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5 tips for starting your own backyard garden

My oldest daughter will turn 12 this June, which means I have officially been planting vegetable gardens for more than a decade. I know this because when I went into labor with her in June of 2007 and we were packing our things to head to the hospital, I told my husband he needed to wait just a few more minutes so that I could tend to the garden. “We’re not going to be home for a couple of days,” I told him, “I need to make sure the plants are watered!”

It was my first garden, and for an avid vegetable lover who had dreamed of having enough space to grow her own green beans for years, I was committed to its success.

Honestly, 12 years later there are seasons when it still feels like I have no idea what I’m doing. My peppers show signs of bottom rot and I have to figure out what that means, or a fungus shows up on the underside of my zucchini leaves and I’m back to square one—Googling ways to combat the mildew before it takes over the plant. I still have no idea how to properly pinch the ‘suckers’ from my tomatoes to yield a larger crop, and finding a massive green horn bug hiding beneath the shade of a leaf tests my desire to ever garden again.

Yet, I come back to it year after year.

As my girls, who are now 12, 10 and 6, have grown, so has my knowledge and skill about what works and what doesn’t. Our commitment to the tasks of preparing, planting, weeding, watering and eventually picking the vegetables has grown as well.

“Mom, what are we going to plant this year?” they ask me. I take a deep breath, briefly wondering, Do I really want to do all of the work again?

But then, with a sense of resignation to the task and excited anticipation, we start the process of planning one more time. “We have to do cherry tomatoes this year,” one of them will say, “We got so many last year!” “Let’s not do carrots again,” another will say, “they always get stuck in the ground.”

So, we decide, plan, buy, dig, plant and water—year after year—often with varying outcomes, but always with a sense of satisfaction.

If you’ve ever considered a vegetable garden of your own, I encourage you to give it a try. If nothing else, look at it as a fun summer science project, especially if you have kids or grandkids who can come over and learn along with you.

1. Find the best spot

Your vegetables need some basic necessities to grow: decent soil, at least six hours of sunshine each day, and water. Your job is to assess your outdoor space to figure out where you can make this happen. Our garden sits along a chain link fence at the edge of our yard where it gets morning shade from the house, and direct sunlight for the rest of the day. You’ll want to also make sure your water source allows for a hose to reach the garden.

We currently have two raised beds that measure approximately 8-by-4 feet. If my yard were larger I might have chosen bigger beds, but honestly, the current space is manageable and fits our needs (and busy schedule!). I also like having the two beds with a small space in between—it allows me to reach all of the plants without too much effort, and we’ve utilized the chain link fence to grow climbing plants like peas in past years.

2. Figure out your soil

Vegetables grow best in moist, well drained soil rich in organic matter—if your soil is too hard, or has too much clay (like ours did when we first moved to our house), the roots will struggle to grow and the water will sit on top of the soil. While you can establish a garden right in the ground by tilling and amending the soil, we opted to create two raised beds because it allowed us to start with completely new soil.

We filled our beds with about three quarters compost (we chose a good organic compost from a local garden center), and one-quarter peet moss, which is an effective combination for any starter garden. If you do choose to plant directly into the ground it’s a good idea to amend your soil by adding compost for the nutritional benefit of your plants. We do this yearly, just to assure the best growing conditions possible.

3. Plan what to grow

You’ll want to think about what you’d like to grow ahead of time. Your options are to grow from seed or plant—I do a combination of both. Many seeds need to be started indoors months ahead of time so that your plants can be transplanted come late spring. While I admire those who do this, as a busy mom of three, I prefer to keep things pretty simple.

I’ve always purchased my tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers and herbs as plants from a garden center. Beets, Swiss chard, peas, carrots, radishes and green beans are relatively easy to grow from seed. Once I decide what we want to plant, I draw a rough sketch of where I want to place things in the garden—with larger plants in the back and on the sides and smaller plants in the front and middle (again, so I can reach them!). There are entire books and websites devoted to companion planting, which means determining what grows most abundantly next to each other, but if this is your first garden I’d suggest you just pick a few easy-to-grow vegetables (like the varieties I’ve mentioned), and give them a try. Trial and error is, honestly, the best way to learn.

4. Keep your plants healthy

When it comes to keeping my garden healthy, I take a very basic approach. I add new, organic compost each year to ensure some of the soil’s nutrients are replenished. I water daily—though too much water is not good for your plants, so don’t feel like you need to go crazy. And, I weed my garden sporadically when I can muster the help of my children.
I know there is a lot more I could do. I’d like to do some research on amending my soil naturally and what the best options are for organic fertilizers, but in the meantime my watering and weeding method has yielded a decent bounty each year, so it works for us.

5. Personalize your space

Once you’ve added your plants, feel free to add little touches of whimsy. I always keep an eye out for cute garden stones and accessories, or have my kids paint rocks we find while we’re out. We’ve also purchased stepping stone craft kits, which are fun to paint. If you have kids, this is a great way to help them feel invested in your garden project while they’re waiting weeks for the plants to actually grow.

Hopefully this encourages some aspiring vegetable gardeners to be adventurous this year. I promise you there is nothing tastier than tomatoes and basil picked straight from your garden on any given day, and you might just find yourself embracing a new, decades-long summer hobby.

A quick primer on when to start planting

Do I really have to wait until Memorial Day to plant my vegetable garden?

What it really comes down to is waiting until there is no longer a threat of frost (a feat that can certainly feel daunting in Buffalo).
According to The Farmer’s Almanac, Buffalo has a 33 percent probability of being frost-free after May 7, and suggests that all varieties of seeds and seedlings are safe to plant in the ground after May 21.

Many types of vegetables— known as cool-weather crops—are safe to plant sooner and actually prefer slightly cooler temperatures. Kale, spinach, lettuce, pea and radish seeds can all be planted directly into the ground as early as April, though a heavy, extended frost could impact their success, so plant cautiously.

For a more detailed planting schedule and planning guide, check out the Farmer’s Almanac.

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