Growing your own food is a fantastic way to connect with the rhythms of the earth, save some money, move your body and potentially get more nutrition out of your everyday carrot. And let’s face it: those homegrown greens just plain taste better. Still, it can be a bit tricky to dive headfirst into gardening without any personal reference for what grows when (seasonality) and other basic ecological principles. For success, it is important to get to know your space and devise a plan before breaking ground.
Find Your Space
Rest assured that a plant wants to grow no matter what you do. Plants are on your team. That being said, they’re not guaranteed to thrive and bear fruit just anywhere or anytime. As gardeners we need to learn what our brood needs to facilitate their happiness. Fortunately, most vegetable crops thrive in similar soil situations, so the main thing to keep in mind when designing your space will be sun exposure. Most leaf crops (kale, lettuce, etc.) require four to six hours of sun, flowers and roots (cauliflower, carrots, etc.) want six to eight, and fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, beans, etc.) will need eight or more. It is also helpful to select a site near to your water source. Nothing is more obnoxious than lugging around watering buckets all summer long, so make sure your garden is hose accessible or even try out a timed drip-irrigation system, if you’re looking to up the ante.
Prepare Your Soil
Various options exist for planting situations. If your soil seems pretty pliable, or if you’re able to physically till up the soil, consider working in the existing soil and simply amending the soil based on results of a soil test. Over-the-counter soil tests aren’t so reliable, so opt for a basic lab test. King Conservation District offers five free soil tests per lifetime to residents of King County and is an excellent resource. If you’d prefer to know your lead levels as well, the University of Massachusetts–Amherst offers a comprehensive panel plus lead for $15 per test. Otherwise, if you are working with paved space, if you suspect your native soil is toxic or if you’d simply prefer the accessibility and aesthetic, you might opt for raised gardening beds.
In our climate, the native soil is usually slightly acidic, so your soil test will often suggest adding agricultural lime to bring up the pH. Other common soil amendments include compost (for sandy or clay soils), composted manure (for a nitrogen boost) and fertilizers. Organic fertilizers are preferable because they are composed of organic matter—not necessarily because they are certified organic—which is slow releasing and as such becomes available to your plants at a pace more familiar to what they’re used to. Synthetic fertilizers (i.e., Miracle-Gro) are water soluble with higher percentages of nutrients and as such wash through the soil much more quickly. If applied often, plants will grow exceptionally large at times, but this growth is not sustainable for the plants and most definitely not for the soil; synthetics do not nourish the soil and the important microbes therein for years to come. A final helpful amendment is earthworm castings (worm poop), which are very nutritious and inoculate your soil with microbes that help keep fungal problems at bay and facilitate the breakdown of amendments.
what to plant
Got More Questions?
Check out these handy references:
➵ Maritime Northwest Garden Guide by Lisa Taylor and the Gardeners of Seattle Tilth (updated second edition, $16.95)
➵ The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Pacific Northwest by Lorene Edwards Forkner ($19.95)
➵ The Garden Hotline (managed by Seattle Tilth) at 206.633.0224 or gardenhotline.org
➵ UW Botanic Gardens’ Elisabeth C. Miller Library: Plant Answer Line at 206.897.5268 or firstname.lastname@example.org