You’ve decided this is the year you want to try your hand at growing vegetables. Prices are soaring on everything all over the place, people are spending more time at home, and growing your own food sounds like a good way to save some money. So how do you do this the right way? How expensive is this going to be to get started? In this space over the coming months, I’ll try to answer some of those questions to help guide you in the right direction.
After focusing nearly 15 years of my horticultural career on strictly ornamental plants, I had the thought about six years ago that I wanted to get really good at growing vegetables. I bought back my childhood home in the mountains overlooking a picturesque view of a horse pasture with a mountain range in the background. I began to rehabilitate the borders that my dad and I had planted, expanded them, and then expanded them some more. I began to watch British gardening shows and made up my mind that I wanted a large garden that nobody else in their right mind would have the time or interest to take care of. I even named it. Meadowview. Why am I telling you this? In the vegetable world, I’m a beginner too. I just have a 5-6 year head start. You can learn a lot in that time, and certainly not come close to becoming an expert, if there is such a thing anyway. Weather conditions change from year to year. Insects and diseases you didn’t have to deal with in prior years show up. Every year, there will be some kind of failure. Don’t let it scare or discourage you. You may have time to correct a failure in the same growing season, and if not, the next year the same crop may be a tremendous success.
The Planting Area
The first thing to do when you’ve decided to take the plunge is find a site that is sunny and easy to access. It is essential to have a water source close by, whether it be a hose near your house or rain barrels installed on the back of a barn like me. If you don’t have a close water source, and have to drag hoses or watering cans 150 feet to your veg plot, you’re going to get tired of watering very quickly. That’s why I got the rain barrels. Most vegetables need direct sunlight for a large part of the day. Once a site is chosen, decide if you’re going to strip the turf for an in-ground plot, or install a raised bed. Either one works, but if your native soil needs amending, you’re going to have to do a lot more work to make it suitable for growing vegetables. They’re greedy, hungry plants, and require a lot of good stuff in the soil. I amend and mulch with garden compost or mushroom manure every year in my in-ground area.
Raised beds are a great option because you can fill them with good garden soil right away. You can decide on the length, width and height and customize them to whatever fits your needs. These can be constructed with wood if you like to build things, or they can be purchased in various sizes online. They can be made of metal or plastic. If you build them with wood, remember not to use treated lumber. Everything you grow is going to wind up in your kitchen and you don’t want toxic chemicals leaching into the soil. Filling them with soil can be an investment to start with, but in the following years you’ll only have to top dress with good compost. One trick that can be utilized is to fill the bottom of the structure with branches, grass clippings, leaves, and any other natural material you have that will eventually decompose. This takes up space and lessens the amount of soil you’ll need to purchase, but these materials will turn into soil probably within a year.
If you don’t have time to do either of these options, many vegetables grow perfectly well in large pots and containers. They’re a great way to get started, and you probably already have some of these at home. If you don’t, they can be purchased at any good garden center or home/farm store. These containers and pots can be placed close to the house where you can easily attend to them. Once it’s harvest time, there are only a few steps from the kitchen to grab your ingredients. I grow tomatoes in my main veg plot, but I also grow 6-8 additional cherry tomatoes in nice 7 gallon nursery pots on my back porch to snack on and use in salads.
What Tools Do I Need?
This is a pretty short section. You’ll need a good spade or shovel. If you’re me, you need about 10 different ones. You’ll want to get a good garden rake to spread out that soil and scratch it to a nice tilth. Tilth is one of my favorite garden words. A hoe is needed to pull out weeds and make good rows. Having a long-handled pointed hoe is great for making rows or trenches to direct seed, and it keeps you from having to get down on your hands and knees. There are also more specific weeding types, like hula hoes and Dutch hoes. I like to have a good set of pruners and/or scissors on hand all through the growing season for the purpose of harvesting and also to remove undesirable leaves and fruits/veg. I would also recommend having a high-quality hand trowel, wheelbarrow, and easy to carry watering can. A good garden fork is probably the last must-have tool that I would recommend. A long-handled manure or hay fork works, but for turning compost into the soil I think a shorter handled fork works better. I buy good quality wooden tools that last a long time. If fiberglass handles are more your thing, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Whatever you do buy, take care of them.
What To Grow?
The answer to that is easy. What do you like to eat? If nobody in your family likes cabbage, why grow cabbage? I have to admit that I break this rule. I like an attractive, orderly vegetable garden. I enjoy going to my back garden and seeing something that looks like it should be in a magazine. I don’t always have the time to use my cabbage, kale, or Swiss chard, but man they’re pretty showy plants. The nice thing is that I can harvest it and give it to friends if I don’t have the time to use it myself. It’s important not to go overboard when you’re starting out. Pick some main things that you want to grow and eat, research the things those plants like and don’t like. Find out about the diseases and pests you might run into and go from there. Once you are confident that you can grow those things well, expand a little bit every year if you want to. I started out with summer crops like tomatoes, sweet corn, zucchini, bush beans, and cucumbers. I branched out in subsequent years to crops that like cooler weather such as lettuce, arugula/rocket, mustard, turnips, radishes, and the brassicas (we’ll talk about those next time).
