A good way to learn to garden is to read books and take classes to learn the basics, then go off and get your hands dirty practicing! Learning to garden 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 year to grow that perfect tomato. 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 problems
- 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, your vegetable garden requires as much direct sun as possible; 6 hours is a minimum. If you have a shady area, consider growing greens where you eat only the leaves of the plant or use large pots placed in a sunny 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 fill them with purchased planting mix. Because our climate is cool even into summer, the raised beds dry out and warm up long before flat ground does. Soils in many parts of the Portland Metro Area are of low fertility, have weeds, pests, diseases and are often composed of clay that will take years of work to develop into good garden soil. The purchased planning mix will have high soil fertility and be pest, weed and disease free. This is THE garden for a beginner. If cost is an issue find scrap wood for the structure, pick up the planting mix to save delivery costs, and start small. One or two 4×10’ beds can be plenty for a beginner and can produce a huge harvest. Consider this a long term investment.
Most new gardeners don’t understand the importance of adding fertilizer to their beds to achieve adequate soil fertility. Adequate soil fertility is critical to having a successful backyard food garden. Soil amendments like compost and manure often lack nutrients that plants need to grow rapidly. 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 needs to be added each time you plant a new crop but a soil test is the best way to determine overall needs. Fall/winter plantings can often require more frequent fertilization because available nutrients break down slower in cooler soils.
Don’t succumb to spring fever! Plants don’t grow if it’s too cold and they are sitting ducks for pests and disease. See the planting calendar/use 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 sooner 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/winter crops is more critical for successful harvest.
There are pros and cons for each, if you have raised beds and purchased planting mix, seeds work well. If your soil is heavy consider using more transplants. Corn, peas, beans and carrots don’t grow well from transplants but everything else does. Transplants are a must for all the hot weather plants in our climate (tomatoes, etc). Select transplants that are green and healthy looking and small for the size of the container they are in. Avoid plants with yellow leaves or that look “old”. Don’t crowd plants in. See reference books for the correct plant spacing. Fall plantings will grow slower as the weather cools, it is important for roots to be well-established before the first hard frost.
What to Try
Learn to grow the easy crops first then move on to the more difficult types. 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. Level of difficulty is relative to your garden site. Good site and soil makes everything easier.
If you have used purchased planting mix these will not be a problem for the first season. Hand pulling and hoeing are the 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 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 the bait. Almost all other garden pests can be controlled by using floating row covers. This spun polyester material is laid over your beds directly on the plants. Sun, water and air goes through it but pests can’t.
Keep it simple; watering can for seedlings and transplants and hose and water wand for mature plants. Hand watering will get you outdoors and observing the garden.
Harvesting on time is critical if you want to enjoy high quality produce and keep your garden productive. Over mature plants attract pests.
- Peas, snap beans, asparagus, squash: Harvest every day or two in morning; Degrade 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 thinnings or mature in morning; Degrade rapidly in hot weather
- Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower: Harvest heads firm and tight; Degrade rapidly in hot weather
- Sweet corn: Harvest tassels brown/ husk tight; Kernel liquid is milky
- Potatoes, onion family: Harvest when tops die back; Allow soil to dry out before harvest
- Winter squash, pumpkins: Harvest when vines die back; Fruit has a hard shell for storage
- Root crops: Harvest thinnings or mature; Store well in refrigerator
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