So, for the first time in your adult life you have an apartment (or house, if you're some kind of crazy rich person) that's got a little bit of outdoor space and you're thinking you should take advantage of it. Alas, you've never grown anything and the very idea of gardening seems, at best, daunting.
Good news... it's not as hard as you think. Bad news... it's harder than you think. Actually, it's not, but there's some basic information you should have before you get started. Fortunately, there are loads of people out there who have already made all the mistakes for you, so you can benefit from their past failures.
So here are 12 things you need to know to get you on the path to growing things and not killing things.
1. You WILL kill things
Let's get the sober reality out into the open first. Because if you can't handle the disappointment of nurturing something only to watch it die despite all your best efforts, gardening is going to sucker punch you. Get tough now. You see this tree?
It's a Montmorency sour cherry tree that was about six years old at the time of the photo. The previous season it had just produced its first full crop of delicious sour pie cherries. The next season, it was moved into a larger pot in the hopes of providing a better long-term home for its root system, and then it STRAIGHT. UP. DIED. The owner didn't know that stone fruits don't transplant well. And so, a valuable lesson was learned. That's gardening. When you start out, you will kill as much as you grow. Go ahead and accept it because the rewards outweigh the crushing defeats.
2. Where the sun does shine
Take a look at the space you're thinking of using. In fact, go stand in the exact spot where you're thinking of putting a plant. Now look at the sky. Do you see the sun? If so, great. You'll want a good six hours of that in order to grow most vegetables and fruit. If it's a little less, you can still give it a try but you might want to shy away from things like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, anything that really needs to soak up a ton of sun to fuel fruit production. If the area gets 10 hours of blazing hot direct sun, stay away from tender leafy greens except for the earliest part of Spring, otherwise they'll just get scorched. If your spot is going to be shady the entire time, you probably won't be growing a lot of veggies, but don't despair. There are a lot of cool plants and flowers that prefer partial to full shade. Do your research and pick plants whose needs match up with the amount of light your space offers.
3. Why your pots need holes in them
Remember when we said you'll kill things? This is one of the ways you'll do that. Gardening in containers is an endlessly versatile way to grow things in small spaces, but pots that don't have an escape route for water are a recipe for disaster. This grape vine below used to have a sister... she drowned. It was not a boating accident.
Many planters already have holes in them, but a lot require you to poke out pre-marked drainage points or drill them yourself. Once you've ensured the water has a place to run out, add some stones, broken crockery or even styrofoam peanuts (a lightweight alternative for larger planters) to the bottom of the pot. This will keep your potting soil from clogging up the holes and rendering them ineffective.
4. What's in your dirt
If you've got actual ground to garden in, well, la dee da, Mr. Fancypants. You're still going to want to do a soil test and make some amendments where needed. Depending on the quality of your soil, you may need to work on it for a season and garden the next year. Or you could build a raised bed and bring in your own soil. Bottom line is, don't just assume you can throw a pumpkin seed in the dirt without thinking about it and have a bumper crop of jack-o-lanterns by the fall.
For the rest of us who will be going the container route, aside from which plants you decide to grow, there is no more important choice than what soil or not-soil you use. Here's something a lot of first-time container gardeners don't know: regular potting soil, which is actually not soil at all, is generally only good for one season. Now, if you're just working with one or two small pots, throwing your potting soil out and starting anew every year isn't such a big deal. But if you have an extensive container garden or bed, that prospect starts to look downright wasteful. In that case, you're better off starting your pots with a high-quality compost or compost soil mix, then turning and amending it each year. One technique we've had some success with is planting a nitrogen fixing cover crop such as red clover in late summer or early fall and turning that with a fresh layer of compost in the spring.
Speaking of which, now would be a good time to get yourself some kind of composter. You'll waste less, save money and be a fundamentally better person than most people you know (bonus!).
5. What kind of drinker your plant is
Everyone knows plants need water, but some are thirstier than others. For example, tomatoes need a lot, but they like to get a little dry between waterings. So consistent, deep waterings every other day during the summer is usually just about right. However, they can also be princesses who don't like getting their leaves wet, so you'll want to water them right at the soil level. Fleshy pumpkins and watermelons whose fruits are filled with, well, water, want even more. Conversely, cowpeas prefer things a little dryer.
6. That plants need to eat, too... come on, seriously?
Yep, seriously. The word "fertilizer" often strikes fear in the hearts of new gardeners, but there's no reason to panic. First of all, whether you planted in potting soil or compost, your plants have a good start. There are plenty of nutrients already in the pre-packaged growing medium. But as you water your plants and they grow, those nutrients get depleted.
When you're looking for a fertilizer for your garden, the first thing you'll notice is "holy crap, where do I even start?" Again, don't panic. Yes, there are a lot of options, but you don't have to get fancy. An organic "balanced" fertilizer will be good for most vegetables and flowers. (If you're growing roses or acid-lovers like rhododendrons or blueberries, there are more specific options.) Balanced means the fertilizer has an even proportion of the three main ingredients: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK). Generally speaking, nitrogen is for the leaves and stems, phosphorous is for the root system, and potassium is for the flowers and fruit. So a balanced fertilizer feeds your whole plant. Read the package to see how often to feed your darlings and stick to a consistent schedule.
