Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Gardening 101

I occasionally get questions from friends and blog readers about preparing their garden plot for planting, pest control and seed starting.

Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on gardening. What I am is an enthusiastic amateur, doggedly stubborn and that is pretty much the qualification I have. Deer, rabbits, ground hogs, caterpillars and stink bugs have only made me more stubborn.

Here are a couple of questions that I got:

1. Can you share in a post - what kind of soil / how you prepped the area before you sowed the seeds in? And how you got the seeds started?

If you have a 5 x 5 square feet of land, it is more than sufficient to grow vegetables for the season. Start with a small area and as you get the feel, experience and what works for your area you can expand to a bigger area. First thing in starting a garden is to choose the right spot.

Choosing the plot:
This patch of land gets shade from the neighbor's huge pine trees which were not so huge when the plot was first prepared

The first and foremost is choosing the location to start the plot. Choose a sunny location which gets 6-8 hours of direct sunlight during the day. Most vegetables require at least 6 hours of sunlight. A fairly flat land area would be most suitable to avoid runoffs. (Not to worry if you do not have a perfect spot there are always ways to work around it. Starting a garden is more important.)

Garden bed:
Once the location is finalized, next is to decide what kind of bed you want - an in ground bed or a raised bed. A raised bed requires building and an in ground bed requires lot of digging. So depending on your skills and ability choose appropriately. A raised bed is easier to start if you have hard or clayey soil.

Before you start working on your garden bed locate a source of manure. Horse or dairy farms give away manure for free. Your local hardware store will have packaged manure, peat moss and top soil which are all required for preparing the garden bed.

In ground bed
1. Dig 12 - 16 of your marked garden plot and loosen the soil and get half of them out. Tools like roto tiller, shovel, rakes can all be rented. An electric tiller like this would be very handy. We did it the old fashioned way with shovels.
2. Mix in top soil, potting soil, peat moss, the dug up soil, manure/compost and spread it evenly on the plot. (did not follow any required proportion)
3. Edge the plot with wood or stone to prevent water from flowing out.
4. You can approach your local agriculture extension and ask them to do a soil test to find out what to add to the soil. for e.g. if the soil is too acidic adding lime would help improve the pH.

Raised bed
Look at these two tutorials for creating a raised bed
1. How to build the perfect raised bed from
2. Tutorial on building a raised bed from Pioneer Woman
3. Growboxes from Kalyn's Kitchen

Once the raised bed is built mix in the required dirt, potting soil, compost/manure and you are all set for a season of growing. I have no experience with this kind of bed but there are a lot of resources online.

Container Gardens
If preparing a patch is too much work, container gardening is an easy way to start a vegetable garden. I use containers because of the lack of sunlight in my garden patch. 10 0r 20 gallon flower pots (I use smaller ones too). Fill them with the same combination of dirt and organic material and you are good to go.

Containers are easy in a way because they can be moved around (not during the day but for the season) and the controlled soil helps their growth. I have grown tomatoes, peas, beans, greens, egg plants, ridge gourd, snake gourd and chilies in these pots.

Starting seeds indoors or sowing seeds directly
Though most seeds can be sowed directly on to the ground, it is good to start them indoors during spring to get a head start on the growing season. I have a very simple setup to sprout seedlings. A sunny window sill or a table next to the window works great. If you do not have a sunny window, place the seed starting setup under fluorescent lamps.

1.Small peat moss seed starting pots are good for a seedling or two in each ( I like these because they can are degradable and the seedlings can be planted directly in them into the ground theoretically, I tear them apart and plant them). If you have small plastic pots they are also come in handy for seed starting.
2. Seed Starting mix (these work better than using regular soil)
3. Seeds

Give 4-6 weeks for the seedlings to sprout. Starting them towards end of March or early April would give enough time for them to be transplanted in May. (In my zone they can transplanted after Mother's Day, check what works for your area.)

Some seeds with hard outer covering(bitter gourd, snake gourd, ridge gourd) requires that the seeds be soaked overnight and the outer shell slightly bruised to enable them to sprout. Most smaller seeds like those of tomatoes, eggplants, chilies sprout without any special treatment.

