How to Start a Garden

How to Start a Garden

I have gardened for many, many years and pored over many, many books ranging from communing with nature spirits to controlling pests with their natural enemies. Now to distill.

What are the most important lessons I have learned over the years?  How would I advise someone to begin?

People garden with different objectives in mind. 

Some are seeking a serene oasis, a time they can spend alone in nature, even if it is just a tiny plot on their urban lot.  Gardening can yield a serenity like a sunset right there in your heart, like you are in a still, small boat on the horizon as the sun drops.

Some want an ornamental garden, pretty landscaping to admire.

Some have a direct goal like tomatoes and basil for spaghetti sauce.  I had a neighbor in Sacramento who sneaked through my gate and applied pesticide and fertilizer to my strawberries so they could soon be picked for daiquiris.

A widowed mother who wanted to spend time with her three young children my primary goal for many years was to grow fresh organic food we could eat during the growing season, enough to store for the winter, herbs to heal our illnesses and injuries and flowers to fill the house.

I didn’t have extra time on my hands to be weeding the garden every evening, which may be a peaceful mantra for some at the end of the day, but I would find a disastrous waste of time and energy.

Nor was I terribly interested in scouring plant leaves for camouflaged sacs of insect eggs or pulling slimy caterpillars from tomato plants even if they were devouring them at alarming speed.

So I read and experimented, experimented and read.  And after many years I came to understand what it takes to have a garden that makes me happy to be in and yields many of the crops I want without an inordinate amount of effort.  Each year I meet with successes and failures in about equal measure, so I may not be your best resource.  But I have enjoyed trying to grow different things and different varieties of the same crops in different places of the garden.

Most how-tos will encourage you to keep careful records. I agree that if you do this, and you refer to your notes in plotting out your next garden, it would probably help with your learning curve; I feel like I remember enough to outweigh the need for an extra step that doesn’t interest me.

Garden with Nature

The first rule is to garden with nature, not against it.  What type of soil do you have?  Is it sandy or is it clay or is it a mix?  What is the acidic level?  How long is your growing season?  How hot does it get?  How cold does it get?  How much rain do you get? 

You will want to select plants that thrive in your soil in your climate. 

It’s not hard to do.  There are thousands of plants out there.  It is nothing to be bemoaned if for, example your soil is clay and you cannot easily grow potatoes, which prefer sand.  Well, then grow corn, cabbage, squash, echinacea, and black-eyed susans.  Buy your potatoes from another farmer.

Most leafy greens prefer a good rich soil and the clay stays cooler longer than sand so it extends the growing season for this cool-weather crop.  So count your blessings cause there are a lot of wonderful greens.  Some freeze well too, like kale, mustard greens and collard greens.  Some do not, like arugula.  But it grows well in Spring and Fall, so you can sow a second crop after the strong heat that makes it bolt.  If your goal

Too, there are many different purposes you can grow plants for apart from beauty and food.  I have grown plants for natural dyes and fibers. 

I have grown plants for making gifts like sunflower wreaths, table centerpieces or raspberry liqueur filled chocolates.

I have grown plants to make insect repellent, set broken bones, heal sprains and clear congestion. 

So when you are considering the plants you can grow in your area, consider the many possible uses.  I cannot remember my children having to have antibiotics.

A good place to find out what grows well in your region is your extension office.  This is what they do and they are paid tax dollars to do it, so don’t hesitate to stop by or call them. 

I had an extension agent spend an afternoon on my farm discussing the site I had in mind for my vineyard.  It would have taken two years of college classes and many growing seasons to learn what I learned from her in one afternoon.

Be aware, however, that many of the university agricultural departments which partly subsidize extension offices are themselves subsidized by large agricultural corporations that profit from the sale of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides. 

Here, for example, is the 2019-202 Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide which recommends extensive spraying of pesticides on the very fruit you will be eating:

It is worth opening just to the first page to give you an idea of how much the university agriculture departments contribute to the knowledge base of extension offices.

