Tips for Starting a Home Garden

Gardening can be a fun outdoor activity for all ages!  Starting a garden for the first time can be daunting. We are hoping these instructions and resources will make it easier and less scary!  And please feel free to contact us via our website contact information or on our facebook page with any specific questions.

Spring 2020 HFHK seed growers:  The seed packets you received have a bit of planting information; but more great growing info can be found on the website of our favorite supplier, Johnny’s Selected Seeds  Note that lettuce, spinach, kale, and cilantro are cool weather crops, so you can plant seed directly in your garden as early as mid-March.  You can also start the seeds indoors in pots, which has the advantage of faster growth due to warmer indoor temperatures, and you will likely waste less seed (since outdoors, seeds are planted more thickly, and then thinned to the correct plant spacing).   Ideally, tomato, pepper, basil and parsley seed should be started indoors at the beginning of April and transplanted to your garden around Mother’s Day.  Scroll down to the section below entitled “Step 2:  Planting your garden” for more planting info. Also, scroll down to see information regarding harvesting your garden.

Here’s an interesting article from the New York Times describing easy ways to start a new garden or reclaim an overgrown one!

Building a raised bed garden: 

  • This is an oldie but goody reference with step-by-step instructions and a video:  . You don’t need to add all the bells and whistles; you can just go with the 4 ft x 8 ft (or up to 12 ft) x 12 inch bed frame.  Do not make the bed wider than 4ft, because you want to be able to reach to the center without stepping in the soil. One of the main benefits of building a raised bed is you fill it with a mixture of soil and organic matter that will stay loose, providing plenty of oxygen for the plant roots.  If you step in it and compact the soil, you defeat the purpose. ALSO, we recommend making the 4” x 4” corner posts 12 inches, rather than 16”. In the process of leveling the bed, you usually will need to dig into the soil a bit, and that will be enough to anchor the bed in place. Finally, this is not absolutely necessary:  We recommend placing a piece of landscape fabric under the bed before you fill it with soil. The landscape fabric should be cut so that it is 6” larger than your bed on each side, so the edges should extend out beyond the outer edges of the raised bed. (So, for a 4’ by 8’ bed, the fabric would be 5’ x 9’. You can piece together narrower fabric, just make sure the pieces overlap by several inches.)  Watch the Garden Build video on our website to see what we mean (or on Youtube   We do this in school gardens in case there are unknown soil contaminants in the underlying soil, as the plant roots will not breach the barrier.
  • There are also many commercial kits available online.  If they are made of wood, the boards need to be at least 1” thick or they will rot in no time.  We recommend using naturally rot-resistant wood, such as cypress or cedar, preferably 2” thick. You can use “rough cut” cypress or cedar boards, which are usually cheaper, because they have not been dried. Cypress and cedar boards are not chemically treated. whereas  pressure treated lumber is chemically treated. Research by Cooperative Extension has deemed the new pressure treated lumber safe, because it is now treated with copper compounds that leach very little into the surrounding soil (as opposed to the old pressure treated lumber, which contained arsenic; a cancer-causing agent).  

A word about soil:

  • If you start with good quality, weed-seed free soil, your gardening experience will be delightful.  If you don’t, you will have years of heartaches. We recommend purchasing from a reputable soil vendor, and you want to ask for a mix made for growing vegetables in raised bed gardens.   Do not accept donations of compost or soil unless you know it is weed/seed free. We’ve already done that experiment for you, and trust us, it’s not worth it.  
  • Raised beds are essentially large container gardens, and it’s important that they are filled with soil that has good drainage.  Pots and other container gardens are usually filled with a soilless “potting mix” that consists of peat moss* and other components.  It’s great for drainage, but not good at holding on to valuable plant nutrients, so constant fertilizing is needed to supply nutrients.  Instead, you can have good drainage as well as supply nutrients by filling your raised beds with a mixture of half soil and half compost, or purchasing a mixture from a soil supplier.  In our area (northern Delaware) the soil vendors have mixes that are 50% mushroom compost and 50% topsoil. If you don’t have a bulk supplier, you can buy bagged product. 
  • *A note about peat moss:  Peat moss is harvested from bogs, which sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide.  Harvesting and using peat moss, therefore, contributes to global climate change. For this reason, there are some bans on using it, and some suppliers have developed alternative products.  

Preparing, planting, and caring for your garden

Step 1:  Prepare the soil for planting.  

