Advice for first-time gardeners

Wednesday, April 30, 2008
AARON EISENHAUER ~ A tomato plant grew in the Old Town Cape Scholarship Garden.

The spring hot spots in a garden center are the vegetable seed and vegetable plant racks. The familiar crowd of gardeners is excited about the prospects of a new season. They can't wait to dig in the dirt. They want to get a jump on their neighbor and have the first ripe tomato.

This season is somewhat unusual because along with those familiar gardeners, I am seeing new faces that I have never seen before. The common thread of conversation is "This is the first time I have ever grown a garden. I am not sure what I am doing. Can you help me pick out seed and give me pointers on how to begin?"

After hearing these questions a few times, I began to wonder why all of the first-time gardeners are showing up this spring. I suppose that some think that they can save a little money. The price of food is going up, and there doesn't seem to be any ceiling in sight.

Not only are food prices skyrocketing, so are the prices of fuel. Many vacation plans have been canceled. Instead of spending money on gasoline, they are going to spend money on family activities at home.

A few parents with small children have told me they want their children to experience nature and know where food comes from. They want to instill the concepts of work for results and the need to care for something living other than themselves.

If you are a first-time gardener, perhaps the next few paragraphs will make your first garden a rewarding experience.

First, find an area in your landscape that is bathed in sunlight all day long. If that is not possible, then find one where the sun shines all afternoon.

Prepare the soil for your new garden by spading it up or by having it plowed or tilled. Make sure that you work up your new garden soil at least 8 to 12 inches deep.

Add to your soil organic matter in the form of compost or peat moss. Use the rule of thumb of two-thirds soil and one third peat. In other words, if you have worked up your virgin soil to a depth of 8 inches, add a 4-inch layer of organic matter to that soil and mix thoroughly.

Next, if your soil has a lot of clay in it, spread 40 pounds of gypsum on 250 square feet. Work this into your soil-organic matter mix.

Finally, collect soil samples and run a chemical analysis on the soil. You can purchase a soil test kit at your local garden center or you can send the samples to your local university Extension office. When you get back the results adjust the soil pH, phosphorous, and potassium levels based upon the recommendations made by the kit or the Extension office. Work the gypsum and fertilizer into the soil soon after you apply it.

For your first-time garden keep the area that you work up small. You will be surprised at how much produce you can get out of a 10-foot-by-10-foot area. If you make your garden too large, you may become a slave to the garden and you will burn out quickly. If you find that you really like to garden, expand the size next year.

Now that the soil preparation is done, it is time to select seeds and plants. Start out with some tried-and-true varieties. Plant one Early Girl tomato plant and two or three Big Boys or Better Boys. This combination will give you an early-yielding tomato plant and then some that produce all season long.

Add some sweet pepper plants such as Bell Boy to your garden, or maybe some jalapenos if you like spicy food. These are great for salads or salsa.

Next, put in two short rows of bush green beans such as Blue Lake or Jade. Beans are easy to grow and yield a lot of produce.

You may also want to add two or three short rows of sweet corn such as Sweetie or Kandy Korn. Make sure that you place these rows on the north side of your garden so that the tall plants don't shade the rest of your garden. It is better to plant two or more short rows than one long one because of pollination.

These few suggestions will get you going for your first-time garden. If you have questions, go to your local garden center, find a clerk and ask questions. Talk with experienced gardeners and ask them questions. In the process you will probably be developing relationships that last a life time.

Remember, if your first efforts are not what you expected, don't be upset. Even my grandfather, who gardened all his life, occasionally had a failure.

Send your gardening and landscape questions to Paul Schnare at P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63702-0699 or by e-mail to

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