I transplant the seedlings more or less following the calendar rather than the size of the plants.

Transplanting the seedlings
Prepare the raised rows horizontally or vertically depending upon the orientation of the garden bed. Alternate between raised and flat rows (the flat rows next to raised rows are for watering so the soil does not get washed away). Plant the seedlings spaced as per instructions on the seed packets, a good 10-12 inches between plants will provide enough space for most plants to grow. Dig to a depth of 6-8 inches, place the seedling and cover with the dirt. Make an elevated mound close to the plant and pack the dirt around the plant. Water the plants regularly and enjoy their bounty.

Fertilizers and Pesticides
I avoid using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in the vegetable garden. Using blood meal, water from kitchen washings (it is pain to collect the water and transfer it to the garden but hey) and the compost serve as the nutrients for the plants.
Note: I would not use the kitchen water for indoor plants. They attract fruit flies and other creatures you do not want inside the house.

As for controlling pests I use crushed mint with dish washing soap liquid. I have loads and loads of mint growing so this works for me. Take a good quantity of mint blend it to a fairly smooth paste. For a cup of mint leaves mix with 2 tbsp of dish washing liquid with 2 cups of water and spray on the plants. This takes care of most of the pests especially on the eggplants. Mixing in cayenne pepper also works but this turns out be an expensive form of pest control.

Tomatoes and chili plants seem to do alright. The most common pests on these plants are Polyphemus moth caterpillars , the huge green ones which can fell a plant in a day. I usually walk around and take them out of the plants and do the needful.

Pest control for Indoor plants
2. Do you have any suggestions? Diluted neem oil spray? There is something called insecticidal soap? Do you use anything?

Yes, I have heard neem oil is very effective but I do not have them handy always. I have not used insecticidal soap either.

What works for me is diluted dish washing liquid sprayed on the plants directly.

Spraying diluted boric acid also seems to work.

Most times it works better for me to remove the plant with the pests and destroy it than try to eradicate the pests. With the controlled temperature inside the house most pests tend to thrive and it spreads to all the plants leaving bigger problem in your hands.

Sorry I am not much help on this issue.

I do not grow curry leaves plants for this very reason. They always seem to be infected with scale. They spread quickly too. Well meaning friends have given me curry leave plants but they always come infected with scale and I am not comfortable having them indoors where they are more than likely to spread. So I leave the plant out to dry in the winter :( I have found no easy solution to deal with particular pest.

I hope this gives some very basic information to start and grow a garden. Please feel to leave specific questions you may have. All I can promise is to tell you what I do when faced with a similar situation. Moreover readers are welcome to give any tips and suggestions they may have.

Where to purchase seeds
Resources listed here.

Good Luck and may our gardens grow beautifully!!


  1. I love your way of pest control. I have way too many pests, so this is something for me. I am going to try it out this weekend :)

    Do you know if snails are good or bad for veggie/fruit/flower plants as I have way too many always on my plants and they are eww !!!

  2. Thanks for the post, Indo! This is very valuable! I'll keep you posted about the progress of my garden. :)

  3. Priya, slugs and snails like to feed on the decaying material in the garden. Supposedly if you place a shallow dish with beer most snails and slugs will be atracted towards that and leave your plants alone. I read somewhere. Search online I am sure you will find how to videos :)

  4. Wow wat a detailed and very useful post, definitely helpful people like me who doesnt know this much about gardening..

  5. Thanks a ton, Indo! This is great info.. I was overwhelmed with the idea of starting a garden from scratch. Last time around, 3/4 rth of the work was done in my community garden plot and still I had a starting problem. This yr, it was (is) just too much. But I guess I'll do it! Will start the seeds this long weekend and then start working on the garden bed.

  6. Thank you for this very helpful post Indo... My plan is to have a garden very soon *fingers crossed*

  7. thnks fr the detailed post

  8. Lovely, lovely info. This year I think I have to restrict to container gardens alone and this post will be a huge help

  9. This is a very good post. Thanks for taking time to do this.

  10. you are such a sweet heart.


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