When I entered horticulture 40 years ago, making a vegetable garden was free and easy. We simply grew plants we could eat in the yard just like our grandparents did. But as the years passed, I watched this simple age-old process turn into a complex and expensive alternative to store-bought produce. While I made my mistakes and learned from them, I didn't have the financial investment there is today. We just planted in the ground because we could, and it was easy.

Today, planting in ground has been left behind as raised beds take over in backyards. They must be constructed with store-bought materials, filled with store bought-soils. And they are not conducive to certain crops like corn. This turns your first garden from a love affair with shovel and spading fork into a shopping experience. That makes it expensive if you fail. That's why most folks are too discouraged to try again because they don't know any other way.

Save money, get a good workout and make your garden the old fashioned way: hand digging. So many of our American communities were built upon really good valley bottomland where soils are fertile and deep. Bringing in all that store-bought stuff to grow things is not using natural resources around and under your house. It is not sustainable to grow vegetables in wholly manufactured raised beds when they can be easily grown in-ground naturally.

Most residential vegetable gardens can be made in a weekend with nothing more than a strong back and hand tools. Start by removing all the grass and weeds in the area you've designated where it gets full sun much of the day. Next, use a fork or shovel to turn over the soil one shovel-full at a time. It's slow and tedious, but fun if there are two of you working from opposite ends.

While the ground is open, add some nutrition. Composted steer manure is the cheapest soil conditioner out there, and one of the best. You can't use too much. It will bring in microbes and micronutrients that may be lacking, as well as organic matter. Plus, there's something different about manures that offers more immediate fertility, which is why it's used to cover newly sown lawn seed.

Work the manure in as you use the iron rake to pulverize clods, remove sticks and roots and rocks. Your goal is a smooth, soft surface to accept seeds and seedlings.

This method takes much of the guesswork out of a first garden. It's hand-watered, as folks have done for a century here, and it will produce like gangbusters. Without beds to restrain you, the space can be fortified and tilled year after year for a large family garden. Maybe its size grows unhindered by boundaries. Above all, you can rearrange your garden each year for crop rotation, which is vital to maintaining soil fertility overall.

Is this an organic garden? That's up to you. It's OK to be a hybrid gardener. That means we are aware of the all-organic ideal, but not consumed by it. We prefer organic products when we have the choice. This frees you of the fear of making a mistake that irreparably harms the soil or the garden with the wrong thing. Truth is, it's not that critical. Your garden comes from nature, not Home Depot. In nature, very little is absolute. It's more important for you to enjoy the food than to get overwhelmed with the nuances of organic gardening in potting soils in relatively tiny boxes.

Learn the basics and the rest takes care of itself, said an old mentor. Before you can understand the science of true organic gardening, you must learn to garden first. Trying to do both at the same time leads to failure and discouragement. Let's bust out of labels and get back to the basics so everyone can find success the first time without taking a course.


Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.