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Questions & Answers

Getting Started

I am new to gardening; how do I begin? Plants need three things to survive: light, water, and oxygen. Most vegetables need at least six to eight hours of full sun to grow and fruit correctly. They also need a lot of water and nutrients to produce an abundant harvest and to fight off the many diseases and insects that may attack throughout the season. Many, particularly root vegetables, such as onions and garlic, do not like weed competition, so keeping weeds to a minimum is essential.

A critical factor in the garden is the soil, as it will determine the overall health of your vegetable plants. Poor soil equals poor plants and a poor harvest. Most of the plots in the community garden are raised beds, and most of the soil we incorporated includes highly amended topsoil. Each year, an inch or two of organic compost can be spread over the surface or incorporated into the ground in the spring or fall to add humus and nutrients to the soil.

So how do you improve the soil and prepare the bed for planting? First, get rid of the weeds by pulling out roots and all. Weeds can begin their growth cycle in temperatures as low as 40 degrees, so weeds will continue to grow throughout the year except for a short time during the winter. Removing the roots when the soil is moist is much easier, so a day or two after rain or a good soaking is ideal for weeding. Also, constant weeding will prevent annual weeds from setting seed or weaken a perennial weed by preventing root nourishment through photosynthesis.

Second, apply good compost and/or decomposed manure up to an inch or two and gently work into the soil before planting – earthworms and microbes will do their magic and break these amendments down so plants can use their nutrients. If possible, incorporate a variety of soil amendments into the soil, as each will add additional nutrients and improve soil structure. Finally, smooth out the soil, and you are ready for planting.

What about tools? There are “community” tools in the shed that all garden members are welcome to use. These tools are identified with the words “community garden” or have bright-colored orange tape on the handle. Please clean off and return tools to the shed after use, and PLEASE do not take tools home for private use. If a tool has a gardener’s name written on the handle, it is NOT for community use – please respect the personal property of other gardeners. Gardeners are welcome to store personal tools in the sheds; ensure they are identified with your last name. Dickinson College is not responsible should they disappear.

Do we have a compost pile for weeds and plant material? Yes, for your convenience and to "close the loop," we have three "bins" along the north side of the garden area where you can deposit weeds and other plant material from the garden. The compost that we generate can then be used to enrich your garden beds! Please knock/shake off clumps of soil clinging to the roots before adding plants to the piles because too much soil makes the resulting compost less desirable. Also, please keep diseased plants (e.g., tomato plants that often get blight) out of the bins to prevent the dispersal of soil-borne pathogens via compost. Please dispose of diseased plants in the Dickinson College maintenance yard to the north of the garden (on the large mound in the center, where leaves and other organic matter are piled up.) Please take all garbage and food items home and discard them. We do NOT have trash pick-up at the garden.

What should I plant? Vegetables fall into two categories: cool-season and warm-season vegetables. Cool-season vegetables grow best when the soil and air temperatures are cooler in the spring and fall. These vegetables include peas, onions, lettuce, spinach, chard, beets, radishes, and broccoli. In Central PA, these vegetables can be planted from early to mid-spring: beginning around March 20 until the end of April. 

Vegetables that do better in mid-to-late spring (planted mid-April to mid-May) include beans, early sweet corn, cabbage, summer squash, potatoes, parsnips, parsley, early tomatoes (with protection), and cucumbers. Gardeners can plant warm-season vegetables after the average last frost date (around Mother’s Day in our area) as they are susceptible to cold weather. These vegetables include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, sweet potatoes, fall squash, sweet corn, and pumpkins. Check local nurseries and catalogs for plants that grow well in this area.

Also, to attract beneficial insects to the garden, each gardener should plant an annual flowering plant in their plots, such as marigolds, salvia, zinnias, or alyssum.

How do I water my plants? Vegetables need a lot of water to grow and set fruit. So don't just sprinkle the surface of the soil, but give plants a deep watering to encourage deep root growth and stronger plants. Vegetables also like to be watered regularly to prevent stressing the plant. And remember that the roots need water; splashing soil on leaves can spread fungal diseases and bacteria.

Should I mulch around my plants? Yes! Mulch helps conserve water by keeping the soil moist and preventing soil-borne diseases from splashing onto leaves and infecting plants. Two to three inches of mulch will also help keep weeds to a minimum. Good mulches for the vegetable garden include chopped leaves, straw, compost, and even wood chips.