Rookies can get nervous about tending their food gardens: What if I get pests and weeds? What if I under-water or over-water? Under-fertilize or over-fertilize? How do I stake and thin and prune my plants? When do I harvest?
Basic powers of observation will tell you what your plants need as they grow: If they’re leaning over, they need staking; if they’re growing into each other, they need pruning; if leaves are discolored, the plants may need an extra boost of nutrients; if bugs are eating your veggies, you can troubleshoot with any number of organic options including dish soap and garlic spray.
Don’t be surprised, throughout your tending process, if you feel a preposterous sense of wonder and glory in it all. Rookie gardeners, more often than not, find themselves acting like giddy new parents, wanting to coddle their growing fruits and veggies just as they might pamper a newborn.
Nathaniel Hawthorne put it this way in his 19th century story collection Mosses from an Old Manse: “I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.”
Sounds totally over the top, but it’s true.
Here’s some ultra simple, intuitive advice about watering, weeding, staking, pest removal, and fertilizing. After the slideshow, there’s a lightning-quick tutorial (you don’t need anything more than that) on harvesting.
Watering 1 of 5The amount of water you need depends on how hot your climate is, and the amount of sun and rain your garden gets (i.e. you'll need more water on hot summer days than on cooler cloudy ones). We generally water every other day for about 30 minutes. Be sure to water in the mornings or evenings so the sun won't scorch wet plants. PRO TIP: You never want to let your soil get dry, but you also don't want it to be wet and puddly (tomatoes, in particular, don't like to be watered every day). Sometimes soil will look dry on top but will be plenty moist. You can scratch your finger down a couple of inches into the soil to gauge moisture; or buy a sensor that measures the moisture for you at Dripworks.com. See more details on irrigation options in Part 1 of our Rookie Guide.
Weeding 2 of 5Weeds compete hungrily for nutrients, water, sunlight, and space in your garden. Hands down, the most effective way to kill weeds without herbicides is to pull them up as soon as you notice them, roots and all, one by one. If you stay on top of it, hand weeding won't take more than 20 minutes a week. Another option, known as "mulching" (pictured above), is to put a barrier on top of the soil under your plants—a four to eight- inch-thick layer of straw mulch—that essentially starves the weeds of sunlight so they can't grow. Be sure to use straw mulch or alfalfa hay (other varieties can actually sprout weeds); landscape fabric can also work.
Bugs 3 of 5If you have big bugs like Japanese beetles or cabbage worms, give your kids and their buddies cups of water with a squeeze of liquid dish soap; tell them to pick off the bugs and drop them in their cups. This may be the least appealing task in an organic food garden, but kids love it. A great natural bug repellant is the scent of garlic- you can spray your plant leaves generously with Garlic Barrier. Safer Soap is also a great product for tackling aphids in particular, which can get on broccoli, kale and other leafy greens. Use Sluggo if you want to deter slugs and snails. If you need a more heavy-duty insecticide use organic Bacillus thuringiensis (BT for short), which is derived from a bacteria that is common in soil and benign to humans.
Staking, Pruning, Thinning 4 of 5Jeanne likes to use Texas Tomato Cages to support tomatoes, for instance and Tomato Clips from Johnny's. She also uses these cages for pole peas, beans and cucumbers. Vining plants like cucumbers, pole beans and peas can climb fences, trellises, or she gives peppers and eggplant extra support with bamboo stakes. Gardeners.com has lots of great vertical plant supports. If plants start getting unruly or growing into each other, cut them back. It's as simple as that. You can use special pruning scissors, but any old pair of scissors will do. Equally simple advice for thinning: As we explained in Part 2: Yank out the weakest-looking plants, which will create more space and provide more nutrients for the healthy ones.
Fertilizing 5 of 5Boosting your plants with fertilizer is totally optional, but it does wonders for plant health and productivity. This is especially true for the larger plants like tomatoes, peppers or eggplant that grow in your garden all season long (transient crops like lettuce don't need it). Every other week, Jeanne sprays the leaves of her plants with Neptune's Harvest - a liquid organic fish emulsion and seaweed spray. She sprinkles Happy Frog granulated organic fertilizer around the base of plants once a month during peak growing season.
Once you’ve done the work of growing your gorgeous groceries, don’t wait too long to pick you’re veggies classic rookie move. Sometimes it’s a separation-anxiety issue the plants look so happy and beautiful that ripping them out of the ground seems barbaric. Get over it! Jeanne’s harvesting advice is simple: Don’t be timid — if something looks and smells ripe to you, pick it and taste it. The best way to become a good harvester is to learn by doing.