What you need to know before starting an edible garden

Believe it or not, for much of the country (those in growing zones 5 and southward), it isn't too late to start an edible garden this year! Fall crops, such as peas, chard, kale, carrots, spinach and lettuce, are great choices for beginning gardeners. So start planning because the fall planting season is just around the corner! If you are too far north to consider a fall planting, don't hesitate to get a jump start on your plans for spring.
A little bit of research and prep work can really maximize your efforts when it comes to gardening. We've done some of the legwork for you by putting together a short list of basic tips and need-to-know information when growing edibles for the first time.
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1. Start small
It's easy to get in over your head, and subsequently discouraged, when starting out as a gardener. That's why, if you've never grown a vegetable garden, we suggest your first attempt be with containers or a small raised bed no bigger than 4 feet by 8 feet (1.2 meters by 2.8 meters). Four feet is the perfect width for a garden, making everything accessible with just an arm's reach so there's no need to walk through your garden and compact the soil around the plants. Containers and raised beds are good for multiple reasons: You can easily control soil composition and health, as well as keep an eye out for weeds and pests. However, keep in mind that planters and raised beds often dry out more quickly than ground-level gardens, so check frequently for water needs. If possible, choose a sunny location close to a water source and in an area of your yard that you use regularly. If you have to hike hundreds of feet to your garden just to water and check on it, you may lose interest altogether. 
2. Plant only what you know you'll use and increase your chances for success
Don't get caught up in the pretty pictures of obscure heirloom varieties. Instead research tried-and-true varieties of plants you know you'll use. For the fall, focus on leafy greens, like kale, chard, lettuce and spinach, as well as radishes, peas and carrots. 
If you're interested in starting your plants from seed, go for it! Radishes, peas and carrots generally do better directly sown into the ground. And most pea and carrot varieties require 60 to 80 days to mature, so direct-sow two to three months before the first frost date. Leafy greens, however, are great to start from seed. You'll want to start most seeds 12 to 14 weeks before your area's first frost date, so don't delay! We also suggest direct-sowing some of each seed as well. Giving seeds many opportunities to germinate only increases your chances for success. If you do try your hand at starting seeds, it still wouldn't hurt to purchase some starter plants, too. Since fall isn't as popular a growing season as spring and summer, you may have to order your plants online. If all of your methods are successful and you end up with more plants than you need, don't give in to the temptation to overcrowd your garden! Giving plants away is equally rewarding, and your own garden will be more productive if you give your plants room to grow. 
3. Soil is EVERYTHING
Healthy soil is the foundation of your garden, and it needs to be a top priority. The best part about using containers and raised beds is you have the perfect opportunity to start with a nutrient-rich, customized soil mixture. An ideal soil mixture for your garden will vary based on a few factors, such as climate and what plants you're using. For example, if you notoriously experience rainy falls, you'll want to make sure your soil is well-draining. Mike McGrath of NPR's You Bet Your Garden recommends starting with an all-purpose mix consisting of high-quality compost, mixed (not layered) extremely well with an equal portion of high-quality topsoil. For containers, try a lighter soil mixture, such as Mel's Mix, formulated by Mel Bartholomew, founder of Square Foot Gardening. Mel's Mix consists of one-third compost, one-third peat moss, and one-third vermiculite. Ultimately, you'll want to adjust the soil each season based on observations from seasons past. For instance, if you notice the soil is too compacted or retaining too much moisture, add more compost and possibly more perlite to lighten up the soil and allow for better drainage. 
4. Mulch makes a difference
Mulching your vegetable garden isn't just a matter of preference. Mulch offers major benefits, such as controlling weeds, preventing disease, maintaining moisture, adding additional organic matter to the soil and helping to regulate soil temperature. The best materials to use as mulch are those that will break down over time and enrich the soil. Examples include grass clippings, shredded leaf litter, straw or even a couple inches of pure, high-quality compost. With a small garden, you can experiment throughout the seasons, taking note of which mulches produce the best results. This leads to our final word of advice as you begin your gardening journey.
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5. Keep a garden journal (Download a free journal template)
If you are planning to garden long term, it is extremely valuable to make a habit of jotting down some notes during each garden season. Don't rely on your brain alone to recall which methods and varieties worked best. Noteworthy items include weather patterns, rainfall amounts and last and first frost dates. You'll also want to keep track of which plants you started from seed, what seed-starting soil you used and the germination rate. Taking note of plant varieties and gardening methods, fertilizing schedules and products used, as well as disease and pest issues, can vastly improve your gardening success in the seasons to come. Do not underestimate the difference quality gardening notes can make. 
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