Breaking the sod: Tips for first-time gardeners

Sheila Toomey,Jane Baldwin

There's a problem with many gardening books -- even the good ones: they're scary.

Anyone who would like to have a garden but already has a job, children, a home to take care of -- in other words, a full life -- can be forgiven for shying away from dense chapters on digging up the backyard, building raised beds, the chemistry of organic soil amendment or the care and feeding of compost piles.

The fact is, there are easy ways for new or too-busy gardeners to plant, tend and harvest a small vegetable patch.

The following suggestions for a starter in-ground garden are for people who have lives that don't leave space for long hours of yard work. Or for more experienced gardeners who want to expand with minimal fuss.

Begin by making some clear-headed choices. Where will you put your garden, and how big a garden do you really want - meaning "want" to take care of all summer?

WHERE: Choose a sunny spot, not up against a fence or wall unless it's sunny for at least eight hours a day. A site not overhung by shade-making trees or shrubs.

Choose a spot with decent drainage -- not where water puddles after a rain. If it's more than 2 or 3 feet wide, you'll want a path all around it so you can work on your knees from all sides.

Close to your kitchen door is nice for scissoring off that dinner salad; and a comfortable hose-length from the outdoor faucet, although with a small garden, hauling water is not that onerous.

HOW BIG: This is where newbies tend to do themselves in. Start small. A 4-feet-by-8-feet plot sounds miniscule until you're weeding it. And you'll be surprised at how much you can grow in a space as small as 4 by 4. In any case, don't go wider than 4 feet. You want to be able to reach the middle of the plot from either side.

DIRT: There are two ways to go: dig down, or fill up. Digging down is cheaper but much more work. You will need to remove sod, roots, rocks etc., break up the ground to a depth of 8-12 inches, test your soil to see what elements it lacks, and add them. Beginners are better advised to "fill up."

Filling up requires a frame around your plot. It can be almost anything -- scrap wood, rocks, bricks, anything that rises 8-to-12 inches above the ground and holds together enough to be filled with dirt.

Home Depot and Lowe's sell 8-foot lengths of lumber of varying heights. You can buy three and they'll cut one into two, 4-foot pieces for you. Or you can buy a ready-made frame, available in a variety of materials and sizes at those stores and Costco.

Once the frame is in place, lay newspaper over the dirt bottom -- 15 or 20 sheets. Or you can use cardboard. This will kill the sod and keep weeds from growing up into the frame.

Do you have any leaves left over from last fall? Put them in on top of the paper. They will reduce the amount of soil you need and, along with the paper, will decompose nicely over time. Large bags of planting mixture are available at stores all over town.

These contain plant food and are generally fine for growing annuals. Dirt sold as topsoil will probably need added fertilizer.

Dump the soil on top of the paper-leaf lining, smooth it out, and you're good to go. (Remember, you only have to do this the first year.)

It's too early to plant outside, but you can get the bed ready as soon as your chosen site is snow free.

The next decision is, what are you going to grow? Again, don't get carried away. Grow what you like to eat.

Alas, you should probably not try tomatoes or cucumbers your first time out -- tomato-failure depression wipes out a lot of would-be gardeners. Carrots could be a problem, depending on how deep your soil is.

If you want to save money and grow from seed, this is likely the last week to get those going indoors. Otherwise, there will soon be four-packs of almost everything available in local nurseries.

And most importantly, cultivate the right attitude.

This is fun, an adventure. Don't fret about it. Just do it. It will work and you will learn.

Special to the Daily News