Gardening, the process of growing one’s own food, is arguably one of the oldest human activities. Conservative estimates state that the earliest traces of gardening activity show up around seven thousand years ago, while other evidence suggests that our most primitive ancestors began simple gardening to supplement their hunting and foraging much further back. No matter which theory you choose to believe, there is no question that gardening is an activity that has long been ingrained in our souls. Considering our longstanding history with gardening, it appears it is something that should come easily and naturally, but many of us feel a little intimidated at the idea of planting our own gardens. You may have been born with a natural green thumb, or you may have a few insecurities built up around your ability to sustain any type of plant life. The good news is that it is possible to plant and nourish your very own organic garden regardless of your limits in the departments of ability, time and available space.
Before diving into some tips for starting your organic vegetable garden, I feel that it is worth a few minutes of time to talk a little bit about why you should be interested in gardening in the first place. Gardening, digging your hands into the earth and then enjoying, the fruits of your labor boasts some serious positive benefits for your body and spirit, including:
- You get all the benefits of a healthier diet. Whether you eat it fresh, or opt for freezing and canning, gardening is going to encourage healthier eating habits and a greater diversity of fresh foods. You are more likely to prepare fresh meals and eat at home when your food source is your own back yard.
- Gardening is good for your heart. Gardening is good physical exercise and chances are that if you are out in your garden, you are going to spend at least thirty minutes engaging in quality low impact exercise. Gardens can be built in containers or on raised beds to accommodate people with back and joint problems. It is well known that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to an increased risk of heart disease, and gardening is healthy, enjoyable way to lower that risk. Additionally, research shows that people who are deficient in vitamin D are also at a greater risk of heart disease. Spending thirty minutes a day out in the glorious sunshine with your garden can help boost your levels of vitamin D.
- Speaking of the benefits of vitamin D, the extra daily dose that you get from gardening helps to build a stronger immune system. Gardening also helps to build up your immune system in another unique way. When you are digging in the earth, you are going to encounter some friendly bacteria by the name of Mycobacterium vaccae. Exposure to these bacteria has been shown to help regulate an improperly functioning immune system and ease symptoms of arthritis, allergies and inflammatory skin conditions.
- Gardening is good for your mental health. While you are out there digging, planting and tending to your garden, you are doing more than just exercising your body; you are also helping to lower your levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Lower levels of cortisol are connected to better memory function, improved sense of self-esteem, and lessened feelings of anxiety and depression.
- Gardening builds community. People who garden are generally more involved in their neighborhoods and communities. While you are out tending to your garden, you have more opportunity to get involved in conversation with your neighbors and notice the small details of daily neighborhood activities. You can also join a community garden and form friendships with likeminded people while bonding over your shared gardening experience. Growing your own fruits and vegetables opens you up to the reality that we are all connected on a deeper, more meaningful level.
I could go on and on, talking about the benefits of gardening, however, just talking about why it is so wonderful is not enough to make it happen. What you need is some simple, practical advice for starting your own organic garden. Even if you were born with a thumb that doesn’t resemble any shade of green, these tips will help you see that with the right mindset and the right approach, gardening is simple, enjoyable and far from intimidating. Here are ten easy to follow steps for planting and tending to your very own organic vegetable garden.
1. Plan and Start Small
Before you put your hands in the earth, it is important to have some type of game plan of what you want to plant and how you envision it all coming together. The first thing you want to look at is your local climate. Gardening gives you a natural opportunity to eat seasonally by planting and harvesting the foods that grow best in your local environment during the current growing season. Also consider the limits of what you are working with. Do you have limited sunlight? Are you planning on planting in containers rather than in a ground garden? How much fresh produce can your reasonably consume, preserve or give away? These are all important questions to ask yourself before you get started.
Also, a common new gardener mistake is to be overzealous in your ambitions. If you are new to gardening, start small, and start with plants that are easy to grow. It is best to start off with five or fewer plants that are easy to tend to rather than dive into the deep end with a large garden of possibly hundreds of plants. Depending on what area you live in, you can add plants as the season progresses, giving you a chance to grow your garden as your skill and confidence grows along with it. See the list at the end of this article of easy to grow garden plants that are perfect for beginners.
2. Consider Vertical Space
Being limited in terms of space is no reason to not explore your gardening passion. Urban gardening has become a hot trend, proving that you don’t even need a yard of your own to produce a bounty of fresh produce. Trellises can be used to train plants to grow upwards rather than outwards, and are perfect for gardening in small spaces such as patios and balconies. Vertical planting is especially useful for plants that require support and those that grow on outward stretching vines. Examples of plants that make good use of vertical space include tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, melons, squash and smaller varieties of pumpkin. If you are short on space, also look at plants that can be planted overhead in hanging baskets, such as herbs and hot peppers.
3. Choose your Plants
There are a few things that you want to consider when deciding on plants for your garden, especially if it is your first time. Of course, there are basics like choosing plants that will thrive in your climate and soil conditions. However, there is more that you might wish to consider. For instance, what is the purpose of your garden? Are you looking to develop a new hobby and want to start out with a few super easy plants? Are you looking to reduce your grocery bill? Are you interested in a theme garden such as a “pizza garden”, “salad garden” or even a “pickle garden”?
