful of options and tell you exactly what to plant and where.
posted by aniola at 5:33 PM on January 19, 2021

Try to grow what you eat (like I know I won’t eat kale, so I don’t plant it). I find spring onions super handy to have around and carrots are so much tastier (as are tomatoes) from the garden. Alternately, if you just want to plant herbs or a cut flower garden that’s okay too!

Different plants need different amounts of water depending on the weather. Once you decide what to plant after checking what does well in your region/climate, you can google how much to water. Starting out, it might be easier to start some plants from plants rather than seed so you know it’s not a weed and pull it up by mistake. I use an app, like mentioned above, to see what plants are and if things are weeds. A good thing to know, some plants do better in cooler weather so you plant them earlier (like lettuce and spinach), and others do well in heat (like tomatoes and peppers) so those don’t go in the ground until the night temperature is above, say 55.

Give yourself some slack too, you’ll probably plant too much in the small plot and might over or under water. It takes a few seasons to get the hang of it but you will get food out of it. I find gardening very meditative and hope you enjoy it too!
posted by Bunglegirl at 6:10 PM on January 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Seconding Epic Gardening and CaliKim (who will have well-marked episodes about watering and feeding), as well as California Gardening. You might also search youtube for Florida gardeners, since 10 is a very special zone with really specific challenges, pests, and disease.

But I will tell you a gardening secret: you are asking all the right questions but the answers will make a limited amount of sense until you've done a cycle, because the answers fluctuate based on condition and circumstances. You cannot distance-learn how to garden, really. This year: put plants in dirt and see what happens. You will develop instincts over time. Overthinking is not helpful.

I recommend buying plants (rather than seed-starting) for your first couple of years, from an independent local garden center if at all possible. They're generally going to stock things that work very well in your area, in the right season. I recommend finding a reference image online for the spacing suggestions for Square Foot Gardening (read the book next year, if you want, just plant to those general parameters this year) and do that more or less with the plants you want.

At least half of gardening is actually taking care of soil. If you're starting with a clean slate unplanted, I suggest prepping the soil with compost (your garden may offer compost to use, but if there isn't any you can generally buy some kind of thing in bags, I sometimes can only get composted chicken or cow manure and that's worked fine for me; I also sometimes use Gromulch). Then you can start putting plants in.

This way you're planting good-sized plants and will have time to learn the difference between a weed and a plant. If you see something you're not sure about, wait a while until you can tell.

Don't buy stuff until you are sure you need it. You can get yourself a hardware store bucket (mostly to store the rest in, and carry it in and out of the plot), some kind of hand trowel/spade, gloves, a hat and sunscreen, a couple clean rags or towels (mostly for wiping your face and drying hands after washing), basic pruners, a little bottle of castille soap. Later on you may need some stakes (I really only use the 4' and 6' bamboo ones, though some of those are cut down to 2-4') and stretchy tie, but it's not a Day 1 thing.

You're going to have early heat and growing cool crops is a challenge in your zone, so focus on summer heat-tolerant vegetables. Luckily, that means tomatoes which are BY FAR in my opinion your biggest bang-for-buck from a home garden. Nothing in a store and not much in a stand tastes like the kind of tomatoes that don't travel very well or mass-grow for best profit. Also, in your first year, stay small - cherry, grape (my preferred size), and fruit that averages 4-6oz. Go indeterminate (keeps fruiting until disease* or frost stops them) rather than determinate (whole plant ripens at once, best for canning).

My other go-tos are eggplants (smaller globe or long Asian types are easier than the big Black Beauty, to me) and peppers, both hot and sweet. Every year I make some picks of peppers to grow and freeze for cooking - serrano, anaheim, fresno, a modest-sized sweet type - and get enough that I won't grow that one again for a few years. I always grow jalapenos because they get used, frozen, and given away, and I always grow shishitos because you want to eat those fresh and they're delicious.

*Hard truth: most plants are meant to reproduce and die. Tomato plants in particular are dying from the day they're born, and your job is just to support them as long as you can, but they are not perennials and will succumb to pest or disease eventually and that is NOT a personal failure. Most gardeners pull them out when they slow down, to re-use the space. On the other hand, especially when there's no hard freezes, peppers will overwinter maybe indefinitely and eggplants will go at least several years, but you don't have to do that. Pest and disease might get them anyway, or you can just decide you want the space at the end of the season and throw them away. It's hard, but always remember gardening is about managing soil, and space.

