Tips for starting a new garden

In every lawn lies the potential for a garden. We can begin to cultivate edible landscapes where monocultured lawns now reign, lessening our food bills and food miles, and helping us reclaim vital knowledge and autonomy. With veganic gardening, animal products and chemicals are eschewed, and the soil is nourished with vegetation.

This article gives some general tips for starting a new garden. Visit our other articles to learn about how to keep your soil fertile, the myriad "styles" of veganic gardening, and to learn different ways to prepare the soil for a new garden.

Finding and sharing land

Gardening is simple for people who have yards, though even those of us who are landless can still become gardeners: between community gardens, collective gardens, guerrilla gardening, container gardening on rooftops and balconies, indoor sprout farms, and cultivating your neighbor’s yard, there are plenty of opportunities to become active horticulturalists. Or, if unable to start a garden this year, we can concentrate on wild harvesting and urban fruit gleaning as ways of participating in the food cycle.

Looking for land? Or have a backyard that is bigger than your needs? Consider sharing on Sharing Backyards. Want to collect urban fruit or share your harvest? Visit Gather It, Serious Eats and Neighborhood Fruit.

Start small, start simple

Start small: If you’re new to gardening, start small, and expand your garden each year as you gain more experience. It’s better to start with small successes than be overwhelmed by a big project. Consider asking friends, family, and neighbors if they’d like to help for the whole season as co-gardeners, or if they’d be willing to care for the garden in your absence.

Start simple: When you first begin to garden, you can speak with local gardeners about which plants do well in your bioregion. You may wish to start with easy-to-grow plants like radishes, lettuce, beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. In future years, you can experiment with a wider variety of plants.

Frontyard edible landscaping

Edible gardens needn’t be hidden away in backyards: antioxidant-rich herbs, greens, and edible flowers like pansies and chamomile can be elegantly incorporated in frontyard landscaping. Strawberry plants make an attractive groundcover, and berry bushes can form an edible hedge. Jerusalem artichoke plants produce brilliant yellow flowers, similar to a small sunflower, as well as yearly harvest of root vegetables. Kale, cabbage, and parsley are sometimes used by professional landscapers for their decorative qualities: you can do the same, and eat it too.

Sun exposure

Sun exposure: Ideally choose an area that receives plenty of sunlight, preferably with southern exposure. Watch the path of the sun over the course of a day to see which areas receive the most sun or shade. Remember that the sun’s angle is lower in the winter than the summer, and keep in mind that trees will cast a significant shadow once they grow leaves.

Shade-tolerant plants: For those who don’t have access to a sunny location, here is a list of plants that do well in shaded environments: Amaranth, swiss chard, beets, borage, broccoli, calendula, nasturtium, celery, chervil, red cabbage, green cabbage, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower, pumpkin, cucumber, squash, cress, endives, spinach, fava beans, kale, lettuce, nettles, parsnips, leeks, peas, beans, potatoes, purslane, turnips, radish, rutabaga, and salsify. As a general rule, root vegetables tend to tolerate shade, as well as plants from the chenopodiaceae family (spinach, beets, swiss chard...) and the brassicaceae/cruciferae family (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower...)

Soil types

It can be helpful to know the characteristics of your soil.

A light sandy soil, for example, is easy to work with, though the soil has difficulty retaining water or nutrients. A heavy clay soil is higher in nutrients, though doesn’t drain well in the rain and becomes hard when dry. Ideal soils are loams, a mixture of sand, silt and clay, as they are relatively easy to work with, and have appropriate levels of nutrients and water retention for most garden plants. Though, if you find yourself with a soil type that is not ideal, luckily the remedy is always the same: adding more organic matter, such as compost and decomposing leaves, will be helpful to both sandy and clay soils. For an easy do-it-yourself test to find your soil type, download this simple PDF from Michigan-Garden.com.

You may also want to learn about other aspects of your soil, such as pH and organic matter content, as it may help you understand how to best interact with your soil. However, this isn’t necessary to begin a garden! You can easily begin a garden with little knowledge of your soil, and you’ll learn how to interact with your land through experience.

Preparing the ground

There is more than one way to prepare the ground for planting. The patient approach involves no-till techniques, where organic matter is built up on top of the lawn without damaging the underlying soil structure. No-till techniques are easy to install and low-maintenance, allowing a simple garden to be planted the first year and a full garden the second year. The hurried approach involves digging or tilling, which is initially labour intensive though allows a full garden to be planted the first season. You may also consider raised beds, where beds are created above the normal ground level. Click here to learn more details about preparing the ground for a new garden.

Don’t compact the soil

Whatever approach you take to starting a garden, make sure you don’t compact the soil in the area where your plants are growing. It’s important to clearly distinguish pathways between the plant beds, as stepping or kneeling in the wrong place will lead to unnecessary compaction. Plant roots and soil organisms are like us: they need water and food, but above all else, they need air.

Stay curious

This article is intended to give basic tips to get you started in the right direction for your first garden. Remember, there are many ways to garden that go beyond the classic format of rows of tomatoes! As you learn more about gardening through hands-on experience, take the time to learn more about the approaches, fertility techniques and theory of ecological gardening. There are many options for diversifying your garden as you develop your skills.


7 August 2011
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