Building and keeping your own garden is both fun and rewarding. You get to care for something other than yourself and also save some money, especially with a vegetable garden. You can grow different things like vegetables, flowers or fruits. All you need to get started is some decent soil and a few plants or seeds.
But to be a really successful vegetable gardener you’ll need to understand what it takes to keep your plants healthy and vigorous. Here are the basics.
- Get an Idea
Is this going to be a vegetable garden? A herb garden? A flower garden? If you choose to grow flowers, do you want annuals, which you must replant each year? Or do you prefer perennials, which have a shorter bloom time but come back year after year? You can mix any of the above — after all, it’s your garden. Just one bit of advice: Start small. ‘Tis better to succeed just a little, than to fail grandly.
- Pick a Place
Almost all vegetables and most flowers need about six hours of full sun each day. Spend a day (ideally, on a weekend or holiday if you’re a worker) in your chosen spot and watch how the sun moves across the space. It might receive more sun than you think. Check plant tags or ask the staff at your local garden centre to find out how much sun a plant requires.
- Clear the Ground
Get rid of the sod covering the area you plan to plant. If you want quick results, you can dig it out, but it’s easier to smother it with newspaper. A layer of five sheets is usually thick enough; double that if your lawn is Bermuda grass or St. Augustine grass. Spread a 3-inch layer of compost (or combination of potting soil and topsoil) on the newspaper and wait. It’ll take about four months for the compost and paper to decompose.
If you don’t want to wait or if the area is covered with weeds, you’re better off digging the sod out with some good old-fashioned weeding.
- Improve the Soil
Invariably, soil needs a boost. The solution is simple: organic matter. Add a 2 to 3-inch layer of compost (decayed leaves, dry grass clippings, or old manure). If you weeded the lawn and loosened up the soil, mix the organic matter into the soil. If you decide not to dig or are working with an established bed you can’t dig, leave the organic matter on the surface and it will work its way into the soil in a few months.
- Dig or Don’t
Digging loosens the soil so roots can penetrate more easily. But digging when the soil is too wet or too dry can ruin its structure. Dig only when the soil is moist enough to form a loose ball in your fist but dry enough to fall apart when you drop it. Use a spade or spading fork to gently turn the top 8 to 12 inches of soil, mixing in the organic matter. In vegetable gardens and beds of annual flowers, turn the soil only once during the rainy season before you plant.
- Pick Your Plants
Some people look through gardening catalogues for months; other people head to the local plant sellers’ and buy whatever wows them. Either method works if you choose plants adapted to your climate, your soil, and the amount of sunlight in your garden. You can even surf the Internet for the types of plants available in your part of the country. Or you could go to agriculture-friendly shops like Agrimat in Accra to purchase seeds. Here are a few easy-to-grow plants for beginners around the world:
- Put Them in the Ground
Some plants, such as lettuce and sunflowers, are easy to grow from seed. You can sow them directly in the garden. Be sure to read the seed packet for information about when to plant, how deep to plant, and how far apart to plant the seeds. If you’re an adventurous beginner, you can get a headstart on the growing season by sowing seeds indoors before the end of Harmattan. You can buy containers or flats designed especially for seedlings, as well as seed-starting soil mixes (available at garden centres and shops). Follow seed-packet instructions, and place the containers on a sunny windowsill or under artificial lights if you don’t have window space. Be sure to keep the seeds and seedlings moist but not wet (or they may rot).
An easier method is to buy young plants, called set plants or transplants. Just dig a hole and stuff them (gently) in the ground.
Seedlings should never be allowed to dry out, so water daily while they are small. Taper off as the plants get larger. New transplants also need frequent watering – every other day or so – until their roots become established. After that, how often you need to water depends on your soil, how humid your climate is, and how often it rains. Plants are begging for water when they wilt slightly in the heat of the day. Water slowly and deeply, so the water soaks in instead of running off into the street. To minimise evaporation, water in the early morning before the sun has fully risen.
To help keep weeds out and water in, cover the soil with a couple of inches of mulch. All sorts of mulch are available, from corn husks to cocoa hulls to bark chips. For a vegetable garden or bed of annuals, choose a mulch that decomposes in a few months. For perennials, use a longer-lasting mulch, such as bark chips.
- Keep It Up
Your garden is on its way. Keep watering when needed, and pull weeds before they get big. Fertilise with a dry fertiliser about halfway through the season. If you use a liquid fertiliser, fertilise every month or so. And remember to stop and smell the—well, whatever you grow.
Bonus Home Gardening Tips:
- Try starting seeds from scratch rather than buying established plants from a store. You’ll save a ton of money this way, although this does require more work.
- Don’t waste money buying peat pots or other seed starting kits. Check with your local nursery; they likely have a ton of black plastic pots and plant trays they’d be happy to give you. You can also use egg cartons and plastic cups to start seeds in (that’s much more economical and practical).
- Don’t waste money buying garden labels (i.e. the plastic spikes you write on and then stick into the ground to identify your plants). Cut up a plastic milk carton and use a black Sharpie instead!
- If you have a problem with birds and rodents eating your veggies, cut up an old garden hose into three or four feet segments. Animals will often mistake these for snakes, and steer clear of your garden. You could even get your children involved by having them paint the hoses to look even more like snakes.
Do any of you have your own garden? If so, do you have any additional advice for those who are interested in getting started? Let us know with a comment below.