Their advice may be skewed toward priorities antithetical to a sustainable view of the planet. Take what you need and ignore the rest.  Knowing the growing cycle of a plant is valuable information that can be gleaned, especially if you will confront a nasty pest, usually an invasive species that companion planting is infeasible to resolve.  Japanese beetles used to invade my vineyard around the third week of June, so the second week I would go out like the witch in Narnia and spray my vineyard and fruit trees white with the wand from my tank of kaolin clay spray.

Check around.  There are probably co-ops of sustainable and organic farmers in your area happy to help as well.  And again, your local farmer’s co-op generally has old-timers wiling to impart sage advice.

Pick up a farmer’s almanac too.  If just to comprehend a grower’s outlook.  Pore over all of the beautiful seed websites.  Compare the weight of seed packets so you have an idea how many plants you might expect from the packet or bag you order.  And don’t believe the germination rate.  Just allocate a portion of your garden to that experiment, saying something like I am going to grow beets here and then (beet seeds are large so this is a feasible instruction whereas it is not for carrots which are quite tiny) plant two or three beet seeds in every hole spaced per instructions and maybe even one in between.  Think about it when you do it as though they might all germinate and you will have to thin them.  Don’t set the seeds so close they will grow together into one plant.

Back to your soil.  Let’s talk about the beauty of compost-fertilizing your soil.  Not only is compost made of your own dinner scraps and yard waste rich in nutrients, but if your soil is clay shoveling it in with a pitchfork will break through dense clay clumps that deprive roots of needed oxygen, drowning the roots in mud and unable to accomplish their purpose of pulling nutrients from the soil. 

Compost can also augment sandy soil.  Sandy soil can drain rainfall so rapidly through the soil that your plants are thirsty only moments after it’s rained.   Thankfully, potatoes do well sandy soil and of course desert plants. There are many varieties of potatoes: red, gold, white and blue, but maybe you don’t want to be eating potatoes until your ears fall off. I have had good luck with turnips in sandy soil too.  They are great in potato dishes and wonderful broiled in olive oil with rosemary, along with other colorful root vegetables like beets and carrots, which also come in many astonishing colors.

You can add sandy soil to clay soil and clay soil to sandy soil, but the truth is unless you change the soil’s ecosystem, which happens over time when you shovel in compost, the soil will probably ignore your efforts and return to its natural state.

So unlike many guides out there, I am not going to advise you to believe that you can actually do much to permanently change the soil by adding amendments.

I have heavily compacted soil around my side door that seems to have served as a construction debris dump when my cabin was built.  Attempts to change the clay by adding some of the sandy soil from other parts of the yard proved futile.

I didn’t want to use my compost, reserving it for vegetables in the garden. At last I found gypsum, renowned for being nontoxic and for breaking up clay. Although touted as natural and nontoxic, I am a mistrustful soul.   

Still, I did not intend to grow a food crop there, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about an unknown negative effect on the soil. I figured the soil would heal itself once I got some healthy growth activity going. 

The immediate results looked promising and some plants were able to struggle through, but the results were, as with all of the other soil amendments I have tried short of compost, short-term.

Our focus on composting will be to add nutrients to the soil, which is necessary plants will deplete the soil of nutrients as they grow.  Growing a cover crop in alternate or off-growing seasons that adds nutrients to the soil helps too.  This is something like clover for adding nitrogen.  You do want to carefully consider your cover crop though.  Clover will invite deer into your garden and that is a habit not easily broken.

Consider a forest floor.  Fragrant with the aroma of decaying leaves, it is replete with nutrients.  Rain and wind have worked to bring down twigs, leaves, and nuts from the trees and pummel them all back into the earth along with animal scat.  Fungi and bacteria feeding on the plant life further the decomposition. 

The forest floor becomes even richer and will yield fiddleheads and morel mushrooms for a divine Spring breakfast. Where the tree canopy is not too dense, berry bushes will take over in the summer.

Nature regenerates itself and that is what we want to emulate in the garden.

Follow the Sun

Where are you going to place your site?  And how large should it be? 

First, what are you hoping for? 

