Garden Notebook: Veggie Tales

The dirt on planting your first garden

Photograph courtesy of Callaway Gardens

If the Michelle Obama episode of Iron Chef has you inspired to grow your first veggies, Atlanta’s “Farmer D” warns that you must start with the dirt. “A lot of people underestimate the importance of investing in the soil,” notes the local organic farming guru, aka Daron Joffe. Georgia’s infamous red clay hardly offers ideal drainage.

David Chambers, who manages the spectacular vegetable garden at Callaway Gardens, suggests the “double dig” method of ground preparation. Dig up the area with a shovel and break up the clods with a garden fork, then repeat, making sure to work in compost and fertilizer. A shortcut is installing a raised bed filled with planting soil. Farmer D Organics sells raised beds “to go.” In fact, it is even possible to cut holes directly into bags of soil—adding slits at the bottom for drainage—and use them as individual “beds” (cover with mulch and recycle the bags at the end of the season).

A common mistake for novice gardeners is being too ambitious. Just three tomato plants are enough to keep two people in BLTs for a season. A good starter size is sixty to seventy square feet, suggests Joffe. Or begin with a few containers. Vegetables need at least six hours of sun daily, and containers can be moved around a balcony or deck to catch extra rays.

Seeds should go into the ground now, but in Atlanta, April 15 is the earliest date for setting out plants with tender leaves while safely avoiding the risk of frost. These days, garden centers offer transplants for a larger variety of vegetables, which make it easier to establish vigorous growth, notes Chambers. Check planting charts for what to plant when. Be sure to look under Atlanta’s climate, Zone Seven.

Fertilize again about a month after planting, perhaps more often if you’re using the new liquid or powder organic fertilizers, says Chambers. There are also new organic methods of insect control. And water—directing flow at the dirt, not the leaves—in the mornings. Aim for an inch of rain or irrigation per week. The good news is there are never any water restrictions for edible crops.

Starter Crop
If you are planting your first garden, forget fancy purple tomatoes and orange watermelons. Start with these tried-and-true favorites, says Callaway Gardens expert David Chambers:

LETTUCE MIXES Not only do these provide more flavor, but planting several varieties increases your chances of hitting a winner.

‘JULIET’ TOMATOES This small variety is especially resistant to insects and disease.

‘MULTIPIK’ SQUASH Straightneck varieties are easier to grow than crookneck, says Chambers.

‘DIVA’ OR ‘MARKETMORE’ CUCUMBERS These grow quickly, and the vines aren’t too invasive.

‘BUSH BLUE LAKE’ BEANS An oldie but a goodie

Upcoming Gardening Events
Plant Propagation (March 6)
Plant Fair (March 25–28)
Gardening School (March 26)
Gourmet Mushroom Cultivation (April 10)
Mother’s Day Kitchen Herb Basket (May 1)
Totally Tomatoes! (May 1)

To register, contact the Education Department at 706-663-5153 or email

Farmer D Organics
2154 Briarcliff Road, 404-325-0128
4050 Holcomb Bridge Road, 770-734-0009
Callaway Gardens
Pine Mountain, Georgia, 800-225-5292


This article originally appeared in our March 2010 issue.