First, just start. Don’t try to be Mel Bartholomew or Martha Stewart, simply get some plants growing and work from there. You don’t have to plant the whole bed at once; you can do it a little at a time and learn as you go.
Some Precautions: Although gardening is a healthful activity, wear sunscreen on exposed skin and a wide-brimmed hat, carry plenty of drinking water, and wear sturdy shoes. Flip flops aren't adequate footwear for digging. Wash your hands thoroughly after working in the soil and before eating.
Soil Preparation: This is the most important aspect of organic gardening. You don’t need to build raised beds and import soil. Good topsoil can be made from even the most neglected patch of dirt by adding organic material. Compost from our own piles or store-bought soil amendment will do the trick. Home Depot sells an excellent blend of manure and compost for just over a dollar a bag, and the City of Los Angeles offers free compost at the community garden in the 1400 block of Gaffey Street in San Pedro. Any organic material will do as long as it is composted, meaning it has had time to decompose. Note: The wood chips that we have on hand to mulch paths should not be added directly to your garden soil, since they are not composted yet.
If your soil is dry and compacted, digging it will be easier if you soak it with water and let it sit a day or two. Sread the organic material over the surface of your bed and dig it into the soil with a shovel or spading fork. Work the material into the ground to the depth of your tool, creating a rich layer of topsoil. Dig over the bed twice, rather than try to mix the soil thoroughly in one pass. If your amendment is well composted, it will be hard to use too much. Ideal topsoil will be half mineral content (dirt) and half organic material. Over time, your garden soil will become richer and deeper as you add compost with each planting.
Once the soil is well mixed, rake it smooth with a steel rake. Walk on your soil as little as possible, now that it's aerated. A few well-placed stepping stones or a wide board will give you a place to step without compacting the soil.
Fertilizing: Plants grown in rich soil should not need additional fertilizer. If your soil is still a work in progress and your first crops are struggling, organic fertilizers can help. Stunted yellow plants are a sign of a lack of nitrogen, usually meaning your soil amendment was not yet sufficiently composted when it was dug in. Try some fish emulsion or blood meal as a corrective.
Seeds or Transplants? Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower are best grown from transplants. Although you can grow your own seedlings for transplanting, for optimum results, beginners should start with nursery seedlings that been grown in a greenhouse under regulated conditions.
Greens such as Swiss chard, collards, kale, and salad greens can be planted either from transplants or seeds. Try a mixture--some transplants for instant gratification and some seeds for the longer term.
Plants that should be grown from seed sown directly in the ground include root crops such as beets, carrots, radishes, and turnips; and large-seeded crops like corn, beans, peas, squash. and pumpkins. This last group grows so fast from seed that buying transplants is a waste of money, and you will get stronger plants sowing seeds directly.
Planting Transplants: They should be bought while still young and put in the ground promptly. Avoid plants that are wilted or leggy—they have not been cared for property in the nursery. Never buy plants that have outgrown their containers. My rule of thumb is NOT to buy transplants until the soil is prepared, or at least not until you are scheduled to prepare it. Don’t let them sit for weeks on your porch while you postpone the digging—they will become stunted while waiting.
When you remove the plants from their pot or 6-pack, loosen the roots with your fingers so they will grow outwards. (An exception: eggplant plants do not like their roots disturbed.) Set them in your soil at the same evel as they grew in the container and gently firm the soil around them. (Another exception: tomato plants can be planted a few inches deeper to give a stronger root system–remove the lower leaves that would be buried first.) Water newly transplanted plants thoroughly and keep them moist, misting daily if necessary, until they start growing.
Planting Seeds: Check the information on the packet for seed depth and spacing and follow it closely. Rake the soil as smoothly as possible, draw a furrow with the tool handle, and sprinkle in the seeds. Cover to the recommended depth with fine soil, and water gently. Keep the soil surface moist, misting daily if necessary, until the seeds sprout.
Seeds have an expiration date, and are usually sold for the current season. While expired seeds may still be viable, you risk disappointment. Heat and moisture will spoil seeds, so some gardeners have luck storing unused seeds sealed airtight in the refrigerator for next year.
Space-Saving Ideas: Radish and arugula seeds grow so quickly that they can be sown in between other rows and harvested before the slower plants need the space. Lettuce and other salad greens can be broadcast (sprinkled randomly) over a wide area. They will be crowded but you can thin them out as they grow for gourmet baby salads, leaving room for some of them to become full size. You can also transplant the thinnings.
Use stakes and trellises for taller crops. A row of pole beans trained vertically will produce much more than a row of bush beans in the same space. Tomatoes will yield more and take less space if they are properly caged. Cucumbers will climb a trellis or an archway.
Watering: Once your seeds have sprouted and your transplants have started growing, you only need water two or three times a week. Winter crops need a brief sprinkle. Summer crops are larger and can use a deeper soaking. Most people overwater; it’s better to water deeply and not so often. Putting a layer of compost on top of the soil will help retain moisture. We all must strive to conserve water!
Common Mistakes and Misconceptions: Planting seeds in “hills” does not mean making mounds of soil! It’s an old-fashioned term for planting in clusters to save water and effort. Squash and melons are often planted this way. For instance, zucchini is often planted in groups 3 feet apart. Mark the spots, enrich the soil, and the form a basin, not a mound at each spot. Plant 6-8 seeds in each basin and water. When the seeds sprout, thin to 3 plants per basin Use the basins to water the plants deeply, leaving the soil surface in between dry. The plants will grow like crazy and form big, mounded clusters—those are the hills.
“California doesn’t have seasons.” Do you lie on the beach in February? No, and it’s too cold for tomatoes, too. Even if the days are warm in winter, the nights are cold, and summer crops like tomatoes and corn will not do well. Instead, spend the winter growing plants that like the cold, such as salad greens of all types, root vegetabes, the entire cabbage family, and peas.
Summer vs Winter Crops: In general, summer crops are those from which we eat the fruit or seed. Fruit crops include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, melons, and okra. Seed crops include beans and corn, (however, peas and fava beans are cool season seed crops.) Winter crops tend to be leaves (lettuce, spinach, cabbage), roots (carrots, turnips, radishes), and flowers (broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes). Our mild summers allow some sturdy greens like chard, kale, and collards to produce all year.
Refer to our VeggiePlantingGuidefor the optimum time to plant individual crops.
TMI: The information age offers us entirely too many conflicting ideologies on the correct way to plant a garden. Square foot, lasagna layers, double digging, no-till, and so on. No wonder new gardeners feel intimidated and overwhelmed. Turn off you computer and come out into the sunshine. Plants want to grow, and they will grow well under all sorts of systems.
And finally, the Perfect Garden doesn’t exist. The pictures you see in garden magazines are staged and cropped to eliminate all imperfections. No matter how carefully you plan you plot, nature will interfere and mess it up a bit. Don’t be discouraged. Learn to expect the unexpected and go with the flow.
- Joe Corso