Start small with hardy plants like green beans, cucumbers, and radishes.
Have your soil tested for harsh chemicals and pH balance.
Be patient, don’t get discouraged and have fun.
This is simple advice from seasoned gardeners for first-time growers and for those who have ever wondered if they could grow anything successfully.
“You can do that!” is their basic message and they are happy to explain how.
New breeder John Voltz started gardening less than a year ago. He says taking it easy and having a “coffee break” mentality can make a big difference.
“I got two pieces of advice that really helped,” he wrote in response to a request on the Backyard Gardeners Maine Facebook page, which has 24,900 members.
One: “Treat gardening like a coffee break,” he said. “Take a short walk in the garden every morning or afternoon. Only 5-15 minutes. Handle anything quick and urgent (pulling weeds, watering something wilting, etc.), but mostly just look and think. In your mind you start planning what you need to do next when the weekend (or next gardening day) comes around.”
The other piece of advice: start small and build on success. And those little wins are everywhere.
“One last thing I’m excited about but still has a full annual cycle to do: making leaf mold from the leaves we get in the fall,” Voltz said. “I used to hate raking, bagging and dragging. Now I just mow and throw the mowing bag in an enclosure. This year I have maybe 5-8 cubic feet of leaf soil for mulching and/or soil improvement. So easy.”
Richard Dubs of Pownal, a veteran gardener, farmer and landscaper, also advises newcomers to start small. A 4-by-4-foot yard is more than enough to get started, he said.
Dubs, owner of Roots of the Wild Sun, a landscaping company, offers soil improvement and advice. Good soil is step one, he says.
“I would offer advice on how to start building living soil and explain what the soil food web is and how it will help every part of your garden,” he said in a recent interview.
He explained that the soil food web is a soil ecosystem composed of root zones, fungi and healthy bacteria.
That’s the kind of soil you find in a healthy forest, he said.
“Waste from one product benefits another. It’s a healthy cycle.”
Nut trees, fruit trees, mushrooms and vines will feed the soil and create a food forest, he said. Then plant your herbs and vegetables.
“If a gardener builds sustainable living on their own land and focuses on building a living food forest — living soil at the bottom and a food forest at the top — they’re going to have an insane amount of food,” he said. “They would start producing more than their family could consume.”
Dubs said he has worked with soil in 37 states and learned how to build living soil through hands-on learning.
He says soil testing is “very important in Maine, especially because of the perennial chemicals (like PFAS found in mud spread on farms over the past few decades).”
If your soil is too alkaline, you can grind up dead leaves and incorporate them into the soil. If it’s too acidic, you can add lime, he said.
Pamela Hargest, a horticultural expert at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, agrees that soil testing is very important in Maine.
“Our native soils are not inherently suited to growing high-maintenance crops like vegetables and annual flowers,” Hargest said in an email interview.
“Gardeners can use a soil test to tailor their garden soil to the specific needs of the plants they’re growing,” she said.
You can send a soil sample to UMaine’s soil testing lab in Orono.
“When you get your soil test results, you get a breakdown of the nutrient levels in your garden soil, as well as the current pH level, percentage of organic matter, and other helpful information,” she said. “You’ll also get specific soil amendment recommendations based on the crop code (e.g. organic vegetable growing) you selected on your form, so you don’t have to guess.”
If you have questions about interpreting your soil test results, Hargest recommends contacting your local extension office.
START SLOW, START LIGHT
First-time vegetable and herb gardeners should start with easy-to-grow plants and a small and manageable garden, Hargest advised.
“As a beginner gardener, it’s important to have realistic expectations so you don’t get discouraged when things don’t go as planned,” she said.
She said easy-to-grow crops include green beans, leafy greens like kale, cabbage and Swiss chard, cucumber, squash, radishes, turnips and cilantro.
“Many of these plants can be seeded directly in your garden instead of starting them indoors under grow lights,” she said.
However, when it comes to heat-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers, new growers will have better luck buying seedlings rather than starting from seed indoors, she said.
“Tomato and pepper seedlings need special attention when grown indoors, such as in a garden. B. Proper heating and lighting, so it may be better to wait until next year to grow these crops,” Hargest said.
When growing seedlings indoors, it’s important to “harden off” your plants before sticking them in the ground, she said.
Hardening off means acclimating your plants to outdoor conditions—wind, light intensity, temperature—over seven to 10 days.
To learn more about how to grow seedlings indoors, check out the Starting Seeds at Home expansion.
COMMON MISTAKES AND CHALLENGES
Some of the most common mistakes for beginning vegetable growers include starting indoor seedlings too early in the spring, tilling garden soil when it’s too wet, and sowing seeds when the temperature isn’t right, Hargest said.
“Gardeners will be much more successful if they wait until the conditions are right for the plants they’re growing,” she said. “There’s nothing more disappointing than spending a tremendous amount of time tending tomato seedlings indoors, only to have them (transplanted outdoors and) hit by a late frost.”
Patience is everything when it comes to being a successful gardener, she said. “Enjoy the process!”
She added that watering is something to look out for and there are easy ways to do it. The frequency and amount of water used for your garden will depend on your soil type, but a general rule of thumb is 1.25-1.5 inches of water per week (including rain).
Hargest found that getting to know the soil is the first step in irrigation management. “What’s the condition of the ground? How fast does the soil dry out? The best way to tell if you need to water is to feel with your hands how moist the soil really is,” she said.
The second step is to get a rain gauge so you can monitor rainfall more closely on a weekly basis.
“When you water your garden, make sure you water deep so you have good root development. Shallow watering results in shallow roots. It’s also best to water at the base of the plant and early in the day,” Hargest said. If you want to learn more about watering your garden, check out the Garden for ME series of expansions.
As a budding gardener, you may be wondering whether it is more advisable to grow in flat soil or raised beds.
It depends on your situation and personal preference, Hargest said. Growing in soil requires less maintenance and expense since you are using soil native to the site.
Many gardeners build their beds slightly higher than the surrounding area. This helps heat the soil earlier in the season and can help with drainage, Hargest said.
But soil beds are not recommended for sites with lead contamination, she said.
She said raised beds are most commonly made of wood that rots slowly, like cedar or hemlock, and can be built to any height or size that suits the gardener best.
“Raised beds heat up earlier in the season and are good for people who garden with children,” she said.
Dubs said he offers “hill mounds,” underground beds that are “a bit vertical.” He uses a deadwood layering method to create the mounds and get what he calls the best of both worlds.
“However, I can say that there is nothing wrong with growing on level ground,” he said. “Many methods introduce layers on level ground, but many other methods INSIST on tillage. I oppose it as it breaks up the fungal network trying to thrive in the soil.”
Don’t till, he said, “just layer the good stuff and use cover crops to fill in the gaps.”
As for pest control, Hargest recommends taking preventive measures, starting with site selection. She recommends planting disease-resistant varieties, watering properly, and practicing good sanitation (removal of debris). Crop rotation and plant variety are also things to consider as you gain experience.
It’s “beneficial to become familiar with the common pests of the crops you’re growing so you can better monitor signs of destructive pests and address them early when their populations are small,” she added.
Of course, there’s a lot to learn when growing your own plants, and Hargest reminds beginners to have fun.
“The beauty of gardening is that you’re always learning something new,” she said. “If you take the time to observe your surroundings and what is happening in the garden, I am confident that you will be successful. Gardening is a process to be enjoyed and cherished.”