13 Tips for Garden Virgins

Green Horizon, 2010
$16.95 from Amazon.com

Ellen LaConte has been writing about gardening and homesteading most of her adult life and she has some sage advice for virgins — those who want to see things grow and taste the fruit of their labors, but are afraid to give themselves over to the dirt. LaConte says don’t assume lack of space is a deal-breaker like being offered the backseat of a car and don’t worry, honey, learning to garden won’t take but a minute.

“Most of us don’t live on farms,” LaConte says. “Nor do we have spacious, magazine-worthy backyards. (this is true in my case, but feel like she has been peeking over my back fence) And in the case of city-dwellers, we may not have backyards of any type! That’s okay.”

Although she has lived in various places in New England, she now makes her home in the Yadkin River watershed in North Carolina. She served as assistant and special sections editor for Farmstead magazine, a gardening, small-farming and rural living monthly published in Freedom, Maine. Farmstead rode the crest of the back-to-the-land and simple living movements in the 1970s and 80s. These days, back issues of this back-to-the-land icon are hot items on EBay.

In general, LaConte recommends gardening novices start with one of two easy options: the container garden or the raised-bed garden. A quick Internet search will unearth tons of advice, instructions, and details about each. If you’re into upcycling or short on cash, visit garage sales and flea markets for suitable containers. (Don’t forget to poke holes for drainage.) New pots can be costly.

Plenty of people dabble in gardening, of course — from raw beginner to old pro. A 2009 survey by the Garden Writers Association found that 38 percent of Americans grew some of their own vegetables, a number that reflected a growing percentage of under-40s, many of whom dragged or coaxed their kids to get down and dirty, too. And apparently something like 37 percent of food gardeners aim to expand their gardens in coming years. Gardening is like getting a tattoo — every body’s doing it.

“While these aren’t bad numbers, I would rather see that 38 percent reverse itself into 83 percent,” LaConte says. “Growing your own food, brings with it a huge variety of benefits.”

Visit Ellen online at

 Here are some tips from LaConte for beginners:

Raise your bed: A raised-bed garden is one that is built on top of your native soil—in other words, you don’t have to dig into your yard and can build it wherever you want. It can be enclosed by lumber, stone, brick, concrete, or even hay bales, and is filled with whatever type of soil you choose.

Advantages include (but are certainly not limited to): improved accessibility (you don’t need to stoop as far to reach your plants), good drainage, fewer weeds, the ability to plant more densely, and improved soil quality. Also, raised-bed gardens heat up more quickly than the native soil, so you’ll be able to plant sooner and you’ll probably enjoy a higher produce yield. (In hot growing areas of the Southwest and California’s Central Valley this might not be such a good thing!)

Contain yourself! Did you know that almost any vegetable, and quite a few fruits, such as berries, limes, and melons, can be adapted to growing in a pot? It’s true! So even if you’ve got no yard at all, you can still cultivate a container garden on your balcony, patio, or windowsill. (If a ripe casaba breaks loose from its stem and falls from your balcony onto the mailperson, this might not be such a good thing.)

Start small: If you bite off more produce than you can chew, you may become overwhelmed and leave your garden to the not-so-tender mercies of nature. If you’re a newbie, choose just a few easy-to-cultivate vegetables, fruits, and herbs, preferably ones that already feature prominently in your diet. In other words, don’t start with Brussels sprouts. You can let yourself gradually catch the gardening bug from there!

Don’t panic: You’ll find the time. Prospective gardeners may be excited by the idea of growing their own fruits and vegetables but daunted by the scope of the project ahead of them. If you’re wondering where you’re going to find the time to cultivate and harvest plants, take a deep breath. After the initial effort of planting and potting is over, your daily garden chores such as watering and weeding will usually be done in 15 to 30 minutes.

“Grow” easy: The fact is, some types of produce are much hardier and easier to grow than others. Why make your first foray into gardening more difficult than it needs to be by trying to raise plants that are needy? Start with tried-and-true plants like basil, rosemary, blueberries, tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers, for example.

Farm alongside your flowers: Many people whose patios or yards are lively with colorful flowers have never given a second thought to raising produce. If you’re one of them, consider this: You already have the knowledge and skills to care for plants. So why not plant some tomatoes or cilantro along with those zinnias and pansies?

Grow your own “spice rack,” Jack: Many people don’t immediately think of herbs when they hear the word “gardening,” but the truth is that these little plants are generally easy to grow, don’t require much space (think window boxes and small pots), and can really spice up your meals! Plus, with a little advance planning, you can stock your shelf with dried herbs that will last the whole year round.

Pesky pest control: If you are able to grow and harvest your produce with no unwelcome critters taking a bite or two, consider yourself lucky! The fact is, it’s a good idea to have a pesticide plan in place…but you don’t have to risk polluting your yard or harming beneficial insects in the process. For example, hot pepper sprays, garlic, used dishwater, and even some varieties of plants naturally repel insects and animals alike. But be prepared for snails and slugs. They can devour new plants in a New York minute.

Make it a group effort… Nobody ever said that gardening had to be a solitary activity! For example, you might grab a neighbor (or two or three) and share the hoeing, weeding, and watering chores. And when your labors bear fruit, you can share that as well. (Also, it’s worth noting that gardening doesn’t have to be an adults-only activity. It can be a great bonding experience for families, too—working outside is much healthier than playing a video game or watching TV, and your kids will learn quite a bit in the process.)

If you like the idea of enlisting aid in your cultivation efforts but don’t have the desire or space to “host” a garden yourself, research to see if there are any community gardens in your area. They may charge a fee for participation and might feature plots that are collectively gardened or plots that are allotted to individuals. One thing’s for sure, though—you’ll be able to take advantage of the expertise of your fellow gardeners, and you’ll probably make some new friends in the process!

If you need some guidance, find a 4-H club… Maybe you didn’t leave your 4-H days behind with your adolescence after all! The fact is, 4-H offers programs to its members that focus on plant science. Your local club might be able to give you personalized advice on your fledgling gardening endeavor…and you might find a fulfilling volunteering or mentoring opportunity in the process!

Most hardware stores with gardening centers have everything you need to get started—and that doesn’t just include plants and gardening implements (though those are available in spades—pun intended!). Ask employees for advice on everything from which plants grow well in shade to how often to fertilize, and you’ll go home with your questions answered.

If you’ve been thinking about growing some food and give it a try, let us know your project turns out. Leave a comment here at the Word Garden. We’ll be waiting to hear. See you in the garden!

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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