Getting Started - Tips for the Novice Gardener

by Steven Wisbaum

Gardening is a life-long learning process. And while there's an abundance of gardening information available in books, magazines, and on-line, this article covers a few tips to help get you started, including:

  • testing for heavy metals
  • evaluating the potential productivity of your garden
  • essential tools
  • turning a lawn or field into a vegetable garden
  • ensuring there's sufficient nutrients and organic matter in soil
  • garden design/layout
  • planting from seeds and seedlings
  • weed management
  • soil moisture management
  • planting flowers in a vegetable garden

Testing for heavy metals:If your garden is located in an urban area, near a road, or an older building, you should test the soil for elevated levels of lead. Lead is often found in soils because for many years it was an ingredient in both paint and gasoline. Other heavy metals could be present if there were mining or other industrial activities nearby. Local or state health agencies often provide test kits for heavy metals for low cost, or for free. Test kits may also be available at local hardware and garden stores. If you have high lead concentrations in your soil, the best option is to cover the soil with a permeable weed barrier and install "raised beds" filled with clean soil or a specialized Raised Bed Mix.

Evaluate the potential productivity of your garden in terms of soil type, fertility, drainage properties, and the amount of sunlight
Soil Types and Quality: Soil is made up of MINERAL matter and ORGANIC matter. Mineral matter is basically "weathered", or ground up rock. The relative size of the mineral particles is used to classify soils as either sandy, silty, or clay.

  • Sandy soils are made up of the largest particle sizes, and therefore will feel gritty. While sandy soils have the benefit of being able to be worked earlier in the season, they also have the least ability to hold nutrients and water, tend to be acidic (ie. have a low pH), and typically have a low organic matter content. Therefore, sandy soils tend to require larger inputs of nutrients and organic matter.
  • Silty soils have the next smallest size particles and feel "silky" to the touch. Silty soils, sometimes referred to "river bottom" soils, are ideal because they tend to hold nutrients and water well, and are easier to work with than clay soils.
  • Clay soils are made up of microscopically small particles, which hold water and nutrients well, but are more challenging to work with. For example, if clay soil is cultivated when it's too wet, it will form rock-hard clumps when it dries out. These clumps will then exclude air and water, both of which are required by living plants. Besides adding organic matter, clay soil also benefits from the addition of a mineral called gypsum.

Organic matter:
The organic matter in the soil consists of both LIVING organisms (e.g. insects, worms, bacteria, fungi, etc.), as well as the decomposing remains of DEAD plants, animals, and insects. The portion of dead organic matter is called "loam" and when loam is present at high levels, soil is classified as either clay-loam, sandy-loam, or silty-loam. For lots of reasons, soils with higher organic matter content will also be more fertile. For home gardeners, adding compost and protecting the surface of the soil with a layer of mulch is the easiest way to increase the amount of organic matter in soil.

Drainage properties:
Since plants need and absorb oxygen through their roots, when the soil is saturated with moisture and/or is compacted, the amount of oxygen available to growing plants will be reduced. For this reason, gardens should be located on well-drained soil and NOT where water collects and/or the soil tends to be wet for long periods of time. And if finding an alternative location is not an option, raised beds can be installed to elevate raise the height of the root zone above the wet soil.

Access to Sunlight:
Most garden vegetables need at least 5 to 10 hours of DIRECT sunlight per day, with some needing lots of sun (e.g. tomatoes, eggplant and peppers) and some needing a bit less sun (e.g. lettuce and spinach). The amount of sun exposure also can effect soil temperature, which is important because some vegetables require very warm soil (e.g. tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans), while others can tolerate cooler soil temperatures (e.g. peas, lettuce, spinach). It's also important to consider garden placement in regard to the shade that will created by nearby trees that will grow taller and wider over time.
Essential ToolsThere's a huge variety of gardening tools available, but here's a few tools that I consider essential:

  • Pointed-head shovel for digging/cultivating soil.
  • Flat-headed shovel for moving compost.
  • Digging fork with wide, flat tines for sandy soils, or stout, narrow tines for clay soils.
  • Long-handled weeding tool to cover larger areas quickly (e.g. stirrup hoe).
  • Short-handled weeding tool for working between densely-planted areas.
  • Narrow trowel for transplanting.
  • Triangular shaped hoe for making furrows for seed-sowing.
  • A hoe with a heavy, broad, straight-edged blade, sometimes called a "grub" hoe.
  • Watering can and/or a hose with a nozzle that can be adjusted for a gentle spray.

