And after some 40 years of gardening, Floyd and Arrah McMahon are doing what they advise first-time vegetable gardeners to do: Start slow, start small.
Floyd and Arrah McMahon of Peoria, Ill., like to talk about everything they did wrong when they started gardening in the late 1970s.
They rented a plot of land much too large for their needs, even with four young children.
"We got out their with our little hoe and pitchfork and found out the ground hadn't been farmed in years," Arrah says.
The first thing they had to buy was a rototiller. With no water available nearby, they found themselves transporting jugs of water to the site. Plus, they emphasize, their garden was too far from their home. If they didn't get there everyday, the weeds and critters took over.
"In other words, we took on too much," Floyd says.
Floyd has a few other choice bits of advice for this year's crop of first-time vegetable gardeners, especially if they think growing will save money the first year.
"If they plant a garden just to save money, they're going to be disappointed. If they're foolish enough to count their time, they're going to be broke," says Floyd.
Then there's the cost of preserving and freezing the harvest, he adds.
But why listen to the McMahons? Almost 40 years after their initial gardening mishaps, they're still gardening. In fact, they're Master Gardeners, certified by the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.
The answer may come from Keith Crotz, an organic gardener/farmer in Peoria with an entrepreneurial streak.
In 2009, after the stock market crash, seed sales went up 40 percent, says Crotz, who sells seeds from the heirloom vegetable varieties he grows to Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, Iowa, a leader in the field of seed preservation.
Sales went up in 2010 also, but only by 10 percent. So far this season, seed sales have jumped by 43 percent among those who kept gardening after 2009. In other words, Crotz says people want to try more plants and grow bigger gardens.
"For the first three years, it costs money to grow your own," he says. "But after that, it's eight to one in your favor."
Crotz and Arrah McMahon suspect rising food prices will prompt more people to try their hand at vegetable gardening this year. The real benefit, they say, is the taste of fresh-picked vegetables grown close to home.
Floyd says it took him and his wife two or three years to wise up, leave the rented plot and start a vegetable garden in their own backyard. Now that the kids have grown up and left home, they've scaled back their vegetable gardening in favor of flowers and other decorative plants.
But Floyd, 79, and Arrah, 80, haven't lost the vegetable gardening bug completely. They simply mix a few vegetable plants in with their perennials while maintaining a small 10-by-10 plot that gets full sun for tomatoes, green peppers and bush squash.
Floyd also spends most of the winter in the basement, pampering seedlings on fluorescent-lit planter trays. Before the first frost, he moves many of them to the patio into the hotbed he built from old windows. There, they "harden out" or get sturdy enough to handle the stress of moving from inside to the ground.
The McMahons planted early spring crops of radish, lettuce and spinach in mid-March. Meanwhile, their homemade hotbed is filled with transplants, from petunias, dahlias and dichondra to peppers, Salad Burnett and tomatoes.
"When the time comes, they're all going in the ground," Floyd says.
And after some 40 years of gardening, he's doing what he advises first-time vegetable gardeners to do: Start slow, start small.
Pam Adams can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
Definition: A hotbed is simply a cold frame heated by a bottom layer of manure or an electric heating unit.