How to Grow a Successful Garden that You Can Eat All Year Long (almost)
Having a successful garden isn’t hard. I know several people who claim they don’t have “green” thumbs and can’t grow food to save their lives. I’m not so willing to accept their self-proclamations of doom. I believe that anyone can grow their own food. I think anyone can do it and it can be done most places (as long as there is a cooperative climate).
There are a few things you’ll need to do right in order to be successful.
Here’s my Top 7 Tips for a Successful Garden:
TIP #1 for a Successful Garden: Start with Good Soil
This was my nemesis when I began gardening. Kentucky soil is one of two categories – lush, dark and fertile OR miserable, red, clay.
Unfortunately, my neck of the woods was almost completely clay. Clay is an oxymoron of sorts. It is either in the form of concrete or soup. I’m not kidding. When it is dry it is as hard as cement. When it’s wet it is practically liquid. On the dog days of summer when it hasn’t rained in weeks that clay is so hard you need a jack-hammer to bust through it.
I know all about this.
We tried to use a post-hole digger to go through Kentucky clay last summer. We dug. We added water. We waited. We dug some more. Guess what? No holes. We had to wait until the following spring (yeah, last week) when the ground was once again workable. That’s how hard clay is.
On the other hand, when the world is soaking wet and it’s raining every day that same exact clay turns into soup. Not squishy dirt. Not muddy soil. It is a liquid, snotty, soupy cesspool. You can’t walk in it. You can’t dig in it. You can’t plant in it. So frustrating.
I managed to transform this clay-nightmare into some great garden soil. Really.
Greensand, manure and compost
And most of it was free.
Start with the greensand, I had to pay for it. I picked some up at a local gardening store. Sprinkle it right on that hard clay.
Next, add a layer of manure. Just ask someone who has animals if you can muck out the stalls or clean out the barn or scoop a field/ pasture. They’ll probably kiss you on the mouth.
They benefit because they won’t have to do the dreaded chore & you’ll benefit because you’ll get to keep all that glorious manure & muck.
Once the greensand & manure is down, just spread some compost on top. You can make this yourself, buy it, or go to a recycling center and get a truckload for free. It’s amazing what you can find if you look.
We have a recycling center here in my area that gives away some of the most beautiful stuff you’ve ever seen. They call it mulch, but it is far more than that. Contractors dump organic matter there. Trees, bushes, landscaping, root balls, wood chips, etc. Anything they have in the back of a truck that is organic that needs to be dumped somewhere – it is dumped there.
The folks at the recycling center then obliterate it into perfect garden topping. The place is covered in enormous piles of their homemade, beautiful, nutrient-rich, shredded shrubbery. Here in Kentucky, you just have to show up with a truck and they’ll fill it for free.
Once you have the greensand, manure & compost in your beds, the worms will do the rest. No, I’ve never bought worms or relocated them. If you have good soil, the worms will come. If you don’t have good soil, even if you bring in worms they will leave.
TIP #2 for a Successful Garden: Variety
Reason for Variety #1:
Growing a large variety will offer palate change, food diversity and interesting new dishes at mealtimes. It will provide a more comprehensive diet nutritionally since different foods contribute different things to our health.
Reason for Variety #2:
Planting lots of different veggies will also ensure you have something to eat even if you have a crop failure (or several).
If you grow nothing but tomatoes and onions, and the blight takes your tomato crop and a wet summer rots your onions – you’re gonna wish you had grown something else. These types of failures happens to us all. Even the best gardeners have those years when the squash bugs descend and destroy or a rainy summer takes down your tomatoes (tomatoes don’t like too much water).
If you have a nice variety of plants growing, chances are, something’s gonna do well. You’ve got luck and numbers on your side.
Reason for Variety #3:
By planting a larger variety of crops you also may discover some plants that grow well and easily in your area.
