Tips for Starting Your Garden from a Master Gardener

Gardening takes study, a plan, and toil, but you can’t beat the rewards when you’re eating your bounty! Every year brings lessons learned. Here are some tips from my experience to get you started:

1. Find good gardening resources. The book I have used and gifted most often is The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith because the author believes in the W-O-R-D method: Wide Rows, Organic Methods, Raised Beds (Border or Not), and Deep Soil. Any other gardening method will take even more due diligence from you, but they are all worth the adventure! This book is also easy to read and is great for looking up topics. The techniques and tips are also very easy to follow. If you pick up a copy, the page numbers listed in this article are from this source.

Other great resources include your local extension office, your local community garden and its volunteers (including Master Gardeners like myself), and Wisconsin Public Radio’s Garden Talk with Larry Meiller as well as other archived shows.

2. Plan your garden. Once you’ve found good resources and have decided on a gardening method, the next step is planning out how you will garden and what you will plant. I recommend keeping these tips in mind while you’re doing so, no matter what method you use:

A. Plan your garden to scale in wide rows with taller plants on the north side. Planning to scale gives you more information each year and keeps you focused so you don’t overbuy. You can find several examples of these plans (like the kitchen garden on pgs. 47, 49) to see how they change during the season. I also recommend planting in wide rows instead of growing in skinny rows with additional pathways so you can grow more, and placing taller plants on the north side of your garden to prevent them from shadowing other plants.

B. Plan to plant what you eat. When deciding what to plant, this is what’s most important because it will reduce waste. But you should also consider:

• Crop Rotation & Plant Families: Crop rotation (pg. 45) prevents pest problems and disease, and researching plant families (pg. 40) will help you learn how they grow.

• Companion Planting: Some plants do better in the presence of others, and some pairings should be avoided (pgs. 40-41).

• Succession Planting: Information about this can be found on pg. 43 on. For example, after early lettuce and spinach crops, plant carrots and beets for fall and early winter harvests. Many spring crops can also be planted in mid-July.

If you’re planning to use the W-O-R-D Method (similar to the Lasagna Method), here are specific tips for that:

A. If you’re planting vegetables, trench both sides.

B. Mark out your garden area. I recommend 3-4 ft wide beds and 1.5 ft walkway trenches. I also made mine 25 ft long in our community garden.

C. Cut the sod. Flip it over, or take a garden fork or broad fork and loosen the subsoil before replacing the cut sod upside down.

D. Layer with organic matter. You can use soil from the trenches or bring in mowed leaves, compost, peat, manure (broken down for 2 years), wood ash, dried pine needles, grass clippings. Repeat up to 18 inches high if possible, and flatten with a garden rake.

E. Plant right away. You don’t need to wait.

F. Put down several sheets of newspaper in the pathway and top with straw. When these materials break down, they can be added to your garden and replaced with fresh newspaper and straw.

3. Know your plants. Once you’ve selected your garden and decided what you’re planting, it’s important to learn more about your plants. You need to know:

A. What Their Planting & Maturity Dates Are: You can use the dates listed on the seed packets as guidelines.

B. How Much Sun They Need: Most plants need 6-8 hours minimum of sunlight.

C. Where They Should Be Planted: Many herbs can grow almost anywhere, for example. And some plants like a little shade; that’s why lettuce planted near trellised cucumbers or pole beans grow so well.

D. When They Should Be Planted: Cool-season plants are planted in spring and fall because they don’t thrive in July heat; examples include lettuces, radishes, spinach, peas, and beets. Sow these as soon as the soil can be worked. Some will bolt (flower and be bitter) if you don’t harvest in a timely manner or if conditions aren’t right (i.e. temperature or water). Most plants also need warm soil to germinate and grow; traditionally, Memorial Day Weekend fits the bill for us in Zone 4.

E. How They Should Be Planted: For first-time gardeners, I recommend direct seeding (for many plants) and planting from starts. Planting your own seedlings takes special equipment and considerations for success. Our co-op will get plant starts in late April or early May—cold-weather crops and then warm-weather crops, all hardened off (i.e. used to outside temperatures) and ready to plant. Plant the wrong plant too early, though, without protection, and you could kill it.

If you’re planting transplants, buy ones without flowers or fruit because you want energy for root growth. Plant them on a cloudy day if possible, and make sure to loosen the roots if they’re root-bound.

F. How To Water, Weed, & Thin Them: Educating yourself on how to water, thin, and weed your garden is crucial! In general, 1 inch of water per week is a good rule of thumb—more if hot and/or windy. Wilted plants are stressed plants, and they can become stunted, diseased, or even die. Thinning will produce stronger, larger, and tastier crops. And weeds will leach nutrients that your plants need; they can also harbor pests and disease.

4. Prepare the soil. Once you’ve learned everything you need to know about your plants, the next step is prepping your soil for planting. Here’s what I recommend:

A. Look for loam. When finding the right soil, this is what you need, not clay or sand. It should be dark and hold together a little in your fist.

B. Test your soil. This will give you useful information in the long run. Check your local extension office for tools, bags, etc. They usually cost about $15.

C. Don’t till your beds. I do not advocate for doing this because it breaks down the soil structure (all the networking underground that you don’t see), which will take time to rebuild. It also chops up your worms.

D. Work in soil amendments. Do so in the spring, fall, and/or after a crop, and don’t use pesticides. Fall is the best time; you can get a lot for free then.

E. Use green manure or cover crops. These prevent weeds and can enrich the soil between plantings or over the winter. I use annual rye in late fall.

5. Maintain your garden, harvest, and repeat. Once your crops are planted, make sure to water, weed, and thin them as needed. Once they’re harvested, containers, tools, and cages should be cleaned and sterilized with 70-100% isopropyl alcohol at the end of each year.

And as you find success with gardening, look into topics such as extending the season (tunnels, hoop houses, cold frames, etc), growing your own plant starts, and others to continue developing your skills.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2021 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.

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