Preparing a First Garden

  • Post published:03/04/2009
  • Post comments:3 Comments


          With chatter about the bad economic conditions continuing unabated, many people are thinking about the ways a vegetable garden can save them money.  I’m always a little leery about this motivation, especially the first year of a garden’s life when there may be necessary capital expenses for tools and soil improvement, but I would never discourage anyone from planting a vegetablegarden and discovering the unexpected pleasures there.

            I do have some advice for those who are thinking about planting some vegetables. First, consider where your garden can be located so that it will have at last six hours of sun a day, and where you can provide watering when necessary.  Sun and adequate water are the two basic necessities of a healthy and productive garden.

            Keep the garden small. You can grow a lot for one or two people in a small area. You will also keep from being overwhelmed with weeds and chores, and even the harvest if you limit the size.  I’ve heard people talk about how much you can grow in a 100 square foot garden.  I’d agree if it were clear that we are talking about 100 square feet of planting beds.  Don’t forget to allow room for paths.  And you might want to allow those paths to be wide enough to accommodate a wheelbarrow.

            There are tricks to making the best use of a small garden.  One is to interplant an early crop with a later one.  For example, you should plant your Brussels sprout plants 18 to 24 inches apart because they will take up a lot of space as they mature. While they are maturing you can grow early heads of butterhead lettuce or spinach in some of that space. These will have been harvested by the time the Brussels sprouts need the room.

            I also recommend planting in blocks rather than rows. This cuts down on the amount of space devoted to paths.

            Another way of conserving space is to grow UP.  Peas, pole beans, cucumbers and tomatoes are all plants that can grow up a fence or be tied to a fence post.  This means the fence you might need to keep out dogs and children can do double duty.

            Once the garden has been laid out, the soil must be cultivated. Or not.  Rototilling the garden plot is a standard way of preparing for a garden, but while the soil will be prepared for planting, a single rototilling session will not have eliminated all grass and weed roots and seeds.

            If you choose to rototill, this is the time to add organic material, compost and rotted manure.  If you don’t already have a compost pile, make a start.  Fortunately, in our area we can buy excellent compost from Martin’s Farm or Bear Path Farm.  This is money well spent because we must remember that the success of a sustainable garden depends on feeding the soil not the plant.  A helping of 5-10-5 fertilizer will give you the three essentials, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, but not any of the essential trace elements, nor will it encourage the vital microbial life of the soil.

            There is an alternative to rototilling or digging. The no-till method described as ‘lasagna gardening’ has been gaining favor.  I’ve  used it to enlarge my vegetable garden.

            To prepare a no-till garden, the site must be mown down to the ground, as low as possible. Water the area. Then spread compost or manure over the soil. Water again. I used chicken house cleanings, but commercial compost or manure from a dairy or horse barn can be used. Then cover the compost or manure with cardboard, making sure that the edges are well overlapped.  I was able to get my cardboard from the Transfer Station and the town was very happy not to have to pay to have it taken away. Water again.

            Finally, cover the cardboard with compost, or compost and loam.  Your planting bed is ready.

            When your space is limited it is wise to plant the vegetables you most like to eat, or choose those that are most delicious when they are just picked such as peas, lettuce and tomatoes.

            Mulch your paths with cardboard or several layers of newspaper topped with straw (which has no seeds) or wood chips.

            Books that are helpful to the new gardener are The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch and Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens – No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding! By Patricia Lanza.

            Better than a book, is an experienced gardener who can advise and encourage. Ted Watt, a naturalist and educator at the Hitchcock Center and his friend Zoe Gardner, a graduate student at the Umass department of Soil and Plant Science are giving three free talks about starting a garden at Greenfields Market on Main Street on March 8, 15 and 22 at 1 pm.  They will also pair up new Greenfield gardeners with an experienced gardener. These mentors are all volunteers so there is no cost. For the moment, however, only Greenfield volunteers are available. The hope is to expand the program next year. Call Ted at 774-5393 or Zoe at 773-1634 for more information.

            In addition, the Master Gardeners of Western Massachusetts will be holding their annual Spring Symposium at Frontier High School from 9-2 on Saturday, March 21. There will be more information and encouragement.  Logon to or call 413-625-0168 for more information. ### 

February 28, 2009

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Frances

    Hi Pat, what a good explanation of getting started. I have been working up in the veggie patch, waiting for the soil to thaw, setting up wire houses covered with frost cloth to place the seedlings in until the weather warms. Squirrels, cats and rabbits are constantly digging and fooling around up there. Chicken wire, metal and plastic with frost cloth over it is this year’s defense mechanism. Oh to have a watch robot to shoo them away! HA

  2. admin

    Frances, I am so jealous that you can be working out in the veggie patch – even if things aren’t quite thawed.

  3. M. D. Vaden

    Currently, I support lasagna gardening more so with just mulch, and not with the cardboard if local recycling is available. When paper products are not recycled, it triggers more energy consumption, tree cutting and water use to make new product. Seriously. It was new news to me when I first started to research. Not long ago, I uploaded a new page about that modern twist on the practice. Depends on where the garden is located. No-till is a great option though in many cases.

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