Many will try their first vegetable garden this year. Others will pick up gardening once again after previous attempts led to disappointing results. It is disheartening to put work, time and money into something only to have it result in complete failure. Maybe you sit down and figure out that that one tomato you managed to pull out of the garden cost $40. There are things you can do which will increase your chance of success. Following these steps will not guarantee a garden like you see in a magazine photo, but will help avoid unnecessary frustrations.
One thing every beginning gardener needs to do is try and manage their expectations. Your first efforts are going to be modest, and there is always more to learn. One of the things which fascinates me about this hobby is, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.
Some come to gardening with the idea that they will make a dent in their food budget (highly unlikely), or have visions of purely organic fruits and vegetables (possible, but best left for a different article). Others wish to grow varieties and types of vegetables unavailable at the local store. Some are simply fascinated by the lifecycle of plants. Planting a seed and watching the plant mature, and produce never gets old for me. Many gardeners find the time outdoors, observing nature, and the satisfaction of growing some of their food is what drives their interest.
Whatever your reason for diving into this hobby, a few initial considerations will drastically increase your chances of success.
Most every plant which you think of that goes in a vegetable garden will need at least six hours of sunlight, but eight is better. If you live in a suburban home this can be challenging. Homes are placed close together casting shade over large parts of each other’s yard. As time goes on trees grow and cast more shade. Light considerations, for most suburbanites, will be the deciding factor of where the garden is placed as well as how large it can be. If you are lucky enough to have several potential sites then there are some additions factors to think about.
Placing the garden out of view of neighbors can help avoid friction. While a well-tended vegetable garden may very well look pleasant to you, your neighbors might not agree. You will also wish to place the garden within easy access to an outdoor faucet. Untangling a really long hose and fighting to put it up is no one’s idea of fun.
How big should you make your garden? That depends on how much time you wish to spend on gardening. It’s probably best to start small. Build on your success by expanding in future years. Some get by with some patio plants, a small herb garden, or a 4x4 box with tomato plants. Others go all out with a tiller.
When laying out the bed make the width only as wide as you can comfortably reach to tend the bed. This allows you to work the bed without stepping on the growing area. Stepping on the growing area compacts the soil, which is something you should avoid. The average adult can reach two feet into the bed to work. If you have a bed that you can walk all the way around the perimeter, then four foot beds are the right width.
It would be great if all we had to do was take a trowel and plant some seeds, but the fact is the soil behind your house isn’t conducive to growing plants. In my area, the ground in neighborhoods is compacted clay. Grading and time strips away the soil, leaving hard, compacted ground. This ground is not only hard but also lacks the microorganisms present in healthy soil. Plant roots need soil with the proper structure to be healthy.
Your vegetable garden will need ten inches of healthy soil. While one can dig down the requisite depth, an easier way is to build boxes with lumber or cinder blocks. Either way you need to add organic material. Some books suggest adding sand to heavy clay soils, but I prefer using bags of soil mixes found at the local home improvement store. If you need a lot of material check with a provider of bulk mulch and landscaping material to see if they have a garden soil mix.
When selecting soil mixes, keep a few things in mind. Some swear by mushroom compost. While great for soil structure, it contains high levels of soluble salts. These salts can keep seeds from germinating, an obvious problem for those trying to grow from seed. If you use manure, only spread a thin layer. Keep in mind that composted manure doesn’t have much in the way of nitrogen, so you will still need to fertilize. You may wish to select a material to mulch with. A layer of mulch will help keep the weeds down, and cut down the rate of evaporation. Pine straw is a bad choice as it will make the soil more acidic. Wheat straw is used by many, but might increase your slug problem. I use a course “soil amendment” material I found that is course pre-compost. It is cheap, and as it breaks down will continue to improve the soil.
Seeds vs. Plants
When to plant can be a bit tricky. It is always tempting to rush things when we experience a few warm days in March. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover which vegetables can be planted early (cool season crops) and warm season crops which should wait for your average frost free date. Jump in at Backyard Portal and ask. We will do our best to find the answer to your gardening questions.
It is always fun getting seed catalogs in the mail. The choices are seemingly endless. The local home improvement center will have a large selection as well. Which way should you go? Up to you. Obviously seeds need more attention in the first few weeks. I find working with seeds more rewarding, but I supplement with a few plants from the local store.
Check the plant for signs of disease. Often vegetable plants are sold in a peat pot which is touted as being biodegradable. I prefer to gently separate the pot from around the soil before planting. I have found that on some of these the roots can’t push thru, and become pot bound.
If you are planting seed outdoors make sure the seed doesn’t dry out once germination begins. The seedling will be very vulnerable until true leave begin to emerge. Wait until the second set of true leave emerge before fertilizing.
Spacing of plants depends on what you are planting. Most instructions I see on seed packet assume planting in long rows. Because we are planting in bed where we will not be walking between rows we can plant closer together. Experiment, or better yet join Backyard Portal and ask in our forums for suggestions.
Following these steps will start you off on the right foot. Check back with us. Over the coming months we will be publishing articles covering other aspects of your first vegetable garden. Let me know what you think about this article in the comment section below.
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Getting Started With Your Vegetable Garden
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