If this is an ornamental garden, go with the contours of your land.  An excellent book to assist you here is Ann Lovejoy’s Organic Garden Design School, published by Rodale in 2001.

My advice here is going to focus on the small home garden that includes herbs and vegetables for the kitchen.   I recommend starting out small so that you don’t burn out before you have had the notable success you were hoping for.  A project you can fit around the rest of your life before it sucks you in to fitting the rest of your life around your hours of pleasure in the garden.

You can easily expand it once you know how much effort it is going to take and have identified what else you might like to grow in a single season.

Go out to your proposed site and take a look at where the sun is in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening.  Bear in mind that if it is winter, the arc of the sun is going to be a bit different than in the summer. 

What you are trying to determine is where any trees might be in relation to the sun that might block your garden for periods of the day.  You can use this to your advantage. 

I like to plant leafy greens where they only get morning and evening sun and the blazing midday sun is blocked by a copse of tall evergreens.  Direct sun makes lettuces bolt, that is, the center core shoots up to reach the sun and the leaves become bitter and shrivel. That is why they can only be grown in cool weather, but shade will buy you a little more time in the growing season.

If you have the luxury of a lot of land and no proscriptions about where to place your garden, by all means take a shovel and dig up the soil at a few different sites to see what you’ve got.  I would recommend close to the house though, for ease and the activity which at least marginally discourages critters.

The best soil is a mix of clay and sand, a rich loamy silt that will hold water and nutrients, without forming into hard clumps of mud.  The acid level for most vegetables should be a pH between 5.5 and 7.5.  It likely is, but a simple soil test kit from the garden center will confirm this.

Do not at any cost choose a site humans have contaminated with poisons of any sort.  That includes Round-up (between the time of my first draft and today, the world is finally awakening to this particular product I singled out, but there are plenty out there) termite spray, or debris from a burn pile.  If you wouldn’t eat it by the forkful, you don’t want to grow edible plants in it.  Plants absorb nutrients from the soil and they will absorb toxins as well.

Consider too, who might be living near your garden.  You won’t be able to keep them out, but if you have rabbits living nearby, at least make them have to cross a broad open field if you can.  This is something they can be reluctant to do as it makes them visible to hawks and other predators.  I don’t even know what to tell you if ground hogs live nearby, except dig a deep fence and do everything you can to drive them crazy.  One year I was successful in trapping them and relocating them, but not after that and I think they sent their kids and grandkids back to the old homestead.

To save work, you will want the garden near your compost and your kitchen and reachable by a water hose.

Don’t Try to Keep Out what you Can’t Keep Out

You might mistakenly believe the woodland creatures or those in the shrubbery of your suburban neighborhood to be of lower intelligence but trust me, they were actually born highly psychic and are greedily contemplating the abundance from your garden even now as you are indoors innocently planning it.

There are gadgets and gizmos and wives tales of many a fix to deter animals, but save your money and just nod kindly at the neighbor telling his tall tales.  The scarecrow with the banging pans, the sensor flood lights, the hose blasting shots of cold water, the fox urine, the Irish Spring soap, the locks of cut hair… these things may cause a deer or groundhog to hesitate once, but the second time they will simply ignore it.

You might try a kinetic sculpture on which you strategically place bells and solar lights to further terrify the foraging beasts.

Then even if it actually attracts deer or groundhogs, birds and rabbits, you will also have a cool piece of artwork to console you in the Garden of Eden.

A lot of the advice about deterring animals appears to have a solid premise, but don’t be seduced.  I have an entire book on deer proofing my garden by planting only plants that deer don’t eat.

But I have seen them eat them.

One premise is that deer don’t like to be near plants with a pungent smell because it will mask the smell of any predators they are on high alert for.  But I have seen them linger near the mint as they demolish the corn.  All they have to do is lift their snout between munching.  Soon they will be bounding away with full bellies anyway.

Although I have heard stories of success with fox-urine drenched t-shirts and the like, I have actually seen them leap over posts freshly smeared with expensive fox urine.

