Posted on

Beginner’s Guide to Growing Food

garden preparation_small

Organically grown, local food is in the news and sure enough, many of us are looking for help in growing food for the first time.

I want to grow a vegetable garden. How do I start?

raised bed gardeningFor the best results, choose a location that gets at least 6 – 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. Make sure a water source is readily accessible. (Do you have a faucet nearby? Can you install a rain barrel on site?). Also, make sure your site has good drainage.

Don’t have a sunny location? Leafy greens like spinach, mustard greens, bok choy, kale, leeks and Swiss chard—grow well in shady environments, as do turnips, broccoli, rutabagas, cabbage and zucchini…” (Hope Reeves, New York). Shade-loving plants with shallow root systems like beets, radishes and lettuce can be grown in containers smaller than ten inches in diameter.

If you have limited space, consider growing a garden in containers. “Anyone who has a window or a fire escape, some terra cotta or wooden containers, and a bag of soil can grow a multitude of fruits and veggies.” (Hope Reeves, New York, September 2007). Some seed companies sell “miniature” varieties of vegetables that are well-suited for containers (e.g., Thumbelina carrots, Spacemaster cucumbers). Make sure the containers are suitable in size for what you want to grow (tomatoes and peppers are deep-rooted vegetables). The container should have holes for drainage/air circulation. Water your plants regularly — container gardens dry out much faster than gardens in the ground. Some places sell “self-watering” containers. Learn more about Container Vegetable Gardening.

Join a community garden. There are many community gardens out there. The American Community Gardening Association has a database of community gardens.

Test your soil

The most important step to growing healthy vegetables is providing healthy soil. Make this a priority in your first year of gardening.

Even if the only thing you accomplish in your first year of gardening is building a great soil, you will be ahead of the game and richly rewarded later. Before planting anything, have your soil tested by a reputable soil laboratory. Do not try to do this yourself with one of the amateur kits sold at garden centers. You need a thorough assay of the structure and nutrients in your soil, as well as any hazardous materials. Urban gardeners should be concerned about the potential for heavy metals or other toxins in their soil, especially lead and arsenic. Lead in soil is almost a universal condition in urban areas, especially near older buildings that might have shed lead paint and near heavily trafficked roadways, where lead in automobile exhaust has drifted into yards. Purchasing soil for a new garden or raised beds is no guarantee that it is pure. The potential danger of lead being taken up by vegetables is highest in leafy greens and root vegetables. Lead does not appear to be a problem in fruits or fruiting vegetables.

test garden soilBy far the most dangerous aspect of soils with high lead levels is airborne contamination, inhalation, oral ingestion from hands touching lead-laden plants, clothes, shoes, etc.” Lead is very stable and therefore difficult to remove from soil. “I recommend the University of Massachusetts soil testing lab.” It’s inexpensive and you can get information and recommendations on soil fertility, pH, toxins, etc. In soils with high lead levels, take precaution and do not plant directly into the soil. Use raised beds (high enough to keep roots away from lead-laden soil). To create a good soil mixture inexpensively, use the “lasagna gardening” method (described in more detail below).

There is no agreed-upon definition of top soil and no standards. Even within a brand, unlike with potting soil, there’s no standard or consistency. The last time I looked at the ingredients of top soil at Home Depot and Lowe’s, fly ash was one of the main ingredients. I’d never want to grow vegetables in that (probably contains lots of heavy metals). I grow vegetables in raised beds with pure compost made by me. But I still get my soil tested (but not the compost).

If you have concerns about lead in your soil, make sure to thoroughly wash and peel root vegetables before eating.

Not all soil labs test for lead. Check with the lab before sending in your sample. The Maryland Cooperative Extension has a list of regional soil test labs on its website.

A basic soil test will also help you determine the soil’s pH and nutrient levels. Soil pH governs the uptake of nutrients by plants. Vegetables grow best in soil that has a pH between 6.0 to 7.5 (around 6.8 is ideal).