But also something will die before its time (pest, accident, vermin) and break your heart. I'm STILL not over my very first zucchini plant gone overnight from squash bugs.

Have fun, try stuff, don't grow things you don't like, it's okay to crowd things a little most of the time.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:18 PM on January 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

Oh you lucky lucky people! :D

Essential tools:
- gardening gloves
- a trowel
- a watering can

Maybe later you might also want:
- poles/stakes if you have pole beans, tomato vines, etc, plus string to tie things up (get 6-foot poles, and as sturdy as you can find; it will seem like overkill until your cherry tomato vines are 8 feet tall and snapping the spindly bamboo stakes in two)
- a bucket
- a pair of clippers/secateurs

If you start with seedlings, the very act of gleefully planting them will sear their appearance into your mind and you will easily be able to tell them apart from weeds. With seeds it's a little bit more of a challenge, but seeing your seedlings come up all at once makes it fairly easy to tell what your plants look like (seed packets will sometimes also show a picture of what the sprout with its first two "seed leaves" looks like).

Watering frequently will be important with new transplants or seeds, until the plants develop enough of a root system to "fend for themselves" more effectively. Water when the soil seems dried out or when your plants look thirsty (you will learn to be able to tell). Raised beds dry out faster than ground-level beds, so be aware of the need to water. If you're not visiting your plot every day, ask a more experienced user of the garden how frequently you'll need to water -- this is hard to determine from first principles. Depending on how the beds have been prepared (i.e., how many weed seeds are in the soil), your main workload will probably be watering, followed by weeding. Weed frequently, and the weeds will be small and easy to keep under control.

If you have a source of compost, you probably won't need fertilizer. Mix a good whack of compost into the soil before you plant your seeds/sprouts, and then mulch over the top with more compost a few weeks later. Mulching with an inch or two layer of compost will somewhat reduce your watering needs, and also reduce the weed load.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:21 PM on January 19, 2021

Go indeterminate (keeps fruiting until disease* or frost stops them) rather than determinate (whole plant ripens at once, best for canning).

Good to know when you’re choosing/buying plants is determinate usually only grow to a certain height (for tomatoes, say 5-6 feet) and indeterminate are vines and can grow like 10-15 feet! So if you choose an indeterminate/vine tomato (many are, including most of the small cherry-types) you will need taller stakes eventually. They can grow up one side and down the other so you don’t need a 15 foot tall stake. Nobody told me this and it took me a few years to click and would have saved me being frustrated when they kept growing too tall for my “tomato cages.”
posted by Bunglegirl at 6:30 PM on January 19, 2021

zone 10a

So those zone designations only tell you about how cold it gets in the winter.

They do not tell you how hot it gets in the summer. This is a very important factor in what you can grow in your garden. You really need to ask around locally for what grows where you are. Try a small locally owned nursery or find a local master gardeners guild.

Should I be watering every day or is that too much?

Many people will tell you that is too much but it really depends on local conditions. Most people water their vegetable gardens every day where I live. Again, the zone designation won't help you here as it tells you nothing about what the summers are like.
posted by yohko at 6:31 PM on January 19, 2021

I'm a fellow community gardener in zone 8/9 - there is one obvious thing to understand right away about gardening in the southern US: none of the normal advice re: seasons and planting times applies because you don't have real winter, so throw out everything on the seed packet about when to plant and find a hyper local planting calendar. you probably have a sort of prolonged fall-ish cooler season for things like lettuce and probably a wide window for the warmer season stuff. you have alot of fuzz in timing that will work and the limiting factor will probably be extreme midsummer heat or storms if you're in Florida, not frost like everywhere else. I already have baby tomato seedlings starting indoors and they will be outside by March or maybe earlier if we have a weirdly short winter. plan accordingly for summer crops from seed NOW but you can probably get things like lettuce going outside from transplants immediately before it gets hot if your soil is ready.

talk to someone in your garden if they did soil testing or not and if they have any recommendations. compost is probably needed unless it was already added recently, fertilize a little less than the packages say for now until you have a chance to observe growth for a season and get soil test results.

