In this time of crisis, I know a LOT of people are looking to start a veggie garden with whatever space they have. The demand is so high that some of my favorite seed sources, like Johnny's, have had to limit orders to commercial farmers only! So how do you get started? Well, I wanted to take a quick aside this week to help anyone looking for answers. I think having more people gardening is great. It will certainly help you appreciate your local farmers! Here is my super quick-start-guide for getting your veggie garden going.
KNOW YOUR SPACE & BUDGET
Before you buy anything, make sure you know what you are working with. How much space do you have to work with? How much room do you have for foot paths? Do you have anything on hand for plants that need support, like trellises? Or would you need to buy pots to put on your balcony? How much are you willing to spend on that stuff? If you are hoping to save money, you will often find that it is cheaper to buy frozen peas than it is to buy all of the things you need for trellising pea plants!
KNOW YOUR SOIL
If you are planning to start a backyard veggie garden, you should also figure out your existing soil composition. You totally took a soil test last year and have the results, right? (I'm kidding...but in future years, you should test your soil. If you're in King County, you can get free soil tests here.) In the absence of a soil test, we are going to be guessing about what nutrients your soil needs, which is kind of a bummer. But you CAN figure out some of your soil composition through what we call the "jar test." Basically, you put some soil and water in a mason jar, shake it up, and let it settle. The sand, silt, and clay particles will separate, and you'll be able to estimate your soil texture. Here is a full how-to guide on how to do this. Does it take 48 hours? YES. Should you do it when you could just buy stuff today? ALSO YES. It's going to make your life a lot easier.
KNOW THE RIGHT SOIL AMENDMENTS
You did the jar test like I told you, yes? Great. Most of us in Seattle will have soil that was trucked in from God-knows-where during construction, which is why it is going to vary a lot even in the same neighborhood. That being said, most of us are going to have some mix of soil that has quite a lot of clay. (But do your jar test!)
With most clay-heavy soils in our area, you will probably want to add two things for sure: organic matter (aka compost), and lime. Organic matter will help your clay soil become a little fluffier and lighter. Add up to 6" if you can afford it. Here is a great calculator to help you figure out how much compost you'll need. Lime will help raise the pH of your soil so that veggies are happier growing there. Just follow the instructions on the packet, because it takes time for it to work, so adding more isn't any better or faster.
Without a real soil test, it will be tough to know more. If you are reclaiming some garden space that has not been used in a while, you can try a LIGHT application of some organic fertilizer when you prepare your beds for planting. Like maybe 1/4 of what they recommend on the packet. That way your plants won't fry, but they will have a little something to get started. If you start seeing wacky things like nothing flowering, tomatoes rotting on the vine, yellow leaves, etc. then you'll want to address those nutrient issues. You can contact Tilth's Garden Hotline and they will help you solve the mystery!
PLAN YOUR GARDEN
Okay, so you know your garden space, you know your soil type, and you kind of know what amendments you need to buy. Now you need to plan what you want to grow. Unfortunately, plants have radically different spacing needs. A broccoli plant may need 18" from its neighbor, whereas a beet needs 4". Here is a quick-and-dirty list of how I space my veggies. Everyone has slightly different guidelines for these things, and this is not a comprehensive list of veggies, but here are mine:
- 24" apart: Tomatoes in cages, squash, zucchini, cucumbers (untrellised), most gourds & melons
- 18" apart: Broccoli, brussels, collards, artichokes, asparagus starts, and cauliflower, rosemary
- 12" apart: Cabbages, kale, chard, eggplants, trellised tomatoes, peppers, trellised beans/peas, head lettuce, okra, and potatoes
- 6" apart: Bok choy, leeks, onions, garlic, trellised cucumbers, leafy herbs like basil and parsely
- 3-4" apart: Spinach, beets, turnips, radishes, baby leafy greens
- 1" apart: Carrots (in little rows 12" apart), baby leafy greens
Figure out what you want to grow, and start plotting it on the space you have. Graph paper is great for this. You may quickly find that growing herbs is easy, but growing more than one head of broccoli will be a challenge! Figure out exactly how many plants you will put in your space, and where they will live. Only then should you start buying stuff!
PLAN TO Buy Starts, not seeds
Seeds are in high demand right now, and as I mentioned, many seed companies are prioritizing commercial growers over the home gardener. Seeds can also be tricky to start for those with no experience, or without the right equipment. So I'm going to suggest that you spend a little extra on buying starts (small plants), rather than seeds. The best place to find amazing starts in Seattle is the Tilth Edible Plant Sale, which is taking online orders this year. You can also find starts at your local nursery--I know that Swanson's and Sky Nurseries in Seattle are both selling vegetable starts right now. And as a last resort, you can also find starts at big box stores like Home Depot.
If you need to start from seed, keep in mind that most vegetables will germinate around 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the variety. This means that in our area, you'll need to at least crank your heat up, if not buy a heat mat. You will also need lights, shelving, and fans to keep those heat-loving suckers inside for another few weeks. Our growing season is too short to just sow tomato seeds and actually have them produce before our first frosts, so all of this setup is necessary to actually get a harvest. It will be way more expensive to invest in all of the equipment versus buying starts.
PREP BEDS & WAIT
You can start prepping your beds NOW, even if you don't have your starts yet. You should probably not plant or buy anything until the last week of April here in Seattle, which is when we have had some tricky last-minute frosts that will destroy your baby plants. Once your beds are prepped, I recommend waiting until you are actually ready to plant before you buy your starts. Otherwise, they are just going to sit around and get unhappy in their tiny little pots.
To prep your beds, you'll want to mark them out, remove existing plant matter, and add your amendments. You only really need to mix the lime in, because you can just add the compost right on top. You don't need a tiller, or any special equipment--just some elbow grease and maybe one of these things to mix stuff in. A shovel does nicely, too!
Plant your babies
Pick an early morning or late afternoon, preferably when it's cloudy, to start planting out your starts. You don't need any special equipment to plant things--just a normal butter knife. Use the knife to gently loosen the plant from the tray, all around the edge, and it will pop right out. Use the knife again to plant by inserting it into the soil, tilting the soil to one side, and popping that plant right in there. Make sure you water those plants really well after you transplant them! Now, it's a game of patience, weeding, regular watering, and harvesting. Our summers are brutally dry, so you need to make sure your plants are getting at least 1" of water per week. And they will need even more when they are young, so no slacking on the watering!
SUPPORT A FARM IF THIS IS NOT YOUR CUP OF TEA
Does this all seem totally overwhelming, not fun, a lot of work, or otherwise not for you? That's what farmers are for. We do this stuff all the time and actually enjoy it, so we're happy to grow things for people like you. If you want flowers, definitely check out the flower CSA in the shop! Deliveries are all paused right now, but signups are still open. And if you are looking for other goodies, you can use the Tilth Farm Guide to find a farm that has what you want! (My farm is in there too.)
I hope this helps those of you trying to figure out how to start a veggie garden! If you still have questions, just ask them below in the comments, and I'll do my best to answer. There are so many great resources out there for beginning gardeners, and I am happy to help you find them. Happy Spring and happy gardening, y'all!