You Can Do It! First-Time Vegetable Gardening for the Black-Thumbed

Some of you may feel like no matter what you try to grow, it dies. Too much water, not enough water, too much sun, too much shade, or… it just dies for no reason at all. This has been my experience with gardening for a long time, and when I tried to grow a vegetable garden for a few years in a row, it was a total disaster. I fought a never-ending battle with weeds — and lost. Bugs ate more vegetables than I did those summers, and "working in the garden" involved lots of standing and squinting, hands on hips, uttering curse words under my breath. Cut to the past two summers — minimal weedings, efficient worry-free watering, easy pest control… and a picturesque bounty of gorgeous vegetables! Here are ten things I learned.

1. Start small. My first vegetable garden was probably five times bigger than it should have been. I started with way too much space (read: more opportunities for weeds to creep in) and way too many plants. If this is your first garden, start with a small plot and it becomes much less intimidating. Once you have a winning season, you can be a little more adventurous with next year's plans.

2. Get a major head-start on weeds with a raised bed. Again, my first garden — we tilled up the soil, planted, and weeds seemed to sprout up before our very eyes. With a raised bed, you not only get excellent drainage and can control your soil quality, you can make weeding so much easier (and have to weed much less often.) My weeding experience went from hours kneeling on hard earth, tugging and cussing tough-rooted plants out of the ground, to casual weed-flicking; now I just gently tug weeds out of the raised bed every now and then when I spot them.

Sunset has an excellent tutorial on building a raised bed; the final project is about 8' x 4' and costs about $175 to build yourself.

3. Know the basics. Be familiar with the basics of what you're growing, including sun requirements (most likely, your veggies will need full sun), when to plant, and what kind of soil and fertilizer to fill your bed with. There are lots of resources online to help you plan your garden; read about planning your first vegetable garden in this article from Better Homes and Gardens.

4. Know which vegetables will grow easily in your area, and which ones won't. Let's take another look at my disastrous garden; we were determined to grow broccoli even though our next-door neighbor (a very experienced farmer) told us he never has been able to grow it in our area and that it was tough to cultivate. Prepare yourselves for this shocker: it didn't grow. Well, it did grow, but it was not successful, in spite of our efforts to support it.

For your first garden, get some easy wins; get some advice from locals on what works, and stick with that! You can always start branching out next year.

5. Keep your garden close to you. One of the (many!) disadvantages of our first garden was the distance from our home, not only for watering purposes (see #6!), but just in convenience and familiarity. Our new little garden is a part of our yard; we tend it frequently because we see it all the time. While kids are playing, while guests are milling around, we are always attentive to our plants because we are so familiar with their growth and progress. Likewise, weeds don't stand a chance because we see them before they get a stronghold, and we pull one or two here or there as they pop up.

6. Have a watering plan. There's no doubt about it, for a garden to be successful, it has to be amply watered. And to be amply watered, water needs to be available — seems obvious enough, right? Now, this doesn't do credit to our intelligence and foresight, but as I mentioned, we put our first garden plot quite a distance from our house and water source. I'm talking multiple tens of yards. Not only did we have to buy a ridiculously long hose, we had to deal with poor water pressure, more area to spring leaks, and lots of walking back and forth to turn the water on and off. It was not enjoyable, and our garden didn't get watered nearly as much as it should have.

Now that our little raised bed is next to our patio, just a few mere feet from our outdoor spigot, we have a simple, easy-to-keep-up-with watering plan. We could (and sometimes do) water manually every morning, but we've also set ourselves up with the option of watering from underneath the soil by burying a soaker hose before we planted. This method of watering is more efficient and helps plants retain more moisture.

Read about irrigating with soaker hoses in this article from Popular Mechanics.

7. Not all bugs are bad. Most people know ladybugs eat aphids and other pests, but did you know there is a certain kind of wasp that kills hornworm caterpillars? It's worth your time to quickly become familiar with which crawly things are pests and which are worth keeping around.

Here are some tips on attracting beneficial insects, from finegardening.com.

8. Become familiar with natural pest control. There are several things you can do to avoid having to douse your plants in poison (although, admit it — it would be so satisfying to violently eradicate all those bugs that are gorging themselves on your food!). We grow lots of hot peppers and garlic because we enjoy them, but we've also found that planting them around our other crops helps keep some pests away as well. There are other things you can do, too — this article on natural pest control from eartheasy lists preventative measures you can take, as well as gentle methods for controlling specific pest problems.

9. Don't forget pots. We eventually relocated some of our plants that were in our raised beds to pots around our patio — herbs, garlic, and strawberries were put in pots around our patio furniture, and we were able to reclaim some space in our small bed (as well as add some green and variety to our lounging area!)

Read about growing vegetables in pots and planters in this helpful article from Gardener's Supply Company.

10. Sometimes things just don't work out. After several years in our new garden, we got used to a bumper crop of cucumbers every year. And just like that, one year … no cukes. We got several measly, sad little guys, but that was about it. And I'm sure we could have gotten to the bottom of it — there has to be a solid reason why one year our crop failed — but for us, it was easier to just shrug, call it a loss, and enjoy the rest of our veggies for the summer. Don't be hard on yourself if something fails.

Above all, realize it's a learning process — our garden-savvy older neighbors have consoled me many times with the advice that every year you learn something new; don't expect to come out of the gates a gardening whiz! Just enjoy the process, and the literal fruits of your effort — and give yourself just another reason to look forward to summer!

MORE GARDENING ON APARTMENT THERAPY:
Spring is Coming: 6 Gardening Apps
Notes On Starting A Vegetable Garden
The Indoor Vegetable Garden

Originally posted April 6, 2012

(Image: Shutterstock/Jodie Richelle)