Eat This

Help Write a Beginner’s Guide to Growing Food

Test your soil

The most
important step to growing healthy vegetables is providing healthy soil. Make
this a priority in your first year of gardening.

  • From a DC Master Gardener: "Even if the only thing
    you accomplish in your first year of gardening is building a great soil, you
    will be ahead of the game and richly rewarded later. Before planting
    anything, have your soil tested by a reputable soil laboratory. Do not try to do
    this yourself with one of the amateur kits sold at garden centers. You need a
    thorough assay of the structure and nutrients in your soil, as well as any
    hazardous materials. Urban gardeners should be concerned about the potential for
    heavy metals or other toxins in their soil, especially lead and arsenic. Lead in
    soil is almost a universal condition in urban areas, especially near older
    buildings that might have shed lead paint and near heavily trafficked roadways,
    where lead in automobile exhaust has drifted into yards. Purchasing soil for a
    new garden or raised beds is no guarantee that it is pure. The potential danger
    of lead being taken up by vegetables is highest in leafy greens and root
    vegetables. Lead does not appear to be a problem in fruits or fruiting
  • From another DC gardener: "By far the most dangerous aspect of soils with
    high lead levels is airborne contamination, inhalation, oral ingestion from
    hands touching lead-laden plants, clothes, shoes, etc." Lead is very stable and
    therefore difficult to remove from soil. Brassica plants (e.g., broccoli,
    cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts) tend to take up more lead than others,
    so brassicas (and all root crops) might not be the best choice in soils with
    lead. "I recommend the University of Massachusetts soil testing lab." It’s
    inexpensive and you can get information and recommendations on soil fertility,
    pH, toxins, etc. In soils with high lead levels, take precaution and do not
    plant directly into the soil. Use raised beds (high enough to keep roots away
    from lead-laden soil). To create a good soil mixture inexpensively, use the
    "lasagna gardening" method (described in more detail below).
  • Another DC gardener adds: "There is no agreed-upon definition of top soil
    and no standards. Even within a brand, unlike with potting soil, there’s no
    standard or consistency. The last time I looked at the ingredients of top soil
    at Home Depot and Lowe’s, fly ash was one of the main ingredients. I’d never
    want to grow vegetables in that (probably contains lots of heavy metals). I grow
    vegetables in raised beds with pure compost made by me. But I still get my soil
    tested (but not the compost)."
  • If you have concerns about lead in your soil, make sure to thoroughly wash
    and peel root vegetables before eating.
  • Not all soil labs test for lead. Check with the lab before sending in your
    sample. The Maryland Cooperative Extension has a list of regional soil test labs
    on its website.
  • A basic soil test will also help you determine the soil’s pH and nutrient
    levels. Soil pH governs the uptake of nutrients by plants. Vegetables grow best
    in soil that has a pH between 6.0 to 7.5 (around 6.8 is ideal).
  • From a DC Master Gardener: "Plants need certain macro-nutrients to thrive,
    especially nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. A professional soil test should
    indicate whether your soil contains adequate levels of these nutrients. The test
    should also indicate the level of vital micro-nutrients, especially calcium and
    magnesium. Even more important is "saturation percentage" of calcium and
    magnesium, and the relative saturation of one to the other. The desired range is
    65% to 75% for calcium and 10% to 15% for magnesium."
  • Test your soil once every three years.

to I prepare my location for planting?

  • Remove stones, grass, weeds. Check the consistency of your soil. A squeezed
    handful of soil shouldn’t clump (too much clay) or crumble (too sandy).
    Vegetables grow best in soil that‘s rich
    organic matter (a minimum of 5%). You can improve soil by
    adding compost, aged manure, and other amendments such as lime, bone meal, etc.,
    (based on the results and recommendations of the soil test). Bags of compost can
    be purchased at garden centers and nurseries, but that gets expensive quickly.
    Some places offer compost in bulk; you can buy it by the truckload. In Maryland,
    Pogo Organics offers this service. To save money,
    build a compost pile of your own. Read the DC Urban Gardeners primer on
    .  Montgomery
    County Maryland residents can get a free basic compost bin from the Department
    of Environmental Protection
    . If you don’t have a yard our outdoor space for a compost bin, consider setting
    up an indoor vermicomposting ("worm composting") system to turn your food scraps
    into compost. 
  • Don’t want to dig up sod? Try Lasagna Gardening or Sheet Composting. Lay
    down sheets of wet newspaper or cardboard followed by layers of other organic
    materials (grass clippings, leaves, soil mix, straw). These layers will
    eventually "smother" the existing vegetation where you want to plant.
  • Build raised beds. Raised beds tend to have better drainage, and the soil
    warms up faster in the spring so you can plant a little sooner.