With much effort, I erected a slant fence around my vineyard upon the advice of a USDA pamphlet, indicating that tensile wire a foot apart at seven levels spanning a 75-degree plane confused deer.  They wouldn’t jump it.

One of my gun-slinging neighbors showed up drunk one evening itching to shoot into the horde then hovering patiently on the hill across from my vineyard waiting for me to finish my chores and leave. 

In a deep Southern slurring drawl he pointed out that “deer don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no optical illusions.” 

Turns out he was right.  Or if they did know anything about optical illusions, it was how to ignore them.

I do plant dark orange and gold French marigolds around the perimeter of my garden in the belief that the fragrance discourages rabbits.  I don’t know if it does or not.  This is the first year I have had a lot of rabbits, but the ground hogs beat them to the feast. 

French marigolds do deter whiteflies from tomato plants though, and after they are fully established, they control nematodes, so along with their burst of color, they are welcome in my garden.

Your best defense against warm-blooded pests is a good fence and a smart, frisky, hunting dog that keeps vigil around the garden.

Your best offense might be a catch and release trap.

Turns out that the ancient androgynous groundhog who had been content living alone under my smokehouse for sixteen years up gave birth to a litter of strapping lusty sons. 

Did you know that young groundhogs become teenagers and move out before their first summer is over?  And that they each strike out and build a summer home and a winter home and multiple exits and entries to each? 

And that throwing hot peppers and rocks down these holes does not discourage them at all?  Not even shoveling down Milorganite, a very smelly compost made of human waste.  They just toss everything right back out. 

I can personally corroborate the veracity of much of Michael Pollan’s results in his war on woodchucks described in his garden manifesto, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Garden Press, 2003, available through Amazon.  A friend pointed me to it after I had delivered a very similar exposition to him.

That summer, my farmstead burst open like boils from a plague with holes surrounded by piles of rocks.  The holes led down to long tunnels under each of my three outbuildings and my cabin.  It was after I was startled by scratching barely under my dining room floor that I bought the trap.

I was already a bit put off that the ground hogs had not spared one of any of the five varieties of squash I had planted. 

I did go a bit wild planting squash.  The previous summer’s crops of acorn squash and winter squash were tasty and lasted well into the winter months.  So I got carried away and ordered five varieties. 

I don’t mind sharing ten percent of the garden with my woodland neighbors, but I lose my will to share beyond that.  Maybe if they helped with some of the work on the farm, I’d feel differently.

But when I heard that unnerving scratching and imagined horrors both from a homeowner’s perspective and from the perspective of a reluctant, but avid sci-fi reader, I started seriously shopping for a catch-and-release trap to be delivered as soon as it could get here. 

I caught that fat sucker too. 

First thing I read when I was reading about how to trap a woodchuck was how much they like watermelon and wouldn’t you know, for the first time ever, I had a watermelon growing?  Indeed it was tiny, but it was perfectly formed and showed tremendous promise.

It was growing just outside his door, the entry to the long sandy tunnel running beneath my house.  He would have to step over it until he felt like eating it. 

This perpetual threat was eating at me and I threw the juiciest produce I could conjure into that trap and set it immediately outside his hole.

I caught him not long after I set out the trap.  Nervous that somehow the door would open, I put him in the back of the car and drove him to the abandoned farmstead in the hollow a couple miles down the road. 

I drove pretty fast. The sun was setting behind the mountain and my imagination was at its peak.

Next I caught a possum.  That scared me a bit as well. 

He kept his very sharp teeth bared as he looked at me.  His fur was matted with goo and blood and he had a wild look about him that made me uncomfortable. 

The trap I bought is supposed to be humane.  I’m not sure what happened, but there was some bloody hair pasted to the bottom piece of metal. 

I don’t mind possums around, but I drove him out to the abandoned farmstead too, for practice and to rule out possibilities of revenge.

The next day when I woke the air outside my side door smelled like maybe the skunk and one of the groundhogs had got in a standoff during the night.  This got me to thinking: what if I caught a skunk?  What if I caught a skunk? 

