Tips for first-time gardeners

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Growing Your Own - available in print and online.
Last Updated: 
March 11, 2011

CORVALLIS, Ore. – If you're completely new to vegetable gardening and want to enjoy your own homegrown tomatoes and summer squash this year, the Oregon State University Extension Service can provide the information you need to get started.

Gail Langellotto, an OSU horticulturist and statewide coordinator of the Master Gardener program, says there is several things novices can do to make their foray into gardening more successful:

  • Choose raised beds, containers and mounds, if you live in the Willamette Valley, where clay soils do not drain well and remain cold into the spring. If you use containers, which can be just about any size and as casual as old tires, you can garden in any location and move the containers for optimal conditions.
  • Choose a site where your garden will get at least eight hours of light, preferably sunshine. "Air drainage can be a problem. If you live on a slope, be sure to avoid cold air drainage in low spots and wind."
  • Get a soil test. Soil supplies 13 essential plant nutrients, primarily nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. A soil test will tell you if your soil has deficiencies and if it is too acidic or alkaline. See testing laboratories serving Oregon (PDF - EM 8677). Testing cost is about $45.
  • Build organic matter with compost to correct many deficiencies. Start a compost heap with two parts "brown" materials – leaves, straw, paper, sawdust – to one part "green" materials such as vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, grass clippings and fresh manure from cows, horses or poultry.

    An easy way to start a new garden spot, while improving soil structure and fertility, is called sheet or "lasagna" mulching. Wet soil thoroughly and add a layer each of overlapping cardboard, compost and six to eight inches of mulch (leaves and grass clippings). In about seven months the soil will be ready for planting.

  • Choose easy-to-grow vegetables that your family likes, adding others in following years as tastes mature. Langellotto recommends five vegetables that like cool conditions: radishes, peas, leaf lettuce, carrots and spinach. Heat-loving veggies that should be planted in warm soil are bush beans, summer squash and tomatoes.

    Other easy crops are kale and kohlrabi, beets, onions, garlic and annual herbs such as basil, fennel and parsley. Vegetables and fruits that do well in containers are bush beans, beets, carrots, cabbage, swiss chard, cucumbers, leaf lettuce, bell peppers, squash, tomatoes, dwarf apple trees, blueberries, strawberries, turnips, eggplant, kale and green onions.

  • Choose high-quality seed for your vegetable garden. Germination rates on the package should be 65 to 80 percent. The package also will tell you when to plant seeds, how long it will take them to germinate, depth of planting and spacing. Although more expensive than growing food from seed, bedding plants already sprouted work best for tomatoes, basil, eggplant and peppers. Check that they are not root bound in the pot and are stocky and deep green, not spindly and light green.

"If you run into problems, your OSU county extension office is there to help," Langellotto said. "Master Gardeners are on hand to answer questions."

Download Growing Your Own, a practical guide to gardening. The guide is also available to purchase printed. Purchase a printed version online or call your local Extension office to see if it's available there.

Author: Judy Scott