Getting Your Garden Started Strong

It’s that time of year, finally! Spring is right around the corner, and here where I live that means it’s time to start planning our garden. I love deciding what we will plant and where we will plant it. I love prepping old beds and building new ones too. I like watching our fruit bushes and trees slowly come to life, promising cheery pink flowers followed by loads of berries and fruits. We plan our garden based on what our family enjoys most, and we plant the vegetables, herbs, and fruits that will benefit us.


If you caught my fall garden post a few months back, welcome to spring's edition. I'll share my favorite tips for deciding what you'd like to plant, when to plant it, and how to get your tender plant babies off to the best start.


 

How do you decide what to plant?

The two biggest things that will play a role in what you plant will be:

  • What does your family enjoy eating the most?

  • What growing zone are you in?

It makes sense to plant a lot of what your family enjoys most because you'll get the most benefit from that. Our garden is full of peppers and tomatoes, but there will never be an eggplant in sight! Even if you grow more of something than your family can eat while it's fresh, most veggies have several methods of preservation that can keep you in homegrown vegetable goodness even in the dead of winter.

The USDA Zone Map helps you determine what growing zone you’re in, and each plant or seed pack you purchase will include information on whether it will grow in your zone, and when it should be planted. Many varieties are now available for various zones, and more are being developed each year. Knowing your first and last frost dates is important too so that you can decide when to start planning your garden, when to plant your crops, and when to expect to harvest. This tool, while not an exact science, will help you get an idea of these dates. There are also many books you can purchase, with quite a few tailored to a specific region, that offer great advice for gardening in your area. You've decided what to plant, so what next?

You’ll need to prepare your garden beds before you buy seeds or seedlings. First, decide what sort of plot you want. This may largely depend on how much space you have in your yard to devote to your garden. Whatever you choose, make sure the location you picked will offer plenty of sunlight. Most summer veggies need six or more hours each day. You have several options including:

Traditional garden plot: this is the least involved method. You'll simply choose your location and till up the ground in the size of the plot you'd like. This can work great if you have good, soft soil that is easy to work with and that the plants will do well in.


A raised garden bed built with cinder blocks.
An example of our cinder block raised beds.

Raised beds: if you choose raised beds you will simply build a bed in your chosen size. We use cinder blocks, but you can use wood, bricks, or anything else you can build a raised border with.


Our cinder blocks provide beds that are eight inches deep. It is easier to test and control the soil with raised beds. Raised beds will dry out quicker so be sure to water them frequently during dry spells.

Container gardens: just as it sounds, in this method you will grow your plants in large pots. This can be a good option for small porches or balconies, or for those who only want a few plants. You will need fairly large pots for a plant like a tomato to stay healthy all season long. Pots will also dry out quicker than the ground, so you'll want to watch them closely. I like to grow annual herbs in pots to save room in the garden. They're also close to the porch and I have quick access to them when I'm adding them to food I'm cooking.

Herbs in pots.
Some of our herbs in containers.

Once you’ve decided on what type of bed to use, you’ll need to prepare it. Test your soil with a test kit (available at any place you’d buy plants) and add any recommended amendments. This site has information about why soil testing matters and how to do it. The page also includes information and links to amendments you may need depending on the results of your soil test.


If you choose to build raised beds or use container gardens, you’ll likely be buying bags of soil, in which case testing won’t be quite as important the first season (though you’ll still want to do it the following years to ensure things are in good shape). You will want to buy your supplies including raised bed materials, soil amendments, soil, seeds/seedlings, seed starting materials (discussed below), and/or flowerpots for container gardening. Having everything on hand will make the process easier and quicker.

Creating your bed:

For this article, I am going to discuss building raised beds since that is what we have and what I’m most familiar with. These are easy to build and maintain and they work well if you have hard soil like clay or really sandy soil. First, determine what size you want your bed to be and build your perimeter with your chosen material. Build it up to your desired height, usually around six to twelve inches deep.


A garden bed made with landscaping timbers.
One of our original beds, made with landscaping timbers.

Till up the ground inside your bed to loosen the dirt and remove all the grass and weeds, then fill in the bed with bagged soil. We use organic gardening soil and add in some compost. Smooth it out and moisten the soil. Your bed is now ready and you can plant immediately if you’ve bought seedlings (and the timing is right), or you can let it sit if it’s not quite time or you will be starting your plants from seeds.

Seeds or seedlings: that is the question.

Seeds are generally cheaper than seedlings and there are many more varieties available, but they require some planning ahead. Seedlings are ready to go into the ground as soon as you bring them home, so you’ll want to be certain you’re past your last frost and they’ll be safe when you plant them. If you get seedlings, choose healthy ones that are bright green and well-established. If they look droopy or pale and yellow, they’re probably not healthy.


If you choose to start seeds, you’ll need some basic equipment, including:

Containers to plant seeds in- small (3- or 4-inch) pots or nursery flats are options. You can choose plastic or biodegradable pots. I have used both. The biodegradable pots work okay, but you can't write on them because it washes off when you water them. This can make remembering what's what tricky. This year I actually used plastic cups that I can keep and reuse next season. More on that in my upcoming seed starting post.


Seed starting mix- this is made specially to start seeds, and regular potting soil won’t work as well. I always choose an organic option as we grow all our crops organically.

Greenhouse or bright place in your home to keep your sensitive babies. There are many options for greenhouses, and prices range from around $25 to thousands of dollars. The one we have was less than $100. We got in online and it survived a tropical storm that took out both our apple trees that were planted about five feet from it.


Of course, you will also your seeds.

Starting seeds is easy and only requires a few simple steps. I will be writing a post dedicated solely to starting seeds sometime this coming week, so be on the lookout for that!


 

Now that you know all the basics to plan a garden, decide what to grow, build your bed, and how to start your seeds, aren't you ready to jump right in there and get your hands dirty?! Believe me, I have not always been great at gardening. But I realize after gardening regularly for five years now that I get better at it each year, and each year I learn new things. Many things you can’t control and Mother Nature may foil your best-laid plans. More than likely, though, you’ll end up with a wonderful homegrown harvest. You’ll never know if you don’t try. Happy gardening!

Do you have a preferred method of gardening or any tips you’d like to share with our readers? If so, please tell us about them in the comments!

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