A Plan for First-Year Gardeners

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Photo by iStock/cjp
Gardener raking over soil in a raised bed in a vegetable garden, in preparation to start sowing seeds.

Reader-submitted question: I’m feeling overwhelmed because I want to do it all: create new soil, make raised beds, and use the best materials. What’s a good starting point for a new organic gardener? — Shawn Miles

Answer: First of all, the only way to really crush your first-year garden is to go one step at a time and to do each thing mindfully. The first step is to make permanent beds, which don’t necessarily need to be raised. It doesn’t matter so much how you make them — plowing, rototilling, double-digging — it only matters that you make them. One cost-effective and simple way to prepare new ground is to use black ultraviolet-treated polyethylene tarps to smother the growth in an area you’d like to establish. Pull the tarp snug, and keep it in place with bricks, stones, or metal landscape staples. Leave the tarp in place for a few weeks, and when you pull it back, the grass and weeds will have died.

Permanent beds come with permanent paths, and it’s important that you stick to them. Try to keep gardeners’ boots, wheelbarrow wheels, and pets’ paws out of your permanent beds to avoid soil compaction. Loose and fluffy soil means better drainage, a healthier habitat for earthworms, and a better environment for root-crop formation. To aerate your soil manually, consider investing in a broadfork. I put so much stock in this tool that I even named my farm in southern Quebec after it.

After establishing permanent beds, you’ll be in a position to save time and resources by improving the soil in areas that matter most. You can either dig in finished compost or plant cover crops. Clover, rye, legumes, and other cover crops add nutrients to the soil, suppress weed growth, and attract beneficial insects. Go ahead and start a composting routine if you haven’t already; this way, you’ll have an efficient system for transforming garden and kitchen waste into garden gold for years to come.

By prioritizing permanent beds and healthy soil, you’ll have laid a foundation for a productive garden. Down the road, you can test unique heirloom cultivars, implement crop rotations and companion planting, and try all sorts of new seasonal recipes.

Jean-Martin’s book, The Market Gardener, provides more proven horticultural techniques and innovative growing methods.

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Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.