A Crash Course on Vegetable Gardening
Updated: Mar 15, 2022
So fair warning: this is largely copy pasted from a powerpoint presentation I gave in February 2021. So the layout and tone might come off a bit funny. But it's still great info, and still relevant. The links inside the images of the powerpoint slide obviously don't work, so I've posted a list of those links (and other useful resources) at the end of this post. Enjoy!
"Alright, today I’ll be giving a crash course on vegetable gardening. This presentation is designed to give the average layman the information they need to successfully grow their own food in the average suburban American setting. I’m not gonna go into a lot of theory about crop production today, but what I will be doing is giving direct, actionable instructions on how you or anyone could start growing their own food."
"Now, why should anyone care about growing their own food? This photo and the last photo were taken by me last year, and they show the results of my garden. When I was a kid we had a vegetable garden that I helped my mom in, and these last two years I’ve raised my own garden here in Colorado. I’ve spent a good bit of time and money on it. So obviously gardening is important to me, and I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
But again, why should anyone want to grow their own food? You can just buy vegetables in a grocery store. Well, there’s a lot of reasons.
First, it can save you money. I emphasize the word CAN here. Gardens have a startup cost, especially bigger ones. And if you run the numbers, you might have spent more money to grow tomatoes than to have just bought them, at least the first year. But once built, gardens have a relatively low overhead cost, and it’s usually much lower than the cost of buying vegetables from a store. With each year that passes, your garden produces more vegetables off of that one startup cost, and your savings increase. And it’s also worth noting that, if you’re like me and you’d rather spend time than money, you can get a lot of the materials you need to start a garden for cheap or even for free.
Let’s talk about the environmental effects of gardening. If you’re concerned about your carbon footprint, think about this. To get a tomato from a supermarket, the tomato needs to be grown somewhere, then transported to a processing and packaging center, then transported to the supermarket, then transported to your house. To get a tomato from the garden, you walk outside and pick it off the vine. Which scenario do you think has less environmental impact?
Gardening also provides you with much greater food security. Food security is something most of us take for granted. You can always go to the supermarket and buy food. But around March of last year we got our first reminder that that’s not always the case. COVID caused food shortages everywhere, including here in Boulder county. The more your food supply comes from your own personal garden, the less it can be subject to food shortages and food security problems.
Gardening offers a valuable perspective on a critical part of our lives. Ever wondered where potatoes come from, or why certain fruits and vegetables are more expensive at certain times of the year, or how hard it is to grow jalapeno peppers? Gardening connects us with an aspect of living that most of us in the modern world are entirely disconnected from, which is where our food comes from. And let’s not forget that agriculture has been a CRITICAL part of human existence for the last 12,000 years, longer than almost anything else. Maybe your parents raised crops, maybe they didn’t. But I can bet you their parents did, and their parents before them, and every one of your ancestors back for almost a hundred generations. Growing your own food is deeply rooted into nearly every culture on earth, and if you continue that tradition yourself, it will allow you to connect with your culture and your history in a way you couldn’t do otherwise.
If that’s not enough to convince you, then lastly I’d contend that gardening is just a satisfying hobby. It gives you a chance to make a plan, execute it, and reap a real reward. You get to spend peaceful time in your garden, working the soil, nurturing plants as they grow. If you cook, a garden will allow you to grow just the right type of hot pepper, or the freshest, most crisp spinach or lettuce, and every meal you make with food grown yourself will be more satisfying because of it. There’s a reason it’s one of the most time tested and popular hobbies."
"So, if you decide you’d like to grow a garden, first you’ve gotta figure out what to grow. Don’t be dismayed or intimidated by the question of “can I grow this” or “can I grow that?” Colorado is not that harsh. If it’s a vegetable and you can find it in the supermarket, then you can probably grow it. The only reason I caveat that with “vegetable” is because a lot of fruit grows on trees. Many of those trees do great in Colorado, but I don’t think any of us are ready to plant an entire tree. But everything else: tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, radishes, beets, garlic, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, peppers, cilantro, basil, rosemary, corn, rye, buckwheat, barely… some vegetables are more difficult than others, but if you give it the care it needs, you can probably grow it here.
So now that that’s out of the way, you can consider bang for your buck. Given X square feet of growing space, what vegetables will give me the most calories/protein/nutrients/whatever? You’ll find all different statistics supporting all sorts of conclusions about this, but the general consensus is that potatoes yield the highest calorie per acre. Combine that with the fact they’re easy to harvest (unlike wheat) and easy to prepare and eat in a multitude of tasty ways, and they’re probably your best bet for the most efficient sustenance crop.
