The great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll wrote, “A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches us to trust.”

My maternal grandparents were great gardeners because they had to be. Their multi-generational subsistence farm was full of life and work during The Great Depression, the Second World War and the polio epidemic. They grew almost everything they had to eat with the exception of white sugar and some grains. Many of my earliest childhood memories were made in that garden, harvesting and preserving the mounds of vegetables and fruit it produced.

Every year, I grow a vegetable garden with my family at our home. Over the years, we have learned to grow what we like to eat, not grow more than we need or can share, and to contain the beds and mulch the rows to suppress weeds. We like to try something new each year and we always grow sunflowers and zinnias for cutting.

If you’ve been thinking about trying to grow vegetables, here are some suggestions to help you get started:

In this mountainous area with many altitudes and aspects, you need to know your site and your soil. If you are breaking up a new patch of earth or building raised beds, make sure the location is in full sun and that the soil is friable – meaning that it has some organic matter mixed with the clay and that it drains well. A simple test is to take some soil into your hand and make a fist around the soil ball. Open your hand and if the soil ball breaks apart, your soil is friable and not too wet or clayey for planting. Vegetables, cut flowers and herbs need at least six to eight hours of sun a day to grow well and produce fruits.

Typically, spring temperatures fluctuate. Right now, it’s best to start cold season vegetables, such as lettuces, kale, spinach, radish and mixed greens by directly sowing seed. Kohlrabi, cabbage, onions and broccoli are best grown by purchasing starter plants from a local nursery or farmer’s market. Tomatoes and peppers are warm season crops and should not be planted until late May.

Two methods for getting started: The left image depicts the broccoli and lettuce transplants I currently have under grow lights. The right shows some lettuce mix seedlings coming up in my cold frame.

Starting from Seed

If you want to start your garden from seed, purchase from a reputable supplier and prepare the soil in either a cold frame or in ground bed that can be covered with a sheet or lightweight spun fabric made for this purpose. When sowing seed, use a soilless media mix of peat moss, finely ground bark or compost, perlite and/or vermiculite, which are available from garden center outlets and big box stores. Many of these businesses remain open during Stay Home, Stay Safe orders and some even offer curbside pickup when you call ahead.

Some seeds, like okra, benefit from a bit of extra attention before sowing. In the following video, my colleague June Jolley shares her tips for success with getting these vegetables off to a good start:

Tips on Tools

Some basic tools you need to grow a vegetable garden include a planting trowel, a planting string attached to two sharpened sticks, a hoe or long handled cultivating tool, and a sturdy bucket for weeding and watering new transplants.

If you are building raised beds, choose non-treated lumber for the sides and bagged media that is made of 60% topsoil, 30% compost and 10% soilless media to fill the beds. Vegetables and herbs need soil to grow best, so topsoil is very important in this mix. Raised beds are similar to gardening in containers. You will need to pay attention to soil condition, nutrition, pests/disease and watering throughout the growing season.

Try growing some veggies and herbs this year. Be patient and watchful as they grow and mature and I know the time spent outdoors will feed your soul and eventually your belly, too!

Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources that contain more detailed information on vegetable gardening: