One way our family saves money each year is growing a vegetable garden. With a moderate investment up front, you can easily use that investment year after year to grow your own organic vegetables. I will share my gardening tips with you to help you get started. They should help you get the most of your growing season for a successful summer garden.
As a caveat, you should know that I live in the Midwest. So we have harsh winters and a short summer growing season. We have learned these tips to help us succeed with our garden – and these tips should be applicable to all gardening no matter where you live.
(1) Fencing & Protection. This is probably the most important thing you should do in starting a new vegetable garden. Take the time to build a decent structure that will keep unwanted critters out of your garden that will eat your greens when they first pop up. There is nothing worse than spending half a day planting your seeds and starter plants, only to have your friendly rabbits eat them all up before the plants ever get close to harvest. You will need fencing that goes down to the ground and is stabilized so it’s tight to the ground.
We built a basic fence around our garden using 2′ x 2″ x4′ cedar boards on the corners. We buried the base of each board about 4-6 inches underground. Then we stapled a metal fencing to each board, with the fencing also buried about 1-2 inches underground. Your fencing should also go about 3 feet off the ground to prevent jumping critters.
If your ground is hard, you can also create a base around the bottom of the fencing using bricks or wood. You can add more soil to raise the bed of your garden up a few inches to reach the top of your base edging.
Don’t be put off by this first step. Although it’s an investment up front – both in cost and labor – doing it well with sturdy parts will help you succeed in growing your plants successfully AND you will appreciate building it well with sturdy materials because it will last longer. Replacing fencing and wood boards every 4-5 years is counter-productive when you can build a better one for an extra $50-100 and it will last 9-10 years.
(2) Top Soil & Compost. I cannot stress enough the value of your soil. When you first create your garden, you can do two things to boost the quality of your ground. Depending on the quality of your soil – you may likely need to pay to haul in a batch of top soil. If your soil is decent, you can mix the top soil into what you already have to beef it up a bit. If your soil is poor, you may want to remove what’s there and add all new topsoil. You can get topsoil from a local landscape company.
Note – If you have very fertile soil because you just built your home recently and there is top soil intact from when your lawn was put in – you may be able to skip this step.
In addition to your starter year, each year you need to replenish the nutrients in the soil. Growing a crop depletes certain nutrients. Mixing compost into your soil each year helps to replenish what was lost. Some municipalities offer it at a reduced price or even free in the spring (from compost piles). We have our own compost bin that we built. So we take our annual draw from our own compost bin and mix it into our garden soil before we plant each year.
(3) Supplies. It doesn’t take much outside of your garden structure to grow a vegetable garden. Here is my list of must-have supplies I find useful:
- Tiller (this is not a necessity but it does make spring planting easier)
- Large Shovel (for digging holes when you first plant any seedlings)
- Small shovel (for weeding and digging smaller holes)
- Hoe (for dragging to create your rows to plant)
- Gloves (nobody likes blisters)
- Watering can (optional but great for watering moisture-rich plants daily like tomatoes)
- Hose with spray nozzle (for nightly watering during droughts)
(4) Sunlight Matters. Don’t pick a spot in your yard that is shaded. Gardens need a lot of sunlight. So don’t go too close to a tree or a wooden fence. And keep in mind that the trees in your yard will grow a lot in 10 years, so give yourself a buffer for future growth. That investment that you made in establishing a nice study fence around your garden is likely not going to be easy to move.
(5) Watering. It is very important to water your plants thoroughly in the first few weeks. After the plants are established and growing, you can go a day or so without watering if you’re out of town. But as a general rule, going more than 2-3 days without water will restrict growth and some plants may really struggle.
Plants need three things to grow: water, sun and nutrients from the soil. So don’t neglect watering. If mother nature gives you a dry spell, water your plants.
Another important tip is to always water at dusk. Watering your plants in the morning can cause the leaves to burn out. The water droplets that remain on the leaves act like a magnifying glass with the sun. So you should never water in the morning or midday.
Tip – If you want to save on your water bill, consider investing in a rain barrel. Not only will you decrease your water bill, but you’ll also be able to utilize rain water which is much more beneficial for plants than city water.
(6) Choosing What to Plant. There are two rules for deciding what to plant. First, make sure to plant things you will eat. There’s no point growing something you don’t want.
The second rule is to make sure you can successfully grow what you want. Take time to educate yourself on what grows best in your region. You may also find that certain crops will not grow well for your particular plot. If you are unsuccessful for a year or two in a row growing any particular vegetable, and there’s no obvious reason, it may just be that it will never grow well where you live. But don’t worry, there are a lot of vegetables that you should be able to succeed with!
Also, take time to check out the varieties of seeds and starter plants you can find at your local stores. Tomatoes for example come in 20-30 different varieties. Each has a different texture, seed quantity, color and size. I prefer Roma tomatoes because they are firm, have less seeds and they are a lot less temperamental with droughts. I also love cherry tomatoes. There again with cherry tomatoes – there are a bunch of varieties to choose from with different flavors and colors.
(7) What not to Plant. Some things are much harder to grow than others. Here is my list, which I am sure could be longer but is based upon my personal experience:
- Sweet corn is not for a small-town farmer. You need a lot of space to grow corn and you have to plant several rows to do it successfully. We tried one year and it was an epic fail. I love sweet corn as much as the next guy – but we stick to buying it from the back of a farmer’s truck on the edge of town or at our local farmer’s market. It’s easier for the large-scale farmer to grow.
- Melons don’t grow well in Northern states. It’s possible but challenging to grow things like melons if you don’t live in a warm climate with a long growing season. We have not been successful and find them to be very temperamental. We can get our melons to about half of their size for maturity before it begins to cool off just enough to halter growth. So they are puny and have the wrong taste.
- Vine plants take a lot of space. We still grow some vine-based veggies, but we limit how many we grow. All squash, melons and cucumbers grow on vine plants that require a significant amount of space to spread out and crawl. So keep that in mind when you’re plotting your garden and selecting seeds.
(8) What We Plant. The vegetables we love that we have found grow very easy, even in our short growing season are:
(9) Annual Rotation. Each plant takes different nutrients out of the soil. So crop rotation is important. We move our peas and beans back and forth between two areas of the garden. Just remember that when you move things around – some crops do better in certain areas of the garden. So follow those rules as well.
For example, peas and beans grow best in rows. We always plant our peas and beans in 4-6 rows next to each other. When we move one, we move the other. In addition, vine plants like cucumbers and squash like the center of the garden so we rotate in a circle flopping them back and forth on opposite sides of the circle, but we don’t move them to the edge of the garden.
(10) Harvesting. Last but not least, my advice is to watch your garden closely. To get the most delicious crops – you have to pick at the right moment. If you wait too long to harvest beans, they get seedy. If you wait too long to harvest tomatoes, they split open and rot. So as your plants begin to bear fruit, go out each evening and pick what’s ready.
We take a colander out each night and fill it with whatever is ready for harvest. We save what we don’t eat right away in our crisper of our refrigerator, just as we do our groceries. And on the days we get a full batch of beans, steaming them for dinner an hour after picking will give you the best meal you’ve ever had! So incredibly delicious!
So there you have it! We’ve been growing vegetables in our garden for over ten years. It is very rewarding to grow your own food. It’s therapeutic to spend time each evening. Evenings tend to be quiet and peaceful at dusk and it is a great time to sit quietly and reflect as you water. And another great benefit is that it’s financially beneficial. Organic produce is expensive, so why now grow your own?
I hope I’ve inspired you to start your own vegetable garden if you don’t have one. And if you do have one, I hope you’ve found this helpful to achieve a successful growing season. Happy Planting!