If you are looking to reduce the amount that you spend at the grocery store, consider which types of fruits and vegetables you enjoy the most. Next, take into consideration how much those particular items cost. For instance, potatoes are relatively inexpensive compared to specialty salad greens. If you enjoy both and have limited space, you will save more money by gardening the costlier produce yourself. Additionally, you want to consider how easy a plant is to grow and care for. If you are new to gardening, plants that are more temperamental and difficult to care for might result in frustration and discouragement.
Most beginning gardeners also find it helpful to visit a gardening center and purchase plants that have already been started rather than starting their own plants from seeds. Try out a few seasons of gardening with pre-purchased plants before taking on the task of starting from seed.
4. Prepare the Soil
By choosing plants that grow well in your area, you already have a great start in making sure that your soil and plants are compatible. Even with that, you want to make sure that your soil is nutrient rich. This doesn’t mean reaching for chemical fertilizers. There are plenty of all natural steps to take to increase the nutrient quality of your soil. You can purchase organic fertilizers such as sea minerals and fish fertilizer, or you can also add compost and other plant based waste material, known as mulch, to your garden soil. Decomposing leaves, damp woodchips and even pine needles are all suitable plant waste that will fertilize your soil. When you begin preparing the ground, or your containers, for planting, dig up the first 2-4 inches of soil and mix in the organic fertilizing material. When it comes time to plant, dig a hole, place a little more fertilizing material in the bottom, followed by a layer of soil then your plant. This helps to build a solid, nourishing foundation for your garden plants.
5. Keep Companions Together
Companion gardening is a method of gardening that keeps plants grouped together based on compatibility. Some plants thrive when put together, while others struggle unnecessarily. The idea is that each plant gives and takes something from the soil that it is planted in. Each plant requires resources to thrive. Companion planting ensures that plants complement each other rather than compete for the same precious resources. Examples of compatible combinations include; asparagus and basil, strawberries and bush beans, broccoli and lettuce, and eggplant and peppers.
6. Pest Control
One of the main benefits of growing your own produce is that you know exactly what is on the food you nourish your body with and you can avoid chemical additives and their toxic effects. Bear in mind, however, one a gardener’s top woes are the invasion of unwanted garden pests. You do not have to reach for chemical pesticides to protect your crop, though. There are natural steps to take that will prevent pests from coming to visit in the first place. One of the most important things you can do is revisit tip number five and look at companion gardening to deter unwanted garden guests.
7. Water and Sunshine
These two ingredients for a successful garden are so basic that it is easy to overlook them, and that is the exact reason that they need to be mentioned. Most garden plants require “direct sunlight,” which translates to anywhere from four to eight hours of direct sun exposure each day. Even plants that thrive in partial shade still need adequate amounts of sunlight, so keep this in mind when choosing the perfect spot for your garden. Additionally, don’t automatically count on mother nature to take care of your garden’s water needs. Check your soil regularly. It should be damp, but not completely saturated. It should not feel dry and sandy. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, so make sure you are aware of the individual needs of each of your plants and choose accordingly.
8. Keeping a Continual Harvest and Planning for the Future
When planting a garden, it is tempting to plant everything and fill up every possible inch of space. This is fine if you are looking for one big harvest, but seasoned gardeners know that you can space out the timing of your plants. For example, you might have some spinach going in your container garden. When your first “crop” of spinach is just about ready for harvest is the perfect time to plant some more. This means that you have a continual stream of the fruits and vegetables that you enjoy the most. This is easiest to do if you have a reputable garden center in your area that supplies healthy plants throughout the growing season rather than starting each one from seed yourself. Additionally, know that for best results you will want to switch out what you grow in your garden every two to three years. This assures that the soil does not become overly depleted in certain nutrients because of needing to support the same type of plant season after season.
9. Keep a Gardening Journal
Starting a garden journal today is the best way to plan for tomorrow’s garden. Make note of what you plant, where you plant it and when you plant it. Then make notes regarding soil quality, what types of natural fertilizers you used and other growing conditions. This will help you trouble shoot and make note of your gardening successes. It is also a great place to write memories of your gardening experience along with jotting down recipes to try once it is time to harvest all your hard work.
Now, with these tips under your gardening belt, it is time to head out and get started. Here is a list of some of the easiest garden plants to grow, perfect for beginning gardeners and for those who want to garden, but need low maintenance plants due to busy schedules and daily life commitments.
Top Plants for Beginners
- Green Beans
- Salad Greens
Don’t let your perceived lack of a green thumb stop you from getting outside and immersing yourself in the world of organic gardening. Gardening is more than a pastime, it is an experience that will provide fuel for your body while healing your spirit and brightening your mood. Fresh air, wholesome food and beautiful sunshine. There are few combinations that are more restorative. Start planning today and a bountiful garden will be your reality tomorrow.