The year that you start gardening, that is!
People think of gardening as difficult, a specialized skill. It's not. It's easier than cooking, and (in my opinion) just as basic a skill. And then some people think that gardening is a lot of work, which it isn't unless you want it to be. If you want to garden for exercise, grow topiaries or roses or some other difficult thing. But if you want to throw seeds in the ground and get free food, most vegetables are quite amenable to this treatment.
I am a lazy gardener. I spend more time harvesting than on any other garden chore. I don't till and I barely weed. And yet I have had lots of vegetables. Not as many as I'd have if I actually worked at it, I'm sure, but certainly enough to make it worth my while.
If you have a patch of yard, a balcony, or a sunny window, and you are not gardening, you are wasting God's good earth. Why not just light cigarettes with $100 bills while you're at it? You could be pulling free money out of the ground.
Okay, so here are some basic tips for the first-year gardener. I'm not a gardening expert, but I see this as an advantage. If I can do it, so can you.
First, consider your possibilities. What space do you have for gardening? A south-facing window will do if nothing else is available, but outdoors is better, because who's got time for watering when God can do that for you? If you're going to use containers, you'll have to buy dirt. Potting soil is fine. So are worm castings, if you can get them -- my farmers' market has them, and they appear to be the best thing you could get for container gardening.
Next, what do you want to grow? If you have very limited space, herbs are a good choice because you don't need a lot of them. My first year I grew basil. I guess I had about two square feet, maybe a bit less, and I got more basil than I could use. Other good plants for containers include lettuce, spinach, strawberries, or cherry tomatoes. You can buy those upside-down tomato planters, if you like, or just punch some holes in a ten-gallon bucket and call it good.
If you've got actual ground, easy crops include green beans, sugar snap peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash of any kind. Beans and peas like a trellis, but they don't take up much ground, so it's easy to stick them in near your fence.
Traditionally, people have dug up the dirt before planting. But in my experience, it's better not to. You can smother the weeds or grass the fall before. But since it's April, you may have to dig -- but just scrape the sod off the ground. Don't go crazy with digging deep. Better yet, if you have the funds, lay some cardboard or newspaper on the ground and heap six inches of dirt on top of that. The grass will die under the weight of the dirt, and when your seeds reach that far down, they'll get a nice buffet of rotting grass and weeds. The earthworms will be going crazy too. Digging just confuses the worms -- it's their job to dig, not yours.
Now you're ready to plant. When should you plant? Depends on what and where. You can find a chart for your area. The general rule is to divvy up your plants into two groups, early and late. Early stuff, like lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, beets, carrots, potatoes, and peas, is going in right about now where I live. Put it in when you start seeing fruit trees blooming and a green haze starting in the woods. If you follow a calendar, don't let it tempt you into planting when it's still freezing cold. I did that and my peas got snowed on. Wait till it's really spring.
For late stuff, like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash, wait till it's pretty much summer and it's actually hot. Check the 10-day forecast; the overnight lows should be in the 40's.
Next, consider whether you want to start your seeds inside or outside. Some things just don't sprout very well outside, or they need to get started in your warm house while it's still cold outside. Good things to start inside include tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and cabbage. I direct-seed everything else, but you can start anything inside except root crops like carrots or beets. They won't like it if you transplant them.
Growing plants inside is the hardest part for me. I hate it, there's never enough light, and I forget to water them. In fact, I think I have broccoli seedlings wilting of thirst right now. Oops. I've killed them twice already this year. (Never give up! Just plant again! And again, and again!) Plant seeds about three times their diameter, or less if you like. I barely cover mine, no matter what kind, if I'm growing them inside. When you are sprouting seeds, the key is moisture and heat. Don't ever let the soil dry out at this stage. Later, a bit of aridity will do them good, but a sprouting seedling has no roots and really needs to be wet all the time. The top of the fridge or the back of the stove will keep them warm. Move them into the light when you see green appearing.
When it's warm enough for them outside, or you're sick of having them inside, or they have a few true leaves (the first two seed leaves don't count), you can transplant them. Dig a little hole where you want them to be, take them out of the pot, and stick them in. A rainy or cloudy day is perfect; otherwise do it in the afternoon. A full day's sun is a lot to ask them to deal with on their first day. (Though it's best of all if you can get them used to full sun beforehand by leaving them on the porch and bringing them in at night when practical. I do this, but then I forget them and they freeze to death outside. Oops.) Give the seedlings plenty of water their first few days. Really coddle them. When they're about a week old you can go back to neglecting them.