7. Who your real friends are
If you have a thing about bugs, get over it right now. Some, like aphids, will be your sworn enemies. Others, such as ladybugs and bees, will be your best friends.
Even if you're gardening in containers and therefore don't have to deal with soil-dwelling creepies, bugs will be a factor in your gardening work. If you start to notice leaves on otherwise healthy plants getting wrinkly and wilty, check the undersides... you'll likely find that some kind of aphid population has made itself a nice home on your baby. The good news is that ladybugs love nothing more than munching on aphids, and ordering yourself a packet of 1500 ladies is much more environmentally friendly than spraying your plants with pesticide. And you probably know that bees do the work of pollinating your flowering plants, so make sure to plant a little pot of something they love, like bee balm, alongside that pot of peppers you're growing. Also, know the common pests associated with whatever you're growing. A little research can go a long way to helping you identify potential problems before it's too late.
Side note: Your fuzzy cat and dog friends can also wreak havoc on your garden (see the adorable jerk curled up around an indoor citrus plant above). Your prize planter will look an awful lot like an outdoor, summer litter box to your cat, so watch out for that.
8. How not to be an impatient jerk
Look, unless you're an experienced greenhouse gardener, live in a super-warm climate, or are a magician, you aren't getting a ripe tomato by Memorial Day. One of the hardest things for a lot of us to learn about gardening is how to enjoy the process as much as the rewards. Did you just plant that Brandywine seedling and you're wondering what to do with yourself for the next couple of months? Try stroking your fingers upwards along the leaves once a day... this actually helps the plant and you'll be rewarded with the amazing scent of fresh tomatoes every single time. (It's the little things, really.)
If you have enough room, you can also plant things that are ready for eating at different times so that you can enjoy some more immediate gratification. Plant some radishes, arugula and leaf lettuces in a pot and you can be enjoying a pretty great salad by early May. A pot of chives will give you something to throw on your eggs every April. As soon as the ground isn't frozen, plant some peas and you'll have beautiful flowers and something edible while you're still wearing layers.
9. How to be supportive
In smaller spaces, giving your plants adequate support not only helps them grow stronger, it gives you more space. Cucumbers will ramble around on the ground if you let them, but if you give them a strong ladder to climb, you'll leave room for some lettuces underneath that could benefit from the shade the cucumber plants will provide. Win win. And if that heirloom tomato you have your eye on is an "indeterminate" variety, you'll need a cage or tower to keep it upright as it shoots up anywhere from 5-8 feet. The inclination with new gardeners is to think "is that really necessary?" The fact is, most of the time, it is.
10. Why thinning the herd is a necessary evil
There's nothing more exciting than planting a row of seeds and watching them all poke their little green heads up out of the soil. But this is no time to sit back and pat yourself on the back. Those little things you brought to life? It's time to kill at least half of them. Unless you're growing microgreens, your plants can't be right on top of each other. They'll compete for resources, light and space, stay small and eventually die. So start plucking out the weakest links... yes, it's harsh but nature is harsh. Depending upon the size and growth habit of your plant, you'll want to thin anywhere from an inch or two between seedlings to a couple of feet. Your zinnias and climbing beans can be closer together, your indeterminate tomatoes will want at least a foot of space all around.
11. Why the hell your plants need pruning
Sometimes we prune just to fit our space, such as with dwarf fruit trees. Trees grafted to dwarf stock can be grown in pots, but they'll still get fairly large. Pruning them makes a more compact tree that won't drop apples off your balcony and into the street. Other times we prune because a plant is too enthusiastic for its own good. Indeterminate tomatoes have a main stem, but they send up suckers from the joints that grow just as big. This can give you more branches for fruit, but without a central main stem fruits will be smaller and the plant will quickly turn into an unwieldy mess. Pinch those suckers off for taller, more manageable plants.
12. The importance of planning
We put this one last because, in our experience, that's usually when first-time gardeners realize they should have had a plan. Even if you're only growing a few things, think about your schedule, when you'll have time to water each day, and when you'll have a longer chunk of time each week or so to prune, thin, apply fertilizer, etc. Think about what you'd like to see, smell or eat and if those things fit your light situation and time, get those. If you're planting a larger bin or raised bed with multiple plants, research what grows well together and what doesn't. You can do a simple search like, "strawberry companions" and find a wealth of information.
Most importantly, think about what will keep you interested. If you're growing one big tomato plant, plant some flowers that will bring some visual excitement throughout the season. Did you read that you can't grow a pumpkin in a container? Get yourself some pumpkin seeds and the largest pot you can fit on your patio, fill it with compost and defy the gods. If it doesn't work, who cares? You were brave.
Because in the end, that's who urban gardening is for... the brave. With a little bit of planning and research, you'll be well on your way to a great harvest AND being one step ahead of everyone else when society crumbles and we all have to live off the grid.