I always loved the idea of fresh salads and vegetables but it sounded like way too much work. However, when I moved back to Tucson I finally had a few weekends to myself that didn’t involve studying, and I thought it was about time to try my hand at gardening. Let me tell you- this has been one of the most rewarding things I have done (aside from becoming a doctor, having a dog, etc). There’s something about planting a seed and then eating a plant that came from that seed that seems miraculous to me.
What follows is a step-by-step of how I built my first garden. Yes, this is a long post, and might make gardening seem like too much work before you’ve even read the post. But I have to tell you that once the garden was built, I’ve only spent 5 minutes per day working on it! I know I have a lot to learn, but here is what I have so far…
(basic set up of raised bed, pre-soil)
1. PICK A SPOT: Most vegetables require 6-8 hrs of sun per day. I chose an area of the yard that is North facing and gets 6 hrs of light mostly in the morning and early afternoon. I was worried that this wouldn’t be enough sun for the winter plants, but they did quite well! As for the summer…we have yet to see…
2. BUILD THE BED: I decided to build a raised bed. I did this for many reasons: 1. our backyard is mostly gravel so it would’ve been a lot of work to clear it and ensure the soil was in good condition for growing 2. Easier on the joints to not have to bend down so far to do the work 3. It made for a pretty focal piece.
There are several options for raised beds- wood, cinder block, pre-built structures you can buy at plant nurseries, etc. I liked the idea of cinder block because I could plant herbs in the spaces in the blocks around the perimeter of the garden. I used 32 cinderblocks, 5 running East-West x3 running North-South, two layers, stacked so that they are staggered for stability. In retrospect, I probably only needed one layer, but I didn’t really know what I was doing and I wanted to make sure my bed had enough depth for roots to grow properly. My yard was already pre-lined with a weed-cloth, which allowed for drainage and prevention of weed-growth. I put about 2 inches of gravel down over the weed-cloth.
I then capped each end of the bed so that I would be able to sit on the edges while harvesting. I also painted the blocks to give a nice pop of color.
3. “BUILD” THE SOIL:
This was probably the most time consuming part because it involved finding good dirt, mixing with potting soil, fertilizer and vegetable food. I was getting overwhelmed by all the information online about soil recipes (especially since they were not desert specific) so I consulted with a former Tucson plant nursery owner who used to make all the soil for the seedlings at his nursery. He explained that it is important that the soil be neutral pH, and be porous enough for root growth. He helped me come up with this recipe:
Dirt: I filled just over 1/3 of the bed with regular old dirt (make sure it has not been treated with Round-up or any other chemicals that could affect plant growth or the health of the soil in general). It’s also important that the dirt does not have too much clay content as this makes the soil too dense for roots to be able to grow properly. Rid the dirt of rocks, weeds and roots of former plants.
Potting soil: The amount was equal to the amount of dirt used. I used an organic all purpose potting soil and mixed it with the dirt using a shovel.
1 (8 qt) bag of Perlite: Once the dirt and potting soil were mixed well, I incorporated perlite because it seemed my soil was still very dense. (I was told that you should be able to punch your fist through the soil without much resistance). The perlite helps aerate the soil, allowing for drainage and root expansion.
1-2 bags deordorized steer manure: this was spread across the top of the dirt/potting soil/perlite mixture and worked into the first 6″of soil. Well rotted compost can be used in place of the steer manure, however I hadn’t started my compost yet. I used El Toro brand.
Vegetable “food”: I used a granular organic fertilizer that had phosphorus, sulfur, nitrogen, calcium, magnesium and potassium. It was from Lowes, and I honestly cannot remember the name of it but I remember it saying “no burn.” I sprinkled about 2 TBS per square foot of garden, mixed into the top inch of soil and then watered thoroughly.
It is recommended that you check your soil pH using an at home soil test before fertilizing. I didn’t do this…but I probably will in the future.
Water: before planting, make sure the soil has been watered thoroughly and is draining properly.
4. PLANT AWAY! With the exception of a few herbs, I planted mostly from seed. My seeds were purchased from Mesquite Valley Growers and their staff was very helpful in making the best seed choices. Seeds I chose: broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, multicolored carrots, sweet peas, kale, spinach, swiss chard, mixed lettuce, chamomile, cilantro, chive, onion, and cumin. From seedling, I planted chive, parsley, thyme, oregano, and mint. The herbs were all planted in the perimeter holes of the cinderblocks. All seeds and seedlings were planted in the last week of September. I followed the directions on the seed packets for planting depth, distance apart, etc.
The first 5-7 days after I planted the seeds were tense. I went outside every day to water not knowing what I would find, but eventually everything started sprouting. I was able to harvest the greens after about 3-4 weeks, everything else was around 2 months.
5. WATER: I water almost every day, sometimes every other day. I do not have an irrigation system, and don’t mind watering, but from what I understand it would not be difficult to rig some kind of irrigation. I use an attachment on my hose that has a “shower” setting, and ensure that the soil gets soaked through with each watering (checking for areas of pooling that might indicate poor drainage).
6. FEED: Every 3-4 weeks, I sprinkled some of the granulated vegetable fertilizer around and then watered thoroughly.
What did the best: All the greens (kale, spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce) grew like weeds. The carrots, broccoli and cauliflower also did very well. The broccoli was the tastiest I’ve ever had! The herbs also did well, with no issues growing from seed.
What kind of flopped: Sweet peas: (they grew, but never looked as healthy as the other plants. I maybe got 20 pea pods off of one plants throughout the winter. Next time I will plant them in a large pot with a trellis. Brussels Sprouts: I was warned that these need a longer growing season, but I wanted to see what would happen. I grew two plants from seed, but they never produced and at the end of the season they had wooly aphids.
All of the brassica family plants (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels, kale) are prone to getting cabbage worms (really more of a caterpillar). I plucked off maybe 5 of them throughout the winter, and almost ate 1 that was hiding in the lettuce and survived the lettuce washing! If they become a bigger issue and are eating your produce, using BT spray (a biological insecticide-actually a bacterium that only infects caterpillars) can help you control an existing cabbage worm problem.
Wooly aphids: these are nasty little buggers, but if you catch them early, they are easy to get rid of. I made up a solution of 1 quart water, 2 drops dish soap, 1 tsp cayenne, let it sit overnight, and then sprayed directly on the aphids. They were gone the next. After that point I sprayed the solution directly onto the broccoli and cauliflower crowns once a week as a prophylactic.
(If you look reeeeealllly close, you can see some seed sprouts coming up 🙂
(Winter garden in all its glory! Early Feb. Side pots are rosemary and lavender)
Special thanks to my gracious landlords who allowed me to do this to their back yard!
I’d love to hear from all of you out there about your garden successes! What have you done that works or doesn’t work? Any tips for the upcoming (I guess I should say current, based on our weather) summer planting season?