27 May 2009

Your first vegetable garden

Welsh onions are planted in the top bed here. They're non-bulbing green onions, although there is a red variety of Welsh as well.

I am delighted there are so many new gardeners around now. Gardening is one of those things that creeps up on you and while you initially think it's just another simple activity, it becomes more than that very quickly. After the first season, you start thinking of the next, then reading more about techniques and the old ways of growing food, you start looking at other gardens as you walk around your neighbourhood, you jump at the chance to visit friends with vegetable gardens, and you remind yourself of your own mother when you take cuttings and seeds home bundled up like precious cargo. You might as well admit it - you're hooked! Another gardening convert joins our side.

Melanie asked if I would write about when I first started gardening and I would be happy to do that, if only I remembered when that was. I do remember helping my mum with the weeding, I remember my grandma's vegetable garden and chooks, but I don't recall when I dug my first garden. In the 60s and 70s, when I shared flats with others, I used to plant a couple of little tomato bushes in with the flowers out the front. In those days I didn't realise plants have different requirements and I probably didn't worry about not producing a lot of tomatoes. I remember we had a vegetable garden in the first home we bought because Shane fell over near the bean trellis one day and nearly took his eye out with a piece of wire poking out. He still bears that scar. But I guess the first garden I remember being serious about, making sure it was organic and mulched, was our garden up north. We also had chickens there and that was the first time I realised chooks were an important part of the natural system I was trying to set up. Now I know there are plenty of ways of combining different natural elements to produce vegetables, but then, 30 years ago, I was learning about keeping the chooks away from the garden and the damage the hot sun caused.

Ann Shirley, our New Hampshire. She's an excellent layer.

I'm still learning, gardeners never stop doing that. Just when you think your tomatoes or beans are the best, you see an old forgotten variety that looks better and you try it. Gardening helps you grow as a person because it teaches you to slow down, that nature will take her own time and no matter how fast you drive your car, or yourself, when it comes to your garden, although you are in the driver's seat, nothing will happen as fast as you want it to.

If you're a novice gardener, take it slow until you have worked out your climate, and how to get good results. I think a good way of starting would be to plant your favourite vegetable - like tomato, beans or strawberries - whatever it is that you REALLY want to grow at home, and then add a few small easy crops like silverbeet (Swiss chard), lettuce (if you're in a cool zone) and some of the Asian greens like bok choi (Chinese cabbage). Those small leafy vegetables are very easy and don't require much care, but while they're growing, you can tend your favourite and learn all you can about it. Read about vegetable gardening, look at gardens, talk to other gardeners.

Eggs and lemons from the backyard. A daily harvest.

The one thing that will make the most difference to your results will be to plant into good soil. Most soils need organic additives to produce good quality vegetables. If you don't add anything to your soil, you will grow your tomato or beans, but they may be plagued will insects and you'll get meagre crops. However, if you add old cow manure, compost that has been made with chook poo, and worm castings to your soil, you'll be amazed at the difference it makes - you'll have less pests and disease and you'll have better and more prolific crops. Soil makes the most difference. So dig your additives in and let the soil rest for a couple of weeks before you plant. If you do that, you'll have what the gardening books call "rich soil" or "soil rich in organic matter".

Richmond Green, an apple cucumber.

What you do next will depend on what type of vegetables you want to grow. If you're planting green leafy vegies, rich soil is enough. If you're planting fruiting vegetables, you need to add some sulphate of potash, which will encourage strong roots and more flowers. More flowers = more vegetables. I wouldn't worry about pH or minerals in the first year. See what your work produces. If you get what you hoped for, your soil is probably fine. If you don't get your desired results, take your problem plant to the local nursery, or to a neighbour gardener, and ask what the problem was. Gardeners are a remarkably generous bunch of people and they will share their knowledge with you. When you have a couple of years planting your favourites and a few easy crops, move on to the next level and try growing root vegetables, vines, herbs and fruit.