But you should also just grow whatever it is that you like to eat normally. I eat a lot of potatoes and onions, and they also can be stored for a long time, so I grow them. I know there’s a lot of people who exclusively grow different types of hot peppers because they like spicy food but have trouble sourcing the right types of hot peppers. You can also try growing something that you don’t eat normally. I had almost never bought beets or radishes before starting a garden, but beets and radishes are two of the easiest vegetables to grow, so I gave them a try, and looked up some new recipes that utilized them. So basically just pick whatever you want."
"So I think this is the most common excuse why people don’t grow vegetables. A lot of people these days, especially in this area, don’t really have a good place to grow plants. At least it seems that way, but it’s often more feasible than you think. Obviously having a yard with soil that you can plant in is best. Side note, if you dig into the ground, call digsafe first to get any utility lines marked. But even just a few square feet of yard is enough room to plant a lot of vegetables. Say for whatever reason, you’re not allowed to dig up the ground? You can make some raised beds to put on top of the ground. We’ll get into raised beds in a bit.
In Longmont I’ve seen plenty of vegetable plots located on that little strip of grass between sidewalk and road, like in that picture on the right, so that’s often an option. There’s also a whole field of building vertical gardens, like in the photo on the left, which are great for smaller plants like herbs, and take up almost no square footage at all. Even if you’re in an apartment building and you’ve got no lawn at all, you can grow plants in pots on a balcony, on a porch, a stoop, on top of a roof, anywhere that gets sunlight for most of the day and that you can access regularly to care for them.
And suppose you don’t even have a stoop or a balcony, or that it doesn’t get any sunlight or whatever. You can go to a community garden. Community gardens are little garden plots, run either independently or sometimes by the owners of your apartment building, that anyone can use to plant in. They sometimes require a small fee, or are sometimes free, and they often are either irrigated or located next to a spigot, and sometimes come with a little shed to store your gardening tools and supplies in. There’s a ton of them in Boulder, Broomfield, Longmont, Lafayette, etc. When I lived in Lafayette, our apartment complex had a half dozen raised, irrigated garden beds out back that you could just use for free. So if you want to grow some crops, there’s almost always a place you can find to do it."
"So if you’ve decided that you wanna grow some crops, and you know what you wanna grow and where you’re gonna grow it, now you gotta know how to actually grow it.
The good news is that plants are pretty simple. They mainly just need three things in the right quantity: nutritious soil, water, and sunlight/warmth.
As for soil, it should be well drained / aerated / not compacted. This basically means it’s relatively soft and has air pockets throughout. This will allow water to seep down into the soil instead of pooling on top, and it’ll allow the plant to spread its roots freely. It also needs to have nutrients. I’m not gonna get into the science behind soil fertility, but basically you can either buy good soil, or amend your existing soil by mixing in compost, aged manure, and other sorts of fertilizers. Lastly, a plant needs ENOUGH soil, both in depth and in breadth. You can’t give a plant too much soil, but you can give it too little. A plant won’t do very well if it’s constrained inside a pot too small. And it also won’t do very well if it’s planted too close to other plants, because they’ll have to compete for the nutrients in the soil.
As for water, it doesn’t need to be special but it does need to be the right amount. People will tell you all sorts of wacky ways to tell how much water you need, but the best is this: use your fingers to carefully scoop down 2 or 3 inches below the dirt near the plant. If the soil is dry at the surface but moist 2-3 inches down, then you’re doing good. You can also just look at the plant for signs of stress. If the leaves are brown or yellow and wilted and the ground is dry? Not enough water. If the leaves are brown or yellow and wilted and the ground is wet? Too much water. Simple as that.
Last is sunlight and warmth, and this is the one you need to worry least about. Basically just put the plant somewhere that the sun will shine on it for most of the day, and nature will do the rest. Avoid the north sides of buildings, because since we’re in the northern hemisphere and the sun is always slightly south, the north sides of buildings will never get sunlight. Just watch an area throughout the day and note when it gets sunlight and when it doesn’t. Not that hard. The other thing is warmth. Most plants don’t like cold temperatures, and they especially don’t like frost or when it gets below freezing. This is why farmers and gardeners hate frost. One good night of frost is enough to kill a plant. So pay attention to the weather forecast. If it’s gonna get below freezing, take your plants inside or throw a blanket over them. And follow the instructions on the seed packet about when to plant them, so that you don’t plant them too early."
"So now we’re gonna talk about something called “Square Foot Gardening.” There’s a lot of different methods and schools of thought for gardening, but this is the one I started on and it’s the one that’s probably most useful for the average person around here. That’s because it is very space efficient, and very easy for beginners to do successfully.
