Before you start a vegetable garden

Blueberry shrub in fall--Dee Nash--Red Dirt Ramblings

Everyone’s mind and searches are on vegetable gardening right now. Those seed catalogs are like the Sirens’ song, aren’t they? Before you start a vegetable garden, ask yourself a few questions beyond which vegetables are easiest to grow.

Sometimes, long-time gardeners act as though you should know exactly what to do right out of the starting gate, or they pretend that gardening takes some kind of magic potion to be successful. While magic happens from the very act of growing things, learning how to grow is like learning any other craft. Rarely, does someone know how to knit, crochet, cook or even keep their homes without learning some of it beforehand. Here are some questions that should be asked before you ever buy that packet of seeds or potting soil.

What do you like to eat? The Ruby Red Swiss chard, shown below, is one of the most beautiful vegetables you can grow. However, if you can’t abide the taste of Swiss chard, don’t grow it. Start with things you like to eat and try one new vegetable, herb or fruit each year. As you taste what comes from the work of your hands, your palette will also grow. You may find that you love beets or turnips  because you harvest them when they are small and at the peak of perfection.

Swiss chard and red fountain early last spring. Before you start a vegetable garden
Swiss chard and red fountain in early spring

When I was a child, my father loved turnips cooked with fresh ham hocks. It was kind of sweet, and pinkish brown and white and gross. I grew up thinking I hated turnips, but someone told me I should grow them before I wrote them off. After harvest, I steamed them with a bit of butter and salt and pepper. What a revelation! I love turnips now because I can harvest them when I want–small and tender. My youngest daughter loves radishes. I’m convinced it’s because we grew them from the time she was small. Radish seeds are one of the best vegetables for children to sow because the seeds are rather large and can be sown directly outside. Plus, radishes grow so fast. Great for small people with even shorter attention spans. Radishes are nearly foolproof. So are green beans.

My youngest daughter holding radishes
My daughter holding radishes

Where does the sun shine? Vegetable gardens need six to eight hours of sun to do their best. In uber-hot years, southern states like Oklahoma may need some shade cloth during the heart of summer, but most gardens beg for a sunny spot. One exception to this rule is lettuce and other greens. You can often grow them in a bit of shade. In fact, in hot climates, they appreciate it.

Sad little sunflowers blown over by the storm last night.
My large vegetable garden is in full sun all day. This was in early spring, and the row covers were to stop squash bugs. They didn’t stop them, but they did slow them down a bit.

Is water nearby? This is probably the most important question. If you don’t have water close to your garden, it will not thrive in Oklahoma or other hot climates. In fact, you simply must water a garden in most places in the U.S. because it is a continental climate. Before you buy seeds and potting soil–if you’re using containers–plan for water. You need easy access to water whether it’s Netafim drip irrigation, or a spray nozzle. Where you grow has a lot to do with the way you’ll water too. Think about where the sun shines. Will you be growing on a patio that has in shade at least part of the day? Is your garden in full sun? These are important questions.

I dip my small watering can in the buckets and use it to fertilize the cuttings and other plants in the greenhouse.
Watering cuttings in the greenhouse. A good reminder that water is essential for all living things.

How big? Like hungry children at a buffet, seed catalogs and early spring make it easy to overindulge when it comes to gardening. Above, is my large garden, but I don’t suggest it for beginning gardeners because it is too large. It’s very easy for things to get out of hand. Start small with containers, or raised beds and have a simple plan. Below is the rough draft of the balcony plan I drew for my book.

Draw a quick plan and label what you're planting there. Not only does it help you decide where things go, you will find it easier to rotate what grows in the pots. Dee Nash--Red Dirt Ramblings
Draw a quick plan and label what you’re planting there. Not only does it help you decide where things go, you will find it easier to rotate what grows in the pots.

Here is my potager–kitchen garden–in early spring. See how tidy it is? Well, the next photo is at midsummer.

Another view of the potager in spring.
Another view of the potager in spring.
Potager at midsummer
Potager at midsummer

It may seem overly simple, but plants grow. As they grow, they take up more and more space. So, try not to over plant and start small.

So, these are the questions I consider whenever I plan a new garden bed, whether it’s for veggies or sun-loving ornamental plants. What have I missed? What are the things you think about when planning a new garden space?


Why garden?

My youngest daughter holding radishes

Why do you want to garden?

People plunge their hands into the soil for a variety of reasons. Are you following in your grandmother, grandfather, or parents’ footsteps? Did your mother ever build a sunflower house just for you, or did your father let you play in the garden next to him?

Then, again, maybe you don’t have a mentor. If not, I want to help. My passion for gardening knows no season. Spring is nearly here, and all I can think about are seeds. From favorite flowers that make up the bulk of my garden and new varieties of vegetables I want to try, each day is an adventure. Even though it’s winter, on those days that it’s warmish and sunny, I’m outside cutting back perennials and adding more shredded leaves to the soil. Soon, I’ll be starting seeds indoors and sowing cold crops outside too.

My joy is complete on that first, warm spring day when the Earth is green and growing. It is as close to heaven as I’ll get during my lifetime. Spring is how I know God loves us.

Why garden? A beautiful spring day in the garden is as close to heaven as we can get.
A beautiful spring day in the garden is as close to heaven as we can get.

