As gardening season wraps up here at The Prairie Homestead, I always like to take stock of the lessons I learned this season and what I can improve for next year. I’m thrilled to be welcoming Tiffany from Don’t Waste the Crumbs to the blog today as she shares some of her hard-learned lessons and tips!
Last Christmas, my step-mom gave me one of the best gifts I’ve ever received: four big buckets, a pair of gloves, a watering can and a gift card for dirt.
After paying off debt that surmounted to a small mortgage, my family settled on eating real food on a tiny budget (just $330 each month for a family of four). We want to eat more organic produce, but sometimes it doesn’t fit in the budget between the free-range eggs and organic chicken. In order to help off-set the costs, I wanted to start a garden.
Her gift was the exact push I needed to create my own urban garden in my small backyard, and immediately learned several ways to get the most out of a garden without spending a lot of money.
She gave me a few pieces of advice, like what breed of tomatoes worked best in our cool climate and that if I had to choose between less sun or less wind, choose less wind. But now that I’ve been tending my urban garden for about three months, there are a few other small tidbits that I wish someone had passed on as well.
So to all my fellow first-time gardeners out there, here are seven things you should know before you jump in and get your hands too dirty.
7 Things Every First Time Gardener Should Know
1. Plants need water and water’s not free.
That is, unless you have a well. If you’re fortunate to have your own well, then go ahead and skip on to #2. Otherwise, hear me out.
When you first start the garden, those tiny seeds and/or seedlings don’t need much water. A few cups every few days and they’re good to go.
But remember, these plants are going to grow and keeping up with their water intake might be like trying to satiate a teenage boy. The whole point to growing a garden is to save money, and if you’re not careful, the funds you save on food will start going towards your water bill.
Before you go broke trying to water your garden, consider these tips on doing it for free. Our garden isn’t huge by any means, but by faithfully employing a few of those ideas, we’re able to keep our water bill increase at a manageable $1-2 each month.
2. Plants need food.
Another seemingly no-brainer, but give this one some thought. Plants need three main nutrients to thrive: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Plants can get these nutrients through the planting soil and sometimes neighboring plants, but once it’s gone, it’s gone!
Feed your plants by preparing the soil before you even plant anything, and fertilize the plants throughout the season. This is especially important if the soil in your area is poor (or isn’t even soil, like the sand my backyard). Fertilizer can be expensive too if you have a large garden and are feeding the ground/crops year round, so consider these 50 ways to fertilize your garden for free to help keep expenses down.
3. Start small.
Gardens require on-going attention on a near daily basis and even a small garden can take 20-30 minutes each day for upkeep, pruning, feeding, watering, de-bugging, troubleshooting problems, preventative maintenance, harvesting and general upkeep. (Add another 15-30 minutes if you’re a blogger taking pictures of your garden.) Depending on your area, you could be looking at over 60 hours worth of work over the course of the growing season.
Start small with just a few different types of plants in a raised bed (make one for less than $15) or go super-cheap by using containers you already have. When the season is over, you’ll be able to better gauge how much time your garden till take, and you can plant accordingly by adding more or less plants next season.
4. Your neighbor’s garden will be better than yours.
“Don’t worry, it’s your first year!” This little note of encouragement was cute at first, but after dealing with grey flesh fruit flies in my tomatoes, ant-infested spinach, squash bugs, spider mites, powdery mildew and squash that won’t grow no matter what I do, I’m over it. Yes, it’s my first year, but I want my garden to be as nice and produce as much produce as theirs!
Reality check: It won’t. My neighbor’s garden is better because it’s NOT their first year. They’ve suffered through all mildew, aphids and breeds of plants that don’t thrive where they live. They learned those lessons their first year and now have better gardens because of them.
You, my first-time-gardening friend, unfortunately need to learn those lessons the hard way. When this first year is over, you’ll know where your garden struggled and where it thrived, and next year’s garden will be that much better for it.
5. Listen to the experienced gardeners.
As tempting as it may be to ignore the well-intended advice to bury 3/4 of your tomato plant and to bury your potatoes in straw, listen to them. They are the ones who have done this before, right? They’re the ones with the beautiful garden and more zucchini than they know what to do with, right? Exactly. Eat a slice of humble pie, listen to what they say and take their advice.
If they say a certain breed of tomato doesn’t grow in your mild climate, then don’t bother trying it. If they say to give zucchini two feet of space, don’t cram three plants into one pot! Consider these advice-giving friends and neighbors gardening mentors instead of a know-it-alls and your garden will reap the rewards.
6. Consider starting with seedlings instead of seeds.
Starting a garden from the very, very beginning is very rewarding. Watching the seed sprout and then grow more leaves is really a lot of fun! But then there’s transplanting, potential weather shock and the fact that you should have planted those seeds six weeks earlier so you’re not going into winter with green tomatoes and mini-squash.
For the first year, I suggest starting with seedlings that have already been weather-proofed. Plant them after the last frost and you’ll have a greater chance of survival in the first place, which will boost your confidence as a first-time gardener. It will also help your crops to be right on target when it comes time to harvest!
7. Learn from the Problems
When the garden is infiltrated with bugs and disease, it’s tempting to throw in the towel and give up completely. Instead, take the opportunity to find a solution to the problem and test it out. Yellow leaves might mean too little water… or it could mean too much… or it could mean the plant is diverting energy to the fruit… or it could be a sign of something more serious like spider mite infestation. It might be overwhelming, but it’s these trial and errors that will help you garden look like your neighbor’s next year!
Curious what my own garden looks like? Come see how it all began and the progress we’ve made so far!
Bio: Tiffany is a frugal foodie – passionate about feeding her family healthy food, while being a good steward of her family’s finances. She’s a homeschooling mother of two, loving wife to one and a child of God blessed in more ways than she can count. She shares her enthusiasm for affording real food without going broke, and documents her baby-sized strides at Don’t Waste the Crumbs. Join Tiffany and the Crumbs Community on Pinterest, Facebook or via email for encouragement and small, simple steps to healthier living.