Don't overcomplicate growing vegetables

Growing vegetables can be a daunting task when you start to consider all the information on the subject. Stick to a basic garden plan and you will reap gardening’s real rewards.

Many gardening experts will encourage you to consider volumes of information and research when you make your garden plans. I suggest you skip most of it and go straight into the garden.  “What!?” you may be thinking. “That’s terrible advice!” Obviously I don’t appreciate the skillful complexities of growing vegetables.  Touché. But, let me tell you how I planned my first garden.

My backyard in Meyers, CA.

15 years ago, I lived in Meyers, CA an insignificant mountain town off Hwy 50.  Established in 1851 as a pony-express stop, it’s remained small with very few things for a local to do. One uneventful spring day, I walked over to the town’s hardware store to stave off my cabin fever. I was thrilled to discover they sold tomato starts, herbs, and vegetable seeds. I bought all I could carry, walked home and placed them directly into the ground. That’s it. No garden plan. Just plain fun!

As you’ve probably guessed, I didn’t grow a lot successfully that year. I think I only harvested a handful of cherry tomatoes and some herb cuttings by the time the garden was enveloped in snow. What did grow was my appreciation for the innate sense of purpose that comes with growing food and the feeling that something magical was happening. 

Now, imagine if I had considered all the information available to a gardener when starting out.

What is the average frost freeze date? What is the average rainfall? What is the appropriate spacing of the plants? Which plants can grow next to each other?  What plants should not grow next to each other? What is my soil depth? What is the soil profile like? Is there organic mater? Is it nutrient rich? What is the soil pH, and macro and micro-nutrient levels? How much square footage is there for growing? Will the light be the same all year around? Are there deer? Dogs? Squirrels? Are there large trees around the garden? Should I mulch? Do I need a drip system? And on, and on, and on…

Did you glaze over yet? Or, is that a hint of panic I see in your eye?  I can relate.  That is why I believe that backyard gardening doesn’t need to be an academic pursuit with success dependent on volumes of research and planning.

My first garden plan had a bit of a shoot first, ask questions later approach.  It was a blast and got me moving in the right direction.  Once I had my tomatoes and chives in hand, I was hungry for more knowledge and improved planning.

But how much information should you consider when planning your garden?  The foundation of a great garden plan should begin with the 5 basic elements of your garden: sun, soil, water, crop, and season.  Gardening is a get your hands dirty and learn as you go endeavor.   Digging deeper into details like soil pH, crop rotation, or companion planting are examples of things a gardener can learn as they go; or choose to never worry about at all. 

There are volumes of awesome gardening books that can be hard to resist. I know. I have shelves of them. Yet, much of the information can overcomplicate things and may not relate to your unique gardening environment or style.

One of my favorite gardening books is Gardening West of the Cascades by Steve Solomon.  Steve writes, “I garden big, with passion, and measure in fractions of acres.” Steve rotates his crops annually and considers the economic value of each vegetable.  He looks into scientific principles on why plants grow and makes diagrams like The Relationship Between Solar Energy and Plant Growth.

While Steve’s book is a pleasure to read, I find it’s usually not applicable to my backyard. I’ve no idea what 0.0% of an acre my raised beds and containers constitute. I don’t have a crop rotation plan. I choose my crops based on which kid will eat what. And whereas I love a scientific diagram (who doesn’t), I’ve already forgotten it when I make my growing plan.

Remember to stay focused on the basic elements of your garden and you stay focused on the heart of gardening. You may decide to expand your plan with additional levels of research and information, but be careful not to overcomplicate things.  Stick to a level of information that is relevant to your unique garden and on par with your interest level.  Simple plans can yield the best gardens and the happiest gardeners.

P.S. Check out these great gardening books if you still want to get deeper into planning and researching for your urban garden.  I know.  It’s hard to resist ;-)