An idiot’s guide to vegetable gardening

Illustration by Kate Feiffer — Photo courtesy of

People look at my tennis court-sized vegetable garden and think I know what I’m doing. I don’t. My mother is a real vegetable gardener. She’s been fully organic since long before the word was in vogue. She makes her own compost. She soil tests.

I don’t do any of that. I wing it. Sometimes I fail spectacularly, like when I neglected to contain my strawberry patch and it pretty much ate my garden. But I’ve learned a few things over the years, and I do well enough now to make it generally unnecessary to visit the grocery’s produce section for several months running.

Google “vegetable gardening for dummies,” and a number of useful sites pop right up like beans in a bed. I’m going to visit a few of them, after I get this article in. But first, allow me to offer a few pieces of vegetable gardening wisdom that I learned myself, mostly the hard way.

Good fences make good neighbors. Out here in the wilds of West Tisbury, my nearest neighbors are varmints. Deer, raccoons, skunks, rabbits, and woodland rats are all eager to share my garden’s bounty. My first garden fence was composed of tall posts and chicken wire. Something tunneled under the wire into the garden and took bites out of my tomatoes, nibbled the bottoms off my beans, and ate seedlings right down to the soil. After a few years, the chicken wire got rusty and weak, and a pack of intrepid deer burst through it one late fall day and devoured all the kale I still had growing. So I removed the chicken wire and replaced it with stronger, rust-proof green plastic-coated chicken wire, and I trenched all the way around the periphery and buried the wire about a foot underground. Nothing gets into my garden now, unless I forget and leave the door open.

Give your plants a raise. Raised beds (mine are hummocks a few inches higher than ground level) allow for proper drainage so your plants don’t drown in a big rain. But more importantly, they allow for easier weed control. One year, before I started using raised beds, a guest looked out at my garden and said, “Wow! It’s so lush and green in there; what are you growing?” I was growing weeds. Weeds get out of hand in no time flat. That summer, they were waist-high.

Now, I lay down thick layers of straw between my raised beds, and while the straw’s own seeds sometimes sprout, I just pull up the grass and lay it on top, and soon enough, it becomes more straw itself. Other things can be used as mulch between the beds (I’ve even heard of people using newspaper), but I like straw because worms like straw. Worm castings (yes, I’m talking about worm poop) are a gardener’s gold. And by tunneling around underground, worms aerate the soil, making it looser and more amenable to root growth.

Another note on weed control: A couple of years ago, I began using black planter’s paper mulch on some of my raised beds themselves. With plants spaced at least several inches apart, you simply lay the paper (it comes in a roll) over your raised bed and cut holes in it where you want to place your seedlings. Water gets through, but weeds don’t. The paper is biodegradable and can be tilled into the soil when spent. One note of caution: because the paper is black, it warms the soil, so it’s best not used in the full heat of summer around tender plants like lettuces.

“The only way to win is cheat,” says the theme song from “M*A*S*H”. Gardening purists plant everything from seed, starting things indoors in flats. But I’ve learned that cheating — i.e., buying seedlings from local nurseries — is easy, reliable, and time-saving. And you can buy exactly the number of seedlings you want, whereas when you buy a packet of, say, fennel seeds, there are maybe 100 seeds in the packet, and who can possibly fit 100 fennel plants in their garden? Leftover seeds rarely germinate the following year, so you just have to throw out your extras, which always feels wasteful and vaguely murderous to me.

Don’t take tender seedlings straight from the greenhouse to your garden; they’re not yet hardy enough to withstand a cold night. To harden off greenhouse seedlings (i.e., acclimate them to real temperatures), leave them outside during the day and bring them inside for the night. After three or four days, you can put them in the garden.

See to your soil. Plants feed on the nutrients in your soil, so you need to replenish those nutrients every year. In the spring, I dig a few inches of compost into my whole garden, and this year I’ve vowed to finally take a soil tester kit to my dirt. My friend Debby Farber, of Blackwater Farm in West Tisbury, says that soil on the Island tends to be overly acidic, so she spreads lime on her garden annually to up the Ph. (Note: there are two kinds of lime — fast-acting and regular. If you add regular lime to your garden now, it won’t make a difference in your soil until next year. But the fast-acting stuff is caustic and to me a bit scary, since you’re warned not to let it come into contact with your skin.) As for fertilizers, Debby believes you really need only two kinds, Pro-Gro and Pro-Start, both of which are made by North Country Organics. Toss a little Pro-Start into the hole into which you’re putting a seedling to help with root development. As plants grow, sprinkle a little Pro-Gro around seedlings for further feeding.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Starting with a tennis court-sized garden can lead to waist-level weeds. Gardening is time-consuming. Some days, it takes me an hour just to pick what’s ripe. So unless you have unlimited time on your hands, start small, until you gain some confidence and know-how, and then expand.

And finally, don’t be afraid to ask for directions. When you encounter problems with mildew, bugs, and blights, (which I’m sorry to say you will, sooner or later), go to your favorite nursery and get advice (and products to remedy the situation.) I sought help a couple of years ago when I had a serious slug infestation; I was directed to a wonderfully effective, organic slug demolisher called “Sluggo.” I don’t want to know how it kills the slugs, or where those disgusting critters go to die, but suffice it to say that a few granules sprinkled around my seedlings seemed to do the trick last summer. No doubt any nursery on the Island could have told me about Sluggo, but I didn’t ask them. I asked my mother.