My first garden was, technically, not a garden at all. It was, in fact, a plot of stunted vegetables hiding their homely little selves within a sprawling weed patch.
It's amazing I wasn't arrested for the crime of "attempted gardening in the first degree."
About 40 years ago, early one spring when I was 21, I decided to dig up a big patch of lawn and grow vegetables. It was to be a dazzling garden of about 40 feet by 20 feet. There seemed to be plenty of sun on that back yard and so I started digging literally by hand, using just a sharp-edged shovel. It took many sweaty days to take off that layer of crab-grass disguised as "lawn." It took several more days to dig up the compacted soil.
I had never planted anything before, but I thought it would be a fun thing to do — to watch my vegetables grow and then share them with friends and neighbors. I scritched the soil with a rake, breaking up the lumps, but it seemed to be awfully dry and sandy. Then I watered it to make it nice and moist, ready for the planting.The exciting part was buying the seeds: tomatoes, carrots, onions, radishes, green beans, watermelons and lettuce.
On a sunny day, oh what fun it was to plant those seeds in nice, even rows with each seed packet staked at the end of each row like a colorful promise of things to come.
I watered the garden and stood back proudly, imagining the bounty that would spring forth in a few weeks.
Every day I would water it and wait and wait.
Finally, one morning, I saw a few cracked lines with tiny exclamation points of bright yellow-green. "Lettuce!" I exclaimed.
I called friends and neighbors over to admire my brand-new baby crop.In the next few weeks, more sprouts pushed up through the soil. Trouble is, in the next few weeks leaves were sprouting, too — sprouting like crazy from the giant oak at the end of the yard. Within a month, my garden was enjoying dappled sun at best. Many seeds did not emerge. Those that did began to look pale and sickly as they grew. Later, I pulled up a few carrots that looked like stunted witches' fingers. The lettuce developed a bad case of anemia. The green-bean plants were jaundiced. The rest of the seeds did not emerge.
Finally, by mid summer, as despair set in, the weeds took over. Defeated, disgusted, I gave up. Since then, that miserable non-garden only deepened my determination to become a successful gardener. I still have a lot to learn, but I have plots in my yard now that flourish and that are the envy of my good neighbors.
Here is what I learned from "my first garden."
1. Make sure there is plenty of all-day sun for a vegetable or herb garden. In my ignorance, I had completely ignored the fact a tall oak tree would cast shade over the entire yard for most of the day. That poor garden received, at best, only an hour of late-afternoon sun. 2. With many vegetables, such as tomatoes, plant seedlings from a greenhouse unless you start the seeds indoors in the winter, which I did last year with great success. 3. Check the soil to make sure it has what your plants will need. The best way is to bring or mail samples to County Extension. Always amend the soil. Because I live where the soil is very sandy, I use bags of composted manure, plenty of peat moss, some bone meal and some all-purpose fertilizer pellets. I dig all of that down to a good level, and I do it every spring a few weeks before planting. 4. Know and understand which plants are suitable for your climate zone. In central Minnesota, where I live, it is virtually impossible -- without a year-round greenhouse -- to grow plants from southern climes. So many times I ordered seeds and plants from catalogs that just did not work in this northern zone. 5. Do not over-plant. My gardens from 20-30 years ago were invariably too big, with too many vegetables planted in them. They became overwhelming by mid-summer, and too many times I let the weeds "win." Keep things nice and manageable, and you will do just fine.