Turning a lawn or field into a vegetable gardenIf a proposed garden is currently covered with grass or vegetation, there are a few techniques to prepare the area for planting, including:

  • Incorporate the sod layer into the soil with a shovel, digging fork, and/or a rototiller.
  • Use a grub hoe or a sod-removing machine to manually strip off the sod layer. The stripped off sod can be piled up and used later in the garden after it decomposes.
  • Covering the proposed garden area with black plastic or cardboard, which will eventually kill the underlying vegetation.

Ensure there's sufficient nutrients and organic matter in your garden soil In addition to water and oxygen, plants require a variety of nutrients for optimum growth. And while most people have heard of the three major (or "macro") plant nutrients - nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) - plants also require a variety of "micro-nutrients". Though not critical, collecting a soil sample and having it analyzed by a soil testing lab can provide some useful information about the existing nutrient levels, pH, and organic matter content in your soil. There are many soil testing labs, including those at "land-grant" colleges for between $25 to $50.

Although animal manure has long been used to add nutrients and organic matter to agricultural soils, because of the presence of pathogens and weed seeds, fresh or raw animal manure should not be applied to a backyard garden. However, since properly composted animal manure is free of both weed seeds and pathogens, it's a good source of both nutrients and organic matter for a home garden. Compost is also made from food scraps, leaves, grass, and other plant matter. More information on the value of compost can be found the article Compost and the Living Soil".

Compost can be purchased in bags or in bulk (ie. by the cubic yard). And since there's lots of different compost products on the market, there's also a wide range in quality and price. The amount of compost needed will depend on the size of the garden, the soil type, the existing organic matter content, whether it's a new or existing garden, how well the soil had been cared for, and how deep you're able to mix in the compost. You'll want to achieve a concentration of about 15 to 20% compost (by volume, not weight) within the root zone, which is roughly the top 8 to 10 inches. To estimate the volume of compost you'll need, it's useful to know that one cubic yard (27 cubic feet) of compost spread out one inch thick will cover 320 sq ft, a cubic yard spread out two inches thick will cover 160 sq ft, and a cubic yard spread out three inches thick will cover 120 sq ft.

Nitrogen is a key macro-nutrient that garden vegetables need for optimum growth. All compost contains some amount of nitrogen, and there's generally higher concentrations in compost made from animal manure, and lower concentrations in compost made primarily from plant-based material. In either case, the nitrogen in compost is in a "stable" form that's only slowly available to plants. And since vegetables tend to need relatively high concentrations of nitrogen (compared to slower growing shrubs and trees), there might not be enough nitrogen available at the time when the plants need it most. There are lots of possible causes for vegetable plants to struggle, but if the problem is insufficient available nitrogen (which is often evidenced by slow growth and yellowing leaves), an extra dose of readily-available nitrogen can be provided from the use of "fish emulsion" (ground up fish), "blood meal", or an organic granulated fertilizer. A deficiency in phosphorus can be avoided by adding bone meal, or compost made from animal manure, especially poultry manure. A product called "green sand" is typically used if the soil is deficient in potassium.

To avoid or correct a deficiency in one or more micro-nutrients, gardeners and farmers often use a product called Azomite and/or sea kelp.
Garden design/layoutThere's lots of information available about garden design and layout, but the most important considerations include:

  • Consider the height and width of the plants when they're fully grown. For example, tall plants such as tomatoes and peas, which are supported by cages or trellises, should be located where they won't shade out other vegetables. A mature zuchinni or yellow squash plant will be 4 to 5 feet in diameter. Winter squash, melons and pumpkins are low-growing plants that spread out over a large area.
  • Except for tomatoes, which need lots of space for optimal airflow between individual plants, higher density planting is typically better than leaving too much space between plants.
  • Some plants such as carrots and leafy greens, can be thinned and eaten as they grow.