Reason for Variety #4:
You’ll probably eat new foods. There are so many foods that my children NEVER ate until we grew them ourselves. There are also many heirloom plants for sale in seed packets that are rarely found at the supermarket. Growing a variety of foods will allow you to bring ancient veggies back on you plate. You may also find that you really enjoy eating a vegetable fresh-picked that you’ve never enjoyed before.
TIP #3 for a Successful Garden: Start Early
The sooner you get your plants in the ground, the sooner you’ll be eating your yard. As soon as the ground is workable, get those crops in the ground.
Planting in March and April means you’ll be eating from your garden in May. If you don’t start planting until May you won’t have any food until June or July. Many plants can be grown while the nights are still frosty like: kale, lettuces, beets, radishes, peas, and anything in the cucurbit family.
Radishes are a fun, fantastic root crop because you can begin to harvest them just 4 weeks after sowing the seeds in the garden.
Remember, don’t skimp on the crops – the more the merrier. Get them in early and plant plenty to eat.
TIP #4 for a Successful Garden: Succession Planting
To get the most food out of a limited space, succession planting is key. I think I have been able to get loads of food from a small space because I am a nut for succession planting. I never leave a bed empty. Never. If it’s not winter and I have open garden real estate – it’s growing me food.
Succession planting is easy.
Whenever you harvest a crop (like your spring broccoli, lettuce, peas, onions and garlic), immediately plant a second crop in that space (like squash, tomatoes, cucumbers or beans). Then when those crops are harvested in late summer plant more crops for a fall harvest (like: cabbage, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts).
If you want to get really technical and rotate crops so that your soil is nurtured, this too can be accomplished with succession planting. But that is for another article. For now, just keep planting.
TIP #5 for a Successful Garden: Consider Height
Think about where the sun shines on your garden & plant accordingly. You don’t want your tallest plants casting shade on your shortest plants. For vegetables to do their best they need as much sunlight as possible. In order to give the shorter plants plenty of sun, plant sweet corn and other tall plants on the north or west side of the garden so they won’t shade everything else.
Taller plants include the obvious ones like corn and tomatoes but also can include cucumbers and small gourds if you grow them on trellises.
TIP #6 for a Successful Garden: Make it Fun!
One of the most enjoyable parts of my garden is the beauty. Really, I LOVE to look at my garden. I like to stroll through it. I like to walk friends and family along the paths & show them what I’m growing. I even like sitting on my back porch and watching it from afar.
I think one of the reasons I find such pleasure in my garden is because I think it’s beautiful.
A vegetable garden doesn’t have to a barren, empty, patch of dirt in your yard. You can add interest and beauty with trellises, raised beds, pots and even flowers.
Many flowers make great companions to vegetables. Marigolds keep the insects away from the tomatoes. Nasturtiums keep the squash bugs off the gourds.
Anyone can have a beautiful garden. It certainly isn’t necessary. A garden will give you glorious free food all year no matter what it looks like, but the pretty ones are my favorites.
TIP # 7 for a Successful Garden: Plan to Work
There are some tricks and tips that will keep your weeding and watering down to a minimum, but you are going to have to get out in your garden and work.
Mulching will stop most weeds and hold in moisture. Raised beds will prevent you from needing to weed your walking paths. A rainy forecast will nurture your plants so you don’t have to water…
BUT there is still going to be work to do.
- tying up tomato plants
- harvesting vegetables regularly
- pulling up plants and replanting the space (remember succession planting)
- hilling up potatoes (or covering them with straw)
- and even using organic methods to prevent bugs and diseases
Plan to visit your garden at least 2 times a week. This will allow you to know what is going on and stay on top of problems.
Weeding is easy when the weeds are small. The squash don’t get too big if you harvest them regularly. Bugs can be defeated if you get on top of them before they start raising families.
The good news is that working in a garden can be a pleasure. It is also wonderful exercise. Lastly, it will be well worth the work you put in when you eat all that food year round!
What did I leave out? Share your favorite gardening tips in the comments below…