Ultimately, you are just going to have to dig in and get a little dirty, but reading books and taking classes is a great way to learn the basics of gardening!
Learning to grow food is a bit different than learning other hands-on skills in that you have limited practice time according to each season. You will only get one chance this summer to grow that perfect tomato. But your gardening skills will improve every year, so don’t be discouraged by a few crop failures—they happen to all gardeners! Learn from your mistakes and your garden will be more successful each year.
Common Mistakes of New Gardeners
- Selecting an inappropriate site with poor soil and weed issues
- Not applying adequate fertilizer and amendments to improve the soil
- Planting too early and using poor quality transplants; improper timing
- Planting too many seeds/transplants and not thinning to the correct spacing
- Not harvesting frequently enough, especially in hot weather
In our climate, a vegetable garden requires as much direct sun as possible (6 hours is a minimum). If you have filtered sun or partial shade, try growing a variety of greens where you eat only the leaves of the plant, or consider using large pots placed in your sunniest spot.
If you are a beginner and are developing a garden space first time, the key to having a successful garden your first year is to spend some money on structured raised beds and to fill them with purchased planting mix. Any size bed is fine, but anything wider than 4 feet should be avoided because it is difficult to reach into the center of a deep bed; avoid compacting garden soil by walking or stepping into raised beds when possible.
Because our climate can by cool even into summer, raised beds warm up and become workable long before flat ground does. Soils in many parts of the Portland Metro Area are of low fertility, have weeds, pests, and diseases, and are often composed of clay that will take years of work to develop into practical garden soil. A high-quality, purchased planting mix will have healthy soil fertility and should be pest, weed, and disease free.
This is an ideal garden for a beginner. If cost is an issue, find scrap wood for the structure (make sure it is food-safe), pick up the planting mix to save on delivery costs, and start small. One or two 4 by 10-foot beds can be plenty for a beginner and can produce a huge harvest. Consider this a long-term investment.
Soil Fertility & Fertilizer
New gardeners often don’t understand the importance of adding fertilizer to their beds to improve soil fertility. Adequate nutrition is critical to having a successful backyard food garden. Soil amendments like compost and manure may lack nutrients that plants need to grow.
It is always smart to do a home soil test every one or two years to find out more about your soil. True fertilizer products always have an assay on the label. It will look something like this 5-5-5 or 4-6-3. The numbers are % nitrogen – % phosphorus – % potassium. These are the three elements often lacking in garden soil that are needed by your plants.
For many reasons, organic fertilizers are the best kinds for beginners to use. As with any garden product, read and follow the label directions. Fertilizer should be added each time you plant a new crop, but a soil test is the best way to determine overall needs. Fall and winter plantings can often require more frequent fertilization because available nutrients break down slower in cooler soils.
Don’t succumb to spring fever! Plants will not grow if it’s too cold, plus they are sitting ducks for pests and disease. See the planting calendar (below) and use a soil thermometer for the correct planting times for common garden vegetables. For the beginner, it’s much better to plant a week or two later than too early in the spring. Just because transplants are available in the nursery doesn’t mean it’s the correct time to plant them. Timely planting for fall and winter crops is also critical for successful harvest.
Seeds & Transplants
There are pros and cons for seeds and transplants:
- If you have raised beds and purchased planting mix, seeds work well.
- If your soil is heavy, consider using more transplants (seeds may struggle to grow in clay soil).
- Corn, peas, beans, and carrots do best when planted directly in the ground by seed, but most everything else does well grown from transplanted starts.
- Transplants are a must for all the hot weather plants in our climate (tomatoes, etc.).
Some helpful tips:
- Select transplants that are green and healthy looking and small for the size of their container.
- Avoid plants with yellow leaves or those that look “old”.
- Don’t crowd plants. See reference books for correct plant spacing.
- Fall plantings will grow slower as weather cools—it’s important for roots to be well-established before the first hard frost, but plants should be relatively small as they go into winter.
What to Try
Learn to grow the easy crops first, then move on to the more difficult types. Level of difficulty is relative to your garden site—a good site and good soil makes everything easier.
- Easy: garlic, shallots, potatoes, all kinds of greens, peas
- Harder: root crops, onions, squash, snap beans, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers
- Harder yet: broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, corn.
- Can be difficult: peppers, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, melons, celery, fennel
Weeds & Pests
If you have used purchased planting mix, these should not be a problem for the first season. Hand pulling and hoeing are the best way to keep weeds under control in the vegetable garden. It’s something you will need to do with some frequency all season long. Using transplants can also give you a jump on the weeds.