Planting from seedsVegetables are either grown from seeds sown directly into the soil, or from seedlings, which are young plants grown and/or purchased in pots.
Vegetables typically planted from seeds:

  • Root crops such as carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, radishes, etc. can ONLY be grown by direct sowing the seeds. These can be planted when the soil temperature is still cool in the spring.
  • Peas are also typically direct-sown, and are also planted when the soil is cool in the early spring.
  • Leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach are also typically direct-seeded, although they can also be planted as seedlings. The seeds can also be sown when the soil is cool in the spring, but since they mature relatively quickly, it's best to plant smaller amounts every few weeks to ensure a constant harvest over the entire summer, which is called "succession" planting.
  • Green beans, zucchini, yellow squash, melons, and winter squash as well as garden herbs such as basil and parsley can be planted from seeds, but only after the soil has warmed up sufficiently in late spring. These vegetables and herbs can also be planted as seedlings.

Planting Tips:

  • To germinate, vegetable seeds should only be planted at a depth that's 1.5 times their size. So, in the case of carrot and lettuce seeds which are very small, they should only be covered with a thin layer of soil no greater than ¼ to 3/8 inch deep.
  • Since seeds need a certain number of days to germinate (usually written on the seed package), it's critical to keep the soil and seeds moist until the first few leaves emerge from the soil.
  • Read and follow the planting instructions on the package, especially the information regarding soil temperature and proper planting depth.
  • Seeds require very specific storage requirements, so it's important to check the date on the seed package to ensure they're still viable.

Planting from seedlings
Vegetables typically planted from seedlings:

  • Vegetables such as onions, leeks, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, and cabbage are typically planted as seedlings, but can also be direct-seeded.
  • Because plants such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant require many days of hot weather to mature and bear fruit, in regions with short growing seasons, these plants are almost always planted in pots indoors or in greenhouses in early spring and then "transplanted" into the soil as seedlings in late spring/early summer when the soil has sufficiently warmed up.

Purchasing tips:

  • If possible, it's best to find a local source of vegetable seedlings, and ideally these should be organically grown. While these seedlings will likely be more expensive than those mass produced and shipped from distant locations, they're often worth the extra money since they're more likely to thrive.
  • When purchasing seedlings it's important to ensure they haven't been in the pot so long that they've become "root-bound", which means the roots have filled all the available space and are circling in a tight mass at the bottom of the pot. Root-bound plants may look OK because they're in a protected environment and being kept alive with chemical fertilizers, but they're less likely to thrive after being transplanted. This is especially true for seedlings sold in "six-" or "four-packs".

Planting tips:

  • After purchase, seedlings should be protected from full sun, kept moist, and transplanted as soon as possible.
  • To plant, turn the pot upside down and gently pull out the plant.
  • If the roots are bunched up in a circle at the bottom of the pot, use a kitchen fork or your fingers to gently separate and spread out these roots to disrupt this circling pattern. As much as possible, avoid disturbing the roots further inside the "root ball" which will further destroy the plant's tiny root hairs, which the plant needs to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil.
  • Unlike trees and shrubs, most vegetables will sprout roots from the stem when planted deeper than the soil level in the pot. These extra roots will help the plant grow stronger by increasing its ability to absorb nutrients and water. This is especially true for tomatoes and brassicas (e.g. kale, broccoli, cabbage, etc.) that tend to grow elongated stems as seedlings.
  • Burying these elongated stems also reduces the risk of insect damage.
  • Before burying the first one or two lowest leaves, these leaves should be gently removed.

