HOL's how to series with guest blogger, elsie padrón
like most things, the hardest thing about starting a garden is, well…starting. having come from a family of green thumbs, i’ve always wanted my own little garden. nothing in comparison to the backyard paradise at my grandparents’ house growing up—full of avocados, mangos, ciruelas, plantains, guayabas, tomatoes, limes, oranges (before the county forced my grandfather to cut them down), squash, pineapple and herbs—but a starter garden. you know, something small and manageable to start with, and portable for when the time comes to leave our rental.
so when the opportunity presented itself to adopt a garden belonging to an acquaintance who was moving to chicago, i jumped at it. after a grueling few hours of manual labor (shout out to my husband and our friend enrique!), the garden made it home to our backyard, already filled with tomatoes, shishito peppers, banana peppers, kale, collard greens, and a variety of herbs.
we’ve had the garden for a few months now, which by no means makes me an expert…more of an enthusiastic beginner who is eager to share what i’ve learned so that others may be so inspired to start their own little garden.
- garden trough or bed
our garden is split up between among metal troughs. this was ideal for us because we wanted it to be somewhat portable if and when we moved. if you decide to go this route, there are several options online (like this one). of course, a traditional garden bed also works. the width of your trough or bed will depend on how much you want to grow. you want to leave a good 10–12” between plantings. and vegetable plants need a depth of at least 15–18” to fully develop roots. regardless of the kind of container you choose, you’ll want a raised bed (i.e., not in-ground) garden for best results.
- drill and metal punch
our garden is lined on the bottom with rocks, but there is some debate about whether rocks or gravel actually help with soil drainage. if you decide not to go that route, lay a nylon or vinyl screen down on the bottom of your trough or garden bed before you add your soil.
- concrete blocks or other elevation
my garden troughs are sitting up on concrete blocks, which are cheap and readily available at your nearest hardware store.
there are a lot of gardening resources out there, and it seems like each one has a different opinion on the kind of soil mixture you should be using in your garden. many of them recommend mixing components individually by hand, testing soil ph levels, etc. as a beginner, that was just too much to take on. beyond what has already been used in my adopted garden, i’ve opted for fox farm brand potting soils. their ocean forest, happy frog, or lucky dog soils are great multipurpose options.
- chicken wire or galvanized hardware cloth
to protect your garden from larger pests (cats are an issue in our neighborhood), you’ll want to place chicken wire or galvanized hardware cloth on top of your soil in between plantings or place chicken wire all around your garden bed in the form of a “fence” to keep critters out. we’ve opted for the former, but if you choose to go the fence route, here is a great video tutorial to walk you through the process.
diy pest spray
our garden came to us with a moderate aphid infestation on our shishito pepper plants. these tiny bugs will do a lot of damage. if you see these on the undersides of leaves, cut off any leaves that are beyond repair, placing them in sealed plastic bags before disposing of them. for healthy leaves with a few bugs, try shocking them with a cold blast of water from your hose first, then spray the leaves (not the veggies!) with a mixture of one quart of water, one teaspoon of biodegradable dish soap or castile soap, and a healthy pinch of cayenne pepper.
okay, now you’ve gathered all of your supplies and it’s time to get planting!
prepare your garden trough by drilling drainage holes (¼” to ½”) into the bottom. be sure to fit your drill with a drill bit made to bore through metal. turn the trough upside down and mark the spots you wish to drill. using a metal punch, hammer until it penetrates the bottom of the container. once you have a slight hole, place the drill bit onto the hole, press hard and start the drill. repeat for each hole. as for the number of holes, it’s not a science. you just want enough of them, evenly spaced, for proper soil drainage. here’s what the end result should look like.
- line the bottom of your trough with nylon or vinyl screen.
fill your trough with planting soil. do not compress or tamp down the soil. you want it to be loose and airy.
plant your plants several inches away from each other. i leave less spacing (about 5–6”) between herbs and more spacing (about 10–12”) between vegetables (some of which will need support that will also take up some space). soak your plants while still in their planters. then remove them from their planters, gently loosen the soil and place in pre-dug holes in your soil. you’ll want to cut the bottom leaves off of your veggie plants and plant a bit deeper than your herbs.
protect your garden from backyard pests. cut pieces of galvanized hardware metal to fit between your plants, leaving a few inches around your plantings so they have room to grow. cats don’t like the way the metal feels on their paws. alternatively, you can build a chicken wire fence around your garden (instructions on that above).
- water your garden. how often you water depends on the climate where you live and your soil, as some soils retain moisture better than others. as a general rule, i water the garden if, when sticking my index finger an inch down in the soil, i don’t feel moisture. in the miami winter months, this has resulted in watering once every 2–3 days, but i suspect that i’ll be watering more often as the temperature rises.
this is my favorite part. your garden has produced veggies! it’s time to break out your basket and gardening shears. knowing when to pick your vegetables takes some time and practice, but here are some general guidelines for a few different varieties:
- herbs: cut back herbs frequently to keep them producing more stems and leaves and to prevent blooming, which is not good. if your herbs are flowering, it means you haven’t cut them back enough. blooming changes the flavor of the leaves. basil is especially susceptible to this. if you’ve found yourself with way too much basil, make a big batch of pesto! we do this at home and store the extra in the freezer.
- tomatoes: there are so many varieties of tomatoes that it would be impossible to include them all here, but in general, a tomato is ready to pick when it’s ever-so-slightly soft and releases easily from the stem. you’ll probably go through a few tomatoes before you figure out the best timing for your varieties, and that’s okay! tomatoes will ripen a bit after you pick them.
- peppers: peppers are most flavorful when they turn red, orange or whatever their “mature” color is, but you can still eat them green. make sure to snip them off your plant (don’t tug). as with tomatoes, the first few you pick will help you determine the best timing.
- kale: do you remember life before kale entered the mainstream as the delicious, miraculous superfood we know it to be today? me either. i highly encourage you to grow kale in your garden. it’s such a versatile green, as good in smoothies as it is in a salad (or as an alternative to potato chips!). your kale will grow with a large, tough center stem and sprout leaves from the top. it kind of looks like a little palm tree. you want to cut your kale leaves from the bottom up, leaving at least four leaves intact at the top to promote new growth. kale grows really well in warm weather, but it doesn’t like too much heat (think high 80s and above). during the hot summer, cut back the kale liberally and frequently to prevent toughness and bitterness.
whether you start with a small herb garden or decide to grow a variety of vegetables, you’ll be amazed by the difference in flavor and quality from what you’re used to buying in grocery stores. happy planting, friends!
ready to start gardening? house of lilac's home sweet home gift box has everything you need to get you started!