I couldn’t leave him in there and I had no idea how I’d get him out.  I still don’t.  So I won’t be trapping until I get this figured out.  The experience with copperheads in my basement and once only the good possibility of a black bear, a bear that loomed in my imagination as I drove home alone late one night and couldn’t figure my plan of action, well, I’m just more circumspect now.

It’s All in the Soil

Healthy soil hosts a web of life from tiny one-celled bacteria, fungi and protozoa to the more complex nematodes and small arthropods to earthworms, insects, and small vertebrates.

These organisms interact beneficially with plants. 

By-products from growing roots and plant debris feed soil organisms. Soil organisms help plants by decomposing organic matter, cycling nutrients to make them more available to the plant, enhancing soil structure and porosity and controlling the populations of soil organisms, including crop pests.

Healthy soil means healthy plants.

The way to healthy soil is to add compost and not till, that is dig the ecosystems, the webs of life, to shreds.  Use a pitchfork to turn your compost pile.

Buddhists, who do not believe in killing sentient creatures, manually crumble soil, so that earthworms are not killed.

Farmers use tractors pulling tillers and most gardeners use rototillers to turn the soil.  I use a shovel rather than till. 

Compost is just earth that has been made from decayed organic matter.  It is called black gold because it can be a sure-fire medium for producing healthy plants. 

Nothing is more valuable to a gardener and it’s free.  It solves the problems of what to do with dinner scraps and yard debris and it helps everything grow abundantly.

I have a pretty big compost pile that should steam but it doesn’t.  Because I travel, I do not have animals, whose feces would go along way to heating up the pile, but eventually, I suppose the enormity of the weight helps a good deal, it creates lovely compost. 

The compost pile requires turning with a pitchfork, the romance of which appeals to me whereas the actual doing it, does not.  I highly recommend a compost tumbler.  Try not to get ne that will rust through, is large enough and easy to turn.

Watch some videos on how to make compost and determine what you can best do.  It solves your problems of disposing of food scraps and yard waste.  I shouldn’t I’m sure (for the integrity of the mower), but when I mow I just churn up the wintered over leaves and add them to my compost.

I try to turn the garden soil over and compost in the Fall, so that the soil is open to receive the compost and the compost is open to the winter snow and sun which help integrate it into the soil. 

You will still have to turn over the soil in Spring.  Turning the soil aerates it.  You need only shovel down about six or eight inches or till across the garden two or three times to get it to the consistency where it will allow germinating seeds to poke through.  You can turn freshly added compost into the soil in early Spring too.  Just be sure it is composted enough that you are not adding fresh fungi where it is not wanted.  Adding the earthworms in t to the garden is good.

Organizing the Garden

I would recommend a garden no larger than 25 x 30 feet to begin. 

Most gardeners plant in neat rows as it is easier to weed. 

Habitual walking (and of course driving heavy machinery) across the soil compacts it and makes it pretty much useless for growing anything but plantain, called by Native Americans, “white man’s footsteps.”

On the subject of weeds, you should understand the following.

Soil organisms are not distributed evenly about the soil.  Each species exists where it can find the right amount of space, nutrients and moisture.  This is generally around organic matter. 

Thus, my sandy soil is as sterile as the desert away from plants. 

But around roots there is a region called the rhizosphere where bacteria feeds from  old plant cells and proteins and sugars released by the roots.  Protozoa and nematodes feed on the bacteria.  They cycle nutrients and help retain beneficial ones, change the structure of the soil to help the plant better access water and nutrients and suppress disease by feeding on pathogens and excreting metabolites toxic to them.

Gardeners weed to remove the competition for nutrients.  However, root systems can interact in a synergistic way, providing nutrients for each other.

Tall weeds can also provide welcome shade to plants sensitive to the relentless rays of a midday blazing sun.  So unless the weeds are blocking needed sun or overtaking my plants, that is, the weeds are strong and healthy and my plants weak and stunted, I let them do their thing.

