By Jodi Torpey
I’ve been vegetable gardening for many years in the Mountain region, and I’ve learned gardening takes work, patience, and a little bit of luck with the weather. I’ve also learned a few shortcuts that make gardening easier, especially if you’re a beginner.
Here are five keys to grow a successful garden in one of the most challenging environments in the country.
1. Start with good soil
Soil in the Mountain region typically has too much clay, too much sand, or is made of decomposed granite. It’s important to start with loamy, fertile soil if you want a productive vegetable garden.
You can amend your current soil with lots of organic matter, such as compost, or you can plant in a raised bed garden. This is a square or rectangular planting space made from a kit, or 2x8 or 2x10 lumber cut to size.
Keep each bed a manageable size, so you can reach the middle from the sides. Fill about 9 to 12 inches deep with garden soil; or topsoil mixed with compost, plus peat moss to loosen it up.
Raised beds are easy to plant, warm up faster in spring, and are just the right size for a first-time vegetable gardener. An even easier alternative is to plant your vegetable garden in good-size containers with drainage holes.
Be sure to place your garden in the sunniest spot and close to a water source. Vegetables need about 6 to 8 hours of sun every day during the growing season.
2. Be realistic
This may be your first vegetable garden, but you wouldn’t be the first gardener who regretted planting too much. I remember buying dozens of seed packets for my first garden because there were so many things I wanted to grow. When I started planting, I realized how much work it would take for a garden that size, and many of those packets didn’t even get opened.
Be realistic about the vegetables you want to plant, care for, and harvest. Keep in mind if you plant all your lettuce seeds early in the season, all your lettuce is ready to eat at the same time.
Prevent waste by planting only the vegetables you enjoy eating. My first few (realistic) vegetable gardens consisted of only tomato and chile pepper plants because those are my two garden-fresh favorites.
3. Give plants a great start
Many first-time vegetable gardeners are in such a hurry to get started, they rush the season. Mountain region gardeners know it pays to be patient. Planting at the right time gives plants their best chance for a productive season.
Before planting warm-season vegetables, such as tomatoes, beans, eggplant and squash, wait for the weather to warm until nighttime temperatures are a reliable 50°F to 55°F. If you want to get a head start on our typical short growing season, use water-filled plant protectors that keep plants warm during cool nights.
It’s also important to give plants plenty of room to grow. Read seed packets and planting tags carefully, and follow the planting, spacing, and thinning recommendations.
4. Use layers of mulch
After planting your vegetables, add a 2–4-inch layer of organic mulch around each plant. Mulch helps conserve water because it keeps the soil moist. Mulch also helps prevent weeds from sprouting. Use straw, leaves, or untreated grass clippings. (Let them dry out first.)
While mulch helps save water, it’s important to never let the soil dry completely. Keep the root zone of plants moist; a few inches deep when plants are small, and a foot or more as plants grow and roots travel deeper. Drip irrigation is a good way to make sure water gets to plant roots.
5. Harvest vegetables in their prime
Keep an eye on your garden, and clip and pick when vegetables are at peak perfection. The fruits of some plants, including cucumbers and beans, stop producing and go to seed if left on the plants too long. However, if you keep picking them, they continue producing as long as the weather stays warm.
These are just a few of my top vegetable gardening tips for beginning gardeners. What ideas would you add to help a first-time gardener in the Mountain region?