if the garden will loan you a shovel for the one-time task of spreading compost, you really don't need more tools than clippers and a trowel.

my workload varies tremedously - right now my broccoli is done and I'm waiting on cabbage and lettuce, and in another six weeks it will be intensive planting time where I rip out winter leftovers and put in flowers and warm season veg. watering will ramp up to nearly daily by April unless we get rain. when its colder I only have to water 2-3 times a week, and I water "on demand" as the soil dries out, never letting anything get to the point of wilt stress.

get to know what the leaves of things that are clearly weeds popping up out of bounds look like and if you see the same leaf emerging in your plot, there is your answer.
posted by slow graffiti at 6:39 PM on January 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Your state's Master Gardener program is filled with volunteers that can help with practical and sound information: and county contacts:
posted by dancing leaves at 7:23 PM on January 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh! The other thing you can do as a new community gardener is to do a monocrop. Plant the whole bed out with one type of vegetable/fruit/etc that you know you will eat. At most use staggered varieties of the same type of plant to extend the season. Then you don't have a billion variables.

When that crop is over, put two new crops in.
posted by aniola at 7:34 PM on January 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

This year: put plants in dirt and see what happens. You will develop instincts over time.

And take notes - what you did, what you saw, what the weather was like - and review them for things like “should have planted the lettuce earlier” and “neighbor grew X tomatoes and they were great”
posted by clew at 8:19 PM on January 19, 2021

10a Florida and 10a Southern California are very different climates! Definitely talk to local gardeners about what they love growing. (There's no point hobby-growing anything you don't love.) But if you like tomatoes at all, and you can grow tomatoes, grow tomatoes.</grandmaharken>

As far as what's different by quality than the grocery store, your climate will differ, but for me: tomatoes, asparagus, snap peas, green beans.
And by what varieties are available: melons, peppers, random weird stuff you like.

Carrots: aaaagh Nelson carrots were a proprietary product wtf fuck what now.
posted by away for regrooving at 1:04 AM on January 20, 2021

Also much easier to grow than buy - flowers chosen for scent, not looks. The catalog Annie’s has a lot of CA-suitable ones, and also Select Seeds. Oh! Mignonette! Looks scruffy even for a weed, smells like mornings and honey.
posted by clew at 1:37 AM on January 20, 2021

I’m in San Leandro- also 10a- you can plant transplants of cool season crops like broccoli; lettuce snap peas, and radishes soon. Warmer season crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant corn and cucumbers go out when it’s warmer - March - May. You could start seeds indoors now for the warm season plants if you want. Though as a beginner it’s fine to use transplants . I use those seed starting trays with the coco fiber pellets and a shop light over it to start seeds. Look around the garden and see what others are planting and ask questions! The amount you need to water depend completely on the weather. Right now I’m not watering because its cool so plants don’t grow very quickly or need much water and it rained last week. In a heat wave in the summer I might water every other day. In California you can garden year round. I’m harvesting kale and cauliflower right now. My broccoli is large but no heads yet.
posted by morchella at 6:03 AM on January 20, 2021

A good search term to use when you're browsing for info is "potager". That is the French kitchen garden approach - a small and manageable plot that is planned out so that you transition from one season's seasonal vegetables to the next pretty smoothly (you start planting the spring and early summer veg first, and then when that season is over and you've harvested everything the beds are clear to plant the later summer veg, etc.). There is also often a plan to include some flowers just for "because they're pretty and can go on the dinner table" sake. I actually somehow got a copy of a great book that discusses the different seasonal vegetables (and includes recipes), and the last chapter discusses a for-instance approach to starting a potager garden yourself.

Here is another online guide I've found, which you can tailor expressly to what vegetables will work in your zone and even tells you when to plant them.

The only caveat to the potager approach is that they are designed for someone who is going to be running out every day or every other day or so, so they can go grab two cucumbers for that night's dinner or whatever, so if you think you may only be able to make it there once or twice a week you may want to consider more easy-care vegetables, or things that can stand being left alone a couple days without getting over-ripe; for instance, I wouldn't do potatoes because once those things are ripe you may wanna grab 'em right away so other critters don't try eating them, but squash (summer or winter squash) would be fine, because summer squash are pretty prolific and winter squash keep well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:10 AM on January 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

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