My top 12 things to remember when planting your first garden:
1. Learn. Learn as much as you can before you order that first batch of seeds, buy that first flat of herbs, plant that first tree in the ground. Talk to growers in your area – at farmer’s markets, your neighbors, the folks who run the local nursery. They know what grows and what doesn’t in your area, and will most likely give you tips and warnings. We farm folk are like that. If we can help someone not make the same mistakes we did, we will.
2. Make lists. See below for some ideas to get started. You’ll come up with others as you go along in the process.
3. Decide how you’re going to grow your food: a traditional garden plot, raised beds, containers, hydroponics…the list is endless and only you know how you can best grow food within the limits of your space, budget and time (not to mention your bravery). Do your research now so you’ll be prepared both in terms of budget as well as items needed.
4. Research your local climate. The USDA puts out maps (https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb) that show your growing zones. With climate change and microclimates, these maps can be a bit hit or miss - we’re technically in zone 7, but our farm sits in a weird little microclimate that is closer to a 6a. This is where talking to locals about when they plant is so important. Take a look at historical climatological data from NOAA (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/datasets). Observe your weather patterns and record them in a notebook. Wind generally comes from an average direction wherever you live, rain happens more often in certain weather situations, bad storms tend to come more often from one direction over the others. All of these factors can help you have the best outcomes in your garden.
5. Know your enemy. Cut worms, corn worms, horn worms…so many, many worms. Learn which varmints are going to attack your crops. Be prepared. The enemy strikes when you least expect it. We had a passel of hornworms decimate an entire container of tomatoes in a night. Know the enemy and take steps to eliminate them using the best organic methods possible. Remember, whatever you put on or near your food will be IN your food.
6. Learn to preserve food. You’re going to have more than you think, hopefully. You need to know what to do with it when it’s time to harvest. If you wait until harvest, it’s too late – your food will rot before you can figure out what to do with it. Don’t buy into the fear-mongering you’ll read and hear surrounding canning. If you are careful and do it the right way, you will be fine. Many extension offices have information and experts on hand to help.
7. Make a budget. After you’ve made your lists, add it all up. Put aside that amount however you can. Don’t forget to include seed starting items as well as outdoor space needs (fencing, raised beds, whatever). The costs can add up quickly and you don’t want to be caught out.
8. Research your seed catalogs. Some are more expensive than others. Some specialize in organic and heirloom seeds, some don’t.
9. Learn how to start seeds. Learn how to save seeds. These two methods will save you money in the long run and you’ll enjoy those tiny green shoots in the dark days of winter. You can create a mini greenhouse with 2 full-spectrum shop lights and a bookshelf.
10. Gather your materials. Spend some time really considering your needs vs. wants and your budget. Make sure you have enough space and light to start the number of seeds you have. Remember, most of the major investments (lights, trays, tools) get reused from year to year. Start on a shoestring if you’re nervous, use recycled materials and the sun – they’re free. You don’t need to best and most expensive of everything (unless that’s how you roll).
11. Take notes. Record what you do, the temperature, the weather, your mood – whatever you can record and whatever you think might be useful. Keep all your seed packets, mark your seedlings. Keep a record of what you spent both in money and time.
12. Perhaps the most important: Relax. No matter what the outcome, you will learn. You can take that knowledge and apply it to next year’s efforts. You will produce at least something from your garden, even if it’s 100 lbs of zucchini.