Start small with hardy plants, such as green beans, cucumbers and radishes.
Get your soil tested for harsh chemicals and pH balance.
Be patient, don’t get discouraged, and have fun.
This is the simple advice from experienced gardeners to first-time growers and to those who have ever wondered if they could successfully grow something.
“You can do this!” is their basic message, and they’re happy to explain how.
New grower John Voltz began gardening less than a year ago. He says taking it slowly and having a “coffee break” mindset can make a big difference.
“I got two pieces of advice that really helped,” he wrote in response to a query on the Facebook page Backyard Gardeners Maine, which boasts 24,900 members.
One: “Treat gardening like a coffee break,” he said. “Each day take a quick wander around the garden in the morning or afternoon. Just 5-15 minutes. Handle anything quick and urgent (pull out a weed, water something wilting, etc.), but mostly just look and think. In your mind you start planning what you need to do next when the weekend (or next garden workday) comes.”
The other piece of advice: Start small and build on successes. And those little successes can be found anywhere.
“One last thing I’m happy about, but (have) yet to go a full year’s cycle on: making leaf mold from the leaves we get in the fall,” Voltz said. “I used to hate raking and bagging and hauling. Now I just mow and dump the mower bag in an enclosure. This year I have maybe 5-8 cubic feet of leaf mold for mulch and/or amending soil. So easy.”
Richard Dubs of Pownal, a longtime gardener, farmer and landscaper, also advises newbies to start small. A 4-by-4-foot garden is more than enough to get started, he said.
Dubs, owner of Roots of the Wild Sun, a landscaping company, offers soil amendment and consultation. Good soil is step one, he says.
“I would advise on how to start building living soil and explaining what the soil food web is and how it helps every part of your garden,” he said in a recent interview.
He explained that the soil food web is an ecosystem in the ground consisting of root zones, fungus and healthy bacteria.
It’s the kind of soil you find in a healthy forest, he said.
“Waste from one product benefits another. It’s a healthy cycle.”
Nut trees, fruit trees, mushrooms and grape vines will feed the soil and create a food forest, he said. Then plant your herbs and vegetables.
“If a gardener builds sustainable life on their own land, focused on building a living food forest — the bottom with living soil and the top with a food forest — they will have a crazy amount of food,” he said. “They would start generating more than their family can use.”
Dubs said he has worked with soil in 37 states and has learned how to build living soil through hands-on learning.
He says soil tests are “highly important in Maine, especially due to forever chemicals (such as PFAS found in sludge spread on farms over the past few decades).”
If your soil is too alkaline, you can grind up dead leaves and work them into the soil. If too acidic, you can add lime, he said.
Pamela Hargest, a horticulture professional for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, agrees that soil tests are very important in Maine.
“Our native soils aren’t naturally adapted to grow high-maintenance crops such as vegetables and annual flowers,” Hargest said in an email interview.
“Gardeners can use a soil test to amend their garden soil to the specific needs of the crops they grow,” she said.
You can submit a soil sample to UMaine’s soil testing lab in Orono.
“When you receive your soil test results, you’ll receive a breakdown of the nutrient levels in your garden soil, plus the current pH, percentage of organic matter, and other helpful information,” she said. “You’ll also receive specific soil amendment recommendations based on the crop code (for example, organic vegetable gardening) you selected on your form, so there’s no guessing involved.”
If you have questions about how to interpret your soil test results, Hargest suggests contacting your local Extension office.
START SLOW, START EASY
First-time vegetable and herb gardeners should begin with crops that are easy to grow and a garden size that is small and manageable, Hargest advised.
“As a beginner gardener, it’s important to set realistic expectations so that you are not discouraged if things don’t go as planned,” she said.
She said easy-to-grow crops include green beans, leafy greens such as kale, collards and Swiss chard, cucumbers, squash, radishes, turnips, and cilantro.
“Many of these crops can be directly sown in your garden instead of starting them inside under grow lights,” she said.
When it comes to heat-loving crops such as tomatoes and peppers, however, new growers will have better luck buying seedlings rather than starting from seeds indoors, she said.
“Tomatoes and pepper seedlings need special attention when grown indoors, such as proper heating and lighting, so it might be better to wait until the following year to try growing these plants,” Hargest said.
If you do start seedlings indoors, it’s important to “harden off” your plants before putting them in the ground, she said.
Hardening off means to acclimate your plants to outdoor conditions — wind, light intensity, temperature — over seven to 10 days.
To learn more about starting seedlings indoors, check out the extension’s Starting Seeds at Home.
COMMON MISTAKES AND CHALLENGES
Common mistakes for beginning vegetable growers include starting indoor seedlings too early in the spring, working garden soil when it’s too wet and sowing seeds when the temperature isn’t right, Hargest said.
“Gardeners will have much greater success if they wait until the conditions are appropriate for the crops they are growing,” she said. “There’s nothing more disappointing than spending a tremendous amount of time caring for tomato seedlings indoors only to (transplant them outdoors and) have them hit by a late frost.”
Patience is everything when it comes to being a successful gardener, she said. “Enjoy the process!”
She added that watering is something to pay attention to, and there are easy ways to do that. The frequency and quantity of water used for your garden will depend on your soil type, but a general rule of thumb is 1.25-1.5 inches of water per week (including rain).
Hargest noted that getting to know your soil is the first step in irrigation management. “What is the soil texture? How quickly is the soil drying out? The best way to tell whether you need to water is to use your hands to feel how moist the soil really is,” she said.
The second step is getting a rain gauge so you can more accurately monitor rainfall on a weekly basis.
“When you water your garden, make sure you are watering deeply so you have good root development. Shallow watering will lead to shallow roots. It’s also best to water at the base of the plant and early in the day,” Hargest said. If you’d like to learn more about how to water your garden, check out the extension’s Garden for ME Series.
As a beginning gardener, you might wonder whether it’s more advisable to grow in flat ground or raised beds.
It depends on your situation and personal preferences, Hargest said. Growing in the ground requires less maintenance and cost because you are using native soil on the site.
Many gardeners build up their beds so they are slightly higher than the surrounding area. This helps heat up the soil earlier in the season and can help with drainage, Hargest said.
But in-ground beds are not recommended for sites with lead contamination, she said.
She said raised beds are most commonly made of wood that is slow to decay, such as cedar or hemlock, and can be built to whatever height or size that best fits the gardener.
“Raised beds will heat up earlier in the season and work well for people gardening with children,” she said.
Dubs said he offers “hill mounds,” in-ground beds that are “somewhat vertical.” He uses a layering method with dead wood to create the mounds and get what he calls the best of both worlds.
“That being said, I can say that there is nothing wrong with growing on flat ground,” he said. “Many methods introduce layering on flat ground, but many other methods INSIST on tilling. I am against this as it breaks up the fungal network trying to thrive in the ground.”
Don’t till, he said, “just layer the good stuff and use cover crops to fill in the blanks.”
As for pest control, Hargest advises taking preventive measures beginning with site selection. She recommends planting disease-resistant varieties, proper watering and good sanitation (removing debris). Crop rotation and plant diversity also are things to consider as your experience grows.
It is “beneficial to become familiar with the common pests of the plants you are growing so you can better monitor” signs of destructive pests and address them early when their populations are small, she added.
Clearly there’s a lot of learning in the process growing your own plants, and Hargest reminds beginners to have fun with it.
“The beauty of gardening is that you are always learning something new,” she said. “If you take the time to observe your surroundings and what’s happening in the garden, I feel confident that you will be successful. Gardening is a process, one that should be enjoyed and treasured.”