The inability to get out of the house for other entertainment has had us all re-examining our homes. We’re starting to see them a bit more as homesteads and, as a result, we’re thinking about how to sustain ourselves. We’ve always been a HUGE proponent of growing your own food and couldn’t be happier with this new development! Read on for some simple, beginner gardening tips you might not find anywhere else. (Also known as: now YOU can benefit from my years of mistakes!)
Note! We are located in Phoenix, AZ so some of these tips are specific to our unique climate.
Find the Best Spot
You want your vegetable garden to get as much sun as possible. Winter gardens in warm places like Arizona do fantastic but not if they’re in a shady zone. In the spring and summer, you can use clever planting methods to keep your soil covered and to shade other plants. So, find a northwest location that isn’t too close to a concrete block wall. Those can exude sun and heat, making your plants fry in the sun. I suggest taking some time to observe your yard to see what area gets the best exposure.
Dig vs. Raised Bed
I am personally a big fan of improving the quality of your soil rather than buying plastic bags of soil to fill in a raised bed. Having healthy soil is one of the best ways you can invest your gardening time. If your soil is nutrient-poor or too alkaline, your plants just won’t grow well. If you’re digging, I recommend these steps:
- Wet down the area really well, then let it sit for an hour or so. If you dig right away, you’ll just be lifting heavy mud.
- Set out your boundaries with four sticks and some twine.
- Dig the edges or boundaries.
- Dig up the rest of your plot about six to ten inches deep. If you’re crazy like me, you’ll actually remove that soil to remove any pesky roots like invasive Bermuda grass. If you have issues with weeds or Bermuda grass, you can also try this:
- Lay brown kraft paper over the entire bottom of your garden
- Around the sides, put cardboard to sort of “box in” your dug-up plot.
- This helps keep invasive weeds from immediately encroaching on your garden and can at least making pulling them easier to manage.
- Add your compost and mix in the soil you took out of the plot. A half and half quantity to start should be good (half compost, half existing soil). The Yard Butler‘s Garden Twist Tiller is literally the most amazing tool I’ve ever used in the garden and I HIGHLY recommend using it to blend your soil.
- Rake out your garden bed evenly
Nurture Your Soil
In Arizona, this means amending your (most-likely) clay-like and alkaline soil with soil sulfur, organic fertilizer and compost. If you’re looking at the long-term, you could even start direct-composting on your garden area to enrich the soil for the next season. Start with yard clippings, dried leaves, or other non-food, carbon-rich materials. If you want to go ahead and start composting your food waste, set aside a portion of your newly-dug garden and dig about six inches deep to start tossing in your food waste. Like our previous composting advice, be sure to balance out your carbon and nitrogen additions.
Once you have completed digging your garden as mentioned above, add the recommended amount of soil sulfur and organic fertilizer sprinkled evenly on top. This is specific advice for those living in Arizona. If you live in other areas with more acidic soil, you can leave out the soil sulfur but would still need organic fertilizer. I would give you an exact amount but I don’t tend to measure with exactness. I sprinkle it evenly, probably about 1-2 cups of soil sulfur for a 200-300 square foot garden. Depending on your organic fertilizer, the amount can vary and it is usually indicated on the bag. Then, wet your soil down and keep it damp for at least 1-2 weeks so the sulfur can breakdown and some good microbial activity can get started.
If you’re doing a raised bed like many interested in beginner gardening, I would recommend doing it on top of actual earth rather than in a completely raised bin. This way, you’re ultimately going to improve the quality of soil below your raised garden.
Create a Walkway
You don’t want to end up having to walk in your garden to pull weeds or tend to your plants. Depending on how large your garden is, establish walkways so you don’t have to reach too far. I try to make mine a little higher up than the garden so any rain or water runs off into the garden soil.
Plant Something… But Mostly Stuff You Like
Buying seeds can be kind of thrilling (or just me?) because there’s this sense of possibility. But, remember to plant what is IN SEASON and what you actually LIKE TO EAT. Why plant a bunch of kale if you don’t like kale? And, unless you have a greenhouse, you can’t make melons grow in the winter or lettuce and carrots grow in the summer (again, in the hot Arizona climate). Plants like certain kinds of weather and either won’t sprout, won’t grow, won’t fruit (develop fruit) or won’t have viable pollen if you try to grow them at the wrong time. So, a big beginner gardening tip is to read your seed packets and check your growing zone. Also, be sure to follow the directions on plant spacing. Plants like melons, cucumbers and indeterminate tomatoes can take up a TON of space. Thinning is important to make sure there is enough nutrients for the plant to grow healthily.
Speaking of Seeds
Your seeds DO matter! Ultimately, it would be great to grow plants that you can allow to go to seed so you can harvest those seeds and plant again, right? We recommend you look for ORGANIC seeds and, if possible, seeds that were harvested and adapted to the environment and zone you live in like we have in Arizona with Native Seeds/SEARCH (previously profiled on our blog). If you are a beginner at gardening, check to see if you have a local seed library or seed exchange in your area. Most gardeners have an overabundance of seeds and are more than happy to share. Buying heirloom seeds is even better since every time they are grown and grow more, they help keep the heritage of that crop alive.
Watering is going to vary for different climates but in Arizona, you want to water your seeds every day. Don’t let the soil dry out but also don’t make it so soggy that things start to rot. Once your seedlings start to grow, keep them well-watered but start to space out their waterings so the plants can start to grow deeper roots. My method is to water slowly and deeply so I don’t have to water so frequently.
Fencing and Boundaries
All kinds of things want to get in your garden: birds, dogs, cats, rabbits, squirrels, nibbly bugs and more. Protect your precious future food with a high enough fence to keep sniffing dogs out. If birds are trying to get at all your freshly-planted seeds, float some bird netting a foot or so above your soil to keep them out.
Make Mistakes and Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself
It’s so exciting to start growing things! We can get carried away thinking of this enormous bounty we’ll have to share with friends and neighbors. But, the reality of beginner gardening is that you will fail, a LOT. Actually, people who have been vegetable gardening for 10 years or more are still failing. Gardening is a challenge because you always have a million factors at work. Weather, soil quality, seed quality, heat waves, cold spells, invasive insects, burrowing animals, pecking birds and so much more will make growing your own food a continual challenge. But, you will learn to stop beating yourself up about it. One year could be great and the next, not so great. You are EXPERIMENTING and constantly learning, with every failure and every success.
You are likely not going to provide your family with all their food needs from your very first garden. So, take it easy and use this time as a chance to learn about how we can provide for ourselves. Use it as a chance to get to know how plants and life struggle and survive. As we look at the dire news and scary future prospects of COVID-19, the hopefulness of regeneration and growth can remind us of our own capabilities.