Just a word to the perfectionists, Sandra and Ellen, and others. I've been gardening for a long long time and I always have failures and there are always years when the unexpected and extremely irritating happens. It's part of the equation. I know that merely knowing that will not make a difference to you but I want you to know that it's okay to give up those ideas that "perfect" is the only option. Personally, I believe there is no such thing as "perfect" and gardening has taught me that, and many other things. Let go, be in the moment and be open to wherever your garden takes you. And Ellen, I think your idea is a very good one. We have knitting buddies here and I think gardening mentoring would work well. So, do we have any experienced gardeners who would be willing to mentor a novice? Please add your name to the comments or email me and I'll match you up according to your climates and zones. When you add your name - as either a mentor or a novice, please add as much detail about your climate and conditions as you can so we get a good match for you.

But no matter if you've been gardening for years or if this is your first season, the important thing is that you're doing it. We have given up so much of our collective heritage and the skills we all once took for granted, doing this, producing some of your own food is a huge step up to where we all should be. We need to be firmly rooted in our gardens, along with the plants. Happy gardening, everyone, and if this is your first year, welcome to the wonderful world of worms. LOL!



  1. I often hear people with free ranging chickens comment on how well they work with the garden. And yes, my chickens eat bugs but they also eat my berries and sprouting plants. I love having them truly ranging but I don't like sharing the strawberries. Any suggestions anyone? Thanks for the great blog. I read it daily.

  2. Rhonda, How wonderful and idea to start matching folks up.
    I am in zone 8. Arizona U.S.A.

    Second season Organic Vegetable Gardner. 27 years of flower gardening in this zone.Wild flowers mostly. Heirloom variety only. Seed saver, studier of the soil and newly a rain water harvester. Raising 6 bantam chickens in the city. 575 eggs in less than a year. Half size eggs so the perfect supply for my family of 4.

    You are so right about the personal growth aspect of gardening. The ease of home grown foods is a luxury worth every effort.

  3. Zone 7, SW Oklahoma, U.S.A

    Many years of gardening flops under my belt, BUT we changed to raised beds last year and so far this year things are looking great. We try to mainly use organic methods and supplies, and are avid composters. We also have chickens. We are growing on a lot less than 1/4 acre, so interested in intensive gardening in particular.

  4. So, the two problems I started having when I expanded my garden are Cutworms and Cats. How do you manage both? Um yes, I had to rip out my garden when the cats decided they wanted to use it for their litter box (eeewwww!). And cutworms are nasty lookin' things.

  5. Can't wait to get my hand in some dirt.

    Blessings Gail

  6. Oh, what a great post and a GREAT idea! I'm in the Pacific Northwest (United States.) I think I'm Zone 8- we pop up into the 90's a few days every summer, and down into the 30's in the winter (MAYBE 20's.) Lots of cool, wet weather. I've been gardening for a few years, but really don't know what I'm doing- my mom starts seeds in her greenhouse for me, and I plant them in compost-amended soil.

  7. hi...zone 5b.....i can't wait to have city chickens but i think it won't be until next year. i just pulled out all of my radishes. they produced huge tops but no radishes formed..anyone know what the problem is????

  8. Hi I am in Beaverton Oregon which is zone 8.I will gladly mentor.
    Also Karyn commented about free ranging chickens in the yard.I would suggest a Chicken Tractor which is a mobile pen for your chickens.You can google for tons of photos and plans.
    What we have here at our house is an old rabbit cage without a bottom.
    I also train my girls from chickhood to come when called and I shoo them away from the garden and after a bit they clue in and stay out.This training dose mean spending time out with them.Our local Zoo trained some chickens with a clicker just like dogs.LOL!

  9. Rhonda, I've always left the gardening to Mr Green Thumb of the house but have started taking an interest.

    Novices like me might like to read Jackie French's "The Earth Gardener's Companion...A month by month guide to organic gardening." It's easy for beginners to understand and advises you what to do each month. It's $19.95. I bought mine locally but see it's available at http://www.goodlifebookclub.com

  10. What about fungal diseases or other plant diseases? Do you wait until symptoms pop up or do you treat ahead of time?

  11. Karyn,

    Chickens are great, but you can only let them in the garden after your seedlings have grown out of the young and tasty stage (most people don't know that chickens actually eat plants more than bugs and seeds) and before they fruit.

