Start! part 2

This is the 2nd article of a 2 part-series geared at first-time would-be food gardeners (Read Part I here)


What should I plant?

Not so fast! (aren’t you getting tired with me saying this so often?)

Before you plant, you need a place to plant. We already discussed where. Now let’s discuss how.

Mid-April is late by all counts to start a garden the traditional thorough way – which is to dig and incorporate large amount of organic matter (i.e compost, composted manure, coffee grounds, finely shredded leaves – NOT MULCH!!!! do not dig mulch in!!!!). So unless you have the back and stamina to dig and improve your new garden over the next week or so (or unless you already have a ready to go garden plot) , do it the lazy way: frame a sunny area of your lawn, cover it with newspaper (no glossy please) and pile at least 8 inches (12 inches better) of GOOD top soil, compost and composted manure on top. This will suffocate the grass (the odd really hardy and deep rooted perennial weed may survive, but there is little chance of that). The dead grass will provide additional nutrients for the growing plants.


Earthworms – your friends – will take care of moving things up and down and, in the process, provide worm castings (plant candy) and tunnel the soil, bringing needed air to the roots of the plants. Plant roots need air. Really. So, if you spy any earthworms, leave them alone and let them do their thing.

Again, while this “suffocating the grass” method is not the best method, it is the best method given that this is mid-April. It’s not the best for deep rooted crops, but it’ll do for most of the others. Then next winter, if you feel like it, dig. Otherwise, keep piling. I have some beds I have never dug in my rocky clay soil, and the vegetables in there are doing fine. Of course, I would not dream of putting asparagus there, but it’s OK for most everything else.

What do you frame your garden beds with? Any untreated boards will do. Pine is fine, it will last at last 5 or 6 years. Buy new, or scrounge (wood from pallet is great if you can have them for free) from willing neighbors or use unpaited boards (unstained, untreated) left from a prior project. It does not have to be contiguous pieces of wood, you can put smaller boards end to end to make a long side. If you feel rich, why sure go for redwood or other rot-resistant wood. I do not recommend pressure treated wood as the poisons they release might be taking up by the plants you’ll eat. There is enough poison around, that I am not going to purposefully introduce any more at my house!

How much to frame, depend on your appetite. For fresh food, for gardening. I would recommend either a 3 by 6 bed (maybe two) or a 4 x 8 bed (or two). Don’t go any wider than 4′ as it becomes difficult to reach across (to plant, weed or harvest) without stepping onto your fluffy soil. Why should you not step on your fluffy soil? so it remains fluffy, making it easier for plant roots to go down and to breathe (yes, they breathe!)

As hinted before, different plants have different needs in how much heat, rich soil and moisture they need. But I am a going to suggest a few plants that are fairly easy – and reliable – for beginners who – for all practical purposes will be ready to plant May 1 in the US mid-atlantic areas:

  • Buy seeds of these and sow directly outside as soon as possible while the weather is still fairly cool: lettuce, arugula, Asian greens, mustard, kale, radish, turnips, Swiss chard
  • Buy plants of these and transplant as soon as possible: thyme, sage, chives, rosemary
  • Buy plants of these and transplants after hardening off and after all danger of frost is past: tomatoes, peppers, basil
  • Buy seeds of those and start them directly in the garden after all danger of frost is past: okra, zucchini, cucumber, beans, summer squash, winter squash. If you find some sweet potato transplants, those are fun and easy to grow.


Just a word of caution: plant things you like to eat. Don’t plant tomatoes, if you hate tomatoes. Then again, have you ever eaten a fully vine ripened freshly picked tomato? Because if you have not, and you think you hate tomatoes, you may want to plant just one tomato plant… you might be pleasantly surprised.

Are you going to save any money? I don’t know. Are you? It depends. It depends on how much materials you have to buy to start.

