Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Spring 2015 Home & Garden (Sound Publishing).
Just about everyone aspires to have a garden. But many times, they don’t know where to begin.
That’s when the help of others comes in handy. Just ask Master Gardener Peg Tillery.
“The best thing is to do your homework first,” Tillery said. “Read a book, or take a class, or go and talk to an expert at the local gardening center.”
It’s not cheating to ask for help, especially for beginning gardeners, she said. And in this area, it’s necessary so that you’ll get region-specific information that gives you the very best chance of success.
If you’re looking for a book to help start you out, try the Seattle Title gardening book, which is available online or at local nurseries. Tillery also suggests taking classes offered by the WSU Extension Service Master Gardeners.
“We have a lot of really good experienced gardeners around here who know the various parts of Kitsap County and what will grow well in specific areas,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask them for help.”
Whether you plan to grow vegetables or flowers, in your yard, raised garden beds or in containers, the first step after studying is to decide how much time, effort and money you are willing to spend on gardening.
“Start small if you are just beginning,” she said. “And think about plants that won’t need a lot of daily care if you don’t have that kind of time to devote to them.”
Her suggestion is to grow what you like — where it’s varieties of flowers or vegetables.
“Don’t grow peas or beans if you’re not going to eat them,” she said. “Grow what you like to eat.”
Early spring is the time to place a good soil mix in your raised beds and containers, if you’re gardening for the first time. If not, assess the soils in your previous gardens and determine if you need to add new soil and more fertilizer and/or compost.
“Ask the expert at the garden center or soil place to suggest the mix you need, depending on what you’re growing and the drainage,” she said.
Once you have the beds and containers ready, consider planting starts that you purchase from garden clubs.
Tillery said you can start from seeds, but that takes much more care.
“You have to babysit them,” she said. “If you grow your own starts from seeds, you’ll need a place where you can control the moisture and the temperature. And then, once you plant them outdoors, to be successful, you’ll need a sheltered area, such as a cold frame or hoop house.”
Too, she said, think about sharing with another gardener, because most times you’ll grow way more starts than you can ever plant and care for.
“Most gardeners only start seeds if they know they won’t be able to find those specific varieties in starts elsewhere,” she said.
Once you begin to plant the starts in pots or raised beds, think about lettuce, spinach, radishes and snap peas. They will do well in spring when crops need cooler temperatures.
Summer crops can be anything from tomatoes to peppers, squash, beans, kale and other root vegetables.
“My favorite veggies are ones I can plant directly from seed – carrots, lettuce, peas, beans, beets and even squash,” she said. “The major mistake that happens with seeds not sprouting is that the seeds are planted way too deep. Carrots and lettuce seeds are so tiny that you just barely sprinkle soil over them and press them flat to touch the soil and they magically sprout. Carrots when they first sprout look like two sprouts of teensy grass blades and then the ferny leaves come next.”
Tillery said another tip is that the leafy plants — lettuce, chard, kale — all can be cut back to eat but leave some leaves still on and these plants will re-sprout. Broccoli re-sprouts continuously too, just cut off the flower part and at every part where you cut the broccoli off, it will re-sprout with smaller broccolis – all summer long, she said.
“It’s way cool,” she said. “Sometimes if plants go to seed (i.e. start sprouting long stems with flowers on them) that part is delicious cut up and stir fried or put in salads.”
And if you plant a summer crop to harvest in the winter, try kale, chard, broccoli, beats and carrots.
“If you’re going to grown a winter crop, be sure to study up on how to do that,” she said. “Try a book called ‘Winter Gardening’ by Binda Colebrook.”
For the beginner, know ahead of time that you are going to have failures.
“Every gardener tries every thing at least once,” she said. “If it works, great. If not, you have something more to add to your compost.”
If you’re going to grow in containers, consider smaller quantities. Peas do well and can grow up trellises. Tomatoes do well in pots, too, she said.
A hint is to always look at the instructions on the starts or seeds when purchasing them.
“Make sure they have a 60-day or less maturing season,” she said. “Otherwise, we may not have enough warm days to get a mature crop. Rarely do we have 90 days of hot sun in this area.”
When buying starts, look for those that aren’t “leggy.”
“You want starts with short stems,” Tillery said. “Otherwise, they’ve been too long in their small containers.”
If you’re going to be trying flowers, think about how much sun your beds or containers will get.
“Again, grow what you like,” she said. “Go for a walk around your neighborhood and see what grows well in your area. Look at the display gardens at the local nurseries.”
Bulbs are easy to plant and don’t take a lot of care, she said. Fuchsias grow well here, as do dahlias. But again, Tillery suggests beginning with starts purchased from local garden clubs.
If you are wanting to try gardening, but not quite ready, Tillery suggests renting a space in local pea patch garden.
“It’s a good way to get your hands dirty,” she said. “It’s possible for $40 to $50 a season. And then, you’ll have others right there to ask questions of and to help you out.”
Pea patch gardens are available in most Kitsap County communities. Find out more from local parks and recreation departments.
And remember, if you grow more than you need, local food banks want your extras. Check with them to determine how they want freshly grown vegetables packaged.
To learn more. go to www.kitsapgardens.org. Also visit the Heritage Garden at Kitsap County Fairgrounds behind Presidents Hall, by the log cabin. WSU Kitsap Extension Master Gardeners are there every Tuesday morning to show people how to grow both food plants and decorative plants.
Here’s a great WSU Extension publication to take a look at http://cru.cahe.wsu.edu/CEPublications/EM057E/EM057E.pdf.