Beginner Gardening Tips + Salad Recipe

Test Kitchen Professional Melissa shares her grandfather’s beginning gardening tips as well as a delicious fresh salad recipe.

SpringProduceMy mother’s parents have been married for 55 years and for 46 of them they have put out a garden together. While the numbers are pretty impressive, my grandparents’ efforts show stronger when you take a bite of a tomato or corn on the cob. Our family always turns to my Papaw Robert Brooks for gardening advice because his crops are always perfect. One of the first things I noticed over the years is the terminology used among passionate gardeners. “We don’t grow them; the soil does,” Papaw says. Here is some advice I’ve collected from them through the years. 

He never uses the term grow when referencing his garden. He uses raise, which I always thought was more appropriate for him and his precise gardening practices. 

 1. If you plan to put out a garden this year, the first thing to consider is the soil. If you have a wet winter, you’ll have to wait longer before you can start tilling your garden. Papaw normally waits till between April and May. “You have to be patient and wait for the frost season to be over. You gotta baby the seeds, but the ground has to be warm enough and not saturated, or the seeds will rot and won’t grow,” he says. Frost commonly affects green beans and tomatoes. But for cabbage, broccoli, onions, or snap peas, you don’t have to wait until the frost season is over.

2. “Soil deteriorates with continuous use. Each year, you need to supplement your soil. Lay out horse manure, and till it into the ground, or grow a cover crop through the winter and spring of the year,” Papaw says. His cover crops of choice are crimson clover and winter rye. He will let his cover crop flourish until the ground is dry enough to begin planting, then he will start the tilling process. Once you begin tilling, continue until the ground is extremely loose. Papaw usually fertilizes the soil next. It’s important to keep the seeds from having full contact with the fertilizer so the seeds don’t burn out.

3. Next, it’s time to plant the seeds. Most crops are planted an inch to an inch and a half into the soil. However, potatoes need to be covered by 3 inches. And if your area is having an exceptionally dry season, Papaw advises to plant corn and green beans deeper than usual, too.

4. Once the crops begin growing, you’ll need to side-dress (the process of fertilizing the soil about 6 inches away from the site of crop) when they’re about 2 or 3 inches high, then till and hoe again. “You want to enrich the soil and not tamper with the seed or root systems. The fertilizer is too hard on it, and the seed will die,” Papaw says. He also stresses the importance of frequent watering during the first few weeks of the growing process.

 If you don’t have the space for a full garden, Papaw says you can still raise your own crops. For apartment living, you can raise any good container crop: herbs, tomatoes, asparagus, lettuce, cabbage, kale, onions, cucumbers, bell peppers, and more. Since room is limited, of course you’ll want to grow what you enjoy the best and most often.

“Each vegetable should be in its own container, but you can mix herbs. And when all else fails, put the seed in the ground, and sing to it, ‘grow, baby, grow!’.’ But you have to be singing in the right key,” papaw says.

 If you’re as happy as I am to have fresh spring produce in my kitchen, check out the salad recipe below. Happy spring, y’all!


Asparagus and Fennel Salad with Citrus
Serves 4
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  1. 1 pound fresh asparagus
  2. 1 fennel bulb
  3. 2 naval oranges, sectioned
  4. 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  5. 1 teaspoon kosher sea salt
  6. 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  7. 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  8. 1 lemon, juiced
  1. Using a vegetable peeler, shave asparagus spears to make ribbons. Use a mandoline to slice fennel and a sharp knife to slice orange sections. In a large bowl, combine black pepper, kosher sea salt, extra-virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, and lemon juice. Whisk for 30 seconds to combine. Add asparagus, fennel, and orange sections. Toss to combine. Serve immediately.
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