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There's a learning curve to raising veggies successfully. This newbie's advice will help make yours less steep.
March 08, 2021
Faith Salmon got her first taste of gardening five years ago while living in Brooklyn, New York. Initially, it was simply the allure of a neighborhood urban farm that drew in Salmon and her husband, Matt, both native Australians. "The people were super friendly," she says. "We used to use the space just to hang out, and then I realized I should probably be volunteering." As she started pulling weeds and planting seeds, she discovered she'd been missing a connection to the earth in her everyday life. Four years later, when the couple relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, their priority was having space to start their own vegetable garden.
Matt and Faith Salmon with Banjo in front of their veggie garden in Nashville.
"We bought this home basically for the land," says Salmon, who works as an interior stylist. Not that it was a turnkey landscape. "It was a hot mess when we got it," she says of the tangle of weeds.
Matt sketched a rough layout of raised beds to grow food with enough space among them to sit with a glass of wine. Inspired by garden rooms they found on Pinterest, the couple decided to frame their space with painted cedar posts. "People don't always think of veggie gardens as aesthetically pleasing, but we knew the dark posts would really grab the eye," she says. And though the posts are painted black, the wood for their raised beds has a zero-VOC stain so that harmful chemicals wouldn't leach into the soil.
Every time we harvest vegetables, it feels like a notch on our self-reliance belt.
Of course, there's been a learning curve. Planned in the winter when the sun was lower in the sky, the garden didn't get enough sun the first summer, for example, so they hired an arborist to cut branches from an old oak tree for more sunlight. They still battle insects and squirrels. But the garden brings far more happiness than headache, Salmon says, thanks to their bumper crops of lettuces and tomatoes. "Every time we harvest vegetables, it feels like a notch on our self-reliance belt."
Party lights strung around the vegetable garden make it a hangout spot into the evening.
Tips for Starting a Veggie Garden
To help your own learning curve be less steep, Salmon shares how she laid the foundation for her successful kitchen garden.
Limit Bed Size
Keep planting beds narrow, no more than four feet wide. "I wanted to be able to reach in to harvest without stepping in and compacting the soil down," Salmon says. To keep wood costs down the couple limited their raised beds to one foot tall. Go taller if you would like to minimize bending over.
Create Healthy Soil
"Planting is only a small part of gardening. It's actually all about building soil," says Salmon, who continuously amends her raised beds with composted manure. She also layers on compost as mulch and plants cover crops so soil is rarely exposed.
Tap Local Resources
When starting, Salmon spent a lot of time chatting with people at her local nursery. "It feels good to talk to people who have experience with the climate and can reassure you the mildew on your squash plants is just part of growing in Tennessee." She also recommends finding a regional source for crops adapted to your area. She buys seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and seedlings from the farmers market.
Reliant only on organic pest-control practices, like hand-picking insects off plants, fencing to keep out critters, and applying neem oil, Salmon knows she'll inevitably lose some vegetables to pests. She now plants 20 percent more than what she thinks she'll need to make up for potential losses.
Practice Succession Planting and Crop Rotation
After the weather heats up and spring crops such as alliums, radishes, and greens come out, Salmon replaces them with heat-loving summer squash, bell peppers, tomatoes, basil, and wax beans. Succession planting keeps the produce coming all season long. She also rotates which vegetables she plants in each bed every year to help minimize pests and diseases.
Salmon learned how to maximize space during an online course at squarefootgardening.com. Now that she has the hang of it, she sketches each season's crops to track what grew where and how well it did.
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