Gardeners aren’t born with green thumbs; they earn them, one stain and callus at a time. But every backyard farmer started somewhere. The ranks of beginning vegetable gardeners continue to swell along with interest in food safety, healthy eating and that household perennial — saving money.

Gardeners aren’t born with green thumbs; they earn them, one stain and callus at a time. But every backyard farmer started somewhere. The ranks of beginning vegetable gardeners continue to swell along with interest in food safety, healthy eating and that household perennial — saving money.

Master gardeners have been deluged with questions by newbies on veggies.
“Vegetables really brought people in the last few years,” said Sacramento (Calif.) County master gardener Gail Pothour. “It’s always a popular topic, but now it’s very popular. It could be an economic thing; people can save money. Or they may be more concerned about what they’re eating.”

Most of all, beginners want to know: How do I grow vegetables?
Start with patience. The first springlike weather tempts gardeners to jump the calendar and start planting tomatoes.   

Wait, said Pothour. “Don’t plant too early. Make sure the soil is warm. If you put things in too early, they don’t grow and you just get discouraged.”

 Vegetable gardening has found new converts among recent college grads and families in their 20s and 30s. They grew up on supermarket produce but want to try their hands at tomatoes and squash. They need to know the basics without feeling like dirt dummies.   

“That’s exactly what I was trying to do — a real back-to-basics book, but not talk down to people,” said Katie Elzer-Peters, author of “Beginner’s Illustrated Guide to Gardening: Techniques to Help You Get Started.”

Elzer-Peters, 32, turned to her friends, who also served as the book’s models.    
“They were my target audience,” she said. “They didn’t know anything about gardening, but they asked questions as we went. That spurred more ideas.”
Gardening can be an intimidating hobby, she noted. There’s so much to learn, from deciphering the back of a seed packet and reading a fertilizer label to fighting pests.

“A lot of folks are casually interested in plants or gardening but don’t do it a lot,” said Elzer-Peters, a North Carolina-based horticulturist who has done extensive work at botanical gardens. “They buy plants at Home Depot or the grocery store because they think they’re pretty. Those plants might live, might die, but they still don’t know the basics.”   

For newbie veggie gardeners, Elzer-Peters concentrated on technique, from seed to harvest. Her methods apply to edibles and ornamentals. In planning new gardens, she makes room for flowers. They help attract bee, which are important for crop pollination.

WHAT TO PLANT?

”No. 1: Grow what you like to eat,” said Bill Maynard, Sacramento’s community garden guru. “After a few seasons, you can try different varieties. But start with something easy: zucchini, tomatoes, radishes and lettuce. Plant what’s in season; that’s key. No tomatoes in winter or Brussels sprouts in summer. Get a plant schedule and use it.”   

And don’t forget to water, Maynard added, “especially when you’re starting seeds.”   

While doing all that, keep track of everything, advises Claudia Alstrom of Rancho Cordova, Calif., a volunteer at the Cordova Senior Activities Center’s Green Thumb Garden Club. With 14 raised beds, the garden provides fresh produce for the center’s lunch program one day a week as well as vegetables for members.

“A journal helps you remember what worked and what didn’t work,” Alstrom said. “Write down what you plant, when you planted it, where you bought it. You’ll want to know that stuff next year when you plant another garden.”

Where to start For newbie vegetable gardeners, the keys to first-time success: Start small, stick to the basics and plant reliable varieties.
Here are nuggets of advice from several longtime gardeners.
    
Location Choose a sunny, well-drained spot close to a water spigot. Leafy greens tolerate some shade, but other crops need at least eight hours of sun daily. If planting rows, align them in a north-to-south direction for better light distribution. Make sure your soil is well drained, and water early in the morning.    
Raised beds allow for earlier and larger harvests because the soil warms up faster in spring (a key to root development). Use mulch or garden fabric around plants to fight weeds and cut down work.
    
Nurture your soil Adding organic material — manure, compost, chopped leaves, etc. — is the key to an easy-care garden. It loosens stiff soil, helps retain moisture and nourishes important soil organisms. Spread a 4-inch layer of organic amendments over your planting bed and dig it into the top 9 to 12 inches.
    
Fertilize Vegetables tend to be heavy feeders; they need more than dirt and water. If using chemical fertilizers, always follow directions. Water before feeding to prevent damage to your plants. Organic amendments such as compost or bone meal help feed the soil, too, and release nutrients more slowly than chemicals.
    
Water wisely One inch of water weekly is adequate for most vegetables. Soaker hoses or drip systems irrigate efficiently and keep foliage dry, which can help prevent leaf diseases. But if a plant looks droopy, give it a drink.
    
Patrol for pests Keep an eye out for bugs. Handpick pests or dislodge them with a blast of water spray. If you use pesticides, spray late in the day when beneficial insects are less active.
    
Pick proven plants Some vegetable varieties are easier to grow than others. Super-easy varieties for beginners include: Bush Blue Lake bush green beans, Kentucky Wonder pole green beans, Bonnie Bell green bell peppers, Spicy Globe basil, Burpless Bush Hybrid cucumbers, Black Beauty eggplant, Buttercrunch and Red Sails lettuce, curly and flat Italian parsley, zucchini, yellow crook-neck squash, and Better Boy and Sweet 100 tomatoes.

Planting and harvest times
1. Garlic Plant in fall; harvest in late spring
2. Carrots These hardy plants are ready to pick in 65 to 75 days
3. Zucchini Plant after last frost in the spring; harvest in summer
4. Broccoli Grows best in spring or fall
5. Asparagus Perennial plant; harvest in spring but cover when frost is expected
6. Tomato Start indoors; plant after last frost. Harvest in summer
7. Brussels sprouts Start them indoors, and plant them before the last frost, freeze or snow