Garden Plot: Secrets of success for first-time growers

When I was Editor-in-Chief of Organic Gardening magazine back in the 1990s, we had a training exercise where we had to pick one other editor to be stranded on a desert island with.

The editor I got along with the least instantly picked me. When I asked why, he said, “At least I’ll have plenty to eat.”

We’re all on desert islands now, and many of you want to have a food garden over the summer for the first time — both to keep busy, and have fresh-grown food without having to wear a mask to get it. Here are the basics for first-time success.

Start small and know thy crops

  • Start small. Don’t try and establish a farm overnight. Only plant what you can manage — which is much less than you think.
  • Don’t plant warm weather crops like peppers and tomatoes until the 10-day forecast shows nights consistently in the 50s.
  • Know thy seasons. Cool-weather crops like spinach, lettuce, kale and peas won’t last through the summer, and summer crops like tomatoes and peppers can’t stand chilly nights, so harvest all your lettuce and such when summer heat hits, and plant them anew as soon as summer heat breaks. That’s three seasons: spring crops; summer crops; fall crops.
  • Lettuce, spinach, kale, beets, radishes, zucchini and string beans are always ripe. If you can see it, you can (and should) eat it.

Tomatoes, peppers and cukes, oh my!

  • Tomatoes: Small, compact “determinate” varieties are best for beginners. They’ll have a days-to-maturity rating of around 55 to 70 days and produce a lot of fruit on well-behaved plants that require minimal support. Great for containers, too.
  • Peppers: Classic varieties like California Wonder take a long time to reach full size and then another two weeks to a month to fully color up, so look for sweet peppers with shorter days to maturity, like Italian frying peppers and mini, or “baby” bells. They’ll color up fast. Don’t eat green peppers unless frost is predicted; they’re not ripe or nutritious.
  • Grow cucumbers upward on a trellis or inside a tomato cage to save space and get cleaner fruits.

Dos and don’ts

  • Growing zucchini and other summer squash? Look for compact “bush” style plants.
  • String beans, also known as green beans. Look for “bush” types here as well. They stay small and compact, whereas “pole” beans require a very tall trellis.
  • Pumpkins: Don’t. It sounds like fun, but they’ll overrun your garden faster than kudzu.
  • Potatoes: One of the easiest crops to grow. Look for certified disease-free “seed potatoes” and do not cut them up or “coin” them. Plant them whole; and consider growing them in a big
    “potato bin.”
  • Starting plants indoors from seed: Don’t. It’s best to have a couple of years gardening experience before you start trying to start your own plants indoors. It’s also much too late in the season to start summer crops from seed.

Raise those beds!

  • Don’t till! It destroys soil structure, releases nutrients and creates tremendous weed woes. Build raised beds to spec instead and you’ll never walk on the soil, which means no need to till.
  • Raised beds deliver twice the food in half the space. Scalp the area with a lawn mower set as low as she goes, cover the space with a single layer of cardboard and create dedicated areas four feet wide for growing with two-foot walking lanes all around. Frame them about a foot high with low-grade cedar or redwood, bricks, cinder blocks or pavers, or just plain old cheap untreated pine. Don’t use any kind of treated wood or railroad ties.
  • Fill the beds with a mixture of compost and/or aged-mushroom soil, good-quality topsoil and perlite (for drainage). Don’t use garden soil.
  • Don’t use wood ashes, milled peat moss or manures of any kind unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing.

Getting the plants and keeping them alive

Mail order seed companies are overwhelmed right now, so make sure you know shipping dates before you buy.

Your best bet is always a local independent garden center. Call ahead to see what their hours and conditions are.

And don’t forget people like me. If you have friends or neighbors who always start way too many plants, ask for some of their extras — and advice.

Don’t use chemical fertilizers, herbicides or fungicides. They’re unnecessary and weaken plants.

Always wear gloves. Baseball batting gloves are an excellent choice and widely available in a large number of different sizes.

There’s no need to feed your plants if your newly-constructed beds have a good amount of compost or aged mushroom soil mixed in. If the beds are existing, the best fertilizer is a fresh two-inch layer of compost on the surface of the soil, not tilled in.

And finally … remember to breathe, grasshopper.

Mike McGrath was editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and WTOP Garden Editor since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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