  1. If you are starting with an existing raised bed or in-ground garden,  you will need to turn the soil and add organic matter, such as weed-seed-free homemade compost, or commercially available mushroom compost, or leaf compost (both of the latter available in bulk from soil suppliers, or bagged).
  2. We normally use a shovel to turn the soil first, then break up any clumps.  An inch or two of compost is then spread over the soil, and worked into the upper soil layer.  Finally, we rake it smooth. (In our school gardens, classes of 2nd graders wear gloves and use hand cultivators to work in the compost and smooth the soil.)
  3. Note that you should avoid cultivating the soil when it is very wet, especially if your soil does not contain much organic matter.  If wet soil is cultivated (especially if it contains a lot of clay and not much organic matter), you will CREATE clumps of soil which will then be VERY hard to break up. This is especially a problem for in-ground gardens.  Raised bed gardens drain quickly and are usually filled with soil containing lots of organic matter.

Video showing how to prepare your soil for planting (please note that although you see them stepping inside the garden bed, we do NOT recommend doing that as it will compact the soil):

Step 2:  Planting your garden.

  1. Warm vs cool-weather crops:  Cool-weather crops can withstand frost and a little snow, so they can be planted in the very early spring and in fall.  In HFHK school gardens, we start planting in mid-March, and use fast-growing crops like spinach, lettuce, radishes, Japanese turnips, arugula, kale and bok choy, which are ready in 6 – 8 weeks.  In your own garden, you can also plant the slower-growing cool-weather crops such as peas, carrots, beets etc. Warm-weather crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant should be started indoors, and, in Delaware, are traditionally transplanted into the garden around Mother’s Day.  This is also the date to start planting warm-weather crops from seed, such as cucumbers, squash and beans. If you get your garden off to an early start, you can grow and harvest an entire crop of fast-growers (like radishes) before you transplant your tomatoes, etc. to that spot.

Video showing planting seeds and transplanting seedlings:

  1. Transplanting your seedlings:  If you are starting your own seedlings indoors, you will need to “harden off” the seedlings before you transplant to your garden.  This involves exposing your seedlings to increasingly more sun over a period of days. Set them in the sun 15 min the first day, 30 min the next and so on, until you have reached 8 hrs.  Then they are ready to transplant. This is important so the plants don’t burn and die, and it’s similar to how you would prepare for a vacation at the beach in the days before SPF 100 sunscreen.  Rather than spending the entire first day at the beach, getting an horrendous sunburn, and spending the rest of the vacation indoors, you would gradually acclimate your skin to the intense sun.
  2. Garden map & plant spacing:  Draw a sketch of where you want to plant each crop in your garden.  Different crops need differing amounts of space, and the information on the back of each seed packet will help guide your map.  There are lots of good online resources to help with this too. Keep in mind that there are various ways to plant a garden. For small gardens without drip-irrigation, there is the “Square-foot” gardening method, which maximizes the use of space.  Keep in mind that the information on the seed packets assumes you will be planting in long rows, like farmers do for irrigation purposes. The spacing on the seed packet also assumes that you will orient your rows north-south, and the spacing between the rows is designed so the rows won’t shade each other as the sun moves east to west each day.  In a small home garden/raised bed, you can orient your rows east-west, as long as you put your tallest crops on the north side and taper down to the shortest crops on the south side. (This is because the sun comes from the south in the Northern hemisphere, and will prevent the tall crops from shading the shorter ones.) In a raised-bed garden, especially one with a linear drip irrigation system (such as HFHK uses in the school gardens), spacing between the rows can be closer than recommended on the seed packet, and spacing of the plants within the row can also be closer.

A Comprehensive Vegetable Garden layout guide can be found here. Thanks to Happy DIY Home for this useful information!

*HFHK recommends using raised beds for vegetables as soil in the ground may contain harmful contaminants. Determining whether there are contaminants requires testing which is done separately for each potential contaminant, so unless you know what you are looking for, it’s best to use raised beds for safety reasons.

Useful garden planning tool found online:

Good information about choosing plants (companion planting):

  1. Planting the seeds:  When HFHK plants with an entire classroom of children at once, we use stakes and strings to guide the children in digging a little ditch where they will plant the seed.   (Note that the string is tied to the stakes close to the soil surface, so the children can put the back of their trowels right up against the string.) The depth of the ditch is the planting depth recommended on the seed packet.  Students dig the ditch, sprinkle or place their seeds in it, and then gently cover with the recommended amount of soil.
  2. After the seeds are planted, keep the soil evenly moist until you have uniform germination.

Harvesting your Garden:

Here is a video showing the correct way to harvest Arugula.
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