Tips to reduce "transplant shock"
Depending on the amount of disturbance to their root systems, plants will undergo an acclimation period as they grow new root hairs to replace those that were damaged during transplanting. "Transplant shock" describes the situation in which the damaged root system is incapable of taking in as much moisture from the soil as the plant is losing from its leaves, which can result in temporary "wilting". The following actions will help reduce the potential and/or severity of transplant shock:

  • Ensure the soil in the pot is moist before planting.
  • Plant seedlings during, or just before two to three days of cloudy or wet weather.
  • Plant seedlings in the late afternoon or early evening to reduce sun exposure.
  • During or after transplanting, remove a few of the lower leaves, especially the leaves that are wilting and/or turning yellow. This will help restore the balance between the amount of leaf surface losing moisture with the amount of root mass needed to replace that moisture.
  • Keep the soil around the plants moist for at least a week after transplanting.
  • If planting has to be done during a period of clear, hot weather, consider creating some temporary shade to reduce sun exposure.

Weed managementThe commonly accepted definition of a weed is a plant that's growing where it's not wanted, often due to competition for sunlight, nutrients and water. For most people, weeding is one of the least enjoyable gardening activities, and methods to minimize the amount of time spent weeding include:

  • Where possible, use "mulches" to cover the ground and keep weed seeds from sprouting.
  • Plant densely to minimize the space available for weeds to grow.
  • When planting in rows, leave just enough room for a weeding tool (e.g. a stirrup hoe) to fit between the rows without disturbing the crop.
  • If you use hay for mulch, make sure it's "early cut" hay, which should have minimal weed seeds.
  • Don't use "mulch" hay, which basically is hay that's too low in nutrient value to be fed to animals, and is often simply hay that's been cut at the end of the growing season and therefore will contain many weed seeds.
  • Don't use raw or "aged" manure which will also likely contain many weed seeds.
  • When buying "composted" manure, make sure it's been "properly" composted to ensure there are no, or minimal weed seeds
  • Don't let weeds go to seed in or around your garden.
  • Don't let weeds go to seed next to stored compost, and don't use compost that's been stored near weeds that have gone to seed.
  • If you're installing raised beds that are at least 10 inches deep, I recommend installing plastic weed barrier/fabric under and beyond the beds. These fabrics are permeable (ie. allow the passage of water and air), but will help prevent the encroachment of weeds such as quack grass (aka "witch" grass), bind-weed, and thistles that spread by their root systems. These fabrics will also help prevent the encroachment of roots from nearby trees that are attracted to the abundant nutrients and water in the raised beds.
  • Maintain a weed-free zone around the garden to prevent the encroachment of weeds such as quack grass.
  • Because weeds that spread by their roots can form new plants from tiny pieces of the roots that are inadvertently left in the soil, it's best to use a digging fork to carefully loosen and remove the entire root system, rather than a shovel which is more likely to cut the roots into small pieces.

Soil moisture management Since vegetables need constant moisture to thrive, maintaining optimum soil moisture throughout the gardening season will mean the difference between a healthy garden, or one that struggles just to stay alive. And while it may seem that watering is a pretty simple, it's actually a bit more complicated than most novice gardeners realize.

For example, most of the water that plants need is absorbed through their root systems, NOT through the leaves as some novice gardeners might assume. Therefore, rather than wetting the leaves of plants, proper watering requires that the SOIL is thoroughly moistened. And since the roots of vegetables often extend to a depth of 6 to 10 inches, the soil needs to be kept moist to a depth of 6 to 10 inches as well, and this requires a LOT more rain and/or longer watering sessions than most novice gardeners would think. And ultimately, the only way to know if enough rainfall or watering has been done is to manually check the moisture level with one's fingers to at least a depth of three or four inches.

A note about raised beds: Although there are many advantages of raised beds, they do tend to dry out more quickly than in-ground garden beds, especially during periods of hot and dry weather, which is becoming increasingly common in Vermont. And while the use of straw mulch will help reduce moisture loss from the soil, raised beds generally need more frequent watering than regular gardens.

Planting flowers in a vegetable garden:There are lots of reasons to plant annual flowers in and around your vegetable garden, including aesthetics, attracting pollinators, and being able to harvest "cut" flowers. Unless you have lots of space, the best flowers for this purpose are those that don't get too tall or wide, and don't easily re-seed and become weeds. There are lots of choices, but one of the best flowers for this purpose are snap dragons.