I want to pass on this essential craft to you. Yes, gardening is a craft. It’s not magic. The magic comes after you plant seeds in warm soil, but there are no secret formulas involving household products that make us successful. Good, old-fashioned compost improves soil and makes magic on its own.

If I pass on my hope and knowledge to you, maybe you’ll pass it onto your children too. I sometimes fear we’re coming to a time when no one, except Big Ag will grow anything. My concern is one reason I wrote The 20-30 Something Garden Guide: A No-Fuss, Down and Dirty, Gardening 101 for Anyone Who Wants to Grow Stuff. Writing books doesn’t make much money, but it is satisfying to talk to so many people who love, or want to love gardening too.

There are zinnias hiding behind those sunflowers in the vegetable garden.
Building a sunflower house isn’t hard, and it makes memories that last forever.

I’ve done my best to transfer my love of growing things to my children. They are young–most are in their 20s–and just starting out, so only time will tell if I’ve been successful. I built Megan a sunflower house when she was small. She still talks about it, and I know, one day, she’ll build one with her children when she has them. We built it before I began taking photos and blogging, but we still have our precious memories of that summer. Bear and I planted and harvested radishes, and she loves radishes to this day. Brennan played with his Tonka trucks making construction sites in a bare are of the garden as I planted nearby. He doesn’t garden yet, but he knows how because he teases me about it all the time.

The view of the potager from the other side. I'm standing next to the greenhouse and facing south.
The potager (kitchen garden) in June.

It’s important to pass down our love for soil and sunshine to our children because they don’t get outside as often as children once did. Worries over child predators and use of the Internet have changed childhood forever. Do you remember playing outside all day and listening for your mother to call you home for supper? I do. Each day was a grand adventure filled with bike riding, scraped knees and dirt. Gardening is as close as our children and grandchildren will get to that feeling of freedom and earthly joy. Plus, they’ll get more vitamin D if they get outside. So will you.

Another view of the potager in spring.
Another view of the potager in spring.

Here are some other reasons why I think people start gardening.

  • To save money. In the long run, gardening will save you money. However, you will have startup costs like purchasing seeds, containers, building materials for raised beds, purchasing manure or other organic fertilizers and potting soil or soil. Yes, people who live with terrible buy it and burm it up for raised beds. You may also need to rent, buy or borrow equipment to help you break up your native soil. So, while you may garden to save money, know that you will need to purchase some things to get started. To minimize expenses, trying buying tools with friends, or borrow them from a neighbor. Be sure to return the items in better condition than you found them. It will make you friends with your neighbor for life. As a friend, you can also “borrow” his/her knowledge if he/she is a gardener too. There’s nothing like the knowledge from someone who grows in your own climate and conditions. Also, join a seed swap and trade seeds with others. It’s another great way to be part of the community.
'Park's Whopper Improved' tomato was a determinate variety that kept me in tomatoes all summer.
‘Park’s Whopper Improved’ tomato was a determinate variety that keeps me in tomatoes all summer.
  • Food, glorious food. Vegetable gardeners tend to be foodies. I know I’m one. One reason we grow our own vegetables is to have the very best ingredients. However, don’t feel like you have to grow everything you see in the supermarket. Different plants have different seasons. You can still go to a great grocery store and find many items, including organic produce, that may be too hard to grow in your area. Certain foods like lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, eggplant and many herbs are the best you’ve ever eaten when grown right outside your back door. That’s why I line my kitchen garden beds with herbs. I can step outside and cut some for supper. There is nothing like it, and I feel so self-sufficient when I do. Herbs are easy to grow too.
Variegated culinary sage is a perennial herb in my climate.
Variegated culinary sage is a perennial herb in my climate.
  • Natural Beauty. My surroundings are as important to me as the air I breathe, so I often choose vegetables, fruit and flowers simply for beauty’s sake. Bill loves blueberries so I grow them in containers outside on our back deck. In fact, I have twenty-three containers of various plants at last count. Some are vegetables. Others contain roses and tropical plants to create an oasis that softens the sounds and sights of my closest neighbor.
My blueberries growing in containers.
My blueberries growing in containers.
  • Peace of Mind. Our Earth is a fragile ecosystem, and anything we can do to make the planet better is one of the best reasons to garden. By the very things we choose to grow, and how we grow them, we can definitely help our planet and pollinators. If you’re worried about the agriculture system, growing your own food is one way to lessen the impact of genetically modified produce and chemicals in what you eat. Our ecosystem is delicately balanced, and the animals and insects that call your garden home will bless you everyday as they go to work. You help the bees, hoverflies and other insects by providing them with nectar, and they help you by visiting your plants and pollinating them. It’s a beautiful thing.
Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea.
Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea.
  • Unplug and go outside. Finally, we should all just unplug and spend some time outside breathing fresh air. Unplug and go outside is the motto of the U.S. Forest Service. I spend a lot of time in front of my computer screen, and I bet you do too. Fresh air, exercise and even dirt are good for us. Soil has good bacteria that makes us feel good. It’s true! A strain of bacteria in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which elevates mood and decreases anxiety.
  • So those are some of the reasons why I think people garden. Hands in the soil and sunshine on our hair are good reasons too. I’d love to hear why you like to garden. I’ve also linked to some of my previous posts on starting seeds and other early garden chores for you to find more easily. Have a glorious Sunday my friends!