Even though the coldest air of the season hasn’t arrived yet, it isn’t too early to start thinking about gardening. If you have ever wanted to start a garden, now is the perfect time to begin researching what kind of garden you want. I’m going to give you some things to think about as you plan the perfect garden.
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FIRST GARDEN? START SMALL
First, if this is your first garden, START SMALL. I can’t emphasize this enough. Smaller is better your first year. Otherwise you may become overwhelmed with too much to do and decide you don’t ever want to garden again.
One easy way to start small is to garden in some type of container the first year. Tubs, buckets or planters are an easy way to grow a few veggies. You may even have a few laying around the house that would be suitable. You can also purchase grow bags if you prefer. Just be sure that whatever type of container you choose has drainage holes in the bottom. You don’t want the roots to rot. You can tuck several of these planters in sunny locations around your yard and grow a few different vegetables without much work. The only downside to these containers is that they will dry out quickly so they will need to be watered frequently. Be sure you don’t place them too far away from a water source.
Even though I have a full size garden, I still use planters sometimes for various crops. I find it very easy to grow lettuce in containers. They can be moved into the shade when it gets really hot so the lettuce doesn’t go to seed as fast. I also like to grow carrots in containers. Here in North Carolina, we have red clay soil. It is difficult to grow carrots in the ground. However they perform beautifully in containers.
How to start a garden on new ground
If you want to start a garden in the dirt, you first need to pick a location. You need to choose a sunny location-somewhere that receives a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight, preferably 8 or more. A flat area makes it much simpler to set up your garden. Placing your garden near your house will make it easier to maintain it. Weeding and picking your vegetables will be much more convenient if your garden is close by. You also want this area to have easy access to a water source. Hauling buckets of water is never fun. Again, as you are choosing your area, pick a small area. If you think you may want to expand later, choose a location that will allow you to do so, but don’t plan on converting a large portion of your yard into a garden the first year.
Once you have chosen your location, there are several ways to convert the area into a garden. Of course, you can always use a tiller or hire someone to do the work for you, but there are several other methods that are easier.
Square Foot Gardening
One method is to start a square foot garden. Mel Bartholomew pioneered this method of planting in raised 4′ x 4′ boxes with grids. I highly recommend his book, All New Square Foot Gardening II. He details his whole method in the book, but basically, he recommends building raised beds that are placed on top of weed fabric and then filling them with a soil blend he calls Mel’s Mix. He has you divide the box into 16 equally spaced areas and then plant your vegetables in those grids. The book has a detailed guide of how many plants of each type you can plant in each grid. This is the perfect method for someone who wants to grow a variety of crops their first year, but has heeded my advice to START SMALL. It is also a great method if you have poor soil, since you will be purchasing soil to fill the raised bed.
A second way to start a garden is to build a lasagna garden. This method, also known as sheet composting, uses layers (like lasagna) of newspapers, leaves, cardboard, and compost to build garden beds. As the materials decompose, they create a nutrient rich soil in which vegetables thrive. For more information, you can check out Patricia Lanza’s book Lasagna Gardening for Small Spaces.
Gardening with Black Plastic
Another method to get a garden started without too much work is to use black plastic. This is the method I have used many times and what is shown in the photos above. A few years ago we decided to move my garden, but the area we were converting to a garden was overrun with crabgrass. I decided to cover the new area with black plastic and it worked so well, I continue to use it in my garden today. I described how I do this in two posts-Is Gardening with Black Plastic Right for You and How to Use Black Plastic in Your Garden.
Using black plastic is ideal if you will not have nearby access to water, because the plastic not only smothers weeds, but helps hold the moisture in the soil. You can lay the plastic down as soon as the ground is not covered by snow. In warmer climates, that means now! The sun will warm up the ground underneath and start to kill the weeds. By the time you are ready to plant, the soil will be looser and most of the weeds and grass will be dead.
REASONS TO USE GARDEN BEDS
Whichever method you choose, I highly recommend using garden beds with designated walkways. Keeping pathways separate from garden areas means you aren’t compacting the soil by walking on it. I never have to till my garden because my planting areas are not trampled down. (I am not a fan of tilling anyway. It is dangerous and it disturbs the ecosystem of the ground.) When you use beds, you also aren’t watering and fertilizing walking areas, just planting areas. You can save money on water and fertilizer costs. I currently just cover my framed beds with the plastic and cover the walkways with mulch.
DREAMING OF SUMMER?
So while the weather is cold, start dreaming of your favorite summer vegetables. Look at your yard from the comfort of your home and watch the sunlight patterns. See what might make an ideal spot for a new (SMALL) garden patch. As the seed catalogs come in the mail, set them aside. In a couple weeks, I’ll be back helping you decide what to plant in your new garden area.