When can I plant?
The District of Columbia is in
USDA Zone 7A. The average last frost is around April 15, and the first frost in
the fall is usually around October 15. Based on these dates, you can make a
planting schedule.

  • Many gardening books provide a basic month-by-month calendar of "what to
    plant when." A good one is Rodale’s Almanac & Pest-Control Primer.
  • Cool season plants — peas (sow as early as February/March), radishes,
    lettuces, spinach.
  • Warm season plants — tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplant — should only be
    transplanted outside after all danger of frost. Usually after Mother’s Day, it’s
    safe in our Zone 7A.
  • Last season crops — in July plant seeds of lettuce, arugula, carrots,
    beets, chard, kale. These do well in cool weather, and some plants overwinter in
    our area.
  • In October – plant garlic, onions. They’ll overwinter and you can harvest
    them next summer.
  • Extend the season by creating a cold frame to protect plants from

Where can I get seeds and

Purchase plants at local nurseries such as American Plant Food
Company and Behnke’s. They’re likely to have a better selection — and healthier
plants — than big-box stores such as Home Depot. Avoid plants that are getting
long and lanky or yellowish. For the best variety, and/or to save money, many
vegetable gardeners prefer to start plants from seed.

  • Seed Catalogs. Good ones for vegetables are Seed Savers Exchange, Seeds of
    Change, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Vermont Bean Seeds Company.
    They will send you a free catalog for the asking, or just place your order

What about plant pests and

Plants are susceptible to viruses, parasites, and diseases.
The following resources can help you determine what’s bugging your plants, and
what to do about it.

  • Maryland Cooperative Extension answers plant and pest questions. Call their
    free hotline, Monday – Friday, 8 am – 1pm, at 1-800-342-2507. Outside of
    Maryland, call 1-410-531-1757.
  • The Brooklyn Botanical Garden staffs a Gardener’s Resource Center to vet
    questions. The hotline is 718-623-7270.

Final Thoughts
Start small, go easy! A single zucchini plant
can provide enough zucchinis for two people for an entire summer. It’s easy to
plant too much at first and then become overwhelmed with the chores of watering,
weeding, harvesting, soil amending, etc. Vegetable gardening takes effort, and
it’s extremely rewarding when you succeed. A great resource for determining
how much to plant (and how) is Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot
. Also, consider starting with some of the easier-to-grow plants:
lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, radishes, squash, cucumbers, carrots, turnips,
beans, basil, thyme.

Additional Resources

  • Consider volunteering at the Washington Youth Garden, located in the
    National Arboretum. They have a large piece of land under cultivation with all
    kinds of different vegetables and people who can teach you the best
  • The New Seed-Starters Handbook is an excellent book with information
    on growing garden vegetables from seed, how to set up a cold frame to extend the
    season, and how to save seeds from year to year.

Posted by on January 27, 2008 at 5:36 pm, in the category Eat This.
Comments are off for this post

3 responses to “Help Write a Beginner’s Guide to Growing Food”

  1. Melinda says:

    Christa, your guide is awesome!

    I’m beginning a new series on my blog called “Gardening 101” to help brand-new gardeners learn to grow their own food.

    I will link to this post, as it will help some of my readers in the northeast.

    Susan, I’d be happy to help provide more specific information for California – I’m training to be a Master Gardener, so I have loads of information at my disposal.

  2. Jenny says:

    Beautiful! The only thing I’d want to see is a bit of expansion on the how-much-to-plant bit. There’s a reference to a book, I know, but a couple of lines right in the guide would be quick to write and really helpful.

  3. MaryContrary says:

    Look, nothing “grows well” in shade when you’re talking about a vegetable garden. Some things will limp along anemically in shade (or, perhaps even more acurately, benefit from a bit of relief from the hottest afternoon sun), but that’s really all that can honestly be said on the subject.

    I’m like an unofficial extension agent among my friends, neighbors and co-workers, and this lack of sun thing is one of the biggest obstacles to success I see for folks trying to grow edibles. Less than 6 hours of direct sun a day is a recipe for failure. It’s not a just a matter of trying to grow something else, they have to find someplace else. Period, end of discussion.