Colin McCrate is the coauthor of Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Crops at Home. We asked him for some quick advice for vegetable gardening newbies.
Every day I get up and go to work at Seattle Urban Farm Company, where my job is to help people set up vegetable gardens at their homes. Most of the people I work with are new to edible gardening, and I always tell them the same thing: It’s easy to grow food at home, but it is even easier if you take a few minutes to plan things out before you get started. Whether you are thinking about setting up a few containers on your deck or tilling up your entire backyard, there are a few basic things to you should address before putting your plants in the ground:
1. Access to sunlight and water: Your garden must receive at least 6-8 hours of sunlight per day for healthy growth and productivity. Think about your options for garden locations and consider sun exposure as the number-one priority. Second priority is to make sure that it will be easy for you to get water to your plants on a regular basis. You don’t want to end up hauling heavy buckets of water across they yard or knocking over pottery with an unwieldy hose, so take the time to figure out a watering system beforehand.
2. Vegetables are “heavy feeders:” This means that they absorb large amounts of nutrients from the soil as they grow. In order to produce a maximum harvest, each crop needs an adequate supply of plant food. Nutrients are supplied by compost and organic fertilizers, and both should be added to your soil before each season begins (and if you are planting in a space more than one time in a season, add them between each planting).
3. Make sure to follow the plant’s (or seed’s) recommended spacing requirement: Many beginning gardeners assume that if they plant their crops closer together they will get more food per square foot. But that’s not quite how it works: When crops are planted too closely together, they compete for sunlight, water and nutrients. When forced to compete, plant growth is stunted, production is limited and crops are more susceptible to pest and disease pressures. Remember, since the dawn of civilization, every gardener’s goal has been to maximize productivity in a given space. Spacing requirements have developed through generations of trial and error, so take advantage of this experience and listen to your seed packet.
4. Choose crops that you are excited to grow: Certain crops give a higher yield per square foot of planting space, but it is also important to choose plants that you are really psyched about growing (it will make them easier to take care of).
Here are a few of our favorite crops for small gardens (with our favorite varieties in parentheses):
Head Lettuce (Deer Tongue, Flashy Trout Back)
Arugula (Rocket, Surrey)
Bush Beans (Provider, Royal Burgundy),
Summer Squash (Jackpot Zucchini, Zephyr)
Tomatoes (Sungold, Black Prince)
So, go to it! Take a little extra time to prepare for your new vegetable garden. Scope out a location with proper sun exposure, make sure to add compost and organic fertilizers to your soil, follow spacing requirements, and select crops that you’re excited about. Trust us, you (and your plants) will be happy with the results!
For more information on garden site selection, soil preparation and crop care, check out “Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Crops at Home.” You can also learn more at SeattleUrbanFarmCo.com.