First time gardener......need pointers

live4christp1January 25, 2011

I'd like to start a small garden this year (my parents used to garden). We don't need a huge amount of produce as we are a family of 4 but would like to be able to grow a little fresh produce for better quality than the grocery store.

I'm interested in growing squash (yellow & zuccini), bell peppers, tomatos, cucumbers, broccoli (if that does well in TN), possibly a small row of corn, a couple of plants of beans and peas (prefer one's with edible pods), purple & yellow onions, maybe some spinach.

Would also like to do a hill of pumpkins (for carving), watermelons, cantelope and possibly some strawberries.

I helped my mom and dad a little when I was a child but I don't know much about growing my own garden. Hope to get my two kids involved, they are 8 & 13.

Also any tips on starting a small window herb garden.


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I don't want this to become a huge undertaking as my husband is deployed and don't want to bite off more than I can chew. Probably just a few plants of each to start and then next year we can increase the size as he will be home to help.

    Bookmark   January 25, 2011 at 10:05AM
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I'm catching this a little late, hopefully you're still checking in. I've just started gardening myself a couple of years ago, and it's been a lot of trial and error. Here's what I have learned from my attempts.

Overall tips: Research the best planting times. TN has a long growing season. You'd be surprised how early you can/should plant some things.

Mulch is your friend. Weeding is a real PIA, especially in July and August. Newspaper and bagged grass clippings make great, frugal mulch.

I keep a notebook and look up each plant online. There are tons of great tips and tricks to be found.

Don't use just sand to amend heavy clay soil. You'll just make something akin to concrete.

Dig deep trenches in the spring to channel excess rain away from your garden, if it gets swampy. Every spring I get puddles of standing water, unless I do this. Once the weather starts getting drier, I fill the trenches with anything compostable, and cover with scavenged boards or cardboard. By the next year, the compost is almost completely broken down. Then I can plant in the old trenches, and dig new trenches in the more clay-like areas. Eventually, I'll have more good dirt than clay.

Squash/pumpkins: Watch out for squash beetles! If you see any sign of them, try to get rid of them fast and early. I'm not into using pesticides, but these bugs are making me think about using some. Also, if you want your pumpkins for carving, don't plant too early. They take about 4 months, so you don't need to plant them until June.

Peppers: Peppers seem to be fussy. They like temps that are never less than 55 degrees at night. Starting them from seed is really challenging. There's a great FAQ on here for peppers:

Tomatoes: When I plant my tomatoes, I put banana peel, coffee grounds, dried egg shells and some grass clippings in each hole. Make deep holes, so that you can put in the amendments, a later of soil so the roots aren't sitting right on the compostables, and still bury the plant up to it's lowest set of leaves.

Cucumbers: Giant sunflowers make a great trellis for cucumbers, plus, they help attract pollinators.

Broccoli: I haven't tried to grow this, but I did try cauliflower one year. They both prefer cooler temperatures, so it may be a bit late for planting broccoli, unless you get some good plants from the store. Beware of cabbage worms. They'll devour your plants before you know it.

Corn: I've tried multiple times to grow corn. It's very easy to grow the stalks, but getting edible ears is a trick. You have to plant enough of them, closely enough, to make sure they pollinate well. I have consistently planted too few, or too far apart, and found myself with pathetic looking ears with only a few plump kernels. Japanese Beetles love corn silk, and if they eat all of the silk, there's no way for the kernels to pollinate. Honestly, for all of the time, effort, and cost involved in growing corn, you're better off just buying it from the farmers' market.

Peas/Beans: Both are great, easy plants. Peas prefer cooler temps. If you haven't planted your peas yet, plant them now, and give them part shade. Once the heat kicks up, your peas are done until fall. Also, plant more peas and beans than you think you'll need. Both can be planted closer together than the packets say. Give peas and pole beans plenty of trellis to grow on. I just use really twiggy branches, sometimes called "pea brush." It's free, and works just as well, if not better, than store bought trellis.

Onions: These are also tricky to start from seed. The sprouts look way too much like grass, and onions don't like all the competition from weeds. For a small garden, buying onion sets isn't as expensive as it sounds. Check stores like Ace and Tractor Supply. You can buy the onion sets by weight, and it's tons cheaper than packs of onion sets from places like Lowes or WalMart.