Basically what square foot gardening is is that, as opposed to traditional crop planting in which you plow rows into the ground and plant your crops in long rows, you instead make a raised garden bed and divide it up into one foot square sections. In each square you can plant whatever plant you want, and you space them such that as many plants as possible fit into each square. With small plants like radishes, you may be able to fit 24 per square, but larger plants like cabbage or peppers may only be able to hold one per square. This allows you to plant the most plants in a given space, and theoretically get the most yield.
The downsides are that with this many plants packed in so close, they’re gonna need a bountiful supply of both water and nutrients. The other downside is that to make the raised bed and get the rich soil to fill it, you’re gonna have to spend more money than if you were just sowing seeds directly into the ground. But despite this, I think this is a good method to use."
"So square foot gardening can be broken down into a few basic steps. First you need to plan. Plan how to utilize your space to grow what you want. To do this, measure your available space and divide it into 1ft square sections. Doing this on graph paper or in a spreadsheet really helps. Next, for each type of vegetable you wanna grow, figure out how much space it needs. Google (or the packet of vegetable seeds) will provide easy answers. Based on the space needs of each plant, lay them out in your garden to maximally utilize your space. Note that tall plants should go on the north end, so their shadow doesn't block light from getting to shorter plants.
At this point you can go buy your seeds. For most small gardens, one packet of seeds is plenty, but if you're planting a large plot you may need more. Note that the germination rate of seeds decreases every year. (think of a seed that doesn't germinate as a "dud" bullet, it doesn't grow or do anything) So buy new seeds every year. Seed packets will have dates printed on them, and almost everywhere sells intended to be planted in the current year. You can get seeds locally from Walmart, any hardware store, or any garden center. Sometimes these seeds are good, but a lot of times they are crappy, with a low germination rate. If you're serious I recommend you spend the extra bit of money to get seeds from a place like Johnny's Selected Seeds or Burpee's Seeds. They are rigorously tested and are of top quality. Lastly, note that for a few vegetables like onions, garlic, and potatoes, they are usually grown not from seeds, but from "sets" or "seedlings." Instead of seeds, these are basically tiny infant onions / potatoes / whatever that you plant and they will grow into a full plant. Because these are bulkier and more perishable than regular seeds, they usually must be purchased locally.
Once you've got it planned you can go build it. I know building materials are scarce right now, but I PROMISE you can do it cheaply. Go on craigslist and look for old pallets, corrugated roofing, IBC totes, plastic barrels. Youtube tutorials will tell you how to turn these things into garden beds. Your beds should be 12" deep MINIMUM, 24" deep IDEAL, and they should be a maximum of 48" wide (any wider and you can't reach in from the edges to pick weeds), and can be as long as you want. Build them in rows that run North-South, not East-West. They will get more even sun exposure that way.
Next is the most expensive part. You gotta get an even mix of peat moss, vermiculite, and compost, and fill it your beds with it. To fill beds with a pure mixture of this would cost a fortune, so cut it with regular fill dirt, mulch (NOT cedar), or aged manure from a local farm (make sure it's aged, fresh manure will hurt your plants). The more you cut it with regular dirt, the less nutritious your soil will be. But with that said, you can cut it pretty hard. Probably 50%-70% of my garden soil is fill dirt or aged manure, and it grows fine. Add pellets of miracle gro if you can afford them. Thoroughly mix everything with a shovel or a rototiller until it's homogenous and squishy and airy. This process is called tilling. Don't step on it after this point. Use your hose to give it a GENEROUS amount of water. Done. Your soil is fertile and ready for planting.
Now you're ready to plant your seeds. Follow the directions on the seed packet. Look up youtube tutorials if you're unsure of anything. It's very easy. You can do it. I believe in you. Water them right after planting to activate the seed and get it germinating.
Now just water them regularly, pull out any weeds that are not your vegetables, thin your plants if the seed packet says to, and harvest them when the seed packet says to. It's that simple. Congratulations, you've stopped being a consoomer and started being a prodoocer!
When your harvesting is done, pull out the old plants, throw them in a compost heap. Sprinkle more miracle gro, aged manure, or some other fertilizer onto your garden bed. Till your garden bed again to mix in that fertilizer and make the soil squishy and well aireated again. You are ready to plant more plants."
"Planning costs nothing, except for your time. If you've got the time, consider the above factors when planning your square foot garden layout. It will save you trouble and give you healthier, more bountiful plants."
"You're gonna need a few basic hand tools to garden, but they're pretty cheap. I actually regularly see them at local thrift stores for a couple bucks a piece.
Absolute minimum is a spade shovel and a watering can. Everything else is nice but optional. A bow rake helps you grade the surface of your beds to be flat. Hand trowel speeds up the process of planting seeds. A tape measure or ruler is nice if you're not confident in just eyeballing the spacing of your seeds.
