Bewitched and Bewildered: Your first vegetable garden

Text: Mary Greene | Photography: TRR Archives

A vegetable garden is, as Thomas Edison said about genius, one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. But this is not quite true. The formula is more like a combination of research, experience and experimentation combined with faith, hope, magic and, of course, lots of digging in the dirt. For the first-time vegetable gardener, the task can seem daunting. But really, there is nothing that is all that difficult. You prepare the soil, plop in a seed, the seed grows and—voila!—good, fresh, affordable food on your table. Not to mention bragging rights that you grew it right in the back yard.

Choosing your spot
There are many factors to the creation of a successful vegetable garden. First and foremost is to decide where you’d like to place your garden. When growing vegetables, the main ingredient needed (along with regular watering) is sun, sun and sun. Choose the sunniest, warmest spot that you have, with southern exposure if possible. A good fence is imperative here in deer country. Although you may resist a fence for aesthetic reasons, it is a must for the success of your garden, unless you are growing it for the deer, rabbits and woodchucks. Your fence should be five or six feet high to discourage the leaping deer from entering.

Preparing your soil

Once you have marked off the boundaries of your garden (and before you construct your fence), find someone with a plow or a powerful backhoe to turn the dirt over for you. This will give your garden an initial start and save you hours of backbreaking labor. Alternatively, try the lasagna method, which consists of layering various materials right on top of your grass, beginning with cardboard or newspaper. This involves no digging at all, but it takes longer before your garden is ready for planting. For more, see “Lasagna Gardening” by Patricia Lanza, a Livingston Manor author who has written a wonderful step-by-step guide to this method.

The richness of your soil will determine the health and size of your vegetable plants. But you cannot expect to have the best soil your first year or two. Good soil is created by years of adding organic materials such as compost, manure, straw or hay, peat moss, leaf mulch, wood ash and really anything else that you can beg, borrow or steal. I generally add enriching materials in both the spring and the fall. Manure is essential and there are also some good organic fertilizers around. I would avoid a product such as Miracle Grow, which does great in the short run but tends to deplete your soil over the long haul. It takes a while to build up the crumbly black dirt of an old garden. Gardens breed patience. No one will expect you to have great soil when you are first starting out.

If you can find a local horse or dairy farmer to deliver manure, this is ideal. Fresh manure needs to be aged a while; it is too “hot” and can burn your plants. Generally, a load of manure delivered in the fall is ready for spring use. Of course, some farmers will have aged manure to sell to you, and I got by for years buying bags of manure from my local garden center.
Also, if you do not have a compost pile, now is the time to begin. Check your local library or online for a good “how to” manual on composting.

Sand or clay soil?
Most of the gardens I have observed in the Upper Delaware River valley have either sand or clay soil. All of them are rocky. If you are fortunate to live near the river or a stream, you may have sandy soil. If you live on a hilltop, as I do, you may have clay soil. Sandy soil needs extra watering. If you have clay soil, I would suggest creating raised beds in your garden. It is a lot of work at first, but beneficial in the long run in that extra moisture will collect in the ditches next to your beds and keep your beds relatively dry in a wet season. Raised beds have the added advantage of allowing you to place your soil additives just where you need them, rather than overspreading the whole garden space.

When to plant
Crops that are tolerant of cold, such as lettuce, spinach, radish, onion sets and peas, can and should be planted in late April/early May, as they can tolerate frost but not heat. (Onions need the long days of summer to mature.) You should wait to put most other plants in the ground until Memorial Day, when the danger of frost is past. You may be able to sneak your seeds in a little early, depending on the weather forecast, but all hot weather plants, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, should wait until the soil is warmer and danger of frost is past.

What to plant?
What you plant depends on two things: space considerations, and what your heart desires. A good start garden might consist of some combination of lettuces, radishes, peas, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, carrots, beets, broccoli, garlic and onions. These are all relatively good producers and will give you a nice range for your table. Corn is not hard to grow, but it takes a ton of room. Be sure to read up on each plant that you try. Some plants will do fine from seed planted in the spring; others, such as tomatoes and peppers, need to be started early under a grow light or purchased as seedlings from your garden center. It’s fine to experiment with unusual plants—gardening is all about experimentation—but beware of what the blurb on these plants promises. Some are very hard to grow in this northern climate no matter what they promise.

All gardeners, whether new or experienced, wage a constant battle against pests such as insects, slugs, moles and crows. A homemade hot pepper spray or gentle insecticide such as Safer is good to use on your tender growing plants, but remember that it must be applied after each rain. I have found that tobacco, layered atop the pea seeds, deters moles. Mole-out is another gentle product to try. If crows or other birds are a problem, a cover of fine mesh netting over your newly planted beds can do the trick. (Remove it when plants are established.) The only thing that I have found that works against slugs is a product called Sluggo. Beer in saucers is a nice folk remedy that I used for years but it did not eradicate too many slugs in a wet clay soil.

Weeding is also a constant challenge for every gardener. One trick is to weed a little every day to keep up with the job. After your plants are established, a thick layer of straw or hay will also deter weeds and keep your plants moist. (I prefer straw, which is sterile and produces less grass growth than hay.) Creating paths among your beds is another way to deter weeds, and also creates a nice finished look to your garden. Paths can be lined first with cardboard or black cover from your garden center and finished off with wood chips. In any garden, it is realistic to expect some weeds. As long as your vegetables are larger than the weeds, and thriving, don’t stress about it too much.

There has never been a better time to start a vegetable garden. You will find that the pleasures extend far beyond the fresh food on your table. All you need is a spirit of adventure and a bit of determination. It can be a family project or a solitary venture. Either way, the challenges and rewards of vegetable gardening will bring you much richness. Enjoy!


  • Garlic is ideally planted in the fall, but can also be planted as soon as the soil can be worked, in late March or early April.
  • Peas work best when you plant a lot of seed. Forget about the instructions to place a pea seed every few inches. Buy extra seed and make a river of peas. No thinning required.
  • Lettuce can be planted successively all spring, summer and late summer to ensure a fresh supply on your table all season long. Use heat-tolerant seed for the summer months.
  • Avoid overcrowding. While it’s tempting to try and plant a lot in a small space, you will find that your plants produce much more if they are given lots of room to grow and thrive.

Local CSA Farms

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, are a growing trend that benefits both farmer and consumer. By purchasing “shares” in the farm, a household can receive a bagful (or two) of the freshest in-season produce their local farmer has to offer. To supplement your own garden, consider joining a CSA near you.

The Anthill Farm
1114 Beech Grove Road
Honesdale, PA 18431

Broken Fiddle Farm
282 Elizabeth Street
Hawley, PA 18428

Willow Wisp Farm
25 Stone House Road
Damascus, PA 18415
570/ 224-8013

The Clearwater Farm
32 Diehl Road
Damascus, PA 18415

Yatsonsky’s Farm Market
1009 Owego Turnpike
Honesdale, PA 18431

New York
Gorzynski Ornery Farm
PO Box 113
State Route 52
Cochecton Center, NY 12727

The Center For Discovery
Thanksgiving Farm
606 Old Route 17
Monticello, NY 12701

New Jersey
Upper Meadows Farm
12 Pollara Lane
Montague, NJ 07827


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