If you are not going to use a rototiller and you don’t care that much about weeds that will grow among the rocks, you are not bound by the rules of symmetry and can plant in circles if you wish.  You can make a rock or brick path in your garden to walk on.  You can build rock walls or mounds of rock that retain moisture so crickets and small toads can live.  They are priceless predators of insects who would otherwise forage your plants.

Lately I have been allowing narrow grass aisles to grow between my plots, but you do have to keep the grass down or it will attract too many grasshoppers.  They will quickly devour a number of plants.

If you are more comfortable with straight rows and weeding as much as you can, by all means go for it.

Some say that a man’s footsteps are all a garden needs for fertility.  Along the same line, a friend told me of an old man she knew with an abundant garden who took only one cup of water to feed his garden each evening.  The point is, follow your passion and it will yield good things.

I like to intersperse flowers, herbs and vegetables and to follow companion planting suggestions. 

Planting too much of a single crop creates an ecosystem vulnerable to pests and diseases of that crop and eradicates the natural system of checks and balances of a diverse ecosystem.

Over time, growing a single plant will also deplete the soil of the nutrients that plants needs.  Farmers alternate their crops, often planting a cover crop that will add back in the nutrients the former planting has taken. 

Certain pests like certain plants.

In your garden too, you should not plant the same crop in the same area.  Last year’s pests are waiting. 

Buying Seeds, Starters, Bulbs and Seedlings

I can’t say definitively where to buy seeds.  I feel like I’ve had good luck and bad luck with every place from which I’ve bought. 

And that’s not to say it was a problem with the seeds not germinating.  It could be that birds ate the seed.  Or that I pulled up the seedlings thinking they were weeds.

It’s an odd thing, and just one of many spellbinding revelations you will discover watching the world up close and personal, but almost identical plants will grow next to the seedlings you’ve planted. 

After awhile, you can get cocky and think you know which one is which and before you know it, you’ve got a bitter weed growing rampant where the arugula would be if you hadn’t yanked it.

By the way, don’t be yanking plants.  When you are old you might end up with very painful elbows on cold, damp days.  Move as a dancer, with thought and balance.

I did grow a notable crop of amaranth, an edible red grain the Hopi also used for body paint from seeds I bought from Seeds of Change. 

I also grew some very pretty Peruvian chili peppers a couple years in a row that glimmered like jewels in my garden.  They were very hot and kept well dried for many years. 

I think they were Peruvian.  Maybe they were Bolivian.  But they don’t carry them any more so it doesn’t matter. 

I have also got some very cool sunflower seeds from them and good broomcorn seeds.

Seed savers exchange is worth checking out.  Part of the fun of harvesting is saving seeds to plant next year and share.

I like Peaceful Valley Seeds because they carry organic seeds.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, but I think it’s just because they carry or used to carry a xylene-free weatherproof marker, which is something hard to find.

It’s a good idea to have a diagram of your proposed plantings before you start, but sometimes I also mark off the seeds as I plant them by writing their names on a popsicle stick and placing them at the edges of their little plot.

I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t have a xylene-free marker.  Xylene gives me a spinning headache that makes me believe it is probably not a substance I want the rain to wash into my garden soil. 

You will find if you are outside a lot, breathing deeply and open to sensing the world around you, you will become sensitive to the rhythms of the earth.  You will feel cold or rain approaching long before it arrives.

Biodynamic farmers see the earth as part of a living universe.  Traditions espoused in farmer’s almanac reflect a bit of this knowledge, with common advice like Don’t plant root crops while the moon is waxing. This is because the moon is pulling the earth’s water closer to the surface during that phase, and root crops like depth and dryness.  Farmers who abide by this wisdom plant root crops when the moon is waning and its gravitational forces weaker.  Biodynamic farmers abide by even more considerations, believing that the earth is under certain influences during its revolution and that compounds can absorb and exude these influences, producing a certain prolific alchemy with plants.

Back to seeds.  I have through the years loved to look through the catalogs with the cheesy graphics that came in the mail starting around January when it is cold and stark outside.  But now that we are more aware of the consequences, the carbon footprint of our actions, I admire the photos on the websites.

