Now is the time to start planning your vegetable garden!
Starting a vegetable garden at home is an easy way to save money — that $2 tomato plant can easily provide you with 10 pounds of fruits over the course of a season.
It also gives you the pleasure of savoring a delicious, sun-warmed tomato fresh from the garden. In almost every case, the flavor and texture of varieties you can grow far exceed the best grocery store produce.
Plus, growing vegetables can be fun. It’s a great way to spend time with children or have a place to get away and spend time outdoors in the sun.
Growing vegetables is probably easier than you think. If you plan it right, you can enjoy a beautiful garden full of the fruits of your labor — without having to spend hours and hours tending it.
It’s best to start small with your first garden. Many gardeners get a little too excited at the beginning of the season and plant more than they need — and end up with wasting food and feeling overwhelmed by their garden.
So first, take a look at how much your family will eat. Keep in mind that vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and squash keep providing throughout the season — so you may not need many to serve your needs. Other vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, and corn produce only once. You may need to plant more of these.
Picking the Perfect Spot
No matter how big your vegetable garden is, there are three basic requirements for success:
Full sun. Most vegetables need at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sun. If they don’t get enough light, they won’t bear as much and they’ll be more susceptible to attack from insects or diseases.
Here’s a hint: If you don’t have a spot in full sun, you can still grow many leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach. And if you’re in a hot-summer climate, cool-season varieties such as peas may do better in part shade.
Plenty of water. Because most vegetables aren’t very drought tolerant, you’ll need to give them a drink during dry spells. The closer your garden is to a source of water, the easier it will be for you.
Good soil. As with any kind of garden, success usually starts with the soil. Most vegetables do best in moist, well-drained soil that’s rich in organic matter (such as compost or peat moss).
Many gardeners like to have their vegetable gardens close ot the house. This makes it easier to harvest fresh produce while you’re cooking. It can also be handy to keep a few favorite potted vegetables next to your grill.
Allow at least 18 inches between your rows so you have plenty of room to work between them. And as you sketch out your plan, place taller vegetables at the north side of the garden. This includes naturally tall plants — like tomatoes– and plants that can be grown on vertical supports — including snap peas, cucumbers and pole beans.
Loosen your soil before you plant. You can either use a tiller or dig by hand.
Once the soil has been loosened, spread out soil amendments (such as compost) and work them into the soil. Avoid stepping on freshly tilled soil as much as possible. Otherwise, you’ll be compacting the soil and undoing all your hard work.
When you’re done digging, smooth the surface with a rake, then water thoroughly. Allow the bed to “rest” for several days before you plant.
When selecting varieties, pay close attention to the description on the tag or in the catalog. Each variety will be a little different: Some produce smaller plants that are ideal for small gardens or containers, others offer great disease resistance, improved yields, better heat- or cold-tolerance, or other features.
Care and Feeding
Most vegetables like a steady supply of moisture, but not so much that they are standing in water. About an inch of water per week is usually sufficient, provided by you if Mother Nature fails to come through. Water when the top inch of soil is dry. For in-ground crops, that may mean watering once or twice a week; raised beds drain faster and may require watering every other day.
Weeds compete with your vegetables for water and nutrients, so it’s important to keep them to a minimum. Use a hoe or hand fork to lightly stir the top inch of soil (cultivate) regularly to discourage weed seedlings. A mulch of clean straw, compost, or plastic can keep weeds at bay around larger plants like tomatoes
Fertilizing your crops is critical to maximizing yields. Organic gardeners often find that digging in high quality compost at planting time is all their vegetables need. Most gardeners, however, should consider applying a packaged vegetable fertilizer. following the directions on the box or bag. Don’t apply more than recommended as this can actually decrease yield.
This is what it’s all about, so don’t be shy about picking your produce! Many vegetables can be harvested at several stages.Leaf lettuce, for example, can be picked as young as you like; snip some leaves and it will continue to grow and produce. Summer squash (zucchini) and cucumbers can be harvested when the fruit is just a few inches long, or allowed to grow to full size. The general rule: if it looks good enough to eat, it probably is. Give it a try. With many vegetables, the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.
Stopping Pests and Diseases
Pests and disease are ongoing problems for most vegetable gardeners. Although specific problems may require special solutions, there are some general principles you can follow.
Deer and rabbits. Use fences to deter rabbits. Make sure the bottom of the fence extends about 6 inches under the soil, to stop rabbits from digging underneath it. The fence needs to stand at least 8 feet above the ground to prevent deer from jumping over it.
Spring insects. Row covers, which are lightweight sheets of translucent plastic, protect young crops against many common insects. Row covers are also helpful to prevent damage from light frosts.
Fungal diseases. Reduce fungal diseases by watering the soil, not the leaves of plants. If you use a sprinkler, do it early in the day so the leaves will dry by nightfall.
> If a plant falls prey to a disease, remove it promptly and throw it in the trash; don’t add sick plants to your compost pile.
> Grow varieties that are listed as disease resistant. Garden catalogs and Web sites should tell you which varieties offer the most protection.
> Make it a habit to change the location of your plants each year. In other words, if you grew tomatoes in the northwest corner of your garden this year, put them in the northeast corner next year. This reduces the chances that pests will gain a permanent foothold in your garden.
Summer insects. Pick larger insects and caterpillars by hand. Once you get over the “yuck!” factor, this is a safe and effective way to deal with limited infestations.
> Or use insecticidal soap sprays to control harmful bugs. Most garden centers carry these products. Whatever pest control chemicals you use, read the label carefully and follow the directions to the letter.
Make sure you have everything you need to get your garden off to a great start.