Hot Topic: The Bare (Garden) Essentials, or An Open Letter to Wendy the New Victory Gardener

In response to the previous hot topic, Wendy (a new follower/subscriber) wrote:

During WWII, gardening for "victory" was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, a poster from Great Britain's Dig for Victory initiative.

I am a new subscriber (within the last couple of days) and have just started to explore the site. My maternal grandmother was a young bride and mother during WWII, and while I was growing up, she told me stories of the Victory gardens, rations, and other ways she and her counterparts made the most of what they had in those days. She taught me a great many things, and I am grateful for the years I was able to spend in her company.

I thought of these stories more often during the last year after the economy took a turn for the worse. I began to reject the idea that I needed to BUY. I resented the fat cats, and began to think of ways I could be more self-sufficient. I dreamed of living off the grid. And then six months ago, I was laid off.

While I am not quite ready to live off the grid, I HAVE resolved to start a garden this year. And this resolve is what led me to your site. I am doing everything I can to save money this year, and I relish the thought of growing some of my own food

Wendy then proceeded to lay out some good, timely questions, which I’m going to attempt to answer simply, directly and with the goal of “universal applicability” in mind. (This is funny because I generally eschew canned, generalized answers when it comes to garden writing because there are too many what-ifs!)

Here we go…

1. I don’t know anything about dirt. The whole Ph-alkaline-manure-compost-rotting leaves thing leaves my head spinning. I could use some basic instructions here for soil preparation. Obviously, the cheaper the better.

Long before there were agricultural extension agents, people grew their own food.

Here in Central Texas over a century ago, some German farmers and home gardeners did such a poor job of it, that more than a few of them perished because they insisted on doing it solely with European methods–ignoring the wisdom of native peoples who’d lived here just fine for eons, thank you very much.

History playing itself out as it does, a lot of us have forgotten the methods and techniques of our ancestors and so, you guessed it, we turn today to ag extension agents (aka “trained professionals”). On the topic of dirt–specifically the dirt in your ‘hood, these guys and gals are hard to beat for advice. If you’ve got money to spare, you can ask to have your soil tested. If you want to wing it on the cheap, you can ask what types of soil amendments are common in your county/parish. (If you want to stick to organics, you’ll need to tell them that… and be prepared to encounter, on occasion, some resistance by extension folks to the  “I only want to use organics” declaration on your part. See, not all agents are “crunchy.”)

You can find your local extension agent by starting here. (Ask, too, if they have any upcoming seminars–perhaps led by “master gardeners“–targeting newbie gardeners.)

2. Is there a good technique to figure out how much sun your garden spot gets in the summer (aside from study during the actual summer months).

Assuming this is a question about where in your yard is the “perfect spot”–and assuming we’re removing sod to make the area, well… I’d go with letting the grass tell you where to dig. Bless their hearts, for all their diversity–and save for the hardcore shade-lovers (virtually unheard of among the veggies), plants tend to like the same things. Water. Plenty of sun. Not too much wind.

A happy stretch of grass (even in the winter months, healthy grass is easy to spot–look for thick patches of it with the soil beneath of a cake-like consistency) is a good sign that there’s plenty of sun available in the warmer months. Bare spots in the landscape? Steer clear.

3. What are the best vegetables to grow for a beginner? Does it depend on my geographic location?

Yes, it does depend upon your location. That’s when ag extension agents come in handy again. =) Also, I recommend that you check out web sites like Dave’s Garden and Kitchen Gardeners International, where you will likely find people already talking about veggies for your area.

4. Should I start vegetables from seed? Or, the little plants you get from the nursery? If using seed, do I start them inside, in the little egg-carton looking things? Or, do I just put the seed in the ground?

Generally speaking, seeds are cheaper. Personally, I vote for plant starts either from a local nursery or, if you’re lucky, from a vendor at your farmers’ market. Why? Well, I have this problem with birds eating my seeds….

If you want to go the seed route, however, be sure to check out Joe Gardener’s posts from two years ago about his $25 Victory Garden idea, especially the one on how he used a pizza box to create a tray for seed starts!

5. Should I buy seeds online? From my local garden shop?

That’s your call. Typically, as people advance as gardeners, they get into things like heirloom seeds (usually purchased online though increasingly available even at Big Box stores), seed saving, seed exchanges, etc. But to get started? It doesn’t really matter. (No genetically modified seed debate here, folks, not today anyway. Besides, I’ve touched upon it recently.)

Also, when I looked last, this was the scoop on using food stamps to buy seeds.

6. What about watering? How can you tell you’ve watered long enough, provided the correct amount? How do you “measure”?

Allow me to quote myself : “AHA! Finally, an easy one. I like to check levels by putting a finger in soil, much like you would to test a cake. If it comes out clean, it’s too dry. You want to address water issue somewhere between muddy finger and dry.”

7. Do any groups exist that match knowledgeable gardeners willing to teach beginners?

Again, I’ll refer you to a map to find your local master gardeners.

If you prefer to learn online, I’ll also suggest Kitchen Gardeners International.  The aforementioned series by Joe Gardener on the $25 Victory Garden Project is great, too.

Hopefully I’ve covered all the questions, Wendy! Let me know if you need further assistance.


  1. Wow Pamela! That was quite a response to those questions. I know that took a lot of time but you did a great job. Very informative! I don’t know how you find the time to do all you do!

  2. Great post and lots of very good answers; thank you!! And, thanks to Wendy for reminding us of some of the history of victory gardens; I like to think that we can modernize it slightly to note that every time we grow some of our own food, we’re saving the $$ that goes toward buying petrochemical-related products (save that barrel of oil ! 🙂 — and, we’re providing someone (ourselves or others) a meal. That’s truly victory, in my opinion.

    Question: About soil. I’ve read a lot about it and think I understand the basics, BUT, all soil amendments that are necessary (I think) are costly. Unless you have resources, physical and otherwise, you have to buy manure, compost, garden soil, some kind of fertilizer. This really does add up. I know that over time, you can create your own compost, and I believe in the value of using all those bags of leaves people rake up for me 🙂 as mulch to cut down on the need for watering, but … what do you think? How can we small home gardeners get around spending big bucks at the nursery for soil amendments and plant feeding?

    • Let me contemplate/research that Meredith. And you might take a look at the $25 Victory Garden series mentioned because I recall Joe trying to tackle this question (I think).

  3. Wow, wow, wow! Thank you SO much for such a detailed response! I didn’t expect that 🙂

    I will be “digging in” daily to research and plan out my Victory (garden) and will try to keep everyone posted on my progress!

    Thanks again for the support!


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