Experience teaches you a thing or two, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be your own personal experience. It works out great sometimes to learn from the experience of others–particularly their mistakes. Whether you are a novice gardener or have some gardening experience to your credit, these tips gleaned from experience and gardening wisdom handed down generations, will help you have the best garden ever.
1. Choose a good location
Locating your garden close to your home ensures sufficient attention for your plants, and you will have easy accessibility in all types of weather. At the same time, you should make sure that the house doesn’t obstruct sunlight. If the shadow of the house falls on your garden for most part of the day, a successful vegetable garden is difficult, to say the least.
Although you can find shade tolerant selections to populate almost any dark corner, you will be severely limited in your choice. Most plants thrive in full sun, especially vegetables. A north-south oriented vegetable garden in the south or southwest side of the house is ideal. In very hot areas where afternoon shade is desirable, an east facing garden may be better.
A garden close to the house or garage allows you to construct a lean-to hothouse using a simple frame covered in clear plastic. This can provide winter protection to select plants. Move your potted plants and fruit trees in before the first frost damages them. You can also use such structures to start seeds and harden off seedlings.
2. Chalk out a plan
For most people, their first gardening experience might have been all about spontaneity, and the result was probably quite charming. However, a little planning makes for the best yielding garden because you get to provide the best growing conditions for your plants. It is important to site your crops carefully, taking into consideration their light and water needs as well as size at maturity.
If you want to sketch your garden plan from scratch, there are online garden planning tools. Alternatively, you can make use of the hundreds of tried and tested layouts available. Browse a little to find one that suits the kind of plants you intend to grow. Tweak it a bit to fit your available space.
3. Source the best seeds
Taken literally, you reap what you sow” is very true when it comes to gardening. Getting your seeds by mail order from reputed companies is the time-tested way to ensure quality. Always invest in the best seeds your money can buy. You should look for disease resistant and high-yielding varieties.
Seed catalogs will give you a fairly good idea about varieties and cultivars that give excellent yield while being best suited to your area and growing conditions. But your best bet is getting the advice of local gardeners. It is a good idea to source some good heirloom varieties from fellow gardeners in the area. They come true from seeds, so they will save you the trouble of buying new seeds every year.
Cheaper seed packets at the seed stands may be tempting, but may not be very reliable. Many reputable companies sell their seeds in bulk to retailers who pack them for the seed stands, but it could be previous year’s stock or substandard seeds. If you find a variety that you’re keen on having at a bargain price, buy it all the same. Age mainly affects the viability of seeds, so even if you manage to get only a few plants, you can expect good yield from them.
4. Start them early
Some fast-growing vegetables like radishes, carrots, lettuce, peas, and spinach can be sown directly in the soil after the last frost date. They are usually ready for harvest from 6-8 weeks, so people with short growing season can still get a good yield. But with vegetable crops that take more than 8-10 weeks and give maximum yield in warm weather, it pays to start them early.
Tomatoes, peppers, and squash are typically started indoors and planted outside when the weather becomes warm enough. In many places in the United States, if you sow tomato seeds directly in soil in spring, they may not be mature enough to bear fruits in summer, when the warm weather gives you best crops. By the time they attain maturity, fall would have set in, and the few fruits that have appeared fail to develop.
You can buy seedlings ready to be planted, but starting your own seeds not only works out to be cheaper, but gives you a larger choice. However, if you haven’t started your seeds early enough, you’ll be better off buying transplants than making late attempts.
5. Provide bright light
Seedlings need bright light––preferably light from an overhead source––to grow healthy and strong. If your seed trays are kept by a bright window, turn the trays everyday to avoid the uneven growth. Light stressed seedlings become spindly and weak, and are more prone to diseases. Provide additional lighting with fluorescent tubes kept not more than ½ ft away from the seedlings.
6. Keep them warm
By starting the seeds indoors, you are actually trying to imitate the warm days of spring. Give them a heated environment to encourage faster sprouting and early growth. Incandescent bulbs provide both light and heat, but florescent tubes are cooler, so they don’t help much. Seedling heat mats are very handy; they promote root growth by providing bottom heat.
Once the seedlings come up, you can cover them with a plastic cloche to maintain hothouse-like conditions. But once they are in a cloche, the seedlings get used to the warm, humid atmosphere, so you should take extra care while taking them out. Mist them frequently until they get acclimatized to the outside environment.
7. Plant out in good quality soil
The seedlings planted out in the garden get all their nourishment from the soil and whatever amendments you add to it. If you have good soil within pH 6-7.5, good quality compost and well rotted manure may be all that your plants would need. Poor soil can be improved with specific treatments, but growing your vegetables in raised beds may be a better option for immediate results. Fill the raised beds with a mixture of good quality soil mixed with compost.
8. Feed your plants
As the plants grow, additional feeding with fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium as well as calcium, magnesium, and sulfur helps boost growth and yield. Organic gardeners depend on compost, farmyard manure, vermicompost and leaf mold to provide the plants all the above macronutrients as well as micronutrients such as iron, zinc, copper, manganese, boron, molybdenum, cobalt, and chlorine.
9. Water deeply
Plants, like humans, need water for their metabolic functions. Water stress can stunt growth and reduce flowering and fruit set. Plants that wilt frequently become more prone to fungal and bacterial diseases.
