If you are new to gardening, please don’t get overwhelmed by the following information. Relax and enjoy yourself, learn as slow or as fast as you want to. These are just a few tidbits to get you started….
The Golden Rule: Plan Before You Buy!!
Those seed catalogues are full of amazing photos and luscious descriptions. Do peruse to your heart’s content, and circle stuff that sounds good to you. But then, before you buy anything, plan your garden!
This can be a quick sketch on an old envelope or a snazzy computer rendition – or anything in between. What matters is that you map out how much space you actually have (at least roughly), any perennials that are already there, shady areas, and any other information you think is pertinent.
Then mark what you’ll plant in each area, based on: what was planted last year (you’ll want to develop some sort of crop rotation plan), how much light is needed for the crop, which plants will do best with which others, how far apart each plant needs to be (you can find this on the back of seed packets, in seed catalogs, or in an online search), the crop’s watering and fertilizing needs (put plants together that have similar needs), and how much of the plant your family will eat.
Remember: it doesn’t matter if you have a large garden, a concrete patio, or just a windowsill inside. You can grow food. Heck, we’re growing food on our fire escape! If you have just a patio, you can do amazing things with containers. Click here for more information, and check out books specific to container gardening, like this one. If you have just an indoor window, you can grow lettuce, herbs, sprouts (and more about sprouts), tomatoes, and several other things.
How To Choose The Varieties You Need
You know what you want, but there are so many different varieties! How do you choose from hundreds of types of tomatoes, for example?
1. Ask other gardeners what varieties they have liked and didn’t like. You should also ask people in your area what varieties do well in their yards or farms. Farmers at your farmer’s market are a good resource.
2. Take into account growth patterns, amount of food each plant produces, days to maturity, hardiness zone, light and soil needs, drought-tolerance or whether it can take wet conditions, daylight or frost hours needed (daylight hours are important for onions, frost hours are important for many fruits), whether it produces in early or mid- or late-season, the color of flowers and leaves and fruit, and, of course, taste!
3. Organic, open-pollinated, biodynamic, heirloom or hybrid (sometimes called “F1″). If you are saving seed, you do not want hybridized/”F1″ seed. When you plant seeds you’ve saved from a hybrid, it will mutate into a variety that is not what the original plant looked like, and the taste is often not very good (if it even produces the edible fruit or vegetable). In an ideal world, you want heirloom seeds, preferably open-pollinated and organic or biodynamic. That’s what I search for.
4. Go with your gut. At the end of the day, if it sounds and/or looks interesting to you, go for it! That’s what most of us do, and it’s how we find some amazing varieties, like the Japanese Black Triefle tomatoes I planted last year – wowza!
Where To Buy Seed
1. Local Nurseries and local seed catalogues. These are the best places to buy seeds, especially if they are organic and/or open-pollinated. They will be best adapted to your local climate and soil.
2. Farmer’s Markets and local farms. Some farmers sell seeds and/or seedlings.
3. Other gardeners. If you have seeds to trade, you should trade them! Even trade extra seeds from a mail order – chances are good that someone else wants what you have, too!
4. Mail order catalogues. I have some favorites, most of which are on the west coast of the US (sorry to those of you who are not here!):
- Seed Savers Exchange. If you haven’t visited this site, you’ll be amazed at the variety offered. This is a non-profit organization “dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds.” I have had great success with their seeds. (Plus, when you start saving your own seed, SSE has a great forum for trading seed with others, for even more variety.)
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Their catalog is incredible. I’ve never seen so many winter squash – seven pages of them! And amazing pictures, too. And… 13 – thirteen! – pages of heirloom tomatoes. Wow. Love them.
- Seeds of Change. All organic, very reliable seed. My first seeds ever came from here.
- Peaceful Valley Garden Supply. All organic, also very reliable. I find their print catalog to be much easier to read. They also have a number of great supplies, and the catalog has some great charts about what cover crops to plant when.
- Bountiful Gardens. Heirloom, untreated, open-pollinated seed from the publishers of How to Grow More Vegetables.
- Renee’s Garden Seeds. A large variety of seeds, some heirloom and open-pollinated. These seeds are readily available in many nurseries.
- One Green World. This catalog has some amazing varieties of fruits of all kinds, many of which I’ve never heard of.
- Forest Farm. A 500 page catalog of shrubs, trees, and vines. No kidding – 500 pages.
- The Pepper Gal. Just peppers. Lots and lots of peppers.
- Whatcom Seed Company. Rare and interesting seeds to experiment with.
- Raintree Nursery. Local to me. I’ve heard good things, and will be ordering fruit trees from them for the first time this year.
- Abundant Life Seeds. Also local to me – organic and biodynamic seeds I’ll be trying for the first time this year.
- Tomatofest. Wow. Do you like tomatoes? Hundreds and hundreds of organic, heirloom tomatoes, with a huge selection of cold-climate tomatoes to boot! We’ll be trying some of these this year.
Please, everyone, add your favorite catalogs in the comments!!
Recommended Gardening Books
1. Grow Organic. I wish I had this book when I first started gardening. Great pictures, walks you through everything you need to know to get started with your food garden.
3. Seed To Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. Not just about seeds, this is a page-turner of a gardening book. I love it – read it all in one night!
4. The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control. Indispensable resource for the organic gardener. If nothing else, there are great pictures to show you the good bugs versus the bad bugs in your garden!
5. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. A book that has helped me a great deal in learning how to create a sustainable garden by seeing the garden as a whole, and taking into account how each plant will relate with one another. Toby Hemenway writes about perennial fruits and vegetables, capitalizing on the water supplied by nature, and making the garden work for you so you don’t have to work as hard.
1. Local master gardeners. They aren’t necessarily organic growers, so make sure to ask them for specifically organic advice. But their job is to help you, so call them or email them and ask them specific questions you have. They will know your specific area better than almost anyone else.
2. Local nurseries. A good local nursery has very knowledgeable gardeners – ask them questions!
3. Local farmers. Ask farmers at your local farmers market what varieties they grow, what diseases to watch out for, etc. They may also sell you seeds or vegetable starts.
4. Other gardeners: online groups, local gardening classes, community gardens, etc. If you can’t find a group in your area, start one!!
5. The Growing Challenge: From Seed to Seed and all the amazing gardeners taking part. Obviously!
One last word: again, don’t get overwhelmed with all this information. You’ll do fine if you do a little reading, buy some good seed, put it in the ground in the spring, and give it some water, a little compost, and some sun. Have fun with it!
Ok, Gardeners – What Did I Miss?