  • A garden is like a kitchen, you can spend a lot of money on it whether useless gadgets, showy but unnecessary things (plants don’t care that you have the cutest lady bug garden boots with matching watering can and hat) or so called labor-saving things (really, do you need an irrigation system for 2 beds?). You can spend money or you can spend your time. You’ve got to decide which. Let me give you an example: you can mail-order a very nice cedar raised bed frame 8′ L x 4′ W x 11″ D for $250 + shipping, or you can build it for free if you’ve got the materials already or if you are a scrounger. That’s a pretty wide range, right there! Obviously the more money you put into it upfront, the longer the pay back. It may not payback until next year.
  • How much soil do you need? The maths work as follows: multiply the lengths of the bed (in feet) by its width (in feet) by its depth (in feet). So, a bed 6′ long by 3′ wide by 8″ deep calls for an 13.5 cubic feet of top soil and compost (or 1.5 cubic yard). A 8′ x 4′ x 12″ bed needs 32 cubic feet or 3.6 cubic yard. Depending of where you live this can add up to $100 for soil. Some municipalities offer composted leaves for free: those are great! Take advantage of it. If yours offers free mulch, take advantage of that too, to put a thin layer (one inch) around your grown plants.
  • How much will the plants cost? at $1 to 3.00 a plant (more or less depending what, how big and where), count on $30 to $50 for tomatoes, peppers, herbs and the likes. Another $10 to $25 in seeds for those crops that should be seeded are all you need. Of course, you can buy transplants of lettuce, but I don’t think it make sense: expect to pay $ 3 for 9 baby lettuce. A $2 seed packet, on the other hand, contains several hundred seeds! Herbs will give you the biggest bang for your buck. For the price of an herb packet or two at the store, you can get an herb plant that will last all sumer, and sometimes will overwinter (thyme, chives)!
  • Anything else? I am assuming you’ve got garden tools. All you need is a shovel, a fork, a rake, a trowel, a hose and some good gloves. You’ll need a trellis for climbing cucumbers and for vining squash and pole beans, as well as some support for any large tomato plant. Check the seed packet, the plant tag or ask the vendor for information on the plants you buy (pole beans or bush bean? vining squash or bush squash?)

So you could get your garden started for less than $50, or you could spend a lot more money than that. It all depends.

Still want more info?

  • Join a Garden Club. There are many around. While their emphasis tend to be on ornamental plants, you are bound to find members who have food gardens, and who will be happy to mentor you. Be nice and ask. Most gardeners are happy to help… and to share extra plants.
  • Take a workshop or two. For example, my upcoming kitchen workshop “Kick Start Your Kitchen Garden” on Saturday afternoon, April 18 2009, in Washington, VA might just be the ticket for you. (yea… I know shameless commercial, but really you will learn if you come. After starting the garden, you need to maintain, nourish, weed, harvest, extend the season, plant the fall garden bla bla bla)

Finally, just DO it! Don’t over analyze it, just start! The benefit are not just in potential savings on your food bill: this can be a great family activity, a relaxing time, a way to exercise, and a way to become a little more independent and grow the best vegetables that you will have ever tasted.

Some of us think food gardening is a way of life. Try it. You may just get hooked.

6 thoughts on “Start! part 2”

  • Great, great tips, Sylvie! I’ve just been winging it for the past few years, having a grand time. Unfortunately, I don’t get as much sun as I’d like but I still manage to grow a decent variety in the summer.

  • What’s wrong with working in mulch? My city gives away composted yard trimming “mulch”. I figure it’s organic matter

  • Hello, Ivan: There is mulch… and there is mulch.
    If what your city has is finely shredded leaves or “compost”, then by all means incorporate that into your beds and also use it as mulch, on top of the beds. However, the more “traditional” mulch made of bark, wood chips or shredded trunks & branches is not decomposed enough to turn safely into the soil: if you mix it in the soil, it will continue to decompose, and in doing so will take (or bind) available nitrogen already in the soil – “robbing” it from the plants and causing stunted growth. It may take an entire growing season for your beds to get their balance back and meanwhile there be very little to harvest from those beds (I speak from personal experience….) Use such mulch only on the surface of the beds (properly applied mulch can prevent weed germination, moderate soil temperature, conserve moisture and slowly release nutrients for the plant as it rots) or in your compost pile where it will react with other materials for a balanced decomposition that will leave you with compost.

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