Starting a garden can feel intimidating venture, especially if you are a first-time gardener. Over the next few months we will share a number of resources and “how tos,” so that you have a garden that flourishes and have lots of fun! And, keep in mind that every successful gardener has had a few failed experiments, and just kept on going until they found success.
It is important to remember that every Climate Victory Garden is going to look different. Just like farming, gardening is regionally specific and needs to be adapted to your local microclimate. There are also a number of factors that impact your gardens success, many of which are outside of your control, like the weather and your next-door neighbor’s child that enjoys stomping on all the pretty green things.
Gardening can be such a fickle endeavor, but there are a number of steps you can take to set your garden up for success and maximize its climate change mitigating potential.
Here are a few of the basic first steps you can consider when getting your Climate Victory Garden started:
- Get Your Soil Tested
- Make a Garden Plan
- Buy Your Seeds
- Start Your Seedlings
- Build Your Beds
- Soil Preparation
- Show Yourself Some Grace
Get Your Soil Tested
There are two main reasons to get your soil tested 1) safety and 2) soil health. This is not an absolutely necessary step, but it's a good idea if you don't know the history of your soil well (or if you're just a curious person!). Not all soil is safe for growing food, which is of particular concern in urban areas that are more likely to have high levels of lead in the soil. If you do have minimal amounts of heavy metals in your soil one way to remove them is to grow sunflowers. Sunflowers naturally pull heavy metals out of the soil, but its key that you throw them in the garbage and do NOT put them in your compost. Another option is to build raised beds and bring in new soil.
As for soil health, soil tests can provide information about the nutrient and pH levels in your soil. Soil testing will give you a baseline of information regarding your soil’s health. It will help inform the practices you should use, what you might need to augment your soil, and what type of plants you should grow in order to maximize soil health. Remember that improving soil health does not happen over one growing season, it is a long-term process and investment. To track your progress and to continue to monitor your soil, we could get your soil tested on an annual basis.
So how do you get your soil tested? A number of land grant universities do soil testing some for free and some charge a small fee, for example Penn State charges $9.00 for a basic soil testing kit. You can find more information about land grant universities in your area. Here are step by step instructions from Modern Farmer on the proper way to collect your soil samples.
Make a Garden Plan
In order to increase your chances of success in your garden and to focus on building up soil health, creating a garden plan is essential. A plan not only helps you determine what you should plant for your area and when you need to plant it, it also helps you determine when you are going to plant throughout the year. This informs when things come and go and when you need to start new seeds and be ready to pull out annuals (though we encourage planting as many perennials as possible).
A garden plan is also key for making sure that you are planting things in the right place and in the right order. You want to make sure that you are rotating where you are planting certain crops so that you can keep your soil healthy and balanced, for example you do not want to plant tomatoes in the same place season after season. This is all about balancing nitrogen fixing and nitrogen pulling crops. There are also some plants that grow better when placed together, tomatoes and basil are an excellent example of this.
Buy Your Seeds
Once you have a plan you can go out and buy your seeds. While your local garden or hardware store likely has some decent organic options, there are a number of amazing online seed companies that specialize in unique and colorful varieties, Baker Creek is a great place to look for heirloom seeds. It is important that you look for seeds and plants that will do well in your geographic region and microclimate.
Start Your Seedlings
Depending on where you live starting your seeds indoors might be an essential step. If you live in an area with a long winter, you will need to start seeds inside so that they have the ability to mature and grow a bit stronger before putting them outside to face the elements. If your soil quality isn’t that great yet, seedlings will have a better chance at survival. Critters also have a tendency to pull out and snack on seeds, so if you live in an urban area, seedlings will have a better chance for success. Starting your seeds inside is also a great option if you live in a region where you get multiple planting seasons, that way you can start your seeds and have seedlings ready to go when it is time to transition your garden over for the next season. There are some great indoor kits for germinating seeds and some come with LED lamps to speed things up.
Build Your Beds
If you are building raised beds you will need to start the building process to construct your beds early on. There are a number of things to consider when building raised beds such as depth, width, and materials. If you want to grow any sort of root vegetables depth is extremely important to take into account. Plus, the more soil you have the more carbon sequestering potential! Make sure that the width of your beds is accessible, you don’t want to have to break your back reaching to the middle of your garden bed or prevent little ones from being able to help in the gardening. It is also important to avoid the use of pressure treated woods. There are a number of chemicals and fungicides used in pressure treated wood and such wood is actually prohibited under the organic certification, which means you probably don’t want to use it for the food you are growing at home either!
Before you put your seeds or seedlings in the ground you need to get your soil ready. This will differ quite a bit depending on what type of soil you have, what you learned from your soil testing, and where you are on your gardening journey. Garden stores and some municipalities will deliver nutrient rich soil to your home – which can be easier than buying it at the store (especially if you don’t have a car).While one of the goals of Climate victory Gardens is to minimize soil disturbance, when you are first starting you will likely need to loosen your soil and add amendments such as compost, manure, and additional soil. You also may want to use a compost tea to jump start your soil health.
Make sure to follow each plant’s instructions for planting, this is definitely one of those situations where you want to read the full set of directions. Each type of plant has its own needs and meeting these will set your garden up for success. The directions usually let you know how much water, sunlight, and other nutrients each plant needs. Seedlings and seeds are extremely sensitive to new environments and can experience shock when introduced to their new home; make sure to keep to a watering schedule, feed your plants if needed, and cover them from sunlight if it is particularly hot or sunny when you are planting.
Show Yourself Grace
Gardening can be extremely challenging! As you build up your soil health and create a healthy environment for your plants to thrive in, it will become easier. But some things are just out of your control. You never know when an unseasonal rain storm or heat wave will hit and damage your plants. But remember there is always another growing season and that this is supposed to be fun! Don’t be afraid to ask neighbors or your local gardening experts for help if you are struggling with your garden. Make sure to join our Climate Victory Gardeners Facebook group so that you can connect with a community of gardeners and ask questions, share resources, and stay up to dates with gardens across the country. And remember sometimes you can do everything right and things just don’t work out!
Happy Gardening!! Make sure to tag all your gardening pictures with #ClimateVictoryGardens