Let me preface this by saying that I am NO expert at gardening at all, but in the last year through several trials and errors, I did learn a few very basic things that I wish I would have known going into the whole gardening thing. Think of this as a dumb-dumb guide to the very basics of vegetable gardening, especially here in Southern California. I will do a series of posts in the next couple of weeks detailing topics such as the vegetables we planted and what we learned from them, how to fight off aphids, and what to do in summer when it gets really hot.
So let's get started!
First and foremost, do a little planning when it comes to prepping your SOIL. I know, I'm a wing-it type of gal too, but I cannot stress how important it is to start off with enriching your soil and getting it in good shape. You can plant the healthiest and best plants/seeds in your soil, but if the soil is poor in drainage or nutrients, they won't thrive. On the other hand you can plant some really poor plants in super rich well drained soil and they will come to life and flourish.
Some books will tell you to send your soil off to labs for testing and all that, but to start off, if you live here in Southern California, I can pretty much guarantee that you have clay soil. To help with drainage for your clay soil, start off by adding gypsum to help loosen up the soil and assist with drainage. If you think your soil might by sandy, however, ask your experts at the nursery what to do, because I don't know! See, I told you I wasn't an expert.
Testing your soil will tell you what kind of nutrients are in your soil, whether it is alkaline or very acidic and so forth. But like I said, if you don't feel like doing this, then just ask your nursery to recommend a soil builder that has a very general, equal mix of the basic nutrients nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. Add it it your soil and mix it in well. This will get you off to the right start, I promise.
Second, it sounds so basic, but mark your crops! Maybe I'm the only dense one, but I can't tell you how many times I laid down seeds, or even plants, convinced that I would remember what I had planted there, only to forget 3 weeks later. And don't just use the seed packet or plastic tag that comes with the plant as your marker because after a few weeks of watering the paper packet or tag will disintegrate. Oh, and use a waterproof pen :) Yes, I am dense I guess!
Third, cover your delicate crops! We always had things like lettuce, chard, beets, and peas covered with netting. We also tried (tried being the operative word, we definitely weren't diligent) to cover our seeds every time to prevent the birdies from eating them. Little creatures like raccoons, squirrels, possums and bunnies love the sweet leafy greens and it will devastate you if you find your beautiful romaine eaten to a nub one morning. I can speak from experience.
We used what's called masonry ladder (find it at Lowe's/Home Depot) and would cut and bend it over our crops. We then covered it with fabric netting. We started off using basic tulle, but then discovered it was far too delicate and would rip on the masonry wire. The heavier netting, much like the stuff they use under petticoats, stood up much better. You can find it fairly cheap ($2.49/yd) at Fabric Barn.
Here's a good picture of the heavier type of netting.After you've planted your crops, mark your calendars! Mark the date you planted as well as important dates like when to thin out your crops and when to harvest, because trust me you will forget and then you will end up with overgrown useless vegetables.
Here's a perfect example of an overgrown vegetable as a result of forgetting to harvest in time; a beet the size of a 5 year old's head!Lastly, it does help to read a book and do some research. If you have the opportunity, it greatly helps to do the research beforehand, but if you're like me, you're so excited to start planting that you don't have the time to read a whole book! Don't despair, chances are you'll have good luck in Spring just because the conditions here in Southern California are so darn good. But trust me, come summer you will want some knowledge under your belt so you can plant appropriately, tackle the heat and learn to deal with aphid infestations.
I haven't found one great gardening book yet, so if you have some recommendations, please post them in the comments section! I've read How To Cheat At Gardening and Yard Work by Jeff Brendenberg and 52 Weeks In the California Garden by Robert Smaus. How To Cheat had a lot of useful tips, but it wasn't specific to our climate or vegetable gardening in particular, so the information was all over the place. 52 Weeks, while it was specific to California, was not geared to vegetable gardening alone. Some friends have read Square foot Gardening and I hear it was good.
What I do recommend whatever you do though, is do some research on the vegetables you're planting so you know how to properly care for them and when to pick them! We were always stumped as to when to harvest some vegetables! We picked quite a few melons before their time.
Alright friends, I think this post is long enough and I have unruly children in the house! I hope you find this information useful :)
Happy Gardening everyone! May you go forth and prosper!