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Don’t till too much and other lessons for new gardeners

New gardeners are born every day. Some burst on the scene when they buy their first home or rent an apartment with permission to use the yard. Some are new parents who are intensely motivated to grow healthful food. Some are retirees who finally have time to garden, or workers who choose gardening as a de-stressor. And I have observed (and often learned the hard way) some lessons that could benefit most newcomers.

This article is for you, the beginners. I would like to help you save time and money. I want you to produce some vegetables and flowers with minimal frustration so you don’t give up. These principles and tips might help you bypass some classic first-timer errors and head you toward delicious, beautiful success.

1. Start with easy crops

Especially with children (or partners who are skeptical about your new project), plant what grows quickest (radishes, leafy greens) and easiest (beans, cherry tomatoes). You can always try for watermelons (long season) and corn (uneven pollination, pest challenges) another time.

2. Start small

During your winter dreams, inspired by catalogs and online marketing, you will plan way too many crops covering way too big a space. By July you will have way too many weeds and watering demands. By August, you may have one sad-looking veggie patch (except for too many zucchinis). In your first season, consider a 10-by-10 foot salad garden or plant into raised beds and containers.

3. Figure out the timing

You can’t just plant the garden in one weekend. Some crops require cool weather: peas, lettuce, broccoli and most salad greens. Plant them early in spring (April or May) because they “bolt” and get bitter when the weather gets hot. Other crops need heat: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, beans, squashes and pumpkins. Plant only when soil is 55 degrees or so – end of May or into June – or they will die or have growth defects.

4. Seedlings or seeds?

When a new gardener tells me she’s starting tomatoes from seeds, honestly I think “Ugh – that’s so tough!” Starting tomatoes indoors is a refined dance of lighting, heating and timing. Yet you can get fine, sturdy plants at just the right time from a farmers market or garden center. Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and melons are also smart to buy as seedlings (for timing reasons). On the other hand, I see folks buying plants of many crops that are so easy from seed: Peas, beans, squash, all leafy greens, carrots. Just check the timing and plant those seeds.

5. Raised beds vs. flat gardens

Unless you are unusually lucky, most Western New York soil — whether urban or formerly farmland – is compacted, quite clayey, possibly contaminated, definitely rife with weed seeds and deficient in nutrients. You improve soil by mixing in compost, but it can take years and lots of work. Making raised beds – enclosed in boards or rocks or those fabric black bags or other containers – is so much easier. You will have to cart in or buy a topsoil/compost mix or growing medium. The Big Yellow Bag has come on strong in the regional market – great product, delivered to your home. Or you can acquire (or make) compost and mix it with topsoil in your beds.

6. The tools you need

I have been given or bought so many trowels, bulb planters, gloves and weeding tools that I soon bent, ripped, or found useless. First rule is: Buy one quality tool, not four cheapies. (With tools it is usually true that you get what you pay for. The exception might be a high-priced designer-styled tool that is pretty but not solid.) You mostly need: a sharp, pointed shovel (light and tall enough to use standing straight); a hoe (basic garden type or a stirrup hoe); an unbendable hand trowel; a hand weeding tool; a rake. Many other tools are nice extras, but during real gardening work I find my shovel, hoe and hand trowel by my side. For landscape gardening a superior hand pruner is essential.

7. Spacing is crucial

People put tomatoes and pumpkins too close together – and herbs and rows of lettuces too far apart. Many gardeners copy the old-fashioned style of single rows of vegetables with a foot path in between, but intensive planting in blocks and wide rows is much wiser. This topic is worth a whole class or chapter, but start by reading instructions on plant tags or seed packets. Do plant lettuces and leafy greens in blocks – say, 3 by 3 feet – and peas or beans in a great wide swath. Do thin your carrots and onions.

8. Diversity works

That single-row, monocrop pattern just asks for weeds to fill in and pests to find your crop. Mix flowers and herbs among your vegetables. Pair vegetables with others that use the above-ground space and root space to advantage. It’s called companion gardening.

9. Cover bare soil

Weeds will find bare soil – quickly. Either plant closely so that one crop (broccoli) shades another crop (lettuce), or block weeds with mulch: straw, chopped leaves, newspaper, black plastic or shredded bark (in landscape beds). Gardening requires weeding no matter what you do.

10. Don’t over-till

Beginners and some old-timers till the soil until it is powdery, which destroys hard-won soil structure. Leave the soil lumpy, or hand-dig.

11. Prevent pests and don’t panic

New gardeners get too uptight about a few pests and are often too quick to buy a pesticide to kill the first insects they see. Healthy plants in the right site have few pests. Organic methods (hand-picking, water-hosing) work. Beneficial insects, toads, spiders and birds eat pests in a diverse garden. Learn to block pests, as with fencing in deer country.

12. Plan the watering

Beginners often put the garden too far from the hose, and buy sprinklers that are wrong for the job. Plan watering before you start a garden. Use a water wand and deliver water directly to the base of plants, and deeply.

We old-timers have acquired a large body of knowledge, and may take it for granted. Please pass these tips along and join me in welcoming new gardeners to this wonderful world.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.