Lawn and Garden

How to Start a Garden

By Mary Beth Bennett, an agriculture expert in the Berkeley County office of the West Virginia University Extension Service

If you are thinking about starting a garden this year, you are not alone. For a variety of health and economic reasons, West Virginians are returning to the land—even if that “land” is just a few containers of soil.

Where do you begin?

Look at the area where you want to put your garden. Observe the area for a period of time before doing anything. Observe the sun and shade and anything that will obstruct sun from reaching plants in the area. Shadow patterns change with the seasons—observe this and make notes of the changes. Most vegetable plants require six to eight hours of full sunlight a day to produce fruit like tomatoes and corn, but root and leafy crops like carrots, turnips, beets, leaf lettuce, spinach and others can tolerate some shade.

If possible avoid planting under trees or on the north side of a tall building. If you plant tall and short plants in the same garden close together, put the tall plants on the north side so they don’t cast a shadow on the shorter plants next to them.

Observe whether rain runs off or if it collects in that area. If water collects in the area, you can set up a raised bed or add materials like gravel, sand and organic matter to help dry out the area. Try lasagna gardening. Patricia Lanza wrote “Lasagna Gardening,” the book on this layering system for gardens. Or try this garden.

Water is the most important component in dealing with a garden. And you need access to water if it doesn’t rain. Using a layer of mulch around plants helps conserve soil moisture and reduces the need for additional water while discouraging the growth of weeds. You need to make sure that water is able to move through the mulch layer into the root zone of the plants.

Preparing the Seedbed

Soil should be worked when it is moist but not wet. Work soil about 6 to 10 inches deep, depending on your topsoil. You do not want to bring subsoil to the surface.

The ideal soil is a loamy soil; the texture is not too light (sand) or too heavy (clay). Most soils in the Berkeley County area tend to be on the clay side; so adding organic matter is an important step in the garden process. Organic matter such as humus, compost or well-rotted manure helps make heavy soils more crumbly—improving water infiltration and root penetration. It also serves as a filler to increase the number of large pore spaces in the soil.

Do a soil test to find out what your garden needs before adding fertilizers or lime. Check the WVU Extension Service Gardening Page.

Selecting Tools and Equipment

It doesn’t take a lot of fancy tools and equipment to have a successful garden. All that is needed is a hand trowel for transplanting and roughing up the soil; a hoe for digging weeds and making furrows to plant into; a rake for smoothing out soil after planting and preparing seedbeds; a spade or spading fork for turning the soil; and a yardstick, twine and stakes for spacing plants, making straight lines and marking plants.

Deciding What and Where to Plant

Keep these points in mind when choosing which vegetables to plant.

  • Choose vegetables you and your family like to eat.
  • Select varieties that do well in your growing area.
  • Some crops, like corn, have short harvest periods. So, you can make several successive plantings or choose several varieties to stagger harvests. Planting two weeks apart in spring results in about one week’s difference in harvest time in summer.
  • If some of your crops have short growing seasons, you may want to plant another crop after harvesting the first. Consult a planting chart for appropriate planting dates.
  • To discourage certain soil-borne pests, avoid planting the same crop—or crops from the same plant family—in the same place two years in a row.
  • When planting perennials, put them in one corner of the garden so that they won’t be disturbed by the more frequent cultivation required by annual vegetables.
  • Most of all, enjoy gardening and take time to smell the flowers.

If you don’t have an area of soil that you can garden, you can always grow plants in containers. It’s not too late to start a garden this year. You can buy transplants to plant directly into your garden. You might find that you learn a lot by gardening, and it’s very rewarding having food that you grew yourself.