Two years ago I decided to get ambitious and build a big ol' garden the right way to see if it really would make a difference. People have successfully grown food for thousands of years--have they all been smarter than me? Surely not! But since winging it on my own wasn't buying me any success, and as one of the few people who actually reads instruction manuals, I turned to the written word for help. My main guide: The Vegetable Gardener's Bible.
Step 1: Locate your beds in a sunny location. Our first challenge: our little north-facing house is surrounded by beautiful 100-ft trees. The sun comes and goes all day, and finding a location that gets enough sunshine throughout the day is a challenge. I chose three spots that seemed good candidates: one against the back porch (c. 3' x 8'), one against the privancy fence in the back yard on the east side of the yard (c. 3' x 6'), and one on the west side of the house in front, where our next-door neighbor said the sun shines most of the day (c. 4' x 6').
Step 2: Dig your beds deep. So I took Forky (my gardening fork) and laboriously broke up and turned the earth in my three beds to a depth of about 12"--no small task for a 42-yo, out-of-shape weakling. I think it took me about a week to complete the job, racing home from work each day, putting on my grubbies, and sweating furiously in the delightful Northern Virginia heat and humidity.
So was it worth it? I will reveal myself to be a giant dork when I say that the first time I planted in one of those beds, it was an amazing experience. No hacking away at the clay to build a hole big enough for my little plants or the onion sets. (This was also the first year I dared to attempt to grow from seed. I decided on pole beans, peas, and scallions.) Instead, I could literally scoop the soil out by hand and gently put the little guys in the ground. So soft! So airy! It was amazing! I was sold, even before anything actually grew. So note to all those who wonder whether all that digging effort is worth the effort. In a word, YES.
Did we end up with a wonderfully successful garden that year? Um... no. But it was partially successful, and that was enough to inspire me to try again next year. We had lots of onions, which we mostly ate immmature as scallions--delicious grilled!--but they never seemed to mature well beyond that. We got a bean or two and no peas, but those plants (from seed!) got clobbered by torrential spring rains and I blamed nature on the failure. (Thanks a lot, nature.) The tomatoes tanked again, and I somehow continued to be the one human being on the planet incapable of successfully growing zucchini (zucchini!). But we DID have a successful cucumber crop and made lots of pickles. And that was enough to spur my ambition for year 2., when Mulch Boy joined the good fight.