April 16, 2015 Healthy Living

Ready to Start a Garden? Dig In!

Many people are nervous about starting a garden because they are afraid they will fail. It’s a lot of work. As a gardener you will spend hours enduring heat and bugs, bending and kneeling in the dirt, planting, weeding, watering, pruning, staking, and harvesting your crops. But take heart! Your efforts will pay off in many ways.

Don’t fret that you don’t have a “green thumb.” Realize that not everything you plant will be a prize-winner, especially in the beginning. Start small and build on your successes. A garden isn’t something that you create once, then sit back and enjoy. You will learn as you grow and see improvements in every season.

Gardening offers abundant stress relief, so even a paltry harvest shouldn’t prevent you from reaping major benefits, as long as you focus on the process without worrying too much about the outcome.

Where to begin?

One of the most important features for a garden is adequate sun exposure—ideally, six to eight hours a day. Without that, your choices will be limited. You will also need access to water.

Think about what you want to grow. Are you going for decorative? Or hoping to harvest plenty of yummy vegetables? Don’t be afraid to plant a variety of vegetables and flowers. Vegetable plants and flowers can be the best of friends. Fancy blooms will brighten your victory garden and attract pollinating bees. Some flowers, including marigold and calendula, can repel beetles and other garden pests.

Have your soil Ph-tested (to see if it is too acid or too alkaline) for a nominal fee at a nearby plant nursery or Cornell Cooperative Extension office. Over-acidity can be corrected by adding ground limestone.

Some other soil issues may be evident as soon as you begin to dig. Is it too sandy? The water will rush right through and the roots of your plants won’t find much organic material to feed upon. Enhance sandy soil by working in plenty of compost and peat moss.

Is it too damp and compacted? If your soil contains a lot of clay and does not drain well, it will leave your plants with “wet feet” and they will not thrive. Once again, compost is your friend. Buy it, make it, or both. Just be sure to use plenty of it.

If you don’t already have a tilled area, be prepared to dig your garden patch thoroughly, removing as much of the grass and weeds as you can before you begin. Your local hardware store may have rototillers to rent, but they are unwieldy to transport and operate. Even better, locate a landscaper or a rototiller-owning neighbor who is willing to till your land.

In advance of your rototilling, clearly mark the area you want overturned and apply your first round of soil amendments (limestone if necessary, and peat moss and composted cow manure for sure) so they can be mixed right in.

What should I plant?

When perusing the seed rack at your local garden store, you will see dozens of tantalizing choices. Don’t get carried away. Some things are easily started from seed and others are better when you buy them as plants from a nursery.

Here are a few vegetables you can easily start from seed:

Beans—Buy a couple of varieties for fun, and stagger your plantings over the course of a few weeks so they don’t all mature at once. Beans really give back, so be prepared to eat a lot of beans in July and August. Low-growing bush beans are best unless you have a trellis you’d like to cover with pole beans.

Cucumbers—Make sure the cold and wet spring weather is behind you before starting cucumbers in your garden. Plant just a few seeds in a mound of well-drained soil. Cucumbers like to climb, so position a tomato cage or some fencing near your baby plants and coax them to cling to it.

Radishes—You won’t need much room to grow radishes. They are easy to plant, germinate fast, and look pretty in a spring salad.

Zucchini—Don’t plant the entire seed packet or you will be overrun. Two or three plants should be plenty. Leave a six-foot radius for them to expand into.

Buying these plants already started will help you get a jump on the growing season:

Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or cabbage—Any gardener of modest skill should be able to succeed with cruciferous vegetables. They enjoy cool weather but may attract caterpillars, so keep an eye on them and pick off any pests before they munch your whole crop.

Herbs—Many are perennials and will become a permanent feature of your garden. Consider rosemary, thyme, chives, oregano, and sage. Plant them as a border so you can access them easily with kitchen shears in hand to harvest them for your dinner.

Peppers—These little guys love the heat. If you get a bumper crop, consider leaving some of the green peppers on the plants until they turn red. Waiting an extra couple of weeks will make them all the sweeter.

Tomatoes—They ripen slowly and are prone to disease, but any gardener worth his or her salt will want to grow these backyard stars. Select sturdy, well-established plants. Try a few different varieties and see what succeeds for you. Cherry tomatoes are hardy and can be grown in the ground or in large containers.

Take advantage of free advice

Being a gardener gives you an instant conversation-starter, which is one of the best things about this popular pastime. You will find many around you who have advice and plants to share.

Looking for support or a space to plant in? Reach out to Capital Roots (formerly Capital District Community Gardens). They have more than 850 community garden plots available in 49 locations throughout Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady, and southern Saratoga counties. They also offer plant sales and classes on organic gardening.

Another great gardening resource for our region is Cornell Cooperative Extension, a publicly funded organization dedicated to supporting New York farmers and gardeners. They have offices throughout the area and experts who are eager to advise you.


Photo by Kim Piper WerkerCC BY

Meg Hughes
About the Author

Meg had been with the CDPHP communications department since 2000 and recently retired from her position as the senior editor. Her previous editorial service includes more than a decade with health plans Kaiser Permanente and CHP and four years with a weekly newspaper. Meg is also a long-time gardener and former horticulture professional with experience working for area greenhouses and growers. Meg earned a bachelor’s degree in English from St. Lawrence University.

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