Deciding what to grow
Garden catalogues and websites are your best source for ideas. Try to plan what you really want to grown and enjoy eating, as all too often it’s tempting to try growing a large variety of vegetables. As a first-time gardener it’s best to start with the most commonly grown vegetables. These include tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, peppers, and peas. Vegetables such as asparagus require waiting a couple of years for the first harvest, so bear that in mind when choosing your crops.
Much of any gardening is trial and error, so you need to experiment each year and keep a log book of what produces well and which vegetables to avoid growing. Always look for varieties that are described as disease-resistant, and note descriptions too, as some plants are better for smaller gardens or containers.
Laying out your garden for great home-grown vegetables
There are two basic approaches to planning a garden layout.
Basically this means planting in a single file with a walking path set between each row. It’s best for large gardens, and it makes it easier to use mechanical equipment like hoes and forks to control weeds. The only downside is that it’s an inefficient use of land, as valuable soil area is used for footpaths rather than plants.
This means planting in wider expanses generally 1 to 4 feet across, and so reduces the amount of area needed for paths. It’s important not to make the bands wider than you can comfortably reach and to make the area easy to work on.
A specialized version of intensive cropping is the ‘square foot method’ which was developed by Mel Bartholomew. By dividing the garden into small beds (typically 4 x 4 feet) that are then further subdivided into one-foot squares, each one-foot square is planted with one, four, eight, or 16 plants, depending on the size the plant will be when it’s mature. Bartholomew’s book, Square Foot Gardening, is the essential guide for this method of gardening and is full of useful information.
Whichever method you choose, always begin in a small way. A 10 x 10 foot space is a good size for a first garden. It’s best to plan your garden on paper before you begin any planting, and as you sketch out your plan, place taller vegetables at the north side of the garden. This includes naturally tall plants such as standard-size tomatoes, and plants that can be grown on vertical supports, like snap peas, cucumbers, and pole beans. Try to allow at least 18 inches between rows or beds for easy access.
Try to leave some areas unplanted at first, as this will allow you to plant a second crop to harvest later in the season. Lettuce, radishes, green onions, carrots, and bush beans are often planted several times during the season.