If you water with a hose, get a nozzle with a rose head or some other nozzle suitable for gardening. You want to water your plants with the LOWEST WATER PRESSURE POSSIBLE! High pressure hurts both your plants and your soil."
"So obviously today I’ve just scratched the surface of gardening and food production, and hopefully given the basic instructions necessary to start growing your own vegetables. But obviously this is a huge field and you could probably spend your whole life learning about it and still not have seen it all. With that said, here’s a few things that I think are worth looking into.
First up is drip irrigation. I installed a drip irrigation system for the first time last year over my entire garden, and it worked great. The entire thing probably cost only $100 all in, and basically it’s a series of tubes that branch out and snake along the surface of my garden, and when you pump water through them, the water drips out of holes in the tube and into the ground. This was fed by a garden hose running to a spigot on the outside of my house, and it was all controlled by a little AA powered timer that turned the water on every morning for one hour. Basically it meant that I never had to water my garden again, which will save you a lot of effort over the course of a season. It also allowed me to leave town for several days and not worry about my plants suffering. It’s great, I highly recommend it.
The next thing that’s cool is other methods of gardening besides square foot gardening that focus more on resiliency than high crop yield. The biggest criticism levelled at SFG is that it is only made possible by a nearly unlimited supply of water and nutrients. But what happens if the water stops running, or you are planting somewhere that you can’t get that much water, or you can’t get ahold of good fertilizer? A guy wrote a book called “Gardening When it Counts” that basically lays out a method to address these questions. I experimented with it last year. I didn’t do a very good job, but I was able to grow 2 tomato plants that bore fruit despite basically never being watered. For a period of like 2-3 months I never watered them and they only got water from rain. That’s pretty impressive, considering how much water a tomato plant needs.
Other cool topics include starting seeds indoors, which is something I do and is necessary with certain plants around here if you don’t wanna go to a nursery and buy seeds that someone else started for you.
Canning vegetables is really important, and is not as difficult as people might think. You don’t need many plants to get to the point where you’ll have more veggies than you can eat, and instead of letting them spoil you can can them, and then you’ll have food over the winter. It’s not hard to do, people in the past under much more rudimentary circumstances have been doing it successfully for a hundred years or more. All it really takes is a stove, a couple pots and pans, and a couple cheap tools.
The last one is hydroponics, which is basically the art of replacing the soil with nutrient enriched water, and growing plants in that. I’ve never personally done this, but it’s pretty cool, and can be done indoors with very little space, so it’s a cool option to look at."
RESOURCES - GUIDES
https://growinggardens.org/communitygardens/ a community garden in Boulder, CO
https://taylor.extension.wisc.edu/files/2010/05/SquareFootGardeningNew2009.pdf square foot gardening PDF guide
https://www.dripdepot.com/guides/drip-irrigation-planning-and-installation-guide.pdf DripDepot planning guide for small scale drip irrigation systems
https://www.tfrecipes.com/ball-canning-guide-pdf/ several PDF guides on how to can and preserve your fruits and vegetables
https://www.almanac.com/learn-to-vegetable-garden "Farmer's Almanac" landing page of all their gardening guides. They go into way more depth than I do here. Farmer's Almanac is perhaps the best single resource in existence for vegetable gardening. If you're ever unsure about anything, just google "farmers almanac how to grow [X]" and there's almost certainly a guide written that can help you
RESOURCES - VENDORS
Johnny's Selected Seeds - My seed supplier of choice, offering a wide array of top quality seed and some tools. One of the few places to buy organic wheat and grain seed in small quantities too
Burpee's Seeds - Another top quality source of seeds and tools. My mom uses this for her garden
Gardener's Supply Company - seller of gardening tools and accessories. Can be kinda pricey, but high quality. I like their shears, their tomato cages, and their herb scissors
Drip Depot - my one and only for irrigation supplies. Not just a vendor, but an information resource! They have numerous guides and FAQs on how to set up irrigation. Highly recommend
RESOURCES - BOOKS
https://www.amazon.com/Gardening-When-Counts-Growing-Mother/dp/086571553X "Gardening When it Counts" excellent book on growing food in austere conditions with limited fertilizer and water
https://www.amazon.com/Your-Kitchen-Garden-George-Seddon/dp/0671241486 "Your Kitchen Garden" great book, all-encompassing guide that teaches beginners how to grow their own food
https://www.amazon.com/Backyard-Homestead-Produce-food-quarter-ebook/dp/B003PGQK4Q "The Backyard Homestead" good wide breadth guide on producing the most food possible out of a small yard. Not just gardening but fruit and berries, eggs, raising animals, etc