When you mention the term “gardening” the picture that pops up in most peoples’ minds is probably an image of a backyard vegetable garden. This is where many gardeners spend their time in the growing season tilling, planting, watering, weeding and hopefully harvesting the literal fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. If you have never had your own vegetable garden, you may find the idea of starting one a bit daunting, but with a little planning, a bit of work and a few seeds, you can enjoy picking your own produce without a trip to the market.
For first timers, I would recommend starting small. An 8 foot by 8 foot plot is big enough to grow a diverse garden without being overwhelmed by weeding and watering halfway through the summer. Start by laying out your garden in the early spring before the planting season begins. Placing the garden in a sunny spot is the first key to success. Most vegetables need at least 6 hours of sunlight to do well.
Properly preparing the soil is the second key to a great garden. Tilling or loosening the ground will allow roots to grow and allow the soil to retain the right amount of moisture for the plants to thrive. You may want to bring in good topsoil and create raised beds to make maintenance easier. If your soil is less than ideal, the best way to improve it is by adding compost (see last issue’s article about the wonders of compost).
Keep an eye on the calendar because planting time varies from plant to plant and region to region. Some plants like radishes, spinach, carrots and snap peas can be planted early, before the last frost date, which is around Mother’s Day in our area. After the threat of frost has passed, you can plant the rest of your garden. Cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, beans, squash, eggplant and, of course, tomatoes are some easy to grow garden favorites. If you are growing more than one tomato plant, I would recommend planting different varieties so you have tomatoes ripening at different times and you increase your chance of success. Make sure to leave enough room; as the tomato plants grow, they will need to be staked or supported with wire cages.
Many plants can be grown from seed, but the novice gardener may want to begin with starter plants from the local garden center to get a jump start on things. When choosing what to grow, make sure to plant vegetables that you and your family like to eat (no Brussels sprouts in my garden!).
Once the garden is planted, it’s weed, water, repeat until harvest time. Staying on top of the weeds will leave more nutrients in the soil for the plants you want. Mulching with straw or shredded bark mulch or underplanting with companion plants will also help keep down the weeds. Since most vegetable plants require regular feeding to produce a good crop, you should also work in applying a slow release or liquid fertilizer (that will not burn the roots) during the season.
Be sure to keep an eye out for garden pests that are out and about. Insects, rabbits and deer can all beat you to the harvest if you are not careful. If you have kids, a home vegetable garden is great for them to see that carrots come from the ground and lettuce is actually leaves. And after they have had their first home-grown tomato, they will realize that the ones in the supermarket are a poor substitute for the real deal.