    So let your garden grow up a bit, let the chickens in to keep the bugs and young weeds down, then shoo them out before they produce. You should lose less that way. :)

    Every year has good things and bad. Note taking can be really helpful, but I usually end up being far too busy to remember to do it beyond the first couple of weeks.

    Also, every single garden is different; the soil, the microclimates, the bugs... we have bugs here that the neighbor has never seen. Amazing. Just don't ever compare your garden to another's. Even though we all do. LOL


  12. Central Texas, USA

    I have no idea what zone I am in. I just started a veggie garden this year and have already learned tons--most of it the hard way. Its too hot here for cilantro or lettuce. And there are lots and lots of bugs. I am fighting vine borers at the moment with nemotodes and organic pesticidal soap and I will soon get chickens. But next year, I am simply not planing squash. Its just too hard to do in this part of the country.

    I love this site as it helps me keep up my spirits when things aren't as easy as they first seemed.

  13. Hi Rhonda,
    How often do you use potash in your garden?
    Donna G. in New Mexico

  14. I would love a garden mentor. I have had a garden for the past 4 years but am flying by the seat of my pants. I read and get info online but still there is so much info I don't know. :)

    I am in sone 8 I believe. Vancouver, WA. Just across the river from Rois in Beaverton actually. We have a small backyard garden as well as backyard chickens.

  15. Hi Rhonda,
    Wonderful information...I read through the post this time to see if there was interest in partnering up and there really is...I think this is a great idea too.
    I wondered about the safety of chickens in the city, there are so many cats that wonder around freely. We had cats on my G.F.'s farm but I can't remember if they bothered the hens.
    We also have a very neighborly opossum that visits our yard nightly...I think he checks the compost out for anything edible.
    Do you have issues with cats or wilds bothering your hens?

  16. Hi Rhonda, I would love to mentor a new vegetable gardener.

    I am in Zone 9, Sacramento, CA USA.

    This is my sixth year with my backyard garden (with a summer off when my little peanut was born 4 years ago).

    Thanks for this opportunity!

  17. Thank you for writing this. I was just commenting on my blog the other day how I am petrified to do anything with the herbs I bought at the garden center, because I'm so sure I will kill them one way or another. I want to garden so badly, but I've never taken failure well and I feel that gardening is just setting myself up for failure. Thanks for the reminder that even the experienced and professionals have failures. :)

    By the way, I'm from Sherwood, Oregon, USA, Zone 8. I see there are a lot of us in the Portland area! I'm a beginner, although I have a degree in Biology, so I understand the science, but not the practice. ;)

  18. What an appropriate post, on the day I applied for a loan for my first home, the only requisite being that there was enough yard for a veggie garden and fruit trees :-) Rhonda, I love the idea of a garden mentor, I live in the SE of South Australia, if there is a buddy I could be matched with would be wonderful. If anyone's looking for a knitting buddy, I can offer my services :-). I am planning on spending some time perusing your archives now that I'm going to be moving to a little patch of this gorgeous country of ours and make it our home, how blessed are we!!!

  19. On the news here in Canada they said that alot of people are planting vegetables instead of flowers this year due to the economy. We've always planted vegetables as well as a few flowers tossed in. They also said that with $50 worth of seeds one can harvest $1250 worth of produce. The garden is all planted now just have to tend it until harvest time.

  20. I am in zone 7. Maryland, USA

    I have been gardening for about 4yrs. in a suburbia backyard. I have a compost bin, but I don't think I am getting the most out of it. I am looking into harvesting rain water. Hubby is NOT going in for the chicken idea...so patience! ;)

    I loved this post. I do think of my mother and grandmother walking the gardens. Talking plants. Sharing cuttings. I have a friend that I do this with. Feels right.

  21. Thanks for sharing...I love to read about how others garden! We're in zone 10 - Florida USA. I am a suburban homesteader.