Don’t expect these amazing results, but try. I have no idea how many times I have ordered and tried to plant a “crimson carpet.”   I still think one would be beautiful but I am not holding my breath that I will grow one in my lifetime.

Still, maybe this year.

I love the idea of heirloom seeds and get lost for hours on the websites for heirloom seeds thinking I will plant this or that. 

There is an entire cult of people dedicated to preserving species, which is a pretty cool idea and makes me want to accept the few they divvy up to me and responsibly grow them and harvest their seeds. 

But I also want to be an astronomer and a physicist and an enologist and a traveler and, well… you get the picture.  I’m afraid I would not follow through and would disappoint them.

Although I am truly afraid to ask anything about their origin, I can generally trust that the seeds I get in bulk at my farmers’ co-op will grow. 

They are very practical farmers.

Their prices tend to be less than online stores too.

Chances are good there is a farmers’ co-op near you.  Don’t be intimidated.  You don’t have to wear overalls to go in there. 

They will generally only carry sound seed potatoes and onion sets that are going to grow well in your area.

So shop around and buy a good variety of seeds.  If seedlings don’t come up in the time it says they will on the back of the package and you haven’t had super crazy out-of-season weather, then just plant something else there.

Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher born in A.D. 55, said,  “Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.”

True now as it was then.  Have back-up seeds. 

Some plants, like lilies and rhubarb, grow from bulbs.  You can get these, as well as seedlings, at the farmers’ co-op or a nursery.  Often these are best planted in the fall well enough in advance of the killing frost for them to get established.  I plant my garlic in the fall.  Seeing the sprouts keeps me hopeful all winter.

You will want to buy seedlings for crops that require a longer growing season than you have or for crops you want a head-start on.  Seedlings can grow in a greenhouse before the ground outside warms up enough to allow anything to sprout.

When you buy your seedlings, you will need to “harden them off,” which means to help them acclimate to the cold world so they don’t just freeze to death. 

Plants by their nature need to be planted in the ground and do not like a lot of change.  They easily die of transplant shock, so it is important to try to keep as much of the old soil on them as you can while loosening any tangled roots so they can reach out to the new soil and introduce the plant with its root clod to pretty similar soil added by a bit of fish emulsion or liquid B-12. 

Keep them watered and out of the wind at first.  Hardening off involves setting them outside for progressively more hours each day until they have been able to weather a few of the coldest nights you are getting. 

Once they have proven strong enough to endure that, you can plant them in the garden.

This article has good basic advice on transplanting. 
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Ask around and check customer reviews to learn about your local nurseries for buying seedlings. 

Once you have been gardening awhile, you will learn to recognize an unhealthy plant and to look for certain types of pests hiding on them, but until then, you’ll just have to go to a reputable place and ask the cashier in the garden center who the most knowledgeable employee is.

It’s not as easy as it should be to find organically grown seedlings.  You can of course grow your own seedlings indoors.  But unless you are around 24/7 or have greenhouse conditions in your home, it is a ridiculous amount of work. 

I generally buy what I can get and hope the soil and sun detoxifies whatever the plant’s previous owner has done.

While we are on the subject of buying plants, if you don’t know I should explain the difference between annuals and perennials now.

Annuals are plants that you have to plant or grow from seed every year. If you leave annuals in the ground and let them grow long enough to produce seeds and those seeds drop to the ground, take hold and sprout the next season, you can let them grow there of course and that’s great. 

But don’t count on that happening. 

You can also collect the seeds from your annuals and try to use them the next year, but again, until you learn to recognize when seeds are ready to harvest and ideal storage and nurturing conditions, don’t count on this as a money-saver.  I have lived long enough to know that you just don’t know and I like the idea of having seeds on hand from a prepper’s standpoint.  Can’t hurt.

Perennials are plants that will weather your winter and just keep on growing.  They may go dormant, that is, fall into a deep sleep during the winter months and look quite dead, but they will perk up in the Spring and sprout buds.  Don’t dig them up. 

