It’s the beginning of February. A warm spell has brought temperatures in the 40’s, and it’s raining. Even though here in southern Michigan, it feels as if we were cheated out of our average snow-filled winter, spring will be here soon. Rainy weather and warms days are sure to spike that urge in gardeners everywhere to start getting their hands dirty. For those who are new to the hobby, the task of planning and starting your garden can be overwhelming and daunting. What do I grow? How do I grow it? Where will I put it? A lot of the guesswork can be taken care of with some thoughtful planning. It’s a learning process but a very rewarding one. So slow down and try to take it one season at a time.
Start small, start simple
You’re new at this. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many plants demanding your attention. You’re creating new life, each of which has similar basic needs, but are also a little different in their own way. Start small. Instead of stressing yourself out trying to figure out all the individual needs of a bunch of various plants, keep it small and straightforward. Maybe try an herb garden for your first season. Then the next year, consider adding some low-maintenance leafy greens. After that, give it a go at some tomatoes. You get the point.
Work with your environment, not against it
There are things you must take into consideration before deciding what to grow. How much light do you have? What is your soil like? How much space do you have available? Ideally, you should have a good idea of where the direct sun is during the SUMMER. Sometimes people don’t realize that the line of direct sunlight is a little different in mid-summer than it is during the planning phase. Yes, most sun will still be south facing, but you might find that you have more spots with the direct sun than you initially thought once summer comes and the sun is higher. Are deer an issue in your area? Look for deer-resistant plants for your landscape. If you’re limited on good soil, consider pot-friendly patio plants or raised beds that can be quickly filled with good soil. Do not try to fight nature. You will lose and end up frustrated. All these things bring me to my next point.
Grow what you CAN, not what you WANT
My first try at something other than herbs or leafy greens was a somber one. I wanted to grow tomatoes so bad, that despite the “full sun” indication, I thought the part sun would suffice. Couldn’t be further from the truth. We had a large maple tree in our small backyard. I’ve never had such a love/hate relationship with a living being. The shade it provided kept our house remarkably cool, and one year we tapped it. It produced some excellent maple syrup (a process worth going over in a future article). However, it was this same tree that caused the demise of my sad tomato plants. I tried to pay attention to whether the dirt got dried out, and that was about it. I think we got a yield of about six small Roma tomatoes out of four plants. See how I also didn’t work with my environment there? So yeah, it grew, but it was far from thriving and not exactly worth the effort. The point is to have realistic expectations for your growing conditions. Don’t spend months trying to get a watermelon when you only have the space or sun for kale. You will end up annoyed and irritated in the end. Try again next year and take this as a lesson learned.
When space is limited, grow what you use most
Fast-forward a couple of years to my second try at tomatoes. I planted them in a less ideal location as it was much smaller and less visually appealing but provided us with 8+ hours of full sun. We had an area with full sun, albeit a small one. Many vegetables require full sun, and I figured I’ll be damned if I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too. Plants need space, though. You cannot treat your garden like your catch-all drawer; an area that seems suitable for everything until it’s bursting at the seams. Plants need space for roots, proper airflow, room to grow, and to prevent shading other plants. Think about what you eat most, figure out the needs of said plants, and work with that. Depending on the space requirements, you may decide to omit certain space-suckers. Produce like melons and squash require a lot of room, whereas carrots require little spacing.
Another thing you can do is elevate to alleviate. With some creativity, you can grow many things vertically to maximize your yield. Plant stands, hanging options, and vining plants trained to go up can make the most use of your space.
There is no shame in buying plants already started
Germinating seeds and tending to delicate seedlings can be the most challenging part of the growing process. Yes, we all want 100% organically grown seedlings that we fertilized with our own free-range chicken poop. We dream that our precious and always obedient cherubs happily tend to our wholesome gardens. However, for us normal people, that’s just not practical. For whatever reason, I felt like I was cheating a bit by buying already started plants. Again, doing everything at once can be overwhelming. By buying already started seeds, you are likely to find healthy plants, save yourself time, and take out the guesswork or research that goes into starting seeds. Depending on where you live, a lot of plants require being started indoors to ensure that they are large enough by harvest time. Then there’s knowing when to start them. Controlling the soil temperature with a heating mat or system can be useful here (we’ll show you how to make your own later). You must also ensure the soil stays moist during germination. Then you have to find a suitable location. Some plants are more cold-hardy and can quickly be started outdoors, but many won’t germinate without warmer soil conditions. Then there is the process of hardening them off (this means gradually getting the plants acclimated to the outdoor environment). Seedlings started indoors aren’t used to wind, sun, and the temperature fluctuations that the outdoors bring. If you don’t think you’re ready to tackle all of that, then buying already started plants might be best for you.
There is a lot to learn, and you will continue to learn something new every year. Don’t be overwhelmed by it all. Just get started. Practice patience, go easy on yourself, and enjoy the rewards of your hard-work.