Slugs can be a real problem in the spring. Use slug bait before you sow seeds or set out transplants; control is not very effective when there are tender seedlings to eat instead of bait. Almost all other garden pests can be controlled by using floating row covers (Harvest Guard). This spun polyester material is laid over beds directly on the plants. Sun, water, and air can penetrate, but pests cannot.
Keep it simple; use a watering can for seedlings and transplants and a hose and water wand for mature plants. Hand watering will get you outdoors and observing the garden! Add a layer of mulch after planting to help retain soil moisture and to discourage weeds. Water deeply; morning is best; allow soil to dry slightly between waterings, but not to the point of plants wilting. Raised beds and containers will need to be watered more frequently than in-ground plantings.
Harvesting on time and regularly is critical if you want to enjoy high-quality produce and keep your garden productive. Over-mature plants attract pests and lose their flavor or tenderness.
- Peas, snap beans, asparagus, squash: Harvest every day or two in morning; produce degrades rapidly in hot weather
- Sweet fruit like berries, tomatoes, melons: Harvest when just ripe; end of a warm day
- Greens like lettuce, chicory, spinach: Harvest in morning; degrades rapidly in hot weather
- Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower: Harvest heads when firm and tight; degrades rapidly in hot weather; most homegrown broccoli/cauliflower heads will not be as large as store-bought
- Sweet corn: Harvest when tassels turn brown/husk is tight; kernel liquid is milky (not clear)
- Potatoes, garlic/onion family: Harvest when tops die back (harvest “new” potatoes as soon as plants begin to bloom); allow soil to dry out before harvest; dig with garden fork to avoid damage from spade
- Winter squash, pumpkins: Harvest when vines die back; fruit has a hard shell for storage
- Root crops: Harvest greens from thinning or pick when mature; store well in refrigerator or may hold well in the ground
Willamette Valley Vegetable Garden Planting Dates
The following are recommended planting dates* for vegetables that grow well in Oregon. Dates are for planting from seed or bulb, unless noted that “starts” (your own or from the nursery) should be planted. Crops that are in green are easiest to grow if planted that month and should be planted by the first week of the month, unless otherwise noted.
*Information from Oregon State University Extension Service
- January: Garlic
- February: Garlic, Peas, Fava beans, Asparagus (crowns), Rhubarb (crowns), Shallots (bulbs)
- March: Beets, Carrots, Celery (starts), Leeks, Onions (starts), Parsley (starts) Peas, Radishes, Potatoes, Lettuce (starts), Shallots
- April: Beets, Broccoli (starts), Cabbage (starts), Carrots, Cauliflower (starts), Celery (starts), Kohlrabi, Spinach, Corn, Leeks, Lettuce (starts), Fennel, Onions (starts), Parsley (starts), Peas, Potatoes, Radishes
- May: Beets, Broccoli (starts), Cabbage (starts), Melons (starts, end of May), Carrots, Cauliflower (starts), Celery (starts), Corn, Cucumbers (starts, end of May), Eggplant (starts, end of May), Kale, Leeks, Lettuce (starts), Onions (starts), Parsley (starts), Peas, Peppers (starts, end of May), Potatoes, Pumpkins (starts), Radishes, Snap Beans (mid-May), Squash (starts, mid-May), Tomatoes (starts)
- June: Beets, Broccoli (starts), Cabbage (starts), Carrots, Cauliflower (starts) Celery (starts), Corn, Cucumbers (starts), Kale, Lettuce (starts), Leeks, Parsley (starts), Peppers (starts), Potatoes (end of June), Radishes, Snap Beans, Squash (starts), Tomatoes (starts)
- July (bold crops for this month are planted for fall and winter harvest; will mature from September through April of the following year): Snap Beans, Broccoli, Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, Beets, Carrots, Chicory/Radicchio, Overwintering Cauliflower/Broccoli, Cauliflower, Celery (starts), Kale, Lettuce (starts), Radishes
- August (bold crops for this month are planted for fall and winter harvest; will mature from October through April of the following year): Broccoli (starts), Lettuce, Kale, Beets, Fennel, Chicory/Radicchio, Mustard Greens, Swiss Chard, Kohlrabi, Chinese Cabbage (starts), Radishes
- September (bold crops for this month and next month are planted for fall and winter harvest; will mature from October through June of the following year): Garlic, Radishes, Spinach, Lettuce, Fava Beans, Mustard Greens
- October: Garlic, Fava Beans, Overwintering Onions (starts)
- November/December: Garlic