Adapted for central Massachusetts from: Tony Maniezzo, Food Garden Horticulturist
The biggest mistake made by beginning gardeners is starting too big. They are soon overwhelmed by the task, feeling discouraged and guilty. Vegetable gardening should be fun. If it becomes an onerous chore to water, weed, thin and pick, you will probably give up. We all live busy lives. When you start grumbling about going out to the garden after a days work, the garden is going to suffer.
- Start small, gain confidence. A single raised bed 4 feet by 8 or 12 feet is large enough. You can always add beds later as your confidence and skill grows. If you already have a large bed to begin with, consider dividing it up into smaller sections. Maybe plant some flowers or herbs to fill in the area? If your area is large, another idea is to plant squash or pumpkins – they cover a large area and help to reduce maintenance.
- Choose a site that gets at least 6 hours of good strong midday sunlight per day.
- Remove the sod from the site, shake off the soil and add the sod to your compost bin. It speeds up the composting if you rip up the sod into small pieces. If you don’t have a compost bin, build one. You will be doing your garden a favor in the future. I recommend framing in the bed area and creating a raised bed. The soil will warm up sooner in the spring and help to keep weeds out of the bed. Use landscape ties or 2×10 boards. Any depth from 6 to 18 inches will work well. Fill with topsoil.
- Feed the soil, not the plants.
- Add organic matter to a depth of approx. 4 – 6 inches. What the heck is organic matter anyway. It can be compost, peat moss, or well aged animal manure.
- Dig the organic matter into the top layer of soil.
Start sowing early in the season. Early lettuce can be started on a sunny windowsill mid March.
Remember, only grow what you and your family will eat. At this point in your gardening career, don’t worry too much about trying to supply yourself with vegetables that will last all year. What you are trying to do is have small successes that build into something greater over time.
This guide, catalogues, gardening books, and the Internet can be used to help you plan what to grow at different times of the year.
- In early to mid April, sow radishes, peas, and mustard greens.
- In mid April sow salad blends, beets, parsnips, radishes, and spinach.
- In mid to late April sow green onions, carrots, more lettuce and Swiss chard.
- May 25 sow pole beans, turnips, bush beans and corn.
- The last week of May or first two weeks of June sow the creepy crawly things like cucumber, squash, pumpkins, etc.
- In July, sow spinach, mustard greens, Swiss chard and rutabaga.
- In August sow radishes.
- In September, sow radishes, Oriental greens, salad blends and arugula.
Warm season vegetables, such as tomatoes, squashes and peppers, are best bought from a local nursery (at least until you become more skilled at sowing seeds and creating indoor growing space). These are best planted in very late May and early June.
Other vegetables can also be purchased from the nursery and planted earlier. In the early stages of gardening. I recommend this to help with the success of your garden.
Another time of year for planting is August. This is when your winter vegetables would go in. Unfortunately, nurseries don’t seem to carry vegetables at this time of year, so you would have to sow your own in July or purchase plants earlier and plant then.
Weeds rob moisture and nutrients from vegetable plants, therefore you are helping to increase harvests by eliminating competition. Weeds also block sunlight.
Have a positive attitude toward the task. It provides exercise, helps make compost and produces better veggies.
Hoe regularly, even when you don’t see a lot of weeds. This helps to kill germinating seeds and cultivates the soil.
Avoid walking on newly cultivated beds. The soil compaction helps weeds to germinate and destroys soil texture. Use boards for walking on if you must go into the beds.
Make sure you get all the roots of perennial weeds. A tiny root of dandelion or buttercup will quickly regrow into a full size weed.
Weed killer – you decide – I don’t use them.
- To help combat weeds, you can mulch between rows. Mulches such as straw, leaves, grass clippings or pine needles are best. When they breakdown, they benefit the soil.
- Mulching also helps to conserve moisture and modify soil temperature.
- Black plastic can also be used. It works, but personally I think it’s ugly.
- Deep regular watering is best. This allows for better root formation, plant stability and nutrient recovery.
- Hand irrigation is least effective (but is better than nothing).
- Use sprinklers or set up a drip irrigation system.
- Seeds and transplants need to be kept moist. Watering every day may be required, but just while they are getting established. For seeds that are planted deeper, such as beans, drying out is less of a problem.
- Best time to water is early morning. Evening watering keep the plants moist overnight and can increase disease problems.
- Do not wait for plants to show symptoms. Check soil regularly, grab a handful and squeeze it. If particles cling together, it is fine, but if it feels dry and particles separate, it needs watering.
- Lack of moisture shows itself in different ways. Beets stop growing and become fibrous. Radishes grow hollow and stringy. Melons will not set fruit. Corn ears will not fill to the top. Leafy vegetables become bitter. Beans grow distorted. Tomatoes will show physical disorders such as blossom end rot. Squash wilt.
Pests and Diseases
- Try not to get crazy about insects chewing on your plants. If you fret about every little thing, gardening will not be a fun activity. Remember, bugs need to eat too.
- Try not use pesticides. They often kill beneficial insects along with the unwanted ones. If you do need to use a control, please choose the least toxic one.
- Some people have a little success practicing companion planting, e.g. onions and garlic around carrots and other root crops.
- Attract beneficial insects by planting flowers around your vegetable plot. Fennel and dill both attract a beneficial wasp that preys on aphids.
- Become observant. Check for aphids and rub them out with your hand or blast them with the hose.
- Look for cabbage butterfly larvae under the leaves and pick them off. A few holes is not a problem, as it usually the outer leaves that are affected.
- Slugs can be trapped with beer or kept away from vulnerable plants with eggshells.
Some Final Thoughts
These are the basics that should allow you to have a simple yet productive garden. With early success will come enthusiasm. The rest is up to you. Read books, talk to neighbors, use online forums and resources on the Internet, experiment and, above all, have fun. You will soon take the next step, trying new varieties and techniques for an even more rewarding experience – happy eating and enjoy!