Gardening 101

Spending time working in the yard is not one of my favorite summer past times.

Spending time planting and working in my garden is something I do enjoy immensely during the summer months. Gardening is an excellent way to spend time outdoors and soak up some Vitamin D, get exercise, and an opportunity to reap the rewards of eating healthy food. It works well for all ages and can be adapted to all ability levels.  It reconnects us with the marvels of our planet and kids love it! Plus, nothing can be more environmentally friendly than eating food grown from your own garden.

I wasn’t born with a green thumb, but I look forward to plowing forward with my small 14’ X 4’ garden each Spring. For me, it is just the right size to dabble with growing a few vegetables and herbs and enjoying the harvest. The width also makes it easy for a child, working from both sides, to reach across and fully access the plants.

When planning a garden, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Getting Started – If you are new to gardening, you may want to consider starting small, so you don’t feel overwhelmed.

A 10’ x 10’ garden is a good size to start with. You can fit 3 to 5 plants each of 3 to 5 different vegetables in that space depending on the space needed for each vegetable chosen.

Time – How much time do you want to devote to gardening? A large garden is wonderful, but make sure you have the time to take care of it.

Plan – Draw a layout of your garden and the vegetables you want to plant. This takes a little time, but is well worth it. Sketching out a plan like this will prevent buying more plants than you have room for.

Where – Ideally, plant rows north-south so they get as much sun as possible. Plant larger plants on the north side of the garden, so they don’t block the sun on the smaller plants. A vegetable garden needs 6-8 hours of direct sun a day to thrive. A garden that has filtered sun (such as sunlight coming through the leaves of a tree) will not be as productive, but it will still work. Leafy vegetables such as lettuces, kale, spinach, arugula, and bok choy can tolerate some shade. However, a fully shaded area will likely not produce much at all because the shade inhibits photosynthesis. Also, make sure you locate the garden within easy access to a clean water source so that you can irrigate as needed.

Soil – Loose and crumbly dirt is what we’re aiming for! Loose soil retains moisture and drains water well. Roots will easily penetrate into the ground when the soil is loose. Grass clippings that have not been sprayed with chemicals can be used as mulch and placed around the plants to provide ground cover. The clippings release nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium into the soil.

1” – 2” of clippings on the surface of the garden bed soil will help reduce weeds and retain ground moisture.

The primary nutrients plants need are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. You may have seen these three numbers on bags of fertilizer. Samples of your soil can be taken to your local extension office to get your soil analyzed for pH and nutrient levels. Also, pH kits are available at garden stores. Most plants do well when the soil pH level is between 6.0 and 7.0. The pH of the soil determines how much of the soil nutrients are being absorbed by the plant. If the soil is too acidic (below pH5.4), the plants can yellow, pucker, or burn.

Making and using compost are topics for an entirely separate article because there is so much to say about it. Briefly, there are many benefits of adding compost to the soil. Just like good bacteria in our gut keeps us healthy, the bacteria in compost keep the garden healthy. The bacteria break down organic matter and make nutrients available to the plants. Compost also encourages a healthy root system, balances pH levels, discourages pests and weeds, and helps retain water.

If you are going to make compost, it needs anywhere from 2 weeks to two years to decompose before it can be used in a garden. The time to mature compost depends on the size of the materials used, how often the compost is turned, and the size of the compost pile. This is a gardening step I don’t take the time to do, so I buy organic compost and add it to the garden each year.

What to Plant – This is a personal decision based on preference, climate, soil type, and skill level, among other things. I’ve known some serious gardeners who begin researching in Winter, so they know exactly what they will plant when the time comes. For example, watermelon and cantaloupe require a long growing season. Radishes, lettuce, peas, spinach, carrots, and beans produce edibles more quickly. Tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini are reliable and usually do well even if the gardener is a newbie. On the other hand, blueberries are quite fussy and prefer growing wild or working with professionals.

Space – Consider the amount of space you are working with when deciding what to plant. Melons, beans, squashes, rhubarb, pumpkins, and cucumbers take up more space than tomatoes, peppers, herbs, lettuces, pole beans, and garlic. Herbs are a great addition to a garden and don’t take up much space.

When – Look up the estimated date of your last frost at and search your ” plant hardiness zone” and “last frost dates” when deciding when to start your garden. Here in northern Illinois (Zone 5), we have a shorter growing season. Because of this, I try to get my planting done over the Memorial Day weekend. That will allow enough time for the plants to fully mature before the first frost in Autumn. Planting before Memorial Day is not recommended because there is still a chance the ground is too cold and we could still get nipped by frost. Many people like to start seeds indoors using growing lights; others prefer to buy small plants to get started. Small plants can often be found at farmers’ markets early in the season or at garden centers. I get some of my small plants from a local food coop and some at the farmers market because they were grown in the climate I live in. I like to think they were grown more lovingly and with more care than those purchased at the big box stores. I get to see my farmers’ market friends for the first time in the season, and it’s one more way to support local businesses.

Container Gardening – If you don’t have space for a garden or want to plant just a few plants, container gardening is a great option. Vegetables that work well in containers include tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, radishes, herbs, and summer squash. Five-gallon containers work well for tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash.

Swiss chard, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower can be grown in two-gallon containers. Terra cotta containers are porous and the soil dries out faster than the soil in glazed ceramic containers. So, keep in mind that plants in terra cotta containers will need to be watered more often. If using a wooden container, make sure the wood has not been treated with a toxic chemical. You also want to make sure the container has good drainage. Standard potting soil works well in containers. Add compost to the mix, place the planted pots in a sunny location, and you’re ready to go!

Pests – What’s a garden without pests! It is part of the challenge of growing a garden. This is one area of gardening you will need to be vigilant. There are several different ways to manage pests and infestations. Generally, I don’t recommend pesticides, especially for fruits or veggies you intend to eat. The most natural way of dealing with pests is to go out daily and pick them off your plants. You can also experiment with other methods to see what works best. You might try mixing one tablespoon Dawn liquid soap or Castile soap with a quart of distilled water and spray it on the plant. Planting petunias, marigolds, nasturtiums, chrysanthemums, and alliums helps repel unwanted bugs. They also invite pollinators to visit your garden. Grow herbs like fennel, lemon balm, thyme, parsley, basil, thyme, or lavender in pots and move them around your garden to help discourage unwanted bugs. Flowers including yarrow, boneset, and cosmos will attract good bugs. Neem oil is a natural product that can be purchased at your garden center. Neem oil is extracted from the seeds of Neem trees found in Southeast Asia.

Gardeners don’t take the process too seriously. For many, just getting out there and having a garden is enjoyable, a way to reduce stress. It helps us to be in contact with nature and forget about our problems for a while.

Gardening can be both challenging and fun. Even the best gardeners have failures, so don’t get discouraged. Each year brings its own challenges, be it the weather, infestations, or “it just didn’t do well this year.” Gardeners learn to take it as it comes. It is fun to reap the rewards of your time spent in the garden. Getting family involved and teaching your children or grandchildren where their food comes from is one of the great rewards of gardening. With an abundant harvest, it is fun to share with neighbors or donate to the local food bank.

I hope you experience the joy of gardening this season!

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