Plants need certain macro-nutrients to thrive, especially nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. A professional soil test should indicate whether your soil contains adequate levels of these nutrients. The test should also indicate the level of vital micro-nutrients, especially calcium and magnesium. Even more important is “saturation percentage” of calcium and magnesium, and the relative saturation of one to the other. The desired range is 65% to 75% for calcium and 10% to 15% for magnesium.

Test your soil once every three years.

Organic Gardening’s website has a good section on understanding soil.

How to I prepare my location for planting?

garden preparationRemove stones, grass, weeds. Check the consistency of your soil. A squeezed handful of soil shouldn’t clump (too much clay) or crumble (too sandy). Vegetables grow best in soil that’s rich in organic matter (a minimum of 5%). You can improve soil by adding compost, aged manure, and other amendments such as lime, bone meal, etc., (based on the results and recommendations of the soil test). Bags of compost can be purchased at garden centers and nurseries, but that gets expensive quickly. Some places offer compost in bulk; you can buy it by the truckload. In Maryland, Pogo Organics offers this service. To save money, build a compost pile of your own. Read the DC Urban Gardeners primer on Composting. Montgomery County Maryland residents can get a free basic compost bin from the Department of Environmental Protection. If you don’t have a yard our outdoor space for a compost bin, consider setting up an indoor vermicomposting (“worm composting”) system to turn your food scraps into compost.

Don’t want to dig up sod? Try Lasagna Gardening or Sheet Composting. Lay down sheets of wet newspaper or cardboard followed by layers of other organic materials (grass clippings, leaves, soil mix, straw). These layers will eventually “smother” the existing vegetation where you want to plant.

Build raised beds. Raised beds tend to have better drainage, and the soil warms up faster in the spring so you can plant a little sooner.


When can I plant?

That depends in which USDA Hardiness Zone you live in.

  • Many gardening books provide a basic month-by-month calendar of “what to plant when.” A good one is Rodale’s Almanac & Pest-Control Primer.
  • A good online resource for planning is the Weekend Gardener Grow Guide.
  • Washington Post online has a basic month-by-month gardening calendar.
  • Washington Gardener E-News also provides monthly reminders. Sign up here for the newsletter.

Where can I get seeds and plants?

Purchase plants at local nurseries such as American Plant Food Company and Behnke’s. They’re likely to have a better selection — and healthier plants — than big-box stores such as Home Depot. Avoid plants that are getting long and lanky or yellowish. For the best variety, and/or to save money, many vegetable gardeners prefer to start plants from seed.

Seed Exchanges and Plant Swaps. Check out Washington Gardener magazine’s annual Seed Exchange (January). Neighborhood gardening clubs also hold plant swaps occasionally (find a DC-area garden club here. Go online to exchange seeds at Garden Web or use the Garden Online’s Seed Exchange. Ask your neighbors for seeds or transplants. Post a message to your local Freecycling group and see if anyone in your neighborhood has the seeds/plants you’re looking for. Gardeners like to share!

vegetables from my garden
vegetables from my garden

Seed Catalogs. Good ones for vegetables are Seed Savers Exchange, Seeds of Change, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Vermont Bean Seeds Company. They will send you a free catalog for the asking, or just place your order online.

What about plant pests and diseases?

Plants are susceptible to viruses, parasites, and diseases. The following resources can help you determine what’s bugging your plants, and what to do about it. Vegetable MD Online is diagnostic help from Cornell.

Final Thoughts

Start small, go easy! A single zucchini plant can provide enough zucchinis for two people for an entire summer. It’s easy to plant too much at first and then become overwhelmed with the chores of watering, weeding, harvesting, soil amending, etc. Vegetable gardening takes effort, and it’s extremely rewarding when you succeed. A great resource for determining how much to plant (and how) is Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening. Also, consider starting with some of the easier-to-grow plants: lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, radishes, squash, cucumbers, carrots, turnips, beans, basil, thyme.