7 Tips for Starting Your Own Vegetable Garden

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					7 Tips for Starting Your Own Vegetable
Early January. Though it’s the dead of winter, many of us are dreaming about our
summer vegetable gardens. The seed catalogs have begun to appear in the mailbox. Kris
and I received eight of them today:

                                   Images of summer…

It might seem crazy to start thinking about a vegetable garden in January. It’s cold
outside! But believe it or not, now is the perfect time to begin preparing for a successful
autumn harvest. Over the next month, we’ll plan our seed order. By the end of February,
our seeds will be started indoors. All of this leads to those exciting days at the end of
April when we can move our plants to the vegetable garden!

Our garden
Kris and I own about two-thirds of an acre in Portland, Oregon. Since moving into this
house in June 2004, we’ve been gradually building a garden of fruit, berries, and
vegetables. In 2008, we conducted a year-long experiment. We tracked our garden
expenses (in money and time) and also noted our “profit” from the harvest.

Last month I posted detailed results for the project. Here’s a summary:

      We spent $318.43 and 60 hours working in our garden during 2008.
      We harvested $606.97 worth of produce, including $225.74 in berries, $294.59 in
       vegetables, and $66.63 in fruit.

For every dollar we spent on the garden, we harvested $1.91 worth of food. We hope to
improve on that significantly in 2009. Last week Kris wrote about the winners and losers
from our garden last year. Today I’m sharing seven lessons we’ve learned after many
years of gardening.
Tip#1: Plan in advance
Plan your garden today to ensure summer success. Decide what you’d like to grow. How
much space can you devote to the project? How much time are you willing to spend?
Answering these questions will help you to determine your priorities.

For those with small spaces (or small ambitions), a container garden is an excellent
choice. Containers can also supplement a traditional garden, providing a handy pot of
herbs just outside the kitchen door, an experimental area for kids to grow their own
produce, and allowing tender plants to be moved according to the season. This winter, we
have a container-based indoor herb garden:

                            Herbs grown from left-over seeds

Others might consider building a raised bed to use for square-foot gardening. Kris and I
did this at our first house and met with great success. Square-foot gardening allows you
to maximize food production in a minimum of space.

Tip#2: Start small
When planning your garden, it’s better to start too small than to start too large. Please
read that sentence again. In order to enjoy your garden, you must be able to control it.
Don’t get too ambitious.

In 1993, our first year of gardening, Kris planted too many tomatoes (25?) and I planted
an insane number of chili peppers (100?). By mid-summer we were overwhelmed. We
gave up. It’s better to start small and to expand a little every year.

Tip#3: Choose productive plants
Some plants are more productive than others.

For us, corn is a disinterested producer. It will grow, yes, and it tastes very good. But we
just don’t have the space it needs to become prodigious. (I still have fond recollections of
my grandfather’s forest of corn. His magic ingredient? Cow poop — and lots of it!) We
spent about $9 on corn last year — and harvested about $9 worth of the stuff. Not worth
the effort.

On the other hand, berries love our yard, and they require little money or time. We spent
maybe $5 on berry-related supplies in 2008. In return we harvested $225 worth of fruit.
That, my friends, is a bargain.

If you want a rewarding, productive garden, do some research to find out what grows
well in your area. In the U.S., one excellent resource is your state’s extension office.
Here’s the Oregon State Extension Service gardening site, for example.

We’ve decided to forego the corn in 2009, but are looking to expand our berries and fruit
trees. Corn is cheap at the grocery store, and the berries are less expensive (and better
tasting!) at home.

Tip #4: Share with others
When you buy a packet of seeds, you generally receive more than you need. We’ve found
that it’s fun (and frugal) to split the costs with others. Kris is upstairs at this very moment
e-mailing our gardening buddies, negotiating who will share seeds with whom.

We also share equipment with the neighbors. Mike and Paul might borrow our rototiller,
for example. We might borrow John’s trailer. Kurt has a backhoe (which we’ve used,
actually). Careful borrowing and lending helps keep everybody’s costs down.

Tip #5: Buy quality tools
When you buy tools, it pays to purchase quality. Remember: thrift and frugality are about
obtaining value for your dollar — not just paying the cheapest price.

I used to skimp on garden tools, but I always regretted it. Lately I’ve been buying more
expensive, higher quality tools. I’d rather own fewer tools that were pleasure to use (and
lasted many seasons) than own lots of crappy tools that didn’t cost me much. (On the
other hand, it doesn’t hurt to keep your eyes open at garage sales. Sometimes you can get
great deals on quality stuff.)
Tip #6: Read up on the subject
Though Kris and I have been gardening for a while, we’re always trying to learn more.
Your public library will have many books on the subject, some tailored to your location.
There are also many excellent web sites that can help you get started. Here are some
useful resources:

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