The next question you’ll probably need to consider is whether you’re going to buy each plant individually or grow your own from seed. When the season is fully upon us, we’ll have a lot of options in 4-inch containers at the nursery to choose from, many of which are locally grown.
There isn’t any shame in starting out with plants that are already part of the way there. Purchasing individual plants is probably better for beginners with limited time and space. You can judge how many plants you want to grow depending on the size of your family and how much you want to harvest. Seed starting is certainly cheaper, but can be intimidating. There is also the extra cost of supplies needed to get started. The benefits are there though. You can grow a lot of plants for very little money. You can buy a lot of unique varieties that stores and garden centers don’t offer. The final thing we’ll talk about in this edition is what you need to do to get going with seed starting.
What Equipment Do I Need?
Some people may be of the idea that you can start your seedlings near a sunny window. I hate to say it, but they’re wrong. The light that comes through even a south facing window just isn’t bright enough for growing strong seedlings, especially in Pittsburgh. To get started with seeds, you’ll need a few main things. The first piece of equipment you need is a good table with grow lights. You don’t have to go out and buy the most expensive set-up you can find online. I make do with a folding table and some shop lights for now and do just fine. But those lights need to be bright enough. To get seedlings started you have to have lights that are at least 2000-3000 lumens. As seedlings turn into bigger plants, something like 5000-6000 lumens would be even better. With time, if you feel so inclined, you can upgrade to specialty lights designed specifically for growing plants. You don’t have to spend that money to get started though. Weak light will result in long, stretched seedlings that are desperately searching for stronger light, and those probably won’t result in nice strong plants.
The second thing you’ll need are sturdy growing trays and containers. You can buy trays with drainage holes or without drainage holes. You can buy them with pots or growing cells included if you’d like. But, about those drainage holes. Which is better? I use both. To start off, I use trays with no drainage. I do this so I can fill the tray part-way with water. When you fill your growing containers with moist growing media (more on that in a second), I find it best to water there on out from the bottom, allowing the soil to draw up moisture. Seeds need good contact with the soil to germinate, and you’ve come too far to knock them all out of place by watering above from a can or a hose. Once roots are formed, they’ll grow stronger if they have to reach down into the soil to search out moisture. Make them work for it a little bit. It is essential that seeds and seedlings do not dry out while they’re germinating and establishing. Again, you’ve come too far to lose your plants to neglect. Once you’ve filled your tray with water, allow about 30 minutes for saturation depending on the size of your pots or cells. You’ll know they’re moist enough when the top of the growing media looks darker. They just need to be moist, not soaked. Young seedlings can easily rot if they’re overly saturated. Remove your pots or growing cells and empty the water out of the tray. Once I have plants that are established enough to start top-watering, if it’s still not time to think about moving them outdoors, I switch over to trays with drainage holes.
The third thing you’ll need is proper growing media or soil. Seedlings need light, loose media to get their roots established. They don’t need a lot of nutrition at first. You might be thinking you can just use last year’s old potting soil or garden soil. Maybe… but probably not. Old potting soil can be devoid of any nutrition, which is fine for seedlings starting out, but it can also harbor soil-borne pests and diseases. It’s worth it to spring for the bags of seed starting compost you see in the store. It’s designed for exactly what you’re doing. There is a large movement in recent years to avoid peat-based soils, and rightfully so. Peat is being harvested in Canada and Scotland at alarming rates to supply the horticulture industry. If you want to avoid peat composts, you can use alternatives like coconut coir, perlite, vermiculite, and paper or wool based products. Once you have your growing media, moisten it thoroughly before filling your containers. Leave a bit of room at the top, add your seeds, and cover according to the information on the seed packet. Some larger seeds may prefer to be covered by ¼-½” of compost, while some smaller seeds may only require a very light covering. Press the compost down gently so there is good contact with the soil. I plant 2-3 seeds per cell and thin them once they’ve germinated, leaving the seedling that looks to be the strongest.
Other things you can purchase over time are heating mats, thermostat regulators for those heating mats, even better lights, even sturdier trays and pots, and even a small greenhouse. That’s taking it pretty far. Next time, we’ll get into what to do when your little babies grow into nice, strong plants. We’ll take a look at what spring crops are best direct seeded into the soil. We’ll also get into how to grow some specific cold crops that you can get into the ground in April before it’s time for those tomatoes and peppers. Until then, hunker down for the end of winter, and get outside when you can.