If you're direct-seeding outside, just put the seeds in the dirt. I have tried everything, especially with lettuce, which gives me a ton of trouble every time. And what seems to work best for me is to toss a ton of seeds down on a wet day and just hope. If the seeds are large, you'll want to actually bury them. Since I always keep a lot of mulch on the garden (mostly just old leaves), I pull it back to plant seeds. Leaving a little straw there does no harm, though; the plants can push through it. Again, you have to keep the soil wet while things are sprouting. I've occasionally had some dry weather and had to water twice a day. That's the hard part. Once the plants are up, they can fend for themselves much better.
If you're nervous about all of the above, you could just buy seedlings in pots from a garden or hardware store. Sometimes they are not very healthy and will just die on you. Your best bet is to get the smallest seedlings you can find. The big ones are usually busy overgrowing their pots and they won't root well in your garden.
Then you pretty much just leave the plants to grow, in their pot or in the ground, until they start giving you food. It might be helpful to read some tips on the plants you've chosen; basil, for instance, needs to be harvested often or it will go to seed and die. If you see a lot of weeds, pull them up. Midsummer is the time you've really got to watch out, because the weeds can get ahead of you fast. The rest of the year, not so much, so I have been known to turn a blind eye on a couple of purslanes in the with the vegetables on the fall. Best of all is if you have a good source of old leaves, straw, or hay -- pile it on the bare soil around your plants' roots, and it will smother the weeds and keep the soil from drying out.
If you miss the "right" dates for planting, do not worry. You can plant later. Once it's hot, your "early" plants might not make it, but you can go on planting "late" ones into midsummer. Then once the hottest weather is over, you can go straight back to your "early" ones for a fall crop. I can't believe I worried that my green beans would die because I planted them in July. They did amazing, better than they did when I planted them on time. Planting a bit later can be better, because they get more sun.
If your plants turn yellow, they may be deficient in nitrogen. I'm not a believer in artificial fertilizers, but you know what has nitrogen? Pee. Any kind of manure will do -- chicken, cow, rabbit -- but don't put it directly on your plants unless it's been composting for awhile, because it has too much nitrogen. You can put a handful of manure in a gallon of water and just pour it on that way. Or swish a wet cloth diaper in the watering can. It's amazing how fast they perk up.
If they get a disease ... well, my technique is to just step back and see how they do. Often they fight it off. Sometimes they die and I just harvest what I can. It's the circle of life. Same for bugs. You can handpick bugs off your plants, but a few bugs probably won't kill your plants, and a plague of bugs will kill them whatever you do, so neglect works okay here too.
Once my plants are established, they get water once a week. No more, or they get spoiled. If you water too often, your plants won't put down deep roots, and so if you forget a day, they'll keel over and die. If it rains, you're good for a week. If a week goes by without rain, water ... but thoroughly. Water first thing in the morning, before it gets hot, and really soak the soil under the plants. Don't spray the leaves, water the dirt. If you're in doubt as to whether you need to water, don't just look at the soil surface -- dig a little hole. If the soil is wet a couple inches down, you're good, even if the surface is dry and cracking. If the plants are starting to wilt, though, go ahead and water them.
If nothing comes up, or if your plants die ... plant more stuff. Don't let it discourage you. It happens, but seeds are cheap. In fact, I think it's good to stagger plantings -- throw down a few more seeds each week until something grows. And though they tell you to start small, with just one kind of plant, I'd say the opposite. Grow at least two things so that something grows. If you find something that works well for you, well, that's one thing you can count on! My staples are tomatoes and pumpkins. Other things are iffy for me. I keep trying, and someday I hope to have the hang of it.
Whatever you do, just keep planting stuff. You're developing a valuable skill, you're saving money, and if you're lucky you will get something delicious that will put you off the produce aisle version for good. Don't think of it like an input-output game. Think of it like gambling. Your number might not come up ... but a ticket's cheap. Why not try? You could hit it big with a bumper crop of something good to eat. And if you don't win this time, keep trying. The odds are in your favor.
Good luck and happy gardening!