Want to Grow Your Own Produce? Tips for Beginning Vegetable Gardeners

By

You see all the beautiful fresh produce at your weekly farmers market and think, “How hard could it be to grow some of this myself?” The short answer: not that hard, provided you choose low-maintenance veggies and follow a few simple rules. We asked Kevin Karl, farm manager at Growing Gardens, a nonprofit in Boulder dedicated to building community through urban agriculture, to help would-be gardeners start to dig in.

Healthy Eats: What do you need to think about before you start planting?

Kevin Karl: Find out what the average last frost date is where you live (here in Boulder, it’s May 15), and plan your planting around that. Seed packets and seed catalog companies are also great at providing detailed information about when to plant and how long each particular plant needs to grow before it’ll be ready to harvest.

garden vegetable

Do you need to do anything to prep the soil before planting?

KK: If you’re doing container gardening, it’s easy to just buy soil and compost and create a healthy, balanced soil. But if you’re planting in a piece of land or a raised bed, it’s worth getting your soil tested to find out what nutrients it could be lacking and what you need to do to ensure your soil has the key nutrients it needs. After testing, use an appropriate slow-release fertilizer — you can do it once before planting and not have to fertilize again until next year. [You can buy at-home soil test kits at places like Lowes and Home Depot, or check with your local state university to see if they have a lab that will test for you.]

Are there ways to limit weeds?

KK: After I fertilize, I water my garden as if I had just planted seeds. Then I wait a couple of weeks. That gives all the weed seeds already in the soil a chance to germinate. Then go through and weed the whole area before you plant anything. That way you’re starting off with a really clean seed bed. It won’t eliminate weeds, but it’ll make maintenance of your garden a bit easier.

What are some of the easiest vegetables to grow?

KK: Greens — like lettuce, kale, spinach and collard greens — are a great place to start. You can grow them from seeds, in the ground or in pots, and they don’t need as much sun as some other plants.

Carrots are another good one for beginners. But keep in mind that they take a while to germinate — people think they’re not coming up, but it just takes longer than you might expect. Tomatoes can be a little trickier, but the payoff of being able to pick a fresh, sun-ripened tomato is worth it. I’d recommend starting with cherry tomatoes, because they don’t take as long to produce and they’re so much fun to pick.

What’s a common mistake you see beginner gardeners making?

KK: They plant their seeds too deep. You don’t want to plant a seed more than twice as deep as the width of the seed — which means for something like carrots or lettuce that have really small seeds, you want to put them just under the surface and barely cover them with dirt.

What’s your advice for people who get frustrated by plants that don’t grow or produce the vegetables they hoped for?

KK: The key is just getting out there and planting things. It will be a learning process, and every year you will learn so much just from doing it. Also, it pays to plant a variety, because one year the weather might be better for tomatoes and the next year you could get only a few tomatoes but a bumper crop of zucchini.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.