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Starting a vegetable garden for the first time can seem daunting, but with some simple steps, the outcome can be fruitful. Photo courtesy of Joe Urbach

Growth in gardening: Tips for the first-time gardener

Sunday, April 14, 2019

So, you are concerned about your health – now you want to eat better, healthier, home grown or local foods. You know what good vegetables taste like and are ready to try growing them yourself.

Nothing offers more satisfaction and is more local than growing vegetables in your own garden. But you’ve killed every plant your friends have given you. So how are you going to start a vegetable garden? Does thisound like you?

Well don’t worry, you can start with confidence because I am here to help. First thing you should know is that it is ok to fail. I’m sure that I have made some of the same mistakes you will end up making and that is OK. Just stick to the basics the first year and keep at it every week. You’ll have vegetables in no time and it’s going to be fun.

Sun Light

Make sure you choose a location that receives at least 6 hours of sun a day. Leafy greens and root vegetables will tolerate less, but fruiting vegetables need a minimum of 6 hours and would benefit from more. That being said if you can manage to give your plants an area that gets some late afternoon shade – because that is when our summers get their hottest – they will be very thankful. Don’t give up if there isn’t a spot with quite enough sun. Sometimes you just have to work with the space you have. Just try to work around it. Trim back a few trees if you can or arrange your plants so that the fruiting ones are in the sunniest spots.

Size & Scale

Remember my great grandmother’s advice and start small. She would always tell me that it would be easier to add more garden space next season than to start off so big that it became too much to handle. How much space do you want to start off with? Starting small your first year is a good idea. Give yourself time to learn techniques and get a feel for working in the soil. Digging a new bed is the hardest part. If you add on a few square feet a year, you can do the work in increments. Working smart and not hard is the key.

My first legitimate veggie garden (not just a few tomatoes in pots) was a disaster. I’m really glad that I didn’t go with my desire to turn my entire yard into a garden. Everything was new to me and an experiment. I double dug my soil, added a yard of compost and planted in about 30 square feet. I didn’t know anything about fertilizers or planting seeds. After the hot dry summer there wasn’t much to show from my vegetable garden, but lots of sweat and a bunch of weeds.

By my second year, I read a few books and got a gardening buddy with some experience. It made all the difference to have someone I could bounce ideas off of. I decided to experiment with different gardening approaches, such as Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening. I built raised beds this time.

Despite a long hot summer, I was successful. With well under 100 square feet, I had an endless supply of my favorite herbs, many fabulous tomatoes and loads other good veggies. It was a very rewarding year. I was really a gardener. It felt great, and by the end of the season people were asking me for advice and I even scored my first gardening job. To this day, some 30 years later, I still prefer to build raised beds for my gardening.

Soil

In Texas, there are many different types of soil. Soil texture can be sand, loam or clay. The general soil structure is usually the same throughout your region. You may call your local Master Gardeners to find out more about your specific soil type and how to have it affordably tested.

There are microclimates and small differences that you should become aware of. For example, many developers have "fill" delivered when building new neighborhoods. This is often called "red death" because more often than not it is very rocky, depleted and distressed dirt that is devoid of any organic matter.

Test your soil for pH. Buy easy test kits at your local garden center or better yet, as mentioned above contact a Master Gardener to help. The goal is to get your soil as close to neutral (7.0) as possible. Many gardening articles and books will suggest adding lime to your soil. Lime will make your soil more alkaline. If you know that your soil is already alkaline (7.5 or higher) then adding lime will not help. This is the situation we have in Central Texas – we do not want to add lime to our soil this will only make matters worse. When in doubt, just add good quality finished compost.

Keep in mind when you dig your beds or build your raised beds that nothing is as important as the soil upon which you build your garden. Remember: Soil is the foundation of every garden ever planted. Without good soil you will have no end of problems with growing healthy plants, with watering, with disease and with pests.

Whether you are building raised beds or not loosening your soil to a depth of at least a foot is ideal. If you are building your raised beds and filling them with a good quality gardening soil consisting of plenty of good rich compost, than a depth of eight inches is plenty.

Be sure to remove any weeds and especially grasses before adding your soil. Digging up the grasses will kill most, but if the roots are still intact, new ones will sprout up in your new bed.

Discard rocks over an inch or two while digging. Some smaller rocks are acceptable and can help drainage, but too many rocks can make it difficult for roots to stretch out and grow. They can also get in the way of growing root vegetables and distort their shape.

There is some debate over whether or not to double dig your soil. Proponents for double digging say that it will allow you to really aerate and loosen the soil to the desired depth while allowing for the opportunity to mix compost in at all levels.

People against double digging want you to aerate the top soil with a fork, or if you have access, a chisel plow or broad fork. Both of those can be expensive and hard to find. Especially if you are just starting a small home garden. Also, this method doesn’t allow thorough mixing of compost with the existing soil. It relies on the roots of the plants to carry the compost down to the sub soil layers for you.

Personally, I am a no till (no digging) gardener and of the two options, I like the second method for many reasons, but for the reasons of mixing in compost and getting a productive first year many chose to double dig first. Then fork in compost and other amendments seasonally.

Next, how to amend your soil. Add fertilizer and other chemical solutions or go a more organic route. I very much favor the organic method over the use of chemicals that have always proven to be harmful to pets, people and the environment.

But in the end, if you want to skip the testing and the books, just make sure to add plenty of compost to the spot where you establish your garden. It helps with drainage and water retention while adding life to the soil.

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Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgriLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

San Marcos Record

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