10 Tips for Organic Vegetable Gardeners Who Are Just Starting Out

vegetable garden
Photo: Aleksander Rubtsov/Getty Images

Go for it.

The only vegetable garden that is certain to never grow is the one you never start. You don’t need a big yard (or a yard at all). Raising even one robust tomato plant in a bucket sitting in the sun outside your door counts as gardening, and you’ll get to eat tomatoes. Big win.

Size matters, but not in the way you might think.

A well-tended small garden produces more than a huge garden that is left wanting. My garden reflects the kind of care it actually gets, not my wishful thinking and good intentions. The perfect size garden for me is one that I can tend patiently, consistently, and well.

The most common reason that plants don’t grow and bloom is lack of sunshine.

All gardens, no matter the size, need several hours of direct sunshine. I don’t have very many sunny spots, so I have to use them as efficiently as possible. Container gardening works best for me because I can move pots, which means my garden is never planted in the wrong place.

Soil quality is a big deal.

If we feed and nurture the soil, the soil will feed and nurture our vegetables. High-quality garden soil is full of organic matter than feeds not only our plants, but supports the teeming microsystem that makes up an organic garden. Great soil both retains water and drains well, which helps me hit the sweet spot of watering. I’m a container gardener who believes in refilling my pots with fresh soil each year. I trust what I’m getting each time I open a bag of Miracle-Gro Performance Organics All Purpose Container Mix. I never regret investing in excellent soil.

Plants need water.

Watering takes my time and attention, so I try to make each drop count. My goal is to get water deep into the soil to encourage robust root systems. Longer, deeper soakings are more effective than short, frequent sprays that result in little more than wet leaves. Surface water evaporates quickly and wet foliage is vulnerable to disease. On the other hand, don’t give your plants more water than they can use. Excess watering is wasteful, washes away nutrients, and drowns the roots. First time gardeners are more likely to kill a plant from over-watering than under-watering.

Pay attention to your plants.

Learn their habits so that you know to water when they need it, not out of habit or because a timer is set to run each day. Nothing can replace your watchful eye. For example, many plants wilt temporarily in the hot midday sun, even when the soil is moist. Examine your plants first thing in the morning, when it’s cooler. If they’re wilted then, they need water. Morning is the best time to water, but dusk is better than watering during the hottest part of the day.

Your soil will also give you big clues on when to water.

Develop a feel for moist soil, literally. Pick up a handful of soil and give it a firm squeeze. If it holds together in a ball, the moisture level is good. If it crumbles, it’s dry. If water oozes out, it’s soggy. If you drop the ball from waist height, if should gently fall apart gently, not shatter or plop.

Plants really want to grow, and will try their best if we put the right plant in the right spot.

I’m learning that healthy plants cannot grow in conditions that don’t suit them (no matter how much I want them to) and unhealthy plants can’t grow anywhere. To garden is to accept that I am going to kill some plants, but that’s how I figure out what works and what doesn’t. Gardens and gardeners are always works in progress, which means I can always become a better gardener. (You can too.) My most-trusted source of reliable gardening advice is fellow gardeners who live near me, who understand local growing conditions and have experience with the types of plants that have the best chances of survival and robust production. Gardeners want to share their success stories.

Organic gardening is teaching me to love insects.

I welcome the beneficial bugs that battle the pests that want to eat my herbs and vegetables before I get to. I celebrate the bees, butterflies, and other pollinators that make my garden possible, not just charming. I am giddy when I see earthworms, because they are a sign of a healthy garden. They poke air holes in the soil and leave behind their casings. Yay earthworms. I’m delighted that millions of microorganisms are doing their jobs, even if I can’t see them. Organic gardens are ecosystems that must teem with life.

My garden is worth the time and effort.

It never feels overwhelming or burdensome so long as I attempt feasible gardens that I can manage. To coax a tiny seed or wee plant into growing up and producing something I can eat leaves me awestruck (and flush with accomplishment) each and every time. No ingredient is more local and seasonal than homegrown, and nothing tastes better than produce that’s sun-ripened and fresh-picked. Gardening is good for me, plus I get tomato sandwiches.

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