Growing tips for beginning gardeners

Having planted seeds and growing things for as long as I can remember, I am often surprised when someone asks me how they can get their own garden started. Whether it’s a container garden or a backyard plot, I suppose I just assume everyone knows how to put a seed into the soil, give it a bit of water and light and just wait.

But if you’ve never done it before, I suppose just getting started can be a little overwhelming. So I decided to devote this week’s column to explaining the basics. Those of you who are seasoned gardeners might enjoy the refresher course as well.

Most of the questions I get come from young people who live in apartments and don’t have a lot of space to plant a garden. Their first question is, ”Can I grow vegetables in containers?” When I tell them, of course you can, the second question is, ”How do I do it?” My first question to them is, ”What do you want to grow?”

With a little questioning, I often find that it isn’t the idea of putting a seed in soil that is overwhelming. It’s everything else, including location, light, watering habits, fertilizer and where to find the best seeds or plants. Here are a few tips for new gardeners.

First, decide what you want to grow. Do you want containers of flowers all over the place or are you really serious about growing vegetables that you want to eat? If so, which vegetables? Many do quite well in containers while others are best left to backyard gardens with lots of space, such as melons, squash and corn.

If you are planning to harvest enough for winter storage, and you don’t have a backyard garden, don’t expect to grow enough in containers to get you through the winter months. Your best bet would be to visit local farmers markets and buy as much produce as possible and preserve that. Container vegetable gardening, although fulfilling and fun, will probably only net enough to eat fresh while it’s growing, unless you have lots and lots of containers. If you have enough space for that many containers, you probably have enough space to plant a backyard garden.

Or you can consider joining a community garden. Many communities and some neighborhoods have sections of land plotted specifically for public gardens. You register with the person in charge, get a space assigned and it is your responsibility to plant and maintain your space. That includes cleaning it up at the end of the season so you, or someone else, has a fresh plot to begin with the next season.

When choosing containers for your garden, it can’t be stressed enough that your containers have drainage holes. Plants that sit in water-logged soil will rot and develop fungal diseases. Once a plant has been attacked by one predator, other insects or diseases will sense this weakness and will attack as well. Sick plants can be suffering from more than one problem at the same time.

Seeds versus plants is another question I often hear. Seeds need only three things: soil, water and light. While soil and water are easy to come by any time of the year, light is a little more difficult until they can be moved outdoors in direct sun. If there is enough space inside, however, seeds can be successfully started under fluorescent lights. The light shouldn’t be more than two inches from the top of the container or, after germination, the top of the seedling. Seeds also shouldn’t be started too soon. Six to eight weeks before they are moved outdoors is adequate time for a young seedling to grow strong enough, so be sure to check the seed packet for the proper length of time to plant seeds before moving outdoors.

Not all plants have to wait until the last frost before they can go outdoors. Cool weather crops, such as lettuce, spinach, peas and spring greens, are among several.

A fun thing to do with container plants is to mix and match, and this includes vegetables. For example, a large container with vining peas in the center surrounded by a mixture of spring greens is a good way to save space.

I’ve been discussing gardening in containers quite a lot lately and plan to continue in future columns with topics on fertilizing, weeding and how a beginning gardener can easily plant a backyard garden.