Natural precipitation in the form of rain and snow and condensation from the air may meet part of their water requirements. However, depending on where you live, additional watering may be necessary, especially in hot weather. That is exactly when water scarcity is felt the most, and watering restrictions may be in place.
Storing rainwater for dry season irrigation, diverting greywater from the house to the garden, and drip irrigation are some of the tactics gardeners employ to overcome this situation.
Whatever watering method you adopt, deep watering is what gives best results. Water should be provided to the root zone, not to the aerial parts of the plants. Shallow watering restricts roots to the immediate area around the plants, making them susceptible to drying out along with the topsoil. Reduce the frequency of watering if necessary, but every time you water, allow it to percolate deep into the earth. This causes the roots to grow deep and become well equipped to access water reservoirs and soil nutrients in the deeper layers of soil.
10. Increase water retention
Moist soil encourages good root run because it becomes easier for the roots to penetrate the soil. Mineral salts need to be dissolved in water to be absorbed by the roots, so moisture in the soil increases nutrient availability.
Clayey soil has great capacity to hold water, but high compaction of the very tiny particles makes root run difficult. Sandy soil allows good root run, but water drains off quickly. Adding organic matter to the soil is a remedy for both these problems. Compost, leaf mold, peat moss and manure increase moisture retention of the soil and provide good aeration while making the soil rich in nutrients as well. Cocopeat, though it doesn’t have any nutritional inputs, is great for increasing the water retention of soil.
11. Pinch and trim as necessary
It might be heartbreaking for a novice gardener to nip off the healthy, growing tips of a tomato plant or a cucumber vine. But this seemingly cruel act is necessary to divert the energy from vegetative growth to flowering and fruit set.
In the case of tomato plants, after they have grown to a certain length, trusses appear, that eventually produce flowers and fruit. If you have a short growing season, pinching off the growing tip after 3-4 trusses will promote their further development as the plant now directs its energy to flowering. If you have a long warm season, you can perhaps allow 4-5 trusses to develop before tip pinching.
Large squash leaves that shade the plant should be selectively trimmed close to the leaf bases. This will make the plant concentrate on growing flowers and fruit. Excess flowers also should be removed to reduce crowding. It promotes good quality fruit that are large in size, rather than a lot of small, inferior quality fruit.
12. Welcome beneficial animal life
Encourage beneficial insects and birds into your garden. They help pollinate the flowers and increase yield. Avoiding toxic chemical pesticides is one way to make your garden critter-friendly.
Growing colorful, nectar-filled flowers that attract butterflies and bees will ensure their frequent visits. Ladybugs and praying mantises make a meal of aphids and other sucking insect pests. Hummingbirds also eat a number of flying insects. Water features and bright red flowers attract these birds.
13. Use natural insecticides and herbicides
When biological control doesn’t seem to be enough, you may have to resort to insecticide sprays to save your crop from pests. Chemical insecticides non-selectively kill both beneficial and harmful insects, besides poisoning the crops and the soil. They should be avoided, especially in vegetable gardens. Use natural, organic insecticides like pepper spray, neem oil and detergent solutions to make the crops unpalatable to pests.
Herbicides are quite unnecessary if you plant your beds close enough and cover the remaining area with thick mulch. Smother the weeds with black plastic or pour vinegar and salt mixture over them.
14. Do companion planting and interplanting
Some plants do better in the company of certain other plants. Companion planting has its basis on such beneficial relationship between crops. Some provide shade or support to their companions while others offer protection from pests by either repelling them or attracting them away from the crops. For instance, garlic, onions and French marigold repel pests while nasturtium attracts them.
Interplanting is a way to make the most of the available space and short growing season. Plants with different, mutually exclusive cultural needs are grown in the same bed. Early-maturing varieties can be interplanted with late-maturing ones for continuous yield. When the early bearers are done, they can be replaced with new crops that will thrive in the shade of the late crop.
15. Harvest regularly
Regular harvesting of your crops encourages them to grow more and produce more. Leaf lettuces, spinach, kale, Swiss chard etc can be harvested by cutting off the lower leaves. The plants will continue to produce new growth from the center. You will get more cucumbers from each plant if you pick them frequently.
16. Have successive planting
Instead of planting all crops in the first few weeks of spring, stagger it all through the growing season. This is particularly important for the home gardener who is aiming to feed the family with homegrown garden produce. Successive planting ensures a bountiful garden that will keep you in vegetables for the major part of the year rather than growing large crops at one time.
Plant a batch of garden kitchen staples like spinach, lettuces, carrots, peas every two weeks. As soon as you transplant from your seedling trays, start another batch. Growing a few early-maturing crops will help you have optimum space utilization. As soon as you complete their harvest, you can put in a new crop in their place.
17. Protect the soil
Soil is made up of several components such as different-sized rock particles, and the mineral salts contained in them, partially decomposed organic matter, and a host of organisms big and small that live in the soil. Altogether, soil can be considered a living, breathing, dynamic entity. Nature has a way of protecting the soil with a green carpet of vegetation wherever possible. For cultivated soil to maintain its fertility and integrity, it should be protected from the drying and leaching effects of the elements.
Thick planting with various crops and covering whole area in mulch serve to form a protective shield over the soil. After you remove the crops postharvest, cover the bare earth with a thick layer of mulch or sow cover crops where snow cover is not expected.
Keep these tips in mind for a fabulous garden this year. Happy gardening!