This is true of a lot of herbs, like rosemary and marjoram, some flowers like lavender and all of the bulbs that I can think of. 

Research what you want to figure out what to do.  Bulbs multiply at their roots and can be pulled up and divided in the Spring.  Replant them with more space around them and, ta-da, you’ve got many more.

Companion Planting

When I am considering the year’s plantings, I usually look through an old thumbed-through book called Carrots Love Tomatoes written by Louise Riotte and published by Storey Communications in 1975.  It is based upon observations of plants that grow better together, due to the nutrients their root systems exchange and because the pests they naturally attract are pests that control the population of pests of their companion.  You can also seek guidance from  good websites like Organic Authority

Because they are healthy, they are less vulnerable to diseases too.  Disease happens when a healthy plant is compromised, generally from insect attack or lack of nutrients.

Plants can be compromised from temperature and humidity or arid extremes.  Disease comes looking then.  A good companion plant can bolster strength in troubled times, so it’s a no-brainer to follow these principles and feel like a silly romantic while doing it.

Anyway, that’s how I recommend beginning your plantings.  After a few seasons, you will be addicted to watching blossoms open and other such small miracles known only to farmers.  You will see that magical glow in a cherry when it is perfectly ripe, the glow that attracts birds from miles around and you will dash to the tree with your ladder and bowl to beat them.

Colorful flowers attract essential pollinators like bees and butterflies.  Presently there is deep concern that the monarch butterfly is heading toward extinction due to pesticides killing their only source of food, the milkweed, so planting milkweed is responsible.

I like having flowers interspersed among the vegetables.  It makes for a pretty garden and I like having flowers to cut for the house. Some of the vegetables are very pretty too.  Sometimes when I see the swan-like curvatures of the long needle-noses of the garlic, I swear they are dancing behind my back and freezing in new positions when I turn back.


When do you plant?  Look in your farmer’s almanac or read the back of seed packets or their descriptions online.  It will tell you what you can plant in your area when. 

Cold weather crops that can be planted early include onions, potatoes, radishes and beets. 

You can follow up with planting seeds for hardy greens and then the more delicate greens.

About then, the soil will have warmed up enough for the rest of the seeds to germinate and to accept your transplant of seedlings.

That’s not to say a late killing frost doesn’t come along and undo what you’ve done.  Measures can be taken to save plants if you have warning.  This might be something you want to research in advance. 

Recommendations range from spraying a preparation with valerian to warm the plants to erecting a row cover.


You need very little, apart from a composter and seeds or plants to garden.  A good shovel, possibly a hoe, a sturdy, comfortable trowel and good pruners are essential. 

Take good care of your tools and make sure they are always clean.  Be sensitive to what you are doing.  If you cut off a diseased leaf, clean the shears with soap before you use them on another plant or you are likely to spread the disease.  Keep them sharp so that your cuts are clean, not sloppy and tearing, thus weakening the plant.

It is important to be comfortable.  I once only wore Japanese farmer pants, which were loose and made of light but durable cotton and had pockets in the knees where you could slide knee-pads, but I can’t find them for sale anymore.

If you find some, buy enough for the rest of your life.

Dirty as you are going to get it, I highly recommend the full coverage of a long-sleeve shirt.  Not only does it protect you from the sun, but it will spare you the nasty sting of sweat bees if you dally in the garden a little too late in the morning. 

Although marketed in the men’s department, I consider men’s cotton tunics unisex and that’s what I prefer to wear. 

So now that you look awesome and have a cool compost tumbler in your back yard, grab your shovel and trowel, maybe find a straw hat and head out to create a magical garden.


Annuals – Plants that die off at the end of a growing season.  They must be planted anew every year

Companion Planting – The practice of planting sympathetic crops next to each other to improve crop yield.

Compost – Organic matter which has decayed and turned into rich soil

Perennials – Plants that live through the winter, though they often appear not to.

Seedlings – the first shoots of a plant’s growth.  They are often grown in small cells until they are large enough and strong enough to plant in the garden.

Weeds – plants you are not intentionally growing.