Spinach: Spinach requires cool temps. Otherwise they'll bolt, which means they'll start growing flowers so fast that you won't get good leaves to eat.

Watermelons/cantaloupe: Both of these need lots of room for their vines to spread, but you can save yourself some space by giving the vines something to grow over, like a fence or trellis. It has to be sturdy to handle the weight of the growing fruit, and cantaloupe will need some kind of net to hold it onto the vine until harvest. With both, keep them consistently watered, but not too much close to harvest time. Too much water, late in the season, will dilute the flavor.

Strawberries: These need their own, dedicated bed, since they're perennial. Your plants will be stronger, and grow better fruit, if you pluck all of the flowers this year, and let them grow fruit next year.

Window herb garden: I haven't had much luck with container gardening. You need to water frequently, sometimes 2-3 times a day, in the heat of the summer, depending on the herb. I grow all of my herbs outside. I'll just list what I grow, and my advice on those. I mulch my herb garden with sand. Most of the herbs I grow like having loose soil, and the sand makes weeding really easy.

Rosemary: These like full sun. Once the plant is well established, keep it pruned. I like to dry bundles of rosemary, then grind the needles into a powder. No pine needle-like texture this way, just rosemary flavor. Rosemary can overwinter in our area, provided the winters aren't too harsh. I had a really great shrub going for 4 years, despite it being in an overly shady spot. This past winter did it in, tho. I think the combo of too cold, plus the weight of the snow piling on it was what finished it off.

Sage: Easy to grow from seed. Prune it when it gets too bushy, and dry the leaves.

Oregano: Another one that's easy to grow from seed. It also reseeds itself nicely. Also good for drying.

Mint: Give mint it's own place to grow, somewhere you won't mind it spreading. Mint will grow and grow, taking over wherever you put it. Great for containers. You can mow it, rip out handfuls of it, and it will keep coming back, year after year.

Basil: Basil likes warm temps and full sun. Once the plants are established, pinch back the tips frequently. This makes the plant branch out and grow more leaves, instead of flowers and seeds. Basil is actually a great companion plant for tomatoes. Put a few plants here and there between your tomatoes, and you'll have plenty for cooking.

Parsley/cilantro: Just spread the seed, keep it moist, and let it go to town. If you plant enough, you can pinch back the seed stalks on some, so you have a constant supply of leaves, and let others set seed for the new year. Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars love parsley. So far, I have been able to share with them, and still have plenty for myself. It's nice having the butterflies around.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2011 at 11:13AM
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heathersgarden(6b/7a Mid TN)

It's so wise of you to want to keep this first garden manageable... you might even want to consider limiting yourself to less than 6 varieties so you can really learn the nuances of their needs before expanding. The best advice I can give is look for a book 'Square foot gardening' from the library. It'll give you some wonderful guidelines for starting a small, productive edible garden.

Best of luck, and happy gardening!

    Bookmark   March 22, 2011 at 8:33AM
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Also catching this late, but... Okra does REALLY well here. Year before last we had success with corn planted in 2 raised beds (4' x 8' X 6") filled with good topsoil, placed on top of TN red dirt that had been tilled and mixed with compost. About 15 stalks per bed. Can't beat home grown corn!

Giant sunflowers go crazy here, too, as do rasp/blackberries (a little too well, honestly). Sugar snap peas also grow like weeds for us, and as someone pointed out - plant them now if you haven't already. We do peas and beans along the back of our garage, as it's one of the few places that gets some shade.

No luck so far with the cool weather stuff (broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, etc.) :( Our whole front yard is green onions right now, and we don't even try to grow those. ;)

Watering is crucial in TN, especially if you're in direct sun all/most of the time. Most of our garden failed last year because we got lazy with the watering schedule. Only the stuff close to the house did well. ;)

We have 2 raised beds closer to the house (same dimensions as above) that were enough to supply us with more tomatoes, eggplants and peppers than we knew what to do with - especially tomatoes!! wow!

We buy nursery stock (except corn, cukes, zucchini, okra, melons, pumpkins), and do our planting mid-May. Some stuff you could get away with growing twice per season, depending on when you plant.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2011 at 3:27PM
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