    I'm definitely still learning, but have started saving seeds, and only purchase heirloom varieties. I've done lots of reading about companion planting and have been pleased how few pests I've had to deal with in my tomato bed since planting basil, borage, and marigolds with them.

    I have definitely found that soil building is key - even with this first real season of growing. Our soil in SW Florida is so sandy that we have chosen to use raised beds and containers.

    I've always considered myself to have a "black thumb". Still, I am determined to figure this gardening thing out. When something doesn't work, I chalk it up to a learning experience and move on :-)

    Living in an urban area without a fenced yard means my chickens need to stay in their coop/run most of the time. Still, they are giving me wonderful compost material :-) A few days ago we finally got our first eggs!

  22. I too would like to be a part of the mentoring/learning. I have been gardening for about 10 years in a small space on our city lot. We grow a variety of vegetable to enhance our spring and summer eating. Just tried canning for the first time last summer after all of your wonderful posts.

    I live in the Pacific Northwest, in a mild climate (7b-8b).

    Thank you for the wonderful blog!


  23. I'd love someone experienced to email back and forth with about my gardening efforts. I'm in Mobile, Alabama, seems that is Zone 8-9, right on the Gulf Coast.

    Thanks Rhonda. You're a gem and I love reading what you write every day.

  24. Rhonda,
    I would like to make the dog food
    per your recipe. But is mince the same as hamburger in the USA?

  25. One thing you said a while back caught in me. You said there are times you can't use all that is in the garden or something gets beyond use. You give it to the crooks...not to worry and go crazy trying to can or preserve or use every scrap.Just do the best you can. I had felt so guilty when some of the berries did not get picked or such. That statement stopped me from being a perfectionist. I thought I was near the only one who did not always use it all up etc!! Jody

  26. Does anyone have any ideas on how to rid a garden of ants. I know some are fine but mine bring in aphids every year and then my squash and canalopes and such get ruined. I wash off or squish all the aphids I can see but they always get ahead of me. I have raised beds. I tried vinigar in the holes I could find but that did not seem to work. Thankyou. Jody

  27. About Cats in the garden as Christine asked about....Path to Freedom uses large holed wire {6" x6"?} over the top of their raised beds when they plant...when the plants get growing they take the wire off. Each of the wire thingies is the size of the top of the bed. I saw it somewhere on their blog. They too have problems with cats and this has kept them from digging and they said by the time the plants are bigger the cats do not bother the crops. Jody

  28. I started my latest vegie garden when I moved in here in September 2006 - best thing I did was join Diggers seeds - a wonderful resource for heritage seeds and plants - you will be amazed at the different varieties. ALso realised early on that I needed to do it slowly, only plant a few things and gradually build it up - start with easy stuff - here in Victoria silverbeet, sugar snap peas, tomatoes, spuds, spring onions - added in zucchinis, pumpkins, brocolli, celery, leeks and strawberries last year. Adding raspberries and I don't know what, AND getting the sweetcorn in on time this year. I don't let the chooks in the vegie patch, they eat and or dig up nearly everything, but I plan on building a lil duckhouse (and two bantam ducks) soon as I get my power drill cos I understand ducks are a lot gentler on a vegie garden. I dont' stress too much about cabbage moth caterpillars - peel em off and feed em to the chooks - the grrls think I am hero. YOu end up with holes in the leaves but little damage to the broccoli itself. Also realised that somethings work and somethings just don't. Got great results with my garlic the first year and not even half as good the next year - oh well, bought some more heritage garlic this year and planted it near where I had the good crop - fingers crossed for this year. I keep a journal of my gardening - seed raising, planting, harvest, plans, take lots of photos with my digital camera, both of the things that I grow and all the little friends that turn up - birds and frogs and ladybugs - oh and the cabbage moths too. Reveiewing previous years notes provide some good reminders. I always check the throw outs at the garden stores - often get punnets of seedlings, a bit wonky or slightly dried out, for a dollar or so - pretty cheap for 6 bok choy plants or a dozen chives or onions. I have a couple fo garden mentors too just to check things out with, amazing how quickly those relationships become mutual

  29. Hi Karyn,

    I also like my chooks to be able free range - cheaper (and much healthier!) if they can feed themselves, but not if it is in your vegie garden!

    We got around this problem by fencing in the vegie garden with netting about a metre high, and clipping ONE wing on each chook. Light breeds may still be able to get over this height, but the one chicken we have who is capable of this stayed out once we had shooed her out a couple of times.

    The wing will need doing on a regular basis as they do grow back.

    Rhonda, I particularly liked your comment on things never being perfect :o) As I get older I get better at going with the flow, and managed to be quite calm and peaceful when replanting about 40 tagasaste (tree lucerne) seedlings the calves had pulled out! Little beggars zipped under the electric fence on the last day in that particular paddock, having been in there for about a week already - oh well, I guess that's life :o)

  30. Hi, Rhonda...I grew up on a farm, with acres of gardens, but of course I didn't fully appreciate until many years later all the knowledge about growing things my parents had.

    We've gardened for years (Zone 4, Vermont USA), but have built our first raised beds this year and are finding it a whole new thing to garden this way. This year will be experimental for us, and we can't wait to see if our yields are improved by using the raised beds.

    Thank you so much for all the work you put into your blog. I've learned a lot here.


  31. Hi Rhonda,
    I love gardening and would gladly share any knowledge that I have with someone who is interested. I am in the Tamworth area of NSW so our climate ranges from snow and frosts in winter to blistering dry heat in summer.
    My email is sunnycorner2340 at yahoo dot com dot au
    Happy gardening

  32. I wanted to read through some of your archives and can't find them??? Did I miss something??? Maybe you aren't posting them anymore because they will be part of your book perhaps...

  33. I'll be back tomorrow to link our gardeners up. Thanks to all the mentors who have offered their help.

    Laura, the archives have been moved to the bottom of the page.

  34. Been vegie gardening as an adult (I did as a child too) for about 10 years in Western Sydney, and happy to mentor. I also have a chook dome and would recommend it to Karyn. (See my blog for details.)

    Julia, some fungal diseases are just a sign of a plant's life ending. I have powdery mildew on my pumpkin vines for this reason. Other fungal problems do require treatment, but in general, healthy plants will resist fungi.

  35. what happened to the picture of your sight it seem you have cut back on the photos now that your blog is bigger. is it going to loose your personel touch please don't.you have more advert. that your simple day to day picture everyone loves?????why the change

  36. Hey! I'm a novice up in Canada...I don't know what zone I'm in, but the winter months are FREEZING, Spring is usually cool, and summer very humid, lasting from the end of May till the end of September. Thanks for the post! I'm really hoping to have a nice garden someday! :D

  37. Thanks for the cat solution. I was thinking of doing something similar in fashion, but I was curious if the cats would harm the crops after they got bigger. Glad to know they probably will not!

  38. Jody ask about ants in the garden...use cornmeal, just place a small hill of it near the anthills and they carry it back home to eat. They can not digest the meal. It will rid you of the ants and it will not harm your children or pets.

  39. Diatomaceous Earth for the nematodes.
    Natural ant killer too. Added to the soil when planting will protect root veggies especially.
    It is a powdery dust. Under a microscope it looks like little shards of glass. The insects die off from it. Non poison. It also helps to build the soil

  40. Thankyou for the ideas on what to do about ants. I do have a question about the diatomeceous earth. Should I only use the food grade type...not the pool filter type? Seems I should as it will be in with the veggies. Anyone know where to get this type...would feed stores have it? One problem I have is some of the ants nests are actually in my neighbors yard. The ants come to my yard cause I water and have such nice plants!! :) Jody

  41. What a wonderful post, and what perfect timing! I have just started my very first vegetable garden - a winter garden! It has cabbage, cauli, spinach, onion, carrot and parsley. So far all is well. I think! I'm very, very much a novice, but I am enjoying it. I've no idea what zone I'm in the northern Flinders Ranges, South Australia, and think I'm a zone 4 - JUST! :)

  42. What a beautiful home you have!
    Thanks for sharing your tips and pictures.


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