Getting Past Zero

This post is for you gardeners-at-heart who’re on your way to becoming gardeners-in-reality. Maybe you’ve purchased some plants. Saved aspirational garden photos on Pinterest. Even acquired some soil and a planter box. But then, something stopped you.

Getting past the starting point–zero–may be the most challenging yet important step in gardening. I have a few tips to help you keep it simple and successful. Each season you can build on the experience and knowledge of the season before.

1. Start small and simple. It’s incredibly easy to get overwhelmed by a garden, especially if you have a variety of plants with different needs. So, start small.

Since we’re in Southern California’s warm season, here’s my suggestion: Start with something easy, like a dwarf tomato plant. I like Tasmanian Chocolate and Tidy Treats. You can grow both varieties in containers, and those containers don’t need to be fancy. Also, the compact size of the tomato plant means you’ll only need a moderate structure to support the plant—like a tomato cage or trellis.

A five-gallon pot would do for Tidy Treats, which is incredibly hardy and produces a ton of red cherry tomatoes. Tasmanian Chocolate would like something bigger, maybe a 10-gallon pot or grow bag. Within that size, it can thrive and produce a generous number of medium- to large-sized tomatoes.

If you’re feeling ambitious, grow both and add a pot of basil. But let’s stop there for now.

Queen Red Lime Zinnia
A few years ago I tried growing Queen Red Lime zinnias. That one experiment has evolved my gardening game to the point where I’ve devoted almost half my garden space to cut flowers. It opened a whole new avenue of growing and learning for me. That’s part of gardening–the experimentation, the challenges, the surprises.

2. Have a plan. Here’s a step-by-step plan for you to complete the project above.

First: Figure out where you’re going to grow. Make sure it’s someplace that:

a) Has enough sun, ideally 6-8 hours of sunlight daily.

b) Is close to a door to your home. The closer your garden is to your kitchen, the better. You want plants to be somewhere you’ll see them every day or even multiple times a day. This can include a patio if you live in an apartment or condo and have enough sun.

c) Is close to irrigation, whether near a bathroom, kitchen or laundry room sink (if you’re going to water with a watering can) or a yard hose.

Each of these elements is vital because you want to make it almost impossible not to notice your plants daily and see if they need pruning, watering, food, harvesting, etc. Also, the more you see your plants, the more you enjoy them.

While I have multiple vegetable gardens, I’ve added to the 400+ square feet under cultivation with pots. That’s right, I needed even more space for plants and put them in containers! They’re set along the back patio approximately a dozen steps from my kitchen sink and easily accessible from a garden hose.

Second: Acquire your materials. You can make this as inexpensive or expensive as your tastes and budget desire. Here’s what you’ll need:

a) Pots or containers for the plants. If you already have a raised bed set up, great. If not, no problem. You can purchase (or sometimes get for free) 5- and 10-gallon pots. Some people have used nursery pots of this size left over from purchasing large shrubs or small trees. You can also purchase grow bags on Amazon inexpensively. Or you can purchase nice pots. If you’re unsure what to do, just go on Amazon, get yourself three 10-gallon grow bags and be done. Just ensure that if you purchase hard pots or containers, they have drainage holes at the bottom. Grow bags won’t need drainage holes because they drain through the fabric.

b) Organic soil. Any organic raised bed mix will do. You can purchase this at Home Depot, Lowe’s or Grangetto’s if you’re in North County San Diego. As noted in a previous blog, I’ve stopped purchasing the raised bed mix from San Pasqual Valley Soils as it’s heavy and dense and killed many of my starts last year. Some good soils are Kellogg’s and their alternate brand, Garden & Bloome. Happy Frog by Fox Farm is excellent, as is Recipe 420. Both are a little more expensive.

c) Organic fertilizer. If you feed your plants, they will feed you. I like Dr. Earth organic vegetable and herb granular fertilizer. Another option would be Big Bloom liquid fertilizer from Fox Farm.

d) Support for your growing tomatoes. Tomatoes are vining plants. Your typical non-dwarf, indeterminate tomato plants (such as Celebrity, Cherokee Purple, Early Girl, etc.) can grow 8 to 10 feet, which is why I think traditional tomato cages are a little silly for 95% of tomato plants. But they’re perfect for dwarf tomatoes. If you don’t want to buy a tomato cage, you can take a simple piece of bamboo or another straight, tall stick and use it as a stake for the tomato plant’s main stem, held to the stake with some twine.

e) Plants. I could write a whole book on sourcing plants, but to keep it simple, look for varieties grown organically, even if they’re not from organic seed. If you can’t find that, don’t let it stop you! Just find a variety that looks attractive and get started.

What’s life without some fresh garden tomatoes? This is a favorite indeterminate (taller) tomato called Citrine. It’s another I’d recommend for beginners as it’s easy to grow and super yummy.

3. Set aside time to plant. Transplant in the late afternoon so your plant doesn’t have to deal with transplant shock and brutal sunlight and heat simultaneously. Instead, your plant can get cozy in its new home overnight. Before you plant, water the hole deeply so that there’s a reservoir of moisture waiting for your plants’ roots. Then, add some organic granular fertilizer at the bottom of the hole. Now, your plant can settle into its new home with food and water.

4. Invite a friend. Involving others can help you stick to your goal and provide some enjoyable company as you work.

If you feel overwhelmed along the way, that’s okay. I feel that way every year at certain parts of the season.

Refer to the plan above and ask yourself: What’s my next step?

Maybe the next step is:

  • driving to Grangetto’s and getting soil
  • going on Amazon and ordering grow bags
  • texting a friend to come over and help you shop or plant

Just keep going. Don’t seek perfection; seek to learn. Learning and being challenged is an intrinsic part of gardening! This is why people do a touchdown dance when they harvest their first tomato—it feels tremendous!

Feel free to ask questions in the comments section, and let me know how it goes!