In Part One of our Rookie Guide we laid out the five keys to planning a successful food garden: find a spot with good sunlight, prepare your soil, create paths, build a fence, and set up a system for irrigating. Once you’ve got these fundamentals down, you’re ready to plant. Be sure to enlist your kids (and your neighbors’ kids) in every step of the process. Kids love every part of it — creating furrows for seeds, digging holes for seedlings, loosening their roots before settling them into the earth, patting down the soil around the baby plants, and sprinkling them with water to settle the soil. Remember that gardens are forgiving. If your kids screw anything up—like planting seeds or seedlings too close together—their mistakes are always easy to fix.
What follows is the skinny on planting: supplies, what to plant when, how to space out your crops, and how to make it all look fabulous.
Almost all your supplies — fertilizer, compost, seeds, labels, plant supports, trowels, round nosed shovel, hard rake, —can be purchased online or from a local nursery. The Gardener’s Supply website is a one-stop shop, and for seeds we also love Johnny’s. Organic seedlings can be purchased at local nurseries and also often from local farmers at your farmer’s market. All types of compost from your local nursery or home improvement store work well—just go as organic as you can.
There are two basic ways to plant: by placing seeds directly in the ground or by putting plants (seedlings) in the ground. The seedlings give you a head start on the season, as they’re grown in a greenhouse or indoors during the late winter or early spring. Jeanne always plants large fruiting crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries and most herbs as seedlings. Vegetables and fruit including carrots, beans, beets, radishes, melon, and pumpkin she plants from seeds.
Amanda pulled a rookie move and planted everything in her garden as seedlings (except carrots). It’s the “insta-garden” approach and a safe way to start, but you don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the birth of your tiny plants as they pop up out of the soil from their seeds.
The single most common rookie mistake is over planting — try to use restraint in the planting process! It’s hard to believe that the tiny things you plant will become huge and lush in a matter of weeks, but they will, and they need room to do it. If your plants are too close together, they will compete for nutrients in the soil, crowd each other and won’t grow to their full potential. Nutrient-rich soil can support a more densely planted garden than poorer-quality soil.
Read the information on the back of your seed packet closely or reference the online Kitchen Garden Planner, which has great advice about planting density and garden layouts. If you realize, as your garden grows, that you’ve placed your plants too close together, don’t sweat it. Just thin them out by pulling up the smallest, weakest plants, creating space for the healthiest ones.
You can think of crops in two basic categories: cold-tolerant crops that can be planted in early spring and will germinate and grow in cool soil and air temperatures (such as spinach, lettuce, broccoli, and peas) and heat-loving crops (such as tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, corn, and cucumbers) that must be planted in the late spring or early summer after the threat of a frost has passed. Find out which planting zone you live in and what to plant when on the National Gardening Association’s website.
Every food garden needs flowers. Some flowers, like nasturtiums and pansies, are gorgeous and edible—win, win. Others, like zinnias, calendula and sunflowers also attract pollinators and beneficial insects to your crops. Still others, like marigolds, deter pests.
In the next and final installation of our Rookie Guide, we’ll give you the 411 on tending and harvesting your garden — how to manage pests and weeds